Summary: 
So I was dared to try and create a female villain, a sort of 'Hannibal Lecter' type person. This is the first few chapters of the work in progress and I'd love some feedback on my fictional writing. Cheers. Sophie

STEEL BARS ARE NOTHING NEXT TO THE INCARCERATION OF TIME

The days felt lengthy and eternally drawn-out; every second became a minute, every hour stretched abnormally until the mind forgot what time was, how it was defined and just shuffled along in the monotony.

Time wasn’t important though. She certainly had time to spare.

She was hyperaware of every tick of blood and vessels below the surface of her skin. Her senses drew upon that dance of frail liquid that twisted and pumped around her body. It grated on her consciousness every bit of that ridiculous expanse of time.

Every swallow tasted acrid. Every breath was dry and seemed to be lacking something essential. It seemed to lack the comfort her lungs used to feel, drawing in that exquisite air from outside.

Outside. The word hummed in her brain like an echo. Outside - no, she should not think of that. She should not remember that. Outside was a temptation. Outside was not a viable option at this juncture. Not while time continued on like this, impossibly long and winding, like a length of gum stretched almost to breaking point.

She stopped. Another incredibly stale breath in and out.

Around her the four walls felt like they were mocking her. Those four walls that were the uniform disgusting colour that is not quite white and too dirty to be intentionally grey. They almost seemed to jeer at her, cajoling, mocking her with an accompanying round of laughter she heard sometimes in the edges of her consciousness, that audacious cusp between sleeping and awareness.

How long will you be staying here with us?

That imagined laughter was snide, malicious and intended to sting her pride.

Did the little girl think she could get away clean? Did the foolish little child think she could end all those people and get away with it?

All her life, she had despised the word ‘little’. It made her think of dolls, delicate and petite. Unfortunately it was she could be considered ‘little’ indeed. She was short in stature, but no less dangerous because of it. Certainly not a dainty thing. Her tiny arms and legs hid the wiry strength they possessed. At twenty-four, she appeared to be a girl of nineteen. It was something in her face -a bland innocence she could smear over her features, a balm that disguised nearly every facet of her personality. There was a reddishness to her cheeks, a permanent kind of blush that made her entire oval face seem blessedly childlike. Those wide eyes of hers, her only real beauty, could hide the coldness and darkness within them. Certainly, it had kept her far from suspicion, until she had made a mistake.

The voices grew in their maliciousness, mocking her, their imagined dialogue sharper.

Did the little girl screw up? Did she give herself away?

No, she argued with herself. There were things you simply could not anticipate. There were elements that fate had a hand in, even for someone like her. In her infinitely careful habit of meticulous planning, there were simply some things no one could foresee.

The walls would shut up soon. She would make them.

It never grew much lighter in here. The barbaric surroundings of her cell were sparse and simple. A fluorescent bulb hung suspended, swaying gently. It was the only source of illumination and it was always on, day and night. Underground, she had no way to discern the difference. She slept when she felt tired and woke when she was hungry.

She slept a lot.

Dreaming was a familiar and well-loved pastime. Even on the outside (there was that hateful word again) she had been uncommonly good at it. Her productions in her mind’s eye were vibrant and vivid, full of life and detail. From memory alone, she could recreate entire days until they were perfectly reproduced word for word, sound for sound, taste for taste, scent for scent and look for look.

When her own creations became boring or tedious, she would flick through her mental syntax of literature and text to find something someone else had created. Dante was a personal favourite, although the Bard was high in the order of preference. Justin Cronin had been a recent discovery before her incarceration. The newness of his fictional books was appealing and pursued often within her mental library. Some of her childhood companions – Philip Pullman, Dan Brown, Thomas Harris, J.K. Rowling, Eoin Colfer – had been re-read so often that the words almost had texture within her mind. Every letter ever written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ran in her head like music, beloved and eternal. Hugh Howie. Kylie Chan. Stephen King.

There was the non-fiction too, that enthralled her. Not a single detail of history, trade, mathematics, law, art, theatre, music or science that she had ever viewed was lost due to time. She regularly thumbed through her database of facts and knowledge as a scholar flicks through his notes for reference from time to time.

Like Hannibal Lecter, she had exquisite tastes and a keen sense of intuition. Like Voldemort, she trusted none but herself. Akin to Moriarty, her intellect and amusement with the actions of others could not be measured. Her tiny body housed enormous potential and determination. She was the most feared and reviled character of the decade, a household name, reaching the world over and filling the hearts of law enforcement with dread.

She was Irina Sinclair.

***

A selection of papers, scattered like yellowing leaves, filled the canteen of the prison. The subject was usually their most infamous inmate.

Irina Sinclair, prodigy, has been convicted of the murders of Bruno Severins and his brother Kai, Erin Ferrer, Valerie Holzman, Tiffany Stanek, Peter and Georgia Csorba, Briana Westley and her children David and Vincenzo Westley, Maggie Dahl and finally, the brutal abduction and attempted murder of Clara Bryson. It is believed that she had intended to abduct and similarly make Jason Powers her next victim but in an extraordinary feat of heroism and courage, Mr Powers managed to free Miss Bryson and himself from the clutches of this monstrous mass-murderer and escape to alert authorities.

Irina Sinclair, once the pride of Newosi University, betrayed no signs of her depravity and maliciousness, says her former psychology lecturer Professor Marcus Finnigan.

Irina Sinclair’s ‘dungeon of death’ was discovered by authorities this month, as the investigation into her horrific serial killings continues.

Irina did not give any of the individuals charged with her imprisonment any sort of grief and that made them fear and hate her all the more. The juvenile taunts and attempts at conversation had all but ceased in the first month of her sentence. They were too afraid to let her interact with other prisoners. They were much too afraid of the backlash from her lawyer if she was neglected altogether, however. But the almost totally silent Irina consented to solitary and seldom was seen to interact with anyone. Those in charge of her welfare were almost always alert for any signs of disobedience or planning from their charge. Other prisoners had requested transfers upon learning the identity of the woman locked in maximum security with them. Civil rights lobbyists had rallied, protesting the circumstances Irina was holed in but the authorities had not relented. She was alone, totally segregated from both the other prisoners and all remnants of the society she had once been a part of. They intended to keep it that way.

This is a mad world.

The trial itself had been something of an elaborate circus. The media ran with the explosive headlines, the incredible claims made by police of what they had discovered, the attractive faces of the would-be victims Clara and Jason. It had shocked everyone to the core, that this small, harmless-looking, intelligent, diligent student could have murdered such an astonishing number of people over the course of seven years. Seven years, the papers cried. Seven years where the detectives missed her, seven years of horror, seven goddamn years of slaughter. To think that an eighteen year old girl started the butcher and went unnoticed! Society cringed at the thought, at the truth and at the way that she had been overlooked the whole time. They screamed for her blood. She was an abomination, they cried. A monster. She had to be sick or perverted or traumatised from a young age. How else could the terrible murders come about? Normal sane individuals could not attempt what she had undertaken, they cried.

One of the problems the media had was that she simply did not look anything like a killer. Some small pockets of the community were unconvinced of her guilt.

But Jason Powers’ testimony had damned her. Clara Bryson’s weeping, tearful recollection of the horrifying events surrounding her abduction, imprisonment and brush with death had damned her further. The families and friends of the deceased screamed in heated indignation at those who dared raise a voice in her defence. She was irreparably demonised. Irina herself had offered no explanation and given no insight as to her actions, leaving her lawyer to plead insanity. The court had agreed, moved to incredulity at her testimony. It had been bland, devoid of any form of emotion and every word she had spoken had been light and gentle, almost as though she had been singing to the jury. Bewildered and unconvinced that the prosecution had proven she had meant every murder she had committed, the jury went with insanity. Society had cried outrage, but the process of justice had been done. She was jailed.

Irina Sinclair tossed these thoughts backwards and forwards in her mind like a ball thrown with extraordinary dexterity. She had played softball once upon a time, making a regional team before becoming bored with the whole concept of sport and unwilling to risk any sort of damage to the thing she prized most, her brain. The details of her conviction had been all according to design – the hopeless lawyer reduced to trying for an insanity plea, the dough-faced jury members staring at her with the fright shining brightly in their faces, the testimonies of Clara and Jason and of course, the own tantalising responses to that odious prosecutor. He had wheedled and needled at her, trying to unravel that countenance of indifference and innocence, to no avail. For amusement, she sometimes reviewed the scene in her memory, delighting in her befuddlement of the prosecutor.

…He had approached the witness box where her hands had been shackled to try and create the image of a dangerous criminal. Those shackles had cluttered annoyingly on the wood and had been fastened tightly but Irina had not shirked away from the challenge for an instant. They had been icy cold too, against her flesh. Those pieces of steel that had secured rapists, murderers, drug dealers and other miscreants now encircled her own wrists. The court would not let her forget what they thought of her, even for a moment.

“You knowingly and deliberately fastened Miss Bryson to the table,” the prosecutor spat at her. “You drew a knife. You taunted her. You enjoyed the helplessness of your next victim. If Mr Powers had not intervened, she would be among the dead today, wouldn’t she?”

Irina stared the man down with her gentle copper eyes. She watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, watched the doubt register in his shallow black eyes.

How, he seemed to say. How did you do it? How on earth did you get away with it? Tell them how you did it and maybe they will comprehend it. Maybe I can comprehend it too and go home and fall asleep sometime tonight.

But Irina shrugged; a gliding tilt of the head towards one shoulder that jumped up to touch her earlobe. She scrunched up her tiny rosebud mouth. Outside she heard the grumble of thunder approaching. It would storm within the hour.

“Well sir, I cannot honestly say what would have happened. No one can, lest they be lying and claiming to be a psychic. I don’t believe in such things. Although, now that you mention it, my beliefs are not relevant to whether something is or was or shall be. It just exists in and of itself. Existence in the physical plane is the proof you seek, yet, without adequate ability to travel forward through time, your hypothesis falls flat…”

“Just a yes or no response will do, Miss Sinclair.”

“Will it? I doubt it very much. Yes or no, positive or negative, is a very confined tunnel of vision, sir. It disregards much. It ignores possibilities. It’s a rather dull way of seeing.”

“You wanted Miss Bryson as your next victim,” stated the prosecutor, a tiny bit of spittle on his lip.

“Oh no, sir. I don’t covet.”

“You planned to kill her next, though, didn’t you? You had everything prepared.”

“As we discussed, I cannot honestly judge that without being a most frightful liar.”

The prosecutor took a deep, shuddering breath. He turned his back on Irina and she saw the tension in his shoulders underneath his expensive suit.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I implore you to see the truth here. Do not be fooled by her childish looks and her lies. Irina Sinclair knowingly, deliberately and with great care selected and murdered her victims. She had intended Miss Bryson and Mr Powers to be among them, however, they were fortunate enough to escape. She should be given the death penalty for her hideous crimes.”

Irina had laughed, a beautiful giggle that drew all attention in the room to her.

“Oh my dear sir. You have not seen the state of my house of late, have you? If I am incapable of planning my laundry, how on earth do you expect me to be capable of the crime you accuse me of? My socks are not in pairs, for goodness sake! It’s preposterous. Besides, I have been most busy with study. I do not skimp on my education, sir. Do you?”

The poor man floundered, unused to being interrupted in his closing by the defendant and by a defendant with such poise in her features.

“The prosecution rests,” he spluttered out, choking on the last word.

Irina had laughed again, delighted…

The sharp squeal of metal on metal interrupted this recollection. Matthews, the corrections officer assigned to her, was back.

Irina had missed nothing. Even as she sat, her back against the chilled wall, her legs stretched in front of her, her eyes half-closed for long periods of time, her senses were soaking in every input they could receive. There was a difference between looking and seeing, as she well knew. Irina was gifted with the ability to see and understand.

Matthews was late, according to her internal body-clock. She was famished and she was rarely this far along into hunger when he arrived with her fare on a simple cardboard tray. They were wary of passing her anything metallic or that could be sharpened into a weapon.

But Matthews had been getting steadily later with her meals ever since last week. There were few officers trusted to interact with her directly; she had met them all. There was Curtis, young but unrelenting in his scrutiny of her. There was Gilleson, haughty and ex-military. And there was Matthews, who feared the repercussions of his supervisors if he did the least thing wrong. Of the three, Matthews was by far the least confident and the most pliable in terms of manipulation. He was the individual with his sins most heavily weighing on his mind.

Irina noticed all of this and took it in.

The door unlocked to reveal a disgruntled Matthews, battling with the heavy door whilst trying to balance her food and drink. As he made eye contact with her, Irina felt him draw into his mental protective shell. He was wary of her but not as careful as the other two. She flashed him her most complaint expression and felt the shell instantly loosen.

What a dull human being.

He was broad, compact and muscular; a stout person with no real height to match his breadth. Obviously he spent more time and concentration on working those upper-body muscles, Irina noticed he had trim little ankles that seemed incredibly weak next to the bulk of his triceps. Of ethnicity, Irina could not determine, but she hazarded a guess that he was not European but rather Middle-Eastern in origin. He certainly had the deep olive-tanned skin and matching dark eyes and hair for it. His lips were unusually broad and brown. She noted that he had a lengthy white scar on the back of his right calf.

But appearances did not interest her so much as psychological makeup did. The more she encountered of Matthews the easier he was to decipher, not that he was that sophisticated or complicated from the outset. It was the ease that she was able to manipulate his responses that sparked her interest the most.

Matthews plonked the tray on the ground and hurried to fasten the door. It locked with a discernible rasping sound as the mechanism turned and he checked the camera in the corner of her cell. A red light blinked back at him. Recording. Good. It was cramped in here with the doorway shut off. He hated it. And most of all he hated the penetrating gaze of the cell’s only occupant, who watched him more avidly than the camera watched her.

He retrieved the tray and placed it in the feed-through. He clinked it shut. The tray passed through and Irina picked it up carefully, not wanting to spill anything. Those tranquil eyes never left him, as though the food was of little consequence.

“You’re late,” Irina stated, quiet as a rustle.

Matthews jumped a little at the sound. She never spoke with anyone, as far as he knew. Never in the whole month and a half she had been here, after the conclusion of her trial. The two words made his heart fleet-footed in his chest. Fear coursed through him, freezing and painful.

“Only a bit. And it wasn’t my fault.” He heard the self-justification in his voice and went on regardless. “The stupid car wouldn’t start. I had to get it towed. Cost me a hundred bucks.”

This was true, but he had left out that he had already been late for an entirely other reason when his car had broken down. Irina sensed this. She chose not to dispute his story.

“I see,” she said evenly, sitting back down against the wall. “No matter.”

Matthews rubbed his hands together. He felt spooked. Talking to Irina Sinclair was like talking with a ghost – it just didn’t happen. It made him shiver all over. But part of him was curious and he didn’t want to give up the chance to converse with someone so infamous just yet.

“I won’t be late next time…” He tucked his tongue deep into the pocket of his cheek, trying to think of a way to draw her back into conversation. “Is there a way I can make it up to you?”

A grin, fast as a flash of lightning, shot across her face and was gone almost as soon as it had arrived. Matthews blinked hard. Irina just picked at her food with clever, careful fingers, the colour of mocha. She was such a tiny thing, he mused. She would eat about half the plate and drink all the water and that would be all she would ever take, he knew from experience. She never changed her eating habits. Then again, she didn’t speak to people, either. God knew how many reporters had begged an audience only to be disappointed by the mute murderer that sat coolly on the floor with all the composure of a princess.

“I suppose… Well, I would like to know what’s happening outside.” There it was, that word, ‘outside’. But Irina didn’t shrink away from it. She ate with her eyes down now, staring absentmindedly at her food.

Matthews drew a hand down the back of his neck. He sat heavily into the sole chair.

“Ah… Well, the news is all about the election at the moment,” he admitted. His eyes flicked towards the camera with sudden guilt – should he be telling her this? Surely the boys on the other end of the lens would care more about the fact that she was talking than the fact that he was talking to her? Conversation with inmates was not strictly forbidden so he went on.

“That and the sport is all I really see. Some teams in football got in trouble for doping, some Duchess in England just got married and Lamborghini have an amazing new car out…” Matthews felt that he had said enough. “I need your tray back. You know the drill.” He tried to put some strength behind the demand but it was a thin, pitiable attempt.

In one fluid motion Irina dumped the cardboard tray back into the slot on her wall, half of her food still on it. Matthews had learnt there was no use in encouraging her to finish her meal, so he didn’t even look at it as it came through back to his side. He stuck his hand in the metal box and shrieked as something sliced his palm.

His screaming alerted the guards on the other side of the door. They flew in, panicked and demanded that Irina lie on the floor with her hands on her head. She complied. Matthews withdrew his hand, slick with fresh blood, out of the container. He opened his palm, wincing against the agony.

In neat little letters was cut into his skin five letters, wonky but discernible. CHEAT.

He moved his horrified glance from his hand to the young woman in her cage.

“Cheat?” He screeched. “I ain’t no cheat!”

“Tell your wife that, after you explain where your car was towed from today,” sang back a lovely high voice, full of mirth and amusement. 

Irina Sinclair knew everything, it seemed to the men watching her from the other side of the camera. She saw everything.

ANY FOOL CAN THINK, FEW CAN ACTUALLY KNOW THE TRUTH OF THINGS

“How the hell did she do it?”

The cellblock supervisor stood behind the two idiots on surveillance in Irina’s section. Both were young, flustered and trying to pin the blame on the other or Matthews. But the supervisor was not interested in apportioning blame – he wanted an explanation.

“We recovered the tray,” the idiot on his right began. “She’d sharpened the foodstuffs on her teeth and put them back through the soft cardboard…”

“Like thumb tacks,” idiot number two chimed in.

“Matthews was distracted, he should have been more careful…”

“She knew exactly where his hand would be placed when he grabbed it… How the hell did she figure that out…?”

“Never mind,” the supervisor hissed out in one long breath. “There’s been no real harm done. Never mind, it happened, it’s done. Just make sure she can’t do it again.”

Both extremely relieved from the lack of punishment, the two idiots nodded together, like those clown heads at a county fair. Up and down slowly, with eyes wide open.

The cellblock supervisor pursed his lips and turned his gaze back to the solitary figure, now handcuffed while they tossed her tiny cell, staring back at him as if she knew his eyes were on her. Placid was the word that came to mind. She was perfectly placid, as though she existed on a higher plane of being where nothing here could ever touch her composure. Placid as a deep, dark lake. Untouchable. It was unnerving.

How did this happen, he wondered to himself. She was so small. Her hair hung around her, tangled and curly, pulled away from her face by her ears. A half-smile, not overly cocky, hung around her rosebud lips. She wasn’t beautiful, the supervisor mused, but there was something about her… Just something about her…

Of course, the law had spun that elusive ‘something’ into the description of a terrifying weapon. An allure, that brought the weak and vulnerable to her. They called her a hidden viper, lying quietly in the grass for a victim. They said they had seduced her victims into her the house she lived in with her aunt and uncle before coercing them into the little granny-flat she lived in out the back of the property. That’s where she butchered them, disposed of them, cleaned up the evidence and erased their lives forever in a gruesome fashion.

They said a lot of things about her.

She certainly had an attraction about her, some kind of charisma that brought people in around her like flies drawn to the scent of food.

The cellblock supervisor pulled up her file, curious now. The groups of victims hadn’t been connected at all, the police alleged. That was one of the primary reasons Irina had been able to continue for such a long time. First victims – Bruno and Kai Severins – were only a little older than she had been at the time of their deaths. Maybe, considered the supervisor, there was something to the ‘seduction’ accusations in the media. Perhaps she had held some appeal to the two young men? She was intelligent, that was obvious. Perhaps she had been intentionally charming to these men and to the victims that followed them to their early deaths.

But the more he scrolled through the reports, the less convinced he became and the more he wondered how on earth this tiny girl had managed to accumulate so many varied victims. Peter and his wife Georgia, in particular, bemused him. They were keen fighters - he a boxer and she a martial arts professional - on holiday. But they should have been safe; their hotel was suburbs away from where their bodies had been recovered. They were fitter than he could ever hope to be. How could they have wandered in her web and got stuck there? They hadn’t been drugged or violently dealt with, not until the girl had carefully cut off sections of their bodies for easier transport.

How had she managed it?

A shiver whispered its way down his back. It didn’t make sense. It made him afraid.

A tiny little girl made him afraid? No, he argued with himself. It was the unknown that made him afraid. The concept that this tiny little child was capable of murder on his watch… That’s what frightened him.

He kept an eye on the monitor. Matthews had spattered bright red droplets all over the floor, careless in his confusion and pain. He was in the infirmary, getting the care he required. The huge, hulking man had been reduced to a quiet, whimpering mess with an unnaturally pale pallor in his face. All that was left were those bright specks of maroon where he had floundered. The supervisor watched as the warden, a stern man named Gilleson, approached her bars. He asked the two idiots on the monitors for volume so he could catch their conversation.

“… and there will be changes made to your menu after this incident. Just what did you think you were doing?”

Gilleson was talking to her all wrong, the supervisor mused, with just a drop of dismay in the pit of his stomach. He was treating her like a child. If there was nothing else he had learnt in here, it was that you don’t treat intelligent criminals like children. They resent it. It’s beneath them. You only foster contempt. You lose their cooperation.

Irina Sinclair, true to her usual conduct, said nothing in return. Did he imagine it, or did that contempt glow in the depths of her amber eyes? She couldn’t move her shackled hands, restrained behind her. Her mocking half-smile remained.

The supervisor was concerned. In his job, secrets were dangerous. Unknown variables inevitably led to danger, injury and even death. Until he knew what had happened, he didn’t think it safe for Irina to be left with human company. From now on, he resolved, no one would step foot in her room. They would do everything remotely; without access she would not be able to injure any more of his staff.

And he would get the answers he sought. There was a note in the police reports of a professor at university that Irina had been seemingly close to. Her psychology lecturer, Professor Marcus Finnigan. His age was close to her first victims; he was also a prodigy in his field. She apparently had fostered a great working relationship together; they had been seen often together at university, discussing literature and advancements in the field. Perhaps he held the key to these strange circumstances. 

The supervisor wanted to be able to view Irina as a normal human being, not the mythical beast everyone held her as. Then, he reasoned, he could sleep soundly at night. Then he could keep her secure. He decided to contact the professor for information himself. No need to tell the higher-ups of his idea, he would walk into the office confident the next day, sure of his purpose and full of the answers he sought.

Those two decisions – to only remotely interact with Irina Sinclair and to bring her professor back into her life – he would come to sorely regret for years to come.

***

Irina leant back against the restraints and shut her eyes. Gilleson faded away, an uninteresting programme that she could tune out in a second. She’d sliced a tiny section of her gum in the process of sharpening Matthews’ message; she let the blood trickle out of the corner of her mouth. She didn’t swallow it down. She despised the metallic bite of blood on her tongue.

There were better things to remember, things that absorbed her more than her distaste for blood. She turned her mind backwards, into the past. Back to her aunt and uncle’s cottage. It was suitable enough to call it a cottage, she supposed. Her aunt’s sense of style was quaint and the house had an aura of cosiness that perpetually hung about it, like a smell. Everything was in light complimentary shades – the furniture, the décor, the implements of the household – so much so that the light from the windows seemed to make the entire place glow and no light was ever absorbed. It bounced. From the first floor up the stairs it even brightened the corridors. Everything had its radiant sheen, transporting the light back towards the windows from which it came. It created a beautiful, cosy atmosphere. And of course, her aunt and uncle’s hospitality was unfailingly first rate.

In stark contrast, Irina had decorated her own ‘granny flat’ sub-house in darker tones. The furniture was dark wood; the walls were baser tones of blue and red. But in terms of taste it gave the air a much more healthy texture than that of the main house. You got the sense of comfort and warmth but it was somehow more meaningful here. It had a touch of mystery and intrigue. It had depth. It suited Irina Sinclair.

Her parents were both dead – one of cancer and one of an accident on the road. The newspapers had tried to spin these facts into a kind of anguished cry and make like Irina was simply disturbed from her early losses in life. They tried to blame her upbringing for her horrors. But it simply wasn’t the case. Her Aunt Carol and Uncle Robert had adopted her when she was six with barely a murmur and had never complained once of their lot. Neither had Irina. She could remember both her mother and her father but they had both been of the bland variety of human being – middle-class and content with their lives in dull, mindless occupations. Not the sort of people to appeal to Irina. She didn’t even resemble them overmuch. Her aunt and uncle were much more of her vein – the type of people who are simultaneously adventurous, intelligent and cunning. They were proud of her and her achievements. They accepted her as she was.

Irina felt the prison flicker and be exterminated from her senses as she mentally travelled back through time and space, to her high school years. She had asked her Aunt Carol one afternoon if she might help with the small jewellery design business her aunt was beginning as a hobby. She needed a part-time job, she explained, to get through until her graduation…

… Carol eyed the girl up and down in a way that Irina liked. It wasn’t condescending, it wasn’t irritated – her Aunt was simply assessing the possibility presented before her. Irina watched the idea take hold and restrained her smile of victory. Her aunt thought her worthy enough to share in her enterprise.

“Why did you want to work for me, dear?” she asked the girl. “You’d make far more money running odd jobs for your uncle. Rob would appreciate it, I’m sure.”

Irina paused, as though she didn’t have an answer ready for this question. She was careful to add uncertainty to her voice when she responded.

“Well… I like being creative, I guess. And I could sell them at school. The girls love jewellery. My friends would love if I could make them small trinkets for their birthdays… Personalised presents are always a good idea.”

Fifteen-year-old Irina could not have cared less about her ‘friends’ or what the market for her Aunt’s jewellery business was. She wanted the job for an entirely different reason. But her words had the desired effect; her Aunt Carol nodded and drew the girl inside.

“I’ll teach you the basics Irina. I’d be happy for a hand.”

Predictably, Irina’s popularity soared in high school when it became known that she designed and made exquisite personalised jewellery for her set of friends. She liked the way the girl’s eyes lit up with greed as she brought in delicate silver and gold raiment, decorated with what she told them were real gems and diamonds. She enjoyed the power having desirable objects held. As her craft increased, Aunt Carol trusted her alone in the workroom, giving her most of the orders to fill. Aunt Carol would exclaim over the creations and pack them in refined white cardboard boxes, tied with ribbon in the same colour as the precious stone in the jewellery. There was a simple loveliness to everything the two women put together.

She admired the meaningfulness that was attached to certain symbols and designs. Irina liked to see the hidden stories behind each of the gems her aunt chose to adorn the necks of the women who bought her craft. Amethyst, as one such example, was a simple quartz in beautiful shades of purple that supposably held special abilities. In mythology, it kept people from their drunken endeavours. In reality, it was just a rock. But the meaning attributed to wearing it enthralled Irina’s imagination. Her designs were simple, yet stunning; she loathed the heavy, gaudy alternatives in most jewellery stores. They suppressed the hidden meanings behind vulgar overcompensation.

Above all, the most amusement for Irina was held in the vanity of her classmates. She liked to fulfil an order made by the most ‘popular’ girl in school with cheap alternatives that looked ostentatious but were in fact worthless. Irina gloated quietly, watching the girls parade their new acquisitions, claiming they were beautiful and rich when, just like the girls themselves, they were cheap trashy things that just appeared flashy to the untrained eye.

Best of all, Aunt Carol loved the joke.

“Those fools,” she laughed. “Oh Irina dear, never grow up to be one of those silly fools. Pride is such a pathetic sin if there is nothing to be proud about in you. Vanity is only suited to peacocks, not young women.”

Irina enjoyed her job for as long as it lasted. But neither she nor her aunt could be entertained for too long purely via one outlet. There was so much more to explore, to try out there in the world and they would seize a little of all of it, desperate to find a challenge for their minds and abilities.

That was the first time Uncle Robert had complimented her ability to use a band saw…

A voice registered in Irina’s ears and she blinked the memories away. A female voice. The psychiatrist.

“Good afternoon, Miss Sinclair.”

“Good afternoon, Doctor Appleton.”

Haughty, tired, elderly Doctor Appleton fixed the younger woman with a beady stare that was almost accusatory. Her skin, withered and wrinkled, turned her mouth down permanently, so that the psychiatrist appeared to be forever grimacing. Wisps of fine grey hair had escaped from her bun and floated gently around her face. Her deep, scratchy, nicotine-tainted voice seemed to issue from somewhere in her lower abdomen.

“Are we ready to talk today, Miss Sinclair?” Doctor Appleton asked in a sighing, tired voice.

And there was a short period of psychobabble before Irina dismissed the woman with such subtly that, despite almost twenty years in clinical psychology, the woman didn’t notice the manipulation.

***

They had pled insanity.

The lawyer had pled insanity.

But Irina understood everything. She was sane and she was much more than that.

She was gifted.

A few days after the little ‘cheat’ incident, Matthews was dismissed from the ward and Irina had a visitor. In that time, her cellblock had been thoroughly searched and every item seized. They had installed processes to give her food and water remotely, a way for visitors (namely her lawyer) to be able to speak to her remotely and some additions to her monitoring system.

Terror can be a very effective motivator.

Now, the supervisor watched using the brand-new system; sweat glistening in this thinning hair, as Professor Marcus Finnigan entered the booth on his screen. He turned up the volume, swallowed nervously and leant forward to watch as the professor sat on one side of a plastic window, newly fitted onto Irina’s cell, for the interview.

Finnigan was young for a professor, European and apparently had a reputation of being quite handsome among his female students. All that the supervisor could see was some brainiac with smooth, shaven skin and a full head of thick hair that he envied. Handsome? Maybe. But the supervisor wouldn’t stick him in the leagues of movie stars and the like that his wife drooled over. The one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb in the supervisor’s mind was his inability to name what colour the professor’s hair was. It was some strange layering of colours that seemed to flow from one shade to the next, like bird feathers. Towards the scalp his hair was such a dark brown it appeared almost black and then it layered away into shades of chocolate brown, mocha and finally, golden brown ends, bleached in the sunlight. He was neatly dressed in that new style that the supervisor’s brother scoffed at, with a lightly coloured vest and matching shoes, a different colour to his charcoal grey suit.

Namby-pamby, the supervisor thought to himself. This one’s nothing but a namby-pamby, wishy-washy psychologist. He hoped that the confrontation between this guy and Irina would give him information, a direction for further interrogations. At the very least, he mulled, it would be a surprise. Surely their little inmate would not be expecting her teacher today.

Finnigan’s voice, distorted through the speakers fitted into Irina’s cell, came down the line. He was cool under pressure; the supervisor had to give him that credit, at least. The man had practically been raining sweat when being admitted.

“Irina? It’s Professor Finnigan.”

Nothing, not even the minutest indication of a response. Was she even fully awake?

“Can you see me? Will you talk with me?”

The girl hadn’t moved an inch. She just watched. The supervisor thought that had to be the most detestable thing about Irina Sinclair. Nothing fazed her, absolutely nothing they had tried to do had resulted in so much as a heavy blink. Psychopath, he thought, with a shiver. She’s a bloody psychopath. A clever little psychopath.

“Please Irina. Will you please speak to me?”

Finnigan was trembling but by sitting on his hands he hoped Irina wouldn’t be able to spot it. Hopefully the height of the thin plastic window, which as he sat there only barely reached his neck and upwards, would hide his shakes. But he knew it was a poor effort. She could see right through him. She always had.

That was her gift, the farthest thing from insanity the professor had ever encountered. Irina Sinclair could see the world in terms of what it really was – no more, no less. Such a concept didn’t exist in psychology. There were too many variables in humanity for anyone, supposably, to see the raw truth in anything. Poor attention, poor memory, poor perception, poor sensory input, poor retrieval… Humans were full of flaws that warped their perception of reality. They interpreted things in different ways. Their experience made them find meaning in the strangest of things, things that no one else could find even if they looked for it for a million years. Their emotions got in the way of seeing truths.

Not so with Miss Sinclair, it seemed. Finnigan felt a sense of awe looking into her gaze. What must it be like, he wondered, not to censor anything? What must it be like to see a sunset, to hold a person’s hand, to hear a lie, to have every memory perfectly within grasp, with that sort of gift? She could perceive everything, it appeared. In class, she had been extraordinary. What must it be like to have instant recall of every fact, every note, every concept she was taught? What kind of person had the kind of skill to blend in seamlessly, with that sort of talent, simply because she could see how everyone else saw her at any given moment?

Once, he had tried to transcribe what he imagined it to be like for a short entry into the textbook he was writing. But page after page of observational notes did him no good. It was as though the prism that Irina saw the world through, this many-faceted and many-sided diamond where everything from every angle was crystal clear, completely eluded him.

How would it feel, to see the world in black and white, with no error? He couldn’t fathom it, yet there appeared to be no other explanation.

What would it be like to commit murder?

The thought repulsed him. He flinched at the detestation of it. That his student, this young woman of such promise and intelligence, had…

But she had. There was proof, tangible evidence of it. She was in front of him, in a cage they reserved for the worst of convicted criminals. And he had never seen it coming.

Guilt flared but only for a second. She was exceptional. Out of his league. Something no one had ever seen before.

She was Irina Sinclair.

Her lips moved and a tinny, artificial voice played through the speakers sitting in front of him. Irina was talking back.

“You’re free from university today? Strange, Marcus. I thought you too busy to bother with a visit.”

She knew. She always knew. Best to be upfront about his intentions then. His name in her mouth made him shudder with revulsion but he forged ahead.

“I was summoned. They’re worried about you, here. They don’t understand you. They want to know what…happened.”

She drew her fingers together in a steeple. Such thin, beautiful fingers. Her eyes never wavered. It was like being drawn under the pinpoint of a scalpel, her gaze.

Worried is the incorrect descriptor.”

Finnigan felt himself being drawn into the conversation like a hook on the end of a glistening line, streaking through the water, powerless to move of his own volition. It was another part of Irina’s gift. She could get anyone to talk.

“Worried? Well, try terrified.” He spat the next part out with dry sarcasm. “Congratulations. You have made society scared stiff at the mention of your name. Now what?”

A pause. Nothing came from the tiny speakers. Finnigan gritted his teeth.

“What was the point, the purpose, of all this Irina? You had a fantastic future ahead of you! Seven years… I couldn’t believe it when I first found out. You, a serial killer? I laughed. I laughed in the cop’s face! But they showed me the photos and I became a believer. For God’s sake, how could you do what was done to those bodies in those photographs?”

“Yes…” Her voice in those pathetic, low-quality speakers made the end of the word hiss like a venomous snake. “Very persuasive, young Jason Powers. Very compelling, his photography. Considering.”

“Considering what, Irina? That he was steps from his death?” Finnigan knew he should keep his temper. But all the boiling rage, confusion, all the hurt he wouldn’t even admit to himself about was shooting through his veins like a potent drug. It couldn’t be denied. When was he ever going to get this kind of opportunity again? To look into her face and demand answers that everyone was craving? That he craved above all others because he had been so utterly deceived by her and her charms, more than he was willing to admit to anyone?

“How could you do this? Any of this?”

In the monitoring booth, the supervisor winced loudly enough for the two morons on screens to cast him an anxious glance.

“Everything alright over there boss?” asked one of them. But the supervisor didn’t speak. Irina was responding.

“Consider for a moment… he was supposably in the depths of fear and trauma. Consider that he was supposably freeing a friend from my bonds at the time. Not an easy feat, that. Consider the fact that he told the police in his interview he couldn’t think, he just ran and ran and ran, all the way home…” Irina grinned a tiny bit at her own interlocked hands. “Yes… He’s a talented photographer if that was the case, to have such steady pictures on the run. Such perfectly centred pictures too! Why, it’s almost as though…”

The supervisor finished her words for her as she trailed off, watching Finnigan gasp. “… he knew the place well enough to take the photos immediately. Almost as though he took his time. Almost as though he had lied and the scenario was nothing like what he testified.

The supervisor shook his head and swore, badly. The only two who could hear him however, didn’t raise a single protest. Was this a trick on Irina’s behalf? But she did raise a pertinent point. What kind of crazed, terrified boy takes flawless photos on his prized camera when running from a deranged psychopath?

Finnigan was seething, meanwhile, at her suppositions.

“You think you can explain all this away? All the bodies away, Irina? Because Jason Powers took a couple of good photos while he was scared out of his mind?” Screw the script, Finnigan decided. He would be led down this path to its conclusion. “Whatever you’re implying, you can’t escape the fact that you killed all these innocent people!”

“No Marcus,” Irina replied, in a sweet voice. “I am sorry I did not correct you earlier. I have never been guilty of anything you accuse me of, save for restraining Clara from herself. You see, I did not murder anyone. They killed themselves.”

THERE’S NO TOURNIQUET THAT CAN STOP the BLEEDING INSIDE your heart

As night fell slowly, Jason Powers took the tequila down from the shelf. With shaky, jittering fingers, he tried to unscrew the lid from the heavy glass bottle.

No purchase, no grip, no drink. He swore. He grabbed the front of his shirt and tried again with the fabric. The lid made some encouraging noises but failed to turn.

Then Jason abruptly dropped the bottle. His hand simply opened and he gave up trying to hold on. It smashed into pieces on the tiled floor, debris flew across the room. A thousand shards of glass glinted in the failing light. That potent, awful scent of tequila surged through the room. The noise of it was nauseating – that awful crash of glass on a solid surface that splintered into a cascade of sharp, horrible sounds. Like the howl of a banshee. It finally silenced, leaving destruction. Complete and total.

But Jason didn’t move an inch. Miraculously, none of the glass had hit him. He just stood there, his mind numb, his hands empty, staring at the mess.

What a mess. Yet, wasn’t everything a mess at the moment? How did the glass shattered on the floor rate with the miserable heap that was his circumstances? God, yes. A frightful mess. One that he had no idea how to clean up.

Jason clenched his teeth and shifted his gaze into the reflective surface of the glass fragments. The usually impeccable features of his handsome face seemed worn, somehow. Used. His nose was red and inflamed. Tendrils of thick veins criss-crossed his eyes. And he had an unhealthy pallor about him, some kind of greenish hue in his cheeks.

He was attractive by most standards, certainly. But he did not look well. Anyone who caught a glimpse of his face would think that he needed a doctor.

Yet all he could do was examine the mess.

Those bitches, he thought with real anger. It’s their fault. It’s all their fault. Clara, that stupid idiot. And Irina. That freak. Their fault.

Too agitated to clean up the glass, Jason hoisted himself onto the kitchen counter and sat there, his legs dangling down over the cupboards. He ran his hands under the tap. The cold water felt good. He dipped his hands under the faucet again and ran his dripping fingers through his hair. That too, felt pretty good. He repeated the motion a few times until his hair was saturated and he felt the liquid running down his neck and onto his shirt, and then he shut the tap off. The steady drip of alcohol on the tiles was all he could hear. Well, that and the throb of anger at his temples.

Their fault I’m in this goddamn mess.

Jason wished that he hadn’t smashed the bottle now. A hit of tequila may have soothed his temper. He wished the throb of guilt and anxiety would leave him alone. He wished he hadn’t been so damn curious. He wished that he had never found Clara Bryson desirable in any way. That stupid girl. He wished he hadn’t said anything to Irina…

But most of all, he regretted the decision to have lied about what had happened.

It’s her fault. That stupid idiot. Clara never really thought Irina was anything more than a freak… And then it turned out she was way more right than anyone could have guessed. But she was still jealous. Jealous of Irina Sinclair! What a joke.

And now all those pictures in his head… They wouldn’t leave him alone…

Irina won’t forget. Irina won’t forgive.

Jason screamed. He put his head between both of his hands and let loose a primal, animal roar of outrage and frustration and regret. It was long and hideously loud, ripping through his empty flat like thunder. His face went a bright scarlet with the force of it. Spit flew from his lips. His whole body was racked with that scream. But it didn’t hurt his body so much as it let loose that anguish and fear that was tearing bloody strips from his insides, in his chest, where his heart was. That area where his deepest terrors lay and would not leave him alone, not even if he screamed them all out into the night for a million years. They burnt him. They were always there now, tearing away at the very core of him.

The skulls, oh dear god, the skulls… The jewellery… Jason choked the scream off as his memories threatened to devour him whole. He covered his mouth with the crook of his arm and sobbed into it. Tears glistened and fell from his eyes like rain and there was nothing he could do to hold them in.

Irina would get out.

That was an indisputable fact. She was a prodigy. And what was more, she had promised she would.

She would come for him.

Yes, yes, she would. Oh dear lord, the little killer would come for him and this time, his sins would mean that he couldn’t live. He couldn’t get out of it this time…

All of a sudden the combination of the smell of hard liquor and his thoughts made him gag. He took his arm away and retched into the sink. Nothing. He gagged and his whole body spasmed; he held himself suspended over the kitchen sink. Still nothing. No relief. Well, he hadn’t eaten in a while. He couldn’t recall his last substantial meal. It might have been that breakfast his sister had made him a few days ago. Before he had chased her out of the house.

After gasping and trying to vomit, Jason silently resolved to change his ways. He had to tell somebody the truth. Anybody. Once this burden had lifted, perhaps he could start to function again. Perhaps he’d be able to open a bottle without smashing it on the floor. To eat. To sleep normal hours. And those horrid images in his head would get the hell away from him. He would stop seeing her sleek smile in his nightmares. The screams would stop. He could forget about her.

Irina Sinclair. God help him.

***

A mind like hers was not meant to languish behind bars in a large silver and concrete box. Without input, without sound, without some kind of changing stimuli it would slowly devour itself in frustration. Well, that’s what it felt like.

Irina grimaced. She could actually feel the boredom clanging on the inside of her head, beating away, pounding, beating relentlessly, hammering…

The thoughts had begun to run together like a colour spectrum so that she was losing the ability to separate where one began and the other ended.

Soon.

Very soon it would all end. She had made promises, exchanged threats. She was a woman of her word, after all. It would be terribly discourteous, not to mention ridiculous, if something as simple as confinement held her back from her goals.

Soon. Hang on.

It was galling to know that she was clinging to the edge of her sanity after being incarcerated on an insanity plea. The irony of it.

Soon.

She considered that perhaps Marcus Finnegan had begun to perceive the precipice she was hanging onto, at the end of their confrontation. He had shown an astonishing amount of anger for a man who was generally passive and level-headed.

The truth is eating him alive from the inside.

That was exactly it. It goaded him, the fact that he hadn’t seen what she was capable of. It raked on his resolve like fingernails down a chalkboard. That delusion. That total lack of ability to spot her intent. He was sour with disappointment, both with her and with himself. Impatience was such an ugly quality, especially on him. But of course, it was a great deal more than mere exasperation.

Marcus is perceptive but limited. A horse with blinkers on. He can be lead with the lightest of tethers and thinks that the grass beneath his feet is the whole world.

And he cared.

Yes, he cared about her. Imagine that! It wasn’t lust in any way, as a man admires a woman for her body and the pleasures it might bring. It was a simple respect. Intelligence esteems genius. It accepts it as its superior. It admires it.

How long had it been since he had been led away by a supervisor? Days? Weeks? Longer?

She had to get out. She had to taste fresh, unfiltered air very soon. Who knew what kind of state her senses would be in, if confined for much longer?

So Irina shifted her weight on the floor. She plucked at the thing concealed in her hands, which were lying delicately on her lap.

Soon.

***

Clara Bryson flicked open the record player with one finger. She picked up her mother’s record that had been lying on the turn-table, some eighties album and tucked it reverently back in its sleeve. Then she found the one she had been looking for. It was a classical record, full of her father’s favourites, masters like Chopin and Beethoven.

She plucked it out gingerly; it was coated in light dust. She set it on the turn table and delicately manoeuvred the needle. The first movement of the Moonlight Sonata began, haunting and gentle.

Her mother heard the sound and walked in to find Clara wrapped in a thick blanket, hunched on the ground, staring at the record spinning, letting out that beautiful piano piece.

“Clara.”

Why doesn’t he love me, why doesn’t he love me, why hasn’t he called me..?

“Sweetheart.”

Why doesn’t he love me, why doesn’t he want to talk to me, what is going on..?

Clara’s mother leant down and touched her daughter’s back with her fingers. When she was very young, a stroke down her spine used to calm the girl down, especially if the toddler Clara was in the midst of a tantrum. In that gesture was a soundless prayer, a tribute to the innocent young woman Clara had been, a ritual of her youth repeated in the hope that it could restore some normality and some sweet memory to her child.

“Please speak to me sweetie. You’re frightening me.”

Clara’s mother swallowed back the emotion behind her simple request. It was true her little girl was terrifying her. Often now she wouldn’t come out of her room, she would lock doors in whatever room she was in and complain if she couldn’t, she would hide cheap motion detectors on windows and always, always she would ask about her father. When her father was coming home from work. Why he didn’t want to talk to her. When her father would call. Over and over, those requests, uttered with such terrible urgency.

The music played and Clara didn’t move an inch or make any kind of response. The turn-table crackled the record, a whispering sound behind the melancholy tune that seemed to fit perfectly with the music. Her mother sat on the floor beside her, watching the old turn-table spin idly by.

Perhaps her little girl found the music soothing, after all the trauma she’d been through. Where once she hated the old songs and called them stupid, maybe now they held some comfort to her. Stranger things had happened.

Clara’s mother had been frightened enough to go onto the internet and do some research on post-traumatic stress disorder. Emotional trauma was usually defined by three main criteria, according to what she had read so far: the event causing the trauma was unexpected, the sufferer was unprepared and there was nothing the sufferer could do to stop the trauma from happening. Her mother had run down a list of noticeable symptoms and could tick nearly every single one – eating disturbances, low energy, emotional temperament, depression, spontaneous crying, despair, anxiety, fearfulness, compulsions, irritability, withdrawal from those around her, lack of concentration, intrusive thoughts…

“Mum…” Clara mumbled softly, as though being awoken from sleep.

Her mother waited patiently.

“Why doesn’t… daddy love me?”

Clara’s mother held her tightly in her arms. The record spun to a Chopin song, one neither of the Bryson women could name.

“Sweetie, of course he does! He’s just very busy right now and you know his work is very important at the station. Police can’t just call home whenever they want to…”

Clara sighed. “That’s not what I meant. If he loved me, he’d go into the prison for me. He would if you asked him to because he loves you.”

Clara’s mother blinked in confusion and took a moment to process her daughter’s bizarre words. They would have to go back to see the psychologist again. Her daughter’s thoughts were scattered everywhere and odd, jarring fragments of her irrational logic would be blurted out at strange moments. None of this was making any sort of sense.

“Why do you want him to go to the prison?”

The prison where that vile Irina Sinclair was still alive.

Clara visibly bristled and held herself tighter.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

The eyes of her teenage rebellious stage had resurfaced in an instant, Clara’s mother saw. Those closed, angry, confused eyes that treated any kind of parental input with disdain; those dark depths that hid a whole world of questions and hurt.

Clara’s mother didn’t know how to respond to such eyes, but she reached out nonetheless. That’s what she had done back then and that’s what she would continue to do, even if Clara did her best to shut her out.

“Please, Clara. Tell me. Let me try to understand. I’ll do anything to make you feel better, you know that.”

“I want him to… I asked him to…” There were the tears again, rising unbidden and extremely quickly to her little princess’s eyes. They trickled over her cheeks and splattered onto the floor. The rebellious teenage angst ceased to be, like a candle being snuffed out. All that was left were tears.

“Why do you want daddy to go to the prison, sweetheart? That… woman,” Clara’s mother could not even bring herself to say the name. “She’s locked up. She can’t hurt you anymore, ever again.”

Clara sobbed into her hands. “That won’t be enough,” she wailed. “I want daddy to go in there and shoot her. I want that bitch dead!”

Clara’s mother leant back and sat heavily on the floor, away from her daughter. She couldn’t feel any repulsion at her daughter’s words; Clara had every right to feel that way. But police did not go around shooting girls in their cells and get to keep their jobs, even if the girl in question happened to be that vicious toad, Irina. Lord knew, she herself had howled at the injustice of it all, the fact that Irina was merely ‘insane’ and not lying in a cold grave right now in recompense for the evils she had done. Her husband had quelled her own fury at the whole outcome of the trial. The agonies her little girl had gone through to give testimony! It had broken her mother’s heart to see her suffering that way. She had thanked Jason every day in her prayers for his rescue of her precious angel. Apparently the toll of all of Irina’s viciousness was causing him problems too, or so she had heard.

Clara’s mother tried to reasonable, although in her heart of hearts she agreed with her daughter.

“You know what; I wish someone would shoot that woman too. But honey, that’s not the way it works. Daddy still loves you, sweetie. I know it’s hard to deal with at the moment but…”

Clara bit back a new sob and felt the outrage, the horror, the fury that coiled in her stomach like a viper rear up inside her. It leant new energy to her deadened limbs, a wave of welcome electricity through her veins.

“I need him to kill her mummy. Don’t you understand? I will never, ever be able to feel normal again until she’s dead. I… see her eyes on me… everywhere. I feel myself chained up, unable to move, again…”

Her mother enveloped her in a hug that was strong and full of the same fury that bit and scratched in Clara’s heart like a wild animal.

“Maybe they’ll kill her anyway, one day,” her mother crooned, still holding her daughter. “She’ll rot away in prison, honey. I promise you never have to worry about her ever again.”

But Clara simply turned her sombre gaze on the turn-table and said nothing. Her eyes seemed to shine with another truth – that someone like Irina Sinclair couldn’t simply be locked away, couldn’t be forgotten about, because that was the precise moment she’d strike back with a vengeance. She had never told anyone the truth of what had happened, down there in that little house. Number seven.

Irina Sinclair’s home.

Why doesn’t he love me? Doesn’t he believe me? Does he know what really happened…?

***

Marcus Finnagan was absolutely furious at himself.

Out of habit, he made a list of the aggravations he had against himself, to see whether he could rationalise any of them away. He drove with only half of his mind on the road in front of him, ticking off the list on his steering wheels with his fingers.

Number one – he had behaved extremely unprofessionally at the prison. He had let his hurt and pride get in the way of the job, possibly for the first time ever. Pathetic, really. A heat-of-the-moment trip up. He didn’t even want to consider what those watching the scene play out had thought of him.

He indicated and turned off the highway. A bright red wagon followed closely behind him.

Number two – he had failed to help the supervisor discover much of use, except for what appeared to be lies of Irina’s concoction. The supervisor told him he would pass it onto an investigator, just in case there was anything in her accusation at all. Who knew, really, what would happen as consequence? Had any ground been made at all? Had it all just been a phenomenal waste of time?

It was overcast. The bright red wagon’s fog lights must have been automatic, because they flickered on behind him. Marcus scowled. It wasn’t even five o’clock in the afternoon.

He pushed the thought away and continued through the list.

Number three – he couldn’t really tell if they were lies at all. Irina was unscrupulous as ever. It frustrated the hell out of him.

Number four – he felt physically ill seeing her behind bars like that. The entire prison setup had made him feel sick to the stomach. It was one thing to imagine his pupil, someone he had admired and cultivated, in a prison setting. It was quite another thing to view it for himself. The aura of hatred and fear that surrounded her like a cloak… Those eyes, ever watchful and ever scrupulous, waiting for the hideous girl to make some sort of escape attempt…

Number five - God damn it all. He wanted to see her again.

… The new pupils had poured into the classroom in a steady rush. There were those who nervously eyed the door, the lecturer, the content on the projector and let out a noticeable sigh of relief. They had found the right place, first time. He could count them as they entered, they were that obvious.

There were those, too, whose first response was to scan the crowd for friends and acquaintances, someone who they could share their nervousness and be a buoy they could cling to in the face of a sea of uncertainty. Some seemed to almost bounce with joy upon the sight of a friendly face. Others sunk in disappointment as they faced the realisation that they were in fact, alone.

And finally, the other category Marcus liked to identify as the truly studious, there were the ones that walked all the way to the front, pulled out their pen and notepad and scanned the screen and himself intently, waiting for knowledge. New knowledge. They were here to work. They were here to learn. The setting and the people meant little to them except a conduit of the learning they were about to receive. They were often serious, eager faces; Marcus liked to mark them in his mind as the few who would seek his guidance outside of class hours, the few who would email him with polite queries about obscure facts.

But this day, he glimpsed a student who failed to fall into any of these self-devised categories. Her reaction wasn’t even close to anything he’d learnt to expect. It was entirely different. The polite smile of welcome he had donned for his newcomers slipped a little from his handsome face. He watched the new girl with interest.

She was a tiny little thing; she hardly looked the age to be at university. Neat too; every hair and even the bag she held just so over her shoulder were entirely in place. Graceful movements, every one measured.

A dancer? No, she hadn’t the aloofness, the upraised chin, the distinct patter of slight pride he often associated with dancers. And anyway, what would a dancer be doing in his ‘neuroscience and psychology’ lecture?

She lingered at the door, as so many of the uncertain, directionally-challenged students often did but paid no attention to the signs or the projector, clearly displaying both his name and the title of the subject. The little girl was poised, scanning the crowd. For a friend? No, she did not alight on features or faces. She wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. She was… what then? Finding a seat? No, again, the scan was too fast for the delicate task of choosing a chair. What on earth was she looking for?

Gently, but with purpose, she moved down the stairs. She didn’t sit at the very front. She graciously lowered herself in a row about halfway back and just… sat there. She didn’t pull out a notepad or pen or phone or laptop. She just sat and put her bag to one side.

What a strange girl, Marcus thought to himself. She stuck out like a sore thumb in amongst this herd of students, but perhaps that was just because he was so used to the routine of the new semester. Her behaviour, the girl herself… It was like walking through your beloved home and something was glaringly out of place. Marcus was simultaneously puzzled, stunned even, that such a well-worn pattern could just be smashed apart in under a minute.

Each lecturer was equipped with a register of the students who were entitled to be in the subject, each student name also had a small photo beside it, with their student identification number. Curiosity thoroughly aroused, Marcus crossed to the lectern and pulled out the register. He glanced at the clock. He had ample time.

Flicking through the collection of names, he found her picture. A small, unassuming smile was on her face but it was a good picture nonetheless.

Irina Sinclair.

He would have to meet this student, he had told himself silently. She certainly was intriguing…

 

Marcus was pulled from his recollections by the impatient honk of a horn. The light was green. He shook his head at himself and drove on, waving apologetically to the man in the red wagon behind him.

Even now, miles away, she could distract him.

The irritation he felt was unfair and he knew it. He wasn’t angry at her. He was beyond annoyed at himself. Because underneath everything, the numbered list of aggravations, her words had lit a tiny spark of hope.

“They killed themselves.”

Could that possibly mean that Irina Sinclair, the most infamous name of the decade, was innocent?

Marcus despised himself for hoping, with a fervour that surprised him, that it was possible.

TANGLED THREADS THAT SOMEHOW STRING TOGETHER

Maggie Dahl would have been thirty today, if she had not been murdered by Irina Sinclair.

Her parents had taken the day off from work to visit her grave and lay flowers but had left quickly, their grief still too raw for a lengthy stay where their beloved daughter’s corpse lay in the ground. It was like they were marked. Part of it was a visible thing – the tear tracts down their faces, the constant sniffing and red eyes from crying, the way they held themselves and he clung to her protectively. But part of it was the aura of unexpected heartache. Anguish made everyone careful of their words around the afflicted couple. Silence was safer than saying the wrong thing. No one knew how to bring real comfort and as they left the graveyard they were surrounded by a throng of people who wanted to say something but words failed to express the true sentiment of what had happened. They didn’t deserve this. No one did. And no one knew how to make things better. They mumbled a few strained words over their little girl’s body and departed.

The girl’s body. Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate. The police had only managed to find her right arm, her head and a piece of her torso, maybe the left side of her stomach. The remainder of her body, the police said, had been washed downstream from the dump site and was irretrievable or too far decomposed to be laid into a coffin for the funeral, which had only been last week. She was the last body found. According to the detective, she had been Irina’s eleventh and final deceased victim.

Maggie’s best friend, Lucy, stood over the grave now, completely alone. She had requested this. She had sent her boyfriend to wait in the car while she laid the flowers at her friend’s headstone. They were roses. Beautiful red and white roses. She had picked them out herself. She guessed that Maggie would have liked them. Their fragrance was light, sweet and not too strong. They felt very soft to touch and all the thorns had been painstakingly removed with shears. Delicate flowers.

Lucy hugged herself awkwardly and stood there, staring at the ground. The headstone was very simple, dainty even, with her friend’s name, birth date and just a few words, just a little inscription…

‘Our beautiful angel, be at peace.’

Lucy’s brow creased as she read that line. She doubted that Maggie would ever have peace, in this life or the next. She was the type of person who had found fault in everything, a way to improve everything, from her clothes to the menu to the decorations on her own birthday cake last year. Impossible to buy presents for, in fear of her finding some little error in the wrapping of the present or with the gift itself. Even as a teenager, she had been constantly fidgety, constantly fussy and difficult to please.

Lucy sighed. Was it bad to think of the dead this way? To be honest and say, ‘well, no she wasn’t an angel. She was human. She had faults.’ The girl had been in the ground barely a week. Apparently she had been dead nearly a month.

Was it nit-picky to want the truth in things? Or was that a habit she had picked up from the dead woman herself?

Well, whatever the case, Lucy didn’t know how she felt. Sad, certainly. Probably still in shock. Cold. Numb. Hollowed out somehow, by the grief and the stark void that death leaves in its wake.

When Maggie had stopped texting her and calling her, Lucy had felt a smidge of relief followed by the anxiety that a friend feels when they believe someone has intentionally cut them off.

What did I do? What did I do wrong?

And now look. The truth. Her best friend from high school was dead. No wonder she hadn’t replied on Facebook or Twitter. So many messages that would be left forever closed. No one had done anything to drive Maggie out of town and their small circle of friends. No one except Irina Sinclair and that cold, harsh figure called Death.

Lucy had intentionally avoided the media, unlike Maggie’s family and a small group of her girlfriends who either believed someone had to speak up for the injustice Maggie had suffered or wanted their fifteen minutes of fame more than they were willing to admit to anyone. But she had read the papers. Maggie’s profile photo was on regularly whenever Irina Sinclair was mentioned, along with the other ten dead. Those two who had survived, Clara Bryson and Jason Powers, were often filmed waking away from the camera with scared and tired expressions on their faces outside of a courthouse somewhere.

It was the picture they used of Irina herself though, that had stunned Lucy. She was so small. She looked like a child. How had she killed Maggie? Maggie, who was tall to the point of ridiculousness and gangly as a model. Maggie, who checked in at every restaurant on Facebook and took selfies in the mirror most mornings? Maggie, who men flocked to in droves, who instantly had the assistance of every store clerk with a small grin of her flawless teeth and a gentle gesture? That socialite Maggie, the Maggie Lucy had known. She got killed by a tiny, dull girl. It was hard to believe.

Lucy had intended to say something, but staring at the grave had robbed her of the words.

What did you say to a dead woman anyway? Sorry you’re not up here on your birthday? Sorry about that whole thing where you got murdered? Yeah, I bet that’s a real bummer.

Lucy rubbed her hands on her shirt front. It was one of those designer brands with a large patterned design; so long it almost could have been a dress but was just an inch too short. Her boots, the ones she had bought cheap but looked much more expensive than they had been, scuffed the grass and dirt. Her hair was immaculately straightened and hung down around her breasts. It gleamed in the sunlight, all of her highlights shone in the glow of the afternoon. Lucy loved the outfit, it made her feel pretty and striking all at once but she knew that Maggie would have been able to see something wrong it in, something that Lucy wouldn’t be able to ignore or justify away. Something, in short, that would have ruined her good feelings about herself and her fashion choices.

“I’m sorry,” Lucy muttered at last and she was. “I’m sorry we didn’t try to find you until it was too late. I’m sorry I gave up on us as friends. And I’m sorry for the pain your parents are going through right now. I...”

She tried to say that she missed Maggie but the sentence stopped. Lucy felt herself choking on it. No. It wasn’t true. She didn’t miss her friend very much. Not right here and now. Maybe after the shock of all settled in, she would. It didn’t make the grief any less, but if Lucy was honest, she had written off Maggie long ago.

“Bye, Maggs. Sleep well. I hope you do find a bit of peace somewhere.”

Lucy made to walk away but a final thought hit her and she turned back around.

“Thirty is way too young to die. I’m sorry for that, too.”

Then she was off, down the gently sloping hill, carefully treading her way from the graveyard, watching the petals of other flowers fall to the ground and smelling the perfume of their decay.

Her boyfriend, a guy whose parents had named Jonnothan but insisted everyone call him Naffy, stood at the archway that led into the graveyard.

“You okay?” he asked. He saw the look on her face. “You seem okay.”

“I think so.”

They walked together, hand in hand, to Naffy’s Beetle. He unlocked his door and then had to reach across from the inside to click her passenger door open. It was an ancient thing, full of little kinks like the dud locking system. Lucy knew most of them, even though they hadn’t been dating long. Naffy was the type of guy who insisted that he drive them everywhere when he could manage it, a strange form of chivalry that Lucy found oddly flattering.

The old Beetle clomped and spat fumes and shrieked went the ignition finally caught but after a while Lucy didn’t even hear the moaning of the car at all. She could feel the vibration of it though, juddering through her bones and rattling her body on the seat. After a few minutes, the hum she could hear felt like the hum of her brain being shaken furiously inside her head. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant.

“What are you thinking about?” Naffy asked out of the corner of his mouth. She turned to look at him. He wasn’t smiling.

“I’m thinking… Just that I’m nearly thirty and I haven’t done anything for anyone to remember me by.” Lucy was kind of astounded by the sudden burst of honesty but it was too late to take the words back. She clasped her hands together in her lap nervously, palm brushing palm.

“Was she turning thirty today?” Naffy queried. They both knew who he was talking about.

“Yeah.”

“It’s alright, you know,” Naffy went on. “I mean, who says you need to do anything by thirty? Or forty? Or any age?”

“Nobody. But I just want to be remembered for something when I die. Something… nice.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that.” Naffy found her hand and clutched it while he drove with his right hand. “The people who matter will remember you for all the good things you did. All the good times. Besides, it won’t really matter to you when you’re gone.”

It seems I’m not the only one who is really honest today.

“What? So I shouldn’t care now about how I’m remembered?”

“Nah.”

“Why?”

Naffy didn’t say anything for a long moment. Lucy studied his dark features, his handsome face, those rosebud lips, his flyaway hair, his calloused hand on the steering wheel. It wasn’t until she found his chocolate eyes that she realised he wasn’t avoiding the question.

He was considering the answer carefully.

“Because… I think that would mean you went around your whole life pleasing other people for the sake of a nice thought when you’re no longer around to please them.” Naffy suddenly looked very self-conscious. He cleared his throat.

“No, go on,” Lucy encouraged him.

“Well, all I’m saying is that it’s your life and I don’t think you should live it some other way just because it finishes eventually. You don’t have to get to milestones and worry that you haven’t done anything because you actually have. You got up, you went to work, you came home, you watched T.V., you made dinner, you cuddled someone until you fell asleep. So what? Who cares if that’s all you do with your life? It’s not like you’re born with a to-do list. And I reckon the people who love you are gonna think of you for the little things you did, not your big accomplishments. They’re gonna want to remember a party you both got wasted at or a good sunny day or that one time you fell off your bike. Not the stuff that looks good only on paper. They won’t care about all that, really, except to say that you did those things.”

That was the longest speech she’d ever heard Naffy give and by far the most insightful. Lucy grinned.

“I like it when you get all philosophical. Where’d you come up with that stuff?”

Naffy laughed his high-pitched splutter of surprise that Lucy adored. He took his eyes off the road for a second to shoot a grin back at her.

“I dunno. It just makes sense to me.”

Lucy held his hand a little tighter. Then, in spite of all the unkind thoughts she’d had about her dead friend, even with that well of grief and blackness looming inside her at her loss, she suddenly felt a lot better.

They drove along, humming to the radio. Naffy didn’t let go of her hand, not once, until their journey ended.

And Lucy was just a tiny bit convinced she was falling in love with him.

***

Jason had followed Professor Finnegan (Marcus, that was his name, can’t forget that, come on Jason get it together boy) for a long while. The panicky, flighty feeling of the pursuit had worn off. Impatience was the predominant emotion now flooding through his jittery, jumpy nerves. Why wouldn’t the man turn around? Why? What was wrong with him? When would this ludicrous game of following the leader end?

Jason cursed quietly to himself, his eyes fixated on his teacher’s head, willing the eyes upwards and into the revision mirror or for them to glance backwards, a cursory check for traffic and to alight on his tired, pale face instead. He longed for that recognition, that sudden realisation, the shock of ‘oh, it’s him!’

Damn it. The man didn’t even swivel in his seat. The mirrors were disregarded. It was driving Jason mad.

He was even in his sister’s ostentatious, bright red beast of a car – the wagon. She was visiting school chums and wouldn’t be back until tomorrow, hung over from both the liquor and the memories. He couldn’t be in a more visible car, for Christ’s sake! He’d attracted strange looks from other drivers that had overtaken him, wondering why on earth he had chosen, of all the vehicles in the world, that beast.

Damn it all. Turn your head, sir! Just once!

The traffic thinned and Jason felt distinctly awkward. It appeared that Mr. Finnegan was driving home for the night. They had left the busy commercial streets bursting with stores and outlets and turned into a distinctive residential plain, where the roads were lined with nothing but identical apartment blocks. He was acutely aware of how much of a stalker he would seem to his former professor.

This was going to look… ugly. Embarrassing. A whole range of things Jason had no stomach for at the moment. 

But he was determined. After so many days and nights of nothing, it was good to be just doing something. To have a focus. Photographers need a focus, a drive. Something to fixate on. Something to dictate the shot. Something to close the frame in on. By god, it felt better to have a focus. Something to do, some action to take. He realised now, with perfect hindsight, that the sitting around at home doing nothing had been killing him as much as anything. He had been wasting, rotting – he had been lying there while something ate away at his core like a fruit going bad from the inside. He had tried to drink and sleep the agony away but the rot had taken over, slowly liquidising his ability to function normally. 

But here he was – out and about. Doing something about it. About to tell the truth.

How about that, baseball fans? Look at the boy go. He hasn’t given up just yet, and it’s only the first innings. 

Mr. Finnegan’s car pulled in to a modern-looking apartment, which made Jason nervous on a number of accounts. It was grey and blocky, trim to the edges and a heavy-looking two storey thing. Two storeys for a (rumoured) single man? Well, it was likely he had company. A partner, a family member, a roommate. Jason didn’t want to be seen here, like this. He might lose his nerve. He might not achieve what he had set out to do, with another party watching the proceedings.

The car he had been following so carefully turned off and Mr. Finnegan, seemingly caught up in daydreams, slowly emerged from the driver’s seat. Jason at last saw his eyes but they were turned inwards and outwards, too far and too close, lost in seeing whatever was in his teacher’s head. He watched the professor lock his car almost absentmindedly and amble up to the front door. His hands were in his pockets, already fumbling for a house key. Then he would be in and away…

No. Jason shook his head, a dog shaking water from its fur almost angrily in his rejection of this scenario. No, no, no, no. It wouldn’t end like this! He was going to jump out, hail his teacher down and have a serious chat. An important serious chat. He was going to run right up there and do it. Yes, right away.

But although he denied the picture formulating in his mind’s eye, it was playing out in front of him. Mr. Finnegan had reached the door and a flash of silver and black keys jingled between his fingers. His movements were still so slow, dreamlike almost, as his mind was clearly very far away.

What’cha reckon, baseball fans? Will Jason Powers man up and step up to the plate?

Damn straight he would.

Jason was out before he could find another reason to stay put, forcing his shaking legs to pump faster, throwing a hand in the air recklessly.

“Oi! Professor! Professor Finnegan!”

It was lucky there was no traffic. Jason ploughed straight over the sidewalk and into the front yard, shoes shooting up grass and weeds.

“Professor! Wait!”

Marcus halted so quickly he swayed forward a little. It almost looked funny. The expression of shock and the way his jaw simply dropped away from the rest of his face was comical too. On any other day Jason would have lost his self-control and spun, chortling, into fits of laughter. 

But this was no ordinary day and there was too much tension in him to lose control like that. Instead he crossed his arms together and slouched towards his teacher, ready to turn and get straight back in the car if the other man showed any signs of indignation. The game would be over before it even started. A too-bad-you-got-caught-out-at-the-wrong-moment kind of ending to this whole, messy situation.

But Marcus Finnegan was not like that. Not then, not ever. He took one glance at the miserable boy’s face and his jaw came back to where it normally hung.

“…Jason?”

“Sir.” Jason relaxed just a little. There was no anger, no disapproval, in his professor’s voice. Just surprise. Jason could deal with surprise. 

“What are you doing here?” Marcus asked, a touch bewildered but again, not dismissive. The boy needed something, that much was obvious. He needed something very badly. 

“I… I just thought… Well, you see, I, er…”

Marcus cut him off quietly. “You need to talk?”

Jason’s throat closed up. He nodded, too appreciative of this man’s talent to read between the lines to speak. Never had he needed someone to listen to him so much. 

“Come on inside then. So we’re not just out in the street. I’m on the first floor and I don’t think Mrs. Carpenter’s here.”

Marcus swung the door open and Jason hurried inside. He kicked his shoes off onto the mat, the converses flapping away, still tied up. His professor waved him down a corridor and Jason followed cautiously and a bit curious. He could smell something in here, something nice and sweet. Apples, maybe? The scent was surprising and oddly soothing to Jason’s frazzled nerves.

They emerged in a little dining and lounge room. Jason could instantly tell that this was a bachelor pad. Why? Well, it wasn’t any one factor in particular, but the whole room seemed labelled to him – NO GIRLS. Everything was dark, modern, sleek and appeared hardly used. Not like the cheap stuff around his flat that was bent, broken or held together by tape and prayers. There was no empty pizza boxes left lying around in here after a big night, no sir. But it wasn’t in any way dainty or cosy, the things he associated with a feminine presence. 

Marcus sat heavily on the sofa and leant forward on his knees, clasping his hands together. His face was set.

“So, what’s happening?”

Jason timidly sat in a matching armchair, not too far away from his teacher. He crossed his ankles and arms. It was a protective thing.

“I’m so sorry, sir, to just come into your place like this…” Marcus waved this apology aside as though it wasn’t needed at all and this gave Jason some heart to go on. “Well, I needed to talk to someone about the whole Clara, Irina… thing. I just, I’ve been sitting around at home trying to explain it to myself… You know when you get a really stuck Band-Aid and you just don’t wanna touch that thing, because you know it’s gonna sting like crazy?” Jason threw his hands up and tucked them back together. “God, I don’t know… I’m not gonna explain this right…”

Marcus shook this away too, with a gentle gesture. 

“It’s alright. It’s alright Jason. Say what you can. However you can. I’ll listen.”

Jason swallowed. It felt hard to swallow. Mentally, he felt the last of his timidness fall away. That was this man’s gift. That was why he was so brilliant at his job at the university. He could be standing in a room of five hundred students or in his own living room with one and there was the same level of engagement and honesty. If Marcus Finnegan said he would listen to you, there was no doubt in your mind that he would do exactly that and gladly. He wanted you to talk. This was not a man who minced words. This was a man who meant everything he delivered to his students.

Jason had never appreciated that until right now and he felt it keenly.

“It’s like this. I told the police everything I could about the actual… Well, the day Irina met with Clara and they went to her house and Clara messaged me. But they never heard the whole story. They weren’t very interested and I didn’t know how to tell them there was more to it. It was all ‘you’re a hero. Tell us what happened that day. That hour. Come to court and repeat it exactly, word for word.’ Then that was it. They didn’t want anything else. They just wanted my pictures to get her locked up…” Jason noticed Marcus’s frown at the words ‘locked up’. “I’m sorry, sir. I know you and her were…”

Jason struggled with what he meant. Were they friends? Colleagues? Study partners? Were they close? He finally settled for “…both interested in the same things at university.”

Marcus rubbed his face.

“I thought we were, Jason. She was very smart. Maybe too smart. But go on, sorry I interrupted you.”

“But that was the thing, sir,” Jason hurried on, almost spitting with the intensity of his words. “She was smart. I don’t think the officers I spoke to really got that. But… Anyway. There were a whole lot of things that now, when I really think about it and everything’s happened, that don’t make sense and I can’t get them out of my mind and..” Jason gulped audibly. “I may… I might not have said the whole truth to those officers. I didn’t lie exactly but… I… Well, I was so shocked and out of it that some of my words came out wrong and…”

“Jason,” Marcus stared right into his eyes, man to man. “Everyone fucks up. Everyone. We may mistakes. But if you came all the way here to get the truth out, I’m not going to judge you for whatever you said when the police interviewed you. Seriously. You look like you’re in a bad way and I’ll do whatever it takes to help you out.”

At that, Jason breathed out and his whole body went limp with relief. He had little idea of what to expect when he dreamt up this crazy scheme. Certainly, Marcus would have been quite within his rights to kick him to the curb or dismiss him out of hand. But sympathy and this outright blatant kindness… He hadn’t dared hope for. Yet there it was. Plain and simple. You screwed up, sure. Let’s see what we can do to repair the damage.

Jason leant against the armchair, weak with relief and spilled his guts to Professor Finnegan. 

***

Intuition is a strange thing. Women’s intuition is even weirder.

Clara’s mother had been through nightmares involving Irina Sinclair before. When the court case was on, there was hardly a night where she didn’t wake, panting, coated in a film of sweat, crying, reaching for the lamp to dispel the visions in her dreams.

The visions had all had a theme – she couldn’t save her little girl from Irina Sinclair.

But when Clara’s mother sunk into an exhausted nap at five fifty-three that afternoon, the dream was different. She could not put her finger on the subtle factor that made this dream unique (and afterwards, she couldn’t have been sure of the difference, everything changed in hindsight, sometimes…) but it was just that. Different. It was intuitive. A warning.

She hadn’t been dreaming but all of a sudden she realised she was. It was an unnerving feeling. The brain is a remarkable instrument but the moment when it is lucid enough to recognise it is deceiving itself is a truly amazing thing.

Only dreaming…

But the dream was a dark one. On the verge of nightmarish. Clara’s mother was standing in a courtyard filled with thorns. All around her for miles, thick branches of thorns as wide as one of her arms. They looked vicious. Spikes as sharp as knives as far as she looked. Only the stone walls of the courtyard provided a barrier to the endless sea of thorns.

Only a dream. Like the forest of thorns in Sleeping Beauty… It can’t really hurt you. It’s pretend.

The entire place was bathed in an eerie, purple light. Clara’s mother shivered, but not from the cold. It didn’t seem to be any particular temperature, here in this no-where-land.

Dreaming…

But she could hear something. A voice. Female. Young and pretty. Cool as ice.

“I’ll kill you, you bitch.”

That was Clara talking.

Just a dream… You’re remembering what she said about Irina…

But Clara’s mother felt no relief from the knowledge she was dreaming. It was urgent, painfully urgent, that she get to her daughter’s side and settle her down. Her words were dangerous.

“Clara! Sweetheart!”

Crows cawed, somewhere distant. This no-where-land was enormous, it seemed. And filled to the brim with nothing but thorns, a dirty ground and this tiny little courtyard.

What did you expect? It’s just a dream…

“Clara!”

“YOU’LL BE DEAD!”

There. Over to her left the voice screeched out the pronouncement upon Irina Sinclair but Clara’s mother felt no angry joy, no empathy for her daughter. For some reason, it was imperative that her little angel stopped talking like that.

Why? What’s the harm? It’s your dream… Your nightmare…

No, she had to be silenced. It was dangerous.

“Clara! Be quiet! She can hear you!”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, Clara’s mother stopped, hair swinging in the exaggerated slow-motion of the dream. The purple light grew deeper, pulsed, shone with renewed vigour. She could have sworn she heard a high, cruel laugh.

“Clara! Honey! Where are you?”

You’re asleep! You’re having a nightmare!

She was. She was just having a nightmare but there was still danger here, Clara’s mother was certain of it. It was there, flooding in with the evil purple light. It hulked, menacing, among the spiny thorned forest. It was both inside and outside of her dream, the certainty of fear unsheathing its claws and dripping its poison. And it was after her little girl, her child, her Clara…

Screams. Horrible, painful screams filled the gloomy sky. The crows took flight in alarm and soared above Clara’s mother’s head in a thick wall. She’s never seen so many of the birds before in her life. They drenched the sky in feathers and darkness.

A phone rang.

Get up, that’s the phone. Answer it.

“Clara! Clara, sweetheart!”

The screams tapered off, as though someone had pulled a plug and the dream was being sucked away.

The phone grew shriller. She could hear her daughter yelling something in quite a different tone of voice.

Mum, can you get the phone?”

What? That was Clara, but what was real? Was the danger, that overwhelming sense of dread, completely imagined?

“Mum! The phone’s ringing!”

Clara’s mother opened her eyes and found herself where she had lay down an hour ago, sprawled over the patchwork sofa, cuddled up against her clean sheets.

“I’ll get it!” Her daughter was upstairs and she heard footsteps before a quiet, “Clara Bryson speaking.”

A dream. Damn it all. And she had a nasty crick in her neck. The end of the nightmare still had her stomach feeling unsettled. She tasted bile in her throat.

Good lord, what had she been dreaming about?

“It’s Dad! He wants to talk to you!”

“Okay, I’ve got it!”

Clara’s mother got, shakily, to her feet and plucked the house phone from its cradle next to the television downstairs. She heard the call connect.

“Dayna?”

“Andy?” Clara’s mother heard her husband’s voice catch. “Andy, what’s wrong?”

“Dayna, thank god. Thank god. The boys in psych didn’t think she’d have time to get all the way over to you before some of my boys did but we couldn’t be sure, she screwed with the time stamp on our surveillance and we were so lost for a couple of minutes there...”

Clara’s mother clutched a talon-like hand to the phone. Her clothes rippled in a slight breeze and she thought she must have missed something.

“Andy. Slow down. I don’t under…”

“Sinclair. Sinclair’s out. Sinclair broke out of her goddamn cell, Dayna. Jesus fricking Christ. The entire station is on red alert. Everybody’s scared shitless. The media still hasn’t got wind of it yet but we’re trying to catch her before they start a panic…”

Clara’s mother simply stood, trying to listen to her husband’s ranting but unable to hear anything over the icy, hollow feeling of panic growing from her stomach. A ringing buzz seemed to issue from the phone.

“Dayna? Dayna are you still there?”

Clara’s mother whimpered.

“Sweetheart, look out at the street for me.”

She did as she was bid, peeking through the curtains. A grey car was lounging in their driveway.

“Can you see a grey sedan, Dayna? It’s Michael. I told him to hightail it down to ours. You’ll be safe with him, sweetheart. He’s a former U.S. marine. Nothing will get past him. We can trust him.”

“Okay.” Clara’s mother whispered, terror crackling through her throat. She didn’t want to think. If she thought about it, she would… She would…

Although the details of her nightmare eluded her, Clara’s mother remembered one thing. The sense of impending danger. Her intuition, her fears… They had coincided in one of the most horrifying displays of coincidence she’d ever seen.

Irina Sinclair was out.

Irina Sinclair was out.

“I’m coming home right now. Get Michael inside and lock everything. Dayna, do you understand?” Clara’s father spat his frustration down the phone. “They found only one thing left in Sinclair’s cell, one thing and it was a message. She’d scrawled on the floor for weeks, indenting it so that when she finally left the camera could make it out.”

But somehow, Clara’s mother already knew.

“You’ll be dead,” she moaned down the line. “You’ll be dead. It wasn’t Clara. It was her. She was the one yelling. I heard her.”

The line went dead.

Irina Sinclair was once again, at large.

***

It only took a few words to morph that rather unpleasant day into an incredible one.

“Want to go grab an ice cream?” Naffy asked her suddenly, breaking the rattle and humming of the car.

Lucy considered. It was getting close to dinner time but the whole memorial on a birthday today had left a bitter taste in her mouth. Ice cream would sweeten it. And any more time alone with Naffy was sure to lighten her mood.

“Yes, please.”

So Naffy took an earlier exit and they pulled of the highway. The radio was pumping out some song Lucy didn’t know and didn’t care for. She yanked her IPhone out of her pocket and checked Facebook. Dull. Nothing. She flicked through Twitter. Again, nothing too interesting. A text lit up on her screen. Her boss’s number flashed next to it.

Can you do a shift tomorrow? 10-2?

Lucy sighed.

“I’m going to have to take a raincheck on tomorrow. My boss wants me in for a shift.”

Naffy didn’t look perturbed. “Okay.”

She sent back the reply that sure, she would love to come in and do the shift, no problem. That was the real bummer of being a broke student; work shifts weren’t really optional. If the work was there you had to take it because you needed the money. It was as simple as that.

It was a low, lazy afternoon, rapidly turning into a warm and sticky night. Summer was approaching faster than Lucy would have believed. She thought back to all those flowers in the graveyard with a kind of detached pity. They would all be baked in the heat and wouldn’t last very long. What a shame. Maggie’s headstone would soon be decorated with dead petals and not much more than that.

Naffy took them to a place Lucy didn’t even know existed. Even though she trusted him beyond all reason, the back roads he took made her slightly nervous.

“Where are we going?”

But his grin evaporated all of her doubts and unease. It was an infectious, nakedly joyful smile that animated his whole face. She found herself smiling back at him.

“You’ll see,” he quipped. The light in his eyes was teasing and excited. She settled back into her chair and watched the traffic rush by, like a tide.

At last, he found a parking spot and yanked the complaining car to a halt with the handbrake. Lucy gazed around. They were very high on a hill overlooking the ocean. It was kind of romantic actually. The coolness of a perfect sunset. Seagulls flying overhead. The sky turning that beautiful orange hue. The smell of summer and salt.

Lucy felt the warm tingles of happiness. After such a grotesque morning, she was relieved to find that she could still feel this good inside.

Naffy locked the car and gently took one of her hands. Lucy clutched his fingers tightly, leaning in, pressing her shoulder against his arm.

“Now can you tell me where we’re going?” she asked again, but the joke was there in her voice.

Naffy laughed quietly but gave no other answer.

She allowed herself to be led by the hand along the hill. The road was one-way, crumbling in places, worn away slightly by both the wind and the sea breeze. Her hair danced around her shoulders. She could hear the swell of the ocean and the rumble of distant cars. It was very peaceful.

There weren’t many buildings but Naffy pushed the door open to one and let her go inside first, like a real gentleman. She walked in, feet tapping on the wooden boards and stopped short.

It was absolutely the most incredible jumble of everything inside the deceptively small-looking shack of a store. Her eyes boggled, trying to take it all in. From floor to ceiling, along every wall, the place was filled to the brim with… just stuff. Lots of stuff. Rocking horses and old coke bottles, china plates, stamp collections and glass cabinets full of miniatures of the seven wonders of the world, tins, plush toys and dart boards, Pokemon cards, surfboards and world war two memorabilia, paint cans and dainty shoes, wine bottles, rusted car ornaments and photographs, Chinese good luck charms, musty old-school globes and vinyl records, tea cups, jewellery… She just couldn’t see it all. There was too much of it, every way she turned. Naffy put a hand on her back and she jumped in surprise. Then she turned to meet his smug, satisfied face.

“What is this place?” she gushed.

“The guy who owns it has the Guinness book of records award for the biggest collection of junk. He also makes really good gelato.”

“Is that the Naf?” a gruff man’s voice issued from out of the depths of this maze of madness. Lucy had no idea where the voice came from amongst the assortment of everything.

“Sure is, bro!” Naffy called back.

“Come on in, my friend. Come on in!”

Lucy, following Naffy cautiously through the piles of junk, couldn’t stop her gawking. Every corner held a different surprise and she would occasionally stop and stare, eyes watering at the sheer amount and complexity of the place. There were dolls dressed up in suits from the 1940’s. Stuffed wrens on the wall. DVD covers. Movie posters from all sorts of films and eras, some of them signed and laminated. Chess boards with astounding jungle chess pieces, wrought from precious stones. T-shirts from America. Weird boxes made of some soft material she couldn’t even begin to guess. Vintage games. Vases that looked like antiques. There was a very thin layer of dust on the older items she spotted on several shelves and fixed to the walls but clearly someone had lovingly placed everything in its own unique spot and cleaned the items on display. Some of what she saw indeed seemed like junk, like the broken vacuum cleaner with its head mounted on the wall, but there was a great deal of it she just marvelled at.

How on earth does this man know what is in here? How did he get to own all this stuff?

“It’s the Naf! Well, boy, I see you don’t come alone.” The owner of the gruff man’s voice finally emerged and Naffy introduced him as Nicolo Nenci, the owner of this incredible place.

Lucy’s first impression of Nicolo Nenci was that his face rather resembled a squashed cat’s. It wasn’t a particularly complementary impression but it was an accurate one. Huge dark eyes, a tiny little nose and mouth surrounded in fur, which in this case was his extraordinary beard. He was a generous man, ruddy and full of the kind of cheer Lucy associated with Santa Claus. He seemed to know Naffy well; he gave her boyfriend a good-hearted cuff on the ear that was both light and jolly. He introduced himself, gestured to a rather cosy nook off to the side with a wide glass window overlooking the sea, then bustled out the back without further ado to make them some of his specialty – gelato.

Lucy sat with her hands underneath her thighs and gave Naffy an incredulous, wide-eyed gape. He couldn’t help it; he laughed at her.

“Nicolo is my dad’s best mate. They went to high school together and everything.”

Well, judging from the huge beaming smile he had been giving the pair of them from the moment she had been introduced, he must have approved of her. She hadn’t met Naffy’s family yet. It was nice to feel like someone close to him thought well of her.

“This is incredible,” Lucy murmured. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Naffy laughed again. He reached across the table and Lucy untucked one of her hands to grab it. He ran a thumb over her palm while he talked.

“It’s changing all the time, this place. Sometimes, it’s a restaurant. An art gallery. A coffee shop. A museum. He used to sell handmade soaps and that kind of thing until a couple of weeks ago. Now, it’s gelato.” Naffy shook his head but his tone was extremely affectionate. “He’s crazy. He never can decide what he wants to do with it. In a month or so he’ll change his mind again.”

Lucy saw even the table was made up of two different tables that had been fused together to make one. The cushions didn’t match each other. She was sitting on a kind of armchair thing while Naffy had a short bench-type seat. Everything was cobbled together in some odd eclectic style that no fashionable magazine or interior decorator would ever approve of.

And she loved all of it.

Especially Naffy, for showing this place to her.

“I’m kind of… speechless,” she admitted, grinning. “This is all so amazing...”

Naffy blushed a little but he was very pleased with himself. She could tell. “Don’t thank me for dragging you out here until you’ve tried the ice cream.”

Nicolo was a wily one. He placed the two very different bowls of gelato on the table and left discreetly, giving the two of them privacy. Lucy had peppermint-chocolate, mango sorbet and a honey flavoured gelato. Naffy had three other flavours. They used their spoons to try them all, hogged the flavours they loved the most, giggled about the items on the walls around them and watched the sun go down.

It was the last perfect afternoon Lucy would have for a long, long time.

***

Matthews, Curtis and Gilleson were seated around a very uncomfortable square table with Irina Sinclair’s cellblock supervisor, the head correctional officer of the division and a lead investigator in the state police force. Every man’s face, whether smooth and newly shaven like Curtis’s, or showing distinctive signs of the five o’clock stubble, like the supervisor’s, were incredibly grim. The mere fact that they were all seated together to deal with one inmate was appalling and enough to raise the blood pressure. It was unprecedented.

Sinclair was at large.

“Is the Dog Squad out?” Gilleson asked. His tone was sharp, biting and accusatory. His throat seemed to chew on the words before they came out, the result of too many cigarettes in the past. He had quit rather recently and was extremely disgruntled about it and everything else that made life more difficult than it needed to be.

The supervisor nodded silently. He was rapidly typing away on a tiny laptop, sending an encrypted notice to the Attorney General.

She had been found missing a meagre twenty minutes ago, yet the supervisor felt that in that small stretch of time she had already worked her way out of their grasp. The dogs were finding nothing; whatever method she had used to conceal herself, it had certainly worked. Again, this was unprecedented. They had never failed to give the investigating team the hint of a lead before. A squad of police officers, sworn to secrecy on the façade of a ‘training exercise’, had fanned out in the local area. Discreet messages were sent out to some more questionable individuals who may have ideas of where to hide successfully from the law. They were desperate for answers, for clues.

Nothing. Not the tiniest shred of a lead.

“Let’s go over it again,” Curtis sighed, rubbing his smooth forehead with one massive hand. “She was given food at 1330 hours. She ate for approximately ten minutes. She gave back the tray in the automated slot. She requested another drink of water and it was given to her about fifteen minutes after she made the request. It was fed through the automated system. She retrieved it.”

“And that’s the last thing we see on CCTV footage,” the supervisor muttered darkly. “We lost it after that.”

That moment. The supervisor would later decide that it was at that critical moment, when the CCTV feed flickered out, was when they truly lost Irina Sinclair.

They train you for everything, or so they say. The establishment. They tell you not to panic like you have a choice in the matter. They tell you to follow procedure as though the rules can make up for anything. They tell you that there are protocols in place, designed to stop the worst from happening. But when push comes to shove, mused the supervisor, you could never do all of that. When the worst comes to pass its hideous because it is the very flaw in the system you can’t just work away with a good knowledge of the rules.

And now, look at them all. Some of the most powerful, good, obedient people in the country sitting around a table going over and over the same thin facts, trying to ignore what was staring them so astutely in the face. They were screwed. Regulations and rules and procedures didn’t mean jack. They had every right to panic, to scream, to raise a huge freaking alarm and sound the loudest klaxon they could.

That moment, when they lost vision and sound on Irina Sinclair… It had aged them all years and this was far from over.

And yet they were all just sitting, shocked. Panicked but trying to force it down. Acting ‘professional’ while Irina Sinclair, the stuff of nightmares, ran loose.

It was killing him already.

“Right. Cameras lose vision, we lose sound and we lose time stamp. Automated door system is blown, we don’t know how. A few correctional officers moved in to secure the cell. They found nothing but scratched notes on the floor of the cell. No sign of Prisoner Sinclair. Nothing left in the cell at all. No forced entries or exits. She’s just…” Curtis flailed his hands around his head as though swatting something as he searched for an adequate word. “…vanished.”

Matthews grew paler at this assessment. He picked at his nails, gulping. Gilleson’s scowl became more pronounced.

The supervisor had been through enough.

“I’m going out to join the search,” he said curtly. “The Attorney General will be here presently, I’m sure. And someone needs to make sure those officers don’t tip off the press.”

“Surely there’s no need for that. They are good people,” the state investigator protested.

The supervisor shot him a derisive look. He had a thousand replies to such naivety but he swallowed them all with a bit of effort.

“I also suggest we begin with damage control, gentlemen. Notify the families of Clara Bryson and Jason Powers. Maybe even the families of the deceased. We will have a team outside the Sinclair residence shortly. I suggest we employ the cooperation of her family members while we can. Watch her university. Watch everywhere that is prudent.”

“We’re going to panic a whole lot of people,” Curtis remarked, the scepticism in his voice extremely obvious.

“Better panicked than dead.” With that forbidding pronouncement, the supervisor shut his laptop and left the room.

The remaining men heard the door slam shut behind him. Gilleson mumbled something that sounded like ‘prick’ under his breath but made no move to stop his departure or call him back. The mood of the room slumped back into hopelessness.

The head correctional officer shook his head, slowly and sadly.

“I was going to retire soon,” he whispered, almost to himself. “I was so close to giving in my final notice…”

And the men, scared to death of making a move without approval, too scared to share the devastating news of the breakout, sat there discussing matters of little import for an extremely long time.

But Irina had expected little else. They were only government officers, after all.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE, WHO WILL SAVE YOU FROM YOURSELF?

Jason Powers hung up on his mobile. His features were frail and white as milk. Marcus leaned over and put a consoling hand on his shoulder.

“Bad news?”

“You’re not going to believe this,” Jason spat out. His throat felt dry as sandpaper all of a sudden. Funny, how it was the little things that altered everything with such devastating effect. He spluttered out an odd, croaking sound that could have been an attempt at a laugh, a cough or a muffled scream.

“She got out. Irina’s loose. The police are looking for her. She’s not behind bars, professor. They told me…” There was that noise again, sharper this time, with more breath. “They said they were sending over some of their best officers. They would take me to a safe place. They said I shouldn’t contact anyone until they had transported me there…” The boy trailed off and to his horror, he felt helpless tears welling in his eyes. Damn it! He couldn’t cry now! Not when he had finally done the courageous thing…

… “No one will believe us!”

“Then take a photo!” Clara had snapped. Her whole body quivered with emotion. Those eyes of hers, usually carefully sculpted in lines of make-up were too bright, too vibrant - the make-up smudged and dramatic in the half-light. It wasn’t an appropriate thought for what was going on but Jason couldn’t help but admire how beautiful she looked, filthy and frightened but with all that heightened emotion. It fired her up from deep inside so brightly he could see that lustre shining out of her eyes, illuminated from within.

He fumbled. The strap had wrapped awkwardly over his shoulder but, thank god, it had not broken or slipped. He dropped to one knee, unclasping the heavy case. His Nikon fell out into his fingers and gingerly, he pressed the cap off.

“What are you doing?” Clara demanded. “Take the photo! Take the damn photo already!” Her inner light flared, intensified, becoming almost laser-like. It was almost like it was burning him, burning the room. Her voice physically hurt him.

“Keep it down!”

“Hurry up!”

“Shh… Come on Clara, keep it quiet, okay? Her aunt and uncle aren’t old enough to be deaf.”

“Just do it already then!”

No flash, he didn’t want a bright screen. The lighting was poor but he could compensate. No time for a white balance. He brought the Nikon up to his eye and felt the cool plastic casing on his cheek. Click. He checked the screen, brushing his hand nervously along his thigh. It was only mediocre but it would do.

Clara’s illumination was catching, he discovered. It felt amazing to have their suspicions confirmed, to see the proof before their very eyes. Wait until everybody heard about this! And his pictures could make the front page everywhere! Exclusives! He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this high without some sort of drug…

“Jason.” Marcus’s voice called him back to the present. “Jason. Go with the police. Stay safe.”

“But didn’t you hear anything I said!” Jason’s desperation raised his voice to a kind of strangled shriek. “Irina…”

“You need to stay safe.” Jason felt his shoulders being taken by the professor and now he couldn’t look away from those serious, level-headed eyes. They were like ice picks. They struck straight through to the heart of him.

“Be in a safe place first, Jason. This is no laughing matter. I heard every word you have told me. And I think you are in serious danger. The police know you are in danger.”

That caught him. Jason imagined confronting Irina again and experienced a brief moment of insanity. He imagined, stupidly, her face relaxing, her smile blossoming, understanding shining from her every gesture. She would say that it had all been a mistake, that he was forgiven, that nothing had happened, that she could get over the damage of his lies…

“Jason.”

Marcus Finnegan shook him a little.

“Come on now Jason…”

“It wasn’t my fault! It wasn’t! I didn’t mean for this to happen!” The words were spilling out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying. He spat them out, the detestable bits of horror he had held so closely to his chest. There was something animal about him - the clawed hands in his hair, the rippling lines of pain around his eyes and in his jaw. Those tears, those stupid, ridiculous tears, spilled over. They felt like acid against his skin.

“I didn’t know! I didn’t know anything! She won’t hurt me. She won’t do it. I don’t deserve this! I shouldn’t be locked away! I didn’t do anything wrong!”

Marcus let go of the boy’s shoulders and instead, he held him close. It was something he’d never done before and certainly it wasn’t anything he’d ever do under normal circumstances. Jason was a student. But to do nothing but stand there and watch Jason unravel at the edges would be like watching an arterial wound bleed out in front of him. It didn’t last long but for a few moments Jason regressed to a five-year-old, weeping, terrified of shadows, denying that he had ever done anything wrong in his life.

***

At the Sinclair residence, the storm had broken overhead. It was frighteningly dark outside.

Andy Bryson was in a foul mood to match or even outdo the storm’s wrath. He just wanted to go home to his wife and daughter. He knew he needed to go home. He had left his beloved wife Dayna crying on the phone, a terrible gasping sound that still made him shudder with self-loathing. He had left her in that state. And Clara. God only knew how Clara would take the news. His little girl, jumping at shadows and asking him, practically begging him to use lethal force on Sinclair...

Now she was out. ‘At large’, as they said in the cop shop and in the papers. Maybe he should have shot her. He could have put the stupid bitch down like a rabies-infested dog and he would be at home with the two women he most loved in the whole world. They would be happy.

Andy entertained this ridiculous notion without seriously regretting his actions. You did not shoot inmates, not even ones like Irina Sinclair. He knew better than that but it was a nice thought to entertain for the moment.

And he couldn’t just go home. Not yet. Not until he set up some kind of team at the Sinclair place. If the dog ran back to its kennel, he wanted to be able to collar the thing before it did any damage.

Like she had done to his daughter.

Unaware of what he was doing, Andy hissed out an angry breath.

Lightning flickered and not too soon afterwards, thunder crashed overhead, making the windows in his patrol car rattle. Rain pelted down in a thick sheet of liquid that didn’t appear to have any breaks.

Now or never.

Andy ran out into the downpour and immediately swore. It was bitter cold and so powerful; the weight of it made him hunch over. He moved quickly down the footpath and pressed in the buzzer. Once. Very hard.

After a brief moment, thank god for small mercies, the gate swung inwards. Andy, one hand tucking his jacket higher and the other resting subconsciously on the butt of his weapon, cautiously entered the Sinclair garden.

It was a charming place. If he didn’t know any better, Andy would have guessed that two gardening enthusiasts – possibly retired – lived their quiet and peaceful existence. It was also deceptively large, this building. In the poor weather and lit up by nothing more than the intermittent lightning it was spooky - the kind of building that seemed to loom up over you and was filled with eerie lifeless windows.

Andy shivered violently and tried to convince himself that it was just because he was now soaked in freezing rain.

The door rattled and then opened the tiniest inch. The security door, Andy noticed, remained in place, presumably locked.

As someone answered the door from within an enormous crack of thunder boomed down upon the garden. Andy jumped – he couldn’t help it. The thunder was deafening. Robert Emmons, Irina’s uncle, didn’t even flinch. He hadn’t even blinked.

“Yes?” Robert’s address was clear, enunciated, the tone of an experienced orator. “Can I help you?”

“Senior Constable Andrew Bryson, Mr Emmons. I need to talk to you about your niece.”

‘Your niece’ was the nicest term Andy could conjure up and he had spent the last twenty minutes of his car ride caught between fuming that he couldn’t get home quick enough and trying to work out how on earth to inform Irina’s aunt and uncle of the situation. In the past, they had been most cooperative, a fact that hadn’t escaped the father of one of Irina’s intended victims. They had given all the details they could. They had assisted with the arrest. They had not once shown up to see their niece or demanded the right to visit. For all intents and purposes, it would seem that they had disowned the girl completely and distanced themselves in every way from her. They could be in danger of becoming Irina’s next targets and they weren’t young. No doubt ‘their niece’ was going to cause them some more sleepless nights in the future, Andy reflected.

He was surprised to learn that he didn’t know what to think about the Emmons. He had read the papers – how ‘their niece’ was an orphan and they had adopted her, how the news reports blamed the tragic deaths of her parents for the depravity of their daughter. But they had looked after her for the majority of her life – nearly her entire childhood and into her adult years. The parental instinct in him wondered how they could so abruptly and completely abandon the child they had raised together. Then again, she was a serial killer. He was grateful that the only thing he disliked in his daughter was her lack of work ethic and her taste in music. If she suddenly decided to murder people, could he dismiss her the same way the Emmons had eradicated Irina from their lives? He’d like to think not.

But he was not in their circumstances and he fervently hoped he never would have to be. He was just there to catch the mad dog before she hurt them or anyone else.

Robert’s expression became terse and his eyes narrowed down to slits behind his glasses. The door opened wider and he unlatched the security lock in one practised twist.

“Come in,” he offered, holding the doorway wide.

Andy came in and immediately realised he had tracked in a huge amount of water in with him. Robert hadn’t even bothered to stop in his progress down the hall. After an awkward moment of standing half poised to follow, Andy kicked off his boots and hurried after the man. The damage had been done. It looked like someone had dumped a bathtub’s contents on the carpet. He felt pretty bad about that but maybe he could make it up to the couple somehow.

The corridor led out into what some people still called a sitting room. The heater was on; unnatural waves of warmth spread across Andy’s hands and over his sopping hair. Rivulets of water still dripped from his clothes and fell onto the cream carpet.

Carol Emmons was seated on a beautiful white and rose coloured armchair, watching the television. On glimpsing her husband’s face however, she muted the channel and shifted forward.

“What’s happened?” Andy felt her gaze rake over him like a fine-toothed comb. She took in every inch of him in about a minute. Her tone was mild.

He didn’t feel comfortable sitting and soaking the sofa so he shifted nervously from foot to foot in front of the pair. He just wanted to get home.

Goddamn it. He just wanted to be home.

“Irina has, somehow, escaped incarceration. We’re not completely sure how she managed to do it but her cell is empty.” Andy gulped. Both of the Emmons’ faces were impervious to this explosive information, their expressions inscrutable. He didn’t know what to make of it.

Andy ploughed on ahead with the rundown he had prepared. “We’re here to set up a team to observe you and deal with Irina if, for some reason, she decides to come here.” He produced a device from his pocket. Thankfully, it had remained dry in his mad dash to the door. “I just need to radio in my team and set up some safety measures for both of you and some procedures if she contacts over the phone or by email.”

Robert Emmons was nodding slowly, thoughtfully. “Whatever you need. We’ll help.” His wife bobbed her head down in a quick show of agreement.

It seemed that his business wouldn’t take long at all. Andy felt himself fighting a relived smile.

“This is what we’ll do…”

For the following half an hour the three of them planned, plotted and set up devices to monitor the house and all communication directed at it. Robert was quiet and gracious, gently helping Andy contact his team with the correct information. Officers were stationed in Irina’s sub-house on the property. Carol made the team steaming hot tea that she served in china cups. Andy much preferred coffee but he was thankful for the warm liquid.

The trio had tied up all the loose ends that they could. Irina had not made any kind of attempt to contact her only family but it paid to be prepared. Andy left hastily, with many promises of contact soon from the team or his superior officer. He had family to see to, he said.

Carol read real panic in the tight lines around his eyes. But she supposed most of the community would feel similarly to the parents of Irina’s intended victims – that they had by luck dodged a bullet the first time round and were pressing their luck this time around.

Andy had been gone quite a long while – nearly half an hour – before Carol decided to address the situation with her husband.

“She won’t be silly enough to call,” Carol muttered, settling back in to resume her programme on the television. “These people don’t know who they’re dealing with. This is Irina, not some drunken idiot who robs or cheats or murders. They haven’t learnt a thing, have they?”

“At least she’s out and about,” responded Robert, with the gleam of amusement in his face. “I didn’t expect her to manage it so soon. The prison must have started downsizing their security staff.”

“People will die, dear,” Carol rebuked softly.

“Not Irina.” And with that final statement, so full of belief that Robert could have been uttering scientific fact, the two of them went back to the activities of the night, as though they had been uninterrupted.

Outside, the storm brewed with growing viciousness and thunder crackled once again in the gloomy sky.

***

Lucy arrived at work with the post-storm worries hanging about in her head. Last night the sounds of the deluge had been frightful. The weather bureau had forecasted even more of the same stupid weather throughout the week. If it hailed suddenly during the day her car would be ruined. She therefore paid the exorbitant parking fee across the road under shelter and negotiated the busy high street traffic before scanning herself into the building.

For the past few months Lucy had finally put her skills in interpretation and sign language to use in a building purpose-built for the disabled and handicapped, specifically in the department which helped the deaf and mute. It was a government agency designed to assist these individuals in their day to day lives, as well as a place to gather, find support and work together. It was always packed, as the nearest organisation like it existed in a completely other city. That was typical of Australia – for such a small country everyone seemed to inhabit the farthest possible corners in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

She had come to love her workplace, despite the grouch of a boss she worked under in the department. It was always full of interesting stories that the people brought in. Deaf culture, she had discovered, was more open and honest than the ‘polite’ vocal society she was used to. The deaf generally said exactly what they thought with no beating around the bush. It was refreshing and at times, absolutely hilarious.

She waved and signed good morning to Sara and Kalpama, the adorable lesbian couple who were seated in the waiting room reading magazines. They were regulars and worked alongside some of the professionals involved in running alcohol and drug abuse programmes. They had met here some years before she had started at the building.

Lucy wondered how difficult it must be, to have not only a disability but also to be lesbian in a world where homosexuals were still snubbed and treated as something mildly vulgar. But the two had been nothing but incredible, very open and sociable, with their own little quirks and a very intimate relationship.

Sara signed back hello beautiful and immediately Lucy felt a new skip in her step. The pair of them noticed the new swagger of happiness and grinned at each other. Kalpama made a joke about Sara cheating on her and Sara tickled her around her ribs as a rebuttal.

Her overseer in the languages division was unusually late, so Lucy took her place at the services desk. It was her job to be a hired hand – not only translating for the deaf and mute that entered the building but also to translate for them at functions and special occasions in several languages. She knew international sign language extremely well, having studied it her whole life. She knew English, German, Spanish and Australian sign language fairly well; she was working on American. Her hobby had become her job. She had also begun teaching children different forms of sign language, a new experience that Lucy found both extremely worrisome and exhilarating.

But sometimes it could be heartbreaking. Huge cities produced swaths of the homeless, the unfortunate and children without support. For those who were deaf or deaf-mute who couldn’t read or write it could be a death-trap. The police brought in groups of children every week who needed help to be understood so that they could find out what had happened to them and why they were wandering the unfriendly streets without a home to go to. It was, regrettably, a regular occurrence. The first few weeks of Lucy’s employment had been a kind of inner struggle with disbelief that anyone could be as cruel and heartless as to abandon their disabled child on the street, simply because they couldn’t hear the world around them. Apparently the department for the blind also collected their share of homeless with nowhere else to go. She didn’t have much to do with them, though.

The first notification of the day was a list of new admissions, half a dozen people the police had referred to the building. Lucy clicked through their profiles as a matter of routine. The profiles were so empty she needn’t have bothered, really. The photos they took on admission interested her though. There was a young man, perhaps around her age. A girl. A woman with extremely curly hair that sprung out absolutely everywhere in her photo. Twins, both very emaciated, one deaf and the other with some form of mental disability the in-nurse couldn’t identify on their first meeting.

Lucy felt that familiar little clench in her chest but she shut the new admissions notification down. At least they were here, where they could get some help. They weren’t alone anymore.

And fortunately, they weren’t like Maggie.

A gentle knock at the door tossed her out of these depressing ruminations.

“You all good to go?” Mickey the administrator called to her. Mickey’s actual named was Rupert but he had been renamed Mickey because someone somewhere had decided he looked like Mickey Mouse. He was short, dark-haired and had those enormous, almost cartoon-like eyes. His teeth shone at her when he spoke. He had the habit of walking all over the building to deliver messages, even though he could page or message anyone from the front counter. He said it stopped him from developing into someone who resembled Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars. Mickey was very hard not to like and as such, he was exceedingly gifted at his job on the front counter. He’d been so kind to Lucy over the past few months, helping her get settled into her new surroundings.

“Yeah, sure. What do we have?”

“Hey Luce,” he lowered his voice a bit and his usual up-beat tone lessened for a moment. “You know you could have had longer off. You didn’t have to come in today. Emma’s just being a bitch, dragging you in. If you need to go home at all…”

His sentence trailed off and Lucy knew what he was insinuating. If she felt too emotional because her dead friend’s birthday was the other day, she could quietly slip away. He wouldn’t tell tales on her if she decided to take this option.

She didn’t know how to explain that this wouldn’t be necessary without sounding extremely cold-hearted.

“I’ll be fine, Mickey. Thanks, though. I appreciate the thought.”

“Okay. Well, you’ve got some interviews for the new folk this morning.”

“Sure. Send them in. I’m good to go.”

“Righto.”

She watched Mickey shut the door behind him and rose from her desk, a little nervous. She rubbed her hands on her blouse and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. There were mugs and the devices for tea and coffee off on one side, next to a new bottle of water. She shifted them around with her hands idly.

It will be fine. You’ll be fine.

She always got like this before meeting a new admission.

There was another tapping at the door and she walked forward, opened it gently and smiled out at the new admissions.

There were two of them – the young man she had seen in the photographs this morning and the little girl. She had her hand in his and Lucy saw that she wasn’t letting go, not for a second. The man seemed a tad embarrassed at the girl trailing along with him.

Lucy beckoned them both in.

He couldn’t sign to her but he could write. He acted out a charade for a pen one handed, still not letting go of the tiny girl’s hand for an instant. Lucy handed her own pad and found a pen from somewhere amongst the clutter in her top drawer.

As he leant over to scrawl rapidly on the pad, Lucy studied the strange pair. It was common for a new admission, particularly if they were young, to come in with a friend or partner if they had one. Sometimes they had siblings or cousins. She guessed that these two weren’t related though. They both appeared a bit unhealthy to her eyes; the girl was shockingly white with a short, boyish crop of hair and he was awkwardly lanky, like a foal, with broad features and lots of freckles. The little girl might be a touch Asian somewhere in her genetic makeup but her closed and reserved little face was definitely European. On the other hand, he had bronzed skin and gem-like eyes. No, definitely not related, not even distantly, Lucy decided. Not even a little bit.

The young man finally stopped scribbling madly and rotated the pad around so Lucy could read what he had written.

My name is Tomek and I don’t know what the girl’s name is she hasn’t spoken and can’t hear I checked we were picked up by police in the ninth district and im kind of a drifter but I came in with this girl because im worried about her she can’t remember when she last ate and won’t really comunicate with anybody but im not leaving until she gets some help if that’s ok with you

Its nice to meet you I can sort of read lips the man outside called you Lucy

Lucy finished reading and stared at Tomek openly. He couldn’t have been much older than her at all and he had just found this little girl and decided to get her help? The situation was a bit odd, to say the least.

She picked up the pen and paper, unconsciously biting her lower lip as she wrote in large, neat font.

Hi Tomek, it’s nice to meet you too. I am Lucy. Did you show the police any identification so that we can confirm who you are? We just need it for the records.

Where did you find this girl? Do you have any idea of where she’s from or what’s happened to her?

Tomek scanned her carefully written words and rummaged around in a back pocket of his thoroughly worn-out jeans for a moment, one-handed.

Lucy took this time to study the girl. She was so immobile, staring mutely at the wall behind Lucy’s head. From the way she sat, bundled in the seat with her lax body and disinterested expression, Lucy wondered if the girl hadn’t been involved in some kind of trauma. Surely a tiny child’s face shouldn’t be so vacant and serious? And she seemed so detached from everything… Everything except Tomek’s hand. Definitely, she would be referred out to a child psychologist. She reminded Lucy of one of those old-fashioned dolls she had found staring out from the corners of Nicolo’s gelato store. They creeped her out just a bit.

Tomek placed a bunch of cards on her desk. One of them, thankfully, was a current driver’s license. He took up the pen and paper again and began to write furiously.

Lucy carefully typed his details into her database while he wrote an answer, praying that the nice-seeming man in front of her wasn’t wanted by the police for a crime. She let the machine search while she read his reply.

I found her on the corner of ninth she was just sleeping in the gutter and I didn’t know what to do but she was even thinner than she is now and so I just dropped some food in her lap it wasn’t much but she woke up and ate it so fast and saw me and started crying and I was scared she was so hungry the food was making her feel sick and I wrote something down and she just stared at it she didn’t say a word she didn’t hear the police talking to her when I walked her to the station the nurse tried to speak to her and signed and everything and she still hasn’t made any attempt to let me know even her name and im very afraid for her I know that sounds weird but I think im the only person she has, she doesn’t seem to have anybody else can you help her?

When Lucy got to the last sentence the little girl started tugging on Tomek’s arm, making a tiny whining sound that he obviously couldn’t hear. But Lucy could; it sounded like a baby animal in pain. She jerked her head up, concerned. Tomek wrote bathroom on the corner of her notebook.

“Down the hall, to the left, last door,” she said, slowly and clearly. Without thinking, she signed it too. It was just something she did automatically.

And the girl signed back thank you.

Tomek’s eyes went round and grew as wide as pennies. Lucy, after a moment of shock, signed hello back to the girl. The girl signed it back then she got off her chair and walked out of the open door, on her way to the bathroom.

Will she be ok to find the bathroom? Lucy wrote quickly to Tomek.

Yes she will was that sign language?

Yeah she knows some basic signs I think.

Tomek grinned. His smile was tinged with just a bit of relief.

Lucy’s mind raced. Where would the little girl have picked up sign language? It’s not like they just taught it at schools or on the street, for that matter. Other deaf people, maybe? But in Lucy’s experience, it was difficult to teach someone who couldn’t read or write the language of signs because it took much longer to associate meaning to the gestures. How had the nurse missed this?

Did the nurse or police try sign language with her? Lucy scrawled to Tomek.

He shook his head, his expression embarrassed. He wrote back I never learnt it so I didn’t know how to just underneath her line.

Lucy pondered this. The nurse, if she was attached to this department, should have tried to sign to the girl. It was just standard procedure. But lots of children admitted were frightened of nurses and doctors and wouldn’t speak to them, no matter how they tried to appeal to the child. Perhaps that was the case here.

Suddenly she was back at the doorway, quickly stepping back and retaking Tomek’s hand, sitting back in the chair and now fixing that oddly blank look on Lucy.

What is your name? Lucy signed, carefully, keeping it simple enough for the girl to understand.

I-N-D-I-A the little girl signed back, spelling the letters out on her hands. Lucy bent down and wrote this to Tomek, who smiled and squeezed India’s hand a little. India brought their hands closer to her chest as though reassuring herself that Tomek was still there.

Hello India. I am Lucy. This is Tomek. How old are you? Lucy kept it simple again. India let go once more of Tomek to show all ten fingers and then repeated the gesture to show six more.

Sixteen? Lucy’s head reeled at the revelation. Tomek’s shock was obvious too. They shared a concerned look but neither of them felt the need to have to write anything. She was sixteen? Lucy had assumed that she was much, much younger. She wondered if India actually was sixteen, or was just trying to say that she was older now that she found herself in a world of grown-ups. The tiny child in front of them was sixteen? It was madness.

Lucy came to a decision.

This is what I’m going to do, Lucy wrote. She obviously feels safe with you. I’ll write a recommendation to the police that she stays near you in our shared housing. I’m sending her to a child psychologist for evaluation and I’m going to request that she allow you into the session too, if India wants that. It will be in sign language, as much as possible. Is all of this alright with you?

Tomek read her words. She watched the burden of responsibility and worry weigh down on his expressive face. It was a lot for anyone to take in. His one act of charity to a child had somehow led to him being responsible for her welfare. Anyone would be scared of the task. Tomek took up the pen reluctantly.

I guess so but I don’t think im going to be any good at this I can only just look after me and now I have to look after a kid I mean I know she’s 16 but she obviously needs serious help

Lucy’s response was very quick.

There’s lots of support here Tomek. You don’t have to do it alone. When India feels comfortable enough you can go on your way, if you want. You’re an adult. You can make your own choices here. We won’t stop you.

Tomek read and put the paper down slowly. India was still fixedly staring at Lucy’s face, as though the answers of the universe were somewhere to be found there. He considered the girl who clutched his hand tightly and something like pain rippled across his face. Lucy watched him sigh, a long rising breath that lifted his whole chest. He suddenly appeared much older than his twenty-seven years to her.

I’ll stay until she’s ok thank you Lucy he responded at last.

The rest of the session passed with Lucy giving Tomek information on the various services offered at the building and how to get around to them. Mainly, she just gave him brochures to read with some notes she scrawled on the front of them about what he should look for in the pamphlet in regards to both himself and for India. She updated his file and noted with relief that the criminal history check had come back clean. She sent emails to the child psychologist and housing commission administration.

At the end of the session, Lucy wished Tomek well and he pulled India to her feet softly. She went without hesitation, completely trusting the man she had attached herself to. Before the pair departed Lucy signed good bye India to the little girl. She stopped, tugged her hand out of Tomek’s grasp for a moment and gestured a very basic see you later to Lucy. That made Tomek smile, if a little sadly. Lucy wrote one final thing down for the man.

If you would like to, there are sign language courses here for beginners. You and India could do one together she suggested.

Tomek appeared to love the idea. He nodded and waved a soft charade - goodbye. Lucy let them out the door without any further fuss.

With the pair of them out of the room and now completely alone Lucy blew out all of the pent up pity she had built up in the session. She tossed her hair back over her shoulder and slumped against the wall. Jesus. Done. She wished, perhaps irrationally, that Naffy could come into the office right at that moment and see her like this. He’d know what to do. She didn’t know what to do with herself. She was just… dazed. Dull. It was as though someone had cut off all her ties to everything and left her deadened.

Does this have something to do with Maggie’s birthday, she wondered idly, or am I just… drifting?

She’d heard of plenty of workers who became so desensitised to the emotional content of the job that they went home at night and sat there watching reality television until they fell asleep, unable to experience any kind of feeling for anything. There was no way Lucy wanted to end up like that.

I feel things, she argued with herself. Look at Naffy. She recalled their ice-cream filled afternoon of yesterday and felt her lips curl into a smile. He made her feel lucky. He made her feel embarrassed at how much she was in love with him already.

She poured herself a cup of coffee and added way more sugar than she normally took. The aroma made her mouth water and just the warmth of it on her fingers made her believe that she would in fact be alright. That Tomek could look after India. That somehow, there would be happy endings all round.

So where did she go from here?

She sat down and texted a cute message to Naffy then, revitalised, she set to work on her computer. Mickey caught her smiling to herself when he walked down the corridor and happened to glance into her open room. He, satisfied that she would get through the day, went away whistling.

***

Andy Bryson woke up to the sound of Clara counting obsessively, yet again, in that same hushed growl he’d been hearing nearly all night before he had drifted asleep.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…”

He could hear her through the wall that separated the study, where she was insisting on sleeping, from their main bedroom. Andy sighed heavily, the weight of it rattling through his entire body. It did nothing to calm him.

Not again. We have to get her out of the house…

“One, two, three…”

Clara’s fear of Irina had manifested into some sort of paranoid compulsion with numbers and placements. It had begun with fairly innocent fears and requests – that there were strange people outside, that she could shut and lock doors – but it had progressed into something far more concerning. Now she couldn’t enter the room if there were more than seven chairs, or the windows were obscured from the doorway, or if there were too many steps between the wall and the door. She’d been measuring the whole house with her footsteps to see where she could ‘safely” walk and where she refused to tread. She’d moved furniture around by herself, dragging and lining up things with a half-crazed wildness in her face that neither of her parents liked.

Andy rubbed his face tiredly. His stubble scratched against his palm. He couldn’t even think to shave; there were too many other pressing issues on his mind - all of them to do with his daughter.

I can’t even tell her there’s nothing to be afraid of because there is, there really is and she’d see through that. It would only reinforce the danger she feels. It will make things even worse.

He could hardly stretch his imagination to figure what she would look like if she got even worse.

Dayna seemed to be able to calm her, but only intermittently. She had a way with Clara he didn’t understand. Yesterday she’d been able to eat dinner at the table like they normally did, even watched a bit of television. Some stupid superhero movie, that’s what they’d watched. But it was getting harder to get anything across to Clara. The counting had gone on, obsessively, through the entire night. Andy was worried they would have to call in a response team if the paranoia started getting to the stage where she became liable to hurt herself.

But at the moment, it was counting and arranging…

“…five, six, seven. No, no, no. No. No more than seven! Seven!”

He hauled himself out of bed and out into the corridor.

He found Clara next door, trying to walk along the wall, pressed so closely to the plaster that she almost appeared to be doing a bizarre tight-rope walk along the floor. Her hair was dishevelled and looked oily. She hadn’t bothered to shower in days now, he figured.

“Sweetheart. Can I get you some breakfast?” Andy kept his voice low and even – his daughter now startled easily.

She glanced up, quickly, agitated. Clara glared at him. It was a scrutinising look he associated with people who knew a face but were struggling to put a name to the person they were looking at. It badly frightened him, right down to his core.

Dear god, please don’t say she’s forgotten me… Please, not Clara, she has to know who I am…

“Seven. As long as it’s seven. I don’t care what it is. Seven is safe. Multiples of seven are safe,” she responded. Andy took this as an affirmative and walked downstairs hastily to fix her something, his mind and heart both racing.

Holy hell, what do I do? Could I check her into hospital? I don’t think she’d like that. I don’t know whether she’d feel comfortable being taken out of home. And, well, Dayna wouldn’t like it. She thinks we can manage. But she’s… deteriorating. We need help. That psychologist. I could give her another call. But I just want to keep her safe. I need to keep my girl safe.

He was ashamed of the prickle of tears he felt in his eyes when he thought this through. If he was being honest, he couldn’t guarantee his daughter’s safety here. Not with her vanishing into the study, counting the footsteps from one wall to the next. Physically, maybe she could be kept away from Irina Sinclair or anyone else who might want to do her harm.

But what about her mind? How could he keep her safe from her own fear and distress?

He found Dayna making tea in the kitchen.

“We should call the psychologist,” she told him, ignoring a greeting or a comforting word. He could read the rings around her eyes and the hunched set of her shoulders as well as he could read a prisoner his rights. She was fatigued beyond anything she’d ever felt before. It hurt him to see her like that. But he didn’t point out how badly she needed sleep, he just agreed with his wife.

“I’m going to make her something to eat. Can you make the call?”

Dayna cradled the cup of tea to her chest. He knew his wife’s every mannerism like favourite lines in a well-beloved book. That gesture was defensive. She was aching but god love her, she’d make that call for her daughter. She’d do anything for her daughter.

“Do you think I did the right thing?” he suddenly asked her. The words were out before he could think twice.

“What?”

“Leaving Sinclair… She escaped. Do you think maybe if I’d have…?”

“You’re not a killer, Andrew.” Dayna’s voice was tiny but resolute. She was now fishing through her pockets for her mobile phone. “You wouldn’t have shot that woman. That’s not how you treat people, not even villains. And you couldn’t have known she’d get out of prison. It’s not your fault.”

Andy took this with a slight nod. It was something to ponder over later. Right now, his girl was hungry and he had to make her something with seven in it so that she’d eat it.

As he selected food he was forcibly reminded of when she was little, grade one or two, and he would have to ask her what shape to cut her sandwiches into. It would change from day to day – triangles, squares, just in half so that they were rectangles… Get it wrong and she’d refuse to eat it and cry like you’d just broken her heart. He had been so careful of her back then.

Dayna called Doctor Appleton and as Andy chopped up fruit, he heard desperation creep into his wife’s voice.

“Yes… She’s begun doing strange things to make herself feel safe… Oh, just habits like counting steps and rearranging furniture. Nothing too dangerous. She’s terrified of windows and doorways… Yes. As soon as possible. Three o’clock? Yes please… Thank you… We will do that. Thanks. See you very soon.”

The knife in Andy’s hand suddenly felt very slippery with perspiration. He realised he was sweating and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. Rockmelon juice dripped down his arm as he did so.

Dayna turned and sipped her tea delicately. Every move she made was like that, Andy thought worriedly. She moved so slowly and carefully, as though she was about to fall apart.

“She’ll be here at three. She thinks the paranoia is treatable. Until then, we just have to keep her calm. Doctor Appleton said let her count if she wants, if it keeps her from too much distress.”

Andy grunted a kind of acknowledgement. He had finished his little fruit platter. Seven fruits cut into seven pieces. That should console Clara for a while and he would feel better knowing she had some nourishment in her. She’d always preferred fruit and yoghurt for breakfast anyway.

Dayna slumped into a chair. She was so exhausted he doubted she’d stay awake long enough to finish her tea.

“Lie on the sofa,” he told her gently. “Take it easy until then. I’ll keep an eye on her.”

His wife shot him a grateful look and lumbered over to the sofa, collapsing in a heap against the cushions, her hair splayed out behind her like a beautiful fan. Andy fervently hoped that after a few hours of unconsciousness, some of that fragility would leave his wife and she would move around with more confidence and vigour. It was enough having one woman in the house cringing at every noise. It was another to have them both moving as though they were composed of fine china. He felt like soon he’d be bubble-wrapping them both.

That image came with a drop of humour as he tried to picture Dayna enclosed in bubble-wrap trying to lie on the sofa. He couldn’t smile though. Smiling was far beyond his faculties at this point.

He carefully cradled the platter to his chest. Clara would want to eat upstairs in the room she had counted the most ‘safe’ steps in. Andy mounted the stairs slowly, with no desire to drop everything and have to start his precise meal all over again.

As an encouraging sight, he found Clara actually sitting in the office chair at the family desk, scrawling away on a piece of paper.

“Hey sweetie.”

Clara didn’t even glance his way but her head picked up a bit, a classic sign that she had heard him.

“I have your breakfast.”

Her hand, which had been scratching away with a pen rapidly, came to a halt. He walked over and placed the platter in front of her.

“Is it alright sweetheart? It has seven pieces on it. I can make you something else if you don’t feel like fruit…”

She astonished him with a totally unexpected, wide, toothy grin.

“It’s perfect daddy. Thank you.”

Andy stood there, soaking in her satisfaction. He felt weak with relief and watched eagerly as she bit into a slice if banana with gusto. Thank god. Thank god she was eating.

“I’ll be next door in my room. Just yell if you need anything, anything at all, okay?”

She gave him a firm nod and went back to scratching words on the pad. He didn’t read them. He could of but he didn’t. He was too afraid. He just wanted to be grateful she was eating. That was all. But the words may have crushed that little bit of contentment. So he averted his gaze and walked back out the way he had come.

Clara wrote and wrote and wrote, pausing only to seize a bit of fruit to cram into her mouth. At first, her stomach moaned and protested, cramping against the food which it had craved so much but as she ate faster, the pain went away. She slurped at the juice. Watermelon coated her lips, potent as lipstick. The sugar of the fruits stuck her fingers together and slicked under her nails. And still, despite all of this, she just kept scribbling away…

I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry I never told the truth, I should have, so many times. I’m left feeling like there’s a huge beast inside me, heavy and hot with guilt, that I can’t just ignore or push away anymore. Seven. Seven beats with seven claws and seven growling faces. So I’m sorry for everything I’ve done that hurt anybody. I really should have been more careful. But it hurts and I think it’s nearly over and just in case it is I want to say that I love you Aunty Grace and Uncle Davis, Billie and Tony and the little cousin I never got to meet. Aunty Susan and her lovely partner Justine, thank you so much for teaching me what it is to be a great woman. Seven people I will miss.Uncle Christian, thank you for your amazing presents every year and that Christmas where we saw snow for the first time. I’ll never forget that. Seven years ago. I love you all my friends – Christie-Lee and Leilani and Jemma and Maddie and Selbi and Mischa and Jarrad and James and Ally and Rachelle, Flo, David, Steve and even though I haven’t spoken to you in ages, Marissa. Thank you all so much. Thank you Jason.I love you mom. I’m so sorry. I love you dad. I’ll miss you all so much. Seven, seven, seven, seven, seven, seven, SEVEN –

***

Marcus was aggressively searching through his things, searching for one tiny item that he swore he hadn’t thrown away but still had no idea where it could have ended up. He was sweating, torn between a deepening kind of horror of what he thought was true but couldn’t prove and a growing fury that was terrifying.

Where is it? Where is it? WHERE THE HELL DID I PUT THAT THING?

He tore of the top of a nail with the force of his digging. He felt it in a sudden tug and a pinprick of pain. Without even thinking, he stuffed his finger into his mouth, sucked away the pain and blood that welled up and just kept going. He was obsessed, full of the idea Jason had put in his head with his story, driven by a scientist’s need to corroborate, to confirm. Where had he left it?

Come on!

He was a meticulous filer. It was a habit born partly out of practise for his professional work and partly ingrained into him from his obsessively organised parents. But while he could lay his hands on any file he had happened to write or read in the past two years; the item in question was not a document. It was an object that was much smaller and much less important. He hadn’t thrown it away though, he was certain of it. He never threw out gifts. It seemed disrespectful. And, he thought with a jolt, this one had been especially hand-made.

… “I despise people who dog-ear books, or crush the spines of them, simply to keep a page!”

“You can’t always have a bookmark with you, though,” Irina had laughed. “I read everywhere. I’d need an everlasting supply stuffed in my pockets constantly.”

“I had a great one. Metal. I stuck it on my keys for a while but as time went on I broke the damn thing. It was far too flimsy. My textbooks crushed it.”

“Well, clearly you need a new one, if you’re getting so antsy about other people’s bookmarking habits.” Irina had smiled, gently teasing. “I should make you one.”

“You make bookmarks now?”

“I used to make all sorts of things with my aunt. She’s a real guru at arts and crafts… Jewellery, candles, bags…Our house is full of projects we started and never sold or bits of material we didn’t need in the end.”

“And when on earth would you have time to do that, amongst your coursework?” He had ribbed back, not really taking the offer seriously.

“Oh, I’ll find something tucked away that I never finished…”

The very next day she had stayed back after the lecture and produced a slim, black cardboard box, tied up with a single thread of silver ribbon. It looked elegant. He handled it with care.

“What’s this?”

“Something so that you won’t be so frustrated by your bibliophilic needs.”

He had untied the slim ribbon and lifted the lid to reveal a shining silver, white and black bookmark lying in a very soft fabric. It was shaped something like a shepard’s crook, hooked over at the top and weighted more at the base, perfect for setting between pages. A tiny pendant hung from the tip of the crook. As he gingerly removed the precious present from its fabric he caught sight of a precious stone glittering from the pendant. It was shaped into a symbol he was familiar with. An academic scroll, partly unfurled. It was astonishingly detailed.

“God, Irina. This is incredible. You made this yourself?” He was touched at the obvious effort she had gone to. It was an astonishing item. Sold in a store, it would make a good amount of money.

She nodded. “The stone is a castoff from something I made years ago. It’s been rattling around in one of my drawers for ages. A bit of leftover quartz. The bookmark I made last night and then just hooked the two together. I just used what was lying around. It wasn’t hard.”

His jaw had dropped and he stammered, “It’s amazing. Thank you so much.”

Irina had smiled kindly. “It was no trouble. A one-of-a-kind creation, just for you.”

“Okay, well, I’ll remember to complain more often about things I need around you in future,” he joked. It was one of kind. He felt very privileged and he wondered why he was so stunned at her craftsmanship - she was so naturally gifted at everything else she displayed even a moderate interest in. Why hadn’t he extended that to arts and crafts too?

He had taken it home and decided to save it for special readings, or drafts of his new textbook and publications. It became a kind of talisman in his mind – a gift to be used only for unique and special things, not the mundane task of day to day reading. But it had become lost amongst the bits and bobs he had collected from various places and the only time he had used it was to read a very good copy of The Divine Comedy before it disappeared…

Silver, he remembered. It had been made mostly of some silver-coloured metal. Light and firm. But Jason’s story had added a nasty possibility… Particularly as he remembered that one side of it had been white and black…

It has to be here! If I could just hold it in my hand!

The drawers had been torn apart, their contents scattered everywhere, like a tornado had ravaged the room. His cupboards had been treated likewise. Every nook or cranny where he had left things before in any state of absentmindedness had been thoroughly searched. That just left the bookcase and his living room.

He raced through the corridor, turning over the possibilities. He never would have left it at the university, not even in his own office. There was so much theft in the departments, either from students or other staff members’ ‘borrowing’ habits that he never left anything important there unless forced to. It could be in the car somewhere, he supposed. The glove box, perhaps. Or shoved into a seat pocket...

If only he could remember what he had done with it!

He ran his hands over his bookshelves, feeling between the books, drifting his fingers over the back of each pigeonhole where books were stored. He stood on a chair to search from the top down. Marcus was slowly getting coated in dust but he didn’t care. The only thing he cared about was inspecting his gift from Irina to see if it could possibly contain the same…

And then he hit something flat and metal with his fingers. He froze, arm extended before pulling it out between two books with his fingers. The familiar flash of blue quartz caught his eye. He sat right there on the carpet and scrapped off layers of dust and grime with his thumb. Surely, it couldn’t be…

He saw the white. He glimpsed the black stained material covered in metal. But that whiteness hadn’t been painted on at all. It had been made with some white material. At the time he hadn’t thought to inspect how she’d made the thing, just marvelled at its perfection and how smart it looked. But now, that white material…

He tapped it with his nails. He tried to chip it and felt a layer of lacquer or something similar.

So white. It could be stone or even wood. It could be.

“The bookmark I made last night… I just hooked the two together… I just used what was lying around…”

Jason and Clara hadn’t stumbled across Irina’s secret by accident. Jason’s story, just incredible enough for Marcus to doubt, was that one of Clara’s friends had bought jewellery from Irina’s aunt years ago. Clara had glimpsed this precious piece one day and was determined to find out how it was made. She had been piqued at Irina’s talents and wanted to show her friend out simple and trashy the item really was. Pulling it apart in a fit of irate frustration, she’d made an extraordinary discovery. They had been covering bone and bone marrow in her human biology laboratory that week, otherwise the possibility would never have occurred to her. But, according to Clara, part of the bracelet consisted of human bone.

Of course, it was not an easy thing to distinguish bone from anything else. It was another gigantic assumption to propose that this bone was also human in origin. Marcus only knew a few things about testing bones for their identity. It had something to do with canals and whether the structure was consistent with humans or animals. He also knew it was easier to judge an entire bone for its origin rather than a tiny fragment of one. Deciding categorically whether the material in his bookmark was part of one of Irina’s victims would have to be conducted in a laboratory.

What bone would be good for a bookmark anyway?

His internal monologue scoffed at him, trying to make light of the whole situation. He turned the bookmark over and over in his hands. But no more staring at the tiny line of white in the metal revealed anything to him. The scientist in him, however, presented a morbid answer.

How about the end of a rib, Marcus?

The shape would be about right, he supposed. He ran a finger down its length.

But it was still so small.

How about a child’s rib, Marcus?

He dropped the horrid thing to the floor. It clattered against the carpeted floor without too much noise. He was disgusted with himself for entertaining these notions.

But she had ample access to bodies, including their bones. Bone is hard to get rid of. It would have been so innocent, to use it as a very unique part of her jewellery creation. Weren’t some of the earliest pieces of jewellery made of bone and wood? She would know this.

He shuddered at the thought. But his mind would not stop there.

Jason said Clara found the bone and went to confront Irina about it. How would that have ended, do you think, professor?

He knew of Clara only a little, as Jason’s friend mostly. Sustaining a great relationship with his students, Marcus had unwilling been privy to all sorts of information on their relationships and weekend parties and the various goings on amongst them all.

She wanted to be a nurse, apparently. Decent grades but not outstanding ones. Mostly he heard about her extravagant parties and the physical attributes of her person that his male students found so desirable. She was easy to irritate, according to rumour. A loud, obnoxious drunk who became increasingly flirtatious with more tequila. She had been tear-streaked, the picture of innocence, at court. Her perfectly made-up face had appeared on dozens of news reports. Her portrait had been in the paper on her miraculous rescue. Jason’s hobby of photography meant he had snapped some quite good images of her in the past. He had described her as ‘really hot’ on more than one occasion that Marcus could recall.

Marcus Finnegan conjured up the scene in his head. He imagined the blonde, pretty woman walking cautiously up to Irina at the coffee shop she was known to frequent. He could see Irina much more clearly – typical no-nonsense outfit, nose in a thick book, phone set just so on the table, caramel mocha perched next to it. The steam from the hot drink curling into the air. He imagined the sweet, strong smell of it, the way Irina would inhale the smell and the liquid in one long draught before setting it back in place. She savoured her intake of coffee; caffeine was the only drug she was partial to.

He imagined Clara approaching and taking a seat. She would toss her hair back over her shoulder impetuously to attract Irina’s notice. Irina would have stopped, her eyes would have moved in that characteristic flick over Clara’s whole form, taking in the data, analysing her opponent.

But for the life of him, he could not see any further than that. What would Clara have said? How would Irina have responded? How did they get from there to where Clara told Jason she was on the verge of something that would shock the world, rattle everything they knew until the entire planet swung off its axis in shock? How had Irina betrayed herself to that girl?

Every criminal who makes a foolish error can be caught.

Marcus bit back a curse as he thought it through.

Irina doesn’t make foolish errors.

Well, until the point where she apparently spilled the beans to Clara Bryson, of all people.

The rest of Jason’s narrative deviated so far from what he had told the police and the press and the courts that Marcus was determined to start from the beginning and take it step by step.

Put the puzzle back together, piece by piece.

Only he hoped it wouldn’t be grisly human puzzles of bone fragments. If he got to that point, he’d have to get the forensics involved. This was something he wanted to do for himself, so that he could look himself in the mirror every morning and not feel that crippling guilt that he had been so blind.

She fooled everyone.

 That wasn’t a good enough excuse.

“They killed themselves.”

How on earth could that be possible? Could she have meant that these people had discovered her secret and therefore had to be eliminated? Their knowledge made them forfeit their lives? No. He hoped that hadn’t been what she had meant.

Marcus slammed a frustrated fist onto the carpet, next to the bookmark and gritted his teeth.

How was he still justifying her actions to himself? Why was he still hoping that she was somehow innocent? She was convicted. The police had found physical evidence of these bodies and linked them back to Irina. They had found her dungeon of horrors, bits of corpse and blood, things she had tried to incinerate but which had remained. A fingerprint. DNA. The scenario had been laid out in detail to the jury. Every shred of evidence shrieked against Marcus, telling him to shut up, man up and face facts.

She was a serial killer.

In that moment, Marcus decided he wanted to get drunk. Not just hazy but rip-roaring, totally hopelessly drunk. He wanted to black out and wake up the next morning with a blinding hangover. He wanted to pump loud music and forget himself.

But if experience had taught him anything, it was that when you really wanted to get drunk, you found it the hardest to do so. And there was Mrs. Carpenter upstairs to consider. She wouldn’t take too kindly to him blaring Arctic Monkeys until late into the night.

“They killed themselves.”

“Goddamn it, HOW?” Marcus spat out through his clenched jaw. “How. The. Fuck. Did. You. Do. It?”

Disgusted, exasperated beyond all endurance, Marcus pulled himself up off the floor. He would go to the laboratory tomorrow and get this sample tested for bone. He would take this to the police. Jason was home, safe and being watched by his own private guard of officers. He would call that prison supervisor and demand a little information about the evidence. He had options. He was not going to sit here dejected on the floor and mope about not knowing the answers just yet. That was not how he faced things.

Yet, Marcus reached for his wine cabinet and after a minute of rummaging, found a bottle of decent Scotch. He poured himself a small cola and poured a hefty amount of the Scotch into it. He put his IPod on its dock and put on some quiet, reflective music. And he sat amongst the turmoil of his scattered papers and belongings, toying with his bookmark and drinking the alcohol for a very, very long time before sleep overcame him.

DANCING UNDERNEATH THE RADAR, A CANDLE BEHIND A BUSHEL

New clothes felt extremely weird. Tomek grinned at that thought as he rubbed his hand over the brand new set of flannel pyjamas he had been given. They weren’t anything much to look at but they would keep him warm and they were so new the starch in them was making the creases impossible to eliminate. And they were his. It was nice to have something new.

They had placed India in an adjacent room. Tomek dressed quickly, yanking his shirt over his head and slipping into the pyjamas. On second thoughts, the shirt and pants were probably too hot to wear together; that flannel was extraordinarily thick. He jumped into the pants and put on one of his own singlets. The rooms, barely furnished as they were, kept in the heat like nothing else. His blanket seemed pretty hefty. The singlet would be much more comfortable.

Once he had managed to dress himself, he crossed the room and opened the door where he found India, just about to push the door open.

Tomek grinned down at her. They’d supplied her with new pyjamas too but unlike Tomek with his backpacker swag that never left his side, her new pyjamas were seemingly the only things she owned. He wondered how old the clothes she had been wearing were. The thought was exceedingly unpleasant. He had seen the yellowing, used quality her clothes had possessed. The contemplation melted the smile off his face.

She tugged at him gently. She wanted to show him her room, it seemed, as she pulled him to the corridor and pointed across the hall.

Tomek scanned the corridors nervously. Even the responsible workers of the housing commission had given him suspicious looks when he had arrived with a sixteen-year-old girl in tow. It didn’t help that she appeared at first glance to be even younger. He must look like their worst idea of a criminal, a pervert or, at the very least, a complete weirdo, taking advantage of a young girl in a bad place.

He didn’t blame them. He was deaf but he understood their attitude quite clearly. If he had seen a stranger with India in tow, he probably would have entertained the same disgusted thoughts. Tomek could feel their disapproval even here, where there was no one about, like barbs on his skin. They made him wary.

A fine way to end up – getting locked up or branded a paedophile for trying to help a starving girl.

He followed her but did not enter her room. He stood, arms crossed, leaning against the frame of her door.

She didn’t seem to mind. She walked around the room and pointed at different things while he nodded – yes I see. Very nice. Finally she sat cross-legged on the bed and just gave him a small, triumphant smile as if to say ‘and now I’m here. In my room.’

He grinned back. Tomek mimed falling asleep, with his hands as a makeshift pillow under his head, then waved his good night. He pointed at himself and then at his bedroom door.

She watched him leave with eyes that reminded him of a cat. Not arrogant, not fearful – just watchful. Always watchful, especially in the darkness. When he made it all the way to his room without her running after him he shut the door – not all the way but he still shut it – and lay on his bed, thinking.

It was his habit, to wander. The wanderlust would set in like an itch he badly needed to scratch, with accompanying thoughts of greener pastures. He always intended to find somewhere he might stay and make something of himself but not yet. Always that little ‘not yet’ in his head. And the itch. The itch that wouldn’t quit.

Not that it was easy. Not many people would hire a deaf man for anything. But he had managed once he learnt who to ask and where to go in an unfamiliar place where he might find some form of work. He had found himself in the back of many restaurants, washing dishes and cleaning floors. He had been a janitor many times, reading the instructions his employer left him. He had stacked boxes. Picked fruit. Walked through council properties, checking fences. He was handy with a hammer and a spade. He’d planted gardens and helped the elderly in a nursing home on one occasion. Always, it was just a way for him to make a little bit of cash, to move on.

Thankfully, there were not many who could make good conversation with a deaf man, especially one who had never bothered to learn sign language. It wasn’t his fault, really. The blame for it should probably be laid on his mother who didn’t want her ‘special’ child taking separate lessons to be marked out as ‘different’ because he had to speak with his hands. She had never really come to grips with the reality of her child, born deaf and mute. He never wrote or sent messages to her. He knew where she lived if he ever felt the need to find her.  

But that wasn’t entirely fair either, Tomek thought, rolling over in his bed. Some of the blame should be levelled on him. He hadn’t wanted to learn sign language. He was content to read and write. As a kid, he’d never had the foresight to judge that it might make things harder in the long run. Not many people had the patience to write out whole conversations to him. He could read lips but then his side of the conversation became limited to nods and shakes without the flow of sentences and script. There weren’t many Lucys about, in his experience.

There. The name had intruded at last. Lucy. If it hadn’t have been for her he would have dumped little India with the department, never knowing her name, never forging this attachment that he had felt so keenly in her office. She had seen him, never given him the reproachful looks of the people here in the housing commission, hadn’t pitied him for his disability like so many others. She had asked him for his story. And she had listened to it. She had seen in him something he had only developed since entering her office – responsibility. He was here to help India.

Yet if he was completely honest with himself he mused, rolling onto his back and lacing his fingers together behind his head, he wanted to stay here for a while. Learn sign language. ‘Talk’ with other deafs. Learn what had happened to India. See Lucy again.

He shook his head, appalled at himself. Lucy probably had someone. There was no way a girl like that would be alone in the world. Nope. Besides, he was a ‘client’. Someone she couldn’t date, even if she wanted to. Who was he kidding? He was a stupid, deaf idiot. She would have no interest in him anyway. It was better not to want what he couldn’t have. Better to ignore these stupid feelings. She was pretty, sure. But there was nothing more to it than that.

He unlaced his fingers and grabbed his pillow. It was surprisingly comfortable here. He thought that the mattress would be rubbish, but it was pretty soft. Or perhaps he was just exhausted. He felt like all of the stress of the day had caught up with him finally. There was this throbbing at his temples he didn’t like.

The last thought he had before he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep was that India wouldn’t need him in the night. He hoped she slept soundly. Then he was lost.

***

Jason’s entire head felt like it was vibrating. His ear drums were on the verge of bleeding. He had his best headphones on and was pumping dubstep as loudly as his laptop would go directly into his skull. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t feel anything except the bass. It was oddly cathartic.

He had let the police officers into his house and he knew they were killing time, watching television or something. He had asked them if he could be left alone in his room and they had agreed, with worried glances at each other.

“Let us know if we can do anything for you,” the taller of the two, the one Jason was starting to refer to as B1 in his mind, said. It wasn’t particularly tactful to refer to the officers as members of Bananas in Pyjamas, but the way they were dressed and the fact that they were both slim, tall and balding had done it to him.

As they looked towards each other, exchanging meaningful glances, Jason imagined that they were the cartoon characters talking to each other silently.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, B1?”

“I think I am thinking what you’re thinking, B2.”

B2 was only slightly shorter. He had some sort of accent Jason couldn’t place.

“Do you have someone you’d like to call, just to be here with you?” B2 had enquired. Jason noticed he couldn’t quite meet his eyes when speaking to him.

“No. Thanks. I’d just like to be by myself.”

And without any more discussion, Jason had shut himself away and pulled out his headphones.

Jason had thought about leaving. With Irina Sinclair around, he knew sleep or rest or anything ‘normal’ would be out of the question. He would have a B1 and a B2 marking him until someone caught up with her. The prospect was loathsome.

But where could he go? Well, he could just pull out all his cash and run, take a cheap plane at the airport to wherever. Just get on and leave. He didn’t even need to know his destination. He could leave the whole country behind. He’d heard Thailand was a nice place to visit. Bali, maybe. Somewhere in the sun. Somewhere with cheap alcohol and a beach. Screw the cops. Screw everyone. Screw the system. It would just be him and the sunshine and cool drinks and swimming and maybe some gorgeous women.

He toyed with the idea but there was something in him that was too afraid to take the leap and commit to it.

He yanked off the headphones and paused the song he’d been listening to. Everything hummed. He coughed and couldn’t hear himself properly; it was just a vibration somewhere down his throat. He laughed at that and whoa, if he thought the cough was weird, the echoing distant sound of his laughter was absolutely bizarre. It was as though someone had stuck his chuckles down one end of a long, dark tunnel and he was receiving them from the other side.

After a little while when the atmosphere of sounds started to get a little closer to how it had been before he had cranked his music up, he picked up his mobile and phoned Clara. He guessed she probably wouldn’t pick up but it was worth a shot.

One ring.

He heard from somewhere in the house B1 muttering about something on a radio.

Two rings.

Three rings.

Come on Clara, answer. It’s just me.

Four rings.

Five rings.

A click.

“Hello? This is Dayna, Clara’s mother.”

“Hello Mrs Bryson. It’s Jason.”

Clara’s mother had been very taken with him since the whole Irina incident. Her voice brightened on the other end of the line.

“Jason! I’m so sorry, Clara just had a… well, health session. She’s not really in a…”

A scratching sound on the other end. The bump of the receiver. Clara’s high voice, quite nearby.

“Mrs Bryson? Hello?”

No answer but he could hear her talking with her daughter. The phone bumped again, a vicious pop that hurt his head. Maybe the dubstep hadn’t been such a smart idea.

Finally the scratching stopped. It was now Clara on the line.

“Hey Jason?”

He swallowed. “Clara. How you going?”

“I’m fine. Fine, really.”

“I just wanted to let you know…” Damn, this was hard. He swallowed again. There was some sort of obstruction in his throat. His voice seemed to whistle past it. “I just wanted to tell you that I had a chat with Professor Finnegan and well, we got to talking about the day we went to Irina’s…”

“HOW MUCH DID YOU TELL HIM?”

Her screaming demand really hurt his head. He had to pull the mobile away from his ear a bit.

“Just what happened. What really happened on that day. I didn’t…”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

“Jesus, calm down. I didn’t say anything about you, okay? Or why we were there. Just what went down.”

“…Why?”

“Why?” Jason almost lost it. He almost bellowed back at the stupid bitch who had got him into so much strife in the first place. “Because I had to tell someone the truth, that’s why! Unless you hadn’t noticed, Irina is out. If she gets to me…”

There was an awkward pause. Jason bit back on his fury. He felt like a caged animal and he couldn’t help it. But Clara was the only other person who understood what was really going on. She had heard the same threats he had. She knew what was at stake. She realised that it was not a question of ‘if’ Irina got to him, it was a question of ‘when’.

“Look…” Jason went on in a deliberately quieter, more level tone. “I’m getting out of here for a while…”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. I’ll figure it out later. I just wanted to say that Professor Finnegan knows some of what we know. If you need help, ask him for it. I’m out. I’m done.” Jason tried to think of anything else he needed to tell her and couldn’t think of a single word. “Goodbye.”

“Jay…”

He hung up. He’d had enough of that girl. He wasn’t going to take any more of her nonsense. He had tried to do the right thing by her. That was it. He was done.

As though that was the trigger for him to begin, he immediately threw himself under his bed and twisted out a pretty beaten up suitcase. He started throwing things into it – clothes, tools, a backpack, toiletries, his laptop – in a huge pile. When he thought he’d thrown in everything he could take with him, he sat on top of the lid and forced the zipper around.

This was it. He was actually leaving.

He stuffed his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. He would need to go to the bank and get some cash. He would need to probably transfer some of it into the currency of wherever he ended up. His phone followed the wallet. So did his passport. He wrote a hasty note to his sister and left it in the centre of his bed. That was about it.

Now all he had to do was figure out how to slip past B1 and B2.

***

Traditionally, it is the hardened criminal’s inability to function in regular society that ultimately screws over any successful prison break. Seriously. An individual, who for the past however many years has had their every waking moment decided for them in one solitary building, finds sudden concepts such as ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ difficult to reconcile with upon their immediate departure. They find it hard to reacquaint with concepts integral to their survival such as driving, with the hidden rules of social etiquette and with the sensation of human contact.

Irina Sinclair felt that she was eminently suitable to not fall into what she considered as this ‘pitfall trap’ that traditional criminals succumb to often. She had not lost her perceptive abilities, even if they had been dimmed somewhat by the irritating lack of substance and stimuli. Nonetheless, she was cautious. The first step upon her return to the ‘outside’ was to reintegrate. Society feared her, was extremely wary for any sign of her and so, her new identity would have to become a part of this community in order to be safe. A loner with no contacts can be questioned, harassed and eventually found out. Someone with ties in an area, someone with a history in a particular place would not even be considered a threat to anyone who decided to ask nosy questions. Thus, there was work to be done. Careful work.

The sensation of ‘outside’ was something akin to the smell of coffee when one has not had very strong coffee in a long time. Although she was expecting it to be a little bit of shock to her body she was unprepared as to how much of a shock the simplest things constituted to her.

That wasn’t to say that she hadn’t prepared for this eventuality. She wasn’t the sort of person who attached sentimentality to things. Items existed for their function and no more. She didn’t ‘need’ anything beyond the constraints of their usage. Although on an intellectual level she understood what other women of her age lusted for in all the beautiful things around them, she knew she did not feel the same way. They lusted for what the item represented on an emotional level as much as the item itself – a beautiful car meant status and freedom and travel and luxury as much as it pleased anyone on an aesthetic level. To Irina, a car that ran was a car. It may be a symbol of wealth and grandeur, respected and admired amongst others who dreamed of owning the same thing but for all intents and purposes it got her from point A to point B. And that was fine. Therefore, on breaking out of the penitentiary in a ludicrously simple fashion, she did not feel the insatiable need to possess her favourite foods or buy alcohol or any of the other things that other prisoners in her place may have been unable to control. She took the bare necessities and went about finding some way to reintegrate into society.

It was stupidly simple really.

But the brightness of the sun pierced her eyes sometimes. And the textures on her hands moved in an entirely different way now, it seemed. The weather was a more awesome power; wind was sleek and shook her right to the core while it seemed as though she could feel every caress that the rain made on her bare skin. She could practically count the droplets. Time was distorted. Her body clock did strange things. There were nights were her brain simply refused to shut down into REM sleep because for the past few months that was all it had been doing – just drifting in a sort of messed up concrete limbo world of nothingness where every meal tasted faintly of cardboard and half the things she recalled were just memories of before imprisonment and hadn’t actually taken place in the prison at all. Loud scraping noises, such as a metallic chair being dragged along the cement ground – brought a sensation of creeping horror to her that was rather like a very mild dose of PTSD. All the hair would stand up on her arms and she would have to rub furiously to the damn goosebumps to go away.

A bit annoying really.

Still, all things considered, it could have been much worse. The law was predictably running around with its collective head sliced off and bleeding into a pool of misery at what would occur when the media caught wind of how badly it had stuffed up. But she had to be fair in her assessment of the situation - they certainly were persistent at sticking to their plans and regulations. They weren’t just giving up and trying to find the nearest scapegoat to nail to a fence just yet. And they weren’t skimping on their resources or manpower. They had intelligence interfaces and resources too. It was just a shame that she had equal knowledge and access to these sources, otherwise she may have been caught within five minutes of disabling the in-cell surveillance.

Realistically, there was only one vice that she planned to indulge in the near future. That was a little bit of revenge and a little bit of anger at the ill-advised morons who didn’t understand who or what she was but had locked her up in their fear and loathing of her anyway. A kind of righteous purge to right her sense of justice; it would be extremely cathartic.

She had some names in this category and they were not going to be so simple to get to in order for her vengeance to work. Clara Bryson. Jason Powers. The prosecutor at trial. Her defence attorney. She had considered adding the judge to her list of the damned but had negated this name on account of the fact that, if presented with the same variables in the same setting as the courthouse mess her trial had been she may have well come to the same conclusion. He was the unfortunate Pontius Pilate of her story. It was just how the system worked. The barristers ran around and decorated the plate while the judge was forced to eat and give the verdict based on what the finished product was. There it was.

Who knew? There may be others she encountered in the process of equalling the scales of justice that would qualify for the list. Or she may have just the four. It didn’t matter either way. Her story would be finished and she could get back to the activities of the past in no time.

She was rather looking forward to it.

***

The phone started ringing just as Clara’s session with the psychologist was finishing. Andy excused himself to go and answer it, feeling as though he was acting more like a drowning man running for a lifesaver than a father going to get the phone. But it wasn’t his fellow officers at the station. It wasn’t anything mundane like a telemarketer or a subscription to one of those magazines Dayna was obsessed with. It was the goddamn media.

“Mr Bryson, I was wondering if the channel could get an interview with any members of your family to comment on Irina Sinclair’s escape from prison?”

The first one he politely denied the request but as soon as he hung up another call came through. Then another. Then another. Television stations, random journalists, newspapers, commentators, politicians even wanted to hear from the poor ex-victim. Andy, normally the kind of man who had a tolerance for the media and its place in the world, quickly lost patience with the whole fiasco and called the station.

As soon as someone picked up the phone at the station Andy felt the frustrated leak out of him, then it all flooded out like a dam wall bursting.

“What the hell? The goddamn vultures are descending!” ‘Vultures’ was an unofficial universal code at the station for the media and although not very politically correct, Andy found it an apt term for the reporters and cameramen. He had never felt it so keenly – the disgust he had for people whose business was tragedy and drama.

“Andy, Andy, buddy just stay calm. It was always going to leak out eventually…”

“But now? Now?! You’re not telling me to just suck it up are you?” Andy’s torrent of fury streamed through him, unstoppable. He did not want to be reasonable. He did not want to be told to just accept the inevitable. He wanted to scream at someone. His entire body felt wound up, tight as a spring. His fists were clenched so hard his fingernails were gouging into his flesh but he didn’t care.

“Look, I get that you’re mad. I get that. Hell, I’d be furious if it was my little girl. Mate, I understand. But it’s just that it’s Irina Sinclair. This will be the top story on every station tonight. The vultures want to grab her story and get it now. The prison’s been taking a beating from them, but they’ve been shut out to pound away at the gate. Pretty soon we’ll be scraping their bodies off the front door... They want the story and they want it now. You know how they operate. And Irina Sinclair is probably one of the biggest things to happen this year.”

Andy couldn’t speak. His whole body was trembling with the injustice of it all; the fury thudded in his veins, unstoppable. His baby girl had been through enough. He had been through enough. His family deserved some goddamn peace.

“Tell the boys at the station I’m calling them in if the media decides to invade my property. I will give them ample warning, then I am using force. Do you read me?”

“Please Andy, be sensible…”

“I’m serious. I am done with this bull-fuckery. If the vultures come pecking at my door you will be doing a hell of a lot more than scraping their bodies off my door. You will be trying to put their bodies back together with a spoon and sticky-tape.”

With that eloquent parting threat, Andy terminated the call.

He hissed in unsteady breaths, trying to take stock. His hands still shook pretty nastily; he flattened his palms on the countertop in an effort to still them. He stretched his back out, trying to release the tension there. From somewhere in the house he could hear the psychologist, Mrs Appleby, speaking in soothing tones. After a pause, his daughter replied in a timid squeaky voice that was barely holding back her tears.

Clara. She was as much a victim as all those poor souls Irina had seen fit to murder. Why couldn’t they leave her alone? Why couldn’t the whole affair just be buried in the earth like those poor other victims? Andy had no doubt in his mind that he was extremely lucky to have his daughter alive and breathing beside him every day and thanked god on his knees every night for it. But sometimes he wondered how much more suffering she could take before she joined the others in the ground.

Well, he was a police officer wasn’t he? Not totally useless at keeping people away or keeping people safe. He had a sudden idea and it immediately flushed away all of his ferocity.

Let’s leave this crazy town. The vultures can pick at old bones and leave us the hell alone.

That solution – so beautiful in its simplicity – stunned him for only a moment before he began to sort through the finer details. The only real question was whether he could sell it to Dayna.

He crossed back into the study and entered cautiously. Clara was seated in a huge, warm armchair, her knees tucked up and under her chin. Directly opposite her was the psychologist, perched daintily in a single wooden chair that usually sat at the dining table. Dayna was on the desk chair, very close to her daughter, hovering over her, running gentle fingers through Clara’s hair and down onto her back.

Andy met his wife’s eyes quickly and she read the truth in them. He saw she understood.

“Mrs Appleby,” he said rapidly. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

The psychologist took this graciously with a gentle tip of her head, a gesture for him to continue.

“Clara, honey,” Andy went on, crouching down to be level with his daughter’s tear streaked face. “What would you say to getting away for a week or so?”

Surprise. His daughter’s mouth dropped open at his query. Her eyes widened.

“Where would we go?” she asked.

“I’m not sure yet. Is there anywhere you’d like to visit?” Andy wondered. He didn’t care where they went but if they escaped the media circus, he was certain his daughter would be better off. They could even be run through a witness protection program. There were so many possibilities.

Clara thought it over. Dayna had a question for the psychologist.

“Do you think it would be beneficial to get away for a week or so?”

Mrs Appleby, bless her, only had to think it through for a moment and then she was nodding.

“If Clara wants to get away from home, where she is constantly anxious about the threats to her safety, I see no problem in travelling to somewhere else, where she would feel more secure and anonymous,” Mrs Appleby firmly stated. “A change of scenery may also be calming.”

Hope blossomed on Dayna’s features. It was stunning. Andy’s hope rose with his wife’s.

“We won’t go anywhere you don’t want to,” he reassured Clara, gently prodding her for an answer. “But it would just be you and me and your mum. No complications. The station can take care on keeping the whole thing secret. Nobody in the whole world would know where we were except for us.”

Clara opened her mouth but at first no words trickled out. But Andy let her take her time.

“Where could we go?” she finally asked her father. “Where would we be safe?”

“Anywhere, honey. Absolutely anywhere. We can just go to the airport and get the next departing plane or we can look online and see where cheap flights could take us. America or Europe or Asia, or we could just hop over to New Zealand. We’d be tourists for a week or longer, if you wanted to stay.”

“England?” Clara asked quietly. “London? Could we maybe see London for a week?”

Andy actually laughed. “Why not? If that’s where you want to go.” He addressed Dayna. “What do you think?”

“London sounds lovely,” Dayna concurred and managed a shaky sort of smile. “We can manage that.”

“I’ll organise something with the station, see how we can get to the airport with minimal fuss,” Andy told them all. “I’ll book flights tonight.”

“Really? We are really just going to take off on a random holiday?” Clara was still trying to comprehend the idea. “But what about work? Uni?”

“The university will understand and we can get you a deferral if we have to, sweetheart.” Dayna was more taken with the idea than Andy had expected and was making up ways that it could work before he could even think of a single idea. “I have leave stored up. Your father’s work will probably be more understanding than most, seeing as they were the ones who…” Andy heard how that sentence was going to end in his mind just as Dayna cut herself off: they were the ones who let Sinclair loose. Dayna tried to force that ghastly half-smile again at her daughter. “Well, they will help us. They want us all to be safe.”

“They will take care of us, honey,” Andy seconded. “I know they will.”

Clara’s face screwed up in a strange sort of contortion – something Andy read as half scepticism and half hope. Her eyes narrowed.

“Can I…Well, can we talk to the police about it first daddy? Just to make sure?” she asked.

Andy nodded fervently. “I’ll speak to them.”

Mrs Appleby leant forward as they reached this agreement.

“Why don’t we just go over some coping strategies Clara and then I will leave you all to your arrangements?” she suggested.

“Of course, of course, we’ll leave you to it,” Dayna kissed Clara quickly on the cheek and walked out, all but dragging Andy out with the look in her eyes.

“What is this about?” Dayna whispered, tense, leaning in close to Andy’s ear. He felt her warm breath on his cheek.

“The media have started calling, they know about Sinclair’s breakout,” Andy responded, just as quietly. “I didn’t want to frighten Clara but you know what these people were like at that damn trial. They won’t leave her alone. I thought it was best to get up and leave for a while.”

“The boys can’t help you keep them away?” Dayna demanded, referring to his fellow police officers.

“I rang,” Andy huffed in indignation. He rubbed his face with his hands tiredly. “I rang as soon as I got the first ten calls from those vultures. They basically told me there’s nothing we can do. We can’t stop them congregating on public property, like the footpath outside our house. Legally, they are allowed to film from there whenever they want. Apparently the prison is becoming heavily populated with media.” He took a long, low sigh. “I think the best thing we can do is move out for a bit, until there are other developments in the story that don’t involve us and they have other people to harass. We will get off their immediate radar for a while by being somewhere they can’t find us. We can publicly ask for privacy. That might keep them at bay long enough for us to get clean away.”

Dayna took a minute to digest this news. He knew she had guessed most of it but even so, the truth was a bit confronting. To think that the media could legally just perch themselves outside and wait for one of them to drive out for groceries or whatever was not a pleasant thought, especially when they had Clara ready to cry and count footsteps at the drop of a hat.

Not good. Not good at all.

“Contact the station then,” Dayna told him. He caught the note of frustration in her words, rising, rising every second just like the furious tumult that had vanquished his patience and willingness to be reasonable. “Tell them your idea. They better give us a hand.”

“They will,” he assured her. “They will.”

She stood there. He watched her stare at the photos on the walls of the hallway. There were some classics of the family hanging here, some of his personal favourites that he attached fond memories to. Clara, five or so, dancing around the living room in a tutu she had insisted she receive for Christmas that year. She’d refused to take it off for at least two weeks, even when going to bed. The joy in her tiny little face, bright and curved with the fat of youth, was priceless. There was the wedding photo that made him cherish his wife all the more every time he looked at it. God, how nervous he’d been. How convinced that he’d embarrass the hell out of himself in front of everyone he cared about, especially his new and especially gorgeous wife. Next to it was a photo of Dayna and her family. Above it was a terrible picture of his parents with baby Clara, the picture he’d sworn one day to take down but had never got the time to get around to.

These were good times, even the terrible picture of baby Clara and his mother and father, slightly blurred and out of focus. Happier days. Perhaps, when they returned, they could get their feet back under them. There would be more happy snaps to add to the wall. He’d anticipated the next one to be Clara’s graduation. He was looking forward to that. His daughter in a flowing gown with a beaming smile and her Bachelor’s degree in her hand.

Reality can be a hard taskmaster. Reality was patiently tapping on his shoulder, asking how on earth he was going to pay for a trip to England on such short notice and wondering how much a hotel over there would cost. He would have to convince the station to get him and his family into witness protection. After all, Clara had helped them secure Sinclair behind bars in the first place. It wasn’t her fault the system had failed to keep her there.

***

Marcus heard the double doors of the laboratory open but didn’t look up. He was bent over a worktop, carefully applying the segment of material he had chiselled off his bookmark onto a microscope slide with tweezers. Finally, he managed to snag the thing between two slides and squashed it flat. The sample taken, he clipped the slides under a microscope. It was only after he had done this and glanced up to find the switch to turn the microscope’s light on did he notice the woman standing awkwardly at the door, watching him.

She was exceedingly thin – that was his first thought. Thin as a rake. There was hardly any flesh on her bones. She had a short blonde crop of hair with quite pretty copper streaks through it. And dear lord, her eyes were massive and such a vivid shade of turquoise. She pursed her tiny mouth, a clear sign of uncertainty.

It then occurred to him that this was a private space and he was being interrupted.

“Can I help you?” he asked, a little bluntly. He saw the tone register on her face as a tiny crease on her forehead.

“I’m actually looking for someone,” she admitted sheepishly. “But I think… Well, I’m lost and I don’t know what he looks like…” She scooped a hand through her hair. He caught the flash of bright pink nail polish on each of her perfectly manicured nails. “His name is Professor Finnegan.”

“You’re fortunate,” Marcus quipped. “You’ve just found him. How can I help you?”

Surprise, embarrassment and a tiny cringe at his rudeness widened her already enormous eyes.

“Professor… My name is Kyra Kelsey, I’m a journalist with…”

“Look,” Marcus swivelled his chair around and stood up. “I’m not interested in talking right now. As you can see, I have work to do. I have no interest in giving a statement about Irina’s breakout.”

“Professor…”

“Seriously,” Marcus interrupted, more steel entering his voice. God knew how she’d managed to find him here. Dumb luck by the look of it or maybe one of the students out on the main had blabbed. They would have seen him come into the laboratory. “I have nothing to say. You are on private property. I do not want to have to call security. You have no right to walk in here and disturb me or my students. I would ask you to take your leave before this goes any further.”

“Sir,” she shot back. “I am just doing my job. I didn’t ask to be given this assignment, but until Irina is caught, my boss is hounding all of my office to be out there digging up stuff on the Sinclair case…” There was a light in Kyra’s face now. It was pure frustration. “You visited her in prison just before she escaped. Everyone is going to want your statement.”

Marcus was dumfounded.

“How did you find out about that?” he asked. The supervisor had promised that no one would hear of his visit. He was appalled that this journalist had knowledge of it.

“I got assigned this,” Kyra sighed. Her shoulders drooped. Marcus started to get the creeping sensation of guilt. “I didn’t find out but somebody at my office did. And now I’m here.”

“… I see.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry,” Kyra added. Marcus didn’t pick up any insincerity in her voice. She seemed genuinely distressed. She fixed him with a stern and earnest glare. “Okay? Look, I’m sorry all this has happened to you. Apparently you respected this woman a lot. She was your student and I bet you feel like, in some way, you should have been able to see this coming. My mentor spoke with one of the teachers of the Columbine shooters and this poor man felt responsible. It wasn’t his fault. It’s not your fault. But it’s happened. It’s happening again, right now, as we speak. You have the chance to do something this time. You can talk about her, about her years here at university and we might get closer to understanding what’s happening.”

Marcus thought about it for a moment and laughed. He turned away, unconsciously shielding the microscope with its little piece of mystery tucked away under the slide. He had no intention of sharing his little secret or betraying Jason’s trust. His laughter bounced all over the pristine white surfaces and sterile equipment, past gleaming glass cabinets filled with samples, out to the disposal chutes and cleaning-up sinks.

“I have to say, Miss Kelsey, you have a way with words.”

She smiled ruefully at that. “Well, if I didn’t have a talent for persuasion, I guess I’d be in another line of work.”

“What do you normally write about?” Marcus asked her.

She blushed, a huge dollop of red surging quickly into her cheeks. “I… I’m usually the advice column journalist. I’m getting into relationship articles. And a little bit of fashion.”

Marcus snorted another bit of laughter. He couldn’t help it. And then his inhibitions crumbled under the sight of her, still standing there uncomfortably, flooded red with mortification and clutching her notepad and pen to her chest.

“How about we do a deal,” he suggested at last. “You call your office and find out how they knew I visited Irina recently. When you have that information, we can meet at my office and talk. You have what you need and I’ll have what I want to know. Sound fair?”

She considered the offer. The pen went into the front pocket of her blazer and an IPhone replaced it in her grasp.

“I can have that in ten minutes. Where is your office?”

Marcus pointed out the door she had come through. “Stand out there and make your call. You won’t get reception in here. I’ll take you up to my office myself so you don’t get lost.”

She brightened.

“Deal. Don’t go anywhere, professor.”

Marcus smiled a roguish grin – the kind of humorous, light-hearted smirk that made some of his female students swoon. He twirled his hands in an elaborate gesture.

“I won’t leave this lab until my work is done. I promise.”

Kyra nodded. Then, her low heels clicking on the tiles, she left, finding a number in her contacts list.

Marcus admired her. He couldn’t really help it. Not only was she pretty as hell but she was gutsy and stubborn. She was obviously quite intelligent too. He liked that.

“The advice column…” he muttered under his breath to himself. “Jesus.”

He turned back to the workbench and found the switch for the light. He twirled the knobs of the microscope expertly, flicking through the magnification settings until he had something worthwhile.

He’d done a bit of reading to refresh what he know of human bone. Around eighty percent of bone in the human body is something called ‘compact’ bone – the rigid, hardened ‘shell’ that protected the other layers of bone inside. It is unique because although it appears completely solid to the naked eye, under a microscope it has tunnels for nerves and blood vessels to pass through. It was these holes, these osteons, he would use to identify whether what he had chipped off was in fact bone or not. If he ended up with spongy bone he would peer down this lens and see thousands of pores marked into the surface of the substance but that was far more unlikely.

He blinked, adjusting to the harsh white glare of the lens. This was one powerful lens; he barely moved the dials on the bottom and the material jumped into focus. He bit back a gasp.

It was bone, no question. There were the osteons, just like all the diagrams he’d ever seen of compact bone. But even as he shakily double-checked what he was seeing in the reference book he had taken from the library earlier his mind was suggesting contingencies. It could just be animal bone. She might have picked it up off the ground somewhere thinking it was just stone or petrified wood and thought it would go nicely into the bookmark…

Goddamn, who was he kidding? This was Irina. She would know. If she didn’t know something, she would seek out the answer as surely as night followed day. Lack of knowledge was something she despised. Once she knew something, it was meticulously retained, in case the subject ever came up again. She’d know what bone was. She was a proven killer. Why was he still seeking some form of benediction for her, a kind of redemption for internal opinion of her? Why? Why couldn’t he stomach the truths staring him in the face?

Because you admired her.

No. No, he refused to believe it was as simple as that. Kyra had suggested the responsibility was gnawing away at his conscience, that he was in denial purely out a desire to duck the shame of not having seen her for what she was. He tried to judge this subjectively and found that he simply couldn’t. But he didn’t have a better answer than that. Not now, at any rate.

Bone in the bookmark. Well, the first part of Jason’s allegations checked out. But the rest… It didn’t sit right with Marcus. He suspected there was much more to the story than Jason had been privy to and most of that truth was now held with two women – Irina and Clara Bryson.

So he had a few options to consider. Marcus slumped into his chair at the laboratory bench, flicking off the light switch and shaking the stars from his head that blossomed in the sudden darkness. One – he could just let the whole thing rest. Plan his next lectures, ring the supervisor and voice his disgust in the level of confidentiality that had evidently not been honoured. Two – he could find Clara and ask her to spill the beans, telling her that Jason had already told him his version of events and that there were significant holes in the story. Marcus grimaced. He didn’t like that option at all. He didn’t know this girl but she had told boldfaced lies to a courtroom. It was highly improbable she’d feel comfortable to come clean to him, of all people. Three – he could go back to Jason with his discovery, but this did not appeal to him either. The boy was suffering and Marcus had no intention of causing him more grief. Four – he could investigate solely on his own. A makeshift Sherlock Holmes he was not but the whole story was tantalisingly floating just out of his grasp. Five – he could go to the police and turn over the evidence he had collected. But that would entail rehashing Jason’s story and revealing that both Jason and Clara had lied. That particular option disgusted him for some reason. Yes, he was in favour for ‘the truth will out’ but that was mainly in theory. Even as a child, he had never liked a tattle-tale and besides, he had given his word. After what the supervisor had done in putting him in this compromising position with the media banging on his door, he was not in a particularly sharing mood. Finally – and he was stunned that his brain even suggested this to him – he could seek out Irina herself.

He cleaned up automatically, not even aware he was doing it. The sample went back into a sealed plastic bag with the bookmark itself and then into his jacket pocket. The slides were dumped into a disinfectant bucket. At the end of the day the laboratory assistant would thoroughly wash everything in the container with hospital-grade disinfectant, dry it and replace it on the shelves for the students. He slapped his gloves off and they went into the bin for incineration. His reference books were swept up under one arm. The chair was tucked back neatly under the bench so that the laboratory once again appeared untouched and uniform.

All the while he argued furiously with himself – what was the right thing to do? What did he want to do?

A small voice interrupted his internal debating.

“I made the call. I know who tipped us off,” Kyra uttered gently. Her hand was poised, expectantly, on the door handle. “Can we discuss it now?”

Marcus welcomed the interruption.

“A deal is a deal, Miss Kelsey,” he promised.

“Please, call me Kyra,” she asked. She held her arm out, motioning down and out to the corridor. “And by all means, lead on.”

“I’m just Marcus.”

He held the door open for her, a true gentleman even in his turmoil and led her back outside of the laboratory complex and into the sunlight.

He still had no clue what he would do when this little impromptu interview was over.

 

THE PRICE OF WANDERLUST IS THE INABILITY TO SET DOWN ROOTS

Tomek was watching the tennis on television. It was men’s singles and although he wasn’t a huge fan of the sport, which in his opinion was extremely repetitive and came down to who was faster to put their bits of stretched nylon in the right spot, he loved to watch the crowds and lip-read their reactions to things. The Wimbledon tournament was his favourite. It was highly amusing to watch two men duelling it out in the afternoon sun, sweat gleaming on their skin and leaking onto their perfect florescent-coloured attire, agony or triumph in their expressions and then cut to a shot of the crowd spectating with a couple munching on strawberries and cream asking each other how much longer this could bloody last, it was just getting too damn hot to be sitting here. That the crowd could be complaining as though they were the ones sprinting around in the extreme temperatures for hours when they were casually lounging there munching on desserts or quenching their thirst with drink made Tomek laugh. He wondered how they could do that. He wondered if they were somehow blind to the exertion in front of them. But it happened every year and he felt like he’d discovered something particularly fascinating when he managed to spot these same conversations happening every single time.

But the other thing that wasn’t quite as amusing but he still found intriguing was the advice and criticisms of the crowd. If their favourite wasn’t doing so well they immediately found some cause for it or had some say in what should be done.  He constantly watched pairs of men or avid fans lean to each other and spout things like ‘oh, that was so stupid,’ or ‘he’s been so out of form lately ’or‘ just run faster to meet the ball!’ or ‘the umpire is totally against him today.’ Bizarre. How would Mister Spectator know what the player was thinking or feeling? What right did they have to tell them what to do? Football was notorious for this kind of spectator-coaching and he found it consistently present, like a kind of virus that infected the truly passionate spectator when he could sit there and gesticulate like an angry bear from the comfort of the crowd. Tomek would love to see what would happen if every yelling, muttering or pompous spectator-coach suddenly was dropped on the field to try and take their own advice. He imagined that it would be pretty hard for these people to swallow if someone else was self-righteously telling them how to play from the stands. He had a lot of respect for those players, mostly footballers, who stood near the crowd while some of them clearly abused the hell out of them from metres away. He didn’t understand how they could just tune that out and focus on their game. It was impressive.

He took his eyes off the television. India still hadn’t come back from her visit to the child psychologist. Unlike Lucy, she’d felt that his inclusion in the session may make things awkward and it would be more beneficial if she could establish some kind of rapport with India alone. That’s what the note she had handed him had said. But he felt, could almost smell, her suspicion of him. That same judging demeanour the housing commission people had simply been oozing out – the kind that hinted at baser assumptions as to his character.  For the girl’s sake though he’d taken this all with good humour, nodded and simply departed. Now, alone in his room, he could admit the hurt. It stung to be treated that way and not to be able to raise a murmur of protest. It stung somewhere deep inside.

There was a gentle knock just as he was mulling this over. He shook himself out of his despondent mood, ran fingers through his uncombed hair and checked that he was looking halfway presentable. Then he answered the door.

Whoever had visited had clearly had other things to do. Tomek bent down and found a plastic bag with a note stuck on top with sticky tape. He read it quickly:

Some things I found at the op shop for India. Heidi will deliver these to you to give to her from me. I hope everything works out for you both – Lucy.

Tomek recognised the handwriting after a second and had to re-read the note twice before it sunk in. Lucy had left India some things? He picked up the plastic bag gingerly and walked over to India’s room.

Before he left he had a cursory inspection of the things inside the bag and was quietly impressed. For op shop gear it was pretty recent stuff. The clothes were neat and Lucy obviously had some idea of what the average sixteen-year-old would wear – there were skirts and shorts and tops and jumpers with decent labels. There were even two pairs of shoes right at the bottom. He found a bag, rather larger than a conventional handbag and more in the style of a small material backpack, with black leather-feeling straps and plastered with various vintage Disney cartoons. It was one of those fashionable old-styled things that he thought most teenagers were now getting into, along with the 40s inspired bicycles with massive wicker baskets and antique-looking wheels. The genie from Aladdin smiled back at him. Jiminy Cricket rode Pinocchio’s shoulder and seemed to be preaching to the ever-wilful wooden puppet. Peter Pan and the Darling children shot through the sky in goose formation, flying towards that elusive star that marked the entry to Neverland.

Tomek laid the plastic bag carefully on the very centre of India’s bed and left, swinging the door shut behind him. Lucy had chosen some great things for a girl she hardly knew. He was certain that India would be thrilled.

But as he slipped back onto his own bed, the familiar groan of wanderlust whispered dolefully in his ear that he should pack up and be on the move again. India was clearly well-looked after. He’d done his part; he wasn’t very welcome here. The two hundred and twelve dollars he had cleverly strapped in a sash-looking bag across his chest under his shirt was all he had in terms of money. If he was smart, he’d find employment soon, save up and wander on down the road. The rest of the country beckoned. Staying around for a child he couldn’t even pick clothes for was a stupid, impulsive thing to do. And staying purely to see Lucy again was even stupider.

Angry at himself, Tomek crossed the room in three huge strides and decided at least to look for work. He would start now. Right this minute. He would do something for himself.

The foyer was sparse and largely unpopulated at this hour. There were posters everywhere, coating the walls from floor to roof in their huge letters, advertising this or that service and where to get help when you needed it. The rules of the housing commission were printed everywhere too, on every damn corridor, or so it seemed. All of the text shrieked at him, vying for attention but he ignored it all and went outside.

Clean, crisp, fresh twilight air hit him in the face and he inhaled it greedily. The night hadn’t even begun; there was a world of opportunities out there. Why was he still sticking here, when he could be out there? The sneering voice of wanderlust began to ask him whether one little girl was worth being cooped up here for weeks, possibly months. He tuned it out and struck a path down the side of the street that had only grass and no sidewalk to follow.

He could walk all the way to the beach or maybe not that far, maybe just to the river. Or he could head in the other direction, into the sprawl of the city and watch the nightlife emerge as the darkness unfolded all around them. There was life everywhere.

He kicked stones into the gutter and shoved his hands in his pockets.

After a while, he decided he wanted to check out the city and maybe, if he was feeling particularly motivated, he’d seek out some likely places for work. It was a Thursday, so every shop would be staying open until late and perhaps he’d come across somewhere willing to hire a deaf man.

It took nearly an hour and a half but then he was in the city proper, with the cars in long lines and the smell of their fumes heavy in the air. Shop lights blinked on and shone out like beacons of hope. Commerce was a fast and lively thing at night. Tomek stood at the traffic lights, waiting to cross with a small bundle of fellow pedestrians. His gaze wandered into a game store where he could see a young girl and boy playing the sample games at a set-up console. The girl would be India’s age but she did look sixteen, with dyed hair and a snarky expression. It was she playing the game with her friend hovering over her shoulder, watching her progress. Tomek caught some of the words on her lips and snorted amusement. She didn’t seem to be having much luck with whatever she was playing.

“This music is far too creepy for pickpocketing. I don’t appreciate it.”

A pause while she mashed the controller.

“Go, go, go, go, go... Mate, move. Leg it! Move, you blithering idiot! Cheers, thanks.”

She was fixated on some corner of the screen. Even Tomek was now smirking at the humorous commentary. The girl should have her own Youtube channel – she’d be a hit.

“Can you not? Oh that’s cute. Can you please jump that, that would be great honey. No, not that far! What are you doing? Oh my fucking god…”

“You got this,” her male friend encouraged her while laughing at her running commentary.

“Alright. Where the fuck am I going?”

Her friend pointed and her eyebrows lifted, awareness dawning. The blank look of concentration returned swiftly however, as she must have run into another obstacle.

“Thank you, for getting your shit together. These guys aren’t even trying! Whoops, hit ye old citizen by mistake.”

But then the crowd was moving across the road and Tomek turned away from the amusing girl in the games store, wearing her thumbs out on the frustrating game with her friend chuckling behind her.

But it wasn’t just the sights; it was the smells of the nightlife which Tomek was fond of. He breathed in the foul stench of street corners, the smog of petrol and cigarette smoke with the intoxicating aroma of garlic and cheese from the Italian restaurants or the spicy, hot clouds of curry mixture in the Indian places, the light tang of alcohol from the bars and those various smells that just seem to blend together in any area where people congregated. Women’s luscious perfume in gentle scents of sweet fruits and flowers. Men’s cologne, thick and heavy. That full, heady smell of the clean breeze rushed into his face. It was glorious.

He felt the growling gripe of hunger and found a tiny kebab store, sat at a rickety metallic table with some napkins and satisfied his stomach with a beef and salad wrap. Tomek people-watched as he ate in large bites. He was just considering whether or not to grab a drink to go when someone in the throng reached out and grabbed him by the elbow.

Instantly he whipped around, startled like a frightened cat, ready to face an aggressor. But, of all the people he could have run into, he discovered it was Lucy who had snatched out at him.

She smiled kindly at him, having not caught his extremely fast and tense reaction. He managed a small grin in return. He noticed the sensible office outfit he had first seen her in had been replaced by a tight, gleaming silver dress and ridiculously high-heeled stilettos. The dress caught every tiny pinpoint of light and made her sparkle a little.

“It’s good to see you out and about Tomek. Did you get the things I sent India?” she asked, slowly and carefully so that he could follow. He nodded and gave her a thumbs up with one hand. The other still held his wrap in its foil.

“Are you still at the housing commission?” was her next question. He nodded again. He wished he could tell her how India was just across the hall, how he found the room strangely comforting, but he had left his notepad in his room, not expecting the need to talk to anyone.

“Good. That’s good. Well, I have to be going, my boyfriend finishes work soon but it’s good to see you’re seeing the city a bit. See you later!”

Her hand left the crook of his arm, she waved at him and then she was just gone, swallowed up by the steady stream of pedestrians along the side of the road. It had all happened so fast. Tomek just hung there, sauce dripping in tiny droplets to the ground out of his wrap without him noticing.

She was stunningly beautiful. ‘Stunning’ was quite an apt word, he thought, standing there with his mouth hanging open and unable to comprehend what had happened. She was obviously going out on the town tonight – the outfit, the shoes… And she had mentioned a boyfriend. No doubt some six foot hulking man, with enough brains to be witty as well as romantic and muscles so perfectly sculpted they could have been photo-shopped on.

Tomek stuffed the rest of his wrap in his mouth and forgot about getting a drink. The night held little appeal to him now.

Heart a bit heavier now, he trundled back in the direction of his room. His feet dragged along the concrete and he scuffed his shoes.  Whatever. She had a boyfriend, he knew in his heart she would. So what? He hadn’t had any kind of chance with her. Stupid Tomek.

He felt the vibration of music slinking out of nightclubs he walked past and wondered which one she’d be in tonight, dancing in that silver dress, smiling and mouthing the words she could hear. He pictured her drinking, putting her arm around her girlfriends for photos, kissing some guy and being held by him all night long.

Tomek almost made his mind up to just pack and dash right then and there. To hell with Lucy and India! In a couple of weeks they wouldn’t even remember his face or be able to place his name! Screw this crummy little town.

He dashed back into the housing commission and realised his legs were aching from all the walking he’d done. Furious and hurt he’d pushed his pace far faster on the return trip and his calves felt like fire. Tomek groaned and massaged them before starting up the stairs to his room. Perhaps rest would be more justified. Rest, refuel in the morning and move along boy. What had that girl said while getting frustrated with that character in the game she had been playing? Leg it. That was what he needed to do. Move.

India was waiting for him, standing in the doorway of his room. She caught the expression on his face and her head tilted.

What’s happened? What’s wrong?

He ignored her silent questions. He waved her out of the way but to his surprise, she stood firm. She held out her hands.

What was this? Did she want him to take her hands?

Tomek took a step back. She reached out to him, lifting her hands to shoulder height, beseeching him with her expression.

Take my hands.

Why? Are you sure?

Tomek still wouldn’t do it. She stretched out her fingers too and he finally relented, taking both her tiny little hands into each of his own. India beamed at him in response.

Okay, we’re holding hands – now what?

She dragged him away from his own room and into the threshold of hers, still beaming. She must have wanted to cheer him up somehow, Tomek considered dully. He realised she was wearing some her new clothes and grinned sourly to himself.

Lucy’s gifts seem to have won the seal of approval.

India let go of his left hand and brought a finger to her lips.

I have a secret. You can’t tell it.

He also brought his finger to his lips, indicating he would keep silent. This promise made, India pulled out something long and rectangular from underneath her pillow and waved it in his face.

A chocolate bar. Tomek’s eyes widened. Where on earth had she scrounged chocolate from in this place? He grabbed her wrist to stop her hand waving so he could better inspect the bar. It was classy stuff, whatever brand it was. Gold wrapping shone out from the end of the cardboard packet and god, he could smell  that it was not your average supermarket-brand cocoa crap. It smelt rich.

He mimed confusion and pointed at the bar. Where did you get this?

Her response was to yank the chocolate out of its casing and crack him off a row, carefully holding it out to him. Tomek took it with a gesture of thanks. He put it in his mouth and it was heavenly. He rolled his eyes and put his hands to his chest, showing how good it was. She laughed in delight and methodically got herself the same size piece as him, chewing it greedily.

They eventually sat on the end of her bed together and slowly ate the entire bar, savouring every mouthful, making it last as long as they could. Tomek couldn’t stop eating the full, creamy pieces that simply melted on his tongue. It was absolutely fantastic.

She clearly enjoyed the sweet but also took pleasure in watching him enjoy it too, making sure she doled him out a new slab when he’d finished the last one and eyeing him as he stuck it in his mouth. When there was no more to be had, he licked his fingers and she, giggling, followed suit.

He good-naturedly ruffled her hair and she punched him lightly on the shoulder. He mockingly clutched his arm, pretending she had injured him fatally and she rolled her eyes. That little gesture made him happier than he could believe possible after his unfortunate meeting with Lucy in town. It was so like that other girl, that normal sixteen-year-old in the gaming store he’d spotted, sarcastic and sassy all at once. He smiled at her and it had real warmth in it. He desperately wished she could read so he could ask her how her day had been, whether the psychologist was alright, whether she’d made any progress today.

She pointed at the plastic bag, now given pride of place on top of her drawers and he pantomimed dressing himself, and then gave her a thumbs up.

Yes, I’ve seen your new clothes. They’re nice.

India tapped the box they had finished off and then pointed at him.

That was my present for you. I got something, I thought you should too.

Tomek was oddly touched by this. He blinked and lifted the empty container. Swiss chocolate. Well, how about that. He clasped both his hands together, as though at prayer and bowed them towards her in a kind of thank-you-very-much salutation. She re-took one of his hands.

No, thank you. For being here with me. You’re my friend.

And then he realised something. She was his friend. Friends didn’t desert each other. That’s why he couldn’t leave. He might want to wander the world but she wanted him here and for once, he would not do the selfish thing and think only on his own terms. He had to consider her. Had to, because no matter what the housing commission people or the psychologist thought, she was his friend and he’d helped her out of a terrible place.

He discovered she’d also managed to find and acquire a checkers board. It stuck out behind her plastic bag of new op shop goods. He pulled it out and they played on the bed, carefully lying down so as not to knock the pieces around with their movements. She was surprisingly good after he rehashed the rules with her, gently putting pieces back and shaking a finger kindly when she tried to make an illegal move. He only won the first few games and then after that, it became seriously difficult for him to make any sort of headway on her onslaught. Every time she won a game he’d clap and she’d just smile and reset the board. When he won, he’d get off the bed to take an elaborate bow and she’d throw something at him or roll her eyes or reset the board so fast as though to say, I’ll beat you this time!

They played long into the night. They also flicked the television on after a while and Tomek turned the subtitles on so he could read a movie. India just sort of watched blankly but he wasn’t sure she understood any of what went on. But she didn’t pull him away from the screen; instead, she took the time to sort through her new clothes and tuck them away lovingly into drawers or hung them up in the wardrobe.

Tomek didn’t feel like going anywhere after that, except to his own bed to sleep. And that, he thought, was surely something.

***

Clara was experiencing a near-total meltdown. She counted incessantly under her breath, always to seven, apace to the increasingly faster beat of her heart. Her father heard her stop to take a shallow, unsatisfactory breath and resume counting. He wondered at the wisdom of getting cheaper tickets versus the privacy of business. He wondered whether it was too late now, seated in the international lounge, to do anything about it.

Clara counted. She sweated through her shirt and started to smell horrible. She counted. She was dragged off to the ladies’ by her mother where she threw up and dribbled vomit onto the neckline of her jacket. She counted. Her eyes jumped around, twitching, blinking, unable to rest. She counted some more. Her body wouldn’t stop jittering, pitching fits of kicks suddenly, spasming in a way that she obviously couldn’t control. Tears leaked down her cheeks until her eyes were bright red and itched terribly. She rubbed at them and counted, counted, always counted.

Dayna finally couldn’t stand it.

“We can’t go with her like this,” she snapped. “We have to take her to hospital, Andy.”

“Alright, alright,” he muttered. “We’ll go.”

He cancelled the tickets and got his money back in no time; there was hardly anyone at the counter buying international tickets when they could have already done so online. Andy explained to the service desk woman that his girl was very sick and needed care immediately. She took one glimpse at Clara and called for one of the emergency health care workers who operated in the airport for emergencies. She even walked the family to a small office room to wait for help. Dayna was really grateful for her kindness but too distracted to thank her properly. Andy did his best but he was afraid, terribly afraid, for his little girl.

They hunched worriedly over Clara. She moaned.

“I need the bathroom mum,” she told them in a strained voice. More vomiting, Dayna guessed. She half-carried her girl out into the hallway. The helpful service desk woman had carefully pointed out the bathroom facilities on the way in, just in case they required them. Dayna opened the door for her daughter and Clara rushed in, almost collapsing on top on a toilet in her haste to get to the bowl. Dayna heard the putrid sounds of her daughter’s gagging and couldn’t help herself – she burst into thick, heavy crying.

What did she do to deserve this? What could we have ever done to deserve this? When will it stop?

“Sweetie… It’s… going to be okay,” Dayna slurred, ruining the lines a bit with her frustrated tears. “You’re… going to be… all..alright.”

 Clara whimpered something back at her that Dayna didn’t catch. She guessed it had just been more numbers. She ran her hands smoothly up Clara’s back. Her little girl stopped vomiting and sat there panting, laying her head on the cool, plastic casing of the toilet lid.

Mothers suffer for their children in ways that no one else can. Dayna knew in that instant that she would do anything, anything at all, to make the pain go away. Just knowing that she would walk barefoot over glass or hot coals to help her daughter put a bit more strength back into her. Neither Andy nor she would ever give up on their sweetheart. She knew it as surely as she knew gravity would keep them both on the face of the planet.

Dayna heard the clang of the bathroom door opening behind her and dismissed it. Another woman walked in and into the cubicle next to theirs so quickly she didn’t catch a glimpse of her face. Clara panted there for a moment longer, her face growing disgustingly pale as her mother watched. She rested, moaning a little, coughing until the woman next to them had done her business, washed her hands and left.

“Come on sweetie, the doctor will be here soon,” Dayna encouraged. “You can make it back out into the corridor.”

Clara started to struggle to her feet and stopped dead as she heard something. A voice. An extremely familiar voice. But there wasn’t anyone in here except for her mother and herself. Why was there a voice here?

“I can arrange everything, everything you need. It’s not my place to judge what you decide to do. I just provide a service…”

Dayna almost leapt a million miles into the air when Clara started screaming.

“IRINA SINCLAIR! IRINA! THAT’S HER VOICE, THAT’S HER…!”

“Clara, she’s not here. You’re safe, you’re perfectly safe…”

But Clara could hear that conversation clearly. She pushed past her mother and out into the bathroom. Bolting out the door and into the corridor, she spun, dazed and confused, trying to find an exit, any exit out into the fresh air, away from that voice…

God, it was as though being haunted by some malevolent spirit, except that this was no ordinary ghost; this ghost was the ghost of memory. Everything Clara saw, heard or felt kept the ghost on her, chilling her with the clearness of that mixture of regret and trepidation.

That girl walking away with her headphones in her ears looked a bit like Irina. Clara hurried in the opposite direction, muttering multiples of seven.

The conversation she had heard in the bathroom seemed to emanate from the walls, the loudspeaker announcements and the phone calls of everyone around her.

“Attention passengers, this is an urgent call for pick an afternoon that suits you Clara. No one will ever find out what happened here, I promise. If you want to leave some note or message for your family, I can deliver it discreetly…”

Blubbering, hopelessly appalled at what she had almost done and the lies that she had told, Clara sunk to the ground in the middle of a largely deserted section of walkway in the airport. She could hear her mother and father calling out to her from nearby but she didn’t want to move. She couldn’t. Pressure so great and fierce it made her chest ache had finally broken her, crushing her resolve to pieces.

Irina Sinclair was here. And she had every right to be furious with her. Every right. Not even seven could save her now. She should have come clean. She should have told the truth in the first place.

Through the fuzzy blur of tears Clara watched the world distort, bend along the axis of anxiety and finally, thankfully into an enormous black tunnel. Clara fell gratefully into the nothingness of a faint and hoped that somehow, everything would end very soon.

***

To add to the ridiculousness of the whole situation, Marcus could swear someone in the faculty offices buildings was playing the Beach Boys at maximum volume.

Kyra had spilled her source – a prison warden who had offered information to the media through his cousin. She was now poised, her body leaning subtly forward, waiting for him to hold up his end of the deal. He’d procrastinated - called the supervisor of Irina’s prison and let him have the sharp edge of his tongue and some not-so-subtle threats, phoned his lawyer and discussed what he could legally do to keep the media at bay, made them both a mug of coffee – but now there could be no more delays. And then the music had blasted out from one of the offices on his floor and both he and Kyra had glanced around, bemused.

“The Beach Boys?” the reporter asked hesitantly. “Really?”

Marcus made a show of looking appalled.

“I should go and get them to at least turn it down…”

“No,” Kyra cut across his suggestion. “No, it’s okay. It’s fine, really.”

Great. I’m all out of tactics.

They sat there facing one another. Marcus twiddled with a pen, flicking it between his fingers. He couldn’t look at the naked hope in her face, he couldn’t meet her pretty eyes.

“I’m not really sure… what to say to you… that I would be comfortable saying,” Marcus admitted at last, stringing out his words carefully. “I really don’t want to talk about a lot of things concerning Irina Sinclair. It’s not… Well, I try not to bring it up in conversation.”

Kyra shifted in her chair. Marcus heard the squeaking protest of her tiny movements. He still didn’t want to look up and face her.

“Is it because of the… well. Do you think some of that is just misplaced guilt?” she asked tentatively.

He frowned at that assumption. It was difficult, he was finding, to be honest even with himself.

“You have to understand… This entire fiasco erupted from out of nowhere. One minute I’m writing down notes for a final exam and the next, bam, reporters and screaming and hysteria and cops… And Irina.”

Marcus tapped an idle finger against the table and chewed his lip a little unknowingly. Kyra noticed it and let him make a decision.

“She’s not crazy,” Marcus continued reluctantly. “Not in a way we psychologists can identify anyway. I know that the court ruled her insane because she apparently didn’t understand her own actions had consequences but I find that seriously difficult to believe.”

Kyra, in the intelligence of years of training, remained silent and Marcus felt free to ramble on.

“She was a prodigy. She is a prodigy. I can’t think of any other word to describe her. I can only imagine what she would have been like growing up… Way ahead of the developmental curve, that’s for sure. The regular school curriculum must have appalled her. She told me once she used to sneak other textbooks into her classes, just to have something to do that challenged her. She got the idea from ‘Matilda’, a child’s book that she had loved.”

… “The teachers despised it at first, tried to get me to be accelerated in the school programme so I learnt to be more careful. I still did it of course, otherwise I think I would have died of boredom, but I had to learn when the appropriate timing was.”

Marcus had grinned a little and felt a bit sorry for the intelligent girl next to him.

“And when was that?”

“Well, it wasn’t considered polite to correct your teacher, even if he did manage to spell ‘favourite’ wrongly every time…”

“So your opinion is that she’s not a psychopath?” Kyra added as Marcus was swamped in memories of old conversations.

He pursed his mouth at that.

“Indulge me - what is a psychopath, in your understanding?” Marcus asked her. He found that now, when he was asking the questions, he could meet her face. She didn’t laugh or wave his inquiry away; he found her thoughtful and tapping the edge of the table as she considered. She was really quite beautiful, despite being so skinny.

“Okay, this is probably very wrong because I’m going off my television knowledge…” Kyra began.

Marcus spluttered out an amused snort but gestured politely for her to continue.

“… a psychopath is someone who kills, rapes, whatever, without caring about anybody but themselves. They’re violent, evil and can’t be stopped. They commit awful acts for no real gain other than the fact that they think it’s fun.”

Marcus threw his hands up in mock despair. “Oh, lord. Hollywood has a lot to answer for,” he sighed.

“Am I even close?” Kyra probed, smiling good-naturedly at him. It was hard not to answer that winning smile.

“Okay, I’ll start at the beginning… Psychopaths are generally thought to be born, not constructs of our society or of a particularly traumatic past. People with these sorts of histories are more likely to be termed as sociopaths, but anyway I digress. Psychopathy is a personality disorder and the criteria for this extremely narrow diagnosis are often changing,” Marcus was in lecture mode but Kyra simply sat there, listening attentively. He brought up one hand and began counting off on his fingers. “There are a number of traits that can be met for a diagnosis. A lack of empathy is often the definitive factor but it’s very hard to prove. Manipulation. Versatility. Superficial charm. A grandiose sense of self-worth and importance. Impulsivity can be one of them. Lack of guilt or remorse goes without saying. Pathological lying can be one. Shallow affect. A parasitic lifestyle. Irresponsibility.”

“So they’re always criminals? Stealing or taking what they need through manipulation and lies?”

Marcus bit his lower lip before continuing – a sign of disagreement that Kyra did not for a second take personally.

“Here’s the rub. A psychopath always acts in their own interests, by definition of being a psychopath. They can’t feel empathy, they are incapable of taking another’s point of view. People… The world, in fact… Is either a helpful addition to their day or something to be ignored and cast aside. It is the very definition of selfishness but of course, they are physically unable to think any other way. But not all criminals are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are criminals. Think of big business, think of power and the drive for money the whole world has today. A psychopath can blend in perfectly with certain areas of society.”

“So my banker’s probably a psychopath?” Kyra joked. Marcus shrugged.

“It’s possible. But psychopaths are more likely to be criminals because they don’t fear the consequences of their actions. Guilt, remorse, anxiety… These are relative unknowns to the true psychopath.”

“What about liking to cause other people pain?”

“Ah… Sounds like more of a sadist to me. But don’t quote me on that. It has to be for sexual gratification to qualify as sadistic behaviour.”

Kya cupped her head between her tiny hands and rubbed her forehead.

“So if Irina is not a psychopath or sadist or sociopath… What is she? Just a prodigy that murders people?”

… “There’s nothing better than lying flat on your back and watching the night sky out in the bush. We’re lucky, here in Australia, you know. Other countries are so polluted they have to travel miles and miles just to catch a glimpse of a constellation. We can just whack out a picnic rug and lie down in our own backyard.”

Marcus recalled that feeling of wonder, that indescribable awe, tracing patterns in the sky with his gaze. Feeling so very tiny and so very insignificant against the mammoth enormity of the universe.

Irina had shaken her head slowly.

“I don’t understand. What the point? Once you’ve seen a constellation once, you’ve seen how it will be forever. What else is there to look at?”

“Not all of us have a perfect visual memory,” Marcus had chided jauntily. “We need a refresher every now and again.”

“They’re just other suns. I know other people see the possibilities of the universe, all that splendour but… At the end of the day they’re just suns.”

Marcus drew himself back to the present once more. He ran a contemplative hand through his hair and the ends stuck up in all directions. Kyra noticed but didn’t point it out to him as he pondered.

“She has empathy, I think. She’s a genius. But mostly I think that she’s just plain misunderstood,” Marcus confessed to Kyra. “I will never condone murder. But I think we need to understand what happened here. She’s not like other people. The normal rules of logic and what humans are capable of doesn’t seem to apply to her. And I think that, in light of what she’s done, law enforcement needs to wake up that fact.”

The reporter took this all in for a second and chewed at the inside of her cheek.

“So… Do they know that now? Did what you see at the prison make you more confident that they have some idea of what they’re doing?”

He’d become so drawn into the hypotheticals of the conversation that it took Marcus a fraction of a moment to realise this was where Kyra had been leading him to all along. Her unspoken question was glaringly obvious – what happened at your visit to Irina’s cell? He swallowed and chose his response carefully.

“I think, like the rest of us, they’re very intimidated by someone like her. They have every reason to be. When I was at the prison they had her under constant surveillance, under heavy guard…” He spread his hands wide and huffed out a pent-up breath. “I can’t imagine how anyone could have got out of what they had her sealed up in.”

… Irina had fixed the puzzle with sharp, inquisitive eyes.

“What makes something impossible?” Marcus had asked to the lecture hall at large but his attention kept drifting to his star pupil, wondering what she would make of it.

One of the boys at the back flung his hand into the air and Marcus let him speak.

“Because it’s not physically possible to do, sir?” The stocky young man pointed at the projected puzzle. “No human can solve that. There is no solution.”

“Ah, well, Hugo, I’m glad you said that,” Marcus flicked to the next slide in his presentation. “There are lots of things we considered ‘impossible’ years and years ago. Flight. Sending messages through nothing but radio waves. Seeing the atom. At the moment curing cancer is considered ‘impossible’ but then, so was the answer to the black plague back in mediaeval times.”

“So… what? You’re saying something is only impossible as long as we can’t do it right now?” Hugo shot back at the professor.

Marcus left the question open, tilting his head sideways, playing Devil’s Advocate.

“What do you guys think? What makes something truly impossible, as far as the human mind is considered?”

Her tiny, unassuming voice finally issued to cut through the frustrated silence of her classmates.

“It seems to me that what we call ‘impossible’ is what we think is within the constraints of human ability. Teleportation, for instance, it not something we accept a human can do. We have rules. Physics is probably the best example for where we set rules according to what we can test and ascertain definitively. But then we are confronted with something that breaks the rule and we have to reassess. So technically, anything is possible, depending on what constitutes as enough to break the invisible rules we set upon ourselves.”

Marcus had clapped her twice and pointed at the puzzle on the screen.

“Now, as to the solution as to whether this puzzle can be done or not, it rests on one other thing. What do we consider success? Sometimes something as simple as how we classify the end result can radically change the circumstances of the problem.”

He clicked the mouse again and a squiggly line, obviously added by himself over the puzzle, flashed up on the existing image. He’d drawn a red line connecting the dots into a terrible rendition of a smiley face. At the bottom text flashed – I did it! The lecture had laughed appreciatively at the joke…

Finally, to cut off all memories and difficult questions, the Beach Boys stopped playing. Marcus took it as a cue to dismiss the bright and patient young reporter from his office, some sign from the universe that things had gone on long enough.

“Well, I should get back to work…”

Kyra nodded and gathered her things together. She got to her feet unwillingly, her visit spent up. Marcus flashed a glimpse at her facial expression and was a little bit taken aback by what he found. She was satisfied, perfectly happy with her information. She just wished they could have spoken longer, perhaps? He was equally stunned to find he shared the sentiment.

As she slipped out of his office Marcus gritted his teeth and called out to her at the last moment.

“Hey… Kyra?”

She turned around and waited. He tried to find some way to explain his actions.

“Look, I’m sorry if I was rude before…”

“That’s okay, I totally understand…” she tried to override his words but he kept going persistently.

“… and I know you’re just trying to get your job done and I’m making that difficult for you…”

“Seriously, you were very helpful…”

“…but it’s just I don’t want to talk about a lot of this and I wouldn’t go into too much detail…”

“…I don’t need anything else, I am grateful you gave up your time,” Kyra tried to insist.

“… and I promise I’m usually not this stingy with information,” Marcus finished a little helplessly, hoping that she had some idea of his inadequacy.

She took a few steps back towards him and held out a small hand.

“It’s been a pleasure. I won’t bother you again, I promise,” Kyra told him, still leaving that hand there for him to shake.

Marcus took her tiny hand in his own and found she had a surprisingly firm handshake.

“Good luck,” he offered. “I hope everything goes well for you.”

“You can always find me if you want to, you know,” she assured him as they let go of the handshake. “Kyra Kelsey. Just search for me on the net.”

With that leaving remark and a cheeky grin to go along with it, the pale young woman headed off, her low heels clacking along on the tiled hallway. Marcus watched the progress with amazement and a bit of admiration.

Women, he mused. Why are they always so unfathomable?

TO BE CONTINUED.....