Part four, Pearl.
Halle closed the door silently behind her and peered across the dark room. She could hear him breathing. He would have no reason to keep up the pretense, she thought, once she offered him the buckle. Not that she intended to give it to him. She had her phone and tucked into the waist of her black Pepe jeans were twelve inches of stainless steel kitchen knife. She flicked on the bedside lamp. His eyes were already open, staring blankly up at the ceiling.
What she hadn’t expected was for him to keep up the charade. She told him that she had what he wanted. Nothing. She showed him, she waved it in his face, prodded him with it. What was he playing at? Was it her, she wondered, had she been hearing things? She hadn’t had anything like that for years, not since middle school, when she’d hurt that boy, but she’d been just a girl then. Doctors had bored the voices away, she was fine now. She’d show him just how sane she was. She pulled the angry steel with a dark hush from its denim sheath. It smelt of strawberry-pop body cream.
Pearl could not remember why she had called, when Kyle got there, or even if she had.
“I don’t think it was me dear,” she said worriedly. He smiled, she was always like this. He peeked under the cover, without thinking, for a second, to ask. The sheets were wet, he’d thought so. “I don’t know who did that,” Pearl commented, seriously.
“Come on,” he smiled again, “let’s get you cleaned up shall we.” He lifted her into her chair single handed, he didn’t want to wake the others and she was tiny. “Like a bony little chicken,” he told her. He couldn’t be bothered washing her but he didn’t want her lying there wet, so he changed her nightie and went to get clean sheets.
He stopped and wiped his damp hands on his shirt and peered again down the corridor. There was a glow coming from under Albert’s door. Someone must have left the light on.
Halle tried to hold the knife steady, it wasn’t easy, she was shaking like an old phone. The viscous point barely pricked the skin, but he wasn’t going to move with it there, she thought.
But he still wouldn’t talk, despite her threats, so she pushed, gingerly, on the handle and made him a sadistic promise, in a voice that wasn’t hers. She shuddered at what she was doing, disgust and exhilaration mixing like volatile chemicals in her blood, making her fizz.
All he did was blow a little bubble of spit. It mocked her, she thought, it thought she was weak.
“That your best shot?” it said “That all you got, little girl?” Anger spread through her, like jungle fires at night and she kept her promise. It took her several moment to realise the giggling was coming from her.
“What the fuck?” said a surprised voice behind her, “Halle, is that- What is going on?” It was Kyle. ‘What is she doing to Albert?’ he thought. ‘Why is his duvet on the floor?’ and then ‘Why is he sitting up?”
The old man swung into a sitting position. As Halle turned he brought his heel down hard on her knee. It would buy him the seconds he needed, he was slow and stiff with the weeks of inactivity. With one hand he reached under the bed, there was a rip of tape and his hand emerged holding a large revolver; with the other he sent the knife flying expertly across the room. Kyle staggered backwards clutching his throat, slipping in his own blood. ‘Still got it.’ thought the old man.
Halle’s knee had exploded with pain. Shock waves rang through her bones, and she staggered, the room was swaying. Then he was on her shoving the gun in her face, pushing her up against the wall, telling her things, things she didn’t want to hear.
Pearl wasn’t sure how long she’d waited but she thought it had been a long time. There had been a boy, hadn’t there? He’d gone to get something. Or had he?Or was it the doctor? That could be it. She was getting one of her heads. She’d go and have a look.
He was telling her she was about to die. He wasn’t lying. Who the Hell did she think she was? Stupid! Little! Child! He punctuated these words with sharp, painful jabs of the gun, cutting her cheek. He rubbed at his groin, she’d hurt him at least, she thought.
He looked her straight in the eye, and stood back holding the gun, arm’s length, to her throat . He pulled his head back and away, shielding his eyes with the other hand.
Pearl pushed her way down the corridor. Someone had left an awful mess at the other end, she thought. It was all over the walls and floor, she was sure that it wasn’t meant to be like that, but people seemed to know what they were doing. There was the boy lying in the middle of it all. It seemed odd to her but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to look stupid.
She wheeled herself carefully around Kyle’s twitching body.
His flies were open. She tutted loudly, as she rounded a corner. Young people! Honestly! “Excuse me dear,” she said to Gourko, “sorry to be a bother-”
Gourko swung the gun round automatically at the little old lady and then realised his mistake. Halle punched him in the face with all she had, he reeled back and the gun flew from his grip.
‘Ooh dear!’ thought Pearl as the Colt Diamondback landed on her lap, ‘whatever next?’ She had little feeling in her legs but the heavy lump of carbon steel landed with a thump that shook her chair.
This was odd, she thought, but she wasn’t sure. A lonely neuron ran around a burnt out library in her brain panicking, trying to find a reference. She couldn’t remember where it had come from now. Well she better do something, they were probably waiting for her to do something, she didn’t want to look stupid. She picked the gun up and held it out like she had seen in the movies. It was heavy and wobbled in her hands. It was wobbling straight at Halle and Gourko. They both shouted
“No!” Halle adding
“Pearl!” Now what was it you said? thought Pearl. That was it!
“Go ahead punk,” she giggled, “make my tea!” and pulled the trigger.
Gourko was dead before he hit the wall. Halle looked over at the old man, half of him seemed to be missing or dripping from things. She tried to stagger over to the sink to throw up but passed out on the way.
As welcome unconsciousness enveloped her she could hear a little voice.
Pearl’s chair had been knocked over backwards by the recoil. Lying on her back with her legs in the air and her nightie over her face, she wondered how long she had been there.
“Everyone can see my knickers!” she complained again.
Halle’s boyfriend, Bailey, sits engrossed in the contents of the old attaché case. Its full of old photos and papers, yellow and curled, tied up in little bundles with tiny ribbons and neatly knotted string. She had laughed when he’d asked if that was it, and called him pathetic. What had he expected, Kryptonite?
Halle leaves him to the rusty brown envelopes and telegrams.
She climbs out onto the fire escape, up onto their roof. Takes off her top, and jeans, folds them neatly, slips off her Nike Skyraiders and stands shivering in a skimpy, brightly coloured, and clearly home made, costume.
She takes it out of her bag, it is too long to go around her waist so she fashions it into a figure eight crossing it between her breasts and fastening it behind her neck. The rush nearly knocks her off her feet and she staggers and falls over the edge.
Without thinking, she lands nimbly on a lamp post twenty five feet below. She feels its long glowing arm flex under her and spring back. She rides it, turning a slow somersault, high across the street, landing gracefully on a telegraph pole, her balance nanometre perfect.
The young woman runs effortlessly along the wires, scampers fifty feet up a wall and sits perched on a high roof like a bird, panting wildly.
She crosses the city in minutes. Swinging from lampposts jumping over walls, running along the train cables, tumbling over the roofs and chimneys: a blur in the night sky. A few people spot her and scream excitedly.
Halle comes to rest on a phone mast on the roof of a tall building halfway across town, sweaty and exhilarated. The seam on one of her shoulders is giving way, she is terrible at sewing, she hopes the crotch will hold.
She stands, tiptoed, on the very top of the mast, hundreds of feet up, and looks out across the city, there’s a scream of terror in the distance, a mugging perhaps, or worse. ‘Not tonight,’ she thinks, and leaps into the darkness.
She stands, tiptoed, on the very top of the mast, hundreds of feet up, and looks out across the city. There’s a scream of terror in the distance, a mugging perhaps, or worse. ’Not tonight,’ she thinks, and leaps into the darkness.
Part one, Chic.
“You should grow it” said one of the two care assistants getting him up, stroking his thick red crew cut admiringly. “Look there’s not one grey hair, you’re amazing Mr Champion.” She peered a little closer, “Not a single one!” and rummaged, impressed, in his scalp. It was all far too personal if you asked him.
She was new, had only worked at the home for a few days, but they all did it: pawed away at you, grooming and petting. Chic didn’t say anything, she was just being kind, after all.
“And all your own teeth! You’re a miracle!” she squealed, giving his cheek a little pinch.
Chic slid into a long, magnolia corridor. He pulled a chain from round his neck and looked at the object on the end. A belt buckle of a silvery alloy, about two inches round. It had an intricate diagram of a star system inscribed on the front. It hadn’t been worth it in the end, he thought, he’d lost everything. He slid it back under his vest.
His old biceps pumped the wheels rhythmically as he glided down the row of obsolete lives, marked off by identical blue doors, wheelchair groaning under his massive frame.
Chic had always been enormous. A born pugilist, he was boxing at middleweight by the time he was just eleven, and over the following years, a growing collection of trophies had crowded a little mantelpiece in Canning Town. The collection had stopped growing in 1940, when, along with the mantelpiece, the house and his parents, it was blown to smithereens by a German bomb. He’d signed up for the army the day after their funeral. And a year later he’d scrambled up a beach in Normandy, to kill boys his own age.
At the other end of the corridor was the day room, the aneurytic heart of Chestnut Lodge. Just outside was a whiteboard and on it was written the day and date in a green marker ink, to help orientate those residents that could, if not anchored properly, drift, lost in the past. No one had changed it in months.
Inside the day room an old lady clung to the straps of the crane-like hoist that was whirring her from her wheelchair to the high backed, wipe clean, plastic armchair that she would spend the rest of her day in. Terror and humiliation competed for dominance in her mind.
“Help me dear! I’m falling! Everyone can see my knickers! Help me dear!” Every day this process frightened and embarrassed her and every day as she panicked and blushed, knickers and limbs flapping like a dying pink pterodactyl in a nappy, two care assistants would try to calm and reassure her.
“You’re OK Pearl.”
”Don’t worry, no one’s looking.”
“Try to keep still sweetheart, we’re nearly there.”
Across from Pearl sat Albert Goodman, leant over to one side and slowly slipping down inside a grey NHS wheelchair. A bored fly wandered aimlessly across his forehead, pausing now and then to lick tackily at his scalp, not liking what it found.
As far as Chic was concerned his name was not Albert Goodman at all, but Alexander Gourko. An evil genius and cold blooded killer. His arch nemesis. Chic didn’t believe, for a second, that he was the helpless, dribbling fool sat across the way, quietly pissing himself. It was all a clever act, right down to the stupid lopsided expression. Chic believed that he had come for the buckle around his neck. Without it, the belt was useless.
A glistening column of dribble descended like a hesitant abseiler from his enemy’s lip.
They had been comrades once, fought alongside each other and led men into battle together. They had both been recruited, during the war, into an elite force called the Special Operations Executive: a clandestine outfit, charged by Churchill to set Europe ablaze and known as the Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare.
It was Chic’s strength, courage and loyalty that had brought him to their attention. Alexander, on the other hand, had been a scarecrow of a man, but had shown a composure and a ruthless tenacity that was invaluable in the chaos and exhaustion of battle. Chic had never met anyone so unsqueamish, he had mistaken this, at the time, for strength.
Chic glared at his adversary across the day room as another column of spittle began its descent onto the purée stained paper bib of evil.
“You bastard!” he screamed suddenly. “You murdering bastard! Come on, get up, you bloody charlatan! Get up!” He started to wheel himself slowly but threateningly towards his foe. One of the girls eyes rolled as if to say ‘here we go again.’ She took hold of the arms of his chair and began to push him slowly backwards towards the door, smiling.
“Come on Mr Champion, let’s not have any of that today.”
“He killed, he killed my-”
“I know, I know,” she cooed, not letting him finish, not interested. “Let’s see what’s going on in the TV lounge shall we?” she suggested kindly.
“Bastard!” he shouted over the carer’s sizeable, blue-checked backside as they exited. “Bastard!”
Six months before the end of the war, the two men had been sent on a mission high above the Arctic Circle to investigate ghostly sightings in the night skies over the Haldefjäll mountains. Something had come down, apparently intact, by an icy river. They were to identify its origins, no doubt military, and neutralise it.
As they approached, the scorched ground crackled under their feet like volcanic glass. What they found there had been a craft of some kind but, destroyed by the crash and cremating in its own fuels, more than that had been impossible to say. The pilot too, melted into the seat and controls, had been consumed beyond recognition.
Wrapped around this roasted corpse had been the belt, somehow untouched by the fire and soot, and cold to the touch despite the hissing and crackling of the carcass it embraced. And, lying apart but similarly unscathed, they’d found the small round buckle.
Chic fastened the two ends together with it. He could have sworn that it tingled and made his fist feel like a rock. Like he could punch out a cart horse, he’d said. He’d looked over at the thing in the seat. It barely looked human. But what else could it be? he’d thought.
Gourko knew. He’d looked up at the Milky Way, a dazzling scar of light ripping open the throat of the sky from ear to ear, and laughed. Even in space, he thought, they were fighting wars. It made him feel good, part of something. “Come on,” he’d suggested cheerfully, cracking his knuckles “let’s round up some peasants, find out what they saw.” But before they could set off on their grizzly fact-finder, the spit of a rifle shot drew their attention outside. Gourko peeked through a smoking hole in the wreckage, “Shit!” he muttered, a platoon of the Schutzstaffel had them surrounded.