"Pictures of perfection
... make me sick and wicked..."
(from a letter by Jane Austen)
Too soon, she awakened. As she often did, she anticipated
the alarm by exactly two minutes. She reached over and switched
it off, fully alert. The motion awakened him, barely. Looking
around the room, she was reminded of something Logan had said
about hotel rooms being a common place for suicides. The room
was certainly anonymous enough, Just like the victim. Anonymous.
It wasn't as if the sergeant had found out very much about
her, unless he wasn't telling. But then, he had seemed to
want to rub what he knew of her in their faces. If he'd gone
into wherever she lived acting as he had last night-
He was holding his head, sitting at the edge of the bed.
She handed him her flask.
"There's still some in."
He drained it. He gave her a weak smile, but the eyes still
looked sad. Very sad.
"Hey," she said. "I've had an idea."
The bag full of junk that she had been meaning to drop off
at the church in Ullapool was still in the trunk of the car.
The clothes were worn in the right places, especially the
torn pair of jeans that she selected from the tangled mass.
The long-sleeved t-shirt that she had been wearing for the
last two days was perfect on top, as was Ray's old tasseled
leather jacket, which she had picked up as she ran out the
door for the car when they left Muir. She replaced her hiking
boots with a worn out pair of flat-soled canvas slippers that
she once used to protect her feet from the cold concrete floors
on Muir. They were dirty and unsuited for street use, but
that was ideal. She left the drug kit and the dart gun in
the trunk of the car, and made sure her beeper was in the
outer pocket of her pack. She emptied the knapsack of things
that had any anything of personal value, then stuffed it with
more old clothes. She buried a taser at the bottom.
At the Tesco, she bought mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick
in suitably garish colours. Sitting behind the wheel of the
car, she layered the gluey materials on until she looked every
bit the 15-year-old who had been seriously misinformed about
the proper use of make-up. She shed her thick white gym socks
and replaced them with thin anklets They had a thin strip
of machine made-lace sewn onto them. She added, as a final
touch, a tiny gold chain that she knew would leave a green
line on the skin of her right ankle for the next week. She
did a last look over, then applied an appalling, cheap scent.
Now she smelled and looked like a teenaged girl who had been
living in the street for a while, or at least in an American
street. It would do, she decided. It would have to.
As she walked, she wondered if it had been right to leave
him behind. She knew from the police files into which she
had hacked that Zoe Hanlon had lived in a house with a bad
reputation. Their mutual friend had made a visit to the place
and taken names, which had been duly annotated by the local
constabulary. Addicts, runaways, people waiting to be arrested.
All kids. The sergeant hadn't gotten much out of them, and
neither would Pete. Too old. Too obviously the voice of authority.
She could still pass, if she was careful. She was sure that
they knew something more, enough perhaps to find Malcolm if
he was still hiding in the area. Pete would do the pubs and
the police stations, where her appearance would have undermined
him. If he found something, he would set off her beeper. She
had it set to vibrate silently, in the outer pocket of her
bag. Every so often, she touched it to see if there was a
message. She made him promise that he wouldn't go after Malcolm
without her. It had seemed the right thing to do at the time.
By the time she reached the top of Diss St, she was sure
that the disguise was effective. She had been picking up eye
tracks from men, all the way there. She didn't look back or
meet their eyes, but she could feel their naked, unapologetic
stares mapping every inch of her body. The women were looking
too. The older ones, especially, looking at her with naked
hatred and contempt. She went with city eyes, letting it all
slide off her until she came to door of Number 26.
It was a row house, the last one on the block. The house
beside it had been demolished at some point, and that side
of the structure was shored up with wooden piers. The front
looked in good repair, but she knew what to expect when she
knocked on the door. She could smell it from outside. She
waited for some time, until the door opened a crack. A shaved
male head was barely visible within.
"Is Zoe there? She lives here, right?"
"Yeah. Zoe Hanlon. Red hair? Irish, like me?"
"Irish? You're a Yank, you stupid cunt."
"And I'm Irish, too. So, is Zoe there?"
An ugly smirk flashed across an ugly face.
"You'll have to wait. She's not here right now."
"Who the fuck is it?" came a voice from inside.
"Friend of Zoe's. Says she wants to come in"
He was barely suppressing laughter.
"So let her in," came the voice from inside.
"Get in," he said, opening the door wide. Definitely
a skin, with a handmade swastika tatoo on one pale skinny
shoulder. She felt the tiny star-of-David burning at her throat,
under her shirt.
He pointed into what had been the parlour, then vanished
down the hall and into what she decided must be the kitchen.
The room had been respectable once, as Pete might have said.
The walls had a coat of paint not more than a few years old
and the carpet was recent, but all of the furniture was gone,
the mouldings and wainscotting had been ripped out, and the
light fixtures had been replaced by bare bulbs hanging from
wires. The only furniture was a worn overstuffed chair, two
stained mattresses and a television sitting on an overturned
lard pail. There was a blanket draped across a string across
an archway, cutting off the view into what might have been
a dining room. Loud snoring sounded intermittently from behind
the blanket. A peel of laughter issued from somewhere in the
back. She sat down on a mattress, back against the wall, and
waited for someone to notice her.
If it had been a house like this in America, she would have
just offered some cigarettes around and eventually someone
would have talked. In fact, they all would have talked and
sorting out the truth from the fabrications would have been
her biggest challenge. This wasn't America, it was England.
She wouldn't be able to talk theinformation that she needed
out of them unless they were drunk, and it wasstill early
for that. She would have to wait until one of them got tired
ofthe joke and came to her.
For the first hour, she didn't see a soul. The snores kept
coming from behind the drapes, and every so often a bout of
loud swearing would come from somewhere in the back. Around
10, she heard the voice from upstairs. It was wavering, terribly
old but very direct.
On and on, regular as a metronome. There was a crash from
somewhere in the back and the skin re-appeared. He gave her
a brief glance, then headed up the stairs. As he mounted them,
he put on a shirt that covered his tattoos. She heard a door
slam. The Ows stopped abruptly, followed by a loud "Christ!"
Five minutes later, the skin came back down the stairs slowly,
carrying a white enamel basin very carefully. Every time he
mis-stepped and the liquid sloshed, a look of disgust crossed
his features. He stopped at the bottom, glanced at her again,
then disappeared slowly down the corridor. From somewhere
in the back came a raised voice.
"Fuck, not in here. Gerrid of it."
There was a splashing noise from behind the drape. The snoring
stopped abruptly, followed by a muffled "Hell" and
the sound of a window shutting. The snores resumed a few minutes
At 11:30, two girls came in without knocking. They went in
the back, then one returned, stopping in front of her, staring.
She was black, with cropped hair. She looked about 15.
"Got a cig?"
She took one out for the girl, and one for herself. She lit
them up with a pink plastic lighter that she had bought in
The other girl looked her over carefully.
"You a friend of Zoe."
"What's your name?"
"Yeah. My Dad's Air Force. I ran away from home. I met
Zoe in Manchester, she told me that she knew a good place
to crash here.
The girl took a deep draw on the cigarette, then put it out
and carefully placed the unconsumed part into a pocket in
her starter jacket.
"Didn't know Zoe had any friends."
"Don't know any others. We met at a rave. Told me where
she was from, told her where I was from. Got talking. You
She was getting a bit annoyed at this. She had no idea if
she was convincing or not. The English were just such fucking
The girl disappeared, and no-one else came back for an hour.
She felt the beeper through the thick nylon fabric of the
pack several times, but there was no vibration. No message
from Pete. Only more laughter from the back.
At 12:30, things took a turn for the dramatic. She heard
the screech of brakes outside and the clunk of a car coming
to a stop against something, too hard. She looked out through
the curtain. A tiny blue late model Alfa Romeo had come to
rest against a fireplug. A pretty, well-dressed girl extracted
herself from it, looking dazed. Obviously high on something.
She staggered into the house.
"Where IS he?"
The girl was privately educated. No Northern accents like
the others had. More laughter came from the back.
"Who the hell are you?"
"Kathy. I'm a friend of Zoe's."
The look that passed over the girl's face was unreadable.
She watched the girl turn away and pull aside the curtain.
More mattresses. A large, musclebound boy was sleeping on
one of them. Handsome, unshaven like Pete.
The blanket fell closed as the girl went to him.
"You fucked her, didn't you? You miserable shit."
The sound of something large moving quickly. A crash, something
heavy falling, a shriek, a muffled growl of insistent but
unintelligible words. She was standing now, about to move
The girl emerged from the curtain, staggering, face covered
in blood, eyes blinking the wet red mess away.
"Hit me," she whispered. "Fucking bastard
The girl went down on her knees, and started to sob. She
looked into the crimson face. There was a cut, and cuts to
the face always bled like hell. She took a fresh tissue from
her pack and made to wipe off some of the blood. The girl
flinched away. The black girl and her companion returned.
"Leave she alone."
"I was only trying to-"
She was alone in a moment. She heard the snoring start up
again from behind the blankets. Still no message from Pete.
By 1, she was still debating her next move as fate decided
to intervene on her behalf. As the skin returned, empty-handed,
from a trip upstairs, he stopped at the bottom of the stairs,
and broke into a smile.
"Jan," he exclaimed, as a blond kid, maybe 18,
came in through the door. At that, six more people came out
of nowhere, and even the sleeper roused and limped out of
his lair towards him. They all disappeared into the back,
but ten minutes later the blond kid came in and crouched down
in front of her.
"Hi. I'm Jan."
He had a Dutch accent and the most beautiful blue eyes she
had ever seen. Blond hair, just like Doug's. Similar but much
finer features. Only in Europe could someone be that good-looking
and not obviously be gay.
"You are waiting for Zoe."
"Yeah. Seen her?"
Jan put on a very serious look, and placed his hands on her
"Kathy, I have some very bad news for you."
He nodded, his mouth set in a line.
"Zoe is dead."
She hoped it was convincing.
"Yes. She was murdered two days ago."
She would need tears now, to complete. She looked into Jan's
face and drew Doug out of it. Doug's laugh, his wit, or what
passed for it.
She closed her eyes, and thought of her mother telling her
that her Grandfather had died the week before and had already
been buried in a pauper's grave by the time she was back from
dance camp. Her mother hadn't wanted her to miss the chance
to meet with other, more normal children, as she put it.
Her father, signing her away to a demon.
The X-Men dead in Dallas.
Pete hanging from a shower rail, strangled by his belt.
Her eyes snapped open. Jan was holding a small vail filled
with white crystals in front of her. His hand was slowly tracing
a path down her inner thigh.
"Come upstairs with-"
He met her eyes and could not finish. She could barely see
him through the tears, but every synapse was ready. She could
feel her leg ready to come up into his groin as she flattened
his pretty nose into his face. Her hands, both smashing his
dace into the wall, both twisting his legs to shatter the
knee. Her nails, raking across the eyes. Killing the little
But she didn't. She pushed him away. There was no strength
in her arms at all. He looked scared for a moment, then composed
himself, gave a sniff.
He vanished into the back. She crouched, frozen for a moment,
and then lost sense of everything. She knew that she was crying,
hard, but that was all. Crying for poor dead Pete, hanging
on the shower rail because-
Something hit her, in the square of her back, hard. Something
like a staff. It couldn't have been, because her back was
up against the wall. She centered, in spite of the terror.
Some time had passed since Jan had left her. Enough time for
you and your lover to die a dozen deaths, said a gruff voice
from her past. She hadn't lost control like that before.
There was someone in the chair, now, someone she hadn't seen
before.He turned to her, but because she had centered, she
didn't lose it. He didn't have a nose, or much of the rest
of his face for that matter. It was the worse case of acne
she had ever seen. She wondered if it even was acne, or if
it was a cancer or leprosy. He stared at her for almost a
minute, saying nothing.
She was unable to reply. He reached down somewhere on the
other side of the chair and handed her a brown plastic bottle.
It was a dispensing bottle from a pharmacy, half full of a
codeine-based cough syrup.
"Not worth it."
"She's not worth it. Zoe. Not worth it. This'll make
it go away. Better that way. Not worth it."
The face turned away and vanished with its owner into the
back. She stared at the bottle for a moment, then put it into
her pack. At least no-one here would get to abuse it, that
way. She stood up still shaky, and headed for the door. She
was aware of someone coming up behind her. She turned to face
the small girl standing there, hesitantly.
"You knew Zoe?"
"Let's get a bite. I know a place."
It was a cafe around the corner. A dismal place, though not
as dismal as her companion. The girl was wall-eyed, with coke-bottle
NHS glasses that only made the problem look worse. She had
long dark stringy hair, and spoke so softly that Kitty could
hardly make out what she was saying. Her name was Vera.
"It means the truth, like."
"Um, yeah. Dunno what Kathy means. It's Irish."
"I'm not. I'm from Dagenham. Fords is there."
The proprietor brought them two teas and the ubiquitous plate
of chips. He leered at her, then disappeared back behind the
counter. They were alone.
"I didn't know Zoe was dead," she said quietly.
"Yeah. We only found out yesterday, like. This arsehole
who makes like he's something out of the telly comes by and
tells us all. Treated us like dirt, he did."
"Who was it?"
"The filth. Stomped on Joe's foot when Joe spoke out.
Typical filth business. Mashed his foot flat."
"Bloke behind the curtain."
"He hit that girl."
"Christina," Vera enunciated, as if the pronunciation
had been explained to her many times before. "Pissy Chrissy,
that was. Bloody slag. Never stops letting you know how much
better than you she is. Sleeps with anything what moves."
"Thought she might be Joe's girl."
"You could say that. He's not much better. He had Zoe.
Chrissy found out. Stupid, she is, going after him like that."
"She all right?"
"Yeah. We got the bleeding stopped. She went on about
how she was going to set her father the magistrate on us,
but she wouldn't dare. She'd never get her stuff then. Not
that she pays for it."
"She fucks for it?"
"Not her. Oh no, not her. She will, though. No, she
gets it from her Mum. Her Mum's a doctor. She trades. I help."
"You could get jailed for that."
"Oh, no. Don't help her steal it. I mean, she just takes
stuff, and she doesn't know what it is. I get all the stuff
I need, so long as I try the stuff and it's OK. I mean, I
only got really sick once or twice. Daggy keeps some charcoal
around, just in case."
"Charcoal?" She was starting to feel ill.
"Yeah. If something goes wrong, then you drink it. Looks
like black mud, tastes like mints. Gets it all out your system."
"What if you pass out before you can ask for it?"
"Well, that's it then, innit?"
Vera turned and looked out the window, not really focused
"You said Daggy."
"It's his house, innit?"
"Was he the one with the zits?"
"No, that was Gatesy, not Daggy. Daggy's the skin."
"Oh yeah. He let me in. Didn't tell me she was dead."
"Well, that was his way of having a joke, see?"
"It wasn't fucking funny."
"Well, he didn't know you, did he?"
"Who's the old man upstairs?"
"She's not a man. It's his Gran. He takes care of her.
Good sort Daggy, underneath it all."
"Looks like he could use some help. Couldn't he get
the council to send someone?"
"You must be joking. What'd you think they'd say when
they saw that parlour? He manages. Gatesy helps. Going to
ask about anyone else?"
"Not if you don't want me to."
"Makes a break."
"There was another girl who talked to me."
"What she look like?"
"Black, short hair, stretch paints. Starter jacket."
"Jenny. She used to be all so high and mighty, she was.
Ran for the school, ever so fast, she was. Thought the stuff
would make her run faster. Stupid bitch. Picks up men down
in Mytholmroyd she does, now, to pay for it. Used to pick
them up here, then her father picked her up, not knowing it
was her. Beat her black and blue, he did. Not that you'd notice.
She knew Zoe too. We all did."
"Gatesy said that she wasn't worth it."
Vera was looking out the window again.
"That's about the size of it."
Vera didn't say anything for a while, then turned back.
"I'm going to want to get something before I tell you
Vera left the table with her teacup, and returned with it
full of hot water.
"You finished with that?" she asked, pointing at
Vera took her empty teacup and put half of the hot water
into it. She opened the ketchup bottle and topped up the rest
of both cups with the thick red fluid. She gave both cups
a good stirring, then smiled.
"I like tomato soup, I do. Get it for free this way."
Vera finished off both cups, then gave her a small smile.
"Get twice as much when you've got a friend to help."
"Yeah. But what did you mean about Zoe? I met her in
Manchester, we shared some stories. She didn't seem like a
bad person. She said there was a good squat here."
"I wouldn't say she was good. But then you musnt've
known her that well."
"She could make you feel like a top person, she could.
Beautiful smile. She could make you laugh. Won us all over
with her Irish charms, she did."
"She won me over."
"She would. Magic, she was. Black magic. I mean, she
gave me this."
Vera opened her bag and extracted a carefully folded piece
of paper. She unfolded it to reveal a sketch of herself with
"Made me look beautiful, she did. She drew everyone,
they all liked her. She didn't have to pay. She had us all.
She had Joe. She had me. She told me I was special inside.
I'll never look like that. Never."
Vera looked like she was about to break down.
"She had me too."
"Yeah. That's why I wanted to find her."
"You thought she was special?"
"Yeah. Thought she might be the one."
"No. She wasn't worth it. Took us all for a ride, she
"What happened to her. Who did it?"
"No-one we know. She said she'd met some bloke in a
pub, wanted to take some pictures of her. Then she was dead."
"Dunno. That's all she said. Full of questions, aren't
Vera was looking out the window again, but then turned back,
"Look, you were like her, right?"
"Gatesy, he gave you something, before you left."
"Could I have it? For telling you all this?"
"He was going to give that to me. If you give it to
me, I'll do the same things with you what I was going to do
"No," almost a bit too firmly.
Vera returned her gaze to the window and finished her soup.
She couldn't think of anything to say. An entire bloody day,
and a total dead end. Vera's face suddenly lit up.
"Look! It's Jan!" Vera was out of the seat and
out of the door before she could say anything else, meeting
up with the smiling Dutch boy as he emerged from Christina's
Alfa. Christina was there too, sporting an inexpertly applied
bandage. Vera was pointing back at her and they were all looking.
She felt like shit. She reached back for the beeper, and found
that it still hadn't activated. She reached into the pack
to make sure it was on. She fished out a tin of Altoids, taped
closed with duct tape. She opened it. It didn't rattle when
it was shaken because of the tissue that someone had jammed
in there. Her beeper was not there. One of them must have
stolen it. She ran out of the cafe, racing for a phone box
as fast as she could.
Concluded in Part
3: The Thin Blue Line.
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