CHAPTER THREE

I was drenched by the time I reached the end of the car park, never mind my house, but I find that there’s a certain level of rain that takes away worry. You get as soaked as it’s possible to be and think: fuck it. It had always struck me as a pretty good motto for life in general, and it had served me… not well, exactly, but at least I’d never been disappointed. And so that’s what I said to myself as I reached the edge of the freeway and turned down the footpath beside it. Fuck it. I was soaked already, and anything that didn’t include me slipping and falling on my ass in the mud could only be considered a bonus.

The footpath followed the canal, which snaked under the freeway and fed back into the city centre, skirting within a few hundred metres of my house along the way. The actual water was stagnant and old. Ten years ago, when I’d been a boy, I remembered riding my bike along the footpath, the gravel crackling beneath my tyres and disturbing all the fishermen who were waiting patiently, like tents, on the banks. Nobody fished here now, though; and the only bikes that came along the footpath were motorbikes on an evening. It was a desolate, sad little route, made all the more so by the city in the distance, like an enormous cybernetic limb where one old vein still remained, unbeating and unused. Soon, they’d concrete it in and build over it. Or maybe just above it, instead, leaving it to solidify beneath: mythic and forgotten.

That night, as always, there were a few shapes beneath the pillars of the freeway, sheltering. A dozen ghosts of Tom Joad, slumped around fires flickering in gigantic, rusted drums, casting hunched shadows over graffiti and fractured rock. The skin of the concrete was coming away in places, like the wallpaper in an abandoned house, revealing layers of older graffiti underneath. Beneath the surface of the city, like so many of the people who lived and worked there, everything was shabby and untended. After the comfort of the police station, it felt like coming home – but maybe that was just wishful thinking. Everybody likes to feel like an outsider at heart, and you can feel that way pretty fucking easily walking along under a road-bridge, but it’s an illusion. They can still hook you up whenever they want to, and then drop you back when they’re done. You’re still their fish, in their pond. It’s all a matter of social physics.

It was a twenty minute walk back along the canal, but I did it in forty. I was thinking about a lot of things – although not in any focused way: rather, I was letting my emotions and feelings wash over me, wave after wave. Sometimes, it’s difficult to separate out the threads that have led to you feeling a certain way, and all you can do is wallow in it: the same way that you can often only taste the end meal, never the individual ingredients. So that’s what I did now, and my life tasted black to me: as ruined and tatty as the underside of the freeway; and as dankly unpleasant as the water beside me. A while ago, there was Claire, and the fact of my affair with her soured my search for Amy, which I’d pretty much dedicated my life to ever since she went missing. That was four months ago.

I’ve always been big on the grand, meaningless gesture, and so at one point I stopped on the edge of the canal and took everything in like a deep breath. The flecked, golden M of the moon’s reflection in the water, spotted and shattered by rainfall. The glow at the horizon, and the black, starless expanse of the city to one side, and then Uptown above it. The slight rush of air. The sound of the rain on the water, and on the path, and on me. And I whispered I love you, Amy so quietly that I hardly said it at all.

A meaningless gesture, though. They always seemed to work that much better in the movies, with soaring music and audience identification, but never so well in real life. I listened to the same sounds afterwards, looked at the same things, and nothing had changed. And it didn’t make me feel any better, either, because with everything that had happened tonight it felt like a lie.

The rain was getting in my eyes by the time I arrived back at my house, pooling there. Stinging slightly. Clouds sponsored by Domestos and Imperial Leather; air sponsored by FreeZee. Even moving my body made me feel cold, and I was shivering as I got my keys out of my pocket. For all my stoic bullshit, I was only human. I wanted to feel independent and tough, of course, but also – a little bit more than that – I wanted a towel.

The house seemed quiet as I closed the door. Quiet and contained. Nothing, as it turned out, could have been further from the truth.

‘Don’t move.’

It was a man’s voice. I heard the sound of a safety being clicked off.

I stopped immediately, and then started shivering.

‘“Freeze” might be more appropriate,’ I said.

A towel was flung at me from the living room.

‘Here. Dry yourself off.’

‘Thanks.’

The guy stepped out as I was doing so, pointing a gun at me rather casually. He was dressed too neatly to be a burglar: I could see a nice, black suit underneath his beige overcoat, which was spotted darker brown in places with rain that had yet to dry. He looked like Dick Tracy without the hat, except his face was pock-marked and his hair receded to behind his ears, making him seem more like an ageing doorman. To complete that image, he had a vicious-looking cut above his eye. The light in the hallway was gleaming on his balding head.

I’d had a gun pointed at me before. When I was nineteen, I was caught up in an armed robbery at the convenience store around the corner from my hall of residence. It was one of those weird things that you beat yourself up about afterwards – Tyler, one of my flatmates, had asked me to pick up a pack of rizlas for him, but I’d forgotten them until after I paid. So I had to hang on for an extra few seconds, and if I hadn’t done that then this bouncer in my flat would have been my first proper gun experience. Instead, I had a shotgun pointed at my head for a full minute, as three other kids took the cash-drawers from the till and scared the counter-girl shitless. The guy who was drawing on me was so fucked up that his eyes were bright red and he could hardly even stand up straight. It was unreal. I mean, the gun didn’t look like they do in the movies: it was wooden and metal, and so alien to me that I figured it had to be a toy, even though I knew it wasn’t. In the movies, guns shine; they’re sleek, not dull and real. In the movies they fetishise these things, but in real life it wasn’t all that sexy. In fact, it wasn’t all that anything until about five minutes after they’d gone.

Now, I dropped the towel on the floor beside me. Upstairs, I could hear the sound of people going through my things. Above me, in the study, I heard something smash and someone swear.

‘Come in and have a seat,’ the guy told me, twitching the business end of the pistol towards the living room.

I made my way through, somehow unsurprised to find that there was somebody already in there, waiting for me. He was an old man – probably in his early seventies – but looked spry and commanding, and he was sitting in my armchair, over by the bay window, with one leg resting over the other, and one hand resting on the bulb-end of a mean-looking iron cane. He looked like some kind of porn king, in fact, with his full complement of silver hair still tinged through to a fake black in places, and skin that was as tanned as the bouncer’s raincoat.

‘Jason Klein,’ he said, as the door was closed behind us. ‘You live like a pig in shit.’

Pigs in shit are supposedly quite happy, but it seemed a foolish point to argue over. I noticed that he was sitting on some kind of blanket, and realised that, whoever he was, his ass was clearly too good for furniture as neglected and woeful as mine. Ours.

‘Sit down.’

He nodded to my other armchair; I walked over and sat.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘We have a couple of things to talk about, you and I.’

‘Right.’ It felt oddly as though I was at some kind of job interview. I supposed that I was, in a way. The post I was applying for was the rest of my miserable life.

‘You don’t know me?’ he said.

‘No.’

‘You don’t have any idea who I am?’

‘No.’

‘What you do know, though, is that you want us out of here as soon as humanly possible. Am I right?’

‘Oh yes.’

He nodded to himself.

‘Well, we’re going to make this nice and easy for you, because we’re busy men. Answer quickly and carefully, and we’ll be gone before you know it.’ He gestured with his free hand and looked around my pig shit palace almost hopefully. ‘As though we were never here.’

‘What do you want?’ I asked. ‘I’ve had a long night.’

My abruptness seemed to surprise him almost as much as it did me. God only knew where it had come from but – now it was here – I tried the feeling on and found that it felt good. All of it – Amy, me, Wilkinson, Claire – was like a dark room inside me, and anger felt like a small but vital light. One I could burn myself with and enjoy the heat.

‘Seriously,’ I said. ‘I’ve been through the fucking mill this evening, and I’m not in the best of moods.’

The man studied me for a few seconds, as though trying to decide if I might be edible and, if so, whether I could be fed to his dog. Then, he leaned forwards. His eyes were very white in the brown skin of his face; their centres, a perfect sea-blue. The kind of colour you have to have surgery to get.

He said, ‘I want to talk to you about Claire.’

Okay, let me tell you about Claire: about the truth behind the jpeg, as far as I know it. And I don’t know much. There are a few average, everyday statistics which we can dispose of first. She was twenty-one, when I met her. She had curly brown hair, hanging as far down as the tops of her arms; blue-grey eyes, fair skin and a few freckles. A slim figure, but not especially attention-grabbing. The sexiness with which she carried herself – and she was sexy – came from something much deeper than looks, and perhaps also a step sideways from personality. But, whatever it was, you saw her and you just couldn’t look away again. You chatted to her – let her dance with you – and there was no signing off.

After our first conversation, I felt bad. The argument I’d had with Amy was a few hours old by then, and orgasm has a way of removing urgency and replacing it with guilt. I went straight to bed, and fell asleep facing Amy’s back, with my arm around her, hand cupping her stomach, my face in her hair. My last thought was that was a mistake, but what I figured was that I could just put it behind me and not do anything so stupid again, despite having taken Claire’s e-mail address and promising that I’d write. And of course, I did write. The next time the clouds came over, it seemed less like a mistake and more like a good idea. To mail her again; to chat again; to do what we did.

We carried on like that for a couple of months. I’d send her e-mails from work, and we’d get together on-line in the evenings from time to time, when I stayed up late. She sent me a picture of herself. Every time we met, I felt bad afterwards, but not that bad – and less bad on each occasion. I think you can fall into step with the bad things you do: the dance seems mad and impossible at first, and then you get swept away and realise the moves are a lot easier than you thought. You begin to invent motivations and excuses, and then start to believe them.

I learnt a bit more about Claire. Her parents died when she was little, and she was raised by her aunt, who instilled in her this incredible love of life and rejection of the mainstream and the ordinary. She had a hedonistic youth, and had grown into a young woman who adored sex and everything to do with it. She was the most physical person I’d ever encountered: I could close my eyes and imagine her dancing to work, flirting with strangers on the way, doing whatever she wanted. She had freedom written in her DNA. The instructions that had built her body and soul were coded in her genes: make something wonderful, they said; make something that will sweep through other people’s lives and remind them what colour is and what it’s like to be alive. And when the clouds gathered at home, I came back to her, because it felt like I needed to know.

Every day, I trudged into work, and then trudged home. Amy was there in the mornings, and there in the evenings. Sometimes it was okay; sometimes it was great. A lot of the time, though, it was plain old bad. And Claire symbolised something more positive for me. When you’re young, you think you can do whatever you want with your life, and your parents lie to you and tell you that it’s true, but then you grow up and realise that you have to be like everybody else – or at least that you’re going to be, whether you like it or not. You’re not going to be that astronaut they always told you you could be. And you slide into the groove, and that’s that. Claire struck me as being someone who’d never done that, and never would.

I’ll be wearing a white dress, she told me, on the day before that one time.

What time does your train get in?

‘I have friends in i-Mart,’ the man told me. ‘After speaking with them, they gave me the impression you might be able to help me. That you might be able to tell me about Claire.’

‘What about her?’ I asked.

Thinking: what on earth is this about?

‘About what happened to her.’

‘Anything I knew, I would have told the police.’

He looked at me, and I felt press-ganged into carrying on.

‘I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t understand what you’re asking me.’

He said, ‘You met her.’

‘No.’

He ignored me.

‘You met her. We know this for a fact. She travelled to Schio on the eleventh of August at nine-thirty am. I have the ticket she used – which she kept, incidentally – and I have had people cross-reference listings of her on-line boyfriends with rail records. You arrived twenty minutes later on a train from here, in a seat you reserved over two weeks earlier.’

‘Jesus.’ I shook my head. ‘Your people have too much time on their hands.’

‘So. You met her.’

‘Yes.’

I was thinking: the ticket she used – which she kept, incidentally.

There are no incidental details in my life.

All this because of a railway ticket.

‘The police know, too,’ he said. ‘But they don’t care. They don’t think you killed her, and they have better things to do. I don’t think you killed her, either.’

‘I didn’t kill her. I haven’t spoken to her in months.’

He seemed interested by this.

‘When exactly did you last speak to her?’

‘In Schio,’ I said immediately. ‘That was the last time I had any contact with her at all.’

He leaned back. It was impossible not to see the look of disappointment on his face, and I knew that I was going to have to work hard to convince him that it was true. And although it wasn’t strictly true, as far as I was concerned it might as well be.

‘Why?’ he said.

‘Why what?’

‘Why then? After you’d met her for the first time. Why was that the end of it?’

Her pretty face, giving me that look. That look that was half-affection and half-pity. The one that said: you fit into the groove too well, no matter what you say, and if I offered to launch you into space on the adventure you always wanted, you know what would happen? You’d run away screaming.

You’re a nice guy, Jason. And I’m not into ruining lives.

After I met her, I went home, arriving back quite late. Amy was already in bed by then: three-quarters asleep and only vaguely aware of me slipping in beside her. She was naked. She was facing away from me, and I moved up against her, pressing my chest to her thin back, putting my arm around her and cupping my hand on her slight stomach. All I could smell was her hair. I’d come so close to making the worst mistake of my life, and I’d never been more relieved than I was right then.

‘I love you,’ I told her, kissing the side of her neck.

She didn’t say anything, but she moved slightly and took hold of my hand where it rested on her stomach and she gave it a squeeze. And she pressed back against me, giving a noise that might have been contentment.

Why hadn’t I seen her again?

I looked at the old man.

‘Because I love my girlfriend,’ I said. ‘That’s why.’

I saw her through the window of the train: an odd moment, but fitting in a way – that my first real-life glimpse of her should be occluded slightly by the sunlight on a streaky window. I recognised her face from the picture she’d sent, and would have known it was her even without the white dress. The way she was standing. It’s like everyone else in the station was forty per cent less real than she was. Crowds, sponsored by Stand-In.

She didn’t know me to look at, but I caught her eye before I’d reached her, smiled, and she smiled back and knew it was me. Amazingly, she didn’t look disappointed. I walked over to her feeling nervous, not knowing how to greet her or what to say. In the end, it was easy. We said hi to each other softly, and she kissed me on the cheek, her body like air in front of me. Would you like to get a coffee? And I said yeah, please – this is really weird, isn’t it? Isn’t this really weird?

Claire looked beautiful, and I was tongue-tied for a few minutes, but then I loosened up. I already knew her, after all: her e-mails and chat-voice had given accurate readings of her personality, and before too long we were talking easily and freely. She bought me an espresso. Knock it back, she said. Like a shot of spirits. When she did that with her own, I saw her throat and felt my stomach lurch. There was something half-wild about her – about the way she laughed so unselfconsciously, the way she touched me gently on the shoulder, the way this whole encounter seemed so easy for her. It seemed mad that we were in a train station, talking. Flirting, even – because that was what we were there to do, after all. That was what we both wanted. Ever since I’d booked the ticket (and I’d had to book it, just to be sure) I’d been anticipating it. The night before, we’d cybered for what would prove to be the last time. She’d described taking me into the toilets at the station and fucking me in one of the cubicles, wrapped around me and desperate. That was why we were here. But:

‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I told her.

‘Do what?’

‘You know. This. I don’t think I can do it.’

More than that, I could barely even look at her. The table was so very interesting. She frowned slightly, her chin resting on her hand, her elbow resting on the table, so perhaps my look got to her face in a roundabout way.

‘Have sex with me?’ she asked. ‘Is that what you mean?’

I shrugged, feeling awkward.

‘Yeah. I guess that’s what I mean.’

She shrugged herself.

‘Well, we don’t have to do that. Don’t worry about it.’

‘But that’s why we’re here. We’ve both been on the train for over an hour.’

‘Sure,’ she told me, standing up. ‘But we’ll have a coffee instead. Another one, anyway. Same again?’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I don’t think I’d ever felt so pathetic in my life, but at the heart of me there was this strange kernel of light, and I think it came from knowing that I’d made the right call. Suddenly, all the excitement I’d been feeling over the past couple of months felt like tension, and what I was experiencing now felt more and more like relief.

‘Don’t be sorry,’ she said, and then looked at me with that expression – the one that said she liked me but was slightly disappointed at the same time. She touched my shoulder gently, and then gave it a squeeze. ‘You’re a nice guy, Jason. And I’m not into ruining lives.’

‘Maybe I should go,’ I said.

She shook her head.

‘Why? Come on – let’s have another coffee. We can talk.’ She gave me a nice smile. ‘You can tell me about your girlfriend. Okay?’

I thought about it. As weird an idea as it should have seemed, suddenly it didn’t. In fact, I realised that I really did want to talk to Claire about Amy – that it seemed right. The feeling of relief was getting stronger and brighter. I figured that I had a lot I needed to say.

‘Okay,’ I told her, nodding. I even managed a smile. ‘That’d be really nice.’

‘We talked for a couple of hours,’ I told the old man in my flat. ‘And that’s all we did. She bought me another coffee; I bought her one later on. We wandered out into the city square for a little while. Weird, I guess.’ I laughed. ‘It was a nice day. And then we went our separate ways. And that’s it.’

And that was it, too – stripped down to minimal detail, anyway. But it had been an important afternoon for me: I’d told her about Amy, and the distance that was growing between us. I’d said that it felt like a light that was going out, and she’d listened and been sympathetic. Like a best friend – or the closest thing to it, with Graham seconded. As my train pulled away from the station that afternoon, I watched her from the window – standing there in much the same way as she’d been standing when I arrived. The whole afternoon felt like a beautiful holiday, or a dream, and it made me feel sad to see her move backwards away from me, reduced to a tiny white blur, and then swung out of sight by the corner of the track. I was never going to e-mail her again or chat to her. It wouldn’t have worked. It was just one perfect day. The End.

‘You never saw her again?’ the man asked.

‘No.’

‘Never spoke to her?’

‘No.’ I looked at him steadily. ‘Never saw her again, online or off. Never exchanged a word with her. That was it.’

He kept looking at me, almost as if he could smell the lie but couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. So, I furnished the lie with a few final truths.

‘I loved my girlfriend,’ I told him. ‘I still love her. My relationship with Claire, as much as it even was a relationship, was a mistake. We both knew it. We both left it at that.’

I didn’t feel like saying anything else, so we just sat and stared at each other for a second. The old man seemed about to say something, but then we both heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Two guys walked into the room. They were both dressed the same as the bouncer with the gun, but they didn’t look half as mean. One had glasses, foppish brown hair and seemed to be about eighteen; the other was all pasty-faced and mid-thirties. They looked like nothing so much as a couple of half-harried computer geeks, and they seemed nervous about whatever it was that they’d found:

‘Nothing.’

‘You checked everywhere?’

The younger guy nodded, pressing his glasses back up his nose.

‘His hard drive’s clean. And there’s nothing in the deleted data that could be recovered. If there was, we’d have found a trace at least. No sign of it on his disks either. I think he’s clean.’

The old man stared through him, looking disappointed and suddenly distant. Then, he nodded to himself, and started to ease his old body out of the chair.

‘Never mind.’

As the bouncer moved over to help him, the old man turned to face me.

‘Don’t get up, Mr Klein. We’ll see ourselves out.’ He seemed suddenly contrite. ‘I’m sorry for any… inconvenience.’

‘Don’t mention it,’ I said, wondering how many pieces my computer was currently resting in. ‘Any time.’

As if as an afterthought, he reached inside his suit and retrieved his wallet; from that, he produced a business card and passed it to me. I took it, and turned it over.

Walter Hughes, it said, along with an address uptown, telephone and e-mail details, and a stylised eagle watermark.

‘If you should hear anything,’ he said, replacing his wallet, ‘I’d like to hear it, too. I can be contacted as it says there. And if you drop my secretary a note on Monday morning, I shall arrange to have any breakages paid for and replaced.’

‘Okay,’ I said.

The situation seemed to have gone from one extreme to the other, and it had been a long night: my brain was having trouble keeping up with the swerves.

Hughes nodded to me once, and then turned to his accomplices.

‘Gentlemen.’

The four of them swept out of my living room, and I heard the front door close behind them. Within a few seconds, a car engine began gunning outside. I waited for it to drive away and then – when the sound had become a distant whine, barely even audible – I let out an enormous breath and went to find that second beer I’d been dreaming of, so long ago.

I had a dream that night, or a vision.

Sometimes, Amy used to wake me up, when she’d had a bad dream – it happened less and less as our relationship became stronger, and then more and more as it weakened again. Often, I’d already be awake; she’d be fighting with the bed, and you couldn’t sleep through something like that. I’d lie there, watching, wondering whether I should touch her or not. I wanted to; I wanted to reassure her. But I knew it would probably frighten her more than anything else, and so I had to wait for her to lurch awake, turn to me in the dark and cling there, shaking. That was how it always ended. Sometimes my back would bleed, she’d hold on to me so hard.

And that was what I dreamt about. I dreamt that I woke up and she was there, lying beside me on the futon – more of a dark shape beneath the covers than a real person – with blue dawn light coming through the curtains and brightening her edges. She had her back to me this time, not clinging at all, and she was quietly sobbing. Her hand was over her face; the futon was trembling beneath her. In the dream, I moved up against her, pressing my front to her back, and put my arm around her, curling it into the warmth of her belly. She ignored me. I whispered that I loved her, but she just kept crying. And that was when I realised the truth.

She was dead: not really here with me at all. I was alone on the futon, and it was like someone had opened a window beside me that allowed me to see into the world where she was. She was crying, oblivious to my touch, because somehow she’d found out about Claire. In my mind, the room she was in became a cell. The blue light was streaking through a food slat high in the door, and Amy was curled upon cool flagstones, crying inconsolably because she was dead and betrayed.

I don’t know how the dream ended – only that at some point it was finished and I was sitting up in that blue light of dawn, covers pooled around my waist, totally alone and crying. And I stayed that way for a while, wishing she was home, while all the time the memory of Claire’s voice was intruding into my grief.

Jason, if anything ever happens to me, she was telling me, sounding both scared and exhilarated, and I didn’t want to hear it then any more than I wanted to hear it now. The phone call had come out of the blue; I didn’t even know where she’d got my number from.

Why are you ringing me?

Because you’re nice, she’d said quietly, and then carried on, as though it was a difficult task that needed marching through. If anything ever happens to me, I just want you to remember one word, she said.

I want you to rememberSchio. Just that.

Click

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