The Bath Novel Award 2016 Shortlist
The God Bullet by Scott Bain (opening chapters)
25th August 2049, Outer London.
Jay reached beneath his bed, past the crumpled heap of his school uniform, and curled his fingers around the cool metal of his Horizon rifle. He pulled, unclipping it from the boards beneath the mattress.
Resting on his bed, it was the colour of deep shadow; so dark it seemed to draw the light from the room. Without edges and angles, the narrow barrel flowed into the ammo chamber; the high-powered scope hugged the main body, while the single strut of the stock poured from the end like a thin, black question mark.
It was designed for his body shape, his hands, and his reach, but in six months’ time, when he would turn fourteen, he’d need an upgrade. He swept a strand of hair from his eyes and kicked his school clothes back beneath the bed. He’d last worn them three months ago, or was it four? Didn’t matter. School was for little kids anyway, and he only went when he could be bothered, and when there was nothing else to do.
But nothing could get him to school today. He was waiting for a call, and it was an hour late.
Slouching to the widest end of his bedroom, he rested his forehead on the cool glass. Hundreds of cylindrical towers, identical to the one he lived in, rose all around like massive black supports for the grey slab of cloud that covered the afternoon sky. Up here on the 97th floor he could just see the dim grey edge of the M25 Fortress Wall in the distance, and beyond that, the slender pale spikes of the kilometres tall starscrapers of Inner London.
The thin black bracelet on his left wrist buzzed against his skin. He opened his hand, as if he was expecting something to be placed there, and the word, Damorion, hovered above his palm, glowing brightly in orange letters.
‘Accept,’ said Jay. A zero replaced the name, counting up in seconds.
‘The encryption is on, so don’t boil your head,’ said Damorion, his voice unhurried and deep, and even though it came from the tiny bracelet, an Omni-net band, it cut through the air so clearly, it sounded as if he was standing in the room.
‘The next job is a goer,’ continued Damorion. ‘And Jayboy, this one is spectacular. A thing of beauty. The target is immense, the payment… pant-wetting.’
‘Today?’ said Jay.
‘This afternoon. Can you get to me in an hour?’
‘Easily,’ said Jay.
‘Good. Great. It’s on then. Splendid.’
The call timer stopped at fifteen seconds then disappeared. He closed his eyes as a chill rush of energy climbed his spine. Time to do what he was best at – what no one else could do.
Three socks lay on his bedroom floor beside an empty packet of wasabi nuts, a black-hooded jacket with a slashed shoulder, cut by a mugger who was aiming for his neck, and a fan of grey mould spread from the air-con slits high up the wall. The only thing good about this bedroom was leaving it, and he tried to do that every second he wasn’t crashed out or re-stuffing his belly with the heated chemical slop he sometimes called food.
‘Hazards from here to Endenger Street, OL 8892,’ he said.
Glowing words appeared in the palm of his hand, as his bracelet dipped into the Omni-net, the high-speed web, so powerful you could access it on every square centimetre of earth: Water rationing riot centred on Barker Square…
As he finished reading the line, another replaced it: Northbound Nage Monorail system down due to deliberate derailment… Police attending multiple stabbing at ‘Cut the Cost’ Hyper-food store.
‘End,’ said Jay. The words disappeared.
A nice quiet day. No packs of rabid dogs, no collapsing buildings, no dirty bombs, no inter-block warfare, no exploding ice cream vans, no religious head-cases cooking themselves on street corners.
He touched a tiny nub near the deeply set trigger of his Horizon. The barrel whirred and slid back into the main body, and the butt shrank back. The rifle was now sixty-four centimetres long, just under half what it had been. He slipped it inside his black rucksack and shrugged it onto his back.
Reaching beneath a pile of T-shirts in his wardrobe, he drew out a white, unlabelled bottle. He squirted the light-grey liquid onto his palm then smoothed it over his face. He winced, sucking in breath. The burning sensation he could handle – that would go soon – although the cost stung like acid: five thousand New Euros a bottle. But the Ghost Gel had saved his skin more times than he could remember. If he was snagged by CCTV, a police drone, or a personal security camera, and was more than a couple of metres away, his face would appear as a glowing white blur, and their face-rec technology would see him as faceless, and so, beautifully traceless. It wasn’t illegal. If you had the money, you used it, although sometimes it attracted attention. But on a job, he always used it.
Gently shouldering the bedroom door open, he drifted into the living room. To the right lurked the kitchen area where empty ready-meal packets were piled high like landfill, and faintly-glowing type: Out of Synth Milk, Out of Bread, Out of Beer, scrolling across the smooth, front door of the fridge.
His father lay stretched out on the sofa, a plastic bowl of noodles balanced on his chest, his sockless feet flopping on the faded fabric. Imprisoned air lay still within the room. Out of the long, narrow window beyond him, a skinny scrap of cloud slipped by, blurring for a moment the black cylinders of the other towers. His father spooled a thick knot of noodles into his mouth then jabbed his fork in the direction of the flat screen TV embedded in the blue wall, where a line of riot police charged through a crowd.
‘That’s the way you treat them,’ he said, his words wrestling with the noodles. ‘Hit ‘em hard, fast, and way before they think you’re going to.’
Skin shone through the short grey hair at his crown, and his T-shirt and trousers seemed only half-occupied, as if lying on the sofa didn’t need much muscle.
‘I’m going out, Dad,’ said Jay, ‘I’ll be back later.’
A slight movement of his father’s head and creases, like a frown, formed at the nape of his neck. He remained facing the screen.
‘More courier work?’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ said Jay.
The sofa groaned as his father craned his head around. His eyes were red-rimmed, his skin ashen.
‘Please be careful,’ he said.
‘I’m always careful,’ said Jay. ‘I need to keep earning.’
His father nodded, then glanced away for a second. Jay took a step forward. He realised at once the effect of his words. He hadn’t meant to say it, but sometimes the truth just escaped, like a flapping bird he’d failed to hold onto.
‘I meant…’ said Jay. ‘I mean, I didn’t mean to…’
‘Don’t worry,’ said his father, as he heaved his legs off the sofa. The right one tipped to the side as his feet hit the floor, and he smacked it upright with the palm of his hand. ‘You’re right. You’ve got all the responsibility – too much for someone your age. Damn it, I just wish I could help more.’
He dug his hand into the pocket of his trousers and drew out a crumpled piece of paper.
‘Well, sometimes I can,’ he said, flicking the paper with his forefinger. ‘I got three hundred Newros today for my Police Valour Medal.’
‘No, Dad!’ said Jay. ‘It was… precious.’
His father nodded but his mouth tightened into a line, and his gaze searched the floor, as if he was viewing there whatever was flicking through his mind.
‘Precious, my ass,’ he said. ‘I’m pleased to be rid of it.’
‘I get why you sold it,’ said Jay, ‘but you’ll never get it back.’
‘Just like her, then,’ said his father, and he glanced up, his eyes stretched wide, as if he was trying to stop the tears that were growing there spilling over his lower lids. Then he looked back to the floor, his hands pulling and kneading at the receipt for the medal.
It was always like this. Jay always felt that the wrong word could cut through him, demolishing his fragile inner world even further, until one day he’d end up empty and silent.
Jay’s gaze drifted to the two dull-red dents on his father’s left forearm, the skin around them dark and puckered. There were four others hidden beneath his T-shirt, dotting his chest and stomach, and five on his right leg.
He’d only known him like this. There was no before. His father came home while he was on duty to check on his pregnant wife, and men from the drug gang that his force was investigating followed his trail.
They waited, and as he left the house, they fired and hit him eleven times. He’d only just survived, but he’d gone home while on duty, which was against the rules, so he was left with no pay, no pension, nothing except a medal to prove how brave he was for letting the drug gang use him for target practice.
But that wasn’t the worst thing that happened that day. A stupid single bullet found her, and as her life left his mother, Jay started his, flopping onto the ground from her dead body ten minutes later and six weeks early, surrounded by Med-crew and police. His first day on earth was a fight for survival, and he’d been fighting ever since.
‘I just need to make some money,’ said his father. ‘And this is just the beginning. I’ve got something lined up where I can work from home. It’s turning voice messages for prescriptions at the doctors I go to into documents that they archive. It’s not great pay, but it’ll help.’
‘That’s fantastic, Dad.’ said Jay. ‘It all helps, and it means that –’
Overlapping electronics beeps, increasing in volume and tempo, filled the living room. The TV screen dimmed, the sound lowered.
‘Damn!’ said Jay. ‘I bet that’s the school. Don’t answer it!’
A soft woman’s voice replaced the beeping noise.
‘Caller refusing to respond, although present. Automatic override, authorised by the Outer London Education Authority, engaged.’
‘I’m off!’ said Jay, backing towards the door. ‘Just stall them. Spin it. Make it up.’
‘No, no – no way,’ said his father, as he rose from the sofa with a grunt. ‘This is your responsibility. I don’t know what to say!’
Jay mouthed the word, Sorry, turned, and placed his hand flat on the door. It clicked and swung open. Slipping into the corridor outside he slowly closed the door so he could see his father standing by the sofa through the narrow gap.
A man’s face, delivered by one of the Omni-net sensors in the room appeared on the TV screen.
‘Mr Crick,’ he said, his mouth flickering into a smile almost wider than the thick-framed glasses he wore, ‘I am Jonathon Garthwaite, education supervisor for Year 9. Apologies for engaging the over-ride, but it is imperative we talk to Jay about his blatant disregard for following the rules of our arrangement.’
‘He’s not here,’ said Jay’s father, ‘he’s working on a… school project.’
‘Mmm. I have tried to contact him over the Omni-net but he seems to have a highly illegal blocker on his whereabouts.’
‘I don’t know about that, must be a bug or something. He’s a good kid. I’ll tell him you called.’
‘I’m afraid that will be insufficient. He is a minor. He has not finished any of his modules for… seventy-three days now. That is a module a day – a huge amount of work.’
Jay pulled the door tighter – he could almost feel Garthwaite’s eyes searching for him.
‘We may have to stop the special arrangement of attending school only one day per week, so he can attend to your… medical condition,’ continued Garthwaite. ‘Unless, of course, he develops an enthusiasm for school that is so far lacking.’
‘C’mon Dad,’ whispered Jay. ‘Get me out of this. Say something smart.’
His father sat upright and nodded sharply.
‘I’ll get straight on to him,’ he said. ‘He’ll have them all finished and with you by the end of the week.’
‘Great,’ said Jay, and he sighed, closed the door, and turned into the echoing corridor. The walls were dark grey and the ceiling lights glowed dimly, like a winter dusk. He tightened the straps of his rucksack as he walked. The corridor of identical grey doors curved gently left, following the outside walls. Some seeped spicy cooking smells, others shivered with pounding music.
Up ahead, a door to his right slowly opened. A woman stepped out, reached behind her back, and pulled the door towards her so that it was almost closed. She came up to Jay’s shoulder, her hair so white and fine it looked like a glowing force field was wrapped around her skull. She smiled and the lines on her face deepened and joined into a mosaic of wrinkles.
‘Good afternoon, Jay,’ she said.
‘Hi, Mrs Montemuro,’ he said, slowing to a stop, wondering again how she knew he was passing when the concrete blocks the building was made from had more sensitive hearing than she did. ‘You okay?’
‘Well, I’m right as rain,’ she said, cupping his elbow and slowly leading him towards her door. ‘But it’s one of my birds – Dylan, the naughty one – he won’t go back inside his house.’
‘Not a problem,’ said Jay, ‘but just be careful when you open the door that he doesn’t get out.’
They squeezed through the narrow gap between the door and the frame, then Jay closed the door. He walked down the narrow corridor to the living room with Mrs Montemuro behind him.
The living room was dotted with the type of dark wood and rainforest-flowery fabrics that looked like they were made in the same year that Mrs Montemuro was born. The music of Bach, Beethoven or someone else whose name began with a B drifted through the air, as Dylan, the naughty bird, circled the room, swooping and whistling.
His body was lime green, his head red, and his wings deep-sea blue, but as he flew pale blue light flickered through the feathers on the leading edge of his wings and specks glittered on his green body, and when he opened his orange beak to call out, it glowed brightly like an ember in a fire.
‘He’s my most expensive bird,’ said Mrs Montemuro. ‘I don’t want him to hit something and get hurt.’
‘He’s too good at flying for that to happen,’ said Jay, as he raised his arms up, fingers splayed, and herded Dylan into a corner where the ceiling met the walls. A quick step onto a low seat and Dylan was in his hands, his wings pulsing lightly against his palms, his glowing feathers flickering manically. He was a beautiful creature for sure – a bird with slivers of DNA from fluorescent sea creatures spliced into him.
Mrs Montemuro flicked open a small opening to the glass tank that was set into the wall and Jay fed him through. He hopped onto a branch as the other birds took flight and stirred the air with their fluttering, glimmering feathers.
‘Well done, Jay,’ said Mrs Montemuro.
‘Pleased to help,’ said Jay. ‘Just make sure he doesn’t get out of the window. Lots of people would love to have a bird like that.’
He said goodbye to Mrs Montemuro and stepped into the corridor. He palmed the lift button and glanced around. It wasn’t the most dangerous block to live in, but bad things still happened, and he didn’t fancy a sharpened screwdriver twisted between his ribs. The lift doors opened. There was no one in it, but it was filled with an acrid stench that clawed at his nostrils. He put his hand over his mouth and nose and thumbed the down button.
The doors slid open and he stepped onto the street. There were no lobbies in the tower blocks – they became holding pens for lowlife. He took a big stinking lungful of Outer London air and looked around. The wind, dry with grit, screamed down from the massive wall of glass above, lifting fluttering plastic bags into the air like a flock of decrepit birds.
‘So, what’ve you cooked up for me this time, Damorion?’ he muttered.
The road that looped around Jay’s tower block was a seething mass of lorries, buses with metal-grill windows, old diesel cars, hybrids, bicycles and flat-bed trucks overflowing with tools and cement-dusted workers, sipping from plastic cups.
An orange rickshaw, bouncing across tarmac-filled potholes, weaved around a truck brimming with plastic bottles. Jay raised his hand. The driver nodded and pedalled over. He had a pink towel draped over his head and his skinny legs and arms glistened with sweat.
‘Endenger Street, OL 8892,’ said Jay, as he swung his backpack onto the wooden seat and climbed in. The driver stood on the pedals, pumped hard, and pulled into the traffic. The little bells around the canvas canopy wobbled and chimed.
They left the forest of tower blocks and moved with the traffic down Stamberger Street. Thousands of hand-painted signs, selling everything from shark fin soup to loan sharks, fanned up the buildings like ivy. Satellite dishes pushed between the signs like flowers tracking the sun, and cages of vegetables, bolted beneath the windows, dribbled muddy water and mouldering leaves to the street and crowds below.
The sun carved a gap in the clouds, and for a few seconds a block at the end of the street became a sheet of brilliant shimmering light as the sunlight flared off thousands of microfilm solar panels flapping from its window ledges.
As the traffic accelerated the rickshaw darted around a hollowed-out pig carcass and a man trading punches with a security guard. It shot between two cars, the gap narrowing until the back wheels of the rickshaw clipped a bumper, and Jay’s head smacked against the canopy and the little bells sang. The rickshaw driver screamed in Indo-Russian and lashed out at a windscreen with a hockey stick he’d yanked from beneath his seat, but it bounced off as if the glass was a drum skin. After a sharp left turn, they were there.
‘Endenger Street,’ panted the driver, glancing over his shoulder. ‘Forty-five Newros.’
Jay handed over a fifty as he slid from the back seat.
‘Keep the change,’ he said.
The driver placed his hands together as if praying, his shoulders rising and falling with each breath.
‘Most windscreens are Graphene glass,’ said Jay.
The driver shrugged.
‘You can’t break them,’ continued Jay.
The driver shrugged again and peddled away. He weaved down the street between the three-storey lorries. Someone was going to finish him if he didn’t calm down – if the fumes didn’t first. What a rubbish job. The old man who used to live next door to Jay told him he’d never be a rickshaw driver, that he was destined for greater things. He was only six or seven at the time, but the old guy was insistent, angry almost. It was weird he’d worked out what Jay could do before he’d worked it out for himself.
I know what you can see, he’d said, I’ve seen you looking at people. I can tell you have the sight. You can see things other people can’t. I never thought I’d live to see someone like you. When you’re ten, go see my friend Damorion Phorus. Here’s his address. You must. Promise me! But never tell anyone. See him, and you’ll have a good life, a different life to the others idiots ‘round here.
He’d followed the old man’s advice, and he was right, his life was different, but he hadn’t warned him how different it would be.
Pushing his way through the crowded pavement, the engines and shouts from the road were muffled by the jostling bodies around him. He shoved past a woman dragging a trolley of books, an orange-robed monk who thrust a handful of prayer beads his way, and a baboon sitting on a neat stack of car tyres pointing at tarot cards.
Tobacco smoke, coffee, rotting food, and the sharp tang of garlic soup filled the air. He headed for the black door wedged between a cafe with cracked windows and a mini-mart that never closed.
As he neared the door swung open. He climbed the black-painted stairs, worn to pale wood at the centre, two at a time. The door at the top was a single, undisguised plate of steel without handles or windows, but he knew the hallway was peppered with tiny speck-cameras.
The motors whirred and the door swung open. Damorion, clad in a dark blue velvet suit that hugged his almost two-metre lanky frame, opened his arms wide.
‘Jayboy!’ he said. ‘Come in, come in.’
Rows of narrow windows, like fish gills, cut into the white wall behind him, sent soft sunlight over the black pigtails that rested on each of his shoulders.
Air stroked the back of Jay’s neck as the door closed behind him. The room was easily four or five times bigger than Jay’s flat.
To the far left was another steel door, painted white, and to the right three dark wooden bookshelves, eighteenth century, Damorion always bragged. Actual paper books lined the carved, polished shelves.
Damorion gestured to two black sofas on each side of a low mahogany table. In the centre, a burning stick of incense jutted from a black metallic skull.
‘A drink?’ he said.
Jay shook his head. His stomach was churning – it always did before a job.
He slipped off his rucksack and dropped it onto the soft fabric of embroidered black roses. Damorion sat opposite stroking the narrow strip of hair that dangled from his chin. The seven different coloured beads threaded along it glinted in the light.
‘You look tired, Jayboy,’ he said. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Usual stuff with… you know.’
‘Your dad’s a good man,’ said Damorion. ‘It’s just that sometimes people don’t come back in one piece from the bad stuff. It’s not his fault.’
As he looked at Damorion, with his half-smile, he realised it was so easy to get a perspective on his life here that he couldn’t get anywhere else. Of course, what they were involved in was dangerous, but so was just living in Outer London, and weirdly, being here always made him feel safe.
‘But he doesn’t try to move on,’ said Jay.
‘Oh, I think he does,’ said Damorion. ‘But he’s damaged, frazzled, flipped out for sure. In fact, most of the world’s like that, but you know, there for the grace of God go I.’
‘What’s that mean?’ said Jay.
‘It means bad stuff happens, man, all the time, but you’ve just got to pray the bullet hasn’t got your name on it.’
‘Which brings me neatly to,’ he continued, and reached across the table to place something in Jay’s hand, ‘the bullet you’re going to smack into some lowlife.’
He took the transparent bullet between his thumb and forefinger and stared at the layer of dense green mist inside. As he tipped it, the mist rolled around like a freaky little sea, spitting orange sparks.
‘Nasty one,’ he muttered, and reached forward and placed the bullet on the low table. Taking a deep breath, he pushed his hands through his hair then laced his fingers across the back of his neck.
‘Well, who’s it for then?’ he said.
Damorion paused, then smiled, his dark eyes almost disappearing within the creases of his face.
‘Joshua Musgrave,’ he said.
Jay tried to take a slow, relaxed breath, but the mention of his name made panic boil through his chest, and his breath edged towards a gasp.
‘No problem,’ he said, and he leant forwards, picked up the incense stick, and began to tap the white ash into the palm of his hand.
‘So who’s paying for this?’ he continued.
‘A wealthy benefactor who wishes to remain anon,’ said Damorion adjusting the knot of his orange-flowered tie. He spoke without haste; his voice soft, as if there were sleeping children nearby he didn’t want to wake.
Jay pushed the incense stick back into the metal skull, then began to blow the ash around in his palm.
‘So what’s in it?’ he said, glancing at the bullet. ‘Doesn’t look like it’s only going to make him scared of cats for two minutes.’
‘Oh, Jayboy,’ said Damorion rubbing his hands together. ‘This one is sweet. Very high-calibre curse. No changes to the body or physiological condition, but as soon as this enters his chakra… well, it’s going to hit him where it hurts – big style.’
‘Which of his chakras…’ said Jay, as he blew the ash from his palm through the dim sunlight, ‘…do I hit?’
He followed the pale grey flakes as they fluttered onto his black trousers.
‘Mmm, yes…’ said Damorion, and his mouth compressed into a line. He held his right hand over the table, then opened and closed it twice.
The Omni-net sensors in the room picked up his flexing hand, a standard ‘on’ move, and projected a diagram of a standing man just above the table top. It was about a metre tall, and glowed dimly as it rotated. The details of the body were diminished but it had seven glowing mini tornados of light dotted in a line from the top of its head to its stomach, moving from purple at the top, through blues, greens, orange and to the final red one. They were the chakras, the normally invisible energy points of the human body.
‘The solar plexus,’ said Damorion.
‘Okay, not bad,’ said Jay.
It could have been worse. The upper chakras were easier because they were headshots. The lower ones were hard, especially the root chakra at the base of the spine. But the solar plexus was beneath the ribs, a stomach shot. He’d need to be shooting at ground level; headshots were best from tall buildings.
Damorion turned his hand over and flexed it again. The diagram stopped turning, the other chakras dimmed, and the yellow solar plexus chakra glowed brighter.
‘It’s the energy centre of power and control. This is what Musgrave is all about, and because he’s ultra-obsessed with power, and money, the centre of the chakra will probably be wide open, so you’ll have a nice clean shot.’
Jay stared at the curse bullet standing upright on the table. He never asked exactly what the curses did – he didn’t need the extra pressure of knowing what horrors lurked within – but the bullet was a beauty all right, and if it was anybody else but Musgrave as the target, he’d agree at once.
The green mist pulsed against the clear bullet casing. It was almost begging him to fire it.
He picked it up. ‘How much?’
Damorion pursed his lips, blowing little whistling sounds. He fished a square white envelope from beneath the table, unfolded one end, and shook out a layered clump of purple bank notes that slid onto the dark wood.
On one side loomed the thin, bearded face of the overall European Premier, Francis Akamatsu. Jay picked one up and turned it over. On a twenty-one pointed star lay a map of Europe and the words, United Confederation of Europe, 1000 New Euros. He slapped it down on the table.
‘One hundred thousand Newros!’ said Damorion, grinning. ‘One hundred and fifty thousand more on completion!’
Jay slumped back on the sofa. With the back of his hand he swept the ash flakes from his trousers. This was the one he’d been waiting for.
Damorion sat motionless, his dark eyes examining Jay’s face, as if he was constructing a curse and carefully pouring and mixing the tiny amounts of chemicals.
‘I’ll do it,’ said Jay.
‘Yes!’ said Damorion, and he drew a metal tube from the top pocket of his jacket.
‘Of course, it’ll be the usual fifty-five, forty-five split,’ said Damorion.
‘Of course,’ said Jay. It always was.
‘Splendid, Jayboy,’ said Damorion, and he flicked open the lid, pushed the bullet into the black foam lining, and handed it to Jay.
‘Musgrave has been on dubious business in Inner London for the last three days,’ said Damorion. ‘But my sources have informed that he’s on his way back. Should be passing through security at the M25 Fortress Wall about now.’
‘I don’t know how his bodyguards get through,’ said Jay, ‘they’re walking ammo dumps.’
‘That’s nothing for Musgrave,’ said Damorion. ‘Newros, that’s how. Lots of them. He could fly through on a nuke if he wanted to. But he’s a creature of habit: on each return he eats at the Aegean Restaurant… day, night, doesn’t matter, he’ll be there. This is where you’ll hit him. Of course, it’ll be a ground level shot, because of the angles, but I’ve sorted it so three Styrocard crates are being delivered to the corner of Paxkay Lane. There’s holes in all of them. Get inside one, and you’ll have a clear view across to Musgrave.’
‘You’re joking?’ said Jay. ‘I’ll have to hit him when he goes in the restaurant. And what about someone moving the boxes while I’m inside?’
‘I’ve hired someone to watch you. They’ll keep their distance, and won’t let anyone near.’
‘But I’m going to have seconds to hit him,’ said Jay, ‘from a box!’
As Damorion’s shoulders trembled, his eyes creased closed, but no sound came from his mouth. It was as if he was impersonating someone laughing, although it was how he actually laughed.
‘If the schmucks that turn up here to buy one of those pathetic… cannons, could hear you now,’ said Damorion, his gaze flitting to a desk beneath the narrow windows, where a fat-barrelled handgun sat, ‘knowing the gifts you possess, they’d sell their own mother to have a fraction of it.’
‘It’s not a gift,’ said Jay. ‘It’s just something I can… do.’
‘Well that’s your problem right there, you don’t appreciate it.’
Damorion rose from the sofa, his long limbs unfurling, cranking him to full height. He walked to the handgun and picked it up. ‘Do you know how many times one of these was fired in Outer London last year?’
Jay hissed out a deep breath. ‘Drop the interrogation, it feels like school.’
‘One quarter of a damn million, roughly,’ said Damorion. ‘And do you know how many times the curses took?’
‘Twelve per cent of them!’ said Damorion. ‘Twelve! And only by stupid, dumb luck. Something you don’t have to worry about.’
He sat on the sofa opposite and pointed the handgun at Jay. The end of the barrel was as wide as a tin can, and peppered with tiny holes.
‘This one is my update,’ continued Damorion. ‘Better than the other amateur garbage out there. It fires sixty-four identical mini-curses in one go, much higher take rate, though it’s still only touching twenty per cent success. But you know, if people want to curse each other because a neighbour’s dog left Mount Turd on their step, that’s their business. Fine with me, I’m just supplying the service.’
Jay looked at the clunky weapon. He’d never fired one, and didn’t want to.
‘What about the exit plan?’ said Jay.
‘The guy who’s watching the boxes will block the lane, but of course, make it look coincidental,’ said Damorion. ‘When that happens, go.’
Rising from the sofa, Jay picked up his black rucksack and shrugged it onto his back.
‘And watch out for police,’ said Damorion, ‘they’ve been skulking around this week, undercover, but you can spot them a kilometre away.’
‘In my block, last week,’ said Jay, ‘someone got two years for possession of a mid-calibre curse. It’s getting more dangerous man; I’m going to be upping my fee.’
‘Now, now, let’s not be hasty, I do everything I can to keep you safe.’
‘Mmm,’ said Jay.
Damorion grabbed Jay by both shoulders and shook him gently. ‘Come on Jayboy. Once you’ve paid off all those medical bills your dad’s racked up you’ll be saving the cash for your future. And what a future it will be! I’ll look out for you, always. You know that.’
‘I know, you’re right,’ said Jay.
‘Just keep pumping the hits out and you’ll be able to make a better life for you and your dad.’
Jay nodded then turned to the door.
‘Hey, wait,’ said Damorion. ‘The lines, the poem, the thing we always do… I always do!’
‘Do we have to?’ said Jay, turning slowly. ‘It’s just… a bit…’
‘It keeps us – you – safe.’
‘We have to,’ said Damorion.
Displayed on the white wall beside the door were clay pots, gold discs linked by chains of ivory, hollow arrowheads, copper pots lined with diamonds, the remains of slingshots, a knife handle carved with the tornado-shapes of chakras, and in a deep glass frame, fingernail-sized bulbs of coloured glass, cracked and worn cloudy by time.
‘Now, listen,’ said Damorion, ‘and concentrate on the words.’
With a sigh, Jay turned to the artefacts. He knew Damorion meant well and it was his way of honouring the ancient Japanese curse makers who started it all, but when curses were rediscovered in the 2020s, they appeared into a new world. This honour stuff was out of date. The only thing that made sense now was his Horizon sniper rifle.
Damorion closed his eyes, and began:
‘In the storm, fate bends like bamboo.
The flying jewel tames the inferior man.
Thunder at the centre of the circular lake.
The image of good fortune.’
‘Thanks,’ said Jay, and he turned to the door. It swung open.
‘Could you have waited more than a millisecond?’ said Damorion.
The steel door closed and Damorion disappeared from view.
Jay ran down the steps, pulled open the door, and stepped onto the street, thick with noise after the peace of Damorion’s place. He turned right, and began to walk, picking up his pace, keeping his head down so he didn’t catch anyone’s gaze.
Every footfall seemed lighter than the last, as Damorion’s instructions settled within his mind. His breathing became tighter, but it wasn’t from exertion.
He was about to line up his crosshairs on Musgrave.
Jay stood at the end of Paxkay Lane. Rows of orange containers overflowing with black bin bags stood against the walls. The sun was crouched behind the dark brick buildings and the lane was draped in deep shadow.
The pale brown Styrocard boxes stood where Damorion had promised, lined up beside a metal garage door as if they were about to be moved inside. They were about two and a half metres high, and two metres wide. A man was standing in an alcove a few steps from the boxes. He had a woollen hat pulled low, almost covering his eyes, and was wearing a dark grey workman’s overalls. He nodded. Jay felt the tension drop from his shoulders. It was Damorion’s guy, to keep the boxes safe. Jay returned the nod then peered out of the alley.
There was grass in the centre of the square, dotted with skinny trees, and ringed with a low metal fence with gaps in it like knocked out teeth. Grey buildings surrounded it on all sides, like a prison wall with windows. To the left shimmered the long windows of the Aegean Restaurant. Outside, tables stood beside trees in clay pots.
By the box closest to the square, Jay glanced around, then opened the hinged door. He stepped into the chemical whiff of newness. A narrow rectangle was sliced into the side facing the square. Pale-grey light seeped through. It was a good height for shooting from but he couldn’t rest the barrel there – it would stick out.
Dropping his bag, he gazed through the slit. There were no lamp posts or walls or trucks between him and the restaurant; the light was good, the wind light. He pulled the rifle from his bag, pressed the assemble button and felt the tiny motors and gyros send the butt, scope and barrel out. He drew the metal tube from his inside pocket, flipped open the lid and tipped the curse bullet onto his palm. The orange sparks and green mist filled the air with flickering light.
He held the bullet with tweezers and sprayed it with liquid that dissolved his fingerprints, skin flakes or anything else that could connect the bullet casing to him or Damorion. When it was in the firing chamber, he peered through the slit again, but the square was still empty. Musgrave should arrive in the next thirty minutes. He had a bit of time to spare.
‘Photo album,’ he whispered. ‘Archive – windy day.’
A face appeared, glowing in the centre of his palm, projected by his Omni-net band. The wind had flicked strands of her dark hair across her jaw and mouth. She smiled, her eyes creased, her head tipped slightly back.
As he gazed at his mother’s face, a longing so intense it felt like it was shutting his heart down detonated within his chest. Sometimes it bent him double, and he felt he was folding in on himself, again and again, smaller and smaller, until he was a single bright point of pain. But it made him soft and slow and weak, and in Outer London if you were any of those things for more than twenty seconds, the next thing you were was dead.
So why the hell did he do it? He always looked at the picture before a job. The closest he could get to a reason was that he wanted to remind himself that there was another world alongside the one he lived in, where people smiled, unconsciously, and there were no bullets or curses, and that one day he would find the source of that light glinting in his mother’s eyes, like sunlight on the crests of distant waves, and then he’d have it too, and other people would see it in him.
‘Close,’ he whispered, and the picture disappeared.
Turning, he gazed out onto the square. A black car had pulled up beside the restaurant; low, heavy looking, definitely armoured. An identical car pulled up behind it and two big guys in black suits squeezed out, the suspension rolling as their weight left the car. They scanned the square. Musgrave was early.
Jay grabbed the Horizon rifle and stood, planting his feet, left leg forward. He shook his head, flicking away his mother’s image. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and gazed through the scope. The end of the barrel was about ten centimetres from the slit, enough to keep it hidden.
The doors of the first car popped open and another two men in dark suits climbed out, followed by Musgrave, smaller than the others, wearing a grey pinstripe suit and waistcoat, his head shaved, except for a dark strip of hair along the centre of his skull. He looked exactly like the CCTV shots from the Omni-net.
‘Closer’, whispered Jay, and the scope zoomed in so the crosshairs intersected Musgrave’s head. The orange range finder read 63.7 metres. A dragon tattoo covered his neck from ear to collar. It was animated through his skin, spitting red and orange flames along his neck and across his throat. He turned and sauntered towards the restaurant, his back to Jay.
He was facing the wrong way.
‘Chaff,’ whispered Jay, and the firing chamber clicked. He aimed at the boot of the rear car and squeezed the trigger. The rifle kicked into his shoulder as a pellet of nano-metal fibres smacked into the high-gloss black paint. The car lights flashed manically and the whoop of the alarm bounded around the square.
Musgrave span to face the car. Jay felt a tingling surge of adrenalin, or fear, or energy, he didn’t know what, but he knew that every time he needed it, it appeared, roaring bright and unbidden through his veins and skull like a solar wind.
He moved the sights back to Musgrave who stood with his arms wide, palms up, shaking his head slowly, probably believing the car doors hadn’t been locked.
To Jay, seconds became minutes, like floating in the space between the beats of his heart. The shimmering discs of spinning light on Musgrave, the normally invisible energy points, his chakras, span into existence, but only Jay could see them. An Indigo chakra on top of Musgrave’s head, a dark purple at his forehead, a blue at his throat, green over his heart, but the yellow solar plexus chakra, slowly spiralling just beneath his ribs, was the one he was after.
His eyelashes swept the lens as shimmering silver specks flowed around the watery-looking walls of the chakra, then down into the tiny gap at the centre, the isthmus, where it connected with Musgrave’s body.
‘Curse,’ whispered Jay, and the firing chamber clicked in reply, pushing the bullet into its launch position.
In a single fluid movement, he moved the crosshairs over the isthmus. Musgrave shuffled left but Jay tracked with him. He knew he mustn’t snatch at it – he had to take it… slowly.
A steady breath slid from Jay’s lungs and his finger brushed the trigger. With a sharp hiss of gas, the butt of the rifle punched into his shoulder and the view through the scope juddered and blurred.
‘Wider,’ said Jay.
The scope pulled back. Musgrave was doubled over like a question mark, clawing at his stomach. Flecks of the curse bullet’s plastic casing glinted on the pavement. There was no green and orange mist in the air. The curse was inside Musgrave’s body. It was a take.
Bodyguards flitted across the lens like shadows, training their pistols around the square. Shouts of, ‘Get him inside! Where’s the shooter! What happened?’, echoed. Musgrave mouthed, ‘Curse!’, as the tallest guard dragged him into the restaurant. Jay made a clicking noise with his tongue and a warm feeling, like low voltage electricity, fizzed along his spine.
As the boot of the rear car sprung open, something moved inside, but a truck, its engine gunning hard, lurched across the entrance of the lane. Its side panels screeched as it pushed tight against the bricks. Damorion’s man had completely blocked off the square. He’d bought Jay time.
Jay jabbed the assemble button and the Horizon shrank down. He dropped it into his rucksack, shrugged it on and kicked open the Styrocard door. He began to run but not so fast as to attract attention.
A moth of unease fluttered at the base of his neck. He glanced over his shoulder as something dark and fast shot over the truck, dipped, then lanced down the alley about three metres from the ground.
It was a drone. Rotor blades embedded in its stubby wings span silently, and at the head, a silver globe glistened like a single dragonfly’s eye. They must have launched it from the boot of the car. These guys were pros. Now they had eyes on him. He dropped to a crouch and picked up a fist-sized lump of concrete. As he cranked his arm back to throw it the drone flicked upwards twenty metres.
As he opened his hand the concrete thudded to the ground. This was bad. The Ghost Gel would make his face a white blur to the cameras but he didn’t want the drone following him.
He tightened the straps on his rucksack and sprinted down the alley, turning left into a street of jewellery shops, heading for the Underground. He dodged past people and shop fronts with bright neon signs for Cheap Gold, Gold bought, Best Gold.
A man in a pink plastic jacket stepped out from a huddle of men.
‘Hey kid,’ he said. ‘Wanna fake watch? Good deal. For your old man?’
As Jay moved quickly to his left, the man hooked his long bony fingers into the shoulder strap of his rucksack. Jay spiralled and fell onto his back, smacking the air from his lungs.
‘Leave me alone!’ he said, his breath ragged gasps. ‘Someone’s after me.’
‘Who?’ said the man.
‘Someone from school,’ said Jay. ‘They’re going to beat me up!’ He scrambled to his feet as the man grabbed his upper arm so hard it felt like the blood supply was cut off.
‘Let me go!’ said Jay.
‘Who you running from? Nicked that bag? What’s in it then?’
Jay glanced up, knowing what he’d see: the dark wedge of the drone, waiting patiently in the concrete-grey sky.
The man followed his gaze.
‘Whoa!’ he said, turning to the group. ‘Guys look! A drone’s after the kid.’
A gleaming black car stopped in front of a line of metre-high traffic-stopping bollards. A man in a black suit stepped from the passenger side and aimed a pistol at the first in the row.
‘Who’s after you?’ said the fake-watch man.
‘Them,’ said Jay, looking towards the car.
A high, whining noise knifed the air as the concrete bollards were pummelled into clouds of grey-white dust. The gun was military-grade by the sound of it. Jay felt the grip on his arm weaken. He spun quickly, levering his arm free, and exploded into a sprint, heading for the green ‘U’ sign of the Underground.
As he glanced back, the car cut through the drifting fog of concrete powder and accelerated down the street as people leapt out of the way and huddled by the shop fronts.
The car brakes screamed behind him. The entrance was six, seven strides away. He pushed harder. His back, with all its soft muscle, crunchy spine, and hot blood and skin, suddenly felt like a fifty-metre-wide target. Planting his right foot, he launched off the top edge of the steps, dropped a few metres, then his heels cracked into concrete and he slipped and rolled into something big and grey, and they crashed down the remaining steps together, the edges like machete blades at his ribs, as the wall above his head exploded into powder and chunks of concrete that rained down as a waterfall of rubble.
He pushed himself into a crouch. A big man, wearing a grey-checked coat with a fur-trimmed collar, lay on his back, his eyes wide, his mouth gasping for words his lungs couldn’t commit to.
‘Stay down,’ said Jay, panting.
The drone flew down the stairwell and through the sheets of trickling concrete, its single iridescent eye tracking Jay. The sound of running footsteps followed in its wake.
‘I’m dead,’ he whispered, as he bounced to his feet. He tore through the echoing ticket hall of purple walls and lime green ticket machines, and planting his hands on the cold metal of the ticket barriers, he vaulted them.
‘No ticket! No ticket!’ it screeched.
His feet clattered on the metal steps as he bounded and stumbled down the escalator. He glanced over his shoulder. The drone followed ten metres away like it was connected to him by a wire.
On the wide area between platforms, a few people walked from the corridor on the left. A train must be in. He increased his pace, barely keeping upright, his feet scudding from the steps, his arms stretched along the handrails so he could throw his body forward, and his breath flitting from his open mouth in tiny shuddering gasps.
As he leapt from the steps onto the grey-tiled floor the air behind him became a roaring, expanding ball of sparks and clanging metal, as bullets from Musgrave’s men ripped through the escalators.
A strangled scream shot from his lungs and he covered his head with shaking arms and darted into the narrow corridor, past people standing so flat against the walls it looked like they were trying to push through it. The graffiti-daubed train was still there, but the mesh-covered glass doors were closing.
‘Hold the doors!’ he yelled, but there was no one near them. ‘Hold them!’
He tugged his rucksack from his back and sent it low and hard across the tiles. The crumbling rubber seals along each edge clenched it and he fell against the doors and forced his arm into the tight gap then squeezed his body through onto the train, tugging his bag with him.
The doors gasped, then closed. He covered his face and peered through the spaces between his fingers. The Ghost Gel would protect him, but not if a camera was close. The drone hovered outside, dipping and weaving. The train pulled away as two dark figures ran through the drifting haze at the bottom of the escalators. Jay slid down the glass panel beside the seats and slumped to the gritty, sour-smelling floor.
As the train picked up speed, the carriage began to shake, and the lights from the station flashed by faster and faster, until there were only the looping black cables and alcoves of the tunnel, dimly sketched by the fuzzy, yellow lights inside the train.
Resting his arms on his knees, he dropped his head. Globs of hot sweat ran down his ribcage and drenched his T-shirt. He wiped his brow with the back of his trembling hand.
That was the closest call he’d ever had. Their firepower! He would have been pink mist. Damorion had messed up badly. Musgrave’s men were prepared for anything and Damorion should have known. That was his job.
His breathing calmed as he gazed down the train. There was no one else in the carriage. He stood, looked behind: just rows of mustard-coloured plastic seats facing each other. The train jarred and tilted as it swung around a bend. An empty soft drink can rolled from under a seat, then jangled down the aisle. Jay shot his arm out and clasped the support pole in the centre of the carriage. Something dug into his palm. He slid his grip lower, moved closer, frowning at the…
He felt like someone had just reached inside him and squeezed his heart. On a black resin stick-disc glinted the dark purple of a millimetres wide lens – a speck-camera. He traced its gaze to the doors he’d squeezed through. The drone! It’d fired it as the doors closed. He ducked behind the camera, picked up the drink can and smashed it from the pole.
But he knew it was pointless. Sweat bloomed across his back and he felt his heart stutter. This was bad, so bad. The camera was closer to him than two or three meters so the Ghost Gel wouldn’t work, and it would’ve had plenty of time to snag footage of him, hack into the train’s systems, send it back to the drone, then to… well, he knew where.
He picked the camera up between his thumb and forefinger, pushed the soft black resin of the stick-disc over the lens, and dropped it into the opening of the can. He let it fall, flattened it with his boot, and kicked it under a seat.
Damn! He’d been so stupid. Amateurish. If only he’d moved straight down the train. He knew drones could fire cameras. What was he thinking? Well, he didn’t really have time to think. He ran his hands over his body and rucksack feeling for more, but there were none.
The train heaved as it slowed, and the lights of the Marley Lane station flickered through the meshed windows. The doors hissed open and he stepped onto the platform. As he walked, he felt lighter than usual, like in a dream, and he noticed that his legs didn’t feel quite as solid as they had earlier… in fact his whole world didn’t.