The Paradise Street All-Night Bus Station
Peligan City was worn out and rain-soaked and the dark clouds that hung over it cast long and murky shadows. Only the city centre escaped the gloom, with its circus of dazzling casino lights and flashing billboards. Beyond that, hidden behind the glare and the smoke, were the back streets where steam rose up from the sewers like mist. There, far away from the slot machines and the car horns, the only sound was the rustling of the rain and the wet smack of footsteps as Lil Potkin ran down the road, her shadow stretching and shrinking as she passed through the yellow pools of light beneath each street lamp.
She arrived at Paradise Street, out of breath and just in time to see her bus, a lumbering double decker, chug away in a cloud of black fumes. As it passed, the back wheel sank into a pothole; Lil recoiled half a second too late and got slapped in the face by a wave of puddle water.
‘Hey!’ she spluttered, glaring after the disappearing rear lights. She tried to think of a good comeback while the grimy liquid dripped off the end of her nose, but nothing came to mind, and there was no one around to hear it anyway.
She looked at her watch, and then reluctantly turned to the All-Night Bus Station. It was 8.35pm. She had half an hour to kill and nowhere better to kill it.
As she stepped through the automatic doors, she was hit by the glare of fluorescent tube lights. The waiting room was a grid of chipped white tables bordered by pairs of plastic chairs, all securely bolted to the floor. High-level speakers leaked electronic background music, just loud enough to be annoying but not so loud that you could actually hear what song was playing. But it was warmer than outside, and it was dry.
Lil, a wiry twelve year old with cup-handle ears and a belly full of ambition, wore her hair cut into a bob with a short fringe and a signature yellow rain mac. A small rucksack, containing a well-thumbed book, a notepad, and a nest of chewed pencils, was slung over her shoulders.
Wary citizens avoided the city centre after dark but Lil wasn’t easily scared. She’d been stalking the streets for years, looking for a story, sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong, waiting for a scoop big enough to get her on to the staff of the underground news pamphlet, ‘The Klaxon’.
She found an empty table and sat down, ignoring the grim sensation of soggy jeans pressing against her skin and then taking out her reporter’s notebook, pulled the pencil from its spiral binding, flipped the cover open with a practised flick of the wrist and looked around for someone interesting to watch.
The waiting room had only a few inhabitants; a couple of stubble-faced night workers drinking tea; cleaners in overalls, probably on their way to factories or office blocks, and a large family clutching suitcases who looked like they would be spending the night there. Lil chewed thoughtfully on the end of her pencil, then she drew a big question mark on the next blank page of her notebook and coloured it in.
She caught a dark shape out of the corner of her eye. Sitting by the window, only a few tables away, was a boy. His skin was so pale it was almost white and the arms of his grey sweatshirt rode up revealing his bony wrists. A newspaper lay face up in front of him and he was absorbed in reading the cover story with his head bowed low and a lock of brown hair falling untidily over his forehead.
Lil peered over her notebook so that she could watch him without being seen.
A man in a donkey jacket lurched into the seat opposite the boy and took the newspaper. The boy looked up but didn’t say anything. The man licked his thumb, opened the paper and shook it out. After a minute, she saw him shiver and pull his jacket collar up. He looked about him uneasily, and then without a word he stood up, dropped the paper on the floor and moved to another table. The boy watched him go.
The lighting overhead buzzed and flickered.
Lil lowered the notebook a little more. She took in the boy’s tattered trainers and the frayed hems of his jeans. She had been thinking about getting a hot drink to pass the time, maybe she would get one for him too.
As she stood at the drinks machine looking at the choices Lil flipped the coin she was going to use with practiced nonchalance. Out of the corner of her eye she could see that the boy was looking at her – probably pretty impressed by my coin flipping, she thought and dropped the coin. It rolled over to where he was sitting.
‘Fantastic,’ she said under her breath, and then out loud. ‘Sorry. I dropped some money under your table.’ The boy blinked back at her with a mixture of fear and embarrassment.
Lil looked at the coin and then at the boy. ‘It’s right there.’ She pointed. ‘Could you reach down and get it for me?’
He didn’t move.
‘Too much trouble for you to just pass it to me?’ Lil frowned at him. ‘Fine, keep it if you want; you look like you need it more than I do.’ The boy just stared, his dark eyes were round. ‘You don’t say much, do you?’
He shook his head, swallowed and then croaked, ‘Sorry,’ in a voice that sounded like it hadn’t been used for a while
Lil shrugged. ‘That’s ok; some people say I talk too much.’
The boy gave her an awkward grimace. Lil tucked her hair behind her ears and then un-tucked it again straight away and returned to the drinks machine.
As she stood there, waiting while the thin chocolate was squirted into the paper cups, a cold, creeping feeling began to spread through her bones. She glanced over her shoulder; someone was standing outside the automatic doors and they were stuck on open.
She carried the two cups over to the boy’s table and held one out for him.
‘Is that for me?’ he said.
‘You looked cold.’
His eyes were seriously dark, almost black. He frowned at the cup as if he was concentrating really hard. When he reached out his hand to take it Lil noticed a deep scratch across the back of his hand, it distracted her just at the moment she passed the hot chocolate to him, and she felt her skin bloom into a fresh set of goosepimples. She let go of the cup too soon and it fell through their hands, hitting the floor in a watery brown splatter.
‘I thought you had it,’ said Lil. ‘Sorry…’
The boy looked mortified. He sat there completely still, staring at the brown puddle.
‘It’s not the end of the world,’ Lil said, chucking the discarded newspaper over it and swooshing it around with her foot. ‘Here, have mine.’ She held it out to him.
The boy hung his head.
‘Go on, take it,’ she insisted.
‘No!’ he shouted suddenly. ‘I mean, it’s ok, I don’t want any.’
‘Sure? It’s not as bad as it looks.’
He nodded sadly. ‘I’m sure.’
The strip lights buzzed and went off.
Lil had never been afraid of the dark, but in that moment, blinded by the sudden blackness, her heart began to race. A second later the emergency lights came on and the room was cast in a sickly green glow. The boy was still sitting there. He looked lost. Lil thought, he probably doesn’t have anywhere to go. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the last of her money minus the bus fare. As she held the coins out to him she noticed her own hand was trembling, so she put the money on the table and pocketed her hand.
‘There,’ she said. ‘You can buy another one, if you like.’
He didn’t take the money and Lil wondered if maybe he was embarrassed to, but it was almost time to go, so she returned to her table to get her stuff. As she made for the doors a toothless old woman called after her, ‘Are you just going to leave that money there?’
Lil paused and looked back to the table by the window.
The boy had gone.
The night bus home was almost empty. Lil climbed to the top deck and took a seat near the front. She half-closed her eyes and leaned her head against the window, where it gently bumped as the bus spluttered and chugged its way along the ring road. Peligan City crawled slowly by, skulking behind the lines of street lamps.
She looked out at the patterns of light and shadow that mapped the city she knew better than the lines in her mother’s face; the disused municipal gardens with empty rectangular lakes and boarded up pavilions; the patterned grids of the tower blocks and lines of terrace houses.
Up ahead she could make out the glow of the bonfire-studded ‘Saints’ where slums had sprouted from the skeletal remains of the old town, and beyond that the cloudy yellow glimmer of the industrial quarter whose factories spat up flumes of smoke from their chimneys. And there on the hill, towering above it all stood Fellgate Prison, a floodlit high-rise which stretched up into the sky, skewering the smog like a giant stick of dirty candyfloss.
The thin grey terraces of Angel Lane backed onto the railway line that led far beyond Peligan, to other, better places. Every couple of hours the blare of a signal horn sounded, vibrations rattled the windows and doors, and a train shrieked past, trailing the shunting sound of the wheels, rhythmic as a heartbeat.
Lil lived at number ten. Once she was safely inside she gave her wet trainers a good wipe on the evening edition of the Herald which was still lying on the doormat. Like every employee at City Hall, her mother got a free copy delivered every day, although it wasn’t actually free as the subscription was subtracted from her pay. City Hall owned controlling shares in the Herald – so it never ran any political stories, especially ones that criticised the mayor or any of his business associates.
Lil rescued the pizza delivery menu for ‘The Black Pug Eatery’ from the day’s junk mail with a smile. Inside, crumpled and slightly damp, was her own copy of ‘The Klaxon’, in Lil’s opinion, the only source of news in Peligan that was worth reading. It ran political stories; the kind the politicians didn’t want anyone to read and it was always delivered in secret, in menus for ‘The Black Pug Eatery’, although anyone who bothered to find out – as Lil had – knew that there was no such place.
Lil switched on all the lights and the TV and then went through to the kitchen to hunt for something to put into a sandwich. She settled for cheese, crisps and pickle and made two rounds, leaving one lot on a plate for her mum to eat when she got home. Then she picked up Waldo the hamster’s cage and placed it on the table beside the old sagging settee so they could read ‘The Klaxon’ together before bed.
Lil chewed her sandwiches down to the crusts as she scanned the lead story, ‘Nurse blamed for blaze’, which cast doubt on the accidental nature of the recent death of Shirley Kreutz, a psychiatric nurse who had allegedly ignited a store of nitrous oxide in the basement of the city hospital and killed herself in the explosion. Then she turned straight to ‘The Rotten Barrel’ for the latest instalment of a political corruption expose the paper had been running for months now.
City Hall was leaking like a bucket full of holes; and Lil’s favourite columnist, Randall Collar’ (it was a pseudonym, Lil had checked), was publishing information on dodgy deals and laundered funds on a weekly basis. It was clear the Klaxon was building a case, but the evidence so far was all circumstantial; somehow Collar had never managed to get his hands on the vital piece of information needed to bring the mayor to account.
Lil would have given anything to be in Randall Collar’s shoes, a daring undercover reporter, risking it all in the name of truth and justice.
She already had a link to City Hall: her mother, Naomi Potkin, was an archivist in charge of the Public Records Department in the Mayor’s Office; filing the right paperwork in the right folders and then placing them in the right drawers but Lil wasn’t allowed to visit her at work. City Hall was locked down tighter than a drum these days and she couldn’t get past the lobby let alone to the 24th floor where the public records were kept- well out of the public’s grasp.
Lil cut out ‘The Rotten Barrel’ and folded it carefully. ‘One day I’ll get the scoop on all this,’ she said as she stuffed the last of the crusts through the bars of Waldo’s cage, ‘you’ll see.’ The hamster’s eyes gleamed back at her.
An hour later in her tiny attic bedroom, Lil pulled the folded Klaxon article from her pocket and fixed it to the wall where she kept all the cuttings of the various stories she was following.
At the centre of the newsprint collage was a portrait; a silhouette of a man’s head with a white question mark over the face. No one knew what the great investigative reporter, A.J. McNair had looked like, but a smaller version of this monochrome image was always placed at top of his newspaper column, and The Klaxon had used it for his obituary: McNair had been killed in a freak drowning accident a few months before Lil was born.
‘What do you think, McNair?’ Lil said to the head. ‘Do you think I’ll get a chance at a scoop soon?’ She fixed the corner of the picture where the tack kept coming away from the wall. ‘Or maybe Randall Collar could take me on, kind of like an apprentice, or something?’ The black silhouette gazed eyelessly back.
Lil heard the familiar sound of a choked engine coupled with the whine of an exhausted fan belt which signalled that her mum was home at last. ‘I better get some shut eye,’ she whispered to herself, climbing into bed. She turned off the lamp on her bedside table and curled up on to her side, in the darkness she could just make out the outline of the portrait. ‘Night, then’ she said quietly and pushed the book she was reading under her pillow and closed her eyes.
When she awoke it was still dark. The moon was high, lighting the room a ghostly-grey and she was cold, really cold. She pulled her duvet up under her chin, rolled over and nearly jumped out of her skin.
A boy was standing there, in front of the window. His stooped outline divided the curtain, a stick-man shadow against the moonlight. Lil sat bolt upright and slapped the light switch on. It was the boy from the bus station.
She fought the urge to scream. Leaping out of bed she grabbed her pen from the bedside table, the only weapon she’d thought she’d ever need, and brandished it. ‘Stay back!’ she warned. The small, thin biro trembled in her grasp.
The boy peered at her uncertainly. ‘You can see me?’
Lil lowered the pen, only slightly. ‘Are you serious?’
He waited expectantly for an answer with the fingers of both hands tightly crossed.
Lil snorted derisively, ‘Obviously I can see you. You’re standing in the middle of the room.’
He sagged with relief.
‘How did you even get in here?’ Lil demanded.
‘Your – your m-mum let me in,’ the boy said uncertainly
Lil gave him what she liked to call her ‘penetrating squint’. It was a look she’d been working on.
‘I definitely think that my mum would not be ok about me having boys in my room. Especially boys she doesn’t know. Especially boys I don’t know.’
‘We met at the bus station earlier.’
‘I not sure that qualifies you as someone-I-actually-know.’ Lil took a step towards him but he backed away. She felt a chill creep up her arms and reached for her dressing gown, while the boy took cover by her wall of newspaper clippings.
‘What are all these for?’
‘I’m a reporter.’
He looked at her doubtfully. ‘Really? You’re pretty young.’
Lil tucked her hair behind her ears and then untucked it again. ‘I’m older than you.’
‘Do you write for the Herald?’
Lil snorted, ‘No, I’m a real reporter. I write for the Klaxon.’
‘I don’t know that one. Are any of these by you?’
Lil tried avoiding the question with another snort that she hoped would sound like what do you think? But the boy just looked at her blankly so she straightened up and said, ‘Not yet…but one day you’ll see my name in print.’
‘Oh,’ he said.
‘I’m waiting for a big story.’ Lil felt as though things had got switched around somehow. It was time to turn the tables. She was just sucking in a big mouthful of air to do just that when he spoke again.
‘I have a story for you. It’s a Missing Persons case.’
Lil let the breath escape. ‘Really? Alright, I’ll bite. Who’s missing?’
The boy turned to face her, his gaunt face shaded with grey. ‘I am.’