For Disclaimer, please see Chapter 1.

Misplaced People by Devize © 2004 (

* * * * *

Chapter 23: ‘Tis here where Hell and Heaven dance [i]

Up the aisle, pews on either side. It was dark around her, but she could see, as if a spotlight was following her gaze. She could see the carving on the armrests, she could feel the rising terror at the sight of glinting hinges, and she couldn’t stop herself from lifting the seat, knowing what was waiting for her.

There was noise behind her. She was aware of danger creeping up behind her like the shadows on a sundial.

She wanted to get out. But she had to open the seat. She needed to say goodbye. She’d never said those final words.

She delayed it as long as possible, her hand shaking on the wood. There would be blood in the dark, the silent scream of the executed. A single gold tooth.... A chapel, a place of life and death.

She opened the seat.

There was someone there. The plastic sheeting had gone, and the body was on its side. T-shirt and baggy jeans: Paully’s uniform, but the cadaver inside was bone-thin and long dead.

And the blood-soaked hair was not Paully’s recognisable dirty blond dreadlocks. The hair was a mass of light brown curls. It took her a moment to identify... at one time she would have recognised the colour, she would have obsessed about the way the light played with each gleaming twist. Back in her stalker days. Her stomach turned over with the recollection. It was Tammy. Tammy from New York, who had become a distant, unpleasant memory. Tammy who had gone to the cops, whose ‘betrayal’ made her burn with sudden, newly-discovered anger. Tammy whose face she wanted to beat in.

She could have put her in a box all those years ago.

Was she still capable of it now?

That anger was still inside of her... simmering... threatening... she could feel it burning.

The sound of danger behind her.

She wanted to get out.


She bent over, her nose filling with the musty wood and rancid stink of death, and clutched the rigid shoulder.

She wanted to get out.

She pulled at the shoulder and the body moved smoothly, almost as if it were merely shifting in sleep.

She could feel the terror rise still further, blocking her throat and filling her chest. She couldn’t breath, as if the corpse had sucked the life out of her. She wanted to get out.

Hands reached out, skeletal and sticky, wanting to embrace her. She could feel the adhesive touch on her skin, leaving her ice cold where once it made her feverish.

And now the face appeared, bloodied and bruised and unrecognisable; perhaps devastated by a bullet; perhaps brutalised by a fist.

A sigh escaped from the gaping, bloody mouth: a last breath. The eyes opened.

Deep, sea green....

And Striker woke up, sweat freezing her skin.

Every single fear, doubt, terror she had came crashing down on her. Everything she’d been holding back was clawing her skin. So close to the surface.

She didn’t move for the first minute; her one free hand gripping the duvet, trying to catch her breath, trying not to wake the body that was tight against her own. Her skin was cold and sticky, and the air was thick with sex. Light was penetrating the curtains, but it was early. The glow of morning was pale and fragile, making the objects in the room look unreal.

Slowly, she turned her head.

Morien was fast asleep, lying on her front, her back bare — almost begging to be touched. A simple finger tracing a path from shoulder downwards to where the covering duvet hid treasure. The tranquil contentment on her face made Striker want to scream. A gentle sigh escaped and Striker knew she had to get out.

Quietly, so as not to disturb Morien, she slid an arm from where it lay, under her lover’s body. There was a quiet murmur, she shifted in her sleep, but then settled. Striker slipped from under the duvet, recovering her t-shirt and shorts, and stole to the door.

Looking back, she watched Morien for just a moment, a part of her wanting to go back, if only to give her a simple kiss. But even that would be too much, she knew.

Closing the door, quietly, behind her, she detoured into her own bedroom, collecting a fresh pack of cigarettes and lighter, then tiptoed downstairs. Each step brought back a kiss, the feel of Morien’s body pressed against hers, the intoxicating smell of skin and arousal, the taste of her, the feel of Morien’s mouth and tongue.... Her neck was sweetly sore, and she remembered Morien had marked her. For life.

Downstairs felt empty. Glancing into the kitchen she could see a half-empty glass of water, abandoned on the table. And she thought of licking liquid off Morien’s full, pert breast.

In the gloom of the sitting room, she could feel Heriell’s sleepy yellow eyes on her, his dark fur hidden from view in the depths of the sofa. There was no other movement.

She opened the curtains across the patio doors and struggled momentarily with the stiff bolts. With a bang that made her want to duck, the second bolt came loose and she stepped out into the early morning.

The air was blissfully cold on her skin, the still-damp stones cooling to her bare feet. It made her feel less sick. She sat herself on the bench, knees to chin, and lit a cigarette.

The sky was a deep summer blue, just touched by the awakening sun. The garden was wet and misty and held the memory of perfume from the night-scented stock. One by one, she became aware of sounds: the low hum of insects — bees dallying with the opening flowers; birdsong — tweets, chirps, trills and the sweet, poignant lyrics of blackbirds and larks; beyond that the waking cries of seagulls, soothed by the ever-present sound of distant waves.

The rustle of leaves.

A cat materialised from the grey mist, trotting out onto the lawn from its hiding place in the dark shrubbery at the foot of the garden. It was pure white. She remembered the cat in Morien’s arms in the photograph.


And now she understood the name. She was a compact cat — not as small as Easey, but not as bulky as Heriell. She seemed strangely neat for something so wild. She was ethereal, as if she could only exist in that moment, in that mist, at the very edge of morning. She didn’t belong to the everyday world.

Snowflower was like Morien in that way.

Striker stayed completely still, watching, the only movement the lazy curve upwards of smoke from her cigarette. If she knew the observer was there, Snowflower showed no interest in her, paying more attention to her own not-quite-immaculate paw than to some lowly human. But then the cat spotted something, the tiniest movement in among the daisies, and with a burst of excitement, pounced. Striker could only guess what Snowflower had found — a woodlouse perhaps, some poor beetle, even a delinquent shrew, now regretting staying up late — but she watched feline friskiness pawing at its prey, batting it, jumping back as it moved, pouncing again. Playing with it. Terrifying it. Slowly killing it.

Simply because that’s what she was programmed to do.

Striker shut her eyes and concentrated hard on the burn of her cigarette down her throat. But Snowflower still amused herself at the expense of her victim.

Snowflower wasn’t like Morien at all.

Striker opened her eyes and blinked. She thought the cat had gone, until she saw a little wave of white, deep in the daisies. A tail, moving back and forth, back and forth.

Did Snowflower come here every morning, to tease the flowers, alarm the insects, and allow Sullivan and Morien to catch a glimpse of her... if they were up early enough? Where did she go to for the rest of the time? Was she someone else’s cat, part-time? Teasing their flowers, eating their food, disappearing into a misty nowhere when there was nothing else on offer?

And, suddenly, Striker thought of her father, behind bars, alone. He had no idea she was in Britain. He had no idea whether she was alive or dead.

And a thought that she’d been hiding from for too long, pounced and played. Had she driven him to drink?

Snowflower suddenly disappeared back into the shrubbery where she had come from, and Striker wanted to follow her.

For some time, she sat, staring at the spot where the white cat had vanished — ignoring the goosebumps on her skin — until she became aware of sounds in the house. A head popped round the patio door, and Striker found herself looking up at Sullivan.

"Good morning," he said. There was a pause. His mouth moved as if he wanted to say something else: did you sleep well? Did you have a good night? How was sex with my daughter? Is that a hickey on your neck?

Striker became deeply aware that she was covered in Morien, and she flushed with it. "Good morning," she said, quietly.

"You’re up early," Sullivan said, and then looked as if he wished he hadn’t.

"I...," she swallowed. "It’s a beautiful morning."

"It certainly is." Sullivan looked out at the garden, proprietarily, as if the morning was his.

There was a moment of silence. Striker lit another cigarette.

"Would you like some breakfast?" Sullivan finally broke the silence.

"No, thank you, Mr... Sullivan." He smiled at her, broadly, and turned to go. "I... I saw Snowflower."

Sullivan looked back at her. "Good," he said. Another pause, and Morien’s father seemed to be taking in Striker’s pale face, the haunted look in her eyes. And he added, hesitantly, "Did... she... seem... all right?"

"Yes... fine."

Again a pause. Sullivan regarded her over the top of his glasses. "Good," he said again. And left. Striker heard the radio turn on in the kitchen. The world was suddenly full of talk and her mind was screaming with it. She rested her forehead on her arm and lost herself in the smell of smoke and sex.

* * * * *

Morien drifted to consciousness.

She was comfortably warm, though aware her body was only half covered by the duvet. The air was thick and cosy, like an extra blanket around her. And a further rush of happiness flowed through her as the memories returned: Striker touching her, Striker kissing her, Striker’s scent, Striker’s taste, the way Striker looked and sounded when she came. The fact that she wasn’t scared any more. Of anything.

And right now she was ready for round two... three... four.... Where had they left off? She grinned, and in joyful and certain familiarity she reached out an arm to her lover.

And found cool sheet and emptiness.

Morien’s eyes snapped opened. She listened, reasoning that Striker must have gone to the bathroom. No sound of running water. She listened out for noise downstairs: the call of breakfast might have been too much. There was no sound from the kitchen.

A glance at her alarm clock told her it was approaching late morning. Her father was long gone.

And she could have sworn there was no one else in the house.

For a moment she teetered on the border of panic, but then something caught her attention. The window was open, just a crack, and through it she could smell sea, sunshine and... cigarette smoke.

And she almost laughed: a post-coital cigarette. How apt.

Wrapping her dressing gown round herself, she scampered downstairs and almost threw herself through the patio doors.

The garden was ablaze with summer: bright, full of life and singing with joy. And Striker sat, the epitome of darkness and solitude. She was staring out into the garden as if she didn’t see it. She sat, her long legs curled up beneath her, her knees to her chin. A cigarette drooped from her fingers, half-forgotten. The little flower pot she’d been using as an ashtray was packed with dead stubs. She was rocking gently, backwards and forwards. Backwards and forwards.

It was obvious she hadn’t noticed Morien’s presence.


Only now did she rouse, almost jumping, as if she had been caught asleep at her desk at school. She unfolded her body, bare feet now touching the ground. But she bent forward, resting her forearms on her thighs. She didn’t turn to look at Morien, but the Welsh woman could see the twist of anxiety on her face.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi," Morien replied. There was an awkward silence. Finally Morien broke it by moving, hesitantly, to the bench. She perched on the armrest, and laid a tentative hand on Striker’s shoulder. She was heartened as Striker, apparently unconsciously, shifted slightly towards her. But the American’s attention seemed riveted on the cigarette. Suddenly, she stubbed it, viciously, against the side of the pot, spreading ash, and dropped it onto the pile.

"What happens now?" she whispered.

Morien paused. "What do you mean? We eat breakfast, hope to God that Idomeneo and his merry band catch up with Bruce and Nigel…." She couldn’t resist running a finger along the exposed skin of Striker’s neck, tracing the hickey. She could feel the blood pulsing under her fingers. This woman was human catnip. She bent to follow her finger with her lips. Gentle, loving and reassuring. "We lay low and think of a way of passing the time."

Striker’s face turned briefly, but her head was still bowed. Her voice was low. "Then you want this?"

Morien paused, her mouth hovering above Striker’s neck, her breath tickling her ear. She was now in a position to see Striker’s face, and the tall woman looked small and scared. Morien circled round the bench and sat down next to her, taking her hands, touching her cheek. Striker gave her a small, sweet, scared smile that didn’t touch her startled eyes.

"Of course, I want this," Morien said. "Of course. What’s wrong, Striker?" She tried to catch Striker’s eye. "Is it me? Have I done something wrong?" Her voice began to sound fearful. Suddenly, she felt saturated with alarm and confusion. "Was last night...?"

"No!" Striker’s voice was almost vehement. And she finally turned to Morien. "It’s not you. You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s me...." Her voice trailed off.

She looked into Morien’s eyes and saw love for her as clear and pure as a spring morning. And she felt as raw as a winter night.

"I’ve never done this before."

And with that admission Striker seemed to relax a little. She smiled briefly, chuckled even, plucked a cigarette from the packet and lit it. And after hours of insular silence, the words started to come. Low, self-deprecating and scratchy with nicotine. "Stupid, isn’t it? I lost my virginity when I was thirteen years old. I’ve been screwing around ever since — more than half my life. Playing with fire. I’m clean, don’t worry. I might be a fuck-up, but I’m not that stupid."

They both watched the end of the cigarette glow as Striker inhaled. "Sex," she continued, "it’s like smoking, you know. It’s an addiction, it’s a comfort. But afterwards you feel like shit." She trailed off watching the smoke dissipate on the gentle breeze.

And that was it? That was all it had been to Striker? Sex?

A million angry and frightened questions flooded Morien’s thoughts, but she bit them back. Instead, she rested her hand on Striker’s knee, a touch that reassured herself as much as Striker. Her voice was hesitant. "What did you mean, that you’d never done this before?"

"Last night wasn’t a comfort." She caught Morien’s worried gaze, and took the hand on her knee, caressing the skin with her thumb, and spoke gently. "I mean, it was more than that. I don’t know what to do now. Morien, all this time and I’ve never had a girlfriend… a boyfriend… I’ve never been in a real relationship. A committed relationship." She was back to being small and embarrassed now.

"You’ve never had… anybody?"

Striker shook her head, ruefully, breaking away. "Never committed. Never dated. Never went steady." She said the words as if she had bitten down on glass.

"But what about Danny?"

She didn’t get an answer immediately, as Striker stubbed out the half-smoked cigarette, and when the answer did come it was couched in a sigh. "Danny’s my friend," Striker said. "He never wanted commitment. I never wanted commitment. Sex was… a convenience." There was a glimmer of humour. "And he’s not exactly hard to look at." She turned back to Morien and the words came in a rush. "I love Danny. He’s my friend. I will always care for him. But you… you…."

Against the screaming of her demon judgment, she lifted a shaking hand and ran a finger along Morien’s bottom lip, watching in fascination as Morien’s mouth opened and her tongue slipped out to wet the tip. She licked her lips in response and took Morien’s face in her hands. She wanted so badly to feel those lips under hers, to feel that tongue gliding against her own. There was a growing tension inside her — she was unsure if it was thrilling or terrifying. But she wouldn’t think about it now, she needed to speak. "Morien, you make me feel…" she sought inspiration in the green depths, and found it, "…wanted."

Morien looked surprised and pleased and saddened at the same time. "Wanted? Who wouldn’t want you?" She said it with a smile, with love.

But the question made the panic descend. Striker took her hands from Morien’s face and turn away with a ghost of a smile. "You, for a start."

"Me?!" Morien was horrified. "Why wouldn’t I want you?"

Striker reached for the half-smoked cigarette and played with it between her fingers. "It’s kind of ironic, don’t you think? I’ve never had a girlfriend, and you now have two." Morien opened her mouth to speak, but Striker bulldozed her way on. "Why would you want me? You had a perfectly good relationship before I came along and ruined it."

Morien interrupted, "And I never had a choice in this?"

"I destroy every person I get close to. That’s what I do. I push them away." There was a rage in her tone that she couldn’t control, and she felt it spark through her body. Her fists balled, and she could sense every punch she’d ever thrown, every kick she’d delivered, real and imagined, raging through her.

And she saw it again. Morien’s face, barely recognisable, blood and bone and terrified green eyes. The stalker was still inside her. That person who could bring fear and hurt and pain. And she felt the horrifying destruction inside herself bubbling up like nausea. She turned away covering her mouth.

And Morien took it as disgust. She couldn’t contain her anger any longer. "So that’s what this is about? You fucked me, now you’re going to dump me?"

Striker got to her feet, her head spinning; anger and love a maelstrom inside.

But Morien’s words hit. "That’s it, isn’t it? You’re too scared to be with me. You don’t want to be saddled with some no-hoper epileptic." Morien almost laughed. "But you can’t get out of here, because you can’t be sure that if you step outside this house you won’t get your head shot off. So you’re stuck." Her voice, usually so soft and melodic, was suddenly as biting as acid. And Striker felt burnt.

But the pain was self-inflicted.

Striker looked down the length of the bright garden, seeing only the darkness inside. "Maybe you’re right," she said, quietly. Maybe that was the answer. Let Morien believe that. Let Morien hate her. Hell, it was only a matter of time before Morien hated her anyway. She would hurt her, like she’d hurt everyone else. Was it any wonder that no one had ever wanted to be with her? It could be so easy: walking away, risking the death threats and getting out of Lleuadraeth, getting a train to London, getting the hell out of it. Going back to the familiarity of being alone.

The familiarity of stalking.

Her stalking past. Her stalking present. It would be so easy. Treat this as a longer-than-usual one-night-stand and leave. And return to the ease of fantasy — inventing her lovers as she watched them from afar, and hurting them when they became real.

And now what she had with Morien had been made real.

And now she would hurt her.

And she felt a touch of a hand on hers. Warm fingers twined round her own. A voice as soft and lyrical as music.

"Striker, you’re frightening me."

And there was the problem. Morien didn’t believe her own accusations. She didn’t hate her. So she was going to have to break Morien’s heart. For her own sake. And she would break her own heart in the process.

She remained standing.

"Please, Striker…," her hand was squeezed… pulled. "Striker, please… please don’t go. Please don’t leave me."

Please don’t leave me. Words from years ago.

But she had left and now Striker was about to do the same thing. She looked round. Morien was staring up at her, disbelief vying with horror in red-rimmed eyes. Tears flooded down her cheeks.

And gone was the nightmare image.

It was as if she was looking at Morien again for the first time. Beautiful and pure with a wild-sea gaze.

The memory of the hospital — she had been afraid to know Morien’s name, recognizing it was the key to a different reality to the one Striker had invented for her. Now she knew that it was the other way round. She was afraid of Morien knowing her name — she was afraid of Morien knowing her.

Without the stalking, the violence, the solitude - she didn’t know how to be.

Striker was aware of tears now pricking at her own eyes and slowly, hopelessly, she sat down. "I don’t know who I am any more," she said in a voice that barely rose above her own imagination. "I thought I knew. But... but... I’ve been blind for years. I don’t know how to be any more."

Morien answered. Her voice, choking down a sob, was thick with sadness, but surprisingly strong. "Striker… I don’t know who you are. I’ve learnt so little about you in the last few days. I don’t even know what your name is…" Striker closed her eyes. "You frighten me sometimes. Our relationship almost started with you frightening me."

Striker’s head was down again, her words muffled by a hand. "Morien, I’m sorry, I’ve never meant to hurt you. I never…."

"I know you’d never hurt me. Not intentionally, not consciously. The one thing I know about you for certain is that you’re one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met."

Striker laughed, a hollow dead laugh. "I’m not gentle. I’m capable of some really nasty shit. There’s stuff inside me that scares the crap outta me."

"There’s stuff inside me that’d scare the crap out of you, too.

Striker shook her head. "You’re a princess, Morien. I’m a fuck-up."

"You’re a gentle fuck-up." She reached a hand out, and briefly her thumb connected with Striker’s cheek. "You’re so gentle. Last night, when you made love to me… I’ve never felt like that in my life. Ever. No one’s ever touched me quite that way. It makes what I did with Sophie seem…."

"Please don’t talk about Sophie." Her voice was caught somewhere between vehemence and pleading.

"Striker, I’m not going back to her. How can I after this?"

There was a pause, balanced somewhere between hope and despair. "Because you deserve someone better. I’m not right for you. You deserve someone who will look after you, someone you can trust."

"No one looks after me better than you. Despite it all… I know who you can be, Striker. I’m not that stupid. You’re so capable of violence. I don’t understand what makes you tick. I don’t understand who you are. But I want to take my chances...."

"You shouldn’t have to take chances...." Striker said, anger in her voice. "You should be with someone who you can trust not to hurt you."

"I know you won’t hurt me."

"How the hell can you be so sure, when even I don’t know that?"

There was a confidence in Morien’s answer that seemed to reverberate against the hum of summer. "Because I know. You’ve protected me from the start, Striker. You’ve had every chance to hurt me in the last week and you haven’t. I even hit you, for God’s sake, and you didn’t respond."

There was a sigh in her voice now. But it was a sigh that betrayed a thrum of hope and the anticipation of possibility. She lifted a hand, tracing the sweep of Striker’s jaw, brushing a lock of hair to one side. Simply touching. "You’re gentle... kind... so sweet.... You’re beautiful to me, cariad. I want to know you… I want to spend my life getting to know you." Her voice fell a little… it sounded encouraging, a little frightened... it mirrored the look on Striker’s face. But before Striker could say anything, Morien continued. "No. A lifetime is too long, maybe. For now, anyway. How about a day at a time? We’ll take it day by day, okay?"

"Day by day." She spoke in a tiny voice that seemed to suggest she could barely make it to the next hour.

"Oh Striker." Morien put her arms round her, resting her head on a broad, tense shoulder, her words caressing skin. "You call yourself a bad girl, but you read fairy tales and children’s books. You couldn’t bring yourself to talk to me at first, but you can approach people, talk to them… pick them up even… give your body to them. And your job makes you mix with ordinary people every day…."

"It’s role play," Striker interrupted.

"What do you mean?" Morien’s voice was so soft, so loving.

"I play the part of the bad girl. I play the role of hospital porter. I play the seducer when it means nothing… and the real me hides."

Morien raised her head, and caught Striker’s cobalt gaze. "So who is the real you?"

Epiphany erupted inside Striker, called by the longing and kindness in Morien’s gaze. And for the first time in twenty years, it wasn’t violence or anger that emerged, but a childhood of tears that suddenly burnt her eyes and spilt down her face. Striker sobbed. "I’m… I’m a ten-year-old girl who wants her mommy."

* * * * *

Deep in thought, her eyes followed the lines of the paving stones beneath her feet. Here and there a weed found a breathing space in the cracks. Here and there, a weed gave way to a flower, lifting its face to the sun.

But Striker’s thoughts were captured by the plain, straight lines of the paving stones. The sunshine was too bright for her tired eyes. She felt like she was crawling through the aftermath of the biggest bender of her life.

She had cried for what felt like hours. It had physically hurt to cry after all this time, but Morien had held her, rocking her, whispering words of love and pride.

"It’s not your fault," she had murmured. "It was never your fault."

Hearing those words had hurt too, but in a different way. For twenty two years she had been clinging to a tower of guilt, terrified of falling, terrified of moving. She had been hanging on for so long that her fingers had melded with the stone. With her words, Morien had started the painful process of prying her away from her guilt. Slowly, together, they had started to win her freedom, but she ached with it.

She had felt a little better after a shower and another hug… and another.

But now she needed a cigarette, and her final packet was empty.

So Striker made her way to the newsagents on the corner of the street, leaving Morien for just a little while. And although she felt her lover’s absence immediately, the air felt good on her face, in her lungs.

Her lover. Damn that sounded so good. Damn, it had been so good. Best sex ever.

A hesitation over the cracks. No, not sex. Love-making. Passionate, intense, giving, satisfying — several times — damn-fucking-hot love-making. Her body flushed with the memory... and smugness. She wanted to go find some teenagers to boast to. She wanted to show off her hickey. Even more, she wanted to turn on her heel, go back, and find Morien in the shower. There were certainly a few things she could think of doing with wet bodies and soapy hands and….

She took a deep breath of air and concentrated on the grey of the pavement. She wanted to give Morien some space. She had spent the last few hours taking care of a thirty-two-year-old baby.

Give Morien her own breath of air, for fuck’s sake. You don’t need to hang on her apron strings. Give her half an hour.

Just half an hour.

That was new too. Learning to let go, give space… trust that when her back was turned someone she loved wasn’t going to disappear.

It wasn’t your fault.

Striker sighed.

The fact is, Morien’s right. Whatever she says, she knows you better than you know yourself. Get used to it, fuck-up, Morien will always be right. She’s the brain, you’re the brawn. Just shut the fuck up and do as she says.

So, she was right. This was new, this was different for both of them. And if this situation was different, and Morien was different, then maybe… just maybe… she could be different too.

She walked into the newsagents and asked for cigarettes.

"Ten or twenty, love?" the shopkeeper asked.

Striker avoided his eyes. It still hurt to look at anyone. "Twenty, thanks."

There was a man sitting by the counter. He didn’t seem to own the place, or even work there, but he gave the impression he’d be sitting there, propped up against the counter as if it was a bar, until the shop closed. He had a white, clipped beard, but no moustache, and he wore a white, cotton sun hat, which made him look like a gnome on vacation. He was looking at her with a hooded gaze — weighing her up. "You staying here long, love?" he asked.

Striker checked the urge to swear at him. She hovered between giving him a what-fucking-business-is-it-of-yours? look or merely ignoring him. And then she remembered what Idomeneo had said all that time ago — less than twenty four hours ago.

I can be different.

And she gave the man a small, shy smile and met his eyes. "Probably just for a few days," she said.

The man was obviously happy with her response and gave her a beaming smile back. It warmed her. "Here on holidays, is it?"

"Kinda. I’m staying with some friends."

"That’s lovely." Again a warm smile.

"And what do you think of Lleuadraeth?" the shopkeeper asked in a rich tenor, his hand lingering as he placed the cigarettes in Striker’s grasp.

"It’s beautiful," she said, handing him money. "I like it here."

"That’s lovely, isn’t it, Dai?" the gnome said.

"Certainly is, Ianto. Here’s your change, love. Do call again while you’re here. We sell more than cigarettes, you know. We’re a Post Office too if you need to send any postcards."

"You get any American papers?" Hell, it was worth a shot.

Dai looked a little downcast. "Sorry, love. I could order something in though."

"I’ll get back to you," Striker said with what she hoped was an impish smile. She was beginning to enjoy this charm thing.

"All right, love. You have a nice day now!"

Striker laughed. "You too." She tipped a finger in a casual salute. And a word came to her. She’d heard it enough in The Half Moon... little half-comments between Morien and her father. "Diolch," she said with a smile, and left the shop to a tinkle of bells, leaving satisfaction and gratitude in her wake.

Stopping outside, she wondered. Dai? She looked up. Above the Post Office sign, the shop name was emblazoned proudly: Dai News.

They’re all fucking nuts.

She was feeling a lot better. The sun was warm on her tired body; the buildings pretty and glowing white against their green hill background. The sea air caressed her face with a mother’s touch, soothing her tired eyes.

Maybe everything could be different. She wandered down the main street towards the harbour square, looking in shop windows, dawdling.

There was a bakery, the aroma from which made her stomach rumble; a boutique full of clothes that seemed to hark back to the sixties; a jewellers — Striker stopped at the window display, imagining herself buying some trinket for Morien: a necklace maybe, a brooch, a ring.... One day. One day at a time. She stopped again outside an Indian restaurant, considering the menu in the window, wondering if Morien liked curry.

She certainly liked it spicy.... Striker grinned, remembering the night, and visualising ways of passing the afternoon. She felt a little frisson sparkle through her body, but...

Just a little longer....

It was quiet, wonderfully relaxing, only the gentle beat of everyday life touching her consciousness. For the first time in… in… so long… her mind seemed to switch off to everything but the feeling of glorious, fulfilling, unbelievable love which was peacefully exploding inside her. It made her feel excited and scared and, strangely, serene. All that remained was the slight hum of traffic: a van passed, a car; shoppers flitted from doorway to doorway — greetings and goodbyes — footsteps tapping along the pavement, a beat to the play of the wind in the trees and the wash of the waves. Somewhere there was a radio playing: a slow climax of pop music, punctuated by the chatter of quickfire Welsh, then more music. A sappy love song. She caught herself singing along to it.

Maybe, just maybe… this would work. She was beginning to picture them living here. A quiet retreat for herself and her princess. Maybe Lleuadraeth could be their happily ever after.

She reached the harbour wall. The sea was a warm blue. White horses paraded across the tranquil plain in a timeless, natural choreography. Seagulls flapped their wings and cried encore. Striker pulled a cigarette out of the new packet and lit it.

The harbour square reclined in the clement weather. A couple of people walked across to The Half Moon. Two men, boys really, walked out of The Ship Inn. Striker couldn’t help chuckling. Wannabe rapper trolls on E. They glanced across at her, obviously talking about her, then went back indoors.

Cool. No need to antagonise the locals.

So it remained quiet. Beautiful.

Once upon a time — just a few hours ago — she would have shut herself off from the rest of the world, when she found this kind of quiet. She would have sat on the harbour wall, chain-smoking, and only seeing the landscape inside: a grim, dark wasteland. But now it was different. Now she no longer craved that loneliness or that landscape. Now all she wanted was to share it all with Morien.

Down to the right she could see the white-sand curve of the beach. They hadn’t been there yet. There was no sign of any trouble. Surely it wouldn’t hurt if the two of them went for a quick walk? She could imagine it now: the soft sand under their toes, the tickle of the tide against their bare feet; the gentle pressure of Morien’s hand in hers. She could picture it: she and Morien hand in hand, followed in close procession by a romantic promenade of policemen.

She almost laughed out loud when...

Striker blinked.

Where the fuck were the police?

Yesterday, they had been everywhere — Sullivan had said so. Constable Smith had been parked at the end of Sunny Hill. She hadn’t even thought to look as she’d made her way to the newsagents. She had been so fixed on the cracks….

Nowhere had she seen the telltale white and blue of a police car.

Something had happened. Had they caught them?

Striker tossed her cigarette away and crossed the harbour square. Quicker now. Maybe Morien had heard something. Maybe Idomeneo had called. There might even have been something on the news.

Up the hill. No police anywhere. Something made her walk faster. A thought like a flash of lightning made her break into a run. She wished she’d stayed with Morien.

No traffic on the road. Much further up the hill she could see a flash of silver behind a Post Office van, turning off the road in the distance. She turned the corner into Sunny Hill. The road was quiet, still.

Nothing had changed from a half hour earlier. And Constable Smith wasn’t there.

She pelted up the pavement, sneakers slapping on the stones, and juddered to a halt outside the cottage.

Quiet, still... nothing had changed.

Nothing, except a little, innocuous tabby sitting on the front porch, licking a paw; the front door open just a catsize crack behind her.

i A line from the song "Constellation of the Heart" by Kate Bush.

Continued in Chapter 24...

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