For Disclaimer, please see Chapter 1.

Misplaced People by Devize ę 2004 (devize@supalife.com)

* * * * *

Chapter 4: A walk in someone else’s skin [i]

A phone number. Her fucking phone number.

Like she was going to be able to sleep now.

What the hell have I done?

It was starting. The horror was coming. Her fingers were itching. She’d already memorised the number. She’d memorised it weeks ago, after she’d first extracted it from the hospital computer, but she still stared at the piece of paper in front of her. In Morien’s neat, flourishing handwriting: her phone number.

So what was she supposed to do now?

The itching in her fingers told her. The buzzing in her head told her. The pounding in her heart told her. PHONE HER.

But Striker knew that if her fingers made that path across the phone, she wouldn’t be able to stop the return journey again and again and again.

It had happened too often before. There had been that misunderstanding with Jeff that time. There was that thing at NYU: that nastiness with Tammy. Tammy should never have got the police involved. She had only wanted to reassure herself that Tammy was still at the other end of the phone those times. But nothing had come of it.

She had never, ever meant to scare anyone.

Yeah, right.

Who the fuck are you kidding? You had every intention of scaring the shit out of them. When Tammy had called the police Striker had been devastated by what she saw as betrayal. And she’d wanted to beat Tammy’s sweet, pretty face in. She’d wanted Tammy to live with the scars of betraying Striker West for the rest of her life.

Jesus Christ... she’d come so close.

Yes, she’d meant to scare people.

But she had scared herself more.

So when she got to England she kept her distance. Some... a lot... of careful one night stands, but nothing serious. Just sex. She didn’t get close to anyone... at least to anyone available. Well, there was Danny who was very available. But he was available to everyone - everyone female - and didn’t commit to anyone or anything. And Kishen was safely married, and theirs was an acquaintance confined within the hospital walls.

And she didn’t want to scare Morien. She was terrified of repeating what had happened back there.

She could have phoned Morien before, just to hear her voice before she replaced the receiver. No harm in that. But she hadn’t, she’d managed to stop herself. And she couldn’t now.

Except she had no choice, because Morien sure as hell didn’t have her number.

She took a swig of beer.

And what did it mean? This piece of paper suggested Morien wanted to be friends. Did she want more than that?

And that’s all it took for images to come swarming into her head. Naked flesh, sweat-slicked bodies, a gentle breeze lifting the ends of Morien’s auburn hair, the sunset turning her skin golden.

It had been two hours and forty five minutes since they’d said goodbye.

Striker thought of the moment she’d seen her pushing her way down the platform. After she’d quashed the thought of running, she’d almost fallen to her knees, simultaneously cursing and blessing heaven. Instead, she’d stared at her boots.

What had been the chances of Morien recognising her?

Fucking Fate.

Striker took another swig of beer.

So, they’d met. And Morien had been sweet and charming and great company and beautiful and Striker was so in love with her she couldn’t think straight. Which was the problem. Was Morien interested? She didn’t know which she feared more right now: rejection or open-armed acceptance.

The door opened and a fresh packet of cigarettes landed in her lap. Less one. "You could have bought your own," she said, as Danny wandered in front of the television, a lit cigarette dangling from his fingers.

"I could, but this way we both cut down," he replied. "You making some kind of style statement?" he added pointing towards the fresh-cut daisies that now graced the coffee table.

Striker had bought them on the way home at a stall just outside her local station. Now they stood in a large jug - she couldn’t find a vase - as a constant reminder. She ignored Danny’s question, knowing that he didn’t really expect an answer.

"What you watching?" he said, parking himself on the couch next to her. His long legs stretched onto the coffee table, vying for space with the clutter of magazines, last night’s pizza box, the jug of flowers and Striker’s own feet.

Striker glanced at the television. She had automatically flicked on the box when she’d sat down, but hadn’t looked at it since. It had been white noise behind the clamour in her head. Now she saw that two men were discussing baseball. Thank God for cable.

"Replay of the Phillies-Mets game."

"Roll on the new footy season."

"Soccer’s a wuss’s game."

"Only because Americans play it like wusses."

This is why she liked Danny. They could get lost in meaningless, good-natured arguments and there would never be any comeback or bad feeling.

Most of the time.

"How much have you drunk?" he asked suddenly.

Hiding under Striker’s legs was a six-pack. Half a six-pack.

"You can count, can’t you?"

"Give us one, then." Striker bent down and threw him a can. "Shit day?"

Striker smiled. "Would you believe, no?" Although she was beginning to feel cold and hot at the same time.

"With you I’d believe anything, sis." Danny opened the can, lager sloshing over his t-shirt. He shrugged and took a long drink. "So why aren’t you yelling at me to shut the fuck up cos you’ve been working all night and you’re trying to sleep?"

"Cos I’m watching TV."

"What’s the score?"

"What?"

"You heard."

"Bastard."

"So, what’s going on, Strike?"

Striker let her head fall back onto the couch. Her stomach was beginning to lurch with panic. "I think I’ve met someone."

Danny looked at her. "Male, female or somewhere in between?"

"You always have to bring that one up, don’t you?"

"Diane?"

"Bastard. Besides everybody’s slept with Diane."

"So?"

"Female."

"She like you?"

"Fuck knows." Striker broke out into a cold sweat. Her hand was shaking round the beer can.

"What’s the situation?"

"I had lunch with her today."

"And?"

"She gave me her phone number."

"And?"

"I have no idea." Striker threw herself across the room and dived into the bathroom. Danny could hear her retching and followed her. Pulling on the light, he reached out to hold back her hair as she knelt over the toilet bowl.

Striker breathed heavily, the pungent smell of bile bouncing off the porcelain, the residue of her burger taunting her.

She had wanted to repeat lunch, but not quite like this.

Slowly, she straightened, then crawled up to the basin and rinsed her face and mouth, slumping backwards against the bath.

"Was that the lunch, the beer, or are you coming down with something?" Danny asked as he flushed.

"None of them. That’s me being a complete fuck-up."

She looked up into the dark, concerned eyes of her friend. Her face was still wet, her hair sticking to her skin. "I’m scared, Dan. I really like this woman. I think I love this woman. She’s beautiful, you know, really beautiful. But I’m scared."

"Why’s my big, bad sister scared?" His eyes smiled, but they weren’t mocking.

Striker leant back on the bath again, her eyes closing. "Why the hell would anybody want to be with me?"

She could hear Danny bending his large body in the small bathroom. She could feel his presence in front of her. She felt his big hands cup her cheeks. She opened her eyes to his. "Hey, sis," he said, "the reason anybody would want to be with you is that you’re a good person and a great friend."

"You’re only saying that cos I pay the phone bill," Striker said.

"Nah, cos you pay the phone bill and you’ve got a great body," Danny countered, giving her a peck on the lips. "That and you scare the shit out of the landlord when the rent’s late."

Striker smiled. "God, I’m tired. I could sleep for a year."

"Com’on, sis, let’s get you into bed." He took her hand and pulled her up. "You know," he said, as he switched the light off, "this bathroom ain’t big enough for the two of us."

* * * * *

She had been lying on the sofa for some time now, half-dozing. Half-dreaming.

She felt so tired nowadays.

People moved in front of her. Some black and white oldie flickered on the TV set. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Some problem ensues that might be Romeo and Juliet or Much Ado About Nothing but ultimately they walk into the sunset together and the TV audience collectively give a deep, contented sigh and go and make a cup of tea.

But for some time, these black and white figures had become lost somewhere in a lazy Saturday afternoon dreamworld of chapels and pending trays and crazy Americans.

She had been breathing slowly and evenly for some time now, but unaware of the slow in... slow out, as she concentrated on Striker’s voice.

Her mind had her sitting across from her. She had talked to her in that low, confident, reassuring tone. She had simply talked about London, America, St Vincent’s and Morien had imagined her there, sitting on the floor, her back against the armchair, a cigarette in her hand. She had imagined the little quirk of her smile and the light in her eyes.

She had been painting when a wave of dizziness washed over her and she’d had to lie down. Things like that frightened her nowadays. And for a moment, Morien had wondered about phoning someone - but lying there, running through her options, she realised she didn’t want someone to fuss over her: to worry, to panic. Drake would have fussed. Anyone else would have panicked. She had thought about calling her father, just to hear his voice. She was supposed to call downstairs to Mrs Kantorowicz.

Instead she’d lain their quietly for almost an hour thinking about her family, her life, her work, Sophie, friends... and Striker. More and more, despite herself, her mind had been lured back to the tall American. Mental chocolate.

She’d known her for less than a day, but somehow Morien knew that, if Striker had been there, she would have sat her down and talked her through her fears.

But then, she’s a doctor, isn’t she?

Now she could hear her own breathing, the slow in and out. And then, just behind it, her heartbeat no longer hammering as it had been.

The slight breeze rattled the open window. There was a blackbird singing outside. Mrs Kantorowicz was playing the piano, her old, passionate fingers creating an impromptu duet with the birdsong. A car passed. Little gusts of air brought a burst of muted conversation into the room.

"...Uncle Gil says... got to go back to ...."

"...about here...?"

"...coming out.... check back tomorr...."

A car door slammed and an engine started. The car moved off down the road.

Morien wished the phone would ring.

* * * * *

She had slept for six hours.

When she woke up she found herself drooling onto an open page of Idylls of the King. Fuck. She hurriedly swiped at the damp paper with the duvet and carefully placed the book down by the bed.

She was feeling a little better. Her sleep had been undisturbed and deep, although she had dreamed. She felt an echo of it in her mind, like the sound of a distant conversation - but she couldn’t catch the details. And then it was gone as if a door had shut.

Striker sat up. The flat was quiet. Danny was definitely out. There’d be music pounding through the walls if he was in. She was sorry, she would have liked to have spent the evening with him - found something crappy to watch on TV, got Indian food, enjoyed a couple of beers and annoyed the neighbours. She felt too alive to sleep. She felt like she had caffeine flowing through her veins and it was bubbling the name Morien.

Heaven help me, I’m in love.

She bounced out of bed, making her way into the sitting room to find a note scrawled over the discarded pizza box.

Gone to the Boom. See you there?

Yeah, the Boom. Maybe that’s what she needed: to get out and about, talk to people, support Dan. In what seemed a matter of minutes she dived into the shower, dressed and was out, her hair still damp.

* * * * *

Morien woke with a start to the sound of sirens.

She blinked with some bemusement at the collage of flashing lights on the television screen. It had been dark where she had been, and damp and frightening.

Her head ached and she eased herself up, feeling the weight of her body in her arms. All she wanted to do was sleep. She closed the curtains, switched the television off and was about to make her way to bed when she felt her eye drawn to the canvas she’d been playing with earlier. The clutter of images. Splashes of red and blue oil paint mirrored what had been on the television screen, fading darker and darker into the grimy brickwork of Tumblety Street. The painting scared her, and she would wonder why she’d started it.

Therapy, she thought with a mordant chuckle.

She had had comments recently, albeit well-meaning, of just how dark her work was becoming. "Damn, Mo," her brother would say in one of his less diplomatic moments, "I’m glad I’m not in your head."

"And I wish I wasn’t, Drake," Morien said aloud. She didn’t want to finish the painting... she didn’t want to arrive at that same conclusion, as if finishing would mean hospital and loss.

But....

Her mind immediately leapt to blue eyes and the way the sun had freed colours from long, brunette hair.

And she so wanted not to be in the dark any more.

With a burst of determination, Morien took the canvas down, replacing it with a blank one, and picked up a charcoal pencil.

* * * * *

The noise from The Boom Shack reverberated down the street, rattling the windows and causing passers-by to catch the beat and tap their shoes on the pavement. Above, clouds moved in the darkening sky, swinging across the moon which was bright as it rose. Its light joined the streetlamps and followed the rhythm. It seemed for just a moment that the whole world was dancing.

Patrons were drawn to The Boom Shack by sound, not by sight. It was found in a small, unremarkable pedestrian mews off a busy street lined with shops - now carefully locked and barred for the night - and restaurants and pubs heaving with their own noise and customers. But each rhythm bowed to the Boom.

And the night had barely started.

Striker slipped into the alley and found the single pulsing neon light above the door. Some letters had gone out, so the light throbbed OOM SHA OOM SHA into the night.

She could tell there was a bouncer at the door from the glow of his smoke. It didn’t smell legal. "Hey, Thomas," she said. "You got no Paully, tonight?"

He appeared like the Cheshire Cat above her, teeth first, followed by six foot ten inches of West Indies male. "Nah, Paully’s just taking a leak before we get busy. I’m looking after his ganja for him."

"Course you are." She took the joint from his lips and put it between her own. "The Man in there?" she asked and inhaled.

"Yeah, Dan’s in there, Strike," Thomas said. "Get in there quick, or he’ll take all the nice bodies."

"I’m not after bodies tonight, Thomas. Just here to watch." She reached up and put the joint back in his mouth.

"If you change your mind, sis...."

"Don’t tempt me, bro...." she said with a wink, and walked through the club doors and into a wall of sound.

The Boom Shack was by no means full, and wouldn’t be for a while longer: not until the pubs had been drunk dry and the restaurants had closed. But already the dance floor was in use, the twisting and gyrating of glistening bodies obvious in the opaque, half-light. Below the smell of tobacco and alcohol, below the smell of heat and sweat, and below the all-invasive electric sense of dub music, already the smell of raw sex was lingering.

And in the gloom, Striker made out the shape of Danny, a girl on either side of him, a blonde and an Asian, his arms draped over both, hearing sweet nothings in gentle stereo. She made her way over and as he looked up his mouth broke into an even bigger grin.

"Hey, my big sis is here," he said. He unhooked an arm from the blonde, drew Striker’s chin forward and touched his lips to her own. "You feeling better?" he said in the sotto voce tone that she could feel rather than hear above the beat.

She nodded and smiled. "Wanna come play?" he asked more loudly, slipping his arm back around the second girl.

"Nah, I’m just here for you, my friend. You on tonight?"

"Midnight, sis, stick around," Danny replied, with a wink and a grin, and had his attention drawn away by a wandering Asian tongue.

Tonight was going to be Danny’s night. Obviously.

But that was okay, Striker figured. It had been her day today. Her mind wandered yet again to Morien, as her feet took her for a drink. She ordered a beer and sat back against the bar, regarding the swaggering DJ on stage and the filling dance floor.

Strange though, that in these dark, warm surroundings, all she could feel was the way the sun had felt on her face as she sat with Morien in the street caf■, and the way it had emphasised the little cluster of freckles on Morien’s cheek. Her imagination traced the curve of Morien’s smile.

* * * * *

Morien found herself smoothing a finger over a cheekbone, softening it. The lips were too hard as well. She traced a thumb over them, then snatched a charcoal pencil and started playing again.

She thought of her sitting across the table, then sun shining on her face, but she couldn’t help but see her in darkness: her brunette hair fading into black, the planes of her face emphasised by shadow. On the canvas her eyes were dark. Strange considering how light they were, how they shone like a summer sky inside her.

But was the darkness coming from herself or Striker?

Morien had been sketching for over an hour - planning how to paint Striker’s face, the colours she could use. Behind her now was the vague representation of a wheel - a cord pulled down from it, away from it, connecting the wheel to a bobbin... How could anyone prick their finger on a spinning wheel? she had thought as she sketched.

* * * * *

Striker put a cigarette to her mouth and found a lighter in front of her. "I’ll get that," said a deep, sweet voice.

"Thank you."

"My name’s Patrick," he said, settling down on the bar stool next to her.

"Thank you, Patrick."

"What’s your name?"

Striker smiled and let the smoke drift out of her mouth. She turned to look at him and found hazel eyes staring back at her. He was cute: tall, with an ruffle of red hair, and dressed a little like herself - casual, the ’I don’t give shit’ look.

But there was an air of innocence about him that Striker liked. He reminded her of a young teenager out on the pull for the first time. He reminded her of... Morien’s brother. And there again was the image of Morien in her head eclipsing everything and everyone else. A month ago... a week ago... last night... she might have welcomed Patrick’s advances, danced with him, played with him, taken him home. The thought now left her cold. It would be like sleeping with her brother, if she’d had one. It would be like sleeping with Morien’s brother.

"Patrick..." she started, smiling gently into his hopeful eyes, "..I have to tell you, I’m with someone else."

"Oh."

Shit. Now she felt like she’d kicked a puppy.

"He’s a lucky man," he said, trying to salvage a degree of sophistication.

"Woman," she said, and found herself enjoying the expressions vying for attention on his face.

* * * * *

Once upon a time....

Sophie had always tried to define Morien’s painting style, and to Morien’s secret delight, she never could. Now, she stood back and wondered what Sophie would make of this. Morien wasn’t sure what Morien made of it. She looked at the script at the bottom of the canvas. She would paint over that, of course, highlight it in a different colour, smarten the calligraphy.

Once upon a time there was a princess and a princess...

* * * * *

Sisters and brothers, please welcome to the Boom Shack the Banton of the Beat, the Master of Dub, our own Grindsman of the Tables... Danny Giboyeaux.

The white noise of music started to seem familiar. Striker looked up and saw Danny on stage. His music was eclectic - he fused dub with hip hop, r&b, jazz, big beat, there was a recent interest in bhangra, even classical themes that he could sample and re-sample - any sound that caught his ear. There was no posturing with Danny, no hyped-up cool image. The fusion gelled with his passion and enthusiasm and that was infectious. The crowd had bayed at his appearance.

As Danny launched himself into an anthemic floor-filler, Striker imagined taking Morien onto the dance floor: feeling her body pressed close. She could imagine the sway of her hips under her hands, the smell of her skin. She tore her gaze from the dancers and turned back to the bar.

"You okay, Strike? You’re looking a little peaky," the barman asked.

"Fine, just need a drink"

* * * * *

She was rocking on her feet, so tired her eyes stung. It was fully dark outside now, and quiet in the street outside, with just the hum of distant traffic to show she was not completely alone in the world.

The phone had rung earlier, but she’d let the machine pick it up, glad for it when she heard her brother’s voice. Except he’d worry when she didn’t answer. She sighed. She’d call him in the morning.

She wanted a little peace this evening. She wanted to be alone with her thoughts and her creation.

Her new friend. Painting or person? The two were beginning to merge in her tired mind, and she found herself talking to the woman in front of her. Little things. Hopes and fears. Concerns. Items she needed to put on her shopping list.

This painted Striker remained quiet but interested. Listening, constantly listening to her... listening out for something. As if she was waiting for something to happen.

* * * * *

Striker watched as two men danced across the floor together, almost colliding with a man and woman, who were so bound up in each other they barely noticed.

That’s what she liked about the Boom Shack: it accepted everyone, whether black, white, straight, gay, fuckup, loser.... She ordered another beer.

And what the fuck would Morien be doing in a place like this, anyway? She tried to picture Morien in her flowered clothes standing, let alone moving, on the packed dance floor. She was a creature of light, who didn’t... couldn’t... belong to this world.

However good the beer was.

* * * * *

It was time for bed, but Morien found herself back on the sofa, too tired even to lie down. Just sitting.

She could be proud of herself... she’d remembered to take her pills.

She had covered the picture for the time being. The charcoal-shaded gaze had suddenly become too much. But when she closed her eyes she saw blue.

She liked that. It was soothing. It was a friendly, peaceful colour.

She hoped...

...she hoped Striker would call tomorrow.

* * * * *

"I’ll fucking skin you like an animal, you black bastard."

Where the hell had that come from?

No one else had noticed. Danny had moved on to one of his known crowd-pleasers: an anthemic sampling of his grandmother’s church choir with jazz and dub, and the throng were caught up in its feelgood rhythm. Striker had heard the abuse purely by chance. Through the wash of sliding bodies, she saw the shadows of men in the entrance and the glint of steel pulsing under the neon light.

She began to push her way through the curtain of people, pushing aside flesh as if it was gauze. From this distance she could see the scene through the deserted outer lobby: there were men, white men with big boots and skinheads. Their faces were so pale it was as if the gaudy light slid off their skin without leaving a trace. But Striker could see the colour reflected in the polished knife blade that seemed almost suspended in front of Thomas.

The man holding it wore a long, black coat and a sneer. His eyes seemed locked with Thomas’s, as if there was nothing in the world other than their battle of wills and the blade. Behind them, his three companions held back Paully’s short, wiry form, his usually pale skin flushed pink with anger and fear.

They couldn’t see Striker, and Striker knew it. She put her head down and charged, as if aiming for a quintain. The skinhead crashed against the opposite wall of the mews, Striker’s full weight crushing him to the brickwork. She heard the clink of metal as the knife fell from his hand, and was hazily aware of a large shape moving to pick it up.

But her concentration was solely on the nasty, pasty-faced individual who was currently quivering under her hands. She gripped his coat collar and hoisted him against the wall. With wry amusement, she noticed she was taller than him.

"Go fight with someone your own size, shithead, or you’ll get hurt."

Somehow the man squeezed out the words: "I don’t fight girls."

Striker chuckled. "That’s true. You can’t do much fighting now, can you?" She emphasised her argument by banging him backwards on brickwork.

She saw the helpless rage in his eyes as his mouth exploded with "Fucking dyke!" and a gob of saliva landed on her face.

Striker glared at him, banging his head back again and again to emphasise her words. "I am... not... a fucking... dyke!" She continued to hold his gaze as she kneed him in the groin. His knees buckled. "I’m all woman, asshole, though it seems I’ve got more between my legs than you have."

"That’s not fair," he gasped.

"Fair?" Striker laughed in his face. "Threatening an unarmed man with a knife is fair? This is fair. This is skin to skin, man." She let go of him and to his credit, he stayed on his feet, albeit with a bent gait and knock knees. "Okay," she continued, "go on. Let’s make this ‘fair’. Take a shot at me."

And he did.

He punched her, remarkably hard, and she reeled back with her chest smarting, but her leathers protected her from the worst of the hit, and his sneer had barely had time to redevelop before her own fist smashed into his face. This time he hit the ground, spattering blood and teeth.

Striker looked at his prone form, where he seemed unsure of whether to nurse his broken mouth or battered groin. She was so tempted to kick him in the stomach that her foot tingled in its boot. But no.

Noblesse oblige.

She turned round and was stunned and rather amused by the scene that confronted her. The knife was again suspended in air, but this time it was held by Lil’ Paully, who’d shaken himself free of the skinheads’ grasp at Striker’s diversion. Thomas meanwhile, held two of the skinheads under his oak-tree arms, in what looked like a death-grip.

Striker looked at the skinheads. "You want some of that?"

"Look, we don’t want no trouble, right?" one of them said, eyeing the knife.

"Bit late for that, isn’t it?" Paully said. "Go on, fuck off... or we’ll set She-Woman on you."

"And take your no-dick friend with you," Striker added.

Torn between machismo and fear, for a moment their waxen faces looked strangely stretched. Then struggling free from Thomas’s grasp and heaving their fallen leader up, they left. Discretion, it appeared, really was the better part of valour.

Striker looked at the two of them. "You know," she said, "if it ever gets out that the security here is in the hands of a giant teddy bear and his white mini-me, this club is fucked."

"Fucked already, Strike," Paully said. "Those guys’ll be back."

There was no sign of Paully’s usual carefree attitude. He was not joking.

"What do you mean?" Striker asked.

"They been here before, sis," Thomas picked up. "They work for some dogheart mafia guy who’s moved into town. They’ve been hackling a lot of the clubs round here. Some boss man came and tried to deal with Ray and Fabio. Wanted one of his dealers to be based at the Boom, selling hard junk to the brothers and sisters, you know?"

"Course they refused," Paully continued. "You know what Ray and Fabio are like about drugs." He pulled out a joint and Striker lifted an eyebrow. "Yeah, well, you know, sis. A little recreational ganja is different. I’m discreet."

Striker snorted.

"Not the hard stuff, though, sis," Thomas said. "Ray and Fabio. They’re uphill guys, everything legal, you know? They threatened to call the police on this dog, and these guys been trying it on ever since."

"We’ve caught them inside before now, trying to sell. Me and Thomas, or the boss men, or one of the others, we always chucked ‘em out." Paully lit his joint. "But they’re comin’ back in groups, now."

"Ray and Fabio, they don’t want to bring the feds in, you know?" Thomas said, shaking his head. "But they’re gonna have to do something, sis. Have to soon."

Paully offered Striker the joint. "Thanks for tonight, Strike," he said.

She took a long drag. "Any time, you know that."

Thomas slapped her on the shoulder. "We’ll always be all right when you’re around," he smiled that Cheshire cat smile. "Drinks on us tonight, okay?"

Yeah, and what about when I’m not around?

Striker went to get drunk.

* * * * *

She liked Easthouses Terrace. It was leafy, neat. It looked polite, even in a London East End night. It was lined with elegant Victorian houses, mostly apartment conversions she assumed. She wondered what it would be like to live here, instead of a 1970s concrete hellhole. She wondered what it would be like to live here with Morien.

Striker plumped down onto the pavement, her boots in the gutter. It was good spot: not directly opposite, but not too far down, hidden by a verdant horse chestnut tree, that seemed to be growing out of the paving stones. From here she could see the windows of Morien’s flat. There was light coming from one. She glanced at her watch: 2:27 a.m. Why was Morien awake at 2:27 a.m.?

Half of her wanted to go and find out if anything was wrong.

The other half of her found that she couldn’t get up.

So she lit a cigarette instead. At least, she tried to light a cigarette, but she didn’t seem able to marry the lighter flame with the end of the little stick. Somehow, in the end, with a deft feint, there was a satisfying hiss of ignited lighter fluid and a comforting flush appeared. Striker inhaled and felt the joy of her throat burning.

She leant against the tree, trying to focus her eyes on the other glow at the window.

Hey, Morien, she thought, if you need anything, I’m right here. She smiled to herself. "Morien, Morien, let down your auburn hair."

And she felt her eyes closing.

* * * * *

There was a sharp pain in her shoulder.

She steadied her sword and faced the Dark Knight in front of her. He was saying something she didn’t understand. She heard herself saying "I have vowed to protect her, give her to me."

"Hey, homeless person, you have to move," the Dark Knight said and again there was a sharp pain in her shoulder.

Striker opened her eyes a crack and was blinded by the face of the old lady who was busy jabbing her with a long, sharp finger.

"Wah?" she said.

"You not stay here. You go or I telephone police." Polis. She had a heavy eastern European accent.

Striker was finding her bearings in the glaring light of Sunday morning. She was still slumped against the tree on Morien’s road, her feet in the gutter. A small, chattering group of people were gathering.

The old woman poked her again.

"Hey, stop doing that," she said, wincing at the noise of her own voice echoing around her head.

"You go away, homeless person."

"I’m not..." she stopped herself from swearing "...homeless."

"Then what you doing here? Go home."

Striker got to her feet, reeling slightly as her knees almost gave out. "All right, all right...."

"You pisshead?" the old woman said.

Striker blinked at her. "Yeah," she said. "I’m a pisshead." She glanced at the gaggle of residents all looking at her as if she was something they’d scraped off a collective shoe.

The analogy was a good one. That was exactly how she felt.

She shouldn’t be here. She wanted to get out of here before Morien saw her. She took a quick look down the street. There was no sign of life at the windows of her apartment. Then a movement at the corner of her eye: a moving figure coming down from the other end of the street, a Sunday newspaper under her arm.

Oh, fuck! Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck!

As the look of recognition settled on Morien’s approaching face, Striker suddenly felt very sick indeed. She couldn’t look her in the eyes. She settled on her feet instead. She was wearing sandals, sensible, comfortable-looking blue sandals. She had cute toes.

"Striker?"

"Hi."

"You know this person?" the old lady said.

"Um... yes, Mrs Kantorowicz, she’s a friend of mine." She took Striker by the arm and guided her towards home.

"Are you okay?" she asked, keeping her voice down.

"Kind of." Striker looked round. Mrs Kantorowicz was following them, at a safe distance.

"You’ve got blood on your hand!" Morien paused for a moment. "Are you hurt?" The concern in her eyes made Striker feel even more ashamed.

She glanced down at the stains on her knuckles. "No, no, I was just helping... someone...." She trailed off, unsure of what to say.

"What are you doing here?" Morien looked up at Striker as she reached the front door of the house.

"I was just... in the neighbourhood."

"Oh." She unlocked the door and hustled Striker up two flights of stairs. Striker was aware of the door opening again behind them. She sensed rather than saw Mrs Kantorowicz in the hallway below.

Morien opened her own front door then pushed Striker into her flat.

Striker stood there, taking in her surroundings.

Morien’s flat was neat, cosy and filled with Morien. It was small, with the bedroom and kitchen separated from the main room merely by partition walls. Only the bathroom betrayed its presence by its closed door. It was plainly decorated, white walls adorned with a few colourful, fine art posters; a houseplant dotted here and there; photographs; a glimpse at the double bed showed a clean white coverlet embroidered with roses. Very Morien. And then there were books and books and books on shelves, piled carefully on the floor, on tables, on desks. An easel stood to one side, the canvas it supported covered with a long cloth.

"You have a lovely home," Striker said.

"Thank you. I’m sorry about Mrs Kantorowicz, she can be a little abrupt, but she’s a nice lady. She plays the piano beautifully...." Morien was absent-mindedly arranging the sections of the Sunday paper on the coffee table.

She had her back to Striker when she asked the question, and she asked it casually. "How did you know where I lived?"

Striker’s heart sunk.

"Did you get my address from the hospital?" Morien turned round, her forehead creased slightly.

Striker nodded.

The creases on Morien’s forehead deepened slightly. She was looking somewhere over Striker’s shoulder. "I thought you weren’t working this weekend."

Striker didn’t say anything.

Morien looked at her. Striker was staring at her boots again; she could almost imagine her standing on the platform, waiting for the train to come. Except this morning she was more dishevelled. Her dark hair was wild over her shoulders. She smelt of stale alcohol and smoke. And there was blood on her hands. Morien was beginning to understand the look of abject guilt that plastered Striker’s downturned face.

"You knew my address before we met yesterday, didn’t you?"

Striker didn’t say anything, but her jaw tightened.

"Look at me." Morien’s words were commanding. They seemed to echo in the small room. They echoed in Striker’s ears. She looked up.

Morien was almost startled by the look of defiance on Striker’s face. It almost masked her features. Her jaw was set, her hands formed half-fists at her side. But her red-rimmed eyes were deep pools of guilt. "Why?" she asked.

Striker hadn’t been expecting that. She’d been expecting rejection. She’d readied herself for the usual anger, recrimination, abuse - not this quiet question.

"I... I... wanted... to check... on you."

"To check on me? I don’t think that’s your job, is it?" Her voice was still quiet, but Striker could sense the growing anger: a storm coming in from the sea.

"No," she said.

There was a pause filled with tremoring tension. Morien’s hands were shaking. There were tears in her eyes. Striker retained her posture of defiance, but looked as if she was about to bolt.

Morien’s voice shook. "Did you follow me?"

Striker hesitated. She knew she’d already dug a deep enough hole, now it was just a question of whether Morien was going to bury her alive. "I... I...." She never finished whatever it is she was going to say.

"You were following me?"

"Well... I was...."

"It was you following me?!" Morien moved so fast, Striker was surprised to see her tearful face so close. She took a step back, then another, afraid that Morien was going to hit her - and afraid how she herself would react if Morien did.

"I...."

"How could you do that? Do you know how scared I was?"

"I’m sor...."

"I don’t believe it. I trusted you, and you’re just some sick pervert who gets her kicks out of stalking someone."

"I wa...." She backed up a little more.

"How do I know you didn’t mug me in the first place?"

"No, I’d...!"

"Get the hell out of my flat and get the hell out of my life."

Striker’s reply was lost in the crash of the front door slamming in her face.

Continued in Chapter 5...



[i] A reference to the wisdom of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view..."

"Sir?"

"..until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."