For Disclaimer, please see Chapter 1.

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

* * * * *

Chapter 9: My need, a knight[i]

She was pressed up against a wall, the brickwork biting into the back of her skull.

"Gimme the bag," the man said.

He was heavy against her. Every inch as tall as Striker, he was barrel-chested, and he used his weight to pin her. His face was a breath away from hers, big and aggressive. His head was covered in a nondescript stubble. His thick chin was marked by a neat, goatee beard. He wore a thick, gold chain round his solid neck. His breath smelt of peppermint and smoke.

Morien’s bag was trapped behind her. She couldn’t have moved to give it to him, even if she’d wanted to. She didn’t want to.

Striker looked him straight in his dark grey eyes. "Fuck you."

He slapped her hard across her face, again hitting her head against the bricks. She could taste blood in her mouth. Her cheek was blazing with the smack.

"Gimme the fucking bag, bitch."

He was used to getting what he wanted from women... whatever he wanted. He was hard against her. He was getting off on this, rubbing himself against her. She could feel him growing stiff against her thigh. His hand was on her face now, holding it. She could feel fingerprints imbedding into her skin. He smiled. He’d had work done on his teeth -they were white, straight, sharp. "Want me to spoil this beautiful face of yours, cos I will."

His other hand was moving now, touching her body, squeezing a breast, running down her side to snake its way behind her, landing on a buttock. Squeezing it.

Silly boy...

Striker jerked a knee up, fast. The hit was not as brutal as she would have liked, but the man reeled back with surprise as much as pain. This gave her the space to punch him hard in the face and he landed on his knees on the alley floor. This time, in this alley, there was no compunction. She kicked him, hard, in the stomach, and then in the face -and she felt the satisfying crunch of bone beneath her boot.

He was crying with pain. But she was incensed now and she kicked him again, and he doubled over, bringing his knees up to his chest to protect himself. His hand flew to his waist. For a man built like a humvee he could move surprisingly quickly.

And Striker found herself at the wrong end of a gun.

It wasn’t the first time she’d been in this position. She’d been around guns... both ends... several times. Once at St Vincent’s, she had disarmed a young man threatening a receptionist with an old World War I pistol. But he had been nervous, scared even, easy to talk down, easy to out-think.

This guy was neither -and he was furious.

He spoke slowly, his voice sodden with blood and mucus. "STOP fucking kicking me!"

Striker took a step back. The man’s hand was shaking, but he held the gun with the confidence of familiarity. "Okay," she said, her voice trying to stay calm, to keep him calm. "I’m sorry... okay."

With difficulty, he got to his feet, but the gun didn’t move from its aim. She could see his finger edgy on the trigger.

"Now give me the fucking bag."

Striker didn’t hesitate to swing Morien’s bag off her shoulder. She dropped it on the ground. He followed, again bending painfully to open it, but the gun remained aimed at her. His free hand rifled through the contents, and brought out a ring binder, emblazoned with a council crest.

Then he stood, leaving the bag on the ground, and moved towards her. "As for you...." Striker found herself on her knees, as he kicked her feet from under her. The man was wearing shoes, casual, but polished. His jeans had dirt all up one leg. The imprint of her own boot was clear on his sweatshirt. The gun came down and the barrel was pressed against her forehead. She closed her eyes. The pressure was cold and sharp against her skull, as if the bullet was biting already.

Please, she wanted to say, please. I haven’t found my mother yet. I want Morien. Please, I want Morien.

And then there were worried voices on the other side of the wall. "Is there anyone there?" someone called. The man’s eyes darted at the sound. He came close to her, his breath hot on her face, his words accompanied by bodily fluids, and whispered. "I’ll fucking get you." He took her face in his big hand and slammed her head back against the wall. For a moment, she saw nothing but a burst of stars, and when she opened her eyes again he was gone.

The voices were still there, coming closer. The thought of intruding strangers suddenly made her sick and, lunging for the bag, she stumbled out of the alley.

* * * * *

Morien had spent half the morning on the phone: the police -to check the arrival of their forensic team; the landlord -to arrange for a new lock on her front door; her insurance company -just pausing to let in a single forensic officer in an overgrown romper suit. Now she was talking to her sister-in-law.

"Kerensa, I’m fine, I promise. Tell Drake to stop worrying. The policeman said it was a simple burglary. It’s over. Everything’s all right."

She sighed. Her brother had apparently tried to phone her last night. Concerned when neither she nor her answerphone picked up, he had tried her at work that morning, only to be told she was off sick. Then busy with classes, Drake had given his wife strict instruction to ensure Morien’s health and safety. She couldn’t blame him for his paranoia. Not after what had happened.

"I stayed with a friend last night, that’s all. No... no... you don’t have to come round. My friend is helping me out."

She glanced up as a noise distracted her. And the breath caught in her throat. Striker stood in the doorway, leaning against the door frame. Her face was marked with dirty, red streaks, and there was blood trickling from her mouth.

"Oh my God.... Kerensa, I’ve got to go." She put the phone down and bolted up from the sofa. "What happened?"

Striker stepped forward, swaying a little, tossing Morien’s bag onto the floor. "I’m okay, really."

Morien reached up to touch Striker’s face. "This is okay?"

"You should see the other guy." She smiled. Then winced.

"Striker...." She took the American’s arm and steered her to the sofa. Then darted into the kitchen.

Striker put her head back on the sofa. She owed her the truth. "I was attacked, okay?"

"Mugged?"

"This was no ordinary mugging."

Morien appeared in the doorway with a soft cloth and a bowl of warm water. "What do you mean?"

Striker looked at Morien as she sat down beside her. "You still have your bag, I still have my wallet."

"Then what...?"

"You had a ring binder in your bag?"

The phone rang.

Morien picked it up, unthinkingly, her eyes still fixed on Striker. "Hello?" She closed her eyes. "Iesu Grist. Drake, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m fine. Yes, I was burgled. I’m fine. I can’t talk you right now. Don’t you have classes to teach? Then go and eat lunch then. I promise I’ll call you later." She put the phone down.

Striker’s eyes were closed now. There were what looked like fingerprints on her face. Morien reached up with the damp cloth and, as gently as gossamer, tried to clean the blood from around Striker’s mouth.

Striker flinched at the touch, but then allowed herself to be tended.

"You said they took my ring binder?"

Striker nodded. Her eyes fluttered open. "What was in it?"

Morien’s hand fell into her lap. "My work. Work I’m doing on the Woodhall Estate project. My Tumblety Street proposal." Her mind was whirling. None of this made sense.

"Anything that anyone would be interested in?"

"Nothing. A few well-known details about the Woodhall Estate...."

"And what about your proposal?"

"I told you. Just a plan to renovate the houses, develop the warehouses and turn a little disused chapel into a community centre and art gallery, that’s all.."

"Everyone’s a critic."

Morien smiled a weak smile, then ran a hand across her forehead, displacing her headscarf and allow a few wisps of auburn hair to escape. "I don’t know what’s happening. I’m so sorry, Striker. Look at you. This shouldn’t be happening to you."

"This shouldn’t be happening to you," Striker returned. Tentatively, she reached out for Morien’s hand and held it softly in her own. "Can you think of any reason why anyone would be after your work?"

"There’s been problems on the Woodhall Estate. Most of the community are behind the regeneration project, but there was a lot of crime there... there still might be people.... Oh, God, Striker... there’re names in that binder. Community leaders who have been helping us. But I thought they were well known. And why me? There’s a dozen people in my office working on that project. Why me?" And again she felt the tears well. "I can’t stand this. I can’t stand this anymore."

Striker put an arm round her and drew her into a hug, just wanting to hold Morien. Somehow, concentrating on Morien’s fear stilled her own. Somehow, the incident in the alley didn’t seem so terrifying with Morien in arms. "Hey," she said, "if they’ve got your work, then they’ve got what they want. They won’t bother us again."

"I ought to call the police. You ought to call the police," Morien mumbled into Striker’s jacket.

"I’m fine, honey. I’ve had far worse in my life." Physically, she had. Mentally.... Mentally, she’d be feeling that gun for a long time. She’d be feeling that terror. But she wouldn’t show Morien. She pushed Morien back so she could see her face. "Do you want to phone the cops?"

Morien didn’t answer for a long time. Striker watched the expressions wax and wane on her face. She was like an open book and Striker followed the story with the fascination of a devoted reader. Finally, Morien opened her mouth. "No, I don’t. I just want the whole thing to be over with." She sighed. "How about you? You were the one that was attacked."

"You’re kidding? With my luck, Manifold’ll say I beat myself up." She smiled weakly. "So it’s over with, as of now." She got up, stiffly, and stretched her back. Then stripped off her jacket. "All we have to do is tidy up in here."

"Striker...."

"Yeah?" She looked back at Morien, surprised at the smile on her face.

"...did you just call me ‘honey’?"

Striker caught herself blushing. "Shit. That’s not gonna do a thing for my bad girl rep, is it?"

"Don’t worry, bad girl, I won’t tell anyone." Her smile faded. "It is over, isn’t it?"

"It’s over, or these guys are going to have to answer to me."

* * * * *

Stalker’s paradise.

Morien’s life was scattered everywhere, and Striker had free-rein. She arranged the eclectic CD collection, organised video cassettes, folded clothes, lost herself in books. And all accompanied by a dialogue of chat and banter: some resulting in laughter, some resulting in a shaky breath and a reassuring touch of hand on hand.

Now she was pondering photographs. She had rescued them from their broken frames and was collecting them into a neat, respectful pile. These were places that meant a lot to Morien, people who cared for her, people she loved.... Her stomach turned over.

They were standing in front of a gate, a garden with flowers behind, and the wall of a house in the background, covered in the green and pink of a climbing plant. Morien somehow looked less fragile, less thin, her auburn hair loose around her face and longer, resting on her shoulders. Her eyes were bright -she was laughing -and seemed to be struggling to hold onto a white cat in her arms.

Sophie was a little taller than Morien, dark haired and with dark, sparkling eyes, although Striker couldn’t tell exactly what colour they were. Her skin was tanned. Her hair was neat and short-cropped. She was frustratingly pretty. She had her arm round Morien and was smiling brightly; the kind of smile that made her pretty face even more beautiful.

Striker swallowed the rising gall of jealousy as she stared at the picture.

"What?"

Morien was staring at her. She forced a smile. "Nothing, just looking." She placed the photographs in the extended hand.

Morien smiled in return, studying the picture at the top of the pile. But Striker couldn’t help noticing the smile turning wistful. "Last summer," Morien murmured. "A lot’s happened since then." She slid the photos into a drawer, keeping any remaining thoughts to herself.

But Striker had to know. "How... how long have you two been together?" She tried to make the question sound nonchalant, a matter of casual interest, and followed it up with another smile. She hurt inside.

"Six years," Morien said, simply. It felt strange talking about this with Striker. She didn’t look at her.

"How did you meet?"

"At university." Then feeling the need for explanation: "We were friends at first... then things kind of developed afterwards." She finally looked round at Striker, taken aback by the dark blue interest in her eyes. She smiled, shyly. "It’s funny. I never would have thought we’d make a couple. She... she had a boyfriend before me, although I know I wasn’t her first...."

She trailed off, and Striker couldn’t help commenting, "Even Sappho was married."

The Welsh woman lifted an annoyed auburn eyebrow at the observation, and Striker took on an expression of mock contrition. The silent, upbeat exchange seemed to give Morien confidence, and she went on. "Sophie was always the life and soul of the party. Everyone liked her. She always had... has time for everyone, you know? I was the quiet one who actually got on with studying."

Striker’s smile briefly became genuine. She could imagine Morien: earnest, determined, passionate about her work.

"We got together at our graduation party." She chuckled. "I’m sure the wine helped that night. And neither of us ever planned on it being anything more than a one-night stand. But...."

"It turned into a whole lot more."

"It turned into a life." There was a softness in Morien’s green eyes that ran Striker through.

For a moment, she floundered in silence until, at last, she spoke, her voice quiet to disguise its shaking. "You must miss her very much."

Morien looked away, closed the drawer.

She couldn’t answer that question.

It took a while for either of them to speak again, both concentrating on the task at hand. At last, Morien glanced over to where Striker was wrestling with the vacuum cleaner as if it was a seven-headed hydra. Her lip was slightly swollen and there were still the red shadows of slap marks on her cheek. My hero... my friend.

Even Sappho was married. What was that supposed to mean? It only seemed to confirm that Striker was straight. She sighed. Friends then.

"It’s been a long time since I had a friend."

She hadn’t meant to say that, it had slipped off her tongue as quickly as it had slipped into her mind.

Striker’s head jerk up, surprise and puzzlement on her face, and she momentarily abandoned the cleaner. Morien felt the need to explain pushing up inside her. "I mean... all the people we used to go out with, socialise with, you know? They were Sophie’s friends. It always felt like they were our friends, but I’ve barely seen any of them since Sophie went away. And since I got out of hospital... well, I haven’t wanted to see any of them. I get so tired," she finished lamely.

Striker didn’t say anything, but there was a quiet encouragement in her eyes.

"It’s hard to get close to people, you know?" Morien continued. Striker lowered her eyes briefly, but there was a smile of acknowledgement on her lips. "How can you get close to people when you don’t even understand yourself?"

Their eyes locked for a moment, but then Morien looked away. "You’re lucky to have Danny."

"I am," Striker spoke with a sigh, "very lucky. I’m not sure if anyone else would have put up with me, the way he has."

"You love him," Morien said, her voice surprisingly strong.

"Yes, I do. But...." What could she say now? I love you too. I love you more. "There’s love and love, you know?"

"Yes, I know."

They smiled, and for a moment Morien was lost in a pool of cerulean blue, but was then shocked out of her reverie.

"Do you... want to come out with me tonight?"

"Sorry?"

"Hey, no big deal. Just two friends going out."

"Out where?"

"There’s a club I know... Danny works there, but I don’t know if he’s got a set tonight."

A club? "I don’t know...."

"It’s okay if you don’t want to. I just thought... maybe a drink or two, listen to the music. You don’t have to dance or anything. And it won’t be late... I’m working tomorrow."

Morien hesitated. She was torn in two. She wanted... really wanted... to go out with Striker. It had occurred to her that with the ending of the horrors of the past few days, Striker would go too. It felt as if their friendship was on borrowed time. At some point, something would finish it and Striker would suddenly vanish in a flurry of pumpkins and white mice.

So the chance to extend this time with her was more than welcome.

But a club. That scared her.

The noise, the lights, the heat, the buzz of alcohol. God, she’d forgotten what that was like. And Striker, the thought of Striker there, the thought of Striker dancing -her body moving. She didn’t know how it would effect her.. Any of it.

Morien rubbed her eyes.

"It’s okay," Striker said. "We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to."

"No." The vehemence of Morien’s response surprised her as much as Striker. It’s time I stopped being scared. "It’s time I had some fun."

* * * * *

It was still light as they walked to The Boom Shack, and the sounds of the outside world still had precedence down the high street. But in its small back street, the Boom was already nestling in cosy shadow.

Striker could barely contain her joy. The short walk from her apartment to the Boom had been one of the proudest of her life: simply because she had Morien on her arm. Well, not on her arm. She had walked demurely at her side, interested in her surroundings, interested in Striker’s comments. But not touching. Not touching.

Not that Striker didn’t want to touch. Morien had walked bashfully out of her bedroom wearing the flowing, blue-green dress, her face demurely made up, and all topped off by a long, embroidered headscarf that made her look like a pre-Raphaelite model. And ever since Striker had wanted to touch, if only to run the diaphanous material through her fingers.

"Is it too much?" Morien had asked, shyly, misunderstanding Striker’s wide-eyed stare.

Striker had opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, but eventually said, "No... no... not at all. It’s... pretty."

Pretty? Pretty?!! Was Helen of Troy pretty? Was Blodeuwedd pretty? Was Guinevere pretty? Striker wondered if it would be overly dramatic to make up for her mistake by prostrating herself at Morien’s feet.

Instead, they’d made their way back to Striker’s apartment where she had washed and changed as quickly as she could -black jeans, clean cream t-shirt, her other boots: smart... for her, not only bothering to braid her hair -only so she needn’t be out of Morien’s awe-inspiring presence for too long.

And now, as they turned into the alley, she felt like an Elizabethan love poet bursting with sonnets of adoration and lapdog hope.

In the lazy neon of the Boom Shack light were Thomas and Paully, one on either side of the entrance, smoking, relaxing. Paully looked round and saw them through a haze of smoke and pink light. "Lawd have mercy, sis," he said, flashing his gold tooth, "you really know where to find em."

"Lawd have mercy on you, Lil’ Paully, if I catch you anywhere near her," Striker retorted, smiling.

It was Thomas who remembered his manners. He reached out and took Morien’s hand in a gentle grip, and Morien looked up and up and up to greet his wide smile. "Welcome to the Boom Shack, little lady. My name is Thomas, and any friend of Striker’s is a friend of mine.. I hope you have a fine evening."

"Thank you," Morien replied quietly.

She was feeling nervous.

She had been feeling nervous from the moment she stepped into her bedroom to change. It had been frightening just how much she had wanted to impress Striker. She’d even put on a little eye make-up. And it had been frightening seeing the look of pure longing on Striker’s face as she had finally emerged. That wasn’t longing, she said to herself. She’s straight, she’s straight, she’s straight.... Please let her be straight. And then she’d changed her mind when Striker had changed to the black jeans that showcased every inch of her long, long legs.

And for a moment she had thought about throwing caution to the wind, throwing Sophie over, and leaping on Striker then and there.

But the possible repercussions of that had been even more frightening.

So, she was here in this gloomy alley, shaking hands with a giant.

"Come on," Striker said, daring to touch Morien’s arm, just for moment. The material shimmered on her fingertips. It tingled through her nerves.

The two of them walked through the shady entrance.

It was dark inside as well. It was like walking into the mouth of a dragon: red and dark and smoky. But with relief, Morien realised it wasn’t as loud as she’d feared, and the lights stayed constant. Striker steered her over to the bar. "The first set isn’t ‘til nine so they pipe in the recorded stuff ‘til then."

It was dub music, loud enough for a few couples to be dancing, but quiet enough to sustain a conversation away from the dancefloor. They sat themselves at one end of the bar, out of the way, but in a position to watch the rest of the club, the dancefloor, and the stage.

"Beer, please, Viv," Striker said, making herself at home. "What would you like?"

Morien considered for a moment, regarding the assortment of bottles ranged behind the bar, and the brightly coloured liquids within. "An orange juice, please."

"An orange juice?"

"Yes please."

She wondered if Striker would protest, preparing herself for "But surely..." or "Don’t you want..." or "Come on, a little one...." But Striker turned to the barman and said, "An orange juice, please." She turned back to Morien. "I’m glad you decided to come." Striker’s eyes were shining like stars in the dim night of the Boom.

"I’m glad I decided to come." Striker’s enthusiasm was infectious, and Morien found herself sinking into her surroundings with an ease that belied her previous tension. Or maybe it was because she felt at ease around Striker. She enjoyed her company, she enjoyed the conversation, she enjoyed the way that when she and Striker talked it was as if nothing else in the world existed. They could have been back at the flat, or on a desert island, or on a Welsh hillside. She liked the way Striker listened to her, the way her eyes would change colour in the space of a heartbeat from serious to teasing to caring, from blue Arctic sky to dark summer night. She liked her mouth, the way it curved into a smile when she was amused, the way it encircled her cigarette, the way her lips pursed as she exhaled the smoke -so carefully blown away from Morien -as if she was kissing the air.

They talked of music and books and art, and were completely oblivious to their surroundings, as the club began to fill with patrons. Only the barman’s occasional interventions to refill their glasses detracted from their world of two.

Striker’s cheeks were beginning to glow with alcohol and pleasure. She started to shrug off her jacket, only for it to be pulled off her shoulders and replaced by an arm. "Let me help you with that," said a sultry voice.

Striker started and looked round at the face of the pretty blonde that had appeared from nowhere. "Oh, hi Diane," she said, uncomfortably.

"Wanna little fun later, if you’re free?" the blonde said speaking low into Striker’s ear, but loud enough for Morien to hear. Morien could see the woman’s tongue moving in her mouth. Another inch and it’d be in Striker’s ear.

"No, Diane, I’m with someone," Striker said, loudly, so Diane could make no mistake about her answer. And she took her jacket from Diane’s grasp and put it back on.

Diane’s cheek twitched as if she’d been slapped. She glanced at Morien, looking at her as if she was last year’s fashion. But then she turned back to Striker and the smile returned. "Well," she said, "maybe another time, gorgeous." And she slunk back into the crowd to find someone else’s space to invade.

Striker stubbed out her cigarette with frustration. "Sorry," she said. "We had a... thing. Once. Ages ago." She looked up and found the Welsh woman staring at her, her mouth open.

The filing cards of Morien’s memory had exploded in her head and now lay in disorganised clutter on the floor of her mind. Propriety dictated that she should brush the encounter off. Propriety dictated that she should take up the reins of their former conversation. Propriety dictated that she shouldn’t question her new friend’s choice of sexual partner.

Propriety could go to hell.

"I... I... I... thought you were straight?"

"I never said I was straight."

"But what about you and Danny?"

"Yeah, Danny and I have... slept together... but that doesn’t make me straight."

"You’re gay, then?"

"No, I’m just me... and I don’t like being labelled." There was a confrontational tone in Striker’s voice that seemed totally alien.

"What does that mean?"

"It means that if I want someone, I fuck them." There was a glint in Striker’s eye that was new again from all the shades and sparkles Morien had witnessed since the evening began. It was dark, dangerous, deeply passionate and frighteningly desirable.

And Morien was taken in by it, sucked in to the depths of the blue and the depths of Striker’s challenge.

She took up the gauntlet, leaning forward, showing cleavage. "Do you want to fuck me?"

Morien was joking.

The use of the expletive on the small woman’s lips was like a cold shower... or a hot bath. Never had a single word caused so much pleasurable uncertainty for Striker. Morien’s voice had taken on a teasing, sensuous tone, a warm, wet tone that brought to mind bodies slipping together and the musky smell of sex. And with her Welsh tongue toying with the words....

She was joking, wasn’t she?

Except it didn’t seem like a joke. "No," Striker said quietly, and was totally unprepared for the look of hurt that crossed Morien’s face.

"Irie, sisters and brothers. My name’s Fabio and, for those of you who don’t know, this joint is mine. And I say time for the good stuff. We got rockers, we got dub, but first we got DJ Just."

And simultaneously the music started pounding, the bodies around them moved fast and hard, and the lights began to flash.

And Morien felt her knees almost give way. "I’ve got to get out of here."

Striker saw Morien’s mouth move under the music, and saw her turn and begin to push her way through the crowd. She saw her put her hand to her eyes, almost running blind from the room.

* * * * *

Morien made it outside, the music, the lights, the heat pounding in her brain. But the darkening evening only offered humidity and the flashing neon BOOM SHA.

This couldn’t be happening. She couldn’t let this happen. Not here. Not with Striker on her heels. I hate this. I hate this. This can’t happen. Not in front of....

"Hey, little lady," a voice said through the white noise in front of her eyes. "You okay?"

"I need some... some fresh air."

It was Thomas. His big hands took her by the arms and gently pulled her away from the entrance. "Don’t worry, lady, I got you."

Morien swayed in the direction of the street, but Thomas’s strong grip pulled her back. "Not out on the street. You go up the other end, there’s some boxes up there. You go sit tight. I’ll keep an eye out for you. You wan’ me get Striker?"

Morien shook her head and stumbled down to the end of the alley. It was even darker down here, pitch when it formed an L shape and she found herself almost tripping over a pile of wooden crates, set up as if they were hidden thrones. She sat down heavily, thought to put her head between her legs, but felt her body fall.

* * * * *

Striker had tried to follow Morien, but the smaller woman was quicker and more desperate, and Striker found herself colliding, almost dancing, with an agile woman in front of her. She looked into the woman’s face -they were strangely familiar - beautiful, deep almond eyes smiling at her. Then the woman pushed past with a mouthed apology.

Striker turned again, anxious that she had hurt Morien, worried that Morien might be unwell, and again started to push past the dancing mass. And again found her way blocked. Arms came up and grabbed her waist.

"Hey, sis, what’s the hurry?"

"Danny." She breathed easier. "Bro, have you seen Morien?"

"That little red head? Sorry, sis, been otherwise engaged." Danny smiled and nodded his head in the direction of the Asian woman.

Striker stared after her as she disappeared towards the Ladies. "Is it my imagination or is that the same girl as last weekend?"

Danny shrugged. "I didn’t think you noticed last weekend."

"Bro... you got something to tell me?"

"She’s nice."

"She’d better be for you." Finding themselves on the edge of the seething crowd, Striker pulled a cigarette and lit it with shaking fingers. "There’s going to be a lot of devastated ladies here when the news breaks."

"The devastated ladies will have you to look after them, sis," Danny grinned back.

"No they won’t."

"They won’t?" Danny’s face became concerned, regarding Striker’s cheerless expression. "What’s up, sis?"

"Nothing. Just fucked up again. The usual."

"Fucked up?"

"It’s nothing. Nothing I can’t fix. I hope."

"Strike, you’re okay with this... with me, aren’t you?"

Striker looked at him, concentrating on his words now. "Dan, of course I am!" She took his hand. "You don’t need my permission to start dating someone. Besides, I’m happy for you. I really want this to work for you." She kissed him gently on the lips. The most chaste of kisses. "You’re my friend.."

Danny squeezed her hand, and his grin appeared again like sunrise. "So, you and the little red head...?"

Striker sighed. "Me and the little red head."

"Well, you and her... last night... is she a real red head?"

Striker threw him a look of disgust. "Nothing happened."

"Nothing happened?"

"Nothing happened."

"You mean you had that cute little catty in your bed all night and you didn’t get to stroke the..."

"Nothing happened."

Danny’s voice rose above the music, causing stares from their neighbours. "I don’t believe it. The great Striker West struck out!"

There was a pause. Striker looked up at him, exhaling smoke at him like a demon at hell’s gate. "Firstly," she said, "don’t you dare use one of my own phrases against me and secondly, asshole, Striker West chose not to go up to the plate."

"Chill out, sis. You didn’t make a move?" Striker shook her head. "Shit," Danny said. "We both got it bad."

"My friend, we certainly do."

* * * * *

The latest patrons dispatched, Thomas left Paully to mind the door, and made his way into the dark part of the alley. He didn’t see Morien immediately, despite his eyes being used to the gloom. Approaching the crates he almost tripped over her. She was sitting up against the wall, her head on her knees, her arms clutched round her bent legs.

"Coo yah, sis, I almost didn’t see you there," he said, crouching down by her side. "You sick, sweetheart?"

She lifted her head from her knees and her face was almost luminous white in the dark. She was crying. The make-up she’d so carefully applied just a couple of hours before, ran down her cheeks in black streams. "Hey, little lady, I’ll get Striker for you, ‘kay?"

"No!" She reached out and caught his arm as he started to get up. "No, please.. I just want to go home."

"Okay," Thomas said. "How ‘bout if I get you a cab, huh?" She nodded. "Can you stand? Here, let me help you." He almost lifted her to her feet, holding onto her shoulder as she trembled. "There’s a rank just round the corner. Can I walk you?" He held out an arm, and she took it with a small, grateful smile.

"Thank you," she said, in a tiny voice.

"My pleasure, sister," he said, and walked her slowly up the alley.

As they passed the entrance to the Boom Shack, Thomas winked at the staring Paully and said, "Back in a minute, dread, hold tight." And they walked off into the street.

Paully gaped after them, the two figures, one towering and sturdy, one small and fragile, silhouetted against the streetlamps of the outside world. They rounded the corner and were out of sight.

He took a saved joint from his shirt pocket and lit it carefully, encouraging the glow of the tip with long inhalations. Then leaned back against the brickwork and closed his eyes, his tongue absent-mindedly playing with his gold tooth, becoming one with the music and the night.

A minute or so of delicious reverie passed until an urgent voice said, "Hey, Paully, you seen my friend."

Paully opened his eyes and gazed up at Striker rather unsteadily.

"Wha...?"

"Fuck, shorty, have you seen my friend, the woman I came with?"

"Oh, yeah, Thomas took her to get a cab. She looked like shit, Strike."

"What do you mean she looked like shit?"

"She looked ill, sis. I think she fainted."

"Fucking shit, Paully, why didn’t someone come and get me?" Striker darted out of the entrance, looking as if she wanted to hit someone. Paully had a sneaking suspicion it was going to be him.

"I dunno. Thomas looked like he was handling it.. They’ve only just gone. They might still be up at the rank."

Striker was off without replying, up the alley. But her movement was brought to a shuddering halt as a group of men blocked the exit to the street.

It wouldn’t have mattered to her. She would have simply pushed past them -despite the size of the group: a group of pale-faced, skinheaded freaks who looked like ghouls out of the night. And despite the size of the men. The two suited bodies that led them blocked the alley between them.

In another life, at another time, she would have pushed past them with a momentary smirk: one had a bleached-blond crew cut, that made his face look far too red. The other had his nose bandaged and two black eyes.

It was this man who stopped her. In a voice that made him sound as if he had a bad cold, he said, "Well well. Two birds with one stone."

Continued in Chapter 10...



[i] Words spoken by Lynette to King Arthur from "Gareth and Lynette" in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King