The street was cold, the sky the eggshell blue of a freezing day. Wisps of cloud lay drizzled on the horizon, and through them the pale glow of the sun stared implacable onto the roads still lit by the thinning orange haze of streetlights.
Viv jogged down the street – the tracksuit was warm, though hardly warm enough to protect her from the cold. It bit at her heels and a litany of swearing slipped from her, a constant muffled chant matching the impacts of her feet. She’d managed to find some sort of boots that weren’t too loose and slip them on, but the things rattled with each and every step.
The sunglasses bounced against her nose as well. They were a pain, but a necessary one, so as not to startle the populace.
Assuming that she hadn’t suffered some kind of loony memory loss like apparently everyone else had, there was a small – Americans would’ve called it a mall, but in truth it was nothing more than an open, paved and roofed street with a number of clothes shops lining it, and a second floor – merely a few streets away.
First priority was shoes and underwear. She felt bizarrely certain that the few other inhabitants of the street could somehow tell her lack of dress and she could happily wear the tracksuit and hoodie from that date until her next funeral if she could wear them with a goddamn bra and knickers, or at least something to stop the fucking chafing. And while tight-fitting new shoes would be more of a pain than these loose ones she’d wear them in soon enough.
It was an alarmingly practical thought and almost in reflex she shoved the shoes to the very bottom of her list. T-shirts, and jeans – simple and cheap, for as she was using Andy’s money she wasn’t inclined to spend lavishly. Really it was Andy’s parents’ money, but that was semantics. Maybe some nice little skirts if she could grab them. Andy wasn’t heavy on makeup but she could mooch off her for now – maybe get some of her own mascara though as that’d be pretty cheap. She wasn’t sure that there was a good makeup shop among that tiny collection though. Maybe a pharmacy might have some Maybelline trash.
‘Who would’ve thought coming back from the dead would be so fucking hard?’ She grinned at herself. The landscape was gradually growing more urban, zebra crossings and neon signs not quite turned off in the light of day, and shitty fried chicken places trying to pretend they weren’t KFC ripoffs. A blue-grey cat striped black glared at her from behind cardboard boxes, then slunk away with the nonchalant air that felines could assume – this is none of your business, and is far more important than anything you might deign to do.
And there the line of shops were, a few bleary-eyed individuals stalking into its Tesco’s for some breakfast pastry or other. Two policemen strolled past, both in bulky navy jackets and heavy yellow-green reflective vests, one younger and female, the other red-faced and running to fat. Viv dropped her muttered swearing to a minimum as she jogged by. The clothes shops were closed, of course, the shop owners too lazy to get out of bed – she squashed the thought, less for being uncharitable and more for being unhelpful. A Cafe Nero hummed cheerfully nearby and with some impatience she decided to grab another coffee.
Some time later the shopping centre had become a little more crowded and Viv was feeling considerably better. She’d managed to find some shirts that didn’t make her want to murder the idiots who thought they’d be good to wear, some comfortable sets of underwear – cuteness wasn’t a requirement for the moment – three pairs of relatively cheap jeans and high denier tights and, wonder of wonders, even a toilet for her to dash into and get changed in, storing her hoodie and tracksuit trousers in one of the bags she now carried. She had thought for a while and eventually bought a cheapish pair of mirrored shades.
She’d bought a leather jacket too – a fairly expensive one, but hell, it was a leather jacket, and it felt good to wear it, and the smile wrapped around her face couldn’t be faked. She got some trainers too – light comfy things that she could slip her aching feet into. Her little indulgences. Though the trainers were still in the stage of new shoe where they pinched at the toe and wrapped round her feet too tight, especially give the little network of cuts she still sported that she’d almost forgotten about. Boots, much as she’d love to have them, would be worse.
But still. Something about the image of her, rearmoured in leather and denim, seemed necessary. Like she’d be incomplete without them.
She began to work her way back through the shops to look for less vital clothing – skirts, and other tops, and maybe other shoes if she saw any good ones. The main thoroughfare was growing packed, the buzz of a multitude already making itself clear from the individual noises of passersby. She spotted the policewoman again, making her way through the gathering crowds with purpose. Actually, she was heading in her direction, eyes slipping from one person to the next –
She broke into a jog, and with sudden crystal clarity Viv knew she was coming for her. Ern’s shop, she’d robbed him – stupid, so stupid to think that would have no consequences. Stupid not to think. She spun, slowly, far too slowly, shoes scraping desperately at the slick floor, legs akimbo. She ducked one surprised shopper, a second, already panting – fuck her worthless smoking lungs, not now, not now! – glanced back –
The policewoman slid through the crowd with leonine efficiency. Her eyes were shockingly, piercingly blue, even through the haze of the sunglasses. She held her hat on with one hand.
Looking forward again, legs and arms pumping, settling into heavy iron breaths – left, up onto a bench, down, jacket flaring and pulling at arms, stumbled landing, outraged shrieks, bags yanking at her hand. Looking back again, no sign –
A grip of rock encased her shoulder for a fraction of a second and she ripped herself free, diving sideways into a shop, through a rack of clothing, grabbing a box, hurling it behind her. The woman didn’t even duck, the box simply clipping her hat from her head. She made an abortive attempt to hold onto it, then gave up, waist length curls of sapphire blue unfurling around their head. Viv crawled away, staggered to her feet – someone screamed, but she could barely hear it over the roar of breath from her lungs, began running again. Her sunglasses had fallen behind her somewhere, but she couldn’t retrieve them, she had to get away, get away –
Out, out into the grey cold street, bags still bouncing in her hand, slamming through an old man in suit and coat who collapsed with a cry of alarm, left into an alleyway of filth, looking back for a glimpse of the woman.
The padded navy jacket and safety vest had fallen somewhere in the shop and from that brief snapshot Viv updated her mental image, not obscured by pedestrians or terror. The woman’s arms were muscled – not the lean muscle of a ‘strong woman’ or tough actress, but thickly knotted and bulky, almost obscenely so. Her pale skin was obscured beneath a weave of tattoos, thin and insanely numerous, each in a red so dark it may as well have been black. Now Viv knew to look for it she could see the tracery of more clambering up the arch of her neck. Wrapping round her throat like chains.
Viv was suddenly convinced that this was definitely not about Ern. This…thing was not a policewoman, no more than she was a fish. She glanced back again. It had increased its pace, legs blurring, face still impassive.
She staggered down the alley, breath coming in great rusted heaves. She stumbled over a cat, slid in the muck and tarmac, bags twisting from her grasp, up onto her feet again, hands cut and bloody, down another alleyway.
The shimmering black painted metal of a fire escape sprouted from the brickwork and remembering the adage that no-one ever looked up she hauled herself onto it with shaking stinging hands and began to pull herself up, taking the stairs two or more at a time.
A floor and a half up she paused, sat and tried to control herself, glancing down at the ground below.
It stalked into view, gaze sweeping the street with calm, efficient passes. The cat twined itself about the thing’s heavy boot-clad ankles, and Viv saw it was the blue-black-grey beast from before.
It gave a thick noise – ‘Wong, wong,’ – and the thing held out an arm like a falconer for their bird. The cat bunched itself and uncoiled, leaping to the perch in a single motion. It rubbed its head against the thing’s chin, then kneaded the hand that held it with its paws until thin drops of blood bubbled from it along the lines of the tattoos.
It raised its arm higher, cat shifting to keep balance, and stared at the bloody hand for one long second. Then the cat clambered up its arm to lie across its shoulders, eyes half closed in satisfaction.
It was already moving with horrifying swiftness to the fire escape – Viv began to run, again too slow off the mark, almost on all fours, hands grabbing and pawing at the steps. The heavy hiss of an angry cat answered her desperation, and a quicker, lighter step joined the noise below.
Round the corner, up again, that light gallop coming closer and closer. An open window up ahead, maybe she could dive through and beg hospitality – it might work, anything might work against the cat and the thing –
Viv had not tempted fate by thinking that the situation could not deteriorate further. That was asking for the universe to kick your ass. But it was the only explanation for the figure that unfolded itself from the window, knife held in one woollen gloved hand, tan hooded coat flapping like a sail in the light breeze. Russet eyes flicked to hers from above a thick red scarf covering nose and mouth.
She staggered, took a step backwards that the air didn’t support. She stumbled down, her head slamming into the railing, a low whine of a frightened animal echoing through the air, a terrified noise she didn’t recognise as her own. He took two long patient strides towards her, knife already held ready.
Then the cat was bounding past her, a streak of lightning across the metal of the stair, claws extended and flicking once, twice, across the man’s face. He staggered back, knife coming up, a single grey paw batting it aside with a growl low in the throat, but she had already stumbled away down the stairs, vision blurring.
A yowling shape twisted down past her, and she half turned to see the cat land in the alley below.
A hand caught itself round her face and she inhaled heavy wool, the rich stink of oil and mothballs, the knife flashing into view in the corner of her vision – she hauled herself forward, teeth sinking through glove and into hand, legs thrashing backwards, she spun, then a sense of pressure on her waist and a horrifying tilt of orientation. For a second she hung suspended.
Then the laws of physics took hold and pulled her down, away from her murderer, hand outstretched as if to catch her.
She would not land as the cat had. She would die again and Andy, poor Andy, gods, if only she could live, she didn’t want to die again, not again –
The thing swung into view above her, haloed in blue hair against the sky and buildings, suspended by one taut arm from the stairway. In the cool sticky sweetness of time adrenaline brought she could see the long, heavy black shape in its hand. Its face was motionless.
A heavy whack, as of a car door being slammed. She had enough time to think that in movies, silenced weapons coughed before a blindingly sharp blow crashed into her head and then –
– light, notlight, shapes beyond comprehension, something vast and cyclopean and uncaring turning a single eye in its vast orbit and finding unworthiness, non-Euclidean laughter cutting through flesh like a flail made of tears and bone, armour rusting to nothing and the body within writhing with corruption, a clock stopped and reset and stopped and reset over and over again until time broke under its command, crying alone on a plain of ash and corpses so vast it curved up into the horizon for a love gone from existence and memory, the pulsating gullet of a vast serpent made translucent by the light outside, drowning in a sea of burning liquid fire, a man with sad eyes, a raven with none save the bloody stem of optic nerve dangling from its beak, the hurried heat of copulation and the cold yielding flesh of a corpse, and over those simultaneous images that lasted for no time and for aeons a million voices screaming and clutching at her – ‘WEARETHEDEADWEARETHEDEAD,’ – unified into one uncomprehending scream of hatred at the vast unfairness of reality, and in that scream expressed a vow, and with sudden revelation she knew the scream was hers, but not hers, a song pulsating through reality she couldn’t help but dance to even as her feet bled to the bone and she burned, fat bubbling and hissing beneath her skin until only the bones leaking marrow were left, every night and all –
She gasped in a ragged breath off the floor of the alley, back arching – god, she was wet and filthy again, and she’d died again, oh fuck she’d died again, and she was crying, wiping at her stiff face with clawed hands, feeling the back of her head still sticky with thick blood as she stood.
Her eyes met those of the other occupant of the alley.
Paul stood there open mouthed for half a second, then said, ‘So.’ He swallowed. ‘Not a prank then.’