Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Duals (An Urban Fantasy Thriller)



The Duals
by Karen Hayes



Release - October 18, 2017



Chapter One

Sarah

They've come for me.
I open my eyes and immediately shut them again. The light is so bright it makes tears run down my cheeks.
The bedsheets are cool to touch. My fingers search further but close around thin air: the mattress is too narrow.
I can hear voices coming through the wall. A cold knot is forming in my stomach. This isn't good.
It can only mean one thing. They've found me.
They must have tracked me down.
No idea who "they" might be, though.
Where am I, anyway?
Who am I?
The hospital room is small. Everything's white: the walls, the bed's footboard, the sealed window. Rays of sunlight fall upon the bed and the floor. One of them seems to point at a picture on the wall: a stern landscape of wooded mountains. If you take a closer look you can see that the picture is scratched. Four parallel scratches, like a claw mark.


Clenching the bed, I stagger to my feet. I'm wearing a loose one-size-fits-all blue hospital gown. I check the chair and a small locker for my clothes: nothing. No call button for the staff, either. Which is weird. Hospitals are obliged to have them in every room. I seem to know this somehow. Have I stayed in hospitals a lot?
I walk over to the window and look down. I'm on the third floor. Bare trees obscure the view. More squat red-brick structures rise outside. Puddles of rainwater glisten on the wet driveway, littered with waterlogged yellow leaves.
My temples begin to ache. Fear clenches my stomach. My fingertips prickle as if someone is sending an electric current through me. My ears are ringing: a thin, intense buzz.
I need to get a grip. How I got here is irrelevant. I've got to get out first.
I pull the door handle. It won't open. What's that, for crissakes?
I raise myself on tiptoe and peer through the glazed top part of the door. I can see a corridor lined with other doors, some of them open. Further on, patients in pajamas and hospital gowns amble about a small area with a few easy chairs and a TV.
A woman in pale-green surgery scrubs is busy dialing a number on her phone. She is tall and burly - LeBron James-type burly.
The place looks suspiciously like a mental asylum. Which it can't be. I'm not sick.
I just can't remember who the hell I am.
I knock on the glass. The nurse looks up from her phone, then turns her head to the sound. She's wearing a white face mask. Noticing me, she slides the phone down her pocket and walks over to the door, peering through the glass. Above her mask, her eyes seem to be squinting at me. Is she smiling? Her expression sends shivers down my spine.
"Open the door, please," I say in a loud voice.
She nods. "Just a sec, " she turns round and leaves.
What do they think they're doing?
"Wait!" I slap my hand on the door. Too late. She's gone.
My heart is racing. The ringing in my ears becomes a constant mosquito-like whine.
I take a deep breath. This is a hospital. Nothing bad can happen here. I'm having a panic attack - which will be over soon provided I breathe nice and deep.
The door lock clicks. The burly nurse enters the room, stooping slightly to prevent her head from hitting the door frame.
It takes all of my self-control not to push her out of my way and run for it. She must be sensing this because she closes the door behind her, once again cutting me off from the freedom of the echoing corridor.
"You've come round remarkably early," she comments.
Yeah, right. Is that why they locked me up, then? To prevent me from sleepwalking out of here? "What is this place?"
"This is Kings County Hospital."
Kings County. So I'm in Brooklyn, then. Okay.
"And," I gesture with my hands, "why?"
She peers at me. "Don't you remember?"
"If I did, I wouldn't have to ask you, would I?"
"What, nothing at all?"
"No!" I'm about to explode. My hands clench into fists. I hide them behind my back.
The burly woman nods, patient and attentive, as if my answers have explained a lot to her. But of course. Now it all clicks: the patients' stifled voices, the locked door with an inspection window, the nurse who seemed to evade answers to the simplest of questions...
I've been right all along. This is a mental ward.
No. No, no, no. I need to get out of here. All my senses scream danger. I need to ask someone to discharge me. This place isn't safe.
The nurse produces a syringe and points it upward, tapping her finger on a vial.
A shiver runs down my spine. "What's that?"
"Just a sedative. Don't worry. It won't hurt."
Did she just say Don’t worry? "I'm fine," I'm trying to speak calmly. A panic attack is the last thing I need. Then she'll be obliged to give me a sleeping shot in the backside. "I feel pretty good, actually. I don't need to stay. I'd like to leave now."
My voice does break. I force a smile. The nurse's eyes above the white mask smile at me. "Absolutely."
She didn't believe me, of course. She approaches me, syringe at the ready. I recoil, pressing my back against the window. I'm cornered. I can't take my eyes off the needle in her hand.
"This is a mistake," I mumble. "I need to speak to my family."
"You will. But first you need to have some rest."
Her burly frame looms over me. I cast a desperate glance around. The room's on the third floor, it's not that much of a jump, not with all the shrubs below. But the window's locked. The furniture's bolted to the floor. The table's bare - nothing to hurl at her. They've thought of everything.
The door clicks open. A young male doctor lingers in the doorway, raising his eyebrows in disbelief as he shifts his gaze between myself and the nurse.
Finally his stare alights on the syringe in her hand. "What are you doing?"
Come on, don't just stand there! Do something! Can't he pull her aside or something? Like call security?
I think he was going to. He just didn't have the time. Neither did I. I failed to warn him and equally failed to ask for help.
The burly nurse takes a swing and lunges at him, packing an almighty punch that sends the man flying across the room. His back hits the wall and he collapses to the floor like a broken spread-eagled doll. He doesn't move anymore.
The nurse reaches for the door and shuts it. The lock clicks. She turns to me.
My throat is seized with fear. I can't scream. I make a dart along the wall but in two bounds the nurse catches up with me. Her hand closes around my throat, pinning me to the wall. She lifts me until my eyes are at the same level as hers.
They're not smiling anymore, though.
I grasp her syringe hand with both of mine, kicking my legs in the air. I can't breathe. My vision ripples. The nurse points the needle at my throat. I try to force her wrist aside but she's devilishly strong. Is she human?
"Let me go," I croak.
Her hand freezes mid-air. The woman zones out for a while. Then she shakes her head.
"I have to do it," she says in a stifled voice.
The needle is close. It pricks my skin.
"Let me go!" I yell, using what's left of my lungful of air. "Stick it in your own ass, you bitch!"
I squeeze my eyes tight. A wave runs over my body. It's rolling from the soles of my feet upwards, clenching my stomach, then chest, then pouring out of me, filling the room.
The grip on my throat slackens. I drop to the floor. My legs are rubbery, my head spinning. All the sounds seem to be switched off: all I can hear is a nasty repetitive whining noise.
I lie on my side in a heap. The nurse towers over me. I watch her, uncomprehending.
She freezes, zoning out again. Moving awkwardly, she switches the syringe into her other hand, turns and buries the needle into her own body. Her thumb presses the plunger as she injects herself. Finally, she pulls the needle out. Her fingers relax. The empty syringe clatters to the floor.
Then she collapses too, thumping onto her back, and lies unnaturally straight.
Silence. The male doctor lies by the wall, the nurse next to me, her long body blocking almost half the room. A voice is humming a monotonous tune in the corridor.
I get up and hug my shoulders, staring at the nurse. She looks as if she might jump up at any moment and lunge at me again. Murderous bitch. The doctor is still K.O. from her punch. He looks dead as a doornail.
What a predicament. Could they accuse me of what has just happened? What if they say that I killed the doctor and injected the nurse with some nasty stuff? Okay, so she probably wasn't a nurse at all, but somehow I don't think anyone would want to look into that.
No one in their right mind would believe that this woman smoked the doctor, then injected herself with a sedative or whatever she had in that syringe. Could be poison. What if she wanted to kill me?
I'm totally nuts. Then again, this is a nuthouse. Ouch. Talk about predicament.
I glimpse a movement in the window and turn to it just in time to see a Jeep park up by the clinic. Three men in dark business suits climb out, followed by the driver. The car doors slam simultaneously. One of the men looks up, staring directly at my window as if he can see me. Fortunately, he can't: not from where he stands, not at this angle.
He's young. His face is pale with high cheekbones. His hair is as golden as the fallen leaves under his feet; the wind tousles it, blowing strands across his forehead and into his eyes.
He sees me, after all. For a few brief moments, our gazes lock. His face seems familiar. Do I know him? The whining noise keeps boring into my ears.
The guy lowers his head. He seems to be ordering the others around. They head for the clinic's entrance.
I have to get out of here. Now!
I peel off my gown and kick it under the bed. Then I rush toward the nurse. I pull off her hospital smock and pants and hurry to put them on. Her t-shirt is like a tent. You can barely see me in her clothes. This isn't a person, this is a freakin' dinosaur! Even the male doctor lying next to her looks small in comparison. But there's no way I'm gonna undress him.
I roll up the legs of the pants, then remove the mask. The face behind it is stern. She looks about forty, with sharp cheekbones and thin, tight lips. What an unlikeable face. She would have suited the police force better than any hospital staff. Then again, she wasn't staff, was she? At least I don't think so.
I discover a pass card in her shirt's pocket and swipe the door lock. It blinks a green light.

* * *

Freedom stinks of disinfectant. I close the door behind me. The green door sign sports a number 5. I walk quickly past identical rooms, following the bright strip of lamplight on the floor. Some of the doors stand open, others are closed.
I thread my way past a man in pajamas who is staring at the ceiling, pensively picking his nose. His gray hair seems to glow, halo-like, around his bald patch. His gaze wanders; his lips are moving as he hums a song.
I use the card to unlock another door at the end of the corridor and leave the unit. A guard is sitting outside the door. His gaze slides over my masked face and my name tag.
My throat seizes. I don't seem to remember how to breathe. I keep going, trying not to look in his direction, suppressing the desire to dart off like a hunted hare. This is a big place, a large hospital with tons of staff including new workers and interns working all sorts of crazy shifts. He can't possibly remember them all. But those four men - they'll be here soon.
I expect the guard to shout after me, realizing that I'm not a nurse but the nutter from Room Five. He'd whip out his gun and point it at my back, then tell me to raise my hands slowly... I must have fake written all over me.
But no one's shouting, no one's pointing a gun at me. It's business as usual.
I walk past doctors' offices and staff premises until I reach the reception area: a small hall with a few easy chairs lining a long window and a vending machine stuffed with candy bars. A large U-shaped reception desk rises at the center, complete with a nurse on duty.
Her telephone makes a soft bubbling noise. She answers it, then continues to rustle though some paperwork. An electronic clock behind her back shows 3 p.m.
I might just walk downstairs, exit the building, then dart off. I could do, I suppose. Then again, where am I supposed to go? No idea what I can do once I get out of here. I need to find out something about myself first. They must have checked me in, right?
Watching the receptionist out of the corner of my eye, I steal toward a computer standing on the corner of the large desk. The woman doesn't seem to care. She's sitting there with her back to me, leafing through a magazine. That's what made that rustling noise.
She turns a colorful page; I can see the picture of Ben McAllister raising a champagne glass: a black suit, a pearly smile and the Stars and Stripes in the background. Picture perfect.
I hate myself at this moment. I can't remember my own name but I seem to know all about some stinking politician!
I reach for the computer and, casting constant glances at the reading receptionist, swipe the nurse's card through a reading device.
It opens some complex program in a blue window. The menu on top is way too small to read. I locate my room number and open my patient's card.
I see the picture and cringe. The girl - who is me, I suppose - is staring past the camera, her eyes bleary. They must have drugged me. Wet strands of hair cling to my skull, looking almost black against the light-blue hospital gown. My eyebrows, however, are surprisingly fair. My face is pallid with a smattering of freckles on my nose and sharp cheekbones. I have blood on my cheek.
Jesus. What on earth has happened to me?
I take a grip and begin to read the few available lines of information. My name is apparently Sarah Korski. Age, eighteen. Female. Single. No children. Admission date...
I glance at a wall calendar. I was admitted two days ago. No visits. Address: a Brooklyn apartment. The card ends with what's supposed to be my parents' names and their phone number.
Not much to go on. Why am I here? There's no diagnosis marked anywhere. All the card says is, "admitted in a state of acute psychosis". I may have lost my memory but I don't feel like bashing my head on the wall or whatever people with acute psychosis are supposed to do. They can say what they want but I'm perfectly fine.
Other clinic staff keep walking in and out the room. Voices echo in the corridors. An orderly is rolling a wheelchair with an emaciated old man. The receptionist's phone is ringing non-stop. She answers it without looking up from her magazine.
I have to get going. The men in black could arrive any moment. Once they enter Room Five, all hell might break loose.
I heave a sigh, point the cursor at the top menu and click Print.
Something starts to hum and buzz. No idea where it is. There's nothing under the computer nor on the desk. Only paperwork.
I look behind me. Nothing there either, only the vending machine by the opposite wall.
I turn to the receptionist and say matter-of-factly, "Excuse me, I can't find the printer."
Without looking, she waves her hand at a tall cabinet next to the water cooler.
And that's where it is, the printer, sitting behind the glass cabinet door. I pick up the printed sheet of paper and am about to close the door when I see a small pair of shoes sitting on the lower shelf. They look my size.
I cast a quick glance at the receptionist, stoop low so that no one can see me from the corridor and hurry to change out of my hospital slippers into the shoes.
"Do you know which room Sarah Korski is in?" a male voice asks behind my back.
I freeze. I'm too scared to turn round. They're here, right next to me! They're so close! If they look my way... the only thing that protects me is my hospital uniform. It's so thin and flimsy but it's thicker than a bulletproof vest against their stares. To them, I'm only one of the staff. Provided they don't realize who I really am, with any luck...
"She's in the observation room," the receptionist replies. "No visitors allowed. Are you family?"
"Actually, I am."
Are you really? Liar! I may have forgotten lots of things but I can sense when someone's lying. He's a stranger whoever he is.
My hands seem to have a life of their own. My head is throbbing. My heart is fluttering in my throat. I pretend I'm looking for something on the lower shelf while in fact I hang on their every word.
Then a strange thing happens.
"Give me the number of Korski's room," the man says pointedly, his soft polite voice ringing with steel. His words bore into your skull, hard and heavy.
"Down the corridor, first right, room five," the receptionist replies.
"Thanks," the man says.
His footsteps begin to fade. Cautiously I look up. The other four men are already heading toward the guard still standing by the unit's locked doors.
I knew it! I knew they had come here for me! God I'm so lucky I got out of the room in time.
I sneak out of my hiding place and hurry down the corridor. I walk fast but not too fast: that would be suspicious. I'm about to collapse. My knees are weak with anxiety.
I turn left and use my card to open the emergency exit door. Behind it lies a stairwell connecting the twin buildings of the clinic. The door clicks shut behind me.
The place is deserted. The silence is deafening. I hurry down the stairs: landings, passages, a dark floor below lined with closed doors... Faster! They're probably entering my room already.
Another landing. Another floor. Finally, the exit. I shoulder the heavy green steel door open and find myself outside. I'm free!
Shrinking my head into my shoulders, I walk past the hospital buildings. I scurry down the sloping driveway toward the gate, cross the road, turn right and scramble past a baseball pitch. A game is on. The ball hits the net just above my head, making me jump. I go past the pitch and hurry toward the highrises towering in the distance.
I can't bring myself to look back. I just might see the men in black following me.
Yellow leaves swirl in the air, floating onto a shriveled lawn behind someone's fence. The day is sunny but cool. A piercing wind blows right through my flimsy hospital scrubs. I have no money, no clothes, not even a MetroCard. The printout in my hand rustles in the wind. Marcus Garvey Bd. 421. Should I go there? It's not as if I have many options.
Then it dawns on me. I know everything around me. It's like hearing the sounds of a familiar old song carried on the wind. As if the sun has illuminated the gray brickstone Brooklyn at just the right angle.
For a brief moment, I can see him. He appears walking next to me - although of course I know he's not there.
Still, I can see him. A young guy, tall with broad shoulders and a delicate, chiseled face. Sunrays play with his crew cut. His dark eyes squint against the sun. I reach out to him, trying to touch him. With a smile he takes me in his arms and... and that's all.
I'm alone again.

Chris

For a brief moment, I still keep seeing the strange girl's silhouette in front of me. Sharp cheekbones, a pimpled chin, pale eyebrows and a smattering of freckles.
Then her face blurs and disappears, bringing reality into focus.
With a yelp, I step back. A lump of construction steel rattles onto the concrete from my slackened grip.
I'm standing by a brick wall next to some garbage cans. A man lies on the ground in front of me. You can see he's dead. As a doornail.
Dead as a doornail? Who was it that used to say that? I can't remember.
Then the world hits me like a ton of bricks: the bright light and all the sounds, the honking of cars, the muttering of voices, the slamming of doors and the shuffling of many feet.
My breathing seizes. I gasp soundlessly, clutching at my throat. It's late afternoon, I realize. I can see a busy street through the gap between two towers. It's bustling with traffic and passersby but this little place is deserted. Only us two. Me and the dead man.
Me? Who the hell am I, then? What am I doing here? Only a moment ago, I didn't exist. And now I've materialized right in this shady lane next to a garbage can. It's as if I've been dumped here by some unknown force; as if some giant hand had reached out from the sky and positioned the human figure - which happens to be me - on the ground. The soles of my shoes hit the tarmac - and here I am, large as life, even though I didn't exist only a moment ago.
Here? Which is where?
Bullshit. All wrong. I've always been here. It's just that for some reason I can't remember anything. Nada. Memory loss it's called. Amnesia in medical speak.
I look over myself. I'm wearing a faded pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a sports jacket. Can't for the life of me remember ever having bought any of it. Never seen it before. Ditto for the suede moccasins, the wristwatch or my wrist itself.
My aching temples throb. Gradually my breathing restores enough to allow me to take in the dead body and the lump of construction steel on the ground.
I pick it up. One of its ends is covered in blood. Did I kill the guy? WTF? Why would I do that? He must have attacked me. He probably hit me on the head with this lump of steel, that's why I hurt so much.
Of course. That's why I can't remember anything. I must have tried to defend myself, and then...
I feel like a landed fish after it's been pulled out of the water and slammed against a tree. Gulping incessantly, I look around me. One end of the lane is blocked by a steel fence with some wooden crates piled up against it. To the other side lies the street. No one has turned off into the lane... yet. If they do, I might have problems.
I turn the dead man onto his back. He's about forty, with cropped hair, dressed in a pair of dark pants and a matching coat over a pale blue dress shirt. His stomach is ripped open. Blood everywhere. He didn't have a chance.
I feel queasy. Can you even inflict these kinds of injuries with a piece of construction steel? It looks as if he's been gutted with a monstrous jagged hook.
A car is honking loudly nearby. The sound fills the lane, assaulting my eardrums. It has nothing to do with me - but I still jump. I shift the piece of steel to my left hand and shove it down the garbage can, wiping it on the trash. Finally, I pass it under my armpit and wipe it thoroughly before hurling it over the fence. This is a murder weapon, after all. I don't want anyone to find my fingerprints on it.
It comes down with a clang, reverberating against metal.
What do I do now? My head is empty - completely free of thoughts. Should I just leave? Just sashay out into the street, hands in pockets, without a care in the world? Never mind there's a gutted guy still lying by the trash cans.
Or should I investigate?
When I turned the man on his back, his right arm dropped to one side, revealing something on his wrist between his watch and his coat sleeve. I crouch next to him and pull the sleeve up.
It's a tattoo. A doubled-up two-headed snake, its coils resembling a horizontal figure of eight - the symbol of infinity.
Frowning, I rub my forehead. Still, the symbol refuses to trigger any memories. Should I check his pockets, maybe?
I reach inside his coat just as an alarm resounds outside. A police car screeches to a halt in the lane. The siren dies away.
The car doors jerk open. I spring to my feet and make a dash for the fence.
A voice shouts a warning. I leap onto the crates which disintegrate, creaking, under my feet, and vault over the fence, collapsing in a heap on the other side. Pushing my body off the tarmac, I scramble to my feet and keep running, past a stack of empty gas cans against which the lump of steel had struck seconds ago.
More shouting is coming from behind me now, followed by the sound of footsteps. I keep running toward the opposite street. At least there're no cops there.
I slow down, unwilling to attract attention. Readjusting my clothes as I go, I turn a corner and very nearly walk into a young mother pushing a stroller.
Mumbling my apologies, I walk around her and continue down the street hunched up with my head down as if engrossed in thought.
Casting inconspicuous watchful glances around, I walk as fast as I can without actually running. I'm taller than most people which makes watching the street rather easy. Nothing alarming as yet: just some houses, shops and cafes. The bustling crowd couldn't have cared less about me.
The autumnal afternoon is rather chilly. A bus drives past. Mechanically I pull up my right sleeve to check my wrist watch. Half past six. The watch is expensive. Having said that, all of my clothes are.
I reach a corner, steal a look around to make sure I've shaken off the cops, then duck round the bend.
I check my coat pockets and discover a ten-dollar bill and some loose change in one and a Chevrolet car key in the other. Have I parked up nearby? There's no way to tell, is there?
My heartbeat has calmed down somewhat. I can think straight again. I try to make some sense of what's just happened. The way I vaulted over that fence, then ran off... you'd think I'd have twisted an ankle but no, it didn't even hurt. Am I a trained athlete or something?
My past feels like a pitch-black wall behind me, with me as a clumsily chalked outline of a human being with sticks for arms and legs and a lopsided circle for a head. An empty head, mind you. A man without a past, with neither goals nor motives. Nor a life story. My mind is blank. My only memory is the face of the freckled girl.
Her face, as if on cue, fills my mental view - only this time it seems to be bleeding, bleeding all over the world. I suppress a yelp as my temples begin to throb.
Something bad must have happened to her not so long ago. To her - or to me? To both of us, maybe? I feel queasy again, this time with the debilitating fear caused by... by what? Can't remember.
I stagger along with my fists clenched, trying not to brush against other people and staring in front of myself unblinkingly for fear of collapsing. Gradually my heart stabilizes again. I feel slightly better now.
Finally I reach the street from where the cops arrived. It's broad and busy. An office building complete with a subterranean parking lot towers opposite the lane where I found the dead body. Might my car be there, by any chance?
Mechanically I press the button on the car key. A weak beeping noise reaches me through the noise of the traffic. It can't be coming from the building, surely?
I look around me and immediately get my answer. A sleek sports Chevrolet flashes its lights at me, parked up on my side of the road mere feet away from me.
I walk over to it, casting wary glances at the police cars waiting by the entrance to the lane.
Tucked under my car's wiper, a parking ticket is flapping in the wind. I crumple it in my hand, open the door and get in, very nearly bashing my head. I keep forgetting about my height.
I gingerly climb in. I really need to get out of here. Still, I need a couple of minutes to catch my breath. The cops are unlikely to check this particular car, anyway.
I look around me, then run my hand over the velvety cover of the steering wheel. Can't remember this car at all.
Warily I take a peek in the mirror. A bronzed clean-shaven face stares back at me. Hazel eyes... cropped black hair... That's right, my mother's father was from Corsica... it's his olive complexion, his aquiline nose and wide cheekbones.
The guy staring at me in the mirror is a total stranger. I've managed to remember my Corsican grandfather but that is about it.
I check the glove compartment and discover a fat wallet stuffed with bank notes. Must be at least a grand. Why didn't I take it with me when I got out of the car?
I rummage through the wallet. Two credit cards and a driver's license, issued to a Chris Brana.
My head explodes with agonizing pain. My eyes begin to water. What's going on, for crissakes? The wallet drops from my slackened fingers. Groaning, I press my hands to me temples.
Chris Brana. Yes, it's me. This is my name, my driver's license, my wallet, my car... my head... which is about to split open. Bouts of nauseating blood-red pain surge over me.
The pain doesn't last though. I reach down and fumble under the pedals, feeling for my wallet. I pick it up and give the license a closer look.
That's right. I'm Chris Brana, twenty-two. And this is-
This is New York.
Exactly.
My fingers shake as I check the wallet for any more clues. Nothing. I slide it into my pocket.
A third police car has just arrived and pulled up next to the other two. The longer I stay here, the bigger the chances are of them finding me.
I start the car. The engine purrs to life. I join the rush-hour traffic.
All these people must be going home from work. How about me? Do I work? Can't remember.
Where am I supposed to go to? The GPS satnav glows a dull green. When I touch the screen, it springs to life, revealing a complex grid of streets and buildings.
I open its address book. It's virtually empty. There're only three saved locations. One is "Apartment", which is on the other side of town. The second one is closer to here, marked "Sarah, Club".
Oh great. The name says nothing to me.
The last address is the closest of the three. Two-Face, whatever that's supposed to mean.
Questions questions. The whole world around me seems to be one big question mark. Still, this address is only five blocks south from where I am. Not a very long drive, even considering the crawling traffic.
I stop at the lights. Two-Face... It has to be a nickname. I must have coined it. That's right. An unpleasant name... unpleasant person. Dangerous even. Still, his address is too close to completely ignore it.
Having made the decision, I take a right turn, heading toward the mark on my map. Let's see what this Two-Face guy has to offer.
Or Chris Brana, for that matter.




Chapter Two

Sarah

That guy in the business suit keeps staring at me. He's standing over there on the corner talking into his cell phone but I'm sure he's watching me. Hasn't he seen a nurse before? What's he doing in this part of Brooklyn all dressed up anyway? Following me, that's what he's doing. He's probably talking to that blond guy from the Jeep telling him he's found me.
I shrink my head into my shoulders and hurry past him. My teeth are chattering. I keep my hands in my pockets but it doesn't help much: my fingers are as cold as ice. This plastic uniform is too light. It's definitely not meant for this kind of weather.
I almost run past a pizzeria trying to keep my mind off food. I'm so hungry I could eat anything. A pizza - yes, please. Or a hamburger with some nice crunchy French fries.
At the very least, some chewing gum would be nice. I keep grinding my teeth so hard that I'm afraid I might draw blood in a moment. I try to stop but I still keep doing it. It's just a stupid habit I've picked up, chewing gum whenever I'm anxious.
I cast a wary glance over my shoulder. The man is still standing there talking on his phone with his back to me.
I've been walking for ages but I still can't recognize anything. All these streets look identical: red brick, steel stairs and groups of the local hoods hanging out on the street corners. The sun is declining behind the roofs; in the growing twilight, the street looks unfriendly.
A police car speeds past. I hold my breath, watching it disappear round the corner.
Wonder if someone's looking for me already? Most likely. Like that blond guy in the Jeep. His face was pale and clean shaven. Sort of aristocratic. Old world. And the look on that face was so tense - he was like a bloodhound following a trail. He was looking for me. He somehow saw my face behind the window among all that greenery. What did he want with me?
Judging by recent events, it couldn't be anything good.
Finally I find the house I need. A cream-colored, three-story building with a pawnbroker's and a nail parlor on the ground floor. Hip hop music is booming from a car parked up by the staircase.
I walk in. The stairwell stinks of mold. Black graffiti covers the cracked walls. Great place.
There're six apartments on each floor. The door of mine looks strangely deformed. The damage is recent. It looks as if someone pounded the door with a fist. It's covered in thin, dark stroke marks - blood? Did someone try to break in?  Is there anyone inside? I dread to even think.
A gorgeous red-haired girl answers the door. She's tall with legs that go on forever, her short silk dressing gown emphasizing her pinched waist.
Her jaw drops when she sees me. Her beautiful eyes open even wider. She tries to shut the door but I stick my foot in the frame.
"I need to come in," I say. "Please."
Reluctantly she lets go of the door handle. I step in. The apartment is small. The bathroom door is ajar; I can hear water running into a bathtub. Further along the corridor there're three bedrooms. Some clothes are heaped up in a corner, next to a pile of boxes; soft music is playing.
I close the door behind me and shuffle my feet, not knowing what to say.
"Are you better now?" the girl asks, fake sympathy in her voice. "Why are you wearing hospital clothes?" she looks past me, avoiding my gaze.
She knows me. The thought gives me strength. "Do I live here? Who are you? Do I know you?"
The girl turns pale. Mechanically she shrinks back.
"It's all right," I insist. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just can't remember anything. I don't even remember your name."
"Don't you really?" she blinks. Her face brightens up. She doesn't look scared any longer. Wary, yes. Still unsure, she proffers her hand. "I'm Rose. We used to rent this place together."
I squeeze her dry hand in mine. Used to? Did I move out? Or did she decide I wasn't coming back?
"Do you know what happened to me?" I ask. "Did you see anything?"
"Did I? You could say that!" shaking her head in bewilderment, she motions me to follow her.
We enter one of the bedrooms. I very nearly stumble over a stack of boxes piled up by the door. The table is littered with makeup and glossy magazines.
She sits at the table. I pull out a plastic chair and perch myself on it.
"The day before yesterday you woke me up at two in the morning. I thought you'd bust your fists bashing on the door."
Ah, so those dents on the front door were my doing, after all. I look down at my hands. My knuckles do look raw.
She rolls her eyes. "You were all covered in blood!"
"Was I injured?"
"I don't think so. You kept saying, 'They've found us! We need to rescue Chris!'"
"Rescue? Us? Who's us?"
"You and Chris, I suppose," she shrugs. She looks perfectly calm now.
She reaches for some nail polish on the table, unscrews the top and begins painting a long groomed nail bright red. It's as if we're discussing lunch, not my stretch at the funny farm. "Then you locked yourself in your room and began throwing things around and ripping them apart. I called 911."
Thanks a bunch, Rose. At least now I know who to blame for my visit to the shrinks.
I try to calm down. This isn't the right moment to lose it; I have to find out everything first. "This Chris, did you find him? Did he come over here?"
Rose shakes her head. "How did you want me to find him? I don't have his number. Chris isn't exactly an uncommon name in NYC. He didn't come here, no. Your parents called. The guys at the studio asked after you."
My parents. The studio. Can't remember any of it. "My parents, are they okay? Who are they?"
Rose's gaze fills with sympathy. "You are in a bad way, aren't you? They live in Philadelphia. That's where you come from. I'll give you their number. You need to call them, they're worried sick."
She's right. I'll have to call them.
"And what's this studio?"
"The dancing studio. We're in it together. The Juilliard School, if the name says anything to you. The starve academy."
"The starve academy?"
"That's what we used to call it, don't you remember? Ah, of course you don't."
The Juilliard School. A dance studio. Was I a flippin' ballerina?
"Never knew I could dance," I mumble before the reality of it even dawns on me. "It's sophisticated shit, ballet, isn't it? I don't think I'm particularly..." I make a helpless gesture.
"Not particularly sophisticated, eh?" she chuckles. "You think I am? You don't need to be a blushing princess to go to Juilliard."
"Juilliard," I repeat pensively, racking my brain for a clue. "Wonder if Chris also studies there?"
"No idea. I've never seen him in the studio. I only know what you told me. 'Cute and loaded'. Your words," she raises her perfect eyebrows. "The gifts he gave you!"
Now I don't understand anything. Cute and loaded? Definitely not my type. I know it. Chris... "So I asked you to rescue him?"
With a nod, Rose screws the top back onto the polish. She gets up and heads for the door. Her every movement is filled with feline grace. She stops in the doorway, one hand on a shapely heap.
"Also," she starts slowly, looking for the right words, as if careful not to anger me again. "I've found a new roommate. She's paid the down payment already. So basically..."
I nod. I wasn't going to stay, anyway. "Not a problem."
Rose points out the boxes containing my things and leaves me alone with them.
I open the closest box. It's stuffed with crumpled books and clothes, apparently thrown in indiscriminately without looking. I discover a pair of sneakers and set them aside.
I pour the contents of all the boxes onto the floor and begin rummaging through them, pausing occasionally to listen to what Rose is doing. She's not calling the police, luckily. I lay whatever I can use aside and stuff the rest back into the boxes.
I pull out a pair of leg warmers, some gray tights and a black leotard cut deeply at the back.
Now I remember. A mirrored ballet class. Barre exercises. My reflections in the many mirrors repeating my movements. My muscles, aching as I warm them up. A sweet pain.
Yes. I used to do modern dance. I even managed to enter this famous school. I used to love it. And now what? Am I supposed to give it all up? Being on the run and all that?
I pull on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a black hooded jacket. In a mechanical, well-practiced motion my hands put my hair up in a bun. I lift the hood. Now that I wear sneakers no one will be able to outrun me.
I bury the hospital garbs deep in one of the boxes under other stuff. Rummaging in the jacket's pocket, I discover a pack of chewing gum. Strawberry flavor. Just what the doctor ordered.
I look in the mirror. A gaunt girl, thin as a rake, stares back at me, her eyes huge and sunken. My ears are pierced in six or seven places but I have no jewelry. Hospital workers must have removed it. I look so... so normal. This city is packed with girls who look just like me.
Excellent. This isn't a good time to stand out in the crowd.
As I stuff a backpack with other things I might need, I can hear Rose rattling furniture in her room, getting dressed. Where is she going? I need to step it up before she does something stupid.
I rummage through some papers on the desk hoping for an ID - a driver's license, anything! No such luck.
So according to Rose I locked myself in my room, ripping things apart? Now what kinds of things might they be?
I walk over to the bed by the wall. Instinctively I lift the pillow and slide my hand under the pillow case. I can feel something hard stuffed inside. There's a hole ripped in the fabric. I force my hand through and feel through the stuffing.
Got it. A wad of banknotes. A very thin one, but still.
I stuff the money in the pocket and reach inside again. My hand closes around something cold and smooth. A phone with a cracked screen. I press my fingertip to the screen; it lights up obediently, recognizing my fingerprint.
The screen shows a theater stage dominated by a barefoot dancer in gray tights, her back arched in a classic modern dance. I check the logs. Lots of missed calls. Studio, parents, a certain "C"... could that be Chris?
I call the number.
"The number you are trying to reach is currently unavailable," a robotic voice says.
I open text messages. Most of them seem to have been deleted. There's only one left:

Club 616 10 pm. Meet me by the entrance, C.

Oh great.
Club 616, I roll the name in my mouth.
A lump starts to form in my throat. My stomach turns heavy and cold. A crimson haze floods my eyes. I can see something. I can see them!
The street is dark. The vague silhouettes in the night, right next to me... I hate them! I want to kill them! I throw a hand in the air and shout something - an order?
Then it's all over. The vision is gone as fast as it came.
My legs slacken. I slump onto a chair. My forehead is streaming with sweat. My eyes are running, my heart aching.
Now I understand that my arrival at the clinic was only the aftermath of something much more important; some vital part of my past.
I need to clean myself up. That might help. I pick up the backpack and walk out into the corridor. Rose is sitting on a narrow bed in the next room, reading a paperback with a half-naked guy on the cover. The phone sits on the dresser opposite, way out of her reach. Good. I thought she'd be busy texting away to 911.
I walk into the bathroom and splash some cold water on my face to calm my breathing. I check the shelves for my remaining stuff: a hairbrush, a toothbrush, a towel on the rack.
My gaze alights on a wristwatch on Rose's shelf. A tiny slim watch on a thin platinum bracelet.
It's mine, I know it. He gave it to me. I can't remember the occasion but I do remember how I refused to accept it for a long time. I'm not used to getting expensive gifts like this. Also, a watch is a bad gift. Bad sign. If you give someone a watch, you might split up with them soon.
Well done, Rose. She knew which of my stuff to shove into a box and which to slide down her own pocket.
I grab the watch and fasten it around my wrist. Much better. It looks good on me; the thin platinum strap hugs my wrist tight. Perfect fit.
There's knocking coming from the front door. I freeze. Could it be the cops? Or the hospital again? What if Rose did call someone while I was busy sorting through my stuff?
I remember rough hands dragging me down the stairs, apartment doors opening, other lodgers staring at my departure. I scream, trying to squirm out of the nurses' grip, then hit my head on a doorpost. Awful.
I'm not going back there. They can forget it!
I switch off the light and stand perfectly still.
Rose patters past me down the corridor. The lock clicks. She removes the safety chain.
"Hi-" she says, unsure.
No one replies. A shriek. Something heavy thumps to the apartment floor.
Slow, heavy footsteps reverberate through the corridor. Closer. They stop by the bathroom door. I'm cowering in the dark, almost facing Rose's attacker. Or murderer?
His soft breathing sounds so close behind the flimsy door.

Chris

The house is impressive. Light stone, five stories, huge windows. A luxurious apartment home with a wide porch, a massive front door and - most likely - an armed guard posted behind it, impeccably polite.
I can almost feel myself driving out of that deep gaping square hole of the underground parking behind the porch. Did I live here? Or do I?
No, I don't think so. Not now, anyway.
It's nearly dark. The street is almost deserted. I stop the car round the corner to be able to watch the porch in the side mirror. The Lair of Two-Face, as I used to call it.
The feelings it evokes in me... they're hard to explain. It's a complex mixture of memories I can't quite place. I should probably walk over and check it out. You never know, the guard might recognize me. Or I might recognize the inside of the house - which in turn might trigger a chain reaction of recognition.
The front door opens, letting out two women: one young, the other middle-aged. They come down the steps and walk down the street in my direction, past a midnight-blue Ford parked right by the entrance. There's somebody in that car too; it's too far for me to see their face.
As the women walk past me, I peer at their faces, trying to recognize them. No, I've never seen them before.
"I can't believe Josh keeps investing in that hedge fund of his," the older one says. "I told him they had problems with SEC but he won't listen, will he?"
These people aren't exactly on welfare, are they?
The women disappear round the corner. I lean toward the steering wheel to get a better look of the building's façade.
My gaze slides up to the vaulted windows of the top floor. The furthest on the left looks familiar. I know it. In order to look out of it, I had to draw aside a blue Disney curtain and raise myself on tiptoe, leaning heavily onto the window sill to watch the quiet street below.
That was a long time ago.
A name enters my head. James.
James Brana.
The fiery letters flash through my mind, blinding me, burning my mind. I close my eyelids and rub my forehead. James Brana, my father. He lives here, in that top-floor apartment... or used to live. My mother and I used to live here too. Not anymore though. It's been years. My mother...
Mother. The word is bitter in my mouth. It tastes of fear and loss.
What happened to my parents? Now I know that my father is still alive. We don't see each other often but I do speak to him on the phone sometimes. My mother is dead. Has been dead for a long time. How did she die?
The house towers next to me: a heavy, palpable proof of my past. I have parents. My father is alive. I'm not a child's clumsy drawing of a human being on the wall anymore. I'm Chris Brana.
I need to go in.
The moment I realize it, I hate the idea. It's not for nothing I nicknamed my father Two-Face. I've always known he was hiding something from me. All my life he's been full of secrets - and at least one of those secrets has something to do with me. I don't like him; I don't even want to see him but there's so much I still need to remember. I need to go and speak to him. I need to find out.
I shut off the softly purring engine, get out of the car and head for the porch. The street is dark and quiet. The two lampposts struggle to dispel the twilight.
The person sitting in the Ford is still there. Or are there two of them? They must be waiting for someone.
I walk unhurriedly, studying the parked cars and the building's front door.
I must have already covered half the distance between my car and the porch when a small van appears from around the corner. The sign on its side says MTC Logistics.
The bearded driver's frozen face is what makes me pay attention. The man stares in front of himself, apparently looking at something behind my back.
Mechanically I turn round but fail to see anything out of the ordinary. I'm only a few feet away from the porch now: five wide steps, a ribbed wheelchair ramp and the tall, heavy front door, its two halves decorated with large diamond-shaped panes of glass.
Distracted by the van's arrival, I'd completely forgotten about the Ford and its passengers. Now I glimpse some movement inside it and squint at its windows, trying to make out what's going on. There're three of them inside: two men in the front and one more in the back.
They turn in synch, clicking their respective doors open. I catch the dull glint of metal in the hand of one of the men.
An ambush.
Before any of us can react to the situation, something unexpected happens.
The van's driver has just pulled level with the Ford. He jumps in his seat as if someone invisible has just thrown a punch at him. His eyes bulging, he swerves, jerking at the wheel, ramming his van into the Ford.
  I watch as the Ford concertinas in a cascade of glass and metal. With a heart-rending screech, the car's roof implodes like a sheet of cardboard. The impact sends the car sideways, pressing its wheels against the curb. The van freezes, blocking two-thirds of the road. Its driver's side is deformed, fragments of the shattered windscreen pouring onto the tarmac and the Ford's roof.
"Hey!" mechanically, I dart for the van. This is the most ridiculous accident I've ever seen!
I force the door open and jump onto the footboard. The driver is alive. The impact had sent him flying to the floor between the dashboard and the passenger seat. I can hear him groan as he struggles to move.
I rest my knee on the seat. "You okay?"
From this position, I can see the men in the Ford well. The one in the back seat is pressing his hand to his eye. There's blood all over his face. The driver is trying to unbuckle himself but the seatbelt seems to be stuck. The man next to him turns his head to me. He's holding a gun with a silencer.
He stares up at me while I'm looking down at him. His door is jammed by the van. He barks something - an order? - and tries fruitlessly to force it open. The Ford's driver is still struggling with his seatbelt; the man in the back keeps pressing his hand to his bloodied face.
I jump out of the van and make a dash for my car. I don't give a damn about talking to my father anymore. Could those three thugs have something to do with the dead guy I found in the lane?
I dive into my car and fumble with the ignition. The engine springs to life. The street fills with voices; doors begin to slam, anxious faces peering through the windows.
By the time I pull out, two of the men have already climbed out of the Ford and are running after me. Both are huge - at least as big as I am - and thick-set. One of them raises his gun.
I leave the street and my father's house behind me, desperate to get lost in the traffic. I drive past mirrored shop windows, past the steady flow of passersby, past neon signs and traffic lights. I have too much to take in.
The house. My father. My mother - she was killed, wasn't she? Who might have done it and when? Why? And now this ambush. What the hell is going on?
What I need is an Internet access. I need to look up a few things.




Chapter Three

Sarah

I don't dare breathe. The footsteps in the corridor are heavy and unhurried. The floorboards creak dangerously close to the bathroom door.
I rack my brains for some kind of weapon. A hairspray, a sink plunger, a toilet brush... oh great. How am I supposed to fight back? I feel like a cornered rat: all I can do is shiver and wait to be caught.
The footsteps are close. I break out in a cold sweat. Please, please don't open the bathroom door, whoever you are! You're not here to use the toilet, are you? It's not why you broke in. There's nobody inside, can't you see? The light isn't even on! Okay?
A floorboard creaks opposite the door.
I freeze. My teeth clench on the chewing gum, preventing me from screaming. I breathe in shallow gasps. Shivers run down my spine.
I wait.
The footsteps resume. The man continues down the corridor. Now I need to wait for him to enter a room and get the hell out of here. I have to take the risk. I don't want them to find me.
Noiselessly I slide the backpack straps over my shoulders. My hand closes around the door handle. When the footsteps begin to distance, I open the door ajar and take a peek.
A tall woman is standing in the doorway of my room with her back to me. Do I know her? Short blond hair, broad shoulders, large hands - that's the burly nurse from the hospital. So she's tracked me down, after all.
Mechanically she clenches and unclenches her right fist as if stretching her fingers for a punch. She steps into the room and disappears from sight.
Now.
I slide out of the bathroom on tiptoe and very nearly stumble over Rose's body. She's lying on her back with her arms spread wide. Her hair covers her face, concealing it. A pool of blood is spreading around her head, drenching her red hair. The smell of blood feels sticky on my skin.
I force my gaze away from the blood. I can hear the woman walking in my room, opening drawers. Quietly I step over Rose's legs and steal out of the apartment.
I scurry along the landing, trying not to make too much noise; then I throw caution to the wind and scramble down the stairs, blind and deaf with panic. I shoulder the front door open and rush out onto the street.
It's cold and dark. A streetlight shines me in the eye. I need to call the police. Rose is lying there bleeding! That bitch of a nurse might finish her off! If she hasn't done so already...
I'm torn between the desire to escape and my duty to help. I can't leave it as it is.
I turn a corner and dive into a door under a sign which says, Tam Li's Nail Parlor. The doorbell tinkles softly.
The room is empty. Two rows of tables are crowded with pots and bottles of every imaginable kind of nail polish. Red polish... red like Rose's fingernails... like the blood around her head.
"We're closed!" a petite middle-aged Vietnamese woman is standing in the aisle between the tables with one hand on her hip, the other clenching a mop as if she's about to attack me with it. She's probably the Tam Li from the shop sign.
"There's been a shooting upstairs!" I scream so loud that she recoils. "Someone's got killed! You need to call 911!"
Before she can react, I dart out of the parlor. Luckily, the street is still empty. I run for my life, splashing through pools of rainwater, the backpack slamming my back, the cold air burning my lungs. A minimarket... a parking lot...
Suddenly I realize I'm heading back toward the hospital. Not good. I've got no business there. I need to turn round, and then... no idea.
I keep running until my side is in stitches. I've lost track of all the blocks and streets I've cleared. I'm quite fit, that's for sure. Must be all that ballet training...
I slow down to a walk and cast a quick glance behind me. All I can see is darkness lined by blurred lamplight. A car rattling with loud music crosses the intersection and disappears round the corner, its headlights reflecting off the tarmac. A man with a dog on a leash walks past me. Nothing to set my alarm bells ringing.
I rearrange my jacket, trying to catch my breath. I shouldn't have left Rose alone in that apartment. I walked right over her body as if it were a useless piece of junk. What if she was dying? Then again, what could I do? The burly nurse would have killed me too, as simple as that. My neck still smarts from our earlier encounter.
I pull my hood up, covering my bruised neck. The police and ambulance are probably there already. Let's just hope they don't connect the accident with me. A runaway mental patient attacking her ex-roommate! The nail parlor owner saw my face. Not good. So who is the prime suspect, then? If I were the police, I'd have arrested myself, that's for sure.
I cross a small park and enter a busy street leading to the bridge. The sidewalk is littered with Ben McAllister leaflets. The politician is grinning like a plastic Ken doll in a shop window.
I derive a sick pleasure from stepping on his face. Ben McAllister is probably sitting in some posh restaurant with his posh wife, wearing a posh suit and enjoying a posh meal. He doesn't have to shiver in the night streets like some others do...
What now? I have a phone. There was some charge left in it, too.
I reach into my pocket for the crumpled printout I made in the hospital. I know this number. And the area code. Did Rose say Philadelphia? That's right.
Should I dial it? I have to do something!
I punch the number with numb fingers. The phone is silent at first - why? Did I not pay the bill? Finally, it rings.
As I wait, I reach for more chewing gum. At the moment, it's the only thing that helps me stay calm. A brightly lit shop window illuminates the bald plastic heads of the mannequins. I think about that nutcase in the clinic who spoke to the ceiling lamps in the corridor. If I wasn't so lucky, I could have become someone just like him.
The thought gives me the shivers.
"Yes?" a female voice says in the phone.
I should probably say "Hi Mom," but I can't. The word is wrong. It doesn't feel right.
She's not my mom. I don't have one. This is Grace.
"Hi," I say, my voice hoarse.
"Sarah? Is that you?" she asks, her voice rising to a scream. "I didn't know what to think!"
Funnily, I don't believe her. I always thought her fake, but now it's pretty obvious.
I remember her face: it's tanned and round, her pimpled cheeks pockmarked. A fat bottle blonde. She doesn't look at all like me. Foster parents never do. Still, she's always been posing as a model mother - in the neighbors' eyes at least.
"Wait," I cut her babbling short. "I need help."
"Help? What happened?"
"Someone's trying to kidnap me. I need to get out of the city. Can I come now- oh sorry, bad idea, I know... you think you could send me some money?"
"Sarah, wait. Aren't you in the clinic? The doctor said you'd be there at least for another two weeks."
I very nearly dropped the phone. She knew! They both knew I was there!
"Sarah," she says in a sickly sweet voice, as if trying to make me take some bitter medicine. "I know how you feel. You think someone's after you but it's not true. The doctor told me everything about your paranoia. It's probably better if you go back to the hospital. It's only for a few weeks! It's for your own good. Considering your past and your history of anger attacks..."
My past? The sheer thought of it makes my blood boil. I want to smash the phone, the shop window, the mannequins...
I clench my teeth harder, working the gum. Apparently, Grace brings up "my past" every time she wants to get one over on me. She thinks it's my weak spot.
"Where are you now?" she demands.
I hang up.
It was them! They committed me! Can you imagine? They didn't think what was going to happen to me, to my studies, to my dancing dream! I wanted to make it big! I wanted to perform in Radio City! Don't they understand I've been attacked? I very nearly got a shot of some nasty substance! And no one seems to give a damn! The clinic, the police and now my own foster parents - they don't care, do they?
Talking about the police. I glance at the phone in my hand. I need to get rid of it. The cops know how to track these things, don't they?
I scroll through the contacts just to make sure I haven't missed anything... or anyone. Nothing. Can't remember anything. I don't even know where I'm going. I need to do something; I need to lie low for a while but where? Where am I supposed to go?
I feel frozen inside. I can't think straight. I just keep walking as long as my feet can carry me.
I have to come up with a plan. I can't remember any of the other guys from the studio. And even if I did, I don't trust them. Who can you trust when even your own foster parents commit you in broad daylight?
And how about that guy from my vision? Chris, isn't it? I have a funny feeling we're in it together.
Club 116, his message said.
I Google it. No such place. There is an Oshumare Club in a No 116 in the center of Manhattan not far from HK.
The pics take forever to download. Never mind. I've seen the maps.
I switch off the phone and head for the bridge. To my right, subway trains rattle along, their yellow windows a flashing strip in the dark. I give way to a late-night cyclist followed by a couple of tourists hugging their cameras, then walk over to the parapet and slide the phone into the gap between the grill and the safety net. The latter is probably installed against nutcases like myself, to prevent us from jumping off the bridge.
The phone glistens in the floodlights, dropping into the welcoming embrace of the East River. I shove my hands in my pockets and hurry to cross the bridge.
Is it my imagination or is everyone watching me? All eyes seem to be on me: the passersby, the cops in the patrol boat below, even the subway passengers who stare at me through the train windows flashing rapidly past. I just hope the cops didn't see my phone drop.
Soon Manhattan lies before me, its brightly lit towers rising like burning candles in the night sky. The streets are packed with cars and people. Is it Friday today? The city that never sleeps... it's so right, whoever said that.
The city buzz isn't much different from the hum of a full theater house. I smile at the memory. The audience taking their places, dancers warming up, stage hands cussing on the gantry overhead...
I remember the tight fit of a damp leotard, sweat trickling down my spine. The blinding light is hot on my skin; I can't see the audience. Finally, one face comes into focus. A young man's face.
Yes, now I remember. He's in the second row looking at me, hanging on to my every movement. Tonight I'm dancing for him alone. I feel I can take on the world.
The memory escapes me, replaced by disjointed fragments. The grass in the back yard caresses my feet. A dress shirt's starched white cuff and my father's cold, powdered hand in it. The graffiti in the children home's bathroom. How did I get there? I can't remember. I'm not sure I want to.
The river below gives way to squat tall buildings; the bridge turns into a steel-lined sidewalk; English signs are replaced with Chinese symbols. I keep walking through China Town and further on, past apartment blocks and office towers, threading my way along street cafes which turn sidewalks into one-way ant runs.
I'm almost there. Now I need to turn off Broadway into that narrow street crowded with cars and scaffolding...
The crimson haze returns, flooding my eyes.

Chris

I'm back at my father's house. I'm twelve years old. This is my nursery: blue Disney curtains and all.
I'm sitting on the floor leafing through a comic book. Heavy footsteps come running from the corridor. Our maid screams. My mother cries out; my father remonstrates, trying to reason with someone. More footsteps.
I jump up, run to the door and open it a crack, peering out.
Our lounge is full of scary men. Their black shiny heads remind me of monsters from horror movies. They're holding automatics. Not monsters: masked men. Who are they, special forces? FBI? But what would the FBI want with us?
Besides, they're dressed wrong. The strangers are wearing black jackets and blue jeans. They're probably burglars. Scary men, bad men. Five guns and five bad men.
They haven't seen me yet. Three of them are standing in our spacious lounge: one is pointing his gun at our cowering old maid, the other is standing in the middle of the room between my mother who's sitting in her chair and my father in his shirt sleeves who's just looked out of his office.
I can hear my father's subdued voice over the droning TV on the wall. "Chris - run. Run, now."
At first I don't even understand it's my father speaking. He stands frozen in the doorway without even looking at me, the corner of his mouth moving slightly.
I understand. He does it so that the masked men don't hear him.
The one in the middle of the room hears it anyway and turns to me. It's probably their leader.
He's very close to me. A black face, camo fatigues, black gloves, black jacket. He's holding his gun in his left hand. His eyes in the slits of the mask are weird - spooky and cold. Inhuman.
He steps toward me.
"Chris, run!" father screams.
The burglars' leader is almost upon me. I punch him in the stomach.
I'm strong for my age. I can take on a couple of guys from junior high. Okay, I might not win but I can walk away from any scuffle with dignity. My fear, too, adds to my punch. The man doubles up.
My mother lunges at him, screaming, "Run!" Her voice launches me into action.
All hell breaks loose. Our maid screams. One of the thugs punches my father in the face. My mother attacks their leader from behind, pulling at his mask. I don't know what happens next: I shrink back into my room, slam the door and pull the latch shut. Blind with panic, I dash across the room toward the other exit which leads into the dark corridor to the back door of our six-bedroom apartment.
The corridor is empty. I can hear cussing and fighting behind me. As I open the back door, a gunshot resounds through the house.
A short, snappy sound, like an axe hitting a piece of wood. Screaming, I run down the stairs. A door slams open behind me, followed by the stomping of feet down the stairs.
They're after me. I run out into the dark street and run for my life.
Later at the police station, Steve - father's driver - comes to collect me. He tells me Mom is dead. She's been killed by the man with the cold dead eyes. A stray bullet, father will tell me later.
They'll never tell me who the burglars were. Or that's what they were according to the police: just an opportunistic bunch of burglars.
I don't believe a word of it. I remember it too well: both my father's words and Mom's reaction. They came for me. Why? - no idea. If they wanted to kidnap me, why didn't they do it on my way back from school?
Also, the look in that man's eyes... he stared at me as if I meant a lot to them. As if I was a prize in some sort of game. I don't know what it's all about... a nasty secret, a dark mystery... but father won't tell me.
Mother's death is his fault.
He's always been keeping something away from us. He still is. Two-Face indeed!
No, of course I don't think the attack was his fault - but he could have done something to prevent it. He's made of money, for crissakes! His IT company makes him billions! Why didn't he secure the apartment? Why couldn't he hang the place with cameras? Or hire a bunch of guards and post them at every window and doorway with heavy machine guns?
He must have pulled us into one of his big-boy games - turf wars or something. It was his fault. Simple.
With a startle, I force my eyes open. What's going on? What am I doing here? Ah, yes.
I've fallen asleep in the car. The engine is off but the dashboard is still flashing its colored lights. The radio's on. The key is in the ignition. The clock shows 11.30 p.m.
My neck is stiff. I'm parched. My heart is pounding; the figures of my parents still stand before my eyes the way I remembered them that day. I rub my neck, stretch my back and do a few shrugging movements with my shoulders.
The radio keeps going on about the upcoming elections. Poll results... presidential debates... apparently, Ben McAllister is about to address the crowds in Times Square.
I slap my hand on the dashboard to shut the voice up. Silence fills the car.
The memory of my dream still smarts but I welcome the pain. My brain seems to have awoken from its slumber and is working overtime now, fishing out more disjointed scenes from the muddy pool of my memory.
Gradually my life comes back into focus like a picture in a copying machine. I have clothes on my back; I have a car, a wallet, a driving license and some bank cards - objects that anchor me in reality. I have a father; I used to have a mother. I need to find out more about them.
The car is parked near an Internet café. Yes, now I remember. This was the last thing I did when I left my father's house earlier today: I found the address of this place in the satnav and followed it but crashed out before I could even get out of the car. It felt as if I'd swallowed a whole pack of sedatives - even though I haven't slept much, only about three hours or so. My brain must have needed some rest from all the recent developments, submerging me into a dark, precipitous void. I've lost three hours but at least now I could think straight.
A green OPEN sign flashes over the café's doors. Through the window, I can see a long room lined with tall desks and bar stools. The street is nearly deserted. Can I walk around freely or am I already wanted by the cops? Did they see me back in that alley? Were there any cameras there? If there weren't, how come they arrived so promptly? Someone must have called them. They must have received a call when I was still unconscious. Alternatively, some passerby might have seen me standing over the body holding that lump of steel and called 911. If he or she managed to describe me to the police, they must already have my details on file.
I shake my head. I'm getting paranoid. What is NYC population - eight million, nine? With all the constant robbing, killing and scheming going on, they won't raise a general alarm for a guy like me.
With that thought, I get out of the car, beep it locked and head into the café.
Yawning, I look around, then choose a place by the window which offers a good view of both my car and the street.
The café isn't busy. On the opposite side of the room, a black kid of about sixteen years old is passionately typing away as if arguing with someone. Opposite me, two older girls share a computer, drinking their cocktails and giggling as they stare at the screen, scrolling the mouse wheel. Nothing at all to set my alarm bells ringing.
Is it my imagination or is the kid casting surreptitious glances in my direction? The girls too... one of them is leaning toward the other, whispering something; the other shoots me a quick glance, then lowers her eyes. They both laugh.
I look away. This isn't normal. No good me being so paranoid. I don't even know who might have sent them to spy on me. I need to concentrate. I came here for a reason, and that's what I should be doing now.
The air smells of coffee and fresh buns. My stomach begins to rumble, reminding me it hasn't been fed in a while.
A girl with jet-black hair walks over to me. She's wearing a short café uniform with her name embroidered on her apron pocket.
"Hi," she openly checks me out. "What'll it be?"
I hide another yawn in my clenched fist. "The kitchen's closed, isn't it?"
"It closes at eleven," she replies, playing with a strand of her hair and putting all her weight on one silky smooth leg. She looks... not exactly sluttish, no. Provocative, rather.
"I can get you a sandwich," she says. "Or a croissant. Or a salad. Take your pick."
"A sandwich and a croissant, please. Two croissants. And a coffee. Two coffees."
She lingers as if she expects me to say something else. Finally, she nods, turns round and sashays off.
I get up and head over to the restroom. I turn on the tap and splash some cold water on my face, rub my eyes, slap my cheeks and blink until finally I feel more or less awake. I wipe my face with a paper towel and stare at myself in the mirror.
I've already checked my face in the car's rear view mirror but the lighting is much better here. Now I can understand why the girls giggled and why the waitress fiddled with her hair.
I'm tall, strong and rippled. I have a chiseled face and bespoke clothes. You're quite a dandy, Chris Brana, whoever you are.
Shame you've killed a man, though. That's on top of memory loss, a childhood trauma and problems with your father. Every girl's dream.
I go back to my table. My order's already there: two steaming coffees, a warm sandwich and a couple of sweet-scented pains au chocolat.
I wolf down the sandwich, washing it down with the piping hot, sickly sweet coffee.
As I pour three packets of sugar into the second coffee, I boot up the computer. The girls are already gone. The kid opposite is still typing away. The waitress hovers behind the bar, casting occasional glances at me.
A car engine rumbles outside. I look up. A police car pulls up by the café.
I choke on my sandwich and freeze.

Sarah

Jeez, what's wrong with me?
A crimson haze floods my eyes as this particular memory returns. I shrink back and clench my teeth, trying not to scream. I shouldn't attract attention. The passersby must be thinking I'm drunk. I don't care. They can think what they want. The horror of the vision flooding over me makes me want to vomit.
I can see myself here, on this very street. Three figures surround me... no, four. They're burly like that hospital nurse.
One of them is holding my hand tight. I swing round. It's Chris. He frowns and squints at the attackers. Veins bulge on his neck. He's ready to fight back.
A deep droning sound assaults me. I clutch at my head. The sound drills through my skull, enveloping my brain and turning it into hot jelly.
It makes me crazy. My vision blurs as if I'm indeed drunk. A hot surge of fury rises in me. I've never felt anything like it before. I need to hit someone hard, otherwise I'll just die.
I turn to one of the thugs and shout something in his face. I can't make out the words - but they seem to launch our attackers into action. One of them pulls out a gun, presses the barrel to his own chin and pulls the trigger.
Blood goes everywhere. Fragments of his skull rattle down onto the bed of a pickup truck nearby.
Chris lets go of my hand and lunges forward, taking a swing. The sound which is still boring through my head grows stronger. Gunshots resound nearby. I glimpse a movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone's running toward me.
I take a swing and-.
The vision is gone. The street returns back to normal. The street lamps cast a blurred light onto the wet road, the parked cars and the occasional passersby. The air is filled with the buzz of a big city.
I feel sick. I might actually spew in a moment. I double up, leaning against a wall, and retch, spitting bile on the ground. The passersby walk cautiously around me, giving me a wide berth.
Soon the bout of sickness calms down. I feel marginally better. I peer at the street signs and at the steel tubes of scaffolding. I've definitely been here before. This is where Chris and I were attacked. What did they want from us? Why did one of them shoot himself? I still shudder whenever I think of the crimson slush showering the pickup truck's paintwork.
I might need to check this Oshumare place out and ask them a few questions. Without drawing attention to myself, of course.
The air fills with a pulsating rhythm. I start walking, following the deep drone of a bass guitar until I turn the corner.
A long restless line of hip people snakes along the roped-off entrance to the club. The building is faced with tinted glass; a sign overhead says, Oshumare.
So that's where it is! Some place, I tell you. It reeks of money. I can't believe someone could invite me to a place like this. I don't belong here; I can't even imagine myself standing next to it.
I elbow my way along the rope, trying to ignore the indignant voices. Someone cusses. I get to the entrance - and hit a brick wall, sort of. A burly bouncer looms over me, taking in my backpack, my hooded jacket and my scanty frame. His face dissolves in a lopsided smirk.
"Hi beautiful," he raises a puzzled eyebrow as he touches the edge of my hood. "Not looking our best today, are we?"
"Hi," I mumble, not knowing what to do next. I have to use the situation; I have to find out something. Wonder if he also knows this Chris person?
A deafening bout of music escapes the club doors. I raise myself on tiptoe and yell, "Is Chris here?"
"Chris who?"
"The guy I came here with!"
He shrugs. He unhooks the end of the rope to let out a couple and let in another who disappear into the velvety depths of the club.
"If you mean that posh dude you came here with, last time I saw him he was with you. You know that, don't you? When was that, actually?" he wriggles his fat fingers in the air as if playing an invisible piano. "It was when the cops closed the club."
How interesting. "Why, what happened?"
"Don't you remember?"
I fake a drunken giggle. He nods his understanding and grins back, flashing a silver crown in his mouth. "There was a shootout round the corner. Some local hoods, so they say. The two of you had just left. I actually wondered if you were okay."
Yes! I'm so happy I'd love to grab him by the ears, pull his huge head close and plant a big kiss on the forehead. Finally I know something! This was probably why I remembered that horrible attack scene. Wonder if we became accidental witnesses to something?
Then again, our own behavior was admittedly strange. We should have called for help. But we didn't even try to escape. Even when one of the attackers shot himself in front of us...
"Listen, this guy, I need to find him. Do you know where he lives?"
He guffaws. "I don't ask no one's addresses! I'm a human turnpike," he slaps the rope with his hand. "My job is to let 'em in and let 'em out."
"Wonder if someone else might know? Chris used to come here often, didn't he?" I adlib, not sure whether he knows anything at all.
"I dunno. You'd better ask Morti, the manager," he waves his hand at the dark recesses of the club. "He called the car service for him a couple of times."
"May I?" I point at the front door. He hesitates, then unhooks the rope and nudges me in.
The line buzzes its indignation. I whisper my thanks even though he's unlikely to hear me over the music.
I scramble down the slippery marble steps (definitely not made for heel-wearing ladies!), walk through the metal detector and find myself in a large, long room. Its walls are draped with red fabric which lends a crimson tint to the blue-streaked gloom. The air is close, reeking of sweat and alcohol fumes.
The place is packed solid. Everybody's dancing after a fashion, rubbing shoulders and shaking their booties, waving glow sticks in the air. Wide beams of light slice through the darkness, fanning out. The DJ at the far end of the room is shaking his head in synch with the music.
The sound of the bass guitar reverberates in my stomach. My ears are blocked with the noise. Strangely enough, I feel like dancing. Despite all the horrific recent developments, my body begins to sway to the music. Dancing has always been part of me. I'd love to show these dorks how to dance!
Still, it's not what I'm here for.
The manager, Morty, is standing by the bar talking to some sleazy office rat type. I elbow my way through the crowd toward him. He sets his glass onto the blue transparent neon bar and stares down at me as I try to explain myself over the music.
"Brana Jr.?" he drawls, raising a surprised eyebrow.
Yes! That's the name! One more brick in the wall of my past. The name reminds me of something... but the flashback escapes my memory before I can concentrate.
Morty gives me a pained look. He doesn't seem to like my hooded jacket. "So you want his-"
"His address," I repeat patiently.
"Sorry. Can't help. Even if I knew it I wouldn't have given it to you."
"But it's important!"
"That's what they all say," he leans closer to me so I can smell the tobacco smoke on his breath. "Guys like him don't need girls like you. If he didn't give you his number," he snaps his fingers in the air, "just forget it. You've had your chance with him."
That hurt. Really. Still, deep down I knew he was wrong. This wasn't a one-night stand. Chris and I - we were a team. Yes, sir!
"We witnessed that shootout a couple of days ago," I say. "I lost contact with him. He might have been hurt."
The look he gives me!
"If he's hurt he's probably in hospital. So there's no point looking for him here."
"Please..." I hate the sound of my own voice.
Morty purses his thin lips. "Enough of that."
"But I-"
"I think you'd better leave. Don't make me call security," he turns back to his glass and the sleazy guy.
The DJ starts a new track. The crowd dissolves into screaming. I force my way to the exit. So much for my Friday night.
Actually, Morty might be right. I need to check the hospitals. Or the morgues. He might not even be alive.
In any case, what makes me think he wants to see me?
I scramble out and offer my face to the cool breeze. It gets under my clothes, chilling my sweaty body. A heavily made-up blonde girl shoves me aside, impatient to get in.
"Found something?" the bouncer asks me. I shake my head, feeling tears welling up in my eyes.
He gives me a sympathetic shrug. He seems all right. Probably the only person in this goddamn city who seems to care.
He looks pensively around. His face brightens up. "I know! You need to ask the cabbie," he nods at a black vehicle parked up across the road.
This a cab? The driver is an unshaven man in a leather jacket. He seems to have walked right out of one of those Italian mafia flicks: a disheveled head of curly hair, a square chin and a watchful stare focused unblinkingly on the club's exit in search for potential clients.
"He might know," the bouncer says. "Morty used to use him a lot."
"Thanks!" I dart across the road, barely avoiding a collision with a speeding vehicle. Shrugging off a torrent of f-words, I dive into the cab. It smells of expensive leather. A turned-down radio is whispering the news.
"I'm looking for someone you might know," I address the driver's face.
"Can I see your badge?"
I shake my head. "No, you don't understand. I'm not a cop. I'm looking for Chris Brana."
He gives me a sarcastic squint. "I would never have guessed!"
"He's just over twenty years old, Caucasian, tall, dark hair," I don't know how else to describe him. "He used to come here a lot. I need to know where he lives."
"And you're saying you're not a cop?"
"Do I look like one?"
He shrugs. "Chris Brana? I might know him. Then again, I might not," he leans toward the steering wheel, watching the club's exit. A group of girls takes the cab in front of his. "Are we going? If not, you'd better get out."
"I am. I want you to take me to Brana's place. Morty told me you used to drive him."
A dull, uneasy silence falls, disrupted by the droning music and the clamor of the crowd.
The man frowns. He isn't in a hurry to make up his mind.
"Actually..." he scratches his chin, checking me out with a sleazy stare. Come on, say it! Don't drag it out!
"Sorry, miss. I don't think I can help you."
Does he mean he can't remember Chris? I look up at the bouncer looming over the club entrance with his powerful arms crossed on his burly chest. He couldn't have sent me here just to get rid of me. He couldn't have lied to me. He's not the lying type.
Mechanically I close my hand around my wrist. The metal is warm to touch.
The watch. Of course.
I unbuckle it and show it to the driver, "How about this? Can you help me now?"
He looks at me, then at the watch dangling off my finger. He isn't a quick thinker, is he?
"I want you to take me to Chris Brana's place," I say pointedly in a strangely low, heavy voice. "Now."
What's wrong with me? Normally I'm never rude like this, am I? It's as if I'm used to ordering people around.
His face clears. His eyes momentarily lose focus. Then he looks normal again. I watch him with bated breath, expecting him to throw me out of the car.
He doesn't. Silently he takes the watch from my hand, throws it into the door pocket and starts the motor. The car pulls off slowly and turns round the corner, leaving the club music behind as Oshumare disappears in the maze of night streets.
I turn away to the window and nearly jump at seeing my reflection. I look scared shitless. Which is only natural. Firstly, I don't really understand what's going on. And secondly, the dull look in the cab driver's glazed-over eyes could scare anyone.

Chris

The door of the police car opens, letting out two cops. They look comical: one is long and lanky, the other short and fat. They linger by my car, studying it, then peer through the café window. I'm sitting half-turned away from them facing the monitor: this way I can watch them inconspicuously out of the corner of my eye. They seem to be discussing something; the short one is pointing at the café, the taller one is shaking his head. He closes the car door, leans his back against it and crosses his arms.
What now? Should I make a run for it? But they're standing right opposite the door, guns and all. Did they see me through the window? They don't need to. All they have to do is enter the café and check everyone.
A back door? Not a good idea. If I get up and start searching for it, they'll see me straight away. All I can do really is stay put and wait for something to happen.
So I might just as well get on with what I came here for: Google my own name. Or father's.
I type in James Brana tycoon, expecting to see pages of search results.
No such luck. The results are few, mainly about other people who share the same name.
Still, I manage to locate a couple of pages about my own father. He even has a small Wikipedia entry. Small being the operative word: born in 1964, his father an insurance worker. A Massachusetts graduate, Brana entered business early in life with an interest in cutting-edge armament technologies.
His company is called Brana Technologies. The name makes me cringe. I've definitely heard it before, and not in the best of circumstances.
Today's events have already taught me to trust my gut reactions. My memory hasn't really come back to me, so I have to rely on these sudden impulses to find out how I feel about things. Or people. Every time I think about my Mom, I have this sad, warm yearning. She comes across as someone calm and good-natured albeit a little lethargic. She loved me.
This isn't what I feel when I focus on my father. Two-Face indeed. We've never been close. It's as if he was already born grown-up incapable of either playing with other children or of striking up friendships with them.
I remembered our estrangement after Mom's funeral. Finally I left for college and never came back. I didn't take a penny of his money even though he was more than willing to help me out. She left me a small trust from which I could receive a monthly allowance starting at eighteen until twenty-one when I was to have full control of it. She seemed to trust my judgement.
I stare at the Wikipedia page dominated by my father's logo: a predatory crescent-shaped steely boomerang with the monogram BT inside. There's also a picture of him and Mom holding hands. Both appear to be in their early thirties. By then, father had already created his company.
The caption under the picture says, "James and Anne Brana". Further searches produce nothing on either her or myself.
This isn't much, is it? He may be no celebrity but still, he's rich enough and judging by the article, he happens to own a very successful business. Problem is, there doesn't seem to be much information about his business, either. The company web page is virtually empty: the logo, the founder, years in business: 1994-current. Nothing else.
How weird. Is it my imagination or someone has gone over the search results, deleting everything they could find? Is that even possible? Then again, someone with a bit of money and clout could probably do it. Father? Why not?
Casting cautious glances at the cops outside, I continue my search, hurrying to close any pop-up adverts flashing me with half-naked human bodies. Shame I can't do the same with election banners. All this junk slows the computer down really a lot. Don't they understand I'm not interested in their political games? Still, at this point in time the Internet is absolutely packed with election reports.
I don't find anything about myself, only a couple of mentions about Mom. About her murder, actually. An archived article in the New York Times and a follow-up.
I skim the text and the pictures.
They never found the masked men - nor whoever had sent them. The article implied it might have been one of father's competitors getting even.
What, is that it? So much for the World Wide Web! What did I use to do all this time? Did I work? Or study?
A mental image comes into my view: a campus, a classroom, the heads of students in front and a lecturer by the blackboard. What did I study? Something technical... probably... or was it finances? Definitely not humanities: the blackboard is covered in formulas.
That's right. I did study. In Princeton.
Bits of memories begin to resurface: my campus room, then the apartment I rented when I'd got access to Mom's money. So I left home to study, then came back here... why? I'm only twenty-two. Why didn't I finish my studies? What caused me to come back?
I think about the second address in my satnav: the mysterious "Sarah, club". I run it through Google Maps. The place is called Oshumare. It's in the center of Manhattan, not far from HK.
I stare at the descriptions and the pictures. A posh place, quite pricey. Somehow I can imagine myself frequenting it. I might have met this girl, this Sarah there.
I can't remember the third address, only that it's somewhere in Harlem. I finish off my coffee and steal a look outside. The short cop has pulled a walkie talkie on a long spiraled lead out of the car and is talking into it. The tall one is staring right through the café window as if looking directly at me.
I have the urge to jump to my feet and run for my life.
Calm down, Chris. You're only a late-night customer doing some research online. Can happen to anyone.
I turn away from the window, open a Word file and begin typing,

1. The murdered man. The tattoo. Who is he? How did I get there?
2. The car. Mother's money. Do I have money? Check the bank account. Is it blocked? Do it online. No visits to the bank.
3. The three addresses. Why so few? Did I delete the rest? Why?
4. Oshumare: who's Sarah?
5. Mom's murder. They wanted to kidnap me, why? That was ten years ago. Could today's events have something to do with that?
6. Father: he's hiding something from me. Why? Has it got something to do with today's events?
7. Father's house. The ambush. The three thugs, the silenced gun. They recognized me. They were after me. Any connection with the dead man?
8. My next step:_____

Questions, questions. The whole world seems to be made of them. Still, it looks like some kind of picture is beginning to form. I'm getting used to my face. I have some idea of who I am. I still can't piece it all together though.
What's the connection between the dead body I found earlier, the ambush waiting for me at my father's place and my mother's murder? If there is a connection, of course. I need more information - and apparently, the Internet isn't much help in this respect.
I glimpse a movement out of the corner of my eye and look up. The waitress is standing by the table with a coffee pot and an empty tray in her hands. "More coffee?"
I stare at my empty cup, realizing I've already finished all my food. When did I do that?
I give her a nod. She pours me some more coffee and begins to collect the empty plates. From where she stands she can see the computer screen, so I save and close the file.
"Night shifts are so boring," she says. "We don't have many customers at this time of night."
I nod without taking my eyes from the screen, then reply with a forced smile, "I'm really sorry. I'm a bit busy at the moment."
She tries not to show her disappointment, just swings round and carries the dirty dishes away. Sorry, honey. It's really not the right moment.
I cast a quick glance checking on the cops outside, pour more sugar in my coffee and reopen the file. Frowning, I try to make sense of what I've just jotted down. What would be the key thing here? All of it, apparently. The information stares me in the face like a tangled ball of wool. If only I knew which of the loose threads I should pull to unravel it...
  The coffee is surprisingly hot: she must have kept it on a hot plate. The café is quite warm, in fact. Much warmer than the chilly night street outside. I remove my jacket and hang it on the back of my chair.
The doorbell dings as a young couple come in, talking in loud voices and groping each other. They're probably drunk. Laughing, they take a table in the far corner. The waitress walks toward them.
I really should check my bank account but it's way too risky. Even withdrawing some cash from an ATM isn't a very healthy idea: if the police are monitoring my movements they'll immediately know where I am. They have cameras everywhere. In which case they might already know the identity of that crazy van driver. They might even have something on the car that was waiting for me there.
The drunk couple seem to be making problems, demanding alcohol. The waitress stands her ground. The black kid casts angry glances at them from his computer. The cops are busy talking outside; the short guy throws his hands in the air, getting all emotional.
I open the newsfeed and check for any murder reports. There is one that fits the description of the man I found. Nothing specific though: all they say is that "the police are investigating a fresh lead". Which is what, me? No idea how much they might know already - but in any case, staying here isn't really a good idea. I need to get out of the city.
I reread the file, trying to remember everything I've written, then delete it and clear the recycle bin. All done.
Relieved, I lean back in my chair, allowing my arms to hang listlessly at my sides. I should be on my way now.
My hand brushes the edge of my jacket hanging on the chair. There's something hard inside. I pull the jacket off and feel the lining around the pocket. Aha. There's a hole in there, big enough for whatever it is to have slid down the lining.
Finally, the waitress manages to pacify the drunken couple. As she walks back to the bar, I'm trying to fish out whatever it is that fell down the jacket lining. I crumple the fabric, trying to get my fingers as far into the hole as possible. Finally they touch a piece of metal. I pinch the object between my fingers and pull it out.
Two keys on a keyring. One is long and flat, definitely the key to some front door. The other is tiny and round, riddled with a complex maze of grooves.
I roll the keys in my hand trying to figure out their purpose. Finally I choose the bigger one and lift my hand as if about to unlock an invisible door. I close my eyes and slowly turn the key in the air.
A modest redbrick on a quiet street. It's nighttime. I slide the key in the lock, turn it and push the door open. I'm home. This is my home.
Yes! The last address in the satnav! The first one turned out to be my father's house, the second a night club and the last one was my own! The apartment I'm renting!
A secret apartment. I've only moved there very recently. I was in hiding. Don't know why or who from.
One thing I do remember is setting up a small stash the moment I moved in there. That's what the small key is for.
What's in there?
No idea. I do remember it's something very important. Something I had to have on me at all times, that's why I couldn't leave it in a safe deposit box.
Very well. That decides it. I need to go to my apartment, find the stash and check what's inside.
The door opens, letting in the two cops. The short one beelines for the restroom. The tall one looks over the café, gives me a fleeting glance and heads for the bar.
As he speaks to the waitress, I put on the jacket, leave ten bucks on the table and get up. The waitress stares at me over the cop's shoulder. She turns away, ignoring my nod. I shove my hands into my pockets, suppressing the desire to wipe my fingerprints off everything I've come into contact with, from the keyboard to the coffee stirrer. Quietly I walk out of the café and get back in the car.
It would probably be a good idea to dump it somewhere. Not now. I need to find my apartment first.


Release - October 18, 2017




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