It’s been so long now, Edie wonders if there ever was anything but the room. The room, the pale Goth girl, the hard-faced woman, and dog food for dinner.
After yawning for a third time, she decides yes, she is tired, so she might as well settle down to sleep. Then the door explodes open and their concrete cell is filled with soldiers. The guards’ voices flicker, screamed orders stretched into inhuman roars by electronic mufflers, and the women are seized, dragged from the room. Jacintha shouts, resisting; Veronica walks in sullen silence. Edie stumbles in a daze, too terrified for anything except complicity.
Just like always.
As she’s marched down the corridor, it’s not just the soldiers that make her chest tight with horror. It’s the fact of being outside, because outside their room, the world is a complete unknown. In the months since she was taken, she was only let out once, and that day…
That’s a day she doesn’t like to think about.
More shouting. She watches as the men drag Jacintha off to the left, Veronica to the right. She wants to shout, to fight back, to roar that they can’t do this. But they can. Of course they can. They can do anything they want.
Each day since her arrival has been an object lesson in her powerlessness.
She’s flung forwards and tumbles face-first, sprawling painfully into a filthy room. She shivers, the cold of the place so severe the walls are scarred with frost. Soldiers stare at her from behind blank masks.
The voice comes from a crackling tannoy, deformed as it scatters off the cracked tiles. It’s buzzing, synthetic; a silicon lord of flies.
Eyes welling, Edie does as she’s told. Turning her back on the guards, she lifts her top, squirming as she drops it to the floor. Clutching her chest, she’s still desperate – even in a situation as wretched as this – to keep some shred of modesty.
STRIP, commands the voice.
“I am!” she shrieks, but her voice sounds small. Plaintive, she thinks.
She reaches down with her free hand. In the cold, her fingers are clumsy and won’t do what she tells them. They catch in her trousers, and she nearly trips over.
She wants to cry.
Her trousers reach her ankles, and she kicks them off, covering herself with her hands as best she can.
The water smashes into her like a fist, doubling her over, forcing her mouth open, filling it, choking her. Wreathed in its icy fire, every touch sears her skin, and she howls with pain. Every place the water touches is left her raw, shrieking for relief.
The spray stops. A dirty bar of soap is kicked over.
And, nodding, gurgling, choking for air, she complies, scrubbing herself. She has to fight to keep standing, her knees threatening to give way at any moment. She knows that if they do, she will never rise again, so she closes her eyes and grinds the coarse bar against her skin.
The water crashes into her again, its teeth coruscating across every inch of her. This time, she makes no sound. There’s nothing inside left for her to scream with.
The torrent stops. She stands there, not merely shivering, but with her body moving as though under an electric current. She tries to look at the soldiers, but she can’t. Her head won’t obey, the neck muscles jumping spastically every time she tries.
She’s thrown a grey towel.
DRY YOURSELF, says the voice.
She complies. Or tries to. It takes a long time, and the guards are happy to wait.
She’s thrown some clothes. Clean, but yellowing undergarments; heavy canvas trousers; thick woollen jumpers and socks. Each item smells of disinfectant and dust.
PUT THEM ON
She’s thrown a pair of heavy boots. This time, she pulls them on without being told. Anything to keep the awful voice silent.
MOVE TO THE DOOR
Legs unsteady as a newborn deer, she complies.
The soldiers stand either side of her. She rubs her sides, desperate to massage the slightest measure of heat back into her scalded, frozen flesh. Her fingers sink into the itchy wool of the jumper. It’s thicker than a duvet, but scratches like wire. Pulling her hands out, she blows on her fingertips, appalled at their frostbitten blueness.
The soldiers walk her down a corridor. A bored-looking man in a black uniform and hat presses a button and buzzes them through a security door. The walls change, from the familiar cracked grey concrete of her detention facility to filthy off-green tiles. Every surface is veined with hairline striations, filament-thin fractures. The floor is patterned in ugly brown tiles, the air thick with the sour stench of failing central heating.
Another corridor. Another. Then another door; they’re buzzed through again.
Outside, the air’s so frigid it’s like a slap to the face. She clutches herself, too cold even to shiver now. Looking up, she watches as her breath swirls out in a grey cloud that’s carried away by the snow-laced breeze. White flakes spiral lazily from a sky so low she could almost sink her hand into it.
“Down there. Through that gate,” says the soldier to her left in his crackling, inhuman voice.
As he leads her away, terrified as she is, it’s only a little while until curiosity gets the better of her. She turns to look back, rewarded with her first view of the outside of her prison. It’s a vast, ugly block; a Brutalist horror, as though someone took the worst of the Siberian gulags and worked their hardest to make them worse. She can’t help from marvelling at it. It’s a monstrosity which is impossible in size; not so much in height, she thinks, but in its breadth. Hundreds of metres of foul, grey slabs make up its sides, crenelated peaks dotted with razor wire, searchlights, and every kind of weapon. Fissures and cracks in the blank walls hang open, revealing wracked, wind-lashed arteries of rebar dripping with thick rust. From where she is, they look like wounds in the side of a fallen god.
They reach the gate and a new pair of guards seize her. Her sleeve is rolled up, her numeric tattoo examined. Entries are made in a log book. A tick is placed on a clipboard. She is led alongside another high concrete wall, past more gun towers, more razor wire, more searchlights.
They take her to a door. It’s huge, impossibly so. Nine feet by twelve of reinforced steel and hydraulics, it looks more like it belongs on a battleship, or perhaps a bank vault. Her guard gives a muffled command, and the monstrous bulkhead opens. The air is knocked out of her as they shove Edie through, and this time she does fall, skittering across tarmac to land in a pile on the other side.
She looks up just in time to see the vault door closing behind her with a knell louder than death.
Edie squints in the direction of the voice and a figure moves through the mist, disrupting particles of snow as they come closer.
“Who’s there?” asks Edie.
“I’m Willow,” says the woman, stepping towards Edie, a gloved hand outstretched. “I work in the pub here; they send me whenever someone new arrives.”
After imprisonment, interrogation, months in a concrete cell, of all the things Edie was expecting – firing squad, guard dogs, perhaps to be chased by men who hunt women for sport – an English girl was nowhere on the list. Certainly not an English girl who looks like this. Willow’s maybe eighteen; nineteen at a push, Edie thinks. It’s her clothes that make her look older. She’s dressed for the depths of winter, clothed in a warm scarf and heavy overcoat whose style was last fashionable sometime when rationing was still happening. And her makeup? That type hasn’t been popular in thirty years. She’s got blonde hair, worn long – deliberately feminine – but tied back. Her handshake’s neither firm nor loose; the smile’s sincere, but not warm.
“Edie,” says Edie, shaking the woman’s hand, appraising her carefully, so wrong-footed by this turn of events she has no idea what the appropriate response should be.
“Oh my God, didn’t they even give you a coat?” asks Willow suddenly. “Thoughtless beasts. Here, quick, take this,” and she takes off her coat, wrapping it over Edie’s shoulders.
“Thank you,” Edie says, astonished at how glad the warmth makes her feel. Then, as though the warmth has allowed her thoughts to function again, the girl’s words seem to finally percolate through her mind to a place where she can register them, she says: “Wait. ‘Pub’?”
“That’s right,” nods the girl.
The girl nods again.
“In a pub?”
“Where are we?”
“It’s called Derevnya.” Willow replies.
Edie’s expression must reveal her confusion, because Willow laughs, a high, tinkling sound.
“Don’t worry, it’s just the name of this village. There’s only about fifty of us, so we’re a small community. Oh, but don’t worry, though. Everyone’ll be so happy to see you here. We’re very welcoming of newcomers. You sound Northern?”
“Sheffield,” Edie replies. “Born and bred.”
“You’ll probably get along with Captain Bambera. She’s from a place called Selby. It’s in Yorkshire too.”
“I know Selby,” nods Edie, wishing she could feel her hands.
“Aw, it’ll be nice for her to have another Yorkshire person around. She’s been quite the gooseberry up until now.”
“You’re from the South?”
“Place called Hitchin.” Willow replies, smiling. “Although I left when I was like, seven; just long enough to get the accent. It’s little town about thirty miles North of London. Nothing there except trees and lavender. And a bus stop you can hang about at, if you’re one of the cool kids. Bit like here, I suppose. Only, you know, there’s less lavender here. And no bus stop. And no summer. But other than that, it’s almost identical.”
“What do you mean, no summer?” asks Edie, stumbling along next to Willow, head still muzzy with cold.
“Just what I said,” replies Willow, gesturing to the sky. “It’s like this pretty much all year round. Sometimes we get a little more snow than this, sometimes a lot, and there’s usually a little more mist, but otherwise it’s fairly consistent.”
Willow leads her down a path which is neatly gardened on both sides. It’s all starting to be a little too much, the faintly aggressive ordinariness of this place. Edie feels like the time she got lost at the shops when she was a little girl; she’d taken hold of a man’s hand, only to look up into a stranger’s face instead of her father’s. The sickly melange of familiarity and dislocation is as horrible now as it was then.
“What’s your number?” asks Willow.
“On your tattoo,” says Willow, helpfully reaching over to roll up Edie’s sleeve and check. Reading it, she nods. “Ahh, so you’re the one moving in there. Lovely house, that one; big enough for three people. Want me to show you?”
“Please,” nods Edie, finally deciding that it’s best to just go with whatever this madness is until things start to make more sense.
The further they walk, the more Derevnya looks like something from some joyless children’s book about Christmas, thinks Edie. As they walk, buildings emerge from the fog like lost travellers. Their style is – somehow – even more off-putting than the concrete horror Edie just left. It’s all… quaint. English. Normal. Tudor in style, these little houses wouldn’t be out of place in any little Victorian village in the shires. The tops are thick with heavy black beams, which contrasts with the whitewashed sections lodged in between them. The lower halves are pure red brick. Though they’re not classically Tudor, thinks Edie. The edging is too regular and well-made to be anything as rushed or imprecisely made as a true Tudor building. The angles have obviously been done with machines, not by hand.
Still, the effect is uncanny.
The thought that she has been outside her cell for nearly an hour occurs to her, and she feels suddenly overwhelmed. The mist starts to feel oppressive, the space around her both closed in and distant all at once. A scream percolates up through her, but she fights it down. Falling to her knees, it comes out as vomit.
In a moment, Willow’s crouched next to her, rubbing her back and holding the hair out of her face. Edie spits, breathes, vomits once more, spits again, and breathes. Willow keeps rubbing.
Eventually, Edie feels herself calm down enough that she can stand. She lurches to the side, and half-sits on a low wall. She grabs her knees tight, and waits until the world finally slows down from spinning around her.
“You okay?” asks Willow.
“Fine,” lies Edie.
“Yeah. I was the same when I arrived. Bit of a shock to the system, innit?” asks the girl, in a voice which is more or less sympathetic.
Another five minutes or so later, Edie’s recovered herself enough that she’s ready to move on. Willow offers to help her up, but she waves the girl away and stands unaided. Turning, they continue down the street.
Each house is fenced off behind a little stone wall; those look hand-laid, thinks Edie to herself, spitting again to banish the last of the bilious sourness from her mouth. Behind the walls are neat gardens, with trees, shrubs… Every kind of winter greenery as the plants flourish in defiance of the ice.
“You’ll have a chance to go for a bit of a wander later,” says Willow, turning to Edie with a cheery kind of smile. “It can be quite overwhelming at first. Believe me, I know. Just remember, this is Main Street. It leads into town, and almost all the other streets branch off it. Now, your house is…”
They take a turn and a little metal sign says ‘Drake Avenue’. For a moment, Edie can’t feel the cold. Instead, the skin on the nape of her neck prickles with déjà vu.
“Number six,” she says.
Willow stops, turns, and looks back, her face smiling but her eyes nonplussed.
“That’s right,” the girl replies, smiling in surprise. “How did you know?”
Edie’s legs stop moving, and she simply stares at number six, Drake Avenue. It’s a tall Edwardian house, spotless red bricks behind a neatly trimmed hedgerow of something dense and spiny. The bay window of the lounge has orange and brown curtains drawn, the pattern on them something escaped from a Sixties council house; a tessellation meant to be so deliberately bright and cheerful it distracts the people inside from the squalor of their lives. The pattern… it pulls at Edie in the way that memory sometimes does.
“Have I been here before?” she asks, mostly to herself.
“Feels like I’ve always been here,” replies Willow with a mindless kind of cheer. “I think everyone gets that way after a bit. Anyway, go on in. The key will be where you expect it.”
“What do you mean?” asks Edie, still staring at the house. When there’s no reply, Edie turns to see the young woman walking away from her. Willow turns back to her and calls out.
“Once you’ve gotten settled, you should come to The Old Queen’s Head. It’s the only pub in town. Can’t miss us. Just keep walking down Main Street, and you’ll reach us.”
Mist swallows the girl, leaving Edie quite alone.
Time passes. Edie stands outside the house, staring up at it, her legs unwilling to make the slightest move inside. It’s only when her shoulders start to sing with pain from the cold, that she turns to look at them. She’s shocked to see a thin layer of snow; it’s settled and isn’t melting. She lifts her fingers, and sees the tips are bluer than they were after her ‘shower’.
Stay outside? she thinks.
Stay outside and die of exposure, or walk inside and…?
And even though there’s no specific thought attached to the nebulous sense of dread looming at the end of that sentence, staying outside still feels somehow preferable than stepping into the charmingly English house.
No, she thinks. Outside might be preferable, but it’ll definitely be fatal.
Shivering, she takes a step forwards and opens the garden gate. Stepping over the neatly-laid paving stones of the short pathway to the door, she stops by the ‘Welcome’ mat, and looks down at the two plant pots either side of the door. She lifts the one on the left and there’s the house key.
Just where she expected it.
Picking it up, she slides it into the lock, opens the door. The light switch is to her right and she flicks it, bathing the abject darkness of the house’s insides with warm, intimate light. The interior décor is Sixties modernist to a fault. It could have come from one of those films where Connery played Bond. The brown sofas are right out of some Gerry Anderson puppet show.
A hand grabs her hair, wraps itself in it. Dragged to the floor, she lets out a cry of pain as her head hits the carpet. She feels the blade at her throat, and in the instant she realises the cold has stolen any strength she might have had to fight back, she also realises she’s going to die.
She thinks of the green room.
Veronica’s voice is strangled, trapped in a strange place between anger, fear, and mild embarrassment.
Edie opens her eyes to see Veronica’s face. The older woman’s right arm is still holding the kitchen knife to her throat, but the left one is disentangling itself from her hair.
“Oh Jesus,” says Veronica, and leaps up, hands held up in deference. “Oh Ed, I am so sorry.”
“Nic? What the hell…?”
And Edie sees Veronica’s eyes. They betray the same anxiety she’s feeling.
“I didn’t know,” says the older woman, the tendons in her hand twisting against the hard wood of the knife’s handle. Veronica sees Edie looking at the knife in her hand, and seems to remember that she’s carrying it. She makes a weird gasping sound, and casts the knife, clattering, to the floor.
“I didn’t know,” she repeats.
It’s okay, thinks Edie, but her mouth’s too scared to form the words.
“What’s going on down – ?“ comes a voice from upstairs.
Edie’s eyes flicker to the corner of the stairs, where the voice is coming from. Jacintha’s stood there, wrapped in a towel, wet hair clinging to her shoulders, a heavy brass candlestick in her hand. At the sight of Edie, she drops it to the floor and dashes down the stairs. As Edie pulls herself to her feet, she’s nearly barrelled over again as the younger woman flings her arms around her and pulls her into a tight embrace.
“Ed!” she cries.
“Hey Jack,” says Edie, her voice finally returned.
She reaches out a hand, and takes hold of Veronica’s, squeezing the fingers. Veronica looks up, a single wet line running down her cheek.
She flings her arms around the other women, and the three of them hold each other close. It does nothing to make their terror go away, but, for the moment at least, that terror feels a little less awful than it did.
Jacintha heads upstairs to dry herself, and Veronica wordlessly gestures for Edie to follow her. The women step into a kitchen that seems to have been transported wholesale from somewhere in Yorkshire around 1950. Veronica clicks on the light, then starts to make the tea as Edie leans herself on the radiator. After the cold of outside, the heat is delicious, and Edie soon feels like herself again. She watches as Veronica gets the kettle ready. It’s an old hob-fired one, and Edie is reminded of her childhood, back before Mum got that first electric kettle.
“Tea’s in the cupboard to the left,” says Veronica, and Edie opens the cupboard while the older woman readies the mugs.
Edie finds the cupboard bare of almost everything. Inside is little beyond a few tins, wrapped in white paper, with only black lettering on the side. One is labelled ‘CHICKEN SOUP’; another ‘BAKED BEANS’; a third ‘CORNED BEEF’. The teabags are in a small cardboard box, the brown sides slightly dented, the lid printed with the word ‘TEA’ and nothing else. She takes out three coarse-feeling teabags, each one filled with gravelly leaves and passes them to Veronica, who drops them in their cups. The kettle sits on the gas hob as blue flames lick its metal underside.
“Sorry,” says Veronica, her voice quiet and ashamed.
“For what?” asks Edie, and the two friends smile at one another.
Neither woman says anything more. After a short while, the kettle begins to whistle, then to shriek, and Veronica turns off the gas and pours the tea. The women adjourn to the dining room, where they sit, Edie pressed up against a radiator again. Neither asks if they’re worried about the food being poisoned; not when their gaolers could kill them any time.
The table is covered in small pieces of wire, tiny screws, transistors, all of them clearly ripped from the insides of an ancient-looking wireless radio. Veronica sits amongst them, returning to whatever work Edie’s arrival interrupted. Her fingers move with intensity, wrapping components together with thin pieces of wire, taping others down. Edie watches her, sipping tea without saying a word.
There is the crackle of an electrical short, and Veronica winces, sucking her fingertip.
“Anything I can…?” asks Edie.
“No, mate” says Veronica. There’s a click and she smiles broadly. Turning to Edie, she holds the improvised mess of wires and electronic pieces up like a trophy. It looks like a prop from some cheap BBC sci-fi show from the Seventies, thinks Edie.
“What’s that?” asks Edie, but Veronica puts a finger to her lips, mouthing the words ‘I’ll tell you later’.
“Dunno,” Veronica says, her voice pantomime-loud. “Bit of limescale, maybe? Been in my tea as well.”
Jacintha comes downstairs, wrapped in a deep red dressing gown and slippers, sits between the two women, and Veronica passes her tea.
“You searched the house?” asks Edie.
“Not yet,” replies Veronica, holding up her improvised contraption. “Well, not fully,” she adds, the conspiratorial tone indicating that the thing she’s made has some role to play in the search.
“We were going to, but I was too cold,” says Jacintha, a little embarrassed.
“Made her get in’t bath; lass’d been stood in’t snow. Nearly had hypothermia,” says Veronica, throwing a disapproving look at Jacintha.
“It wasn’t my fault. There’s… There’s just something about this house…” says Jacintha.
You felt it too, Edie thinks.
They finish their tea in silence. Draining her mug, Veronica pulls the other women close. Taking out a pad of note paper, she hastily scrawls a note.
We need to check the house, she writes, then holds out the thing she’s made, pointing at the words Scanner. For bugs.
Split up? Quicker that way? writes Jacintha.
Veronica shakes her head, writing Can’t afford mistakes. Slow and thorough. We start here.
Edie and Jacintha nod. Veronica writes Don’t mention scanner.
What if there’s cameras? Writes Edie.
Veronica smiles bleakly.
Then we’re buggered, she writes.
As she gets up, Edie notes how quickly Veronica’s taken charge of the situation. She’s not exactly unfazed, nor is she thriving, but she’s – what’s the word? Coping. Dealing with things. Already, she’s jury-rigging devices, fighting back, moving with purpose. There’s not even a question that Edie or Jacintha might do anything except what Veronica says. Edie drains her tea, stands, and the three of them get to work.
Checking the lounge takes close to an hour. The walls are cold brick; the chintzy wallpaper comes away easily enough, revealing red brick beneath. Paintings come down from the walls. They’re quite nice, thinks Edie, these homely scenes of village life painted in vaguely elegant swirls of oil. Thankfully, none of them conceal anything more exciting than a wooden frame. The single bookshelf is filled with books that look like they belong in a retirement home: volumes on wildlife native to the English Countryside, books about the rights and rules of the United Kingdom’s canal system, a few paperback copies of John Clare’s poetry and a handful of similar ‘improving’ books.
The women work in silence, diligently combing the downstairs of the house from floor to ceiling, and for a few hours, they find nothing. Then.
“This is right weird,” whispers Jacintha. She’s crouched down on her knees by the skirting board in the front corner of the room.
Veronica, raises a hand in a questioning expression.
“Here, come over, feel this,” Jacintha replies, keeping her voice low, and the two other women instantly move over, crouching down by her.
“Is that a breeze?” asks Edie.
“Air bricks,” says Veronica, dismissively. “In my old house, you could always feel a breeze.”
“Not the breeze,” says Jacintha. “The temperature. Feel it. Doesn’t that seem odd to you?”
“It’s got to be ten below outside,” says Edie, nodding as she realises the reason for Jacintha’s curiosity. “That breeze is warm.”
“And the smell,” says Jacintha. “It’s faint, but can’t you smell that?”
“What?” asks Veronica.
“Get down, you can smell it more clearly,” says Jacintha.
Veronica lies flat on the worn brown carpet, and inhales.
“Smells like a house,” she says.
“No, come closer and smell again,” says Jacintha.
Veronica does so, sniffing again. Her expression changes to one of curiosity.
“Grease,” she says, nodding. “Industrial. For pistons.”
“Yeah,” says Jacintha. “And do you see anything industrial around here? Anything in this house at all that would give off that kind of smell?”
“No,” says Veronica, nodding. “Nowt.”
“That is weird,” says Edie. “I don’t like this.”
“I don’t like any of this,” says Veronica, grimacing. “Come on.”
After two hours, nothing. No bugs, wires, pinhole cameras… Nothing.
“Right. So does that mean we know downstairs is safe then?” whispers Jacintha.
“As much as we can,” nods Veronica. “There’s always the chance they could be using something advanced, something that we can’t pick up.”
“What are the odds of that?” asks Edie.
“No idea,” Veronica replies.
“That’s not a comforting answer, Nic,” says Jacintha.
“Best I’ve got,” Veronica replies, her face grim.
“Look, let’s just get on doing the rest of the house next, okay?” Edie whispers to Jacintha.
“Yeah,” the girl nods. “Yeah, ‘course.”
Edie wonders if she looks as worried.
“We’ll go room by room,” says Veronica. Edie wishes she felt as confident as the older woman sounds.
The sun’s set by the time they’re finished downstairs but they’ve not found any kind of observation device, hidden or otherwise. Edie’s had time to take in her surroundings better. The lower floor has a lounge, kitchen, dining area, and a small reading room, all decorated in the same early Sixties fashions. The house isn’t exactly filled with things, but what’s there is of a kind. Nice things, pretty things… All bland and inoffensive and safe. Like a house assembled from a catalogue, she thinks. The food and drink is the only truly strange thing. The stark labels, devoid of even the slightest hint of branding are, after a lifetime of brightly coloured food packaging, almost disquietingly alien. Although if the tea’s anything to go by, the contents seem safe enough. Cheap and not entirely pleasant maybe, but nutritious enough to survive on.
Certainly better than what they were forced to eat in the cell.
“Upstairs?” asks Jacintha.
“Absolutely,” says Edie.
Veronica grabs Edie’s arm.
“What?” she asks, turning. Something about Veronica’s expression is disquieting. “Take a moment,” says the older woman.
“The rooms are…” but Jacintha can’t finish the sentence.
“Personalised,” says Veronica, her tone ominous.
“How do you mean?” Edie asks, as her skin prickles.
“It’s… Well, you’ll see,” replies Jacintha.
“Okay,” Edie replies, filled with a grim anxiety.
The three of them walk upstairs.
“Which room do we start with?” asks Jacintha.
“The first,” replies Edie.
“Are you sure?” asks Jacintha. “It’s yours.”
“Okay,” replies Edie. “But how bad can it be?”
Jacintha stops and fixes her with a look.
“Bad,” she replies.
Edie pushes the door open.
The bedroom on the other side is dark; she flicks on the light and has to catch her breath. Her duvet is on the bed; her duvet from home. And the bedside table… that’s hers too. So’s the lamp on it. The towel hanging on the radiator is hers, down to the stain in the left corner from that time she made the ill-advised decision to dye her hair red. She walks in, a fist-sized lump in her throat, looking around at this huge chunk of her life, amputated cleanly from her house and transplanted wholesale into this alien place.
“But… But these are from my home,” she stammers, her voice barely a whisper.
“Yeah,” replies Jacintha, nodding, face set. “My room’s the same. Nic’s too.”
Edie goes to the wardrobe. The front panel is decorated with the same ballet poster of Anna Tsygankova doing that sexy little thing with her feet that turned Edie on so much she could never quite bring herself to throw it away, even though it was a permanent reminder of the particularly bad date she’d been on where she’d acquired it. Shivering, she slides the panel aside to find her clothes neatly hanging from the rail, her underwear and T-shirts neatly folded on shelves. The battered wooden box labelled with the word ‘TAMPONS’ in her own handwriting is hidden in the same discreet spot it would’ve been in her own house.
She wonders why her head’s spinning and falls to the bed. Jacintha rushes to her side, but Edie holds her hand up.
“Give us a moment,” she gasps, and Jacintha nods, taking a step back. In a minute, she has herself under control, and moves unsteadily back to her feet.
“You okay?” asks Jacintha.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine,” says Edie. The rooms swims around her. She feels Jacintha’s hand on her back, reassuring her.
“You’ve lasted longer than I did,” says the younger woman. “I took one look, said ‘Nope’, and walked out again.”
“We have to check. For devices,” says Edie.
“Yeah,” says Jacintha. “But you don’t need to push yourself. Nic and I can do it.”
“No,” says Edie, straightening her back and standing. “No. No, sod these people,” she walks out of the room, and empties the bin down the bowl of the toilet, washes her mouth out in the sink, and comes back to find both women waiting for her.
“I’m ready,” she says. “Let’s tear this place apart.”
After they’re finished, clothes cover every surface, knick-knacks and oddments are strewn across the floor, and not a single thing has been found.
“Next room,” says Edie, using the slow-burn of her anger at this unconscionable violation of their collective privacy to drive herself forwards.
Jacintha’s room is laid out almost identically to Edie’s; only the contents are different. The three of them start the work of going through everything. The wardrobe’s filled with black T-shirts decorated with pictures of angry punk bands, leather straps for wrists, waist and legs. There are at least three completely different styles of long leather trenchcoat. The strangest thing is mounted on a rack on the wall, and Edie picks it down to check it.
“Is this a sword?” she asks, drawing the razored blade from its scabbard with an oiled hiss.
“It’s a katana,” replies Jacintha, unable to look at it for some reason; Edie thinks she sees a flicker of shame across the girl’s face. “They’re like swords, only better.”
“Nothing here,” says Veronica, moving her device across the back of the room, peeling back the wallpaper at the rear of the wardrobe to reveal nothing but more bricks. “No signals. Room’s clear. Let’s move on.”
“Your room?” asks Edie.
“Only one left,” shrugs Veronica.
Veronica’s room is almost completely empty. A set of cast-iron dumbbells nestles in the corner, and a small rack of books is neatly lined up on the side of a small writing desk. A collection of plain jeans, smart tops, and simple jumpers in varying shades of purple lie in a chaotic pile on the bed.
“I’d already started when Jack showed up,” says Veronica, sweeping the room with her device. “Just needed,” and she shakes the device, “to finish the job.”
Edie’s eyes are drawn to the one detail that’s unique to all three rooms. A small golden frame sits, bookending the paperbacks on the writing desk. In it, there’s a picture of Veronica smiling, the ornate tattoos of her right arm wrapped around a beautiful little boy. He can’t be older than five, the almost-black of his skin and tight, curled hair obviously those of his father… But the bright, black eyes and toothy smile are unmistakably Veronica’s.
“I didn’t know you had a son,” says Edie.
“Daniel,” says Veronica, her voice toneless. She could be talking about the weather, or her weekly shop.
“I’m fine,” says Veronica. “Let’s get this finished.”
It only takes half an hour; Veronica has less possessions than the others, and when they’re finished, they slump to the floor by the radiator, exhausted.
“Does this mean they aren’t listening?”
“Yeah. So far as I can tell, no. They’re not,” nods Veronica.
“How reliable is… that?” asks Jacintha, pointing at Veronica’s device.
“Not as reliable as I’d like,” replies Veronica. “It’s easy enough to make a short range radio-wave scanner. It took a bit of work, but I’ve also managed to wire this to make magnetic and resonance sweeps as well.”
“In a perfect world, I’d have a thermal camera as well, look for the cold spots. But, well.”
“So is the house clear or not?” asks Jacintha.
“Honestly mate? No idea. Assuming they’re using current technology, you know, nothing weird I haven’t encountered before? Then I’m ninety nine per cent,” says Veronica. “But, like I say: they could be using stuff I don’t know about.”
“That’s not ideal,” says Edie.
“I dunno, ninety nine per cent sounds good enough to me,” says Jacintha. “We’ll just have to keep our voices low, eh?”
They all smile at this.
“Anyway, what now?” she asks.
“We escape,” says Veronica her voice supremely calm. “We find out where we are; we commandeer a vehicle; we get out of here.”
“Is that even possible?” asks Jacintha.
“Frank Morris escaped Alcatraz wi’a spoon and papier mache. David Jones, John Lewis and William Ash led fifty POWs to freedom. And from an ‘escape-proof’ camp. So yeah. It’s possible,” replies Veronica.
Jacintha smirks, and Edie nods. She also doesn’t mention that Frank Morris drowned during his escape, or that the majority of the fifty escaped POWs were recaptured and shot.
“How do we begin?” she asks.
“First, we tidy up. Then, we explore. They’re going to have us under observation. The question is when and where? For the moment, we have to assume it’s all the time when we’re not here,” Veronica’s face is cold, flinty. Underneath all the hate, though, Edie thinks she can see something else to it, something almost – though not exactly – happy? No, not happiness, she thinks. A sort of grim satisfaction, perhaps?
“Our primary goal has to be intelligence gathering,” Veronica continues. “We need to know everything. What’s in this village? What buildings are here? What people? There’s clearly a boundary wall all the way round; does it have any weak spots we can exploit? If not, can we tunnel? If not, can we find some way to disguise ourselves as guards? We have to assume they’ll have thought of almost everything we might try, but trust that we are cleverer than them. There will be something they’ve missed. Summat we can use. We have to work from the assumption that if we’re clever enough, and we work hard enough, we will get home.”
“You seem very confident,” says Edie, not feeling remotely as secure as Veronica seems to be.
“Might sound it, but I don’t know if I feel it,” replies Veronica. “Still, let’s get cracking, eh?”
They’ve been working together, putting clothes back into wardrobes for two hours when there’s a knock at the door.
‘A Qlippothic Engine’, my debut novel, will be released in 2017.