46.

176 0 0

Wyn checked there was a round in the chamber, keeping the gun low so that no one outside the car would see, before slotting it back into her shoulder holster and doing her jacket up. It was raining outside the car and Wyn took a moment to gather herself.

A young man staggered down a metal staircase; his arms wrapped around a cardboard box. He’d made the trip three times, a box or a bag dumped in the back of a rusting van, the door wide open, and then back up empty-handed. He shoved the box in and slammed the door. A forlorn look to the sky and then he was off again.

There were bags in the pub full of clothes and other bits, yet to be unpacked, dumped in the corner of her old bedroom and left to gather dust. Too heavy with memories for Wyn to even dream of doing anything with. Wyn closed her eyes, remembering the accusations and the pleading as she left. Auntie’s death had been an opportunity for Wyn to escape her old life, to start again by going back to a place of her childhood.

“You’re just hungover you idiot,” Wyn said to herself, doing her best to push the anxious feeling away. Misha was right, she always seemed to be. Doubting herself would help no one, she needed to believe in what she was doing and have the confidence that she could get the job done.

The smell of her hair caught Wyn unaware, sweeping her back to the moment of the embrace and the fleeting feeling of safety.

“Damn it,” Wyn said and rested her head against the steering wheel. “That’s going to be a problem.”

She got out of the car in a flurry of movement, almost slamming the door before catching herself and closing it softly. Wyn passed under the stairs, the man clomping his way back down, and took the alleyway onto the high street. It was eerily quiet for a Saturday morning with only the odd delivery van on the road and a handful of pedestrians. A few of the shops were open but others were permanently closed, the windows empty or shuttered.

The department store sat in a dominant position, a four-story edifice of glass and marble, the windows plastered with posters and papered over on the inside. It was a sad testimony to the declining fortunes of the neighbourhood. A former temple of commerce, now decaying and a place for cults and criminals to shelter.

The front door was unlocked, sparing Wyn the pain of having to search for a window to break. She let it close quietly behind her and flicked on her little torch, letting the light play over a mountain of rubbish that filled the gold-flecked lobby. The mound blocked the lifts and served as home to a swarm of rats that ran for cover.

Wyn clamped her teeth around the torch and tucked her trousers into her socks before going any further. The main hall was on the right, empty but for a stage in the centre and a tree constructed from scaffolding poles. Wyn puzzled over the dozen or so extension leads dangling from a hole in the high ceiling unable to discern their use. A glass vial skittered away from Wyn’s boot, tinkling as it collided with others.

The entrance to the hall on the left was blocked by a wall of pallets reinforced with wire mesh. It resisted Wyn’s attempts at making a hole, so she gave up and shone her torch through a gap, letting the light play over rows of supermarket shelving, partly dismantled and stacked neatly to one side. Wyn knew it had been a long shot but was disappointed not to find any sign of life. She turned away just as a man sprinted from his hiding spot, racing for the rear of the hall.

“Stop!” Wyn called out but the man had vanished. She rattled the fence before running back into the main hall, glass crunching underfoot as she sprinted for the open door at the back, pausing to shine her torch down the next corridor. The man appeared at the end and skidded to a halt. They stared at each other for a moment and Wyn slowly raised her hands.

“I’m looking for my daughter,” Wyn said. The man eyed the exit but stayed where he was. “Please, I need to find her.”

“I’m the only one here,” the man said in a weak voice. He was wearing a thick padded coat that fell to his knees, the sort that might double as a sleeping bag in a pinch. He coughed and spat on the ground. “You can see it’s empty.”

Wyn slowly lowered her hands and took a step closer. A streak of daylight from a crack in the door fell upon his face, highlighting gaunt cheeks and hollowed eyes. He yawned and cast a furtive glance at the exit.

“She joined the Temple of the Peripheral. They meet here, don’t they?”

“Not for a few months.” The man reached into his pocket and Wyn let her hand drift to her open jacket, ready to draw on him, but he pulled out a hat and jammed it on his head. “It’s quiet now. Used to be people here but they’ve gone.”

“Are you a member of the temple?” Wyn asked. She didn’t see any snake tattoos, but the man spoke with a sadness that sounded genuine.

“No. I didn’t get all the snake stuff, but I liked being around them. They were fun. Weird, but they were never horrible to me.” His voice echoed along the empty corridor disturbing four-legged creatures that scurried for cover behind filling cabinets and stacks of chairs.

“Did you live here with them?”

“No, they didn’t let nonbelievers live here. I only moved in when they left. I wanted to keep it clean for them. You know, sweep the floor, and keep the rats out. I want them to come back one day.”

“Do you know where they went?”

The man shook his head and jammed his hands in his pocket. “Is your daughter on the phreno?” Wyn nodded and took a few tentative steps towards him. He glanced out the door and pointed outside. “They still give it away. They left but they let us know how to find them. Abby’s nice.”

“Can you show me where?” Wyn tried to control her excitement at finally getting a lead on the temple. “I can’t find them on my own, I’ve tried.”

“How old is she?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Mine’s five,” he said and gave her a gap-toothed grin. “No, six. I always forget.”

“What’s her name?”

“Caroline. I’m going to see her today.”

“I’m sure Caroline would like that,” Wyn smiled back. “I’m Wyn by the way.”

“Ollie.”

“Hi, Ollie. Can you take me to where you meet the temple people? I’d like to ask them about my daughter.”

“They won’t like you being there.”

“I promise I only want to ask them if they’ve seen her.”

Ollie scratched at his chin and then resettled his hat. “Okay, but if you upset them, they’ll leave and then we’ll be in trouble. You have to swear you won’t do that. People will get sick if they don’t get their phreno.”

“I’ll talk to them after you’ve left if you want. If you tell me to leave then I’ll go.”

Ollie nodded and Wyn followed him out into the loading bay. The shutters were up, and he clambered down some concrete steps, looking back as Wyn came out into the daylight.

“The rain’s easing up,” Ollie said with a sad cheerfulness.

“It would be nice to dry out a little.”

Ollie giggled and buried his chin in his jacket. “None of us are ever going to dry out. We’ll become fish and swim around the streets.”

“At least there won’t be any cars if that happens.”

Ollie tapped his nose and then pointed at Wyn.

“Is it far away?” Wyn asked.

“Nah, I wouldn’t sleep here if it wasn’t close. You know the canal, where it passes under the railway bridge? It’s just there. We’ll be early but I never have anything else to do.”

Wyn followed him across the road and through a small industrial estate. He kept ahead of her, glancing back to make sure she was still there. Wyn kept her eyes moving, searching for threats as they hurried down weed-lined pavements and across a derelict site full of tall clumps of nettles that left her trousers damp. They emerged onto a flooded canal path and her guide stopped to point across the water at a builder’s yard set under an iron bridge. People were already gathering under the cover of the span.

“That’s it,” Ollie said. “That’s where we wait for them to turn up.”

“How do we get over there?” Wyn asked. There was a bit of the green verge that ran alongside a barbed wire-topped chain-link fence, but the water came up quite a way and they would have to get their feet wet.

“There’s a footbridge on the other side of the train bridge. This is worse than it was yesterday, but we can get through.” The surface of the water was slick with oil rainbows and floating islands of rubbish that drifted lazily past. “Where’s it all coming from I want to know, and where’s it going? We’re in a big bathtub but I’ve never seen a plug, have you?”

“I’m sure someone knows where it is,” Wyn said not so sure anyone actually did. “Lead the way, Ollie. I’m getting used to having soggy feet.”

“Just as well,” Ollie said with a pleasant laugh. He clung to the chain-link fence as he splashed through the shallow water. “Rain, rain, rain. Soon we’ll all be flooded out and have to live on boats. I should have learnt to swim when I was a kid. I’ll teach my girl to swim. Can you swim?”

“I used to go to the rec centre four times a week.”

“A proper swimmer,” Ollie said impressed at the commitment. “I haven’t been since I was a nipper. What do you do, for work I mean?”

“I work in the market,” Wyn said stretching the truth rather than breaking it.

“I like markets. There was a greengrocer on one that would let me have some of his leftovers at the end of the day.”

They worked their way around the corner and reached a dry section of the path. The footbridge was only a little further along. People on the other side were watching them, a couple called out and her guide waved at them.

They reached the steps to the bridge and Ollie shook his feet as he skipped up the steps. “Told you it wasn’t far. Come on.”

Wyn studied the odd assortment of people gathered under the bridge. Some of them could have been queueing for a bus or in the line waiting for coffee, not a narcotic that was responsible for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands. Their movements helped define them as a group, each one of them waved their hands excitably and fidgeted with nervous energy.

They reminded Wyn of Tay and she wondered if this was the sort of life she led, climbing through fences and sleeping in abandoned buildings. Wyn felt her gut twist and realised that she needed to find Tay, not just to ask for her help but because she needed to know she was okay, that she was alive and not lying somewhere alone and forgotten.

Ollie skipped down the steps and jogged towards the line of people, chatting loudly to them as he neared. Wyn hung back by a side street, not wanting to press her luck. A few looked over at her and started asking Ollie direct questions, he tried his best to placate them, but Wyn could see it wasn’t going well. She’d expected them to react to her arrival this way, she was an outsider after all. Ollie left the line and ran over to her shaking his head sadly.

“I was worried they wouldn’t like you,” Ollie said glancing over his shoulder to where a few of his friends were watching them closely. His lank hair had flopped across his forehead, and he brushed it back before talking. “I like you, but they don’t know you.”

“It’s okay, Ollie, I get it,” Wyn said. “I hope you get to see your daughter later.”

“Yeah, and I hope you find yours.” Ollie watched Wyn walk away. “I could ask for you?”

“I’ve got it. Thanks again, Ollie.” She watched Ollie run back to the line and then angled away from the bridge. Once out of sight she worked her way around to the other side and found a dry spot in the lee of a building from where she could watch the entrance to the builder’s yard.

It wasn’t long before three young people arrived. A woman barely twenty and two young men, one looked harmless enough, yawning and carrying a bag but Wyn picked the other one out as the muscle. He moved as if he was carrying a weapon or at least wanted people to think he was.

The girl and the sleepy boy said hello to the waiting people and set up a makeshift clinic under the bridge out of the rain. The muscle hung back, eyeballing the line and scanning the streets. Wyn watched as they set out a couple of bottles on a low wall. The sleepy boy walked down the line counting people, waiting for two latecomers to join before going back. The girl measured out some liquid from one bottle into the other, studying the levels as she did so. She screwed the lid back on the first and handed it to her assistant who put it in the bag. Next, she took the third bottle and repeated the exercise before screwing a cap onto the mixing bottle and shaking it thoroughly. Once finished with the cocktail the girl used a dropper to feed a little bit of the liquid to each of those waiting, squirting a little onto everyone’s tongues before sending them on their way.

“This is just weird,” Wyn muttered to herself as she watched the line shuffle along until it was Ollie's turn. He stuck his tongue out and looked like he thanked her before heading back the way they had come. Wyn wished him luck again before moving to a better spot to tail the trio when they left.


Support Noons's efforts!

Please Login in order to comment!