“Which one is she?” Tay asked.
“How should I know?” Gren waved her arms in frustration at the enormous crowd. A speaker on a stage did their best to rouse the protesters but the roar from the road that passed underneath the square left the message almost unintelligible. A few waved placards but most clustered in smaller groups hiding from the ceaseless drizzle under umbrellas.
“There’s the cafe,” Tay said pointing at a line of customers emerging from a doorway. “She’s supposed to be in there isn’t she?”
The cafe was set just inside an arcade that took up the ground floor of a grey office block, the setup was mirrored on the opposite side of the square. It was a featureless canyon that amplified the car horns and wet brakes from below, creating a soundscape that set Tay’s nerves on edge.
“How are we supposed to find her in this? A woman, might be nerdy? That’s nearly every one of them,” Tay said and Gren shrugged hopelessly. “Do you think she’s out there?”
“Maybe,” Gren brushed a damp strand of hair out of her eyes. “I don’t know. We’re never going to find her, Tay.”
“It’s okay, we can do this. Woman, probably on her phone.”
“Tay! They’re all women.”
“Stay calm. We can figure this out.”
Tay weaved through the crowd, angling towards the cafe, Gren trailing behind her, staring at her phone. The atmosphere in the square was buoyant if soggy.
“Update from Jens,” Gren said. She skipped around a man struggling with an armload of placards, narrowly avoiding getting hit over the head with one. “Tay, Agata knows we’re here. Jens is trying to convince her to talk with us.”
“How does she know?” Tay asked, uneasy at the idea of someone watching them. She looked at the surrounding faces, for the most part, they were smiling people, trying to make the best of a wet day, but Tay didn’t like it. She felt exposed, the odd one out in a sea of bland normality.
“Jens told her.”
“You remember me saying this might be a trap?” Tay steered Gren to the edge of the crowd. Rain spilt from a gutter far above them, creating a waterfall that shot out into the square, and she stepped back to avoid the splatter.
Tay scratched at the side of her head. The hair was slowly growing back in, but that wasn’t why it was itching. “This is fucked.”
“We can find her, just give Jens some time to convince Agata that working with us is in her best interest,” Gren said, her focus on her phone.
It was the least threatening group of people that Tay had ever seen clustered in one spot, but something about that only increased her paranoia. Where was the anger, the raised voices, or the standoff with the riot squad? She would have been happier if she’d spotted a pickpocket working their way through the crowd, but there was nothing. No criminals, only honest faces, standing in the rain and pretending to care about something everyday people felt important. Tay strained her eyes, trying to read the signs, but all she could get was that they were teachers and mildly annoyed about money.
“We need to leave,” Tay said. “Can’t you feel how wrong this place is? It’s like the hammer is about to drop and no one here knows it.” The noise in her head was growing, and she scratched at her hair.
“Be cool, Tay,” Gren said without looking up from her phone.
Tay tilted her head to look at the opposite building, grey concrete that melded into the clouds, small square windows where government agents could watch her, hidden behind black glass. “Gren, your brother is active against the gov. His name is on a list, fuck, I’m probably on it by now. What if Agata made a deal? She gives them back the footage, but it’s not enough, right? So, she offers to sweeten the pot. They let her out and dangle her in front of us. We can’t trust this Agata not to sell us out for her own sake.”
“What list? You’re being paranoid, Tay,” Gren said.
“Am I?” Tay challenged.
“Yes.” Gren nodded emphatically. She started ticking her fingers off. “Firstly, Jens is on a list, no doubt about that. He’s too good not to be. Secondly, you aren’t. The only list you’re on is my birthday list. Thirdly, Jens says Agata’s cool, so she is. And fourthly?” Gren paused to think. “Bees.”
“Bees? Shit.” Tay rubbed at her face and then took a deep breath. “I’m losing it.”
“Probably,” Gren agreed. “Before you do that though, we should look in the cafe.”
They avoided the queue and picked a spot by the window where they could peer in. All the tables were taken, and the handful of staff were rushing about, working hard to meet the relentless demand for service.
“She’s got to be in the cafe or nearby,” Gren said putting her face up to the window and peering inside. She counted at least a dozen women that looked to be on their own, but short of walking up to each of them and asking their name, there was no way to tell. She let out a deep sigh, and the glass fogged up. “This isn’t going to work, Tay.”
“How come they’re all women?” Tay asked with her back to the window, watching the protest. “Do you not get men teaching?”
“A few. My history teacher’s a man. I think these are primary school teachers though.” Gren turned round to look at them. “Did you not have any male teachers?”
“I only had one teacher, Mrs Hall.”
“How is that possible? I’ve had loads.”
“My parents didn’t want me going to school. I did a term when I was little. Loved it.” It had been one of the best times in Tay’s life. She could still remember every detail about the classroom, from the wobbly desks to the squeak of the chalkboard, but it had all been too brief. She had cried when they wouldn’t let her walk to school the next day and then run away and hid.
“Tay?” Gren asked in a serious voice.
“Can you read?”
“You know I can read. How do you think I text?”
“I imagine you just mash the buttons,” Gren said distractedly.
“Let’s focus. Can you call her directly?”
“I’ve messaged her, but she’s not replying.”
“Can’t Jens convince her?”
“The signal keeps dropping out.” Gren crouched by the side of the cafe, twisting her body so that she was tucked out of the rain.
“What are you doing?”
Gren pulled a small laptop from her bag and balanced it on her knee. “I need to check the node. Jens should have a direct line to us, but it’s breaking up.”
Tay's phone rang, and she checked the cracked display. “Jens?”
“Tay, are you still with Gren? The link keeps breaking,” Jens said. His voice distorted and intermittent.
“She’s here.” Tay looked over and Gren gave her a thumbs up. “What about Agata?”
“She’ll meet with you. She’s in front of a betting shop.”
The line went dead. “Jens?”
Tay checked her phone. The node was no longer visible.
“It just shut down,” Gren said. She opened a log and started scrolling. “Someone tried to hack it, and it executed its self-destruct protocol.”
“Doesn’t matter. We need to find a betting shop. Come on.” Tay left Gren to pack away her laptop and stepped away from the cafe window. There were empty units along the front of the ground floor, then a charity shop, but no betting shops within sight. She approached the entrance to the arcade, but Gren pulled her arm.
“There’s a bookies on the other side of the square,” Gren said, shouldering the backpack.
“How do you know?”
“I spent so much time in them with dad that I can smell them.”
They skirted around the rear of the crowd. Tay pulled the collar up on her jacket as the wind gusted and drove the rain sideways. The road emerged from under the square, four lanes of slow-moving traffic, windscreen wipers going.
Gren pointed at a brightly painted cartoon rabbit hanging over a shop door. The rabbit was wearing shorts and a sweat band and looked like it was winning a race. “Told you.”
“Is that her?” Tay asked, pointing at a middle-aged woman in a heated conversation with an extremely tall woman with short-cropped red hair. As they reduced the angle Tay got a better look at them both and decided there was something distinctly plant-like about the older woman, but it was the taller that drew her attention. She was over two metres tall with sharp features and a physique that right then was exuding menace all the way from her thick boots to the waist-length black jacket. She looked to Tay like the sort of woman that would be comfortable wearing a balaclava. “No fucking way.”
“Tay, what’s up?”
“If it’s her we have to get the fuck out of here.”
It was the gun that settled it for Tay, one minute the pair had been having a heated conversation and then the red-haired woman drew a gun and prodded the other in the stomach with it.
“Agata!” Gren shouted. The middle-aged woman’s head snapped around, her mouth forming a silent ‘help me’. Gren dropped her bag and fumbled with the zip.
“I think that’s Agata,” Tay said, pointing helpfully.
The tall woman glanced over, frowning at the interruption but when she saw Tay she winked.
“Oh, she shouldn’t be here.” Tay found herself stuck in place, her legs like lumps of lead.
Gren came back up with the dragon pellet gun in hand and Tay watched in helpless horror as Gren stepped past her, the gun jerking as she fired off a salvo that hit the tall woman in the cheek. She pulled Agata around and into the line of fire, the last of the pellet stream hitting Agata in the forehead. Tay snatched the gun out of Gren’s hands and held it out of her reach.
“What are you doing?” Tay said. “You don’t just shoot people.”
“She’s got Agata!” Gren said.
They both looked over in time to see the tall woman bring her gun up and aim at Tay.
“Fuck!” Tay shouted and pushed Gren over, covering her with her own body. The bullet missed them but passed close enough that Tay was sure she felt the air ripple across her back.
“She’s getting away,” Gren said. Her head poking out from under Tay and watching as the tall woman hit Agata over the head with the barrel of her gun before taking the satchel and running. “You have to get the bag!”
Tay jumped to her feet, her mind frozen in panic. Gren thrust the gun into her hands and pointed after the running woman. “Go! I’ll get Agata.”
The surrounding protesters were standing back, startled by the gunshot, but heads turned to follow as Tay sprinted past them, a few pointing at the gun in her hand. She dodged around people, pushing a man out of her path in her pursuit. Her target was too tall to blend into the crowd and Tay zeroed in on her distinctive red hair as she ran into the arcade. The distance was closing but when the woman changed course to take the steps down to the lower-level Tay had to make a snap decision. Rather than taking the steps one by one she gripped the railing and vaulted over the side. Her faith in her own athleticism was unfounded though and she hit the steps hard, twisting an ankle and bouncing her way down to end in a crumpled heap at the bottom.
New pains and suspected fractures built upon the ones she had woken up with and a groan escaped Tay’s lips as she rolled onto her back.
“You’re clumsy, aren’t you?”
Tay twisted around to see the red-haired woman standing a short distance away, the satchel in one hand, and the gun in the other.
“Lucky, though. Most people would have broken something doing that.”
“It’s not my first time falling down some steps,” Tay admitted as she transitioned to her knees and stood up slowly. A slight wobble but she was up and staring down the barrel of a gun.
“I need the bag,” Tay said, her voice shaking.
“Don’t you think it’s strange, us running into each other again? I know free will exists in the sector, but the high rate of coincidences leaves me questioning how far it reaches,” the woman said with an accent foreign to the sector.
“It was you wasn’t it, in the tunnel? Why did you do it?”
“Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched? That your movements are important to others?” the woman grinned.
“Are you going to finish the job?” Tay braced herself for the killing shot. Part of her had been expecting it since yesterday, a sense of doom that had slipped into her everyday psyche with disturbing ease. It had been a mistake that had let her live, one that the universe couldn’t let continue.
“I meant it when I said that not all of you will die.”
“What does that mean?”
“You are meant for greater things, my child.”
The woman raised her gun and pointed it at Tay’s face, her finger brushing the trigger. Tay didn’t blink, refusing to look away. The woman casually lowered her gun and shot Tay in the thigh.
Tay screamed and clamped a hand over the wound as she fell over. Blood flowed through her fingers and pain coursed through her body.
“Stop being a victim, Tay,” the woman said before running away.
Blood-soaked hands fumbled for the pellet gun, as an intense urge to kill somebody consumed Tay. She fired and a single pellet arced through the air to hit the woman on the back.
“That’s the spirit!” The woman’s voice echoed around the tunnel along with her laughter.
Tay struggled to her feet. She had to get back to the square and find Gren, but pain clouded her mind, blurring the columns and dimming the light. She turned around, stumbling into walls, and leaving streaks of blood behind her. A horn blared and then she was rolling over the bonnet of a car, ending up on the windshield eye to eye with the surprised driver. A bloody hand slapped on the glass and the driver slammed on the brakes, sending Tay sliding forwards and onto the tarmac.
Not for the first time that day Tay found herself crumpled in a heap and in pain. Every part of her was in agony. A door slammed and a horn blared as a car sped past.
“Are you hurt?” a woman asked as she knelt by Tay’s head and pressed a cool hand against Tay’s cheek. “You’re really bleeding. I didn’t think I hit you that hard.”
“I’m fine,” Tay said through gritted teeth, she tried to sit up, but her body refused to cooperate.
“You’re really not,” the woman said as she stared at the wound in Tay’s thigh with some confusion. “Is that a bullet wound?”
“She shot me,” Tay said before collapsing back and hitting her head on the damp pavement. She let out a pitiful cry and then fell limp.
“Shot then ran over,” the woman said and shook her head. “Never seen that one before. Don’t go anywhere.”
“Hey, don’t leave me, I’m dying,” Tay said. The pain was overwhelming, and she had to struggle to not pass out as waves of it washed over her.
The woman reappeared with a towel and wrapped it around Tay's thigh. Tay screamed as the stranger pulled it tight. “That’s pretty worthless but should buy us a few minutes.”
“What do you mean why? So I can get you to the hospital.” The woman got her arms under Tay and dragged her towards the car.
“No hospital,” Tay said through gritted teeth.
“Trust me, you need a hospital. I can get you to one. As long as you don’t mind riding in the back of the car that ran you over?”
“No,” Tay gripped the woman’s arm, but she could already feel the strength leaving her. “I’m on a list.”
The driver climbed into the back seat first and then pulled Tay in part way.
“This is going to hurt but no other way,” the woman said before shifting around and looming over Tay. The space was tight, but the woman scooted Tay's body along while lifting her leg up.
“You’re really strong,” Tay said. She was feeling woozy, but the pain was subsiding.
“I’m a motivated gym goer.”
The woman shut the passenger door from the inside and then clambered into the driver’s seat.
“Try not to bleed too much if you can,” the woman said as she glanced over her shoulder, checking the traffic before pulling out. “This is a pool car and I’ll be in for a world of grief if I return it bloody.”
“I have to find Gren. She’ll be scared on her own.”
“You haven’t got the time to go looking. I’ll come back for your daughter once I get you to the hospital.”
“She’s not my daughter.” Tay grimaced and banged her head against the door.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked. She kept glancing in the rear-view mirror, trying to get a clear look at Tay’s face.
The car swerved as the woman twisted around and pulled Tay’s arm away from her face.
“No way,” the woman said and then straightened the car up.
“What?” Tay said, fearful that she had got in the car with a madwoman.
“Dumb fucking luck. There’s no other explanation for it.” The car picked up speed, and they weaved a path around the slower cars. “Who shot you, Tay?”
“A red-haired woman.” Tay squirmed around on the seat, trying to find a position where her body didn’t feel like it was dying.
“Stay still and keep that leg raised. Why did she shoot you, Tay?”
“Because she didn’t like me.” Tay screwed her eyes up. “She said my name.”
“Do you know her?” the woman asked. Her eyes more on her passenger than where they should have been. Cars honked as they broke the speed limit.
“I saw her in the metro.”
“You followed her from the metro? Stay awake, Tay.”
“I am. She grinned at me, the bitch.” Tay glanced up at the windows. Rivulets of rain streaked sideways. Streetlights flicked past, turned on by the gloom. “Where are you taking me?”
“To the doctor. Were you following her, is that why she shot you?”
“I guess so. Gren, I have to go back for Gren.” Tay struggled to sit up, but the pain in her leg drove her back down. Tay looked at the person driving for the first time. “Who are you?”
“You landed on my car, remember? I’m driving you to the hospital.”
“Thanks, I just don’t get why you’re asking so many questions.” Tay let her head rest against the back of the chair.
“Because you’re bleeding all over my car. I think that gives me the right. Keep talking, Tay. You can’t fall asleep. Tell me who Gren is?”
“I left her behind, she’ll be worried.”
“Is she your sister?”
“Yes, no. Her and Jens, the... Where are you taking me? I can’t go to the hospital.”
“I'm taking you to a doctor that I know. Off the books.”
“You haven’t told me your name?” Tay said.
“Wyn, Detective Wyn if you like.” Wyn looked back, expecting a retort or the insults that normally came her way when she outed herself as police, but Tay’s eyes were closed. She reached back and gripped her arm, shaking Tay awake.
“What, what?” Tay said opening her eyes and looking about in near panic. “I’m here, wherever that is.”
“We’re almost there, I just need you to hold on for a while longer.”
“This is bad, isn’t it?” Tay said. “I can’t feel anything.”
“Well, that’s good and bad.”
“Am I going to die?”
“If this idiot doesn’t get out of my way, probably,” Wyn said reaching for the siren before remembering she was in the wrong car. “God damn it.”