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Author: Mike A. Lancaster

PART 01:


It took no comfort from our nurture

It never seemed to understand

We raised our game and fed it virtue

It raised its head and bit our hand.

“It Took No Comfort”

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Ani pretended she was lost and went around the block again, just to make sure.

Second time around and the guy was still sitting there, behind the wheel of a car that really didn’t belong on this street. You’d have thought that someone conducting “covert surveillance” would choose a car that blended in on a street in the Arbury Estate area of Cambridge.

A boy-racer GTI with under-lighting, perhaps.

Or a decade-old Subaru.

But not a brand-new, high-end beamer.

That meant a cop or a drug dealer, and the car wasn’t pimped enough for it to be the latter.

Sore. Thumb. Anyone?

Suddenly the dull, pre-weekend day she had just spent at school—math, chemistry, English, and French—was forgotten.

She pulled her hoodie up around her ears, jerked the handlebars of her bike upward, hopped up onto the curb, and pedaled along the pavement away from the BMW. Then she turned out of sight on the other side of the building.

Ani rapped her knuckles on a curtained window around the corner, waited, got no reply.

The guy who lived in the flat was named Kinney, and she reckoned she knew him well enough for a favor or two, but she wasn’t sure if Kinney was his first name or last.

She took out her phone and opened a web browser—a mobile version of the one she used on all of her computers. It was an updated version of the stripped-down browser she’d designed and programmed herself.

Even before the app was open it had already hooked itself up to someone else’s wireless network and bypassed the user security key. She input the few details she knew about Kinney, pushed search, and it ran its trace using someone else’s IP.

It took nine seconds to get the information she wanted and she copied over the number to the phone and pressed dial.

Two rings later Kinney’s lazy voice squeezed “What do you want?” into two syllables: “Whadwant?”

“Hey, it’s Ani. I live upstairs. Can you open your window for me?”


“Open. Your. Window. Please.”

Kinney made a noise that was probably how a question mark must sound when uttered alone.

A few seconds later the curtains twitched, then moved apart. Kinney’s face appeared at the window, staring out at her with wide eyes. He did a half smile/half frown thing and raised the sash.

“Took your time,” Ani said, handing the bicycle up to Kinney before he had time to refuse and pushing it through the open window. “Good job it wasn’t urgent or anything.” Kinney didn’t have the time—or words—to object and he struggled with the bicycle, making a silent film comedy routine of the whole process as the front fork went left and right and Kinney kept guessing the wrong way and slamming it against the window frame.

“Do you think you could you make just a little more noise?” Ani whispered harshly. “There are people on the other side of town that haven’t heard your inept bicycle wrangling …”

Kinney finally got the bike through the window and inside his flat. Then he moved aside and let Ani climb in.

“What is it this time?” Kinney asked, wheeling the cycle through his living room and toward the front door. “What have you got yourself into now?”

Ani shrugged.

“Probably nothing,” she told him. “But the five-o out the front has his eye out for someone from this block and the law of averages says it’s either me or my dad, so …”

Kinney shook his head.

“Five-o?” he tutted. “Do people really call the police that?”

“Five-o. Feds. Cops. PoPo. Fuzz.” Ani flashed him a smile. “You want more synonyms, or will those keep you going?”

Kinney shook his head again. Seemed like a habit he’d fallen into.

“How can you live like this?” he asked her as he opened his front door and wheeled her bike out into the corridor.

Ani gave him a wide grin that she tried to pour a whole cup of crazy into, just for the effect.

“How can you not?” she asked him, smacking her chest with her hand. “My heart is pounding. Adrenaline is coursing through my veins. In this moment, and others like it, I know with a hundred percent certainty that I’m alive.”

Kinney let her take the bike.

“Try to keep it that way, huh?” he said, and closed the door before Ani could come back with a smart answer.

She shrugged and made her way to the elevator.

She traveled seven floors up in an elevator that smelled slightly worse than a public toilet, in the company of an old woman who kept looking at Ani’s bike as if it were a personal insult to her delicate sensibilities.

Ani tried nodding a greeting, but that just made the old woman’s face curdle. Ani reckoned that the old dear must have seen a lot of things going on around the flats in her time, and her default setting was now one of suspicion and distaste.

Ani thought that it was probably a natural response to a world that had stopped making sense to the woman around the time that the Beatles had first played the Cavern.

There was a mirror on the wall of the elevator that was so stained and graffitied that it was unusable from just about every angle except the one Ani had chosen.

She saw a slim, dark-haired teenager reflected back at her with the slightly Asian eyes that she’d inherited from her rather more Asian mother. Her hair was shoulder length and straight, and her eyebrows were plucked into smooth arches.

Ani wondered what it was that the woman in the elevator saw when she looked at her. Probably another unfathomable teenager of mixed race and with unconventional dress—which made her just something else for the woman to be afraid of in a world that was rapidly losing all sense.

When the elevator reached seven, Ani wheeled the bike out and tried to think of something she could say that would make the woman less fearful.

Nothing came to mind.

The doors closed behind her.

And then Ani thought of the perfect remark.

She shook her head, saved the phrase for another day, and approached her front door. Instinctually, she reached out for the door handle.

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