Friday, September 19, 2008

The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams

The Knife

“Great works require great sacrifice.”
The Book of Towers, Exegesis 13:13

Hadrian forced his eyes open. The world shimmered in front of him. Seth was an indistinct shape moving arrow-straight between leafless trees, out of the frigid park. Hadrian made a sound like a growl and got his legs working. His balance was shot. Staggering a little at first, then with more determination, he resumed his chase. Pain fuelled his anger, and anger fuelled his strength. Exhalations exploded from him in clouds. He didn’t know what he planned to do once he caught up with his brother, but that he did catch up was vitally important. The rest of his life faded into the background as this single instant loomed in significance. His hands curled into claws. The taste of blood mingled with the iciness of the city on his exposed teeth, setting them on edge. His breathing sounded like a long, sustained roar in his ears.

Buildings rose around him, growing taller and darker as though glaciers were sliding vertically from trampled soil. His determination grew. Seth was acting like he was to blame—and that was so ludicrous it almost didn’t bear challenging. But he had to challenge it, or his brother would have things his way again. Hadrian had spent his entire life in the shadow of someone who didn’t play by the rules. The time had come to stand up for himself.

Seth vanished precipitously down a flight of steps. Hadrian was about to follow when a hand grabbed his coat from behind. He jerked to a halt, startled, and rounded to push his assailant away.

“Hadrian. Jesus!” It was Ellis. He lowered his hands at the fright in her hazel eyes. “What the hell’s going on? Have you two been fighting?”

“He went down there.” All thoughts had been focussed on catching his brother, but her presence penetrated his obsession. His words were muffled, nasal. He realised for the first time how he must look to others, with blood all down his face and T-shirt, running like a madman or a murderer on some horrible mission. He felt like a monster.

“Jesus.” There was no sympathy in her stare, just alarm. She took his arm, not to comfort him but to contain him. He was shaking. His eyes felt swollen, full of hot tears. “He hit you! Did you hit him? Do you want to hit him?”

“I—” What had seemed so clear a moment ago was falling apart like gossamer. He shook his head in confusion. “I don’t know.”

“Fucking boys.” She softened slightly. “I should get you to the hotel, clean you up. He’ll come back when he’s ready.” Her stare shifted to something behind him, and her face tightened. “No, let’s keep moving. Down there.” She tugged him in the direction Hadrian had gone. “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” He was far from sure of it. “Do you think we’re being followed again?” he asked, although behind him he saw nothing out of the ordinary.

She pulled him down the stairs. His legs threatened to buckle, and he kept up as best he could. Fluorescent lights cast surreal shadows as they hurried underground. Signs in foreign languages slid by. An escalator whirred at the end of a long tiled tunnel, and they took it deeper into the earth, to a subway. There, the air was dank and thick with fumes. People converged on either side of a row of turnstiles, jostling, blank faced. Hadrian tightened his coat around himself to hide the blood on his T-shirt, but his nose was still bleeding. Some of the commuters noticed and their faces came alive for a moment with surprise.

Ellis moved him quickly through the crowd, pushing through open turnstiles against the flow to avoid buying a ticket, ignoring complaints levelled in their wake. A train waited impatiently at the platform, doors open, half-full. She shouldered her way to the first of the seven carriages and bundled Hadrian in ahead of her. He didn’t protest. There was nowhere else Seth could have gone but onto the train. Hadrian felt his brother nearby, tugging at him like a caught thread.

Ellis took him into the carriage without really watching where she was going. Her attention was outside, on the people on the platform. Hadrian scanned the passengers in the carriage and, once certain that Seth wasn’t among them, lost interest. His reflection in a window was frightening: skin washed white under fluorescent light, mouth and chin splattered with blood; stubbled scalp gleaming as though covered in oil; eyes wide and full of desperation.

Everything had gone wrong. It seemed inconceivable that, in the space of a few hours, so much could change. But it had. The world had shattered into a million pieces, and he didn’t know if he could ever put it back together again . . .

The doors hissed shut. The floor moved beneath him.

“I have to find Seth.”

“All right, all right.” Ellis looked bedraggled and weary. Her long brown hair, normally so sleek and tidy, was greasy and tangled. People were staring at them, these bloody creatures from another world. Hadrian wondered what they would do if he jumped on a seat and mooned them; for a wild moment, he was seriously tempted.

Ellis’s hand was a rope pulling him back to the real world. He clutched it and fought another flood of tears as she led him up the aisle. She was still with him. That was something. They reached the end of the first carriage and passed through sliding doors and a loud clamour of metal wheels on rails into the second. They weren’t a focus of attention here; the commuters in this section hadn’t witnessed their sudden arrival, and Hadrian had managed to clean up some of the blood with his shirt. Newspapers stayed up, eyes down. He and Ellis might not have existed.

There was no sign of Seth in the second carriage, or the third. The moment they entered the fourth, Hadrian saw him immediately. His brother was standing in a relatively clear space by the doors at the far end, steadying himself with one hand against the swaying of the train.

Hadrian pushed past Ellis to get at him. Defiance was no longer his sole objective. He just wanted to be closer, as though by reducing the physical separation he could make inroads on the mental gulf between them.

Seth looked up with red eyes and visibly winced. He turned away and opened the doors to the fifth carriage. Hadrian lunged after him, stopping the door sliding shut with one hand and grabbing at his brother’s coat with the other. Seth tried to shrug him off, but Hadrian scrambled with him into the next swaying carriage.

“I told you to fuck off, Hade.”

“You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“Why are you doing this to me? What do you want?”

“I want—” Ellie. His throat closed on the word.

She was between them, forcing them apart. “Will you two calm down? You’re acting like a couple of kids.”

“I’m sorry,” said Hadrian, looking at her then down at his feet, genuinely appalled at the way things were turning out. “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.”

“No?” Seth’s sarcasm was harsh. “This is the way it always goes. If we’re acting like kids it’s because you’re dragging us down to your level.”

“Me? Are you serious?” Hadrian faced Seth’s accusing stare. He could feel his cheeks reddening. “You’re the one who gets us into this shit. You never think. You just stumble from one disaster to the next.”

“I wouldn’t call El a disaster,” said Seth.

“She will be, the way you’re handling it.”

“And you could do better, I suppose?”

“If you’d given me the chance!”

“I’m right here, you know. Jesus!” Ellis pushed them back into the gap between the cars. Seth’s hate-filled stare didn’t leave Hadrian’s as the clanking, roaring sound enclosed them.

“At least I get something done.” Seth had to shout to be heard. “If I hadn’t let you tag along, you’d still be sitting at home on your arse, jerking off over some deep and meaningful crap.”

“You let me tag along?” Hadrian pushed aside the finger stabbing at his chest. Although he and his brother were the same height, he felt as though Seth was bearing down on him, trying to intimidate him into submission. “I’m always cleaning up after you, picking up your pieces. You wouldn’t have lasted a week out here without me.”

“And you’re handling things so beautifully, Hadrian. When I saw you with her—”

“What? You stopped to ask yourself what she was doing with me, if what you have is so bloody good?”

“Fuck you, brother.” Seth shoved him. “She’s only with us at all because of me.”

“Don’t ‘brother’ me.” Hadrian shoved back, ignoring Ellis’s attempts to keep them separated. “There’s nothing you can give her that I can’t!”

“She saw me first!”

“Right!” Ellis backed out of the way, and the two brothers came together, startled. She raised her hands, absolving herself. “That’s it. I’ve had enough. You can beat each other senseless and spend the rest of your holidays in hospital for all I care.”

She turned away and crossed back into the carriage they had left. Hadrian gaped after her, startled out of his anger. He felt Seth against him, an exact mirror image of surprise and hurt.

“Ellie, wait!”

“Come back!”

Both of them went to follow her at the same time.


The voice came from behind them, over the roaring of the train. Hadrian turned and grabbed his brother’s arm. Standing with them in the gap between the carriages was the elderly Swede Seth had confronted in Prague: the same pale skin, and hair so translucent it almost wasn’t there; the same air of formality, as though on his way to the opera. His white gloves looked totally out of place in the noisy, smelly darkness.

“Who are you?” asked Hadrian, his sense of unreality deepening. “What are you doing here?”

“Tiden har kommit, Seth och Hadrian Castillo.”

“Stay out of this,” said Seth. The use of their names made Hadrian’s flesh creep. How did he know them? How long had he been following them? “It’s none of your business.”

The Swede’s grey eyes regarded them coolly. “Tiden har kommitt.”

“You can say that as often as you like but I’m still not going to understand it.”

“Your time,” said the man in heavily accented English, “has come.”

The door behind them opened, and Ellis burst back out of the carriage.

“Oh, my god,” she said, seeing the man confronting them.

“Håll dem.” Three people had crowded after Ellis into the swaying space between the carriages. One grabbed Hadrian’s arms from behind him and wrenched them so he couldn’t move. When he tried to break free, it felt as though his shoulders were being torn apart. Seth cried out in pain as he was similarly restrained. Ellis kicked back and managed to slip away. With a cry, she pushed past the Swede and into the next carriage.

“Stopp henne! Genast!” The Swede’s voice cut through the train’s thundering with a commanding edge. Ellis’s assailant, a severe-looking woman in a crisp grey business outfit, went in immediate pursuit.

“What is this?” gasped Seth, bent almost double by the man who held him—well dressed, expressionless. “Who are you people?”

The Swede ignored him. He gestured, and Seth was forced to his knees. The person holding Hadrian grunted and Hadrian was driven down, too.

“We haven’t done anything wrong!” Hadrian gasped.

“Nej.” The Swede shook his head and slid a knife from beneath his coat. The twenty-centimetre blade was lethally straight, glistening in the dim light. The train jerked on its tracks, and the man steadied himself against Hadrian’s captor with his empty hand.

Hadrian was unable to wrench his eyes away from the tip of the blade, bobbing just centimetres from his chin. It was mesmerisingly sharp.

“Sluta det nu,” said the Swede. A look that might have been regret passed across his marble features. “Sluta det nu.”

“Don’t,” breathed Seth, then, louder: “Don’t you touch him!”

The blade swung aside. Hadrian caught a glimpse of the Swede’s thumb and hand as it went, gripping the black pommel tight. He wasn’t wearing gloves. He had no fingernails.

“Du, då,” the Swede told Seth.

The blade pulled back.

“Det gšr ingen skillnad till Yod!”

On the final syllable, the Swede buried the dagger in Seth’s chest, right up to the pommel. Seth’s eyes widened. A noise came from his throat that didn’t sound human. His back arched.

Hadrian howled wordlessly, filled with primal horror. The old man pulled the knife out of his brother’s chest and a torrent of blood poured from the wound, splashing all of them. Hadrian had never seen so much blood before. His whole vision seemed to turn red. He twisted with desperate strength in the grasp of his captor and almost pulled free. One arm flailed at the Swede, who batted it away as one would a child. Hands grappled with him, reeled him in, contained him. He kicked, stamped, writhed, lunged, to no avail.

Beside him, Seth sagged and fell limply into the spreading pool of his own blood. One hand landed palm down and clutched at the floor, as though trying to hang on.

“No, no, no.” Ellis sobbed in horror from the doorway of the fourth carriage, where she was firmly held by her pursuer. Her face twisted into a mask of anguish. “Seth, no!”

The Swede, slick with gore, turned to Hadrian. Hadrian twisted to one side, then the other. A hand went around his throat, pulling him back, exposing his belly. Ellis screamed. He tried to call her name, but his windpipe was closed tight. He couldn’t make a sound, couldn’t breathe. The moment crystallised around him. The train was rocking on its bogies. He could feel Seth dying on the floor beside him, life’s blood ebbing through the cracks. There was a window leading into the car behind them. Light shone through from another world. He imagined the other passengers just metres away, their heads down, consumed by whatever mundane thoughts sustained them on their journey home.

There would be no going home for Seth and Hadrian. The Swede nodded and turned away, a look of satisfaction on his face. Something tore in Hadrian, as though his life had been ripped in two. Had he been stabbed too? He wondered if he was dying at that very moment, blissfully unaware of his life’s essence gouting from his suddenly numb body.


The last thing he saw, as darkness fell, was Ellis being dragged away from him and his twin brother, and the doors of the carriage closing between them.



The Twins

“The world as we see it is not the world in its entirety.

If we cover our eyes with our hand, the world does not disappear. Similarly, the world does not end at the horizon, at the boundaries of our country, at the outer fringes of family and acquaintances, at death.

It continues where we do not.”

The Book of Towers, Fragment 97

Hadrian woke with a moan from the nightmare, flailing at the sheets. They felt like choking hands around his throat.

It took him a moment to clear the images from his mind and for reality to assert itself. His surroundings first. He was lying in a bed that wasn’t his, a high, sturdy affair with metal bars surrounded by a white curtain suspended from the ceiling on rails. The air smelled faintly of disinfectant.

A hospital, he thought. I’m in a hospital. Why?

Memories came next. He had been on holiday in Europe, visiting as many cities as he and Seth could fit into three months. Winter had been spreading across the land, bringing darkness and cold as he had never experienced before. The northern latitudes were as far from his antipodean world as the surface of the moon.

They had missed the film festival in Sweden, but there had been compensations. The royal palace, Riddarholmskyrkan, Gršnalund, and a suite they’d saved up for, instead of the usual cheap digs. A fellow traveller called Ellis . . .

Emotions were the last to arrive, and they came in a flood. Surprise and anger accompanied his recollections of the confrontation with Seth, then fear as he had chased his brother through the streets of Stockholm. He had despaired while looking for Seth in the subway, then experienced genuine terror for the first time in his life as the Swede had confronted them with the knife.

And now grief, confusion, pain, futility . . .

He curled up and wept. For a long while, he was incapable of anything else. It wasn’t a dream. His brother had been murdered, or at least grievously injured, and now he was in hospital. Maybe all three of them were.

He checked himself between sobs, looking for injuries. His throat was tender to the touch, and his vocal cords burned. There was a sharp, stinging pain in his wrist, but that faded the more awake he became.

“Crazy weather.”

Hadrian froze at the voice from beyond the curtain, although it wasn’t clear whether the man had spoken to him or someone else. He didn’t want anyone to hear him blubbering.

“I haven’t seen a storm that bad since I was a kid,” responded a second voice, older than the first. “That’s what I’d normally say, but I’ve really never seen anything like this.”

“Did you catch the forecast?” The first speaker had an American accent that jarred against the second’s liquid Scandinavian.

“Television’s out. Radio, too. Power’s been off most of today. The paramedics were talking about more cuts.”

“Lucky the hospital has its own generator.”

“It went off earlier,” said a third male voice. “You were asleep.”

“Really? Well, hell. Glad I missed that.”

“Personally, I blame global warming.”

Footsteps sounded across the room.

“Any word on lunch?” asked one of the patients.

“It’ll be late, boys, like breakfast,” came a new male voice, high pitched with a faintly British accent. “Don’t worry. We’re all suffering.”

A shadow reached up to part the curtain. Hadrian wiped his eyes as the person casting it stepped into sight.

“You’re awake.” The statement came from a slight, finely featured man dressed in a light blue theatre uniform. His tan hair was parted neatly to one side. “We’ve been wondering when you’d come to.”

“I’m sorry.” Hadrian apologised for no good reason. “How long have I been asleep?”

“It’s hard to tell. You’ve been unconscious ever since you arrived here.”

Hadrian looked at his watch. Its LCD face was blank. He was naked under the sheet apart from a pair of boxer shorts. There was no sign of his bloodstained clothes on the bed or on the chair beside it. The bedside cupboard was shut.

“Where am I? Which hospital?” The orderly’s nametag said bechard. He hadn’t moved except to step inside the curtain and let it fall behind him.

“Don’t worry. You’re in good hands.”

“Am I hurt?”

“You haven’t been harmed at all. That’s good, isn’t it?”

Another shadow appeared behind the orderly, darker and larger. A throat cleared.

“There’s someone here to talk to you.” The orderly smiled, revealing white, perfectly even teeth.


“My name is Detective Volker Lascowicz.”

Hadrian was struck by the man’s physicality as soon as he stepped into the space around his bed. He was heavyset and bald, and imposingly tall. His eyes were deep set and took Hadrian in with a single sweep. He wore a bone-coloured overcoat and no tie. Grey hair curled under his throat over the open collar of a white shirt.

The orderly nodded deferentially and left them alone.

“I can appreciate that this is a difficult time for you, Hadrian,” said the detective, “but there are some questions I need to ask. Do you mind?”

A wave of indecision swept through him. He was so far out of his depth that he didn’t know what to do. His brother had been murdered before his eyes. He was in hospital. A policeman wanted to interview him.

“I want to know what’s going on,” he said, fighting a second wave of tears. “I want to call my parents.” He stopped, unable to go on. I want to go home! I want everything to go back the way it used to be! The primal naivety of his emotions was dismaying.

“I am sorry,” said the detective. “The phones are out, including mobiles. I need to talk to you about what happened. Tell me what you know, and there might yet be time to act.”

“There must have been witnesses. The train was full. Ellie . . .” He swallowed. “How did I get here? Did someone call you?”

The detective tilted his head. “You were found in a cul-de-sac and brought here for treatment. Do you recall this?”

“What about Seth? Was he there?”

“Tell me what you remember, Hadrian. Then I will tell you what I know about Seth, and we will see what we can do about it.”

Swiss? Belgian? Hadrian couldn’t place the man’s accent. It was slight, but discernible: a faint hint of something Germanic. Whatever it was, it was definitely not Swedish.

Hadrian was distracting himself. He couldn’t help it. He didn’t want to remember what had happened. He was doing his best to forget whole slabs of it.

“There’s an awful lot I don’t understand,” he said.

The detective nodded again. “That makes two of us. Together, perhaps, we can work it out.”

Hadrian resigned himself to the inevitable. “All right. But is it possible to do it out of here?” The murmur of voices beyond the curtain had fallen echoingly silent. “There must be somewhere else we can talk.”

The detective shook his head. “Again, I am sorry. The hospital is very full. There have been many accidents overnight. We can keep our voices down.”

Hadrian nodded, and quashed a question about what was going on beyond the walls around him.

All his life, Hadrian had struggled to deal with a concept that other people seemed to accept quite happily. He and his brother were identical, but at the same time they weren’t. They were reflected, opposite. Although it sounded simple, it wasn’t. How could the opposite be the same as identical? It was in fact very confusing. They had both become so deeply tired of trying to explain their difference to ignorant strangers that sometimes they denied that they were identical at all.

As with many twins, they had gone through phases in which other people had seemed less important than the made-up worlds they shared or the secret languages they invented, but they had eventually grown bored with that, and worse. Hadrian suffered frequent migraines as a teenager, and was treated for depression at fifteen. Seth always said that it was because Hadrian thought too much, that he should just accept his role as the smaller, frailer twin without fighting it.

There was more to it than that. Although they could barely conceive of life apart, there was only so much one could do with one’s reflection—hence, the holiday.

Within a month they had met hundreds of new people and had seen sights to rival their childhood dreams. Yet even in such strange surroundings, there was no escaping who they were. They had the same blue eyes and olive skin; the same slender build and average height; the same dark hair, which they both kept very short; the same long fingers. Wherever they went, the Castillo brothers were asked less about their origins than about their relationship. Some people thought twins were lucky and actively sought their company; others avoided them or made strange signs with their hands to avoid bad fortune.

They had only met one other set of twins in their journey, and that had been an unsettling encounter. The four of them had sat in a dive in Turkey for half an hour, awkwardly trying to kick-start a conversation, before giving up and going their separate ways.

Those twins weren’t mirrors, Hadrian remembered. They were just identical and couldn’t understand what it was like. There had been no point of commonality. In all their lives, Hadrian and Seth had never met another set of true mirror twins. Probably, he had come to think, they never would.

“Perverts? I would never have guessed.”

“Not perverts, El Capitan. Inverts. From situs invertus. That’s what we are.”

“My little introverts,” Ellis said, her voice echoing out of her pint glass as she drained its contents. It hadn’t taken them long to get drunk. Three of a dozen young people in a backpacker bar, they had come looking to make new friends and relax, or at least explore a common language. There was a sweaty, flushed look to all of them that spoke of too much exercise, not enough sleep, and infrequent access to showers. Hadrian had surreptitiously checked his underarms when their new friend joined them.

Ellis Quick was slight and perhaps twenty years of age, a little older than Hadrian and his brother and only a little shorter. Light brown hair hung in a tidy ponytail between her shoulder blades. Her eyes were hazel and she wasn’t wearing any make up; her nose was bent slightly, as though it had once been broken. She smoked but never bought her own cigarettes.

It was impossible to tell who she had noticed at first: Hadrian or Seth. But something about one of them must have caught her eye and prompted her to come over. Being fellow Australians, it was only natural that they should get on, or try to.

“You’re not paying attention,” Seth complained. “You broke your promise, and now I’m trying to explain. It’s very important.”

“Sorry. Where did you get up to?”

“Mirror twins are two people who share the same genetic code.”

“Like identical twins?”

“Like identical twins, but with one very important difference. Identical twins are identical. Mirror twins are reversed. We’re back to front. Reflections. My hair parts on the right; Hadrian’s on the left.”

“How do you tell?” she asked, glancing at Seth’s scalp then Hadrian’s. Their hair was jet black; both of them preferred to keep their heads shaved.

“We just can.” Hadrian remembered long nights as a child spent checking for details that had been reversed: this crooked toenail, this eye slightly lower than the other, that weak knee. There was no doubt about it. They were like the butterfly paintings they’d made in kindergarten by blobbing paint on one side of a piece of paper then folding it over to create a reversed image on the other side. It had been disconcerting to realise that, were this analogy true, he constituted half a painting, not a whole.

“How deep does it go?”

“All the way,” Seth said, his tone boastful. “Hadrian’s heart is on the wrong side of his chest. His stomach and liver are reversed, too. That’s what it means to be situs invertus. He’s a reflection of me right down to the bone.”

“We’re reflections of each other,” Hadrian corrected.

“Even your brains?”

“Not our brains. That’s impossible.”

“Have they checked?”

“No.” Seth looked irritated for a second, although it was a question that had often fascinated Hadrian. “It just couldn’t happen.”

Hadrian leaned in close to her, relishing Ellis’s rich, spicy smell. He still couldn’t quite believe that they were all getting along so well. He supposed he had her natural confidence to thank for that.

“Go on,” Ellis Quick had said on coming up to them and introducing herself. “Get them out of your system. Quick and the dead. Quick off the mark. Quick tempered.”

“Never occurred to me,” said Seth, the oldest and always the fastest to react to social situations. “Honest.”

“I think you’re lying, but thanks all the same. I guess you can sympathise. You must get people trying to be funny all the time. You’re twins, obviously.”

“That’s right.” Hadrian found his voice, then took a sip of his beer to cover the slight waver he heard in it.

“Identical twins, even,” she persisted. “People must always be telling you that you look the same, as if you didn’t already know it. Well, I won’t ask you any questions about being twins if you don’t give me any grief about my name. Deal?”

She held out her hand and Hadrian shook it. Her fingertips were damp from the glass she’d been holding, but her skin was warm.

“Deal,” said Seth, and she gripped Seth’s hand in turn.

She had forgotten her end of the bargain within the hour.

“Which of you is the original,” she asked next, slurring only slightly, “and which the reflection?”

“Hadrian is the invert,” Seth said. “His heart is on the right side.”

“If it’s on the right side, how can he be the invert?”

“Not the right side: the right side of his body.” Seth patted his left breast. “Want to check? Take a listen.”

“I don’t need to press up against your manly chest to prove anything.” She laughed happily. “With lines like that, boys, it’s lucky you’ve got plenty of beer money.”

Hadrian could have kicked his brother. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He didn’t mean to—”

“I know what he meant.” Ellis’s good humour was direct and frank. “It’s okay, really. I’ve heard a lot worse in the last few weeks.”

“I’ll bet you have,” said Seth.

“Do you do this often?” she asked. “Chat up strange girls in bars together?”

“Never,” said Hadrian, although they had fantasised about it in the past—of sharing one woman while she, in effect, experienced the same man reflected. It was an engaging dream, if an unlikely reality.

Her gaze danced between them. “Do you swap girlfriends, then? If you’re exactly the same, you could trade places without them knowing.”

“We’re not exactly the same,” said Seth, unable to hide another flash of irritation. “We’re reversed, remember?”

“I remember. I didn’t say I couldn’t tell you apart.” She raised her glass in salute. “I’m very observant. Not much gets by me. Try anything, and you’ll be in trouble.”

“We’ll be on our best behaviour,” Seth assured her. “Honest.”

“I didn’t say that either.” Her eyes twinkled. “Let’s not go dismissing too many options here . . .”

“Where was it you met Ms. Quick?” asked Lascowicz. “Vienna, did you say?”

“That’s right.” Hadrian was sitting cross-legged on the bed, staring at the crumpled sheets while he recounted better times. The big detective was taking notes with erratic pen strokes, scratching softly when Hadrian faltered. His throat was still sore, and he sipped frequently from a glass of water as he talked. “We travelled together for a while.”

“Why? Were you lovers?”

“Not at first.” The memory was exceedingly tender to the touch.

“Was she using you?”

He looked up at that. Lascowicz was watching him.

“What do you mean?”

“Did you give her money, pay for her accommodation, buy her food?”

“No. She was never short of cash. We divided everything equally.”

“You said that you and your brother argued. Was it over her?”

Hadrian’s eyes fell.

“Not so equally, then,” the detective commented. There was sympathy in his eyes. “Please, I am not easily shocked. You must be honest with me if I am to understand the situation.”

“There’s nothing to understand. It has nothing to do with Ellie.”

“She was the one who first noticed that you were being followed. And she was there when you were attacked.”

“But she wasn’t part of it.” He rallied to Ellis’s defence not just because he felt he ought to but because he knew she was innocent. He had seen the look of horror on her face when Seth had been stabbed. He had experienced her nervousness in Sweden, and earlier. “It wasn’t a setup. The Swede wasn’t her accomplice, and we weren’t being mugged.”

“How do you know that? Have you accounted for your personal effects?”

“I—no.” Frustration and hurt turned all too easily to anger, as they had in Stockholm. “Listen,” he said, with furious deliberation, “I’m tired of this. I want a working phone. I want to know what happened to Seth. I want you to tell me where Ellie is. If you don’t start giving me answers, I’m getting up and leaving right now!”

The detective eyed him coolly. “Your brother,” he said, “is dead.”

Hadrian froze in the act of getting out of bed. He had seen his brother stabbed. He had woken up in unusual circumstances and known that something terrible had happened, but the words stated so bluntly, finally, still came as a shock.

He sat back down, feeling as though he weighed more than a dozen men.

“His body was discovered next to yours. The attending officer thought you were both dead, at first, but she found your pulse and called for an ambulance.”

Lascowicz’s formal, accented voice was no comfort. The words fell on Hadrian like tombstones. All his life he had been a reflection of his older brother, the person who, more than any other, had justified his existence. Now that person was gone. What was he now, with no one to define him?

Seth was dead.

He was alone.

Lascowicz was saying something, but Hadrian’s thoughts had seized up. He felt as though he had been given an anaesthetic. His body ballooned out while the world fell in around him. The centre of him shrank down to a point, vibrating with such intense energy that it might explode at any moment . . .

He felt a distant hum rise through him, as though he was standing under a power transformer. Blackness rose with it, deep and impenetrable.

“I said, are you well? Shall I leave you?”

The detective’s voice seemed to come from the edge of the universe. Hadrian blinked, and suddenly everything was the way it should be. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping the mattress as though in danger of falling.

“No,” he said, turning to face Lascowicz. The detective had put down his pen. Hadrian noticed for the first time that he had a tattoo on the back of his hand, a jagged zigzag that followed his knuckles in deep blue.

“I don’t want you to go,” Hadrian went on. “I want to know who did this. I want to know what you’re going to do about it. I want you to tell me that the man who killed my brother will pay.”

He couldn’t help the tears that trickled down his cheeks. Frustration, shame, and loss filled him, made him burn inside. He was useless, impotent. It should have been Seth sitting there. Seth was the strong one, not Hadrian.

“Describe him to me,” said Lascowicz, “this man you call the Swede. What exactly does he look like?”

They first saw the Swede in Prague, another ruinous, wonderful metropolis and the tenth stop on their tour of European cities. Hadrian felt as though he was drowning in a never-ending rush of sights, from church spires spearing the clouds to turbulent lakes surrounded by mountains. Slender masts swayed and danced on storm-swept harbours. Sinuous trains pierced the walls of deep valleys. Everywhere were ancient buildings, many of them crumbling and jumbled in a way he had never seen before. The citizen of a relatively new land, he felt out of place amid such antiquity. He was an interloper, gawping at the remains of a long-gone world that was uncomfortably sandwiched between glass skyscrapers and mobile phone towers like an old man at his one hundredth birthday party, relentless novelty pressing in on all sides the only thing keeping him up.

Seth, Hadrian, and Ellis shared a tour, taking the tentative step from drinking together to friendship with all due caution. It went well enough. Hadrian enjoyed Ellis’s company; she was an amusing travelling companion, intelligent and quick thinking—deserving of her name. A student of politics in Melbourne, she had a sharp, cynical view of the world that contrasted with many of the other backpackers they had encountered.

“What were you two studying at uni?” she asked, leaning against a bus window so the sunlight gave her hair a hard, almost metallic sheen. “I presume you took the same subjects.”

“Law and Arts,” Hadrian replied.

She pulled a face. “Two of the most dreary courses in history.”

“I wouldn’t argue with that.” Hadrian knew he’d coasted through on the back of Seth’s effort. He was interested in the sciences, but there had been no way to fit them in.

“What did you major in, Arts-wise? There’s a chance to redeem yourself here, Hadrian. Don’t screw it up.”

“Medieval English.”

“Jesus.” Her head went back in mock horror and she laughed uproariously. An elderly tourist in the seat in front glanced back at them reprovingly.

“Well, it had its moments.” He cast his mind back to a tutorial on translating fifteenth-century song lyrics.

“My sovereign lady, comfort and care,

Always in my heart, most on my mind,

The source of all my wealth and welfare,

Gentle true-love, special and kind.”

“I rest my case.” Her lips couldn’t hide a revealing twitch. “Although I don’t mind the thought at all of being someone’s sovereign.”

Her eyes smiled, too, and Hadrian felt a rush of warmth. He had never recited poetry to a woman before, even as a joke.

“I bet you don’t,” said a voice from beside him.

“I say of women: for all their good looks,

Trust them too much and you’ll regret it.

They bat their eyes but at heart they’re crooks.

They promise to be true and soon forget it.”

“Hey!” Ellis reached past Hadrian to slap Seth on the forehead. “There’s only room for one poet laureate at a time. You’ll have to wait your turn.”

“Ask Hade who helped him with the translation.”

“I don’t care. We are most displeased with your behaviour. Off with his head!”

A play fight erupted that made the tourist in front testily ask them to be quiet. Hadrian’s stifled laugh felt pure and uncompromised. He couldn’t remember the last time he and his brother had felt so comfortable with each other; not since they were kids, perhaps. And when the bus had arrived at its destination, they had been less tourists of scenery than tourists of each other. Hadrian saw only a few of the sights they were supposed to visit that day; Ellis’s digital camera filled up with pictures of the three of them, not what they were supposed to be admiring. On the drive back to the hostel, they had slept on each others’ shoulders, a sprawling, multilimbed mass twitching in its sleep like a puppy.

When the time had come to hop cities, seeking new sights, they’d agreed to hop together. It seemed like a good idea. While the fun lasted, what reason was there to stop? They discussed the pros and cons with all the maturity of children playing at tea parties, deadly earnest but all the while aware that it was a game.

If the three of them shared accommodations, they could afford better digs. Some of the hostels they had stayed in had been okay, but most had been decidedly unappealing. The communal kitchens were the worst: cursory cleaning, with maybe a single cheap saucepan and a hard crust of salt in a shaker that someone had left behind. They all smelled the same, no matter which country they were in. A single species of mould had conquered the world.

So they pooled resources and ended up in Prague, where they ate take-out on a wintry street corner, cheeks pinched red from the cold. United by a common lack of interest in religion, they felt hemmed in by monasteries, cathedrals, crucifixes. Hand in hand in hand, the three of them took a brisk stroll through the gloomy streets of the city, crossing bridges and admiring empty office buildings, and wishing the trees weren’t bare. The night’s sounds lacked something without leaves to give the wind texture. Cold lights glared down on them, keeping the stars at bay.

“I think we’re being followed,” Ellis whispered.

The comment was so far removed from Hadrian’s mood that at first it didn’t register.

“I’m serious,” she said, squeezing her mittened hands around theirs when both of them ignored her. “Behind us—don’t look now, Seth, you idiot—there’s a guy with a black coat and furry hat. We passed him on the other side of the river. Now he’s following us.”

Hadrian risked a furtive glance. Sure enough, a man matching her brief description was keeping pace with them.

“So?” Seth asked. “There are probably hundreds of men like that around here.”

“I’ve got a good memory for faces,” she insisted. “It’s the same one. I saw him yesterday, too, in Hradãany.”

“Now I know you’re crazy, El Nino.” Seth pulled the collar of his windbreaker tight around his throat. “That or just trying to freak us out.”

Hadrian was willing to be intrigued. He was in Europe, after all, the land of spy novels. It was easy to be caught up in the mystique of it all.

“Three against one,” he said. “Not good odds for a robbery. We’ve done nothing wrong, so he can’t be a policeman. I think he’s mistaken us for someone else. This could be disastrous.”

“He does have a sinister air,” Ellis agreed. “Maybe he thinks we have something he wants.”

“Or we know too much.”

“We’ll wake up with our throats slit for sure.”

They giggled with delicious dread.

“You’re both crazy,” said Seth.

“Ah, yes,” said Ellis, “there’s always a sceptic. If you keep this up, it’ll be your job to avenge our wrongful deaths.”

“The more certain you are that it’s a joke,” Hadrian added, “the more horrible it’ll be when the truth is revealed.”

With a mock-exasperated snort, Seth pulled away and strode back towards the dark-clad stranger. Hadrian’s good mood turned instantly to alarm.

“Are you following us?” Seth demanded of the man. “Are you going to murder us in our sleep?”

Seth wasn’t intending anything by it. Hadrian knew that. He was just taking the joke to an extreme, turning it back on them to expose the ridiculousness of their game, but involving a complete stranger was pushing it too far.

Hadrian let go of Ellis and followed his brother, hoping to forestall a scene. “Seth, don’t.”

“Are you?” Seth asked the stranger, ignoring Hadrian. Seth and the stranger had come to a halt, standing face to face on the cobbled roadside. The stranger’s expression was not one of surprise but intense curiosity. He was long-featured and older than he had looked at a distance. His hair, poking out around the brim of his hat, was pure white; eyes as grey as the stones beneath their feet stared back at Seth, then at Hadrian. His skin stretched smooth and waxy over broad, angular bones.

“Tiden Šr inte inne Šnnu.”

The man’s voice was high pitched and hoarse, perhaps from the cold. The words didn’t sound like “What the hell are you going on about, foreign lout?” which is what Hadrian thought his brother deserved. They were patiently and pleasantly delivered, as though saying, “I’m very well, thank you. And you?”

“Well, that’s good.” Seth’s bluster deflated in the face of the man’s even-tempered response. “Just make sure we don’t catch you at it again.”

“Den kommer.”

The man touched his hat, bowed slightly, and walked around Seth and Hadrian to continue on his way. “Goodnight!” Hadrian called after him, assuming that he had been wished the same in the local tongue. As the old man passed Ellis, he dipped his head again, a courteous gentleman out for an evening stroll.

“You idiot,” Hadrian hissed to Seth.

“What? Me?” His brother rounded on him, a wounded expression on his face. “You two morons started it.”

“Whatever.” Ellis rolled her eyes and shivered. “Maybe we should get back. It’s late to be out walking.”

“Not too late for him,” said Seth, jerking his head at the old man’s receding back.

“He’s dressed for it, obviously,” said Ellis, taking both their arms and tugging them down the street, back the way they’d come. “Hat, coat, and gloves. A good idea in weather like this.”

“He wasn’t wearing gloves.”

“He was,” she insisted. “White ones. It struck me as old fashioned.”

“How could you know that? We didn’t see his hands. They were in his pockets.”

“He touched his hat, remember? You must have seen them. You were practically standing on top of him.”

“I didn’t notice,” said Hadrian, quite truthfully.

They walked briskly back to the hostel, the chill air thickening around them. The night was otherwise uneventful, except for one tiny incident.

As they passed through the hostel’s common room and headed up to their room, Hadrian tested his local knowledge on the man at reception.

“Den kommer,” he said.

A puzzled reply of “What’s coming?” followed them up the stairs.

“If you’ve found Ellie,” Hadrian said to the detective, “you should look at her camera. There’s a photo of one of the Swede’s goons in the memory stick. She caught him following us, later. We didn’t believe her at the time. The picture’s blurry, but it might help you track them down.”

Lascowicz made a note on his pad. His face didn’t give anything away. “How did you know he was Swedish?”

“It was Ellie who worked it out. In Copenhagen.”

(“He was a Swede,” she announced.

“Who was?” Hadrian listened, lying half-asleep on his back while she and his brother finished off a chilly picnic lunch.

“The old guy in Prague. The one with the gloves.”

“So what?” Seth didn’t bother hiding his boredom with the subject.

“How did you find out?” asked Hadrian, stirring.

“I heard someone speaking like he did, and I asked them where they were from. They said Sweden.” She shrugged. “I know it might mean nothing, but it’s still interesting.”

“Why?” asked Seth.

“Well, what was a Swede doing following three innocent tourists in Prague?”

“You’re the detective, Elderberry. You tell us.”

She threw a crust of bread at him. “In your dreams, Castillo. Until you show some interest, my lips are sealed.”

“Makes a change,” Seth said with a grin.)

Lascowicz nodded. “Did she see him again?”

“If she did, she didn’t tell us.”

“Would you recognise him again, if you saw him?”

“Oh, yes.” The pale, waxy features rarely left his thoughts for long; neither did those nailless fingers. “Do you know who he is?”

“He matches the description of someone called Locyta. He’s caused trouble before.”

Trouble, echoed Hadrian sourly to himself. Was murder just trouble to the detective? A minor inconvenience?

“I assume you’re looking for him, then, this Low-kiter guy.”

“We will be, now we have heard your version of events.”

“My version—?” A cold, hard thought stopped him dead. “You do believe me, don’t you?”

“At this point in my investigation, Hadrian, I have not made up my mind. It seems unlikely to me that you would stab your brother, dispose of the murder weapon, then knock yourself out. And you are clearly injured yourself.” The detective indicated Hadrian’s throat and nose. “I have seen much in my work, and I cannot rule anything out. I will pursue every possible course to determine the truth and to bring those responsible to justice. Of that I assure you.”

Lascowicz got up from his chair and slapped the notebook at his side.

“I must go now,” he said. “I or one of my staff will be back soon.”

Hadrian felt bruised, mentally as well as physically. “Do I have to stay here?”

“For the moment, yes. You’re perfectly safe.”

“Are you telling me that because I have something to be afraid of?”

The detective almost smiled. “No, Hadrian. Rest, for now. Inga nyheter Šr goda nyheter, as they say here.”

“And that means?”

“No news is good news.”

They shook hands. The jagged tattoo grinned at him like the teeth of a shark.

You’re perfectly safe.

Somehow, as the detective took his leave, Hadrian didn’t believe it was all going to be so simple.

The Bone

“A wild creature is defined by its nature.

Make something wild, and who’s to say

it will want to be changed back?”

The Book of Towers, Exegesis 4:7

The telephones remained dead all day. Hadrian got up twice to try a pay phone in the hallway, dressed in a flimsy hospital gown that wouldn’t close. The nurses were polite but reserved. The sight of a uniformed policeman at the far end of the hall made him feel both nervous and reassured at the same time. The orderly called Bechard kept the curtains around his bed closed, and he wasn’t unhappy with that. There were five other men in the ward, and they all seemed much older than him. One had a broken leg and complained constantly of pain. Two of them spoke Swedish only. After Lascowicz left, Hadrian went to the toilet and they looked at him warily.

Hadrian drifted through it all in a haze, wishing he could sleep and bury the grief under empty hours. He felt purposeless and lost, and very alone. Yet being alone gave him a strange sense of safety, as though social isolation could protect him from a very physical attacker. If Locyta came looking for him in the hospital, he doubted that simply turning his back on him would afford any real protection.

Lascowicz hadn’t let on whether they knew where Ellis was or not, and Bechard claimed not to know either. Hadrian listened for her voice in the hard-edged ambience of the hospital, but heard nothing. He sometimes felt Seth just on the edge of his consciousness, as he had all his life, but that had to be an illusion. Seth was dead, which made Hadrian like an amputee flexing a ghost limb—except the limb happened to be his entire brother, not just a piece of him.

As the sun moved across the sky outside, the light faded to grey. When Bechard next appeared to check his temperature, Hadrian sat up and took the orderly’s arm.

“How long am I going to stay here? When will someone contact me?”

“The detective is a busy man,” Bechard reassured him, smelling strongly of soap. “If he’s left you here, it’s to undertake important business. He’ll be back. You haven’t been forgotten.”

Hadrian had no reason to mistrust the orderly, but Bechard’s lingering green gaze gave him no assurance at all.

“Is he going to look for the man who killed my brother?”

“I don’t know what he’ll do, but I suppose it’ll be what’s necessary. Please, rest. For the moment, everything is out of your hands. Dinner’s running late tonight, but I’ll see if I can get you something to drink. You must be exhausted.”

“How can I sleep when the man who killed my brother is walking free?”

“If you want him to stay that way, the best thing you could do is obstruct the police. No?”

Hadrian warred with the instinct to make a fuss. But Bechard was making sense. Hadrian needed the cooperation of the police if he was to see justice done, and he would wait a little longer to ensure that it was.

From spy novels to a crime thriller. He wished he could go back to the erotic journey of self-discovery he had hoped his holiday would be.

“You’re better off in here, if you want my opinion.” Bechard shook his head, as though waking from a daze, and made a note on the clipboard hanging from the end of the bed. “It’s crazy outside.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“No one knows. Nothing’s working. Power, the phones, trains, Internet—they’re all messed up. Some people think the government’s behind it, that they’re trying to keep something secret, but that doesn’t feel right to me. It’s more likely to be good old incompetence.” The orderly shrugged. “I’m staying here until things calm down.”

The orderly hurried off to attend to another patient. Dispirited, Hadrian sank back onto the mattress and pulled the covers up to his chin. The news that Stockholm was in as bad a state as he was didn’t help. Sadness rose over him like a cowl. More than anything, he wanted to call home, to hear a familiar voice. Your brother is dead. Did their parents know yet? Did they know Hadrian was still alive?

And Ellis. Where was she? Was she safe? Did she think he was dead too?

A murmur of voices teased him as Bechard talked to someone outside the ward. Beyond that, in the distance, he heard what sounded like a crowd at a football match: the mingled throats of thousands of people all shouting at once. Shouting, or screaming.

He didn’t know if they played football in Sweden, and he supposed it didn’t matter much.

Bechard returned with a glass of warm orange juice and placed it on the table next to his bed. Hadrian’s mouth was dry and his throat still raw from the chokehold. The bitter taste of the juice reminded him of happier times, of breakfasts and fruit picking during the holidays. Tears came again, and he was glad to be secluded with his grief.

An unknown time later, Hadrian sat bolt upright, clutching the bed, totally disoriented. His heart shuddered in his chest. Adrenaline gave everything around him a cold, brilliant clarity. The cotton weave blanket was rough under his fingertips and the air cold against his skin. Moonlight angled in a sharply defined rectangular block from a window on the far side of the curtain. There was no other light at all.

He forced himself to breathe. The knowledge of where he was—and what had happened to him—gradually returned. He felt like a skier swallowed up in an avalanche, unable to evade each crushing revelation as it came. If only they had gone somewhere other than Europe, he thought. If only they had listened to Ellis about the Swede. Now, because they hadn’t, he would always be on his own.

The weird thing was, he didn’t feel alone . . .

“You were dreaming,” said a voice out of the darkness.

He jumped. “Who—?” He choked back the question as the broad silhouette of Detective Lascowicz eclipsed the moonlight. “What?”

“You were dreaming. Do you remember?”

Hadrian struggled through the shock to recall. If the detective had come to him in the middle of the night, it had to be important.

“There was a pit, a gulf. Everything was dark and upside-down. There were—things—with giant lobster claws chasing me. I could smell smoke, and hear lions roaring . . .”

He stopped in sudden embarrassment, feeling the detective’s eyes on him. Other people’s dreams were not to be taken seriously.

“That’s all,” he lied, although there was much more: a gold-skinned demon running under a sky full of shooting stars; a landscape as tortured and twisted as a First World War battlefield; and Seth, alone and afraid, just as he was.

“I am not here to talk about your dreams,” Lascowicz said, “although they do interest me.” His manner was tense, tightly contained. “Locyta. The Swede. You said he spoke to you. Can you remember what he said?”

“Something about our time coming. I already told you that.”

Lascowicz nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. Was there more?”

“It was in Swedish. I didn’t understand it.”

“Did he ever use a word that sounded like ‘Yod’?”

Hadrian was about to repeat, angrily, that he wouldn’t remember a single word—when he realised that this one did strike him as familiar. The Swede had babbled something just before stabbing Seth in the chest. The stab itself had coincided with the sound Lascowicz was asking about.

“Yod,” he said, nodding. “Yes. He did say that. What does it mean? Is it significant?”

The detective stood. Moonlight caught his face. Eyes and teeth gleamed silver.

Hadrian froze. Something had changed in the detective since their first meeting. He was taciturn, almost hostile. And he stank of dog.

That wasn’t unreasonable, he told himself. If Lascowicz had been working all day without rest, abruptness was the best he could expect. And police everywhere employed tracker dogs. There was no reason to feel unnerved.

Yet he did. Something was different. He could feel it.

“I don’t know,” Lascowicz said in answer to Hadrian’s question. His voice shook. “I think that it might be significant, but my thoughts do not make sense. I feel—I feel as though I am waking from a long, deep sleep, as you just did. I see things. I hear voices that tell me everything I knew before was a dream. I am—” The detective hugged himself. The sound of his breathing was loud in the darkness. “I am on fire.”

Hadrian didn’t know what to say or do. Every muscle in his body was rigid, responding to the passion he heard in Lascowicz’s voice.

“Wait here.”

The detective moved suddenly, launching himself through the curtains as though a bomb had gone off under him. His footsteps ran down the length of the ward. The door slammed heavily behind him.

The echoes of the slam dropped like a stone into a bottomless lake. Hadrian waited for his fellow patients to complain about the noise. And waited . . .

Within a dozen breaths, the strange encounter was overtaken by another strangeness entirely—one of absence, not presence.

It was quiet in the ward. Too quiet, he realised. He could hear no snoring or breathing of the other patients in the ward. The man with the broken leg was wordless for once.

Uneasily, Hadrian pulled back the blanket and slid his bare legs off the bed. Standing in nothing but his boxer shorts, he took stock of his surroundings in the dim moonlight. There was the bedside table, there the end of the bed. The chair was well out of the way, where Lascowicz had sat. He put on the hospital robe, and shivered.

“Hello?” His voice wavered from the tiled walls. “Is anyone awake?”

No answer.

He padded softly around the bed to the gap in the curtains. The jingle of the rings securing it to the rail above sounded very loud as he peered out at the room beyond. The other five beds also had their curtains closed. The window through which the moonlight shone was at one end of the ward; at the other, the double door leading to the hallway was closed.

“Hello?” he called again. Still no sound. With a whisper of fabric, he slipped through the curtain and darted across the room, into the space between the berth opposite his and the one next to the window, where the man with the American accent had been sleeping. He felt for the gap in its curtains and stuck his head through.

The bed was empty. The sheets were pulled back, as though the man occupying it had got up to go to the toilet. Hadrian withdrew his head and tried the berth next door, only to find it in a similar state. Increasingly mystified, he checked all the berths. They were all unoccupied.

Apart from himself and the moonlight, the ward was empty.

His disquiet grew upon realising that the silence around him extended beyond the walls of his ward. He crept closer to the door and pressed his ear against it, irrationally afraid of it bursting open in his face. The corridor outside was as still as the grave. No rattling of trolleys and the chattering of nurses and orderlies. Even the air-conditioning had let up.

When he touched the door, intending to peer outside, it didn’t budge. It was locked.

He raised a hand to hammer on it, then lowered it to think. The door wasn’t just locked; he was locked in. Lascowicz would only have done that because he thought Hadrian was either guilty or in danger—but why not tell Hadrian in either case? Why leave him literally in the dark?

He tried a light switch. It was dead. The generator appeared to be out again.

Something was going on. Feeling trapped and frustrated, Hadrian crossed to the window. He didn’t want to wait around to be arrested or attacked without knowing why. The glass was smoky and dirty, but a pane shifted under his hand, and he managed to open it a fraction. Cool air greeted him, but not as cold as he had expected given the frigid weather in Stockholm. No rumble of traffic came from the street.

He craned his neck to see the ground below. A stone ledge blocked his view. He was quite high up, maybe five storeys, and the buildings around him were dark. A smell of smoke came faintly on the wind, sharp and acrid, as though something other than wood was burning. The moon was almost full, he noted—putting the date within a day or two of the attack on him and his brother—and by its light he made out roofs, pipes, chimneys, and fire escapes. The skyline was a jagged toothscape silhouetted against the stars. Two slender skyscrapers dominated the view, but he didn’t recognise either of them.

He tried to push the pane wider. It wouldn’t give. That was lucky, he told himself, because the thought of crawling through it and dropping to the ledge below made his bowels turn to water. Being trapped inside was no good either, though. He had to find a way out that didn’t involve further risk to life and limb.

Before Hadrian could think of one, he heard footsteps approaching the door. His first instinct was to get back into bed so no one would know that he had been out of it. A flare of resentment put paid to that possibility. He wasn’t going to wait quietly for whatever was going to happen to him. That would get him nowhere. It could be the murderous Locyta returning to finish the job he had started.

The footsteps reached the door and stopped. Keys jingled softly. Hadrian moved quickly up the centre of the room and ducked out of sight behind the curtain closest to the door.

The doors opened with a sigh, admitting a wash of soft yellow light that seemed bright to his dark-accustomed eyes. He shrank back into the shadows as two people stepped into the room, one large and the other slight. He recognised them instantly: Detective Lascowicz had returned with the orderly Bechard. They moved with heavy steps into the room.

He held his breath and asked himself what Seth would do. Would he reveal himself, or run? His brother wasn’t one to take anything lying down, given a choice, but getting out of the room would solve only part of Hadrian’s problem: he had no clothes, no passport, no money, and not the slightest idea where he was. Who was going to help a panicked tourist in his underwear and a gown made of little more than tissue paper?

You’ll just have to look out for yourself, he imagined Seth saying.

Lascowicz and Bechard reached the curtain surrounding his bed.

On shoeless feet, Hadrian slipped around the curtain’s edge and towards the door. He fought the urge to run. One sudden move or misstep would ruin everything. Peering around the jamb, he found the corridor beyond long and empty, lit only by moonlight from open windows. Darkness crowded each patch of light, giving the view a strange perspective. The elevator doors at the far end were dead. The police officer who had been there earlier was gone.

Hadrian put the ward behind him just as Bechard raised his hand to open the curtain.

“Wait,” said the detective, his voice deep and guttural. “I smell—”

A window shattered with a sound like night itself breaking. Bechard yelled and Hadrian heard scuffling feet on linoleum. He didn’t stop to find out what was going on. He just ran, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the ward while Lascowicz and Bechard were distracted.

The orderly shouted again. A high-pitched cackle mocked him in return. Hadrian heard growling, like a large dog warning off an intruder. There was more scuffling, then the sound of a curtain being torn aside.

The roar of anger that followed was like nothing Hadrian had ever heard before.

He ran down the corridor and took the first corner he came to. His breath rasped in his throat and lungs, scalding hot. Someone (or something) was running behind him. He imagined that he heard football spikes (or claws) ripping into the linoleum, tearing it up with every step. He whispered “Jesus!” without knowing he was doing it.

Lifeless fluorescent lights swept by overhead. No one stuck their head out into the corridor to see what the commotion was. He saw an EXIT sign ahead and kicked the door next to it, making it swing open and slam closed. He didn’t stop, though. He kept running to the next corner and turned out of sight just as his pursuer reached the corner behind him.

The swinging door distracted the person chasing him. He had hoped for that. He could hear them scuffling on the stairs, trying to find him. His breathing sounded like bellows in his ears as Hadrian ran along the corridor to a nurses’ station at the next intersection. It was unattended, and he didn’t dare call out.

He stopped momentarily, trying to think. He had nothing: no weapon, no plan, no way of calling for help, no hope. There wasn’t even an “In Case of Emergency, Smash Glass” option at hand. He had left his only chance of escape behind him, in the stairwell. Now his pursuer lay between the stairs and himself.

He ducked behind the nurses’ station as Bechard appeared at the end of the corridor. The orderly was obviously looking for him. When Bechard had moved on, Hadrian reached up from his hiding place and picked up the nearest phone. He heard nothing but silence; not even a dial tone.

“Fun and games,” whispered a voice. A shadow moved beyond a half-open door. Something tinkled.

Hadrian shrank down again. Too late.

“Come in here, boy. I can help you.”

Hadrian shook his head.

“Don’t be shy,” hissed the voice. “You can’t afford that luxury.”

Hadrian raised a finger to his lips, urging the owner of the voice to be quiet. The sound of footsteps had returned to the corridor behind him, picking their way across the linoleum with stealthy caution. Again, there was an unnerving hint of claws to the sound, as though the feet belonged to a large animal, not a person.

“Now, now.” Two gleaming eyes resolved in the shadows, unnaturally close to the floor. “You want your brother’s body, don’t you?”

Hadrian felt his face go cold. What do you know about my brother? he wanted to shout. What do you know about me?

All he could do was nod.

“Come on, then,” hissed the voice. “In here—now!”

The eyes retreated. Hadrian followed as though tied to them, scurrying across the floor and into the room in one ungainly motion. The door clicked shut behind him.

“About time, boy. Stand up.”

Thin fingers tugged at him. Bony limbs wrapped themselves around his legs and torso. A child-sized body clambered up his, pinching his skin and then tugging on his ears. Dexterous toes gripped his shoulders; sharp fingernails dug into his scalp.


Flame burst in the darkness, yellow-bright and flickering. Hadrian would have cried out but for the hand that suddenly clapped itself down on his mouth.

“Not a sound,” breathed the creature in his ear, “or you’ll kill us both.”

He nodded despairingly. Dark limbs unfolded and the flame—just one, apparently sprouting from the tip of a knobby finger—rose back up to the ceiling. The flame tickled the base of a fire detector, making the plastic blacken and buckle. Water exploded from two sprinklers on either side of the room, instantly drenching both Hadrian and the creature standing on him.

The flame went out. Hadrian staggered as the creature on his shoulders leapt down onto the floor near the door. It pressed its ear against the dripping wood.

Heavy footsteps splashed up the hallway away from them. Something growled.

“Who are you?” Hadrian managed. The hissing water was cold and he was beginning to shiver.

“Pukje.” It sounded like “pook-yay.” More monkey than man, Pukje scampered back to Hadrian and leapt onto his chest. He caught it automatically. The creature was wearing rags so densely matted they resembled thatching and the water ran off him as if from a dirty raincoat. Feet dug into his stomach; childlike, hands grasped his shoulders. Hadrian forced himself not to flinch as the hideous face thrust close to his. Pukje’s features were narrow and long, squashed inwards on both sides. A bowed, pointed nose separated two tilted eyes. Thin, pursed lips parted to reveal a mouth devoid of teeth and a slender, coiled tongue.

“If you won’t give me your name in return, Hadrian, you could at least thank me for saving your life.”

Hadrian flinched. Pukje’s breath was redolent of old, mouldy things and places long forgotten. “You already know my name. How”

“I’ve been watching you and listening in. It’s quite a show.”

“Was it you who smashed the window?”

“Yes, to distract your friends.”

Hadrian didn’t argue the point. “Why are you helping me?”

“I’m Pukje, and I’m helping myself.” A contained but incorrigible smile briefly lit up the strange face. “My list of enemies could change at any time, boy. I’m not charitable by nature.”

“Thank you, then,” he said hastily, “but who are you? And who are they?” He jerked a thumb at the door. “What’s going on?”

Thumb and forefinger gripped his nose with surprising strength and twisted. “Don’t mention it, boy. You can owe me.”

Pukje hopped down onto the floor and skittered to the open window.

“Wait! You can’t just leave me here!” Hadrian had no idea what to do next. What if the thing outside returned?

“Your brother is in the basement of the next building along,” said his unusual benefactor, pointing with one long finger. “Wait a minute, then try the stairs. There’s a way across one floor down. If you’re thorough, you’ll find what you want.”


“I’ll look for you later.”

Before Hadrian’s lips could frame another word, Pukje leapt fluidly through the empty window frame and vanished into the night.

Someone shut off the water ten minutes after Pukje had activated the emergency sprinkler system. Either that, Hadrian thought, or the water supply had run out. Those ten minutes enabled him to get safely to the stairs and descend to the next floor. Everything was sodden and dripping. His bare feet squelched softly when he trod on carpet, and threatened to slip on linoleum and concrete. He yearned for something to cover his near-nakedness. The corridors were empty, as was the stairwell. He didn’t know what sort of beast had got into the hospital—for that was the only sane way he could interpret what he had heard following him—but that it had gone with its masters was a cause for intense relief.

A police dog, he told himself. And Pukje had triggered the fire alarm using a cigarette lighter . . .

Once out of the stairwell, he descended cautiously through splashes of second-hand moonlight that lay across his path. As Pukje had said, the floor below the one on which he had awakened was linked to another building, a squat, dark brick construction with rounded windows and elaborate casings. Hadrian followed a glass-lined corridor across a street to its third floor. As he crossed the self-contained bridge, he looked from this new perspective at the city. The skyline was a mad jumble of straight lines and sharp angles silhouetted against the night sky. There were no lights at all: not in the street or in the buildings. A power blackout, he thought, not just a local failure—like New York in 2003.

Where were the headlights of cars? he wondered. The roads were as dark as the windows.

And all he found in the next building were more reasons to be puzzled.

It had been recently occupied, that much was certain. Nurses’ stations were littered with paper and medications; as they would have been during the course of a normal working day. Wards contained beds with rumpled sheets and hollowed pillows. Cupboards held the effects of patients who, although nowhere to be seen, had made their presence felt in dozens of ways. Browning flowers wilted on shelves. Colourful cards adorned windowsills and bathroom shelves, empty platitudes laid bare. Magazines lay open on bedside tables beside half-empty glasses and meals barely picked at. The only things missing were the patients and the staff tending them.

Hundreds of people had disappeared for no obvious reason, giving him the run of the building. Where had they gone? When would they come back? He was inevitably put in mind of the Marie Celeste.

Hadrian was shivering by then as much from nervousness as from the cold. Damp and exposed, he resisted stealing clothes abandoned by the missing patients. Instead, he opened a supply cupboard and helped himself to navy pants and a loose-fitting white shirt. There was nothing for his feet.

Tucked away in a narrow, gloomy dead end he found a doorway marked “Authorised Access Only.” It wasn’t locked. Behind it a narrow service stairway wound down into absolute darkness. He found a torch in a nearby desk, but it didn’t work. The best he could do was a cigarette lighter.

The steps were old and worn, with rounded edges. At their bottom was a scuffed metal door. He pushed it open a crack, expecting to find himself in some sort of morgue, tiled green and sterile. Instead, he saw a large, filthy cellar, cluttered with arcane equipment and lit by flickering firelight. Shadows danced in distant corners. Reflected light gleamed off metal edges and glass dials, looking like eyes. Hadrian edged sideways into the basement and stood for a long moment with the door at his back.

The air was hot and close, despite the basement’s size. The light issued from the door of a large furnace on the far side of the room. Decades worth of junk had accumulated in every clear space, reducing the odds of him finding anything, even an object as large as a human body. He couldn’t guess where to start to look.

Not at first, anyway. If his brother’s body had been brought here to be disposed of, then one place more than any other posed a possible solution.

Hadrian pushed himself away from the door and circled the massive metal bulk of the furnace. It emitted a powerful subsonic rumble as it digested coal and turned it into heat for the antiquated building above. Pipes circled it like metal ropes, attempting to contain the terrible pressure in its guts. It had the air of something about to break free and lumber around the room, crushing everything in its path.

The furnace’s small door was made of toughened glass, smudged black from years of service and as wide across as one of Hadrian’s outstretched arms. He peered through it but could see nothing except glowing coals and heat. A heavy iron bar and a shovel rested nearby. He grabbed the bar and banged the latch until it fell away and he could tug the door open. It was like looking into hell.

A blast of heat rolled over him. The low-frequency rumble increased. Hadrian shielded his eyes. The space within was as large as an industrial oven. Tortured air made chaos of its contents. He gradually discerned glowing lumps of coal and ash in fiery drifts, all painted in shades of orange. The barrage of flame and superheated air tantalised him with hints of things tossed into the furnace for disposal—perhaps illegally—including syringes and empty drug containers.

There was nothing resembling a person. Hadrian imagined Seth’s body shrivelling up like a raisin, curling into a knot and shrinking, collapsing upon itself until what ashes remained were caught in the updraught and hurled skywards through the ancient, caked chimney.

As he stood looking at the glowing coals, he heard a voice calling his name.

“Hadrian Castillo,” it said, “why are you running? Show yourself. You will come to no harm.”

He recognised the thick, slightly formal accent. The voice belonged to Lascowicz.

“We have something in common, you know. We are both completely out of our depth. I did not know who you were, at first. I did not know who I was. Now that I have realised, perhaps together we can find a solution to the mess the world is in.”

Hadrian backed away from the furnace. He wasn’t imagining the voice. It was real, but there was an unusual quality to it, as though he wasn’t hearing it entirely through his ears. It became stronger as he moved back the way he had come, around the furnace and across the basement.

Gently, he opened the door to the narrow stairwell. The voice echoed out of it.

“I know you can hear me. Many things are changing around you. Can you feel it? Do you have the slightest idea what happened to you and your brother? To me? If not, you are in grave danger. We can help you. We are the good guys, Hadrian. We are trying to save the world.”

He closed the door and tried not to listen. The detective and his sidekick had obviously managed to make the hospital’s intercom system work. He wasn’t going to be gullible enough to fall for their appeal. Although they had seemed innocent enough at first, he couldn’t afford to trust them now. He would have to find out what had happened to him on his own; and then he would find Ellis and get on with his life.

But first, there was the matter of Seth’s body.

When Hadrian had moved away from the furnace, he had felt something strange tugging at him. The feeling had been strong, and as he came back to the furnace it returned. He felt he was getting close to something important.

He peered down into the orange-hot coals once more. This time he saw more than just the remains of burned coal and rubbish: visible to one side was a distinct surface mostly buried beneath a dune of ash, a smoothness where everything else was rough. An odd note.

Hadrian hefted the shovel in his hands, wondering how far he could reach into the oven. If he was quick, he decided that he would just about make it. Taking off the cotton uniform top and feeling the heat roll in waves up his exposed skin, he gripped the shovel by its handle and lunged into the furnace.

He missed with his first attempt. The second only pushed the object further back into the ash. The third didn’t quite uncover it, but did make it tilt on its burning bed. He was about to try a fourth time when the heat became too much for him and he had to withdraw.

His eyeballs felt as though they had been baked in their sockets. All he could smell was burning hair. He breathed deeply of relative coolness before turning back and raising the shovel to try again.

Staring at him from the furnace’s hatchway was the black eye of a skull. Just one. The rest of the skull was buried in ash. The smooth surface of the skull’s temple wasn’t what he had initially seen in the ash; that lay to the skull’s right and looked more like a leg bone or a rib. The skull had been accidentally exposed by his blind flailing.

He froze, knowing deep down that it belonged to Seth. He didn’t need an autopsy to tell him that. He didn’t need to hear the calm, sympathetic voice of a doctor or a policeman explaining in layperson’s terms that his brother’s body had been dismembered and stuffed into the furnace, where fire would eventually get rid of the evidence. He didn’t need to sit through an endless inquest debating the finer points of dental records and molten blobs that had once been a watch, a belt buckle, a monogrammed pocketknife. Hadrian knew.

He sank down on the oil-stained floor and leaned on the shovel for support. Tears evaporated in the blast-furnace heat before they reached his cheeks. He had his proof that his brother was dead. He knew it as surely as if it was his own skeleton in the furnace, slowly cremating. Seth was gone.

He always liked the heat, Hadrian thought, with a sound that was half sob, half laugh. He put a hand over his mouth to keep in the noise.

Distantly he could still hear Lascowicz repeating his demand for Hadrian to show himself, turn himself in, do the right thing. Soon all pretence of friendliness was gone from the detective’s voice.

“Do not think you can run, boy. Your chances of lasting a day on your own are slim. And getting away from us, even if you do survive, is unlikely.”

There was a leering, cruel edge to the words. They wound their way into Hadrian’s head and sapped the will from him. Lascowicz was right. What was the point of fighting? He was just one person against a world of uncertainty. He didn’t know who he was any more without his brother—his mirror, his nemesis—to define him.

(“He’s all you talk about,” Ellis complained, once. “You say that he gets on your nerves, that sometimes you hate him and long to be free of him. Are you sure that’s what you really want?”

“Do I have any choice?” Seth asked.

Hadrian held his breath, listening to their conversation surreptitiously. They thought he was asleep. Or maybe they didn’t care.

“Be careful what you wish for,” she said. “You might just get it.”)

“Give in now,” said Lascowicz, “and deny us the pleasure of hunting you. I dare you.”

Hadrian shook his head, brushing the detective’s influence off him like dandruff. He wouldn’t give in until he found out what had happened to Ellis. He still had no idea where she was. If he poked deeper in the furnace, would he find another skull?

He forced himself to move. His knees unbent like rusted joints. Ash and burnt hair stuck to sweat streaming down his arms and chest.

With breath held tightly in his chest and eyes in slits, he stabbed deep into the coals with the shovel’s stained blade. He dug at random until the shovel was full. Then, grunting, he allowed his muscles and instinct to propel him backwards, away from the hatch. The shovel load came with him. As soon as it was clear, he tipped the contents onto the floor. Glowing nuggets hissed and tumbled, turning black and white around the edges almost instantly. He didn’t stop to study them. While his will remained strong, fuelled by anger, he went back for another shovel load, and another.

The air was soon full of the smell of smoke. With each hurried thrust and lurch his strength halved, until he was gasping despite the heat searing his lungs. He branded his arm on the hatch and barely felt it. A coal touched the sleeve of his discarded shirt and he kicked it away before fire blossomed. His toe registered the burn but it didn’t slow him down.

Eleven shovel loads were all he could manage. He almost tipped the last one on his feet, and he knew then that he was pushing his luck. He dropped the coals with the rest and staggered away, wiping his face.

Seth’s skull had tipped onto its back. The ground was littered with cooling fragments—some of it innocent coal, some clearly belonging to the skeleton he had found: vertebrae, anklebones, a gracefully curved rib. They were black, not the white he had expected.

From a distance, he peered into the furnace. There was no companion that he could see.

My brother, he thought, still breathing heavily. Seth’s name meant “the chosen one.” Hadrian’s was supposed to mean “the little dark one.” How had it come to this—this utter reversal of fate?

He looked around for a bucket and half-filled it with water from a tap. Some he drank. The rest he tipped on the coals. Steam hissed noisily in the stifling room, making him nervous. Lascowicz’s voice had ceased, and the absence of it was worse than its presence.

I dare you . . .

Hadrian’s instincts were groaning like hot steam through the boiler’s pipes. He had what he needed, for now. Once he was safe, he could contact the local authorities—whoever they were—and see about finding Ellis and sorting things out. While he was on his own, he was vulnerable, and getting caught in the basement wasn’t going to do Ellis any good. He needed to get out of the hospital—the faster, the better—and find an Australian embassy. He would be safe there. He could start to put the jagged pieces of his life back together.

By the light of the furnace, he reached down with a rag and selected one finger bone from the ashes. It was still hot, and he wrapped it carefully before putting it into his pocket. Stepping over the rest, he draped the shirt across his shoulders and sought another way out of the basement.

The Crooked Letter © Sean Williams

2 comments: said...

Great blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the information are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which really should do the trick! Have a nice day!
Poker Indonesia

Diara Dominy said...

You should take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I will recommend this site! Website Website Website