Alone. Again. Dully, I looked out my kitchen window at the courtyard from next-door's apartments. At one end there were a few rusty, drunkenly tilting hills' hoists, with obnoxiously brightly coloured pegs. One had someone's washing on it- a surprisingly racy red bra and fluoro green knickers standing out starkly amongst the sober dark business clothing. Other than that, the mouldering brick-paved ground was bare, apart from one concession to nature in the manky bottle brush in its bed of dented plastic bottles, cans and broken glass. Well, unless you counted the small sprigs o f grass valiantly struggling to push through the cracks in the bricks. But even they were a dull, dead brown. It was depressing, really.
The kettle made a popping noise, switching itself off. Spooning some instant coffee into a novelty mug from some half-forgotten trip to a beach side town, I considered whether today was a day for sugar.
Silly question. Today had been fucked.
Three sugars went in, and then the boiling water.
Blowing on my drink in an effort to cool it- I was no asbestos mouth- I settled down in my obscenely comfortable chair, picking up one-handed my latest copy of Maledicta: the International Journal of Verbal Aggression. It was already dog-eared, and I'd read most of the articles, but the next one wouldn't come out for another week or two.
It was then that there came a knock on the door, that startled me enough to spill hot coffee all over myself.
At least I missed the chair.
Who the hell could it be? I hardly ever received visitors, and if I did, they generally had the courtesy to at least text ahead.
The knock came again, and I looked down at my coffee-covered shirt sticking to my chest.
Fuck it, I didn't want to answer the door in a coffee-covered shirt. Fortunately there was a pile of my clean laundry on one of the chairs, and so I quickly stripped, dabbing the rest of the coffee away with the remaining dry part.
A bit more coffee wasn't going to hurt it at this point.
I threw on a faded red tshirt, threw my damp, coffee-covered work shirt down the hall so that it hit the laundry door, and then stomped towards whoever was still banging to be let in.
This had better be fucking good.
Scowling, I yanked the door open, and then had to dodge as the person attempted to knock on me.
What the fuck? I signed at them, and then I realised that it was the journo who'd bought me coffee before, bleached hair and all. I noted that he'd ditched the glasses. It made his eyes seem brighter, almost amber in colour. I shook my head. Who cared what colour his eyes were? What was more telling was the fact that his skin was pale and waxy- as though he'd recently been quite ill, and he was still recovering. I'd seen healthier complexions on patients with pneumonia, and that was saying something.
Weirdly, he had coffee for me again. Considering the fact that I'd just spilt most of my just-made drink all over myself, because he'd startled me, I couldn't help but feel that this was oddly appropriate.
He looked at me quizzically, obviously not understanding what I'd signed.
I sighed, and grabbed at the pencil and pen that were hanging on strings from a nail sticking out of the wall by the door for just this eventuality.
What do you want, and what are you doing at my house? I wrote, then ripped the note off the pad and thrust it under his nose. He read it, and I noticed that he didn't have to hold it close to his eyes like a myopic, nor at arm's length like someone long-sighted. Either he'd switched to contacts, or bleached boy here had been faking the glasses.
He looked up then, and smiled nervously at me with obviously orthodontics-enhanced teeth.
"I just want to talk," he said quickly. "Oh, and to give you this coffee." He thrust the cup of coffee in front of him as though it were some sort of placating sacrifice. "I had a feeling you might like some," he mumbled, his shoulders hunched a little, as though he half expected me to throw something at him.
The temptation was there, but giving in to it was unlikely to give me answers.
Abruptly, I took the coffee from him, then stepped back, gesturing for him to follow. As he stepped through the door, he stumbled a little, seemingly tripping over nothing. I raised an inquiring eyebrow at him, but he just blushed and mumbled something that I didn't catch.
As I walked back to my chair, I snatched a notepad and pen off my cheap, paperback-under-one-leg-for-stability coffee table.
I sat, and the journo perched himself on one of my dining chairs, drawing his legs up so that he could sit cross-legged.
Alright, I wrote in bold letters, TALK.
The journo pulled a little at his collar, and then began to massage his neck with one hand. I could hear the muscles crack from across the room.
"Well, the first thing you should know is that I'm not really a journalist," he said.
Oh really. I went to stand, but he held up a hand, forestalling me with a pleading look in his eyes.
"Please, hear me out? Honestly, this was going to be done differently, but since they picked you up, the timetable is going to have to be pushed forward."
Timetable? What timetable? An eel of unease coiled itself in my stomach.
"See, the thing is..." he paused. "There's no easy way to explain this, so I'm going to be blunt. We need you to help us with Mirabelle."
My mouth fell open.
With trembling hands, I snatched up my notepad and scribbled, EXCUSE ME WHAT!?
The last time I'd seen that crazy woman I'd been underneath her with what felt like half the bones in my body broken, because she'd thrown me into a desk in the middle of her berserker rage. The fact that she'd apologised in her own crazy way was beyond the point. It was only in the last year that the nightmares had died down to one a month, and every time they happened I woke up covered in sweat, feeling phantom pains all over me.
Bleached hair winced. Then smiled wryly.
"You should know that my name is Quentin. Not 'Bleached Hair'."
I stared at him, and then reached for my pad.
Okay, that was a little spooky. What are you a mind-reader?
Quentin smiled. "Yes, actually."
I dropped the pad.
Okay, I thought sceptically. If that's the case, then you should know that you look a little like my late husband, who I might mention was damn good in bed, man, I wonder if you can do that thing he used to do with the-
"Oh god stop now!" Quentin half-shrieked, blushing in embarrassment.
I felt my eyes bug out.
You can actually hear my thoughts.
"Yes," he said.
Quentin shrugged. "It's a long story, and believe me, I'd be more than happy to direct you to people who could explain it better than me." He sighed. "And don't worry, I don't have it on 24/7. I can only get surface stuff, and only when I've got my shields down. But usually I've got my shields up, because you would not believe the migraines I get elsewise..." he trailed off, suddenly looking alarmed.
"Shit, we've got company coming. Alright, you've got two options. You can come with me, and we can continue this conversation elsewhere, or you can stay here and wait for the nice girls and boys with the guns to tear through your front door."
What? Things were moving too fast. Guns? Tearing through my front door?
"They've been tracking me and a few of my associates," Quentin said grimly. "We don't know how or exactly who yet, but whoever they are, they're the people that made Mirabelle crazy. And she's not the only one. She's just the only one to have escaped their control."
Why do you need me? I demanded, signing as I thought it.
Quentin tensed. "Look, I'll explain it later, but you've got to make a decision. Come with me now, or stay for the soldiers?"
I considered. Go with the random mind-reader who is going to take me into close contact with the woman of my nightmares, or stick around and wait for more guns to be waved at me by mysterious governmental soldiers with hidden agendas?
I knew I was going to regret this.
I turned, grabbed my essentials: keys, wallet, mobile phone, notepad, three pens, and thrust them in the deep pocket of my favourite coat, shrugging it on as I slipped on a pair of loafers.
Minutes later, and Quentin was hustling me into a car parked behind my house. I was just about to shut the door when I heard a crashing noise. I turned, and saw dark figures moving around through my apartment window.
"Shut the door," Quentin ordered as he started the car.
I pulled the door closed behind me, but kept looking through the slightly-wound-down window, watching as it became obvious that the soldiers were rifling through my things. I heard a tinkling crash and winced, hoping that wasn't my inherited antique stained-glass lampshade that they'd just broken.
Moments later, Quentin turned the corner, and then we were on the road.
I didn't know it then, but that was going to be the last time I saw my apartment for a long time.