The Angelmaker and the False Sky

By Eline

The girl was just like the others-frightened and desperate. She was a pretty thing, not more than seventeen and prone to the follies of youth-one of which had forced her to come to the secret apartment in the old pink shophouse on 24th Street.

Seated on a wicker chair in the dim room, the girl peered at the other and implored once again.

"You must help me, if my mother ever find out-"

A tale the old woman had heard so many times over the long decades she had practised her craft. She sat unmoving on the settle and appeared to be staring at a spot somewhere behind the girl.

"Who is the father?" she asked suddenly in a voice dry as sandpaper.

"H-he was a boy I knew-"

"You're lying." It was a statement delivered in the tone of someone who knew about such things-neither condemning nor pitying.

The girl broke into tears; whether out of sheer anguish or to sway the unyielding façade before her, it did not matter.

"Oh how could you know?" she wept. The older woman held out a large napkin silently and waited until the girl had mastered herself once more.

"I have seen much, girl. No one would risk the Guardians for a whim. Now tell me, who is the father?"

"It was my father, surety on my life," the girl answered at last. Shame, fear and rage fought for dominance-neither won and only resignation remained. "He did it, always had done it since I turned fifteen."

Now perhaps the two women might have been of an age, both shriven by experience and a bad hand of fate. The girl was no longer young but an old woman, bent by despair into a hunched crone.

"What is his profession?"

"Ah, I thought you knew, but I'll confirm it. He was a soldier and from one of the contagion zones too!" Here a bitter laugh welled out from the girl's racked throat. "Mother was forever putting it off, saying that she was tired, on the night shift, her monthly . . . Oh but she was afraid, no matter what the doctors say!"

Madam Khali looked at the bowed dark head before her with blank, inscrutable eyes. A moment passed in deathly quiet and then the sigh of cloth on the faded velvet of the settle.

"Very well then. Come to me tomorrow night and make your excuse as plausible as you can." She stood and moved over to the barred window, not sparing a glance at the supplicant in the wicker chair.

The girl gazed at her straight back and ventured a question. "Will it hurt?"

Madam seemed to consider and gave the standard response she kept for such. "Not in the way you'd imagine," she whispered, then in a louder voice said, "I have anaesthetics, you will feel no pain."

After the girl had left, Madam remained by the window, still as a statue as the weak morning sunshine fell upon her sharp featured face.

"Grandmother, she has gone out the back, I made sure no one say her." The speaker was male, barely sixteen and quiet as a cat despite his crippled foot.

"Good. Have you studied this morning?"

"I was going to after I sent the laundry to Mrs. Brown." The boy bent an inquiring look at the old woman; after living his entire life in her show, he was far more intuitive than the girl. "You agreed to do it," he guessed. "What was her case?"

"A father from the Zones," Madam answered shortly. "Make ready the operation room for tomorrow night."

"You think the doctors are in the pay of the Guardians."

"In thrall, in fear." The old woman hooked up her walking stick and turned about, black pupils glinting through the gloom. "Well? Get to your studies! Maybe then you will know about what will come out of that womb if she lets it be."

The Boy-he had no other name-obeyed and shut the door behind him.

Madam Khali sighed and shook her head. He was looking like his mother every day-and she feared for him least he followed her path. She thumped over to her writing desk and pulled out the ledger that served as her diary.

It was dangerous, she knew, to keep such records, but it was something to hold on to-solidity in an endless nightmare. The pale cream pages with its blue lines had been separated into columns of different widths by black ink. The first two pages were full so she began a new leaf. She entered the date in one column: 16th day of the fifth month, Year 0054.

In a second, narrower column, she wrote 3rd July, 2084.

It was odd, how the writing of a date could be considered heresy and a hanging offence. The queer thrill that had accompanied each entry had faded two decades ago.

The last entry was a month ago. That girl she had christened Alice 269.

One did not write real names for people who did not exist in an imaginary book.

She wrote Alice 270 in black ink along with the appointed time. They were all Alice to her, each and every one.

Closing the leather cover, Madam took the ledger over to the concealed cabinet in the wall. Stacked within were other texts and documents that would never be found anywhere in Rhenn-they no longer existed. One such book stuck its spine out from its row-a discrepancy in order.

She pulled out the old paperback and regarded the faded cover. As always, memories came rushing back. How old had she been when she had picked up the book at the library? Sixteen? Seventeen? A schoolgirl who had read it for the sake of reading.

1984. A date before she was even born. It had not happened a hundred years ago as predicted. Nor had it been as the author had imagined it to be. It was hard to say which scenario was better or worse.

With the softest of sighs, Anna Lee replaced the yellowed book in its hiding place and shut the little box of the past back into the darkness.

Boy turned the page of the atlas, taking in the faded colours that denoted the different countries. According to the Guardians, those boundaries no longer existed. His grandmother, Madam Khali, had laughed and said that that was at least the truth.

If the co-ordinates he had been given were truly accurate, then Rhenn would be somewhere in the Middle-East or on Western fringes of Asia. Not that he had any chance at all to look outside the city walls to observe the surroundings to confirm it. The sky was in the way and what with it being post-nuclear Earth, deserts were hardly uncommon.

But it was a false sky, he knew. A projection that varied itself daily according to the time and weather conditions. But he had watched enough dawns and dusks to realise that the sun rose and set in a certain pattern every seven days. When he was younger, he had memorised the cloud formations and matched them with others on different times and days. He did not do that any more.

Born and raised in Rhenn, Boy was used to the cyan sky with its veil-like white clouds scudding across. The sky stretched from the edge of the walls to cover the city like a dome. Over the years, rain sometimes came from a clear sky, only to be belatedly replaced by a grey vista of storm clouds. Madam Khali often said that weather prediction techniques still were inaccurate after so long, accompanying that remark with hoarse chuckles that Boy never understood.

He did not understand a great deal of things but he complied with the rules for survival, confident that understanding would come someday.

He wore his special shoe with the padded sole to disguise his crippled right foot. He had understood after seeing the burning of a girl with a cleft-lip-and that was hardly the taint either according to his biological studies. Self-preservation, he could understand.

Madam's business was non-existent. He had initially been confused by it, then at the age of twelve he discovered how lucky he was to be non-existent. Rules did not apply to people who did not exist.

And it was a very good word for Madam. No one every mentioned such things and there seemed to be no words to go with it either by the way the people of Rhenn spoke. But Boy knew the names. Abortionist. Angel-maker. Non-existent trades, like Baliel and Ms Carr. He had garnered that people in such non-existent lines had to be very good at being entirely imaginary-Madam had never told him of any of her kind that wound up on the execution platforms.

His grandmother had other activities he was not supposed know about. There were those midnight outings he observed from his spyhole-a mere crack in the floor-when he was presumably asleep. And the lists he delivered never corresponded with the goods he carted back.

Apparently there were more dangerous trades than angel-making. Try as he might, Boy was unable to pry loose even the faintest inkling of what Madam was up too. His imagination coupled with his clandestine knowledge of the non-existent reality led him to surmised that she was involved with Underground groups. He dreamed of secret meetings, cabalistic plans to overthrow the Guardians and more vividly-the smuggling of human cargo out of Rhenn's walls.

Above all things, Boy yearned to see the world outside the walls. By Madam's cryptic remarks, he gleaned that she had not always been the angel-maker of Rhenn. She was certainly old enough to claim affinity with the old ways. She seldom spoke of her past and when she did, Boy did not comprehend her version of the world.

Yet he longed to see something other than the streets of Rhenn for he was young and Madam had muttered continuously about "wanderlust" whenever he brought the subject up.

Below his study area, the backdoor closed. Madam was on her way to Baliel's again.

The cellar was quite brightly lit-to the everlasting regret of visitors. Shelves lined three walls of the rectangular room and a tiled slab occupied the centre of the concrete floor. Rows of glass jars sat upon those neat aluminium shelves, labelled and arranged according to size. Madam Khali was never fazed by the contents of those jars; after all she had supplied Baliel with most of them.

"Want a cup of tea?" Baliel was a short little man with a balding pate. He looked like the barber the sign on his shop said he was, but the sharp eyes that gleamed from behind those gold-rimmed glasses belied a cunning mind that had kept him alive for so long.

"No thank you, the smell of formaldehyde turns my stomach." She did take the proffered chair and waited for the man to settle down in his batter old armchair in the corner that housed a table scattered with odds and ends. "How goes your trade?" she asked politely. It was a formality, though the more she thought of such things in their line of work, the more she was inclined to start laughing hysterically.

"Oh, never better. Chits come in almost every day for the ultra-sound, especially if they had a husband from the front. I recommend them to you whenever it's necessary, as you should know."

"But I don't sell my services to every girl who knocks at my door."

"You give away the best opportunities, but there's not much of a market for normal foetuses, is there?"

"You should know. Vaur makes tonic from the normal ones and hawks it off as a miracle cure. And you sell those I send to you to her cronies for their sham rituals."

Baliel frowned at her disapproving tone. "I sell 'em to the witches by the corpse. It's business. Your sensibilities interfere with your work even after so long."

It was an old argument and Madam was wise enough to let it drop. Theirs was a strange partnership that depended on the utmost discretion.

"So how many this week?"

Folding callused hands on his stomach, Baliel stared into the air as he mentally recalled his clientele. He was paranoid enough to keep the details of his trade in his keen memory. "Four prostitutes, two of whom were already four months into pregnancy. One went to Mistress Vaur for one of her potions-against my every warning, of course. It worked, but damn nearly killed her too."

"Vaur is a fakir."

"But she isn't as finicky as you. Now where was I? Yes . . . two from Middle and five from the Uppers. It's always the rich . . . Expect the Uppers to go to you cos they can afford it." The little man picked up his pipe from the table and began to pack it with tobacco-a luxury that was rare these days.

"One of the Middles already came," Madam informed him coolly.

"Which one? No, let me guess. Light brown hair, sweet looking thing who looks as though she's about to cry?" At the affirmative nod, Baliel shook his head and lit his pipe. "Only two months, the ultra-sound can't tell if it was a mutie. You refused her, I suppose?"

"No, I agreed. It was her father's."

That statement caused the other no shock. "Ah, inbreeding and possible mutation-nasty. Could you preserve it in relatively good condition?"

"Always the mercenary, aren't you?" Madam asked bitterly. "I bet you're wishing that she was a six-month case."

"Now that's going too far, Khali," Baliel said mildly. "I don't want anyone to suffer that. A girl's better off dead than to be caught with a mutie that late. The Guardians would have her burned or turned over to the Minders-whatever god help her. It's her soldier dad and all of his lot who should be gotten rid off."

"Easier said than done. It's likely that he's carrying the taint but the doctors probably the whole batch through without a thorough check. Your good business is a bad sign."

"Yes, but I have sidelines. Do you want me to tell them to go to Ms Carr?"

"That would be the best. I will persuade that girl to go to Ms Carr if she has the will to carry it out." Madam Khali stood and inclined her head to her partner. "Good day to you."

Baliel showed her out of his chamber of preserved dead and promised that he would send her new jars.

Madam stepped out into the back alley behind the barbershop, handkerchief pressed to her nose. Sanitary laws were all well and good, but the gutters were often clogged with refuse and those near Baliel's reeked suspiciously of other things best left undiscovered.

Making sure that her departure was not remarked upon, she made for the more crowded main thoroughfares. In her drab skirts and faded hat, she became one of the faceless masses. Cosmetics and the dark tail of dyed hair misled those around her about her age-there were few people on the streets who were more than fifty years old.

The city of Rhenn was not yet sixty years old. Yet Madam knew that most of the houses in this quarter were older. Further towards the east, the buildings were only three decades or so old.

Passing through 34th street, she was met by the pile of ashes in the centre of the Execution Square. Workers were sweeping the chalky dust away and setting up a new platform. All traffic eddied around the carbon-scored flagstones and no one acknowledged the industry that went on in their midst. No vendors ever set up shop along the pavement facing the Execution Square.

The last burning had been three days ago. Madam had not gone to watch, but the Boy had been passing through that afternoon and had been compelled to stay least the Guardians suspected him. He told her that they had dragged an entire family-mother, father and children-up to the platform. The Justice on Duty had read out the charges of harbouring escaped criminals, infidelity to the Faith and treason to the State, then sentenced them to the burning.

Boy had returned home, shaken to the core. He had seen executions-they all had-but he had never witnessed children being burned.

The truth of the matter, according to Baliel's backroom news network, was that one child had been suspected to be a mutant. But muties did not exist, and neither did angel-makers like Madam Khali or witches like Mistress Vaur in the cities patrolled by Guardians. Radiation in the contagion zones and Baliel's organ trade and corpse sales did not exist in the world defined by the Eastern Alliance. There was no other world except that that began fifty-four years ago, according to the preachers of the Faith.

Simply put, the past did not exist.

To Madam Khali, the-past-that-was-not was still clear in her mind. It had been fifty-four years ago, before the wars and before the power-mad struggles for power over the remnants of civilisation and humanity in general, when she was just sixteen.

That girl had come a long way and now she gazed about the busy street with the practised care of a survivor. Before entering Avenue, she paused to turn around to see the unhindered view of the city from the crest of the hillock.

Rhenn spread out like a geometrical maze, west and south of where she stood. To the north was the wastelands and east lay the river that had a different name once-both denied the average citizen by the dark band that was the wall around the city and the azure sky that loomed overhead.

So few people knew of the river, much less had ever viewed it.

A Patrol car turned the corner and Madam became as inconspicuous as she knew how. Danger passed and she headed for the pink shophouse on 24th Street.

There was a girl waiting for her when she reached home. About the same age of the previous one, she was pretty in a haughty sort of way and by the cut of her clothes, a member of the upper class.

"I have need of your services," she opened without preamble. "I heard that you were the safest."

"How many months?"

"Nearly four."

"Who's the father?"

"That's none of your business. Are you willing to do it?"

Well, if she was going to be treated as a dumb old biddy, she would play along. "Do you suffer from any . . . what's that again? Taint?"

The girl flushed in outrage. "Name your price and ask no questions."

Madam had seen quite a few of this sort before but she was not exactly impoverished at the present. "I know you can afford it, but I won't do it."

Taken aback, the girl stared at the inscrutable profile of the woman she had bribed her servants for knowledge of. "Why?"

"Because it's a healthy child and you lose nothing by bringing it into this world." But she saw that the girl would not understand and braced herself for an argument.

"Name the price for your scruples," the girl demanded impatiently.

"I believe we have nothing more to say to each other. Good day." Madam rose from the settle

The girl's eyes narrowed. "Mistress Vaur won't let a customer go so easily."

"The last of Mistress Vaur's clients made away with her life-just barely. The child's probably on it's way to becoming tonic soup by now. Try Morgause, she'll sell her old granny for wine."

"I did," the girl admitted, too angry to hide that she had gone to the woman who took care of unwanted pregnancies for prostitutes. "She threw a fit for no reason at all and nearly threw me out."

One of those famous fits. Morgause was so melodramatic and her queer moods made Mistress Vaur richer. Not that it was not entirely justified when it came to this particular individual.

"Well, having better manners, I'll show you the door."

All frozen rage and haughty dignity, the girl stood and hissed, "You'll be sorry, I could have made you rich."

"In this city, little old ladies don't get far by being rich," Madam said calmly and gestured with her right hand. "The back door is down that passage."

The look in that girl's eyes was pure murder but Madam had seen a lot of balked temper in her years and showed her out as quickly as she could.

She did feel the slightest chill as she watched the girl go from the spyhole set in the door.

Later that night, Madam Khali peeled off rubber surgical gloves and washed her hands in the old ceramic sink in her basement. Cleanliness was of utmost important in the basement chamber.

She scrubbed her hands with antiseptic soap. They were thin-fingered, blue-veined hands-hands that never faltered except once in their work.

But soon she would play the devil's advocate and it was her tongue that would suggest the unspeakable and show the way. Without pause for rest, Madam went to warm up some soup.

The girl woke an hour afterwards and was handed a cup of soup.

"It's done?" she asked anxiously.

Madam nodded. "Drink your soup."

"I don't remember anything," the girl whispered, still partially in a daze.

"Do you want to?" There was no answer for that, so the girl stayed silent and sipped at her soup.

After a while, Madam scrutinised the girl intently. "Do you hate your father?"

The girl lowered her eyes and hesitated. "Yes . . . I think I do," she said at last. "I-I hate him for what he did."

"I suspect he has been contaminated. You know what they do to people who are proven to be tainted, don't you?" Madam Khali watched the fear blossom in the girl's brown eyes. "If you are discovered or he begins to show the signs, your family will die."

In those stricken eyes Madam could almost see the flames licking at the pyre and pressed forwards relentlessly. "You can spare your family from it and perhaps your father from succumbing to the worst, visible symptoms, if you have the spirit to do it."

"What's to be done?" she asked in a whisper.

Madam told her. Wide-eyed with terror and shock, the girl could only stare at her.

"Here is the address." A piece of paper was thrust into her slack fingers. "It's up to you to save yourself and perhaps your mother."

The girl was still speechless even when Madam helped her on with her coat and sent her out the backdoor.

The next day, she received a slip of paper from the man who delivered things for Baliel.

The coded message was a single line: You are being watched.

She burned the scrape of paper immediately, mouth compressed into a thin line.

There were so many things to do . . .

Two days later, everything had been taken care of. She had sent Boy out for supplies just a moment ago. Last night, she had taken her box to Baliel's with a few other choice items after that visit to Ms Carr.

Ms Carr, a little old woman with a limp who lived in her cramp rooms surrounded by something that Madam liked to call "motherly clutter".

In that den of lace doilies, lampshades and fussy cushions, she had sipped camomile tea at twelve-thirty in the morning.

"That slip of a girl came this afternoon. Scared like a rabbit," Ms Carr said, bright birdlike eyes peering at her friend and associate shrewdly. "Barely drank her tea."

"Did she say anything?"

"Oh this and that . . . Something about being not able to stand it anymore . . . Something about drinking-bad habit, I always say. She took the sleeping drug I suggested and bolted."

"Young people nowadays." They tisked sagely and drank their tea.

"I called Baliel already," Ms Carr volunteered. "He'll see to everything afterwards."

The implications of afterwards hung in the air like smoke from the executions.

"Aye, that's good. There is a slight problem though. Morgause refused this rich girl and she came to me."

"Morgause is temperamental. I take it that you said no."

"I did and she left in a huff. And a vengeful look in her eye."

"Spiteful, eh? Youth and impatience." Ms Carr stood up and rummaged in a large wicker basket that appeared to be filled with sewing things. "Precautions?"

"End of the road," Madam said matter-of-factly. "There's the Boy to consider."

Ms Carr turned, no longer wearing her expression of benign senility. "You're thinking of closing shop?" she asked, suddenly as serious a judge.

Poison-brewer to angel-maker, they faced each other across a little teak table.

"Yes. Make it a strong one. I've become a bit immune to its affects since twenty years before."

"Warned you about, didn't I?" Ms Carr said coolly. "The doses you took back then were enough dope horses."

"Just give me your strongest draught and I'll trouble you no longer."

Preparation for the future. But it was now that she lived.

The present. Now.

She listened half-heartedly to the landlady's recitation of the morning gossip over her morning tea.

Apparently someone had fallen into the main western canal and drowned last night. A drunken solider by all accounts.

"The world these days," Mrs Brown was saying, "is no place for decent people anymore, what with drunks and ruffians on the streets."

"No place for ladies to walk out in safety," Madam nodded agreeably. She need not even think for Mrs Brown went on like this every teatime and response from listeners was purely voluntary.

"Mrs Brown, I take it that you're buying dinner tonight?"

"Yes, yes . . . Fish and greens from the shop-I heard it was really mackerel."

"That will be a treat."

"Of course and it will be so good for a growing boy."

The Boy, gangling and awkward, as were most boys of that age. Her runner of messages and erstwhile accomplice. Her thoughts seemed to wrap themselves around her so much so that even Mrs Brown saw that she was beyond hearing at the moment and bustled off.

Half an hour later, when Mrs. Brown had left for the shops, Madam Khali shook off her apparent drowsiness and fished out that tiny vial from her pocket.

She drank a toast to all those dead babies and strode over to the stove. Her stick she wielded like a shovel and pushed out several hot coals onto the floor. One red lump went skittering to the corner where the charcoal bin was and another was sent under the kitchen table.

The opium was working-she could feel her bones turn to lead and the strength ebb away from her limbs as she thumped back to her seat. This must be what the anaesthetics felt like when she put the girls under.

The wicker basket beside the charcoal bin began to smother.

Slowly, Madam Khali lowered herself into the armchair and closed her eyes. They used to say that your life would flash before your eyes before you died. She saw nothing but the comforting shadows that eclipsed her mind, drowning the many girls called Alice.

The tablecloth caught and the flames now licked at the curtains. Her extremities were going numb; she could not feel the heat.

There was nothing but relief as she drifted away on the wings of oblivion.

The Boy had been out for the greater part of the afternoon and he was anticipating a good Sunday dinner-not that any one would admit that they knew it was Sunday.

There was one more stop before he was to return home-Baliel's. He knew the man's illegal sidelines and was sure that Baliel had a few others no sane person wanted to know about.

He knocked on the backdoor of the barbershop.

Backdoors had been his life. Baliel's was as familiar to him as the back of his hand.

Baliel himself answered, blinking like an owl caught in daylight. "Ah, Boy, your granny send you for supplies?"

He nodded. "And she asked me to give you this list."

The little barber took the scrape of paper and peered at it for a moment. "Ah. Well, you best come with me," he said and turned to the dim interior of his shop, beckoning with one hand. The Boy followed-the basement no longer held surprises for him anymore.

Baliel first locked the backdoor and then closed up his barbershop. Boy frowned, unable to figure out the extra secrecy involved in today's transaction. Then he was ushered into the well-lit basement and even that hatch was bolted behind them.

"Worried about Patrollers, Mr Baliel?" he asked politely.

"Can't be too careful," he answered in his normal short way. But his manner seemed shiftier than usual and his eyes darted here and there like a cornered rat. "Want a cup of tea?"

"No thank you."

"Suit yourself then."

The Boy watched the little Eurasian man hustle off into the adjoining room where his precious ultrasound machine and mini-generator were stashed. He had studied about Asia and received a vague impression that it had something to do with rice.

Baliel returned, not with the usual supplies but a strangely familiar box.

"Here, your granny said you were to read this." An envelope was shoved in his hand and Boy looked at it uncomprehendingly. Why should Madam leave a letter at Baliel's for him"

"Well, read it, Boy! You know how to read, don't you?" If the barber's tone was a bit shy of its normal gruffness, the Boy did not notice.

He unsealed the envelope and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. Some pieces of card fell out and when he bent to retrieve them, he saw that they were actually photographs-the kind that didn't exist any more. Recognising none of the people in the time-faded pictures, the boy turned to the letter, written in his grandmother's firm, neat hand.

To my grandson:

I know this is a very sudden thing to spring on you, but circumstances have left me little choice. By the time you read this, I should have passed on and you are by no means to return to 24th Street again.

Truth first. I will not soften this for I believe I brought you up to be stronger than that. You are my grandson. My daughter, Alice, was your mother. She left you nothing but I give you your name: Joseph after your father. Your parents have been dead these past fifteen years.

You are a lot smarter than you make out to be and no doubt you've surmised that I have been in contact with certain factions besides Baliel that do not officially exist. If you ask him, he will tell you about my sidelines.

Baliel has been entrusted with my equipment and the books. All that was mine is now yours. Survive. Your future is up to you to decide.

Yours,

Anna Lee

Suddenly the air was too thick to breathe. He set the letter down gently and took up the photos with trembling fingers.

One showed a girl with dark brown tresses standing on some stone steps.

Alice.

The next one was of that same girl and a tall man with black hair.

Joseph and Alice.

"She came to you, didn't she?" Boy-now Joseph-asked Baliel without looking up.

"Yes, she did, but your father did not carry the taint." Baliel opened his hands in an empty gesture of pacification. "It was just bad timing. Or bad luck."

"I thought you didn't believe in luck." Dark eyes looked up with a bitterness that was beyond his years. "I suppose I was lucky my grandmother refused to drown me in saline and suck me out with the pump."

"It was all chance, boy." Baliel sounded just a little exasperated. "Your parents were posted here, as was your granny. What happened was unplanned. Your mother would have preferred not to have a child until she and your father were in Australia-neutral territory."

"They were killed by the Minders, weren't they?"

Baliel shrugged. "Occupational risk-as is everything in our line of work, Joseph."

He was no longer Boy.

"You're all part of the Underground," Joseph whispered. "Ms Carr, you, my grandmother, my parents-"

"Aye, and sometimes, we all have to make sacrifices."

It was too warm; he could no longer think clearly. Certain that he had to get out of the stuffy basement, he ran for the stairs. Baliel watched him tear at the bolts with pitying eyes.

"Avoid the Patrols! You're not thick and never should be even now," he called to a pair of fast disappearing legs.

He charged into the gathering dusk, running like prey before the predator. Ingrained stealth took his feet along well-known paths through the back alleys and sheltered by-ways. The night air was not cool.

On and on he ran-as fast as a boy with a bad foot could.

The future would have to wait for a boy to master himself once more. Then perhaps there would be a search for fresher air and a sky that might not be blue.

Come the morning, Joseph/Boy's weary feet trudged up the road to his former home.

There was nothing but a burnt and blackened hulk where the old pink two-storey shophouse used to be.

(This fic is © Eline a.k.a F. W. L.)