In a Kensington Mews Alex stopped for a moment and looked across at a house on the other side of the street. The windows were dark, blinds down, curtains drawn. Afternoon sunlight glinted on the panes and on the glossy green paint of the door. The breeze stirred the tall plane trees, causing shadows to fall across the house and the many windows, creating an illusion of movement. Only an illusion? Hadn’t one of the blinds twitched, one slat pressed down then released? He suppressed a shiver and moved on quickly.
No one could have seen him, could they? He’d taken care to stand where he’d be difficult to spot. He slipped through the gate into the park; the wet leaves of a cherry tree brushing his shoulders. There was a circular path around a muddy patch of grass and two benches huddled under the dripping shrubs, facing each other and a small stone memorial that held pride of place in the centre of the lawn.
One of the benches was occupied and the woman sitting there looked up at Alex the instant he came into sight. It wasn’t Eloise. He sighed and approached and the woman frowned at him from under her wide-brimmed hat, otherwise remaining as stiff and upright as if she were an Empress and the park bench a regal throne.
“Hello Mother,” he said. “I did wonder why Eloise wanted to meet right here. I guess now I know.”
“Alex,” she said, with displeasure. “If the only way I can see my own son is by using subterfuge then that’s what I’ll do. Sit,” she commanded, as if he were a dog. “Eloise called me, of course. There were six others who would also have led you directly to me. Just because your father and I have stepped back a little from affairs, it does not mean we have no influence. I have no illusions that you will drop this crass charade you’ve made of your life, but you will present yourself at the house at 1 o’clock this Saturday or I’ll allow your brother and sister to do what they’ve wanted to do for the past three years and wash my hands of you utterly.”
“And why am I going to do this?”
“You need another reason?” she said, raising her eyebrows. “You will be there, that is all!”
“Not if you don’t tell me why, I won’t. I can dodge Sim and Becca. They won’t have a hope in hell. You think I haven’t built up my own contacts? You think I don’t have resources?”
“No, and that’s what worries us. We want to talk to you, your father and I and...”
“What are we doing now? You won’t change my mind. Mother, none of you live in the real world; you don’t have the first clue what goes on!”
“Oh, don’t we?” she said coldly. “Then why did I hear you were working with those filthy assassins? You can endanger yourself as much as you like, but I – we - will not allow you to endanger our family. Though we live untouched you know we are under constant scrutiny. One wrong move, just one...and you are close to it Alex, pulling out the ground from under us stone by stone!”
Alex wished he had turned and walked away the second he’d seen it wasn’t Eloise who waited for him. Why didn’t I? Why do I never bloody learn! No matter what he did they kept tabs on him, poked and pried and asked questions, had others watch for him on their behalf, follow him and listen in on his conversations. His father, King of the dunghill on which he sat, lording it over a decaying empire, refusing to see the rot. His mother he saw as a fat-bodied spider, strands of her web reaching out for miles, gossamer that quivered with whispers and lies.
“Bullshit!” he said, his voice thick, and his mother stretched out one of her hands to take his, a cold, hard claw, sharp nails biting into his palm. She had her turned her head finally and for the first time since they’d begun to talk her face was out of shadow, her eyes on his.
They were red, blood red from edge to edge, iris and pupil. She opened her mouth but no words came, only a strangled, breathy wheeze. Alex stared, transfixed with horror, unable to let go of her hand, unable to move or even really believe what he was seeing as a line appeared on her neck like a black thread. It opened slowly and blood came spilling out, dribbling thickly down the crisp white blouse. She slumped, pulling him off-balance, her hand clutching his so tightly he felt his bones grind together. He fell on top of her as she slid off the bench into a glistening pool of her own blood, warm and slick.
Blood flowed out of her, and something else too, as her skin shrivelled on her bones and flesh. Alex felt it, felt it enter him, the taint of his family and he itched inside, tried to scream but somehow couldn’t find the breath to make a sound. He managed to wrench his hand away and backed off. For maybe a minute he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her, but when he managed it he ran.
He ran out of the park and out of the mews before he had the presence of mind to stop and walk, because people remembered someone running, didn’t they? Blood on my hands, he thought and stuffed them into his pockets. But it might be all over him, on his face even. He turned down a narrow lane and crouched behind a bin, gulping in air and shuddering all over.
Who did that? Who could do it? What the fuck am I going to do? He thought disjointedly, and weirdly, he thought of the Hunter. How she’d couched on that roof, waiting for death to come for her. Her face as he’d seen it through the binoculars, white and tense and determined.
Was it me? My fault? No, she went asking in the wrong places, she was the one who was wrong. She drew that on herself or why am I still alive? She cast her net and reeled in more than she could handle. Not my fault. Not my fault!