‘Craig’s missing. He’s not been seen since he went to Ben.’ The woman was tall, taller than most men, middle-aged, powerful, hair cropped close. An ugly scar ran down her bare left arm from shoulder to wrist. She walked with another man in a cramped space, a landing of sorts, a small, flat wooden floor between the flights of steps that surrounded them. A narrow square of darkness, just a banister’s width away, stretched above and below them through the wooden stairs. Absently, the woman let her fingers stretch out from her palm, trailing her nails on the banister, touching the air, feeling the currents of the drafts, remembering freedom. She carried on, ‘He’s out of control, Kyle. You know it.’
‘He’s useful, Claire. You know that.’ Kyle was a tall man, taller than Claire, his face and body angular, cruel. He had a habit of tilting his head back, just slightly, so that he could look down on whomever he was talking to. He looked down at her now, his glare running the length of his beaked nose and straight into her eyes.
She didn’t flinch, just pushed the tablet device she held between them towards him. They paused at the bottom of another flight of wooden steps. The screen showed the devastation at the Victoria and Albert Museum. They watched as the angel’s laser slashed the sours down, row after row of them.
‘And now he’s set that off. Tash was always going to come home when it got too much, when she didn’t have anyone to look after her, but now we’ve got that to deal with,’ said Claire.
‘Things always need dealing with. How long ago was this?'
'A couple of hours.'
'Is Ben still there?’
‘Of course he is. You haven’t told him to do anything else yet. He’s your little robot; he’ll do as you say till you tell him to stop doing it.’
‘Jealous?’ Kyle smiled as he said it.
‘Of that freak? Hardly!’
‘We’re all jealous, Claire.’ He reached out a hand to smooth her cheek. Just a hint of a gasp escaped her mouth. ‘We all want to be number one.’ Kyle relaxed his fingers, letting them drop from Claire’s face but leaving one, his index finger, pressed into her cheek. He began to drag his fingertip down to her jaw line, leaving a V of slightly reddened flesh in its wake. ‘We all see ourselves at the centre of our own universe,’ he continued. ‘Ben just wants a little attention, that’s all. Anyone could have given it to him at any time.’ He moved his finger along her jaw line till it was pressed firmly against her chin. ‘Someone to point him out and say well done. That was it.’ Kyle shrugged and gave Claire’s chin a little shove. She stood firm, only allowing her head to move. Kyle smiled at her. ‘I just happened to give it to him first.’
‘And does that make you his master or his mother?’
Kyle smiled. ‘In a way, I suppose I'm both. Whichever it is, he wants to impress and that’s something I can use.’
‘Then use him. You know what he’s like when he’s left alone too long. He finds ways to amuse himself.’ Claire suppressed a small shudder.
‘You shouldn’t let him scare you. You know I’ll never let him hurt you. Ben knows the line. If he crosses it, I'll deal with him.’
Claire looked up at Kyle and nodded. She held her breath while she did it, keeping her neck rigid and the nod firm.
‘It looks to me,’ said Kyle, turning his attention back to the tablet’s screen, ‘like they need a joiner.’
Claire smiled, releasing the breath she had held. ‘Know any good ones?’ she said.
He smiled at her. ‘There's a name I could recommend.’ He started up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and Claire quickly followed. 'Forget about Ben. I'll deal with him later. Right now I want to know if we're on schedule.'
'Jermaine thinks it will work.'
'I know that it'll work. I want to know where we are on the schedule.'
'We need more people,' said Claire, her words calmer than she felt. No matter how many times she made this climb, Claire could never get used to the alarming creaks and the shifting of the dust. Kyle seemed oblivious. He pounded through the noises and the dust, his determined steps shaking the stairs even more than usual. 'We have enough rifles for forty, which we think would be enough to deal with the sours, but we've only got thirty people we can rely on to shoot. Scratch that. Twenty-nine. Craig was a shooter.'
Kyle glanced at Claire. A smile played across his lips that was amused but carried a warning. ‘We'll continue with recruitment. Winter is coming, people will want warmth and protection. Anyone who's still alive this far into the end of the world will probably be useful with firearms.'
'Recruitment has pretty much stopped.'
'It'll start again. Our street cleaning programme will help.' He watched her. 'Have a little faith, Claire; things are going well. And forty rifles is good. Out little engineer has been busy. How is he?’
'Same as always: angry.'
'Wouldn't you be with a face like that?'
'I assume to him it's normal. For all we know he's a looker where he comes from.'
'He scares you.' It wasn't a question.
'Not while he's in his hole.'
Kyle smiled once more. It was an indulgent gesture but Claire knew that it carried the same warning as when she had mentioned Ben. Kyle liked his pets. ‘We’re working on finding more warm bodies to fire the rifles,' she said,' but recruitment isn’t easy. People don’t seem to trust as easily as they used to. Straight after the crash everyone was desperate for any kind of help. Now, any warm bodies left have found their own ways of surviving. They don’t automatically think that they need us. Remember the ones in south London at the power station?’
'Ah yes, the battle of Chelsea Bridge. Good times, Claire, good times.'
'For some, but that's becoming the norm out there. People not just resisting our help but actually fighting us.'
‘That’s where Ben’s little slip of control is going to come in useful. A message of support from the Cynosure will make sure anyone we find will join us.’ Suddenly, he stopped and turned on Claire, pointing at her, his face a mask of mock seriousness, his voice sports-commentator momentous. 'Remember, the Cynosure fights for you!'
Claire halted, shocked. Kyle continued, 'And Ben fights for me. I can offer her and her friends the protection and all she'll have to do is record a message. She's not stupid; she'll agree.' Kyle turned and climbed the stairs again.
‘How do you know she'll trust you?’ Claire held her breathing in check, not wanting to show weakness in front of Kyle. She could feel the burn in her legs, the urge to pant and gasp in her lungs and she knew that there was a sheen of sweat across her forehead.
He looked over his shoulder with mock indignation. ‘Joiners are very trustworthy people, Claire.’
She smiled as she climbed the steps. ‘Without them we wouldn’t have lovely new kitchens,’ she intoned, obviously quoting Kyle’s own words back to him.
‘Exactly,’ said Kyle, giving her what was this time a genuine smile. Claire allowed her own smile to remain, knowing that she was safe from Kyle’s capricious moods for now. ‘There’s something about wood that makes people happy.’ Their footsteps rang solidly on the wooden steps to echo his point. He turned to Claire as he climbed. ‘Unlike our friend Ben. I have to admit that you’re right about him; he’s dangerous. But in the grand scheme of things he’s so small that I just can’t get too upset with him. Little Ben is not our main concern.’
They emerged onto a wider space, seemingly vast after the confines of the stairs. Daylight flooded through tall, thin, open windows and in the middle of the room, dominating, hung a bell. It was even taller than Kyle and as wide as a car. Claire was almost sagging with relief at the end of their climb, but was still overawed by the immensity of the metal bell.
Kyle turned to her. ‘It’s Big Ben that I’m worried about.’
‘Sir!’ A man came rushing from behind the bell. ‘I didn’t know you were coming. I’d have…’
Kyle raised a hand to silence the man. He stood awkwardly, wiping his hands down the sides of his overalls. ‘If I wanted you to know I was coming, Jermaine, you’d have known. Because you didn’t, you can assume that’s how I wanted it.’
‘Yes sir,’ said Jermaine, nodding his head furiously. His hands were never still, his forehead shined with sweat and his voice cracked with nerves.
‘How goes my bell, Jermaine?’ Kyle stood away from the other man, his hands ready at his sides like he was a cowboy waiting to draw.
'She'll ring. No doubt about it, but we've got the same problem; the tower's not safe.'
'You keep giving me excuses, Jermaine,' said Kyle. 'Haven't I always been good to you? Your arms are still clear, yes?' Claire could hear the warning in his voice as plainly as if Big Ben were ringing, but it sailed over Jermaine's head even though he was nodding his thanks for his clear arms.
He stuttered and stumbled as words raced from his mouth. 'Back in the day, before the crash, before the Message, the tower was supposed to be repaired. They said they would wait till 2020, but they never did it...'
Jermaine squealed as Kyle moved fluidly towards him, grabbed him by the neck and dragged him to the wooden guard around the descending flights of stairs. He pushed the man against the rail and leaned him out over the square of dark space, his bottom pivoting against the banister.
Claire rushed to follow Kyle, not daring to stop him but hoping to talk some sense into him. 'Kyle! What are you doing?'
He leaned out over the rail to glare into Jermaine's face, pushing him down like a seesaw so that his head was below the level of the guard. 'You see, Jermaine,' he said, his face twisted with sudden rage, 'Claire and I were having a conversation about wood. We were talking about how it makes people happy, like it was alive, like you could grow it or shape it for what you need, or some crap like that. To me it's something that's useful, something that can be made strong. Right now it's just about strong enough to stop you from falling all the way down this hole and landing on your stupid, thick skull.'
'Kyle?' said Claire. She half reached a hand out to him but stopped herself.
'What is it, Claire? Are you going to tell me I have to value this excuse-maker's life?' He never took his eyes off Jermaine's terrified face. His iron grip around the man's neck never slackened and was the only thing keeping him from falling. 'What do you think?' he said to him. 'Should I value you, Jermaine? What do you bring to my organisation? How will you help us move forward as a community?' He shook the other man. 'Mmm?'
Jermaine's breathing came in ragged gasps, he was shaking his head, unable to speak through the fear as his bottom shifted on the banister rail. His eyes widened even further and his bladder betrayed him.
Kyle watched the wet patch around the crotch of his overalls grow and spread. Soon urine dripped slowly down into the space. 'Now where did your self respect just go, Jermaine? Did you piss it out of your pants?'
'The tower,' Jermaine gasped. 'The tower won't take it.'
Kyle suddenly snarled and hauled Jermaine back into the room and threw him to the floor.
Claire dashed to Jermaine, grabbed his hands. 'Stand up,' she hissed at him. 'Stand up or he'll put you down permanently.'
Kyle stalked to the windows and glared down at the desolate city below. Westminster Bridge stood empty. Not even any sours. He turned and walked to the other side of the room, knocking on the bell as he passed.
Claire moved to join him.
'I need this bell to ring, Claire,' he said. He was glaring straight down. 'I need it before the winter's out so that we can build in the spring.'
She followed his gaze to the floor of the square courtyard. It had been a car park at one time. Now it was home to a steel sphere. It very nearly filled the space, its dark, shining surfaces at odds with the Gothic surroundings of Westminster Palace.
'We make do with thirty rifles and our engineer can shore up this old tower,' said Kyle. He turned to the awkward figure of Jermaine and marched over to him. The man flinched as Kyle approached, his hands twitching spasmodically across his groin as he tried in vain to cover the wet stain. 'I think you need some help, Jermaine,' said Kyle. 'And I'm going to get you that help. We can't do this with just wood and willpower; we need something extra.' He leaned close to Jermaine and whispered, making the man flinch again. 'Something special.'
Claire stared at the steel sphere and shuddered. Kyle's insistent voice called back from the window.
'Claire. Time to go,' he said.
She smiled at Jermaine as they walked to the stairs and began their journey back down. He didn't smile back, just stared at her with round, mournful eyes.
'Is Jermaine a shooter?' said Kyle once they had descended several flights and were out of Jermaine's hearing.'
'Yes,' said Claire.
'Then it looks like we'll be down to eighteen. Our engineer will need some special assistance on this one. You'd best get the scouts working overtime.'