31st October 2041
“Mummy, look.” Willow mounts the roof of the den and thrusts a jubilant fist in the air, her dark curls bobbing. “I’m at the top.”
“Willow, hold on.”
Before I can move towards her, Seth’s at my side, a bag for life dangling from his arm. “She’s fine.”
“She’s four. She’ll break her neck.”
“Who, monkey girl?” He flaps a dismissive hand.
“Over-anxious mother.” Seth’s brown eyes fold into what Willow calls his tease-creases. “Oh, hey, I got us a treat.” With a mischievous giggle, he pulls out a bottle of something bubbly from his bag with two glasses he must have grabbed from the caravan. He makes light work of popping the cork and pours. After handing a glass to me, he clinks his own against mine. “Happy birthday, Ess.”
Twenty-five today. I feel older. When I look at the burnt sky, Seth’s faded, checked shirt…everything feels older.
Willow has tired of climbing. She jumps down with Seth’s easy grace and springs onto her bashed-up trike. Watching her across the trailer park playground is like staring into a bowl of syrup. That orange hue we’ve just got used to ever since Sherwood Forest went up in flames. Over a hundred miles away, but I can smell the charred pines.
Seth’s hand, cool from the glass, is on my arm. “You haven’t seen my costume yet. Wanna guess?”
Trick or treat is one of his and Willow’s things. Like the baking.
I squint at his dark hair, imagine it slicked back from his widow’s peak. “Vampire?”
“Sexy priest.” An old joke.
“Too hot for dog collars.”
“Yes, you are. Er…politician?”
“Christ, no. What do you take me for?” He chuckles, though there’s a flicker in his eyes like there must be in mine. Memories of the time Alex Langford—OBE, and now beloved Prime Minister—tried to murder me in a locked room at his factory. I still dream about flashing light on concrete walls sometimes and wake up screaming.
I’ll bet Seth is thinking about my appearance at his vicarage, soaked in blood and tears, after my escape.
“I got nothing else,” I say, lips numb. “Tell me.”
“Ah…wait and see, my beautiful assistant.”
Willow crashes her trike into the railings behind the swings. Thank God they’re there, or she’d have tipped herself into the river beyond by now. She’s fearless, and that’s not always a good thing.
A breeze swirls the skeleton leaves about as it grows darker under sweaty clouds.
“Come on,” says Seth. “Looks like another storm’s coming. And you’ve got a parcel waiting for you at home.”
I can’t think of anyone else who would remember my birthday. Nobody in a position to send me something. Brian gave me a bunch of flowers when I left the Braai yesterday, so it’s not him. We quaff our fizz, gather our bags, and hustle Willow across the spit of waste ground home.
We’ve made the caravan cosy with cushions and pictures on the frail walls, but it makes me pine for my old flat. Even the damp smell was better than the burnt air that seeps in through the cracks. Willow loves this place, though. When we had to leave our cottage, she thought it was like a holiday. Six months later, the novelty hasn’t worn off for her.
That’s fortunate, because Unity has commandeered the cottage for good. The new directive came out in April. Unity, our own ‘harmonising coalition of faith and science’, is now allowed to take possession of any property for ‘authorised spiritual or scientific endeavours’ as long as they provide a ‘suitable alternative’. What kind of endeavour they needed our home for is beyond me. Are they training new clerics there? Indoctrinating new educators to enlighten the masses? Doubtful.
I bet they only took it because my name was top of a list somewhere, ear-marked for more hassle.
Seth hands me a brown package, about the size of a book. “And here’s an official-looking letter.” He plops a white envelope on top of it.
There’s no contest. I chuck the letter on the little dining table and tear into the brown paper, revealing bubble wrap underneath. “Wills, I’ve got magic poppers for you later.”
Inside is a picture frame and a pink envelope. It’s a photo of Maya and me. She’s tipping her head towards mine and sticking her tongue out at the camera. Looks like we’re in a park. Heart pounding, I try to remember where the image was taken. We look about seventeen, so it must have been two years before Maya died.
Before she was murdered.
Another victim of Langford. Shot and suffocated because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Who sent this? Are they screwing with me?
With cold, shaky fingers, I open the card. It’s a print; an oil painting of a rainbow. Inside, a message straddles the two blank pages. I flop into the dining booth and read.
I found this picture when we were clearing out Maya’s flat back then. I always wanted you to have it, but it never seemed the right time. It looks like it was taken before she met that Lawrence.
Hope you’re doing well, and Seth and little Willow. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch more. It’s been six years, but it’s still painful to think of Maya all alone down there. How scared she must have been of that man. Why did she move so far away? We have excellent colleges up here. She could have gone to LIPA; she was such a talented actress.
Sorry, I don’t mean to mope. I hope I did the right thing by sending you the picture, and it doesn’t make you sad.
Take care of your little family.
Seth nods and takes the picture frame. “It’s a lovely photo.”
Alimah must still believe the lie they told her: Lawrence killed Maya. My eyes prickle with tears, but they’re self-indulgent. I shake them away. “I never told her what really happened. How could I have kept it from her?”
Seth nudges me along the seat and squashes in next to me, taking my hand. “What choice did you have?”
I rest my head on his shoulder.
Much later, face still streaked green with trick or treat paint, Willow is tucked into her bottom bunk, listening to Seth’s bedtime story. Remembering the letter, I scoop it up from the table and peel back the self-seal.
Unity HMP Enlightenment
Date as postmark.
Dear Ms Glass,
Permission has been granted for you to visit Mr Lawrence Cunningham at the facility above. Your appointment is Tuesday 5th November at 2.00pm. You must arrive 30 minutes before this time to enable security checks to be carried out. Please visit the web address below to confirm your attendance. Failure to do so will result in your slot being reallocated…
I gave up applying to see him over a year ago. There seemed no way, five years into a sham life sentence, they’d consent for us to meet. Not after all the trouble we caused them.
So why now?
Kerry Tyler changes her office more often than I change my sheets. In her defence, she’s had quite a few jobs in recent years. The sign on this latest door says she’s a Public Relations Consultant.
Filling my lungs with smoky morning air, I glance around the street. Nestled between a boarded-up bookie and a sex shop, the sign’s gold lettering looks either classy or slutty. I can’t decide which. Bit of a comedown from Homeland Environment Minister. She must have to skirt the sleeping bags under the bridge to get her coffee at the Worcester Spoon kiosk.
I check for patrol drones, then press the intercom.
The door buzzes. A silky, female voice says, “Come on up.”
She meets me on the landing in a pinstripe dress and the usual French pleat. Despite the greying hair at her temples, her skin is as dark and smooth as the first time we met.
“Kez.” I hate it when she shortens my name, and she knows it.
She gives me a tight-lipped smile. “Happy birthday for yesterday. How are Seth and Willow?”
I should be nice. It’s part of the game. Still, I can’t stomach the chitchat about my family. Not with this woman who’s been slithering around my life for years. Since she sniffed out her main chance, pinned her fortunes to me, Jack, and the carbon capture prototype he designed. “Jack on the call yet?”
“Not yet. I’m set up in the meeting room. Through here.”
Cream carpets and lilac paint—fancy; aspirational. Like she’s trying to recreate her heyday as an MP. Embedded in the far wall is a screen displaying a photo of a mountain scene.
With elegant, red-nailed fingers, Kerry gestures towards a leather chair facing us across a long, narrow desk. I fold into the seat, eyeing the pile of papers opposite as Kerry takes her place.
The mountains disappear and with no preamble I’m looking at Jack’s tired brown eyes. His hair glints reddish in a sunbeam from the window beside him.
“Jack.” Kerry leans forward, the chair squeaking.
“Hi, Kerry. Can you hear me?”
His eyes hold the weight of our secret as they switch to the side, presumably at the little version of me on his screen. “Essie. How are you doing? How’s Willow?”
“Good. All good.”
“New office, Kerry?”
“Uh huh. So, let’s get started. You were going to give us a progress report.”
My heart thuds. This is the part we must get right, or Kerry will know something’s up. One wrong step and it’ll all unravel: the copy of the file Seth made for me; that Jack’s further into the build than Kerry imagines. Once it’s built, we can release it into the world, cut Kerry off from her meal ticket. She has no idea, believes Jack’s building it from scratch, years away from completion.
At least, I hope she does.
“Well, we’re doing okay,” Jack’s saying. “The physical absorbent is working.”
“Which is?” Kerry purses her lips, clearly unhappy to be at a disadvantage to Jack’s expertise.
“The thing that’s going to capture the CO2. It’s where the gas is stored until it’s passed onto the chemical absorbent.” Seeing Kerry’s shoulders rise, he says, “Nickel. That’s the thing that will convert the CO2 to free energy.”
Her posture relaxes a little. “Okay. That sounds promising. And when will the chemical absorbent be ready?”
Jack’s chest rises, and he swallows. “Well, erm…that’s going to take us longer.”
“I mean, I know it’s possible. It’s just tricky in practice. And we need to make it scalable. Also…”
“Also, what?” Her tone sharpens.
Please, Jack, throw her some good news.
But: “Well, it’s kind of hard to buy large quantities of nickel in Cuba without raising eyebrows, you know? Are there any strings you can pull your end to get hold of some? I can give you the specifications.”
I squash a grin. Jack knows as well as I do Kerry doesn’t have strings to pull these days. He’s cornered her.
She sighs. “Okay. Send me the info through and I’ll see what I can do.”
“Great. Thanks, Kerry. I guess that’s it for now.”
“Yep. Guess so. Jack?”
“Next time set up for the call in your workshop. I want to see this tech in the flesh.”
It’s only a flicker, but I catch it in his eyes before he says, “Sure, no worries.”
Jack disappears as quickly as he arrived. I’m staring at the mountain again, my mouth dry.
Kerry turns her gaze on me. “So.”
“Don’t suppose anyone bought you a truckload of nickel for your birthday?”
Willow’s hair smells of herby shampoo and it tickles my nose as she leans in to kiss me.
“Can you read Rabbit Party, Mummy?”
“Didn’t you have that one last night? And the night before that…”
She giggles and points at the days of the week poster on her wall. “Silly Mummy. This is Friday Rabbit Party. Last night was Thursday Rabbit Party.”
“Oh, of course.” I pluck the book from the top of the pile by her bunk, settle on my knees and open it to read about rabbits having a secret picnic in the woods with the gnomes and fairies and all the woodland creatures. Not for the first time, I wish I could go back to when my worst nightmare was Baby Bee getting stuck in the jam.
Willow knows Baby Bee’s going to be all right. She’s asleep before the rabbits mount their rescue with a daisy stem.
Seth’s stretched out on the sofa with a beer. My laptop perches on a shelf next to him, playing old blues songs on low.
He swings his legs round to make room for me to sit. “She asleep?”
I nod, plucking the bottle from his fingers to take a swig. “Rabbit Party. Works every time.”
“Boring as hell, isn’t it?”
The beer goes up my nose as I laugh. Then the rain pinging off the caravan roof sobers me. There were landslides here in September. Across the park, nearest the river. Three families lost their vans. Thank God, everyone got out in time.
Seth squeezes my hand as he steals his bottle back. “What time’s he calling?”
I check the burner phone. “Eight.”
Seth smiles with closed lips. “I’ll get you a beer. It’s the only way to keep you from swiping mine.”
There are no contacts stored on the phone, but when it rings, I recognise the number as Jack. “Hi.”
“Essie.” As ever, he sounds relieved. Like each time he’s wondering if someone else has swiped the burner.
“Jack. Well played today. Kerry seemed to swallow everything you fed her.”
“Thanks. Yeah, think so. I’ve no clue what to do about next time. She’s going to want something solid. I’ll have to mock up a random bit of kit for her.”
“Well, we’ve got two weeks. Will that be enough?”
Seth’s staring at me, mouth set, like he’s trying to discern Jack’s words on my face.
“Should be,” says Jack.
I swig my beer. “And what about the real thing? The nickel you need?”
“I’ve got shed loads of nickel, Ess.” Jack chuckles. “D’you need any, ‘cause I’ve got it to burn over here?”
“Yeah, well, don’t burn it.” A grin plays on my lips. “How?”
A brief pause. “You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Jack, have you done something illegal?” I ignore Seth’s stare.
“You know what I mean. Did you steal it?”
Next to me on the sofa, Seth mutters, “Did he steal what?”
“Forget about the nickel. It’s a non-issue.” Jack’s voice drops. “We’re almost there. By the time we meet Kerry again, I’ll have a full operational CO2 capture and conversion unit to release to the world. Once I share the spec, every mad inventor in the world will be able to build it.”
“Every mad inventor with a heap of nickel in their garage.” Still, my heart does a hop. After everything we went through to save this thing from Langford and his cronies. “Doesn’t feel real.”
“I know. I’ll send you pics. You’ll see for yourself.” Jack’s breath rattles in my ear. I imagine him doing a victory dance in his workshop. “We might still save the world, Ess. You, me and Seth.”
Me, Jack and Seth. One of us doesn’t seem like he’s celebrating.
When Jack’s gone, he pings me a picture. It’s out of focus, but in a large concrete space looms an enormous cylinder of dark grey metal, maybe twenty feet long, propped on its side by struts of the same material. Wires and dials stud its surface here and there, but the rest of it gleams in the dim light.
Is this the thing that will save us?
Seth makes me jump with a hand on my arm. “What’s he been stealing, Ess?”