Talulla Rising Page 75

On day sixteen the BBC News ran a little lighthearted story on UK preparations for the full-moon winter solstice lunar eclipse. Bearded men and overweight women in robes and daisy-chains. Astronomers walked us through the math with graphics aimed at seven-year-olds.

‘You have to understand,’ Mia Tourisheva said to me on the phone. ‘I’m doing everything I can. These people don’t want—’

Konstantinov snatched the phone: ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘Tonight my chemist friend is bringing me a gallon of HS204. Do you know what that is? It won’t kill your child, but it will be excruciatingly painful for—’

‘God damn you, Mikhail, stop it. Stop it.’ I tried to get the phone back. Between us we dropped it. When I picked it up the line was dead. It rang immediately.

‘Please,’ Mia said. ‘Don’t. Don’t. I swear to you I’m doing everything I can. The Fifty Families are looking for them and they don’t know where they are.’ She sounded exhausted. The pleading in the normally calm voice was horrible to hear. I left Konstantinov and took the phone upstairs with me. Locked myself in one of the bathrooms. I was ready to reassure her, but by the time I opened my mouth she’d recovered her composure. ‘Do what you have to do,’ she said. ‘Just remember: I don’t die. I have for ever to find you, and after you, your children, their children. It’ll be a long time before I’m satisfied. Now, let me speak to my son.’

‘Get some fucking results,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll let you speak to your son. If he still has a tongue to speak with.’ Then I hung up.

I slept with Zoë in her bassinet next to me, when I did sleep, when I wasn’t staring at the ceiling or pacing the downstairs rooms or (naturally: wulf doesn’t care) jerking-off. Ten days after her debut transformation my daughter had started taking milk from me again. I’d had nothing since drying-up in prison, but when she’d woken in the middle of the tenth night there it was, just as I’d known it would be in the dream I’d been having moments before. It was a unique grief, sitting with her at my breast, feeling the life and love there could have been. She stared at me with dispassionate comprehension, as if she knew my love was forced away from her but there was nothing she could do. Her primary hardwired connection was to her brother. Nothing could come from her to me while he was withheld. She wasn’t punishing me. It was impersonal, structural, necessary. If I failed – if he died but she and I survived – then something might be possible between us, if I could stand it. But not while he was alive, not while he was withheld. Until he was established one way or another – rescued living or discovered dead – her soul was on pause. I told myself, obviously, that none of this was coming from her, that all of it was my own projection. My thinking self understood this. It didn’t make any difference. Every time our eyes met, there it all was. It ought to have stopped me letting our eyes meet. Instead I couldn’t stop. The truth was addictive.

Five days before the winter solstice I woke around four in the morning and knew something wasn’t right. The hunger was wide awake, had been waiting for me, jabbering, fidgeting, occasionally lashing out (it doesn’t recognise sleep, but eventually exhaustion outmatches it and your body crashes), but through my blood’s racket the house let me in on a new silence it was holding somewhere. My watch said 4.17 a.m.

Konstantinov’s shift.

Oh.

I looked into the bassinet. Zoë was awake, but peaceful. I got out of bed, pulled on jeans, sneakers, a shirt, and without protest from her slipped her into the carrier around me. There was a Springfield and clip under my pillow. I took it.

Walker’s door was shut but I knew he wasn’t asleep. I could smell scotch, unwashed clothes, his body’s misery. Cloquet’s door, wide open, revealed him asleep, fully clothed on his front, one arm hanging over the side of the bed, its immediate radius littered with cigarettes, crumpled bills, change, keys. His curtains were half-drawn, showed the plump belly of the moon – waxing gibbous – the clock that didn’t tick down but instead fattened-up to Lorcan’s death and the end of everything I knew.

‘Whatever you’re doing, Mikhail, please, stop. Please.’

I was at the head of the basement stairs. Konstantinov was standing over Caleb’s bed with his back to me. He had my cellphone in one hand. On the floor next to him was an unmarked opaque plastic bottle with its cap still on. I couldn’t see Caleb’s face, but I could tell from the sound of him he’d been gagged. His wrists and ankles were cuffed to the bed – unnecessarily, since we didn’t keep him strong enough to get to his feet.

‘Mikhail, just wait, please. It’s still okay. You still haven’t done anything.’

I came down the stairs, the Springfield stuck down the back of my jeans.

‘Come on, look at me.’

‘It’s the only way,’ he said. ‘It’s the only way.’

‘Seriously, Mikhail, come on. Look at me.’

He turned. His face was pale and big-pored. His beard had grown. The rims of his eyes were rhubarb-pink. He looked mad-monkish, on the brink of leaving himself behind.

‘If you do this,’ I said, ‘you won’t be the same person. You won’t be the same person for Natasha. You have to think of Natasha watching you do this, because she’ll watch it in her mind just as clearly as if she was standing here next to you.’

Caleb was watching me, through his sickness and fear. I was thinking: if you ever have the chance to intercede for me, please don’t forget this.

I moved closer to Konstantinov. ‘This is just desperation,’ I said. ‘This is just the need to do something. I understand. I feel it too. But you know deep down it won’t make any difference, except to change you into someone else. Right now you’re still the person Natasha knows. Don’t turn yourself into someone who’ll be a stranger to her.’

He looked down at Caleb. Not with compassion or enmity. With nothing. With the human face’s version of the vast mathematical silence.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Leave it. It’s passed. You don’t ever have to go through this again.’

I like to think that was it. I like to think I’d talked him down, that whatever had happened next he wouldn’t have poured sulphuric acid on a young boy’s face so that the young boy’s mother could hear the screams. I like to think that, but there’s no way I’ll ever know, because what happened next was that the phone in his hand rang.

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