The Bargain

Taio seems to live a blessed life, but he has a dark secret: the loss of someone he loved in mysterious circumstances when he was a child. After years of searching, a stranger finally gives him a lead, but what will he discover when he tears aside the veil of reality and steps back into his past?

Taio opened his eyes slowly, trying to remember the thing that was important about today. His dreams were still fresh in his mind; the same bewildering grey forest he felt he was lost in every night, stretching forever in all directions, and him walking through the trackless thickets, calling out, hoping that someone would hear him and come to his rescue. But they never did. Just a dream though. Not important. Not like the thing today. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, tried to bring reality into focus, and then felt everything snap into place like the pieces of a puzzle. He remembered what he’d done last night, under the influence of half a bottle of wine – drunk enough to make a bad decision, but sober enough to string words together coherently. He’d finally sent that e-mail. Finally bitten the bullet and perhaps taken the first step down a long, twisted road. Or maybe one of the last, because it seemed sometimes like he’d been on this road for twenty years. Twenty years of pain, of loneliness, of loss…

He sat up and swung his legs down to the floor in one motion. He was a slim, physically fit young man. A blessing of sorts, since he never did any real exercise. His father had been the same, or so he’d been told. He was handsome too. Again, that’s what everyone told him but, secretly, he knew it was true. He thought of it as a burden more than anything since, no matter how hard he tried to enjoy life, tried to reap the benefits of being skinny, sexy, fashionable, it was always hollow. He always had something else on his mind.

He got up. His flat was fine. A good size, for London, because he had a good job, for London. Another respect in which he was lucky. Everything came fairly easily to Taio. He watched other people struggle, watched them make stupid decisions, do things wrong, stand by seemingly helplessly as their lives spiralled out of control. But he…he seemed to live a blessed life. Or so it appeared from outside. In his own mind, things weren’t so simple. He walked into the bathroom, splashed a little water on his face, looked at himself in the mirror, padded back out into the bedroom. He opened up his laptop to find he’d left it in standby so it fired back up straight away. He sidled into the chair at the desk and waited for his e-mails to start up. He hadn’t been expecting a reply so quickly, if he was honest, but he saw it pop up with a feeling of numb resignation. One long finger hovered over the mouse pad, trying to decide whether he should click on it or just pretend none of this had ever happened.

It had begun fairly innocently. In a moment of weakness he’d opened up to Raquel, his closest friend. She’d always know there was something strange lurking in his past, some unspoken trauma that he kept secret from everybody and she’d picked just the right moment to ask him about it. The trail had been cold for years, but when he told her as much of the story as he could bear to reveal, her eyes lit up. She said she knew someone, a friend of a friend, who might be able to help him. All she had was a name. He’d gone straight to Facebook, but found nothing – at least, nothing that was of any use. It was a fairly common name, and any number of women around the world shared it, but none that matched the description he’d been given. “She doesn’t have a Facebook,” Raquel explained, “she’s strictly off-grid. At least, that’s what I heard. When you realise who she is, what she’s involved with, you’ll understand.”

“I don’t get it. Who is she?”

“Someone who can help. Someone who knows that world. She’s…been through stuff. Stuff like you’ve been through, Tai.”

It was enough. He stumbled on a few tweets, followed a link to a message board, signed up anonymously, sent some private messages, traced another series of links that led him deeper and deeper into a strange, hidden world. A world that wasn’t supposed to exist. Finally, he’d found an e-mail address that someone on a forum swore blind was legitimate. This is the one. This is her. If you want to arrange a meeting, this is how to do it. You’d better have a good reason for taking up her time though. I hear she’s kinda touchy.

He’d sat on that information for over a month now, not daring to try to contact the mysterious person whom Raquel said might be able to help him. Somehow, it felt better to have it exist solely in potential: the promise of a resolution someday, untouched and existing forever as a perfect, unknowable destiny. But he knew he had to do it. He knew he had to open the box and see what might lay inside, or he’d never have a life. So he did it. He sent the e-mail. And now his inbox was lit up, showing him that a reply, a real one, not just a terse acknowledgement, as if he were contacting a webstore to register a complaint, was waiting for him. And so he waited, finger poised, hardly daring to breathe, not wanting to stare into the abyss, not wanting to find out for certain if the cat was dead or alive, not willing to admit that once, long ago, he had slipped through the cracks in reality and…

He clicked.

And jerked his finger back like he’d pricked it on a thorn. And then he sat there and read the e-mail.

From: jessica.west@web600.net

Subject: Re: Meeting?

Yes. I am happy to meet you. I can be in London by Tuesday (15th this month). I don’t travel that way often if I can help it. Do you know the White Horse in Camberwell? I’ll be there at 4 pm. I won’t wait for long. I hope you understand; you seem to know enough about me to know I’ve got good reasons to keep moving.

If this is a trick, you’ll regret it. I have friends in low places.

Jessica

Sent from my iPhone.

He breathed deeply. It was more than he’d hoped for, but her tone didn’t exactly make him comfortable. He Googled the pub she’d mentioned in another tab and got an idea for where it was. Being there on Tuesday afternoon wouldn’t be a problem as far as he knew. So he’d do it. He’d go there and he’d find out what he needed to know. This could change everything.

*

Tuesday came, and Taio was at the White Horse by 3.45. It was a fairly ordinary pub; not too local, not too upmarket. The menu looked nice, but he didn’t think he’d be staying for dinner. He ordered a coke and went to sit at a table to one side. From there he could watch the door, but he wasn’t in direct line of sight from it. He wanted to be prepared. He knew almost nothing about the woman he was meeting. An older man walked in and ambled to the bar. Taio watched him, and got a surly frown for his trouble, so he looked away quickly as the man ordered a pint. He glanced up just in time to see a tall, attractive woman walk in, and he started in his seat, but she held the door for a man about her age with a small child in tow, and the family went to find a table. He checked his watch. Only a couple of minutes had passed. His coke was half drunk already. He would have preferred to order a real drink, but he didn’t want to risk not having his wits about him, not for this. So he waited, and sipped, and waited. Another woman came through the door with a cold expression on her face and dark clothes. She met his gaze and he stared at her as she walked to the bar. Her eyes narrowed slightly. She was slim, white, with angular cheekbones, dark hair. She radiated self-possession. He felt sure it was Jessica. He started to get to his feet.

“Taio?”

He looked up in surprise. A woman about his age was standing by his table. He hadn’t noticed her come in. She was white, pretty but plump, with an open smile, dark hair and brown eyes. She was wearing a heavy coat that enveloped her and hid her shape. She wore a satchel slung over her shoulder. “Erm…hello…” he said.

“It is Taio, isn’t it?” She was already taking a seat opposite him in the booth.

“Yes. Are you…are you Jess?”

“Jessica, please. I don’t like being called Jess.”

“Sorry.”

“You’re not what I expected,” she told him.

“I’m not?”

“No. Pretty boy like you. A girl could let it go to her head.”

“I…sorry…”

“No need to apologise.” Her smile was warm, on the surface, but there was something strange in her eyes. “Why don’t you get me a drink and we can talk about your problem?” she suggested.

“Yes…er…what would you like?”

“A glass of rosé, please.”

He stood up and took out his wallet. “Aren’t you driving?” he asked, unsure quite why.

“I don’t drive.”

“Oh.”

“Rosé,” she repeated, “large. If they give you a choice, something sweet rather than dry.”

“I…yes…no problem…” He got her drink and came back, feeling a little sheepish. “You’re not what I expected either,” he said as he handed her the glass.

“No?” She took a sip, watching him over the glass.

“No. Not that…I mean…”

“What were you expecting, Taio?” She fixed him with her dark eyes, and suddenly he felt very unsure of himself. Girls like this didn’t often toy with boys like him in this way. Who was she?

“It doesn’t matter. Can you help me?”

“Maybe.” She took another sip of her drink. “Your e-mail was a big vague. Why don’t you start from the beginning?”

“Only if you can help me.”

“Well I don’t know if I can help you until I fully understand what the problem is, do I?”

“They say…” he looked around and then leaned in, lowering his voice. “They say, you’re an expert on the…on the unseen…”

She leaned in with him. There was a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Do ‘they’ indeed? Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, pretty boy.”

“So isn’t it true?”

“‘Expert’ might be a little strong. I have some experience though. There are…two kinds of people in the world.”

“There are?”

She nodded. “Oh yes. Or…perhaps it might be better to say that there are two kinds of world. The world we all know, and the world that is, as you say, unseen.”

“I don’t normally believe in supernatural stuff…”

“And yet, in your e-mail, you seemed to have some experience of…’supernatural stuff’…yourself…”

He licked his lips nervously. “If that’s what it was.”

“Tell me what happened and I’ll tell you if that’s what it was.”

Could he trust this woman? Her face was open and honest, but appearances could be deceptive. And the only contact they’d had up to this point was a terse e-mail exchange. “It was a long time ago.”

“You’re a young man. How long ago could it have been?”

“I was younger then.”

She rolled her eyes. “Obviously.”

“You know what I mean. And…and I lost someone…”

“That happens to us all,” she said softly.

“Not like this. I lost someone to…something else…something…unseen…”

“Like I said,” she added more firmly, “it happens to us all. Be specific, Taio.”

“Right. Sorry. A man came into our lives. A strange man. And he…he took someone I loved away.”

“Killed them? Is it revenge you’re after? Because I can’t help with that…”

“No, no. It wasn’t like that. They’re alive. I think. I hope. No, I know they are. He has them still. Has her.”

She nodded. “I see.”

“I heard…I heard you could help with this kind of thing. Can you?”

She looked at him for what felt like a long time. “I think I probably can. Who was this ‘strange man’? What do you know about him?”

“He was called Sam. He was tall, pale, with blonde hair and light-coloured eyes.”

“You get a surname for him?”

“No.”

“Any other distinguishing marks?”

“No.”

“Right.” She leant back in her seat and, after a moment, took another sip of her wine. “What makes you think he was…unusual…then?”

“No one knows who he was.”

“That’s not so strange. There are a lot of drifters in the world. Not all of them are anything more than they seem to be.”

“He wasn’t a drifter. He was rich, or he seemed to be. He offered us things. Offered her things. We didn’t have anything, back then. I mean, nothing. He showed us a better world. But he wanted her. Wanted her for himself.”

“I see.”

“I can’t explain it better than that. I’ve searched for him for years, tried to figure out who he was, but no one knows anything. It was like he never existed. I tried to work out how that could be, how a wealthy, dashing stranger could just drop off the face of the planet, and the only explanation was…well…that he wasn’t exactly of this world at all. I searched online, and it turns out there are people talking about this kind of thing out there, if you know where to look. There are people you won’t find on any database, places that don’t show up on any maps. I don’t really understand how.”

Jessica smiled at him. “The best way I have to explain it is by analogy. Do you know anything about quantum physics?”

“Erm…a bit…”

“Right.” She traced a finger in the condensation her glass had left on the table. “You know how matter can be considered a wave or a particle, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Some experiments with photons and so on, they don’t work unless it’s one or the other. But how can it be both? It defies sense. The problem is, your human mind isn’t evolved to comprehend the deep workings of the universe. There’s always another layer below what you can see. We used to think Newtonian mechanics were fine, but Newton’s equations broke down in the gravity wells of stars and black holes. So Einstein went one step further, gave us relativity, but even he couldn’t wrap his giant brain around quantum physics. ‘God does not play dice’. Turns out it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if something is counter-intuitive enough, if something flies in the face of how your limited perspective allows you to see the universe, you just don’t get it. That’s how most people are with the kind of stuff you’re talking about. It sits outside their experience. It’s a deeper, stranger layer. You have to see it for yourself, watch it happen before your eyes, or it drives you crazy just thinking about it. That’s like the Copenhagen Interpretation – that is, that matter is a particle and a wave at the same time. See, it turns out reality is just a soup of quantum potentials, and everything you perceive is just one of a limited set of solutions for a series of impossibly complex probability equations. Pretty hard to reconcile yourself to, isn’t it? Well, I don’t know if the world of the…unseen…has anything to do with that, but I do know that there are two worlds that exist side by side, two ways of looking at human experience, and they’re mutually exclusive, just like the waves and particles. And if you observe one directly, the equations equal out, the potentials coalesce and you end up with just one solution to the equations.” She held up a finger and smiled. Her expression was cold. “So here’s the big question, Taio, do you want to look inside the box? Do you want to know for sure what shape the world is? Because there’s nothing stopping you from walking away and forgetting about all this. There’s nothing stopping you just going on with a normal life. You’re a good-looking young man. You’ve got nice clothes, you look healthy. You must have a life of some kind. Do you want to leave that behind? Because, trust me on this, Taio, if you pursue this to its end, you will be doing that. And there’s no going back. Not ever.”

He swallowed. “You’re here now, aren’t you?”

“I told you I have to keep moving. This place,” she looked around the pub, and there was almost something wistful in her expression, “it isn’t for me anymore. I chose a different path.”

“I have to get her back,” he said.

She looked at him and swirled what was left of her rosé around her glass. “All right. Then I’ll help you.”

“Then you…then you know Sam?”

“Only be reputation. But I know someone who knows someone who knows him.”

“You can find him?”

“I can try.”

“And what…what would you want in return for this?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” He was surprised.

Jessica smiled at him and gulped down the rest of her wine as she slid out of the booth. “This may surprise you, Taio, but this kind of thing is what I do.”

*

It was two months before he heard anything more. He was beginning to think he’d dreamt the whole encounter with the strange woman Jessica – or he would have, if he didn’t have the same dream every night – when he had a phone call out of the blue at work. He apologised to the other people in the office and popped out into the corridor. “Hello?”

“Taio? This is Jessica.”

“Jessica…how did you get this number?”

“I have my resources. You’ve got a pretty big footprint online.”

“Really?” He lowered his voice. “I thought all my profiles were private…”

“You think that stops anyone determined to find out things about you? You’re lucky it was just me though. And I’m on your side.”

“I didn’t realise ‘sides’ were an issue.”

“Sides are what this is all about. The problem is; there are a lot of them. But listen, I don’t have much time. I don’t like to spend long on the phone. Like I said, determined people have ways of finding things out if you put too much of yourself out there. So listen: I’ve found the person you’re looking for.”

“Sam?” His voice came out louder than he wanted, and someone in an adjoining office looked at him through their glass door and frowned. “You found Sam?” he asked, more quietly.

“Yes. I have an address for him anyway. I’d have just texted it to you, but I wanted to talk to you first.”

“What about?”

“About the danger.”

“I know it’s dangerous, Jessica. He took someone from me. That’s why I need to find him.”

“I get that. And you’ve met him at least once more than I have. But hear me out. This…individual…is related to another man I met once. And they’re both associates of someone very, very dangerous indeed. Someone connected to something older, and wilder, than the world you understand.”

“We talked about this kind of stuff when we met…”

“Not as much as I wish I had. I don’t have time to give you all the details, even if I could explain it all in a way you’d understand, but it’s very, very important that you think hard before you go to the address I’m going to send you. Sam’s part of a group who are involved in something very far reaching.”

Taio frowned. His meander up the corridor had taken him to a window. It was late afternoon, in winter, and the overcast sky had already turned a bruised purple. There was a slash of red across the horizon where a gap in the clouds showed a glimpse of the day’s dying embers. “How far reaching are we talking?”

“All of human history. I can’t overstate the seriousness of the situation you might be involving yourself in.”
“So…” he turned from the window, “…you think I shouldn’t go?” There was a pause on the other end of the line. Taio waited, then looked at his phone to check he hadn’t lost the connection. “Jessica?”

“I’m here. I just…I’m worried.”

“About me?”

“No. About what part you might have to play in this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I don’t want to tell you not to go, because it could be important that you do.”

He licked his lips. People would start asking questions about where he’d gone soon. “Who are you, Jessica?” he asked.

Another pause. Then: “I’m the star of the show. And if that doesn’t fill you with a feeling of existential dread, you haven’t fully understood anything I’ve told you. This world…this is what I’m here to deal with. Don’t ask me why, or how. It’s just who I am. I used to be ordinary, like you, but now I’m the person ordinary folks come to when they need help with this kind of thing. I’m a sort of…ghostbuster.”

“I don’t think Sam’s a ghost…”

“When this is over, you might wish he was. Look, I have to go. I’ve already spent way too long on the phone. I’ll text you the address right after I hang up. As far as I know, he’s in your area right now, but he might not be for long.”

He was surprised. “The address is in London?”

“It is. You didn’t expect it to be?”

“I thought he’d have left the city. After what happened before, when I met him the first time, I didn’t think he’d hang around.”

“Taio, people like Sam aren’t scared of the authorities. They have ways of avoiding consequences.”

“And that’s where you come in?”

He could almost hear her smiling. “Now you’re getting the idea. Wait for my text. And Taio?”

“Yeah?”

“Good luck.”

The line went dead, and Taio stood there, back to the window for what felt like a long time, holding his phone in his hand stupidly. Eventually his boss came to find him. “Are you all right?” she asked. “Get some bad news?”

His phone chimed. “No. The opposite, actually,” he said softly.

*

The address she sent him was one in central London. A fairly non-descript office block on an equally non-descript side street. He got the tube there right away after leaving work. No point waiting around – he’d spent years doing that. But now he was at the door, he felt hesitant again. His finger hovered over the bell for the right number, and he was back in his flat, staring at his e-mails again, wondering whether he dared to look inside the box. Now the danger was real, but he didn’t feel scared. Just nervous. Nervous because a way of life he’d taken for granted for years now would, one way or the other, come to an end tonight. Whatever happened, he’d know. Know if she was alive or dead. Know if there was a way to save her. Whatever was up in that office, his long search would at last be over.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice asked through the intercom.

“Oh…er…I’m here to see…to see Sam…”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“I…no…no I don’t.”

“Sorry, Mr Serpentes won’t see anyone without an appointment. I can’t help you, please…”

“He knows me,” Taio blurted.

“Mr Serpentes knows a lot of people.” He could sense the woman’s smirk through the intercom.

“Tell him it’s Taio. He should remember me.”

The intercom went quiet. “Wait there,” the voice said after a moment. He stood on the doorstep, feeling stupid for playing his hand so early, but then there was a click and the door to the building slowly swung open. Taio took a deep breath and walked inside. It was dark, but as he took a few steps forward, dim fluorescent lights flicked on automatically. The corridor smelt musty and unused. The description on the intercom didn’t say anything about what Sam – Mr Serpentes, apparently – actually did, but it didn’t seem as if anyone had been here in a while. Why would he need a secretary? Who was this man, really? There was no lift, so Taio trudged up the stairwell at the end of the corridor. The office he was heading for was on the fourth floor. He was in good shape, but something about the stairs’ pitch, or the steps’ tread maybe, meant it seemed to take a lot of effort to climb. He was out of breath by the time he got to the door. He meant to take a couple of seconds to recover, but the door was already opening and he found himself face to face with a tall, severe-looking white woman with harsh, angular features, very dark eyes and very red lips. She looked him up and down. “Not what I expected,” she said shortly. He recognised her voice from the intercom.

“What did you expect?” he replied, baffled.

“Never mind.” She turned away dismissively but beckoned him through the door. It was an office as ordinary as the street and the building. There was a short, dark corridor with pale walls, generic framed pictures hanging up, a potted plant on one side. They walked past an open door to a small individual office with a desk, a not-quite-up-to-date computer and a filing cabinet. There was also a door to a little kitchenette with a half-eaten packet of biscuits on the side and a couple of dirty coffee mugs in the sink.

“Who are you?” he asked her.

“I’m Bertha.”

“And you’re Sa…er…Mr Serpentes’s secretary?”

“Not exactly.” She opened a door at the end of the corridor and walked through. He followed closely behind. “The boy’s here,” she announced without emotion.

“Ah. Good.” Taio recognised that voice too, but from much longer ago. Strange how a sound can take you back through the years like that. He drew up beside Bertha and looked at the back of a man in a grey suit, bent over a drawer in another filing cabinet.

“Was there anything else, Sam?” Bertha asked. She sounded very bored.

He looked up from the drawer, and Taio felt a jolt go through him. Sam hadn’t changed a bit. His face was still inhumanly pale, his skin looking almost transparent. Blue veins were visible around his forehead, where his already taut skin was stretched tight. His eyes were almost colourless, and his hair was white-blonde, tied back into a neat ponytail. His hands were long and slender, with small, almost childlike fingernails. His lips were thin, parched, and, when he smiled, his teeth looked…wrong. He straightened. “Could you rustle us up a couple of coffees, my dear?”

“Sure.” She didn’t sound happy about it, but she left them without another word and closed the door behind her.

Sam seemed to have found the file he was looking for and he lifted it with another of his strange smiles. “I almost thought I’d lost this.”

“You look exactly the same as you did twenty years ago,” Taio spluttered.

“Yes. I suppose I probably do. But you,” he pointed with the folder as he crossed the room to his desk, “you’ve grown, Tai.”

“I was a child…”

“You still are.” Sam took a seat. “Come, sit down. Let’s talk. Reminisce.”

Taio watched him carefully, then sat in the chair opposite. “You know why I’m here.”

Sam nodded as he steepled his fingers in front of him. There was something odd about him – more odd than his general appearance anyway – and it took Taio a while to figure it out. The man never blinked. “I know, yes. This has been a long time coming.”

“You’re hard to find.”

“For people like you, yes.”

“People like me?”

He grinned again. His teeth were so strange. Small, infantile, like his nails. “You know. Tell me, who was it who gave you this address?”

He had no reason to think he shouldn’t tell this man about Jessica, but something made him hold back. “Just a friend of a friend.”

“And who would this…” The door opened and Bertha walked in with a tray. She put it on the desk and handed one of the cups to Taio.

“I didn’t know how you took it, so I guessed.”

“Erm…okay. Thank you.”

“Yes, thank you, Bertha.” Sam added.

“Don’t push it, Sam,” she told him in a low voice before turning and leaving as abruptly as she’d entered.

“Now, where were we?” Sam asked as the door closed.

Taio sipped his coffee. It was white with one sugar which, as it happened, was indeed how he took it. “You know what I want,” he said as he put the cup back down on the desk.

“An explanation?”

“For a start.”

“And then, I suppose,” he waved a hand and looked off into the distance, “you want her back?”

Taio nodded. “That’s about it.”

“I see. And you realise it might not be as simple as that?”

“If you can’t take me to her, tell me where she is and I’ll go myself.”

“And why would I want to do either of those things?”

There was no answer to that. In all the times he’d imagined this conversation, he’d never pictured himself sipping coffee in an almost aggressively normal-looking office. He’d thought about making threats, about bargaining, even begging, but now it came to it…why should Sam help him? He was the one who’d taken her in the first place, after all… “Why don’t we try that explanation you mentioned first?”

“Very well.” Sam looked him in the eyes, and Taio felt a shudder ripple all the way down his spine. For just a moment, as those eyes fixed on him, he felt something very deep inside him, something primal, start in ancestral fear. Sam’s stare was the stare of the predator, the slithering threat in the dark of night, jaws opening impossibly far to close over his head, to engulf him within a rancid wet gullet. “When I met you, you were a child.”

“I remember.”

“And you and she were both lost, alone. I wonder how long it would have been until you were out on the streets? Or until she had to turn to something more…unsavoury…to make ends meet. Hm?”

Taio realised the question wasn’t rhetorical, but he didn’t want to answer it. The cut was too deep, too ugly. “I don’t know.”

“No. I suppose you don’t. I do. I was there and I remember. You were close to it. Heartbreakingly close. I saw her and I took pity on her, on you both. I do this. It may not seem this way to you now, but one of my roles in this little life is to serve as a kind of…guardian angel. I have had many dealings down the years with people in dire circumstances. Men who had lost everything, men who were driven to take the lives of their own children, women tempted by the worst kinds of sin. Some may think me an opportunist, or a voyeur, but I am motivated by kindness, by charity. I saw your plight and I took pity on you. So I offered her a way out.”

“Is that what it was then? An escape?”

“Not at all,” Sam chuckled, “the ‘way out’ was for you. A chance at happiness, a hope for the future. And have you not had a future, Taio? Have you not been given hope?”

He thought about it, about his life. He had been lucky. His job, his flat. He’d never really had to struggle for anything. But how could Sam have anything to do with that? “I worked for everything I had. When you took her, I was left with nothing…”

“But you landed on your feet soon after, did you not?”

“Yes, but that was just lucky. I applied for that grant, and…”

Sam spread his hands. “Lucky. Yes indeed.”

“You somehow engineered that, is that what you’re saying?”

“Not exactly.”

“And my good grades in school? My uni application? The student loans? My interviews? You’re telling me you were behind them all somehow?” He shook his head.

“Nothing so direct. But you can’t deny you’ve lived a blessed life since I came into it, can you?”

“Except for one thing…”

Sam fixed him with his colourless gaze again. “Yes. I suppose that is one way of looking at it. But if you think of it as a bargain, of sorts, do you want to risk what you have to get her back?”

“A bargain…?”

“Oh yes.” Sam opened the folder on the desk in front of him. “I still have the contract here. I’m afraid you won’t be able to read it – it’s in Aramaic. I can summarise it for you though.”

“What bargain?” Taio demanded.

“A simple one. A soul, in exchange for hope. It’s fairly standard. She entered into it quite willingly.”

“I don’t believe in souls.”

“She did. And that’s enough.”

“She gave up her soul?”

“A soul, for hope. That was the bargain. Your name is on this contact too, Taio. If any party reneges on it…”

“I never signed.” He made to lean across and snatch it away, but Sam held it away.

“Goodness me, no of course you didn’t, Taio! You were a child. Legally incapable of giving your consent. Your signature was not required. She signed for you.”

“She never told me!”

“Your understanding wasn’t part of the deal.” His genial tone seemed to change suddenly. “Now, I’ve told you what you came to find out, you’ve had your coffee, leave me in peace. I have other people I need to deal with besides meddling boys from my past.”

“No!” Taio slammed his hands down on the desk, but Sam remained unmoved. “I want to see her. Where are you holding her?”

“Nowhere you’ll find on any map.”

“Show me!”

“Why should I?”

“Because…because maybe I want to change the terms of the bargain. Don’t I have that right? To make a counter-offer? I might have something better.”

“I doubt that very much,” Sam sneered.

“Take me to her. Let me talk to her, please. You took pity on us once, didn’t you?”

“I did…”

“So you must have had some affection for her. Even if I don’t deserve your mercy, doesn’t she?”

Sam looked at him, then steepled his fingers again. A dark, bluish tongue flicked across his thin lips, and then he nodded slowly. “Very well. Close your eyes.”

“What?”

“I told you: it’s not on any map. Did you think we’d be taking a car?”

“But I don’t…”

Sam lunged across the desk suddenly, a cobra striking, and shoved his hand across Taio’s eyes. Everything went dark, and he felt like his whole body was melting away.

*

At first he thought he was dreaming. He was in the grey, cold forest again, lost and confused. Bare trees stretched as far as the eye could see, and there were no paths between their grim, naked trunks. But it was different. He wasn’t dreaming. He could think. Remember. Reason. He was here in the flesh now and, for the first time in twenty years, he knew where to go. He walked straight ahead. Above him, a black sky speckled with a million white stars circled slowly overhead. The glimmering ghostlights of a pale aurora hung just on the edge of the horizon, almost out of view. He was neither hot nor cold, and though it seemed like he walked for miles, he never got tired. He came suddenly to a clearing, a perfect circle of trees. The ground under his feet was dark and hard. A woman was lying in the centre of the clearing, alone, seemingly unconscious.

He walked slowly to her. He could feel the tears forming in his eyes already. He dropped down to his knees and then reached out to her, not daring to touch, not willing to break the impossible spell. She looked older than he remembered, but her face was the same. Her skin was the same walnut-brown as his, her nose, lips and chin the same shape. He hadn’t realised before how much he looked like her. His fingertips brushed gently against her brow, and her eyes – his eyes too – flickered open. She smiled, and now the tears were running down his cheeks. “Taio…” she whispered.

“Mum…”

She took his face in her hands and then pulled him against her breast. “My boy. You’re all grown up now.”

“Mum,” he sobbed, clutching at her clothes, burying his face in her warmth, in her smell. He was a child again. A lost little boy. “I’ve found you,” he said.

“You’ve found me. I was here all along, waiting for you. How long have I been here?”

“It’s been…it’s been twenty years…”

“Twenty years…” she murmured. She didn’t seem surprised, or angry, or anything at all really. Her voice just sounded sleepy and far away. But it was still her voice, and he hadn’t heard it for so long. So, so long. “It doesn’t feel so long.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, pulling himself free, “I’m going to get you out of here. We’re going to go home.”

“I can’t,” she smiled at him, “I made a deal.”

“Well I’m changing the deal.” He got to his feet and tugged at her hand. “We’re leaving, even if we need to fight our way back.”

His mother didn’t get up. “No, Tai. I have to stay here. That was the bargain.”

“She’s right, boy.”

Taio turned to see Sam standing at the edge of the clearing. His arms were folded behind his back, and he had a small, unpleasant smile on his face. “It’s just a bargain,” he spat, “you can’t keep her here against her will.”

“But it’s not against her will,” Sam said as he walked towards them, “she entered into it of her own volition. I told you this.”

“Then tell me about the bargain! I said I’d make a counter-offer once I’d seen her. Tell me what you agreed!”

“A soul, for hope. I told you that.”

“Whose soul? Did it have to be hers?”

“A soul was the agreement. Traditionally, one only has access to one, of course…”

Taio nodded grimly. “I understand. She gave herself up for me. So I could have a life.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Well, I’ve had a life.” His grip tightened on his mother’s hand. She didn’t squeeze back. Her eyes had closed again, as if she slept peacefully. “I’ve had twenty years of life. So here’s my offer. I take her place here, and she goes back to the real world.”

Sam narrowed his eyes. “That would satisfy the terms of the contract. But are you prepared to pay that price?”

He looked down at his mother. If he was here, he’d lose her again. But she’d be free. She’d be able to carry on living, at last. That would be enough to sustain him, wouldn’t it? “I’m prepared,” he said.

“Fine then.” Sam clapped his hands together. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

“Don’t I need to sign something?” Taio asked as the world started to go dark.

“The agreement was already signed on your behalf if you recall.”

“Yes, but…” He frowned. His mother’s grip was slack in his hand now, and the forest was gradually receding into shadow leaving only the glittering starscape above him. “Now it’s my soul you have, isn’t it? Doesn’t that make a difference?”

“Foolish boy. Foolish, foolish boy.” Sam was standing right in front of Taio now, and he patted him gently on the cheek. His hand was cold and clammy. “She was your mother. You were just a boy. Your soul was hers to bargain away. You think I took her? She has slept dreamlessly for twenty years, knowing nothing of her loss, but you…you have gone on living…living an empty, colourless life, devoid of love and joy, devoid of the warm embrace of the one person who cared for you most. A soul, for hope. Your soul, for your hope. But now, you have agreed to take her place here, sleeping, and she will go back to what you left behind. And you will be lost to her forever.” He smiled his predatory grin again. “Love is a strange thing, Taio. It cuts both ways. You little people strive for it all your lives, but in the end all it does is cause you pain. Your love for her has condemned her to an agony I could never have hoped to inflict alone. Thank you for that. Thank you for this wonderful gift.”

The forest faded, his mother’s hand finally fell from his grip, and he knew no more.

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