BY MIKE CAREY
Here's my problem with dead people: they fall apart.
Okay, I grant you, the transition to being a stiff is a shock to the system. You wake up one morning, and you feel like shit - death warmed over, as they say, or rather death cooling rapidly toward background ambient. You feel for a pulse - not verifiably present. But is that because it's not there, or because you're a klutz and you can't take a pulse?
Okay, you can't feel a heartbeat, either. That's ominous, because you're so fucking scared by this time that your heart should be racing, not parked at the curb with the hand brake on.
You draw a ragged, stressy breath . . . and it just stays there. Nowhere to go. Your body isn't metabolizing oxygen any more, and your formerly autonomic functions are all unplugged from the board. The pressure doesn't build. You could keep that breath pent up behind your teeth for a minute, an hour, a day and a half, and you're never going to feel the slightest need to let it out again.
The sign on the door just flipped, from OPEN to CLOSED. This is it. Grammatically, you can never start a sentence with 'I am' again. It's 'was/not-was', all the way.
But that's no reason to let up, is what I'm saying. Too many people use death as an excuse, and I'm sick of hearing it. The world's still out there, people. It's not going away. The rules of the game didn't change because you croaked and, like they say, if you don't get back in the saddle, you're gonna end up trampled and covered in horseshit. Your choice.
I used to be a stockbroker, which is probably what killed me. Or rather, being a great broker is what killed me - having the kind of obsessive edge that took me to the top of the NASDAQ while most of my respected peers were still flossing their teeth and picking out a tie that matched their hand-stitched braces.
It's a tough gig, don't mistake me. When you're playing a bunch of DAX-listed storm-troopers off against a third-party boiler room, taking a trim on buy and sell at the same time, and cutting your T+3s so tight there's no skin left on your fingertips, it's a bit like riding a log flume must be. There are hundreds of millions of euros rolling under you, behind you, and you know damn well if you lose the flow and try to stop it before it's ready, you'll go down and never see daylight.
So, yeah, there's a certain level of stress that you live with. I won't say 'thrive on', because that's macho bullshit: the adrenaline surge is pleasant for about a half an hour, tops. After that your body starts shaking itself to pieces and you're swallowing heartburn. A day in the dealing room is a day in the slaughter house: you come out of it with other people's blood and sweetmeats spattered on your shirt, and that's if you've done okay. If you've fucked up, it's your own.
I had my first heart attack when I was twenty-six. I usually tell the story so it happened on my actual birthday, but in fact it was the day after. I'd been out all night, flying high on wings of coke and frozen Stolichnaya, then I showered, popped a few dexies, and went back to work. The two guys I was with, they did the same thing, more or less, but they flaked out in the course of the morning - sneaked off to the room with the folding beds that the management lays on for quitters, to keep the crash at bay with a snatched half hour of sleep. I kept right on going, because I was on one of those flux-market rolls where nobody knows what's happening and you can squeeze the shit from one exchange to another to ride lag on a price you already know is falling. Too good to miss.
But like in a bad movie, I start to get a reverb on my hearing. Well, okay, what the fuck? I don't need to hear properly to see the numbers scrolling up the screen. I'm low-pointing, I'm settling, I'm re-staking dead buys, I'm making those Tokyo asswipes breathe my farts and think it's good fresh air.
And then I was on the ground with a couple of invisible sumo wrestlers sitting on my chest. Tokyo's revenge, I thought, as I blacked out.
Three days at the Portland Clinic on caviar and tenecteplase. Back in the saddle, clip-clop, clip-clop. Because the guys who stop never start again, and that's the gospel truth. I've seen it enough times to know that it's a natural law.
The second attack caught me by surprise, because this time I wasn't even working: I was with a woman - using with to denote the act of coitus. Normally I'm pretty good at sex; I can reach a plateau and stay there for as long as I like until my partner of choice is ready to join me for the final pull toward the summit. On this particular occasion, however, the lady had to struggle out from underneath my inert body and call the emergency services. I'd been wearing her panties as a party hat, and I still was when I woke up - not at the Portland but at the Royal Free. Fucking paramedics. They ripped off my diamond cufflinks, too, but how the hell do you prove it? When you're unconscious, people can take all the liberties they like.
So that was two, and the doctors said I should expect strike three to come over the plate pretty damn soon if I didn't change up and get myself some Zen-like calm. I didn't waste any time on that prescription: I am what I am, and I play to my strengths.
So I looked death square in his poker face, I saw what he was holding, and I implemented plan B.
Look, this isn't just me talking big, okay? I don't need to impress a Z-list shmuck like you, and in any case, it's basic. Basic stuff. Anyone with any sense can take the temperature and pack for the weather they know is rolling in.
The dead started coming back a few years ago now, around the turn of the new millennium. Actually, it probably started a whole lot earlier than that, but that was when the trickle turned into a flood. Some of them come back in the spirit, some in the body. An acquaintance of mine who makes what he humorously calls a living as an exorcist says it's all the same thing: zombies are people whose ghosts cling to their own dead flesh out of fear or stubbornness or sheer habit, and they learn by trial and error how to get things moving again. You hear crazier stories, too - human ghosts ram-raiding animal bodies and doing a little forcible redecorating. 'Formative causation', they call it, or some other bullshit periphrasis: You look like what you think you should look like, at least most of the time. But the animal soul is still in there with you, and when you're at your weakest, it will try and slip out from under. That, the so-called experts tell us, is what werewolves are.
Ghost, zombie, or loup-garou - those were the options I was looking at, assuming I didn't just 'go gentle into that good night' like some passive-aggressive moron. So I planned accordingly, in between strike two and strike three. I had a shed- load of money put by already - salted away against a retirement I clearly wasn't going to live to enjoy. Now I put some of that cash to work, although first of all I set up a Celtic knot of offshore- registered shelf companies to handle my assets. Dead men can't legally own jackshit, but corporations are immortal. I bought a lot of real estate, because the property bubble had finally burst around about then, and you could pick up some really sweet deals. Partly I was just diversifying my holdings, but I was also looking for a place where I could set up postmortem. What I needed was a pieda-terre that was both huge and invisible - standing on its own grounds, because nosy neighbors would be the last thing I needed.
I settled on a disused cinema in Walthamstow - the Gaumont. It was going for a song, despite having a Cecil Masey facade and most of the interior fixtures and fittings still intact. It was 1930s vintage and had never been either burned out or turned into a bingo hall. It had been a porno theater, briefly, but I wasn't too worried about sticky carpets. In fact, I wasn't worried about the auditorium at all. I stripped out the projection booth and fitted it with a bespoke arrangement of air-conditioning and freezer units. Temperature and humidity control were going to be key.
Somewhere around then was when my personal extinction event happened. RIP, Nicholas Heath - no flowers or known grasses, by request. But I'd been expecting it. It was, you know, a bump in the road. Nothing more. I'd already decided which kind of dead man I was going to be, and I'd made sure that the funeral parlor would hold off on the burial for at least a week, to give the other shoe a chance to drop.
To be honest with you, I don't like to talk about that part of it. Some people say they see tunnels, blinding white lights, heavenly messengers or moving stairways. I didn't see anything. But I did have the sense of not being completely in control, and that fucking scared me. I mean, for all I knew, it could be a lottery. Maybe you didn't get to choose which way the ball would bounce. I might find myself looking like Casper the friendly fuckwit, or Lassie, or in some other stupid, inconsequential, unworkable shape. Or nothing. Nothing at all. Not all the dead come back, even now.
But I did, and I came back as me. I sat up on the morgue slab, signed myself out, collected my effects, and hit the road. Forget about statutory notice, or packing up any of the stuff from my apartment. Dead men aren't covered by contract: my job was gone, my casa was someone else's casa, and the landlord had probably already changed the locks. I headed straight for the Gaumont, bolted the doors, and got on with the job.
It was good timing, in a way: I'd finally gotten the air-conditioning units working properly at two degrees Celsius, and I had the place all set up to move into. Which was just as well, because it was the last moving I did for a while: the fucking rigor mortis hits you soon after you sit up and look around, and for the next twenty- four hours, it's all you can do to roll your eyes to the heavens.
So I'm lying there, in the dark, because I didn't get a chance to turn the lights on before my muscles seized up, and I'm running through the list in my mind.
These, collectively, were the joys now in store for me. And every second I wasted meant more hassle later, so as soon as the rigor passed, I spat on my hands - figuratively speaking - and started taking the appropriate measures.
Rancidification, the first stage, is far and away the most dangerous. That's when all the fluids in your body rot and go sour. The smell is fucking indescribable, but that's not what you've got to worry about. The souring releases huge quantities of gas, which builds up in your body cavity wherever there's a void for it to collect in. If you don't do something about it, the pressure of the gas can do huge damage to your soft tissues - rip you open from the inside out. But if you make incisions to let out the gas, every hole is a problem that has to be managed at the putrefaction stage.
I got a long way with some ordinary plastic tubing, which I shoved into a great many places I'm not keen to talk about. In the end I had to make some actual incisions, but I kept them to a minimum: I was also helped by an amazing substance called Lanobase 18, which is what undertakers use to soak up the fluid leaking from your internal organs and turn it into an inert, almost plasticized slurry.
As far as the putrefaction stage went, I was already ahead of the game just by having a cold, controlled space of my own. No insects to lay their eggs in my moldering flesh; no air- or ground-borne contaminants. I used that time to start the embalming process. I needed it because by now my stink had matured into something really scary. I kept having to pour cologne onto my tongue to blitz what was left of my airway and nasal passages, because even though I wasn't inhaling, the smell was still getting through to me somehow.
By the time I hit phase three, I was more than half pickled - and now it started to get easier. What was left of my flesh changed its consistency, over the space of a couple of weeks, into something hard and waxy. Adipocere, they call it. It's kind of unsettling at first, because it doesn't feel like anything even slightly organic, but it has the huge upside that it doesn't smell of anything much. I could live with myself now.
Dry decay mainly affects your bones, through a leeching of organic compounds called diagenesis, so I just let it happen and turned my attention to other things.
Unfortunately, I'd missed a trick or two while all this was going on. I had the projection booth itself and the adjacent generator room armored up like the fucking Fuhrer-bunker, but I hadn't bothered with all the ground- floor doors and windows. I didn't think I'd need to: the Gaumont had stood empty and undisturbed for so many years, who was going to pay it any attention now?
But the key word there is undisturbed. I'd had a whole lot of kit delivered when I was setting up my freezer and air-conditioning arrays, and I'd had some guys in to reinforce the upstairs walls and doors. I might as well have put out a fucking welcome mat: I was telling all the neighborhood deadbeats that the cinema was now inhabited and that it might contain something worth stealing.
In point of fact, it didn't: everything that was valuable was locked away behind steel bulkhead doors up on the first floor. But that didn't stop a variegated collection of scumbags from breaking in downstairs, smashing the windows, and ransacking what was left of the old furniture, looking for something they could purloin, pawn, or piss into. Some of them had even moved in and were now squatting in the auditorium or the store-rooms behind it.
First things first. I made some calls, using one of the false names and e-mail addresses I'd set up for my offshore holding company, and hired some guys from a private security firm to come in and clear out the squatters' little rat nest. They threw everything out into the street; then they maintained a presence while I got the builders to come back in and make the place secure.
They put steel shutters on the ground- floor windows, and steel bulkhead doors over the old wooden doors, attached to I beams sunk two feet into freeway- mix concrete. I had the work team coat the windowsills and door frames with green antivandal paint, too: the losers could still sleep in the fucking doorway if they wanted to, but I wasn't going to make it comfortable for them, and that was as far as they were going to get. As a dead man walking, I was too vulnerable: I wanted to have the freedom of the building without worrying about who I might run into. In any case, this was my retirement home now: why the hell should anyone else get the benefit of it? That's not how life works; take it from a dead man.
Relaxing isn't something I do all that well, but now I felt like I could finally slow down and take stock. I'd ridden out the roller coaster of physical decomposition, at least to the point where I could maintain a steady state. I had my place secured and my lines of communication laid down so that I could get what I needed from the outside world without dealing with it directly.
I took a day off. Watched some movies on cable. Opened a bottle of Pauillac and sniffed the wine-breath, since drinking it without any digestive enzymes was an idiot's game.
It was half a day, actually. Half a day off. By the afternoon I was restless, worried about what I might be missing. I fired up the computers - three of them, each registered with a different ISP and apparently logged on in a different time zone - and put some of my money back into play on the New York Exchange.
That was a good afternoon and an even better evening. Stress couldn't touch me now - look, Ma, no glands - I couldn't get tired, and I didn't need to take bathroom breaks, so I kept going steadily through a fourteen-hour session, not logging off until the exchange closed.
Then I switched to the Nikkei Dow and did the same for another five hours.
Man, I thought, this is . . . you know . . . liberating. Death means never having to wipe your ass again, never getting pulled out of the zone by your body's needs or by someone else blabbing in your ear like they've got something to say. It means you can keep going forever, if you want to.
Of course, forever is a long time. A long, long, long fucking time.
On day three, the deadbeats broke in again. They'd actually sneaked back while the concrete was still setting and pushed one of the steel plates up out of line so they could work it loose later with a crowbar. I could hear them doing the same thing with the door of the projection room - my fucking holy of holies.
Yeah, dream on, you verminous little bastards. That door and the wall it was set in were about as porous as a bank vault: Not needing to breathe meant not having to cut corners where personal security was concerned. All the same, I couldn't stop thinking about what would have happened if the door had been open - if I'd been down on the ground floor picking up my mail or something. I couldn't take that risk again.
This time I thought it through properly: defence in depth was what I needed, not one big-ass door with one big-ass bolt on it. I had the builders - none of whom ever met me in person, of course - completely redesign the ground floor, replacing all the existing walls with steel bulkheads and at the same time putting in a whole lot of new ones. I took my inspiration from the crusader forts of the late Middle Ages, turning the Gaumont into three separate keeps, one inside the other. Only a single vault door connected the outer keep with the middle one, and the middle keep with the inner one. Other doors were devoid of bolts, locks, or handles: they were all independently lockable via a computer-controlled system, and the first thing I did was to slave the whole damn thing to the main server up in the projection booth. I put the closed-circuit (CCTV) cameras in, too - dozens of them, set up so there were no dead angles. I could check out any given stretch of corridor, any given room, and make sure it was clear before I opened the doors and cleared myself a route.
What? This sounds like overkill? No, genius, it wasn't. I was thinking things through, that's all. Every fortress can turn into a trap, so every fortress needs a back door. And this particular fortress needed a mail slot too, because for some of the things I was doing online I still needed physical documents, physical certification, actual rather than digital signatures. It's stupid, but it's true: some parts of the world haven't started surfing the electron tide yet, and they only believe in what they can hold in their hands. Hah. Maybe not so stupid, when you think about it.
So now I could swing back into top gear, stop watching my back. And I did. Believe me, I did.
To tell you the truth, I got lost in it. I must have spent a week or more at a time just bouncing from one exchange to another in an endless, breakneck rhythm. You know those velodromes, where the racers ride their bikes almost horizontally on the canted walls? Well, that's what I was like. The only thing that kept me touching the ground at all was my unthinkable velocity. Which is fine, so long as you never slow down.
But I did.
It was subtle at first, subtle enough that I didn't even realize it was happening. I missed a spike here, came in slow on a deal there - not big things and not connected. I was still coming out ahead and still in control. It took me a couple of days to realize that I was too much in control, that I was going through the motions without feeling them and making conscious decisions instead of letting instinct play through me.
I tied down, cashed in, and logged off. Sat there in silence for a while, staring at the screens. A wave of grief swept through me, and I don't care if that sounds stupid - a sense of bereavement. Nicky Heath was dead. I hadn't really gotten that fact into my head until then.
If you stop, you never start again - my own golden rule. But I didn't feel like I could touch the keyboard right then. I was afraid of screwing up, afraid of hitting some rock I would have seen a mile off back when I had a functioning endocrine system. Look, Ma, no glands.
I think I must have been hearing the noises in the walls for a while before that - bangs and scrapes and scuffles, muffled not by distance but by the thickness of the brickwork and the layers of steel plating. But now I let myself listen to them. Jumbled, discontinuous, slightly different each time. It wasn't the freezer unit or the big electrical generator downstairs. The only things that made noises like that were living things. People. Animals. Members of the big but still exclusive club of entities-with-a-pulse.
I turned on the CCTV monitors and did the rounds of the cameras. She wasn't hard to find, once I started looking: she was in the outer keep, way down on the ground floor, in a blind stretch of corridor between two of my self-locking doors - nowhere near the big steel portal that led through into the middle zone.
It was still a nasty shock, though. Sort of like scratching your balls and coming up with a louse.
From what I could see, she had to be one of the homeless people - probably in her early twenties but looking a damn sight older, huddled in way too many layers of clothes in a corner made by the angle of wall and door. She had dirty blonde hair and a sullen, hangdog face. Hard to tell anything else, because she was folded down into herself, knees hugged to her chest and head down. It was probably cold down there, in spite of all the layers.
Where the hell had she come from? She couldn't have been in there since the last invasion, because I wouldn't have missed her, and in any case, she'd be dead by now. There wasn't anything to eat or drink, and she clearly hadn't brought anything in with her that she couldn't carry in her pockets.
I backtracked with the cameras until I found the smoking gun - a large vent pipe for one of the freezer units that had been run through the outer wall of the building. She'd just hit it with something - a hammer or a rock - again and again until the flimsy metal bent back on itself far enough for her to squeeze through. That had let her into a part of the building that was on the route I used when I went down to collect the mail. She must have scooted through a door or two that was unlocked when I came through, and then got caught in the dead-end stretch of corridor when I made the return journey and locked up again.
She'd tried to get out: those were the sounds I'd heard. She'd hammered and clawed at the door and probably screamed for help, but only faint echoes had come up to the projection room, and I'd been too absorbed in what I was doing to decipher them.
Now she looked to be in a bad way. The monitor only resolved in black and white, but there were dark patches on her hands, which I assumed were probably blood - her fingernails damaged from trying to pull on the edge of the doorjamb - and when she briefly came out of her huddle to grab a gulp of air, I saw that her lips were swollen in a way that suggested dehydration.
I got up and paced around the room, trying to think it through. I wasn't capable of panic, but I felt a dull, blunt volume of unhappiness expand inside me, like the intestinal gases back in the first stage of decay.
I could just let her die was the first thought that came to mind.
I could open up the doors to let her back out the way she'd come, but she might be too weak to move. She might die anyway.
If I opened the doors, someone else could get in. Safer just to leave her.
But someone could have seen her climbing inside and not come out again. Someone might be looking for her right now or calling the police or crawling through that hole with torches and crowbars and . . .
No, nobody else had found the hole. The CCTV cameras didn't show anyone else, either in the room where the vent let out or anywhere else in the outer keep. I should have put more sophisticated alarms in, I thought irrelevantly - movement sensors, or infrared scanners, or something. I shouldn't have let this happen. Now here I was, already guilty of false imprisonment or some such bullshit, with the police probably searching the goddamned neighborhood and Christ only knows what kind of trouble to look forward to if she was found here, alive or dead or anywhere in between.
I stopped pacing because I'd come up hard against a wall. I wanted to punch it, but that would have been a really stupid thing to do - no blood flow, so no scabbing, no skin repair. Any wound I opened in my own flesh would stay open unless I sewed it shut.
I stared at the wall for maybe five minutes, galloping through the same rat-runs inside my head. When I'd done it enough times to be sure they always ended up in the same place, I got moving again.
I had no choice. I had to bring the dumb bitch up to good-as-new spec before I cut her loose. I had to make sure there was no harm and no foul, whatever that took.
I found a bucket the builders had left behind and a washbasin in what had once been a cleaner's cupboard behind the projection booth. I cleaned the bucket out as far as I could, then filled it with cold water. I flicked some switches on the main board, releasing the locks on all but one of the doors between me and the woman - leaving just the door that she was leaning against.
Then I went down, let myself out through the inner and middle keeps, and made my way around to her stretch of corridor. She must have heard me coming, because when I turned the last bend, I caught the sound of her fists banging on the other side of the door, and her voice, muffled through the thick wood, telling me she was stuck.
I left the bucket of water right in front of the door and went back up to the projection booth. I watched the woman on the CCTV hook-up: she was still hammering and shouting, pushing at the door, thinking or at least hoping that someone could hear her.
I relocked all the other doors before opening just that one. Since she was leaning her weight against it, she just tumbled through when it opened. She saw the bucket, stared at it with big incredulous eyes, and finally cupped her hands and drank from it. She coughed up a storm and vomited a little, too, but she was alive at least. That was a good start.
Food was more of a problem, because unless there were a few hardy rats down in the basement somewhere, there was nothing edible in the entire building. I got around that by going to the Ocado Web site, whose online order form allows you to specify exactly where you want the food to be dropped off. I specified the mailbox, which was actually a double-doored receptacle like the ones post offices use - big enough to take thick bundles of legal papers, and, as it turned out, big enough for a bag of groceries too.
I ordered stuff she could eat cold, to keep things simple - turkey breast, bread and rolls, a bag of ready-cut carrot slices, some apples. I added some fun-size cartons of orange juice, and then on an impulse, a bar of Cadbury's dairy milk.
This time I had to approach her from the opposite direction, since she'd gone through the door to get to the water bucket and was now on the other side of the door. It didn't matter: from the master board up in the projection booth, I could open up any route I liked and make absolutely sure of where she was before I moved in, did the drop-off, and retreated again to the booth and the CCTV monitors.
At the sound of the lock clicking, she went scooting back through the door like one of Pavlov's dogs.
She wolfed the food down like she hadn't seen bread since the Thatcher years. It was a fucking unedifying sight, so I turned off the CCTV and left her to it for a while.
The next time I checked, she was done. The floor was strewn with wrappers, apple cores, a crumpled juice carton. The woman had spotted the camera and was staring at it as though she expected it to start talking to her. Actually, it could do that if I wanted it to: the cameras each came with a speaker as standard. But I didn't have anything I wanted to say to her: I just wanted her to eat, drink, wash, fix herself up, and fuck off out of there.
Wash. Okay. I ordered some more groceries and added soap and shampoo to the list, not to mention another bucket. The next time I fed her, I left both drinking water and wash water, but she didn't take the hint, maybe because the water was cold. Too bad. I didn't have any way of heating it up, and I wasn't running a fucking guesthouse.
I spent about three days plumping her up. On the second day I left her some bandages and antiseptic for her fingers, which she ignored, just like the wash water. On the third day I made a similarly useless gesture with some clean clothes, ordered online in the same way from the ASDA superstore at Brentwood.
Okay, so my reluctant houseguest wasn't interested in personal hygiene, even on a theoretical level. I don't know, maybe the dirt acts like insulation out on the street, and maybe after the first month or so your panties get welded to your privates past the point where you can take them off. Maybe not, though, since she had to be managing to piss somehow. Following that thought through, I realized it was probably a good thing that the cameras had such crappy resolution. I could see the corner she was using as a latrine, now that I looked for it, and I sure as hell didn't want to see it any clearer.
Well, the bottom line was that she had to go out looking no worse than when she came in: I wasn't under any obligation to make her look better.
On day four I drew her a map, showing her how to get back to the vent pipe, and left it with the food. Then I threw the lock on the door behind her and all the other locks leading back to the outer wall and her exit point.
She examined the map as she ate her breakfast, which was croissant and apricot jam. She'd shown a real taste for pastries by this time and none at all for fresh fruit or cereal.
But after she'd finished, she didn't make a move to step over the threshold. She just wiped her mouth on the napkin provided, dropped it into the water bucket - which always drove me crazy because I had to fish the fucking thing out again - and settled back down against the wall.
What was she playing at? She had to realize I was allowing her to leave.
'Come on!' I shouted at the monitor. 'Get out of there. You're free as a bird. Go!'
She settled into her characteristic, head-bowed huddle.
Impulsively, I flicked the microphone switch on the CCTV board. I'd never used it before, so I had no idea if it even worked, but a light flashed on the board and the woman jerked her head up as though she'd just heard something - a click, maybe, or else a little feedback flutter from the speaker.
'Hey,' I said. 'What do you think you're doing? Time to go, lady.'
She blinked twice, her face full of comical wonder. She took her time about answering, though, and when she did it was kind of a non sequitur.
'Who are you?' she demanded.
'The owner,' I said, and then, not to be put off, I repeated, 'Time for you to get out of here.'
She shook her head.
I blinked. 'What do you mean, no?' I asked, too incredulous even to be pissed off. 'This is my place, sweetheart. Not yours. You're not wanted here.'
The woman just shrugged. 'But I like it here.'
The way she said it made me want to go down there and up-end the water bucket on her head. She sounded like a little kid asking if she could stay a bit longer at the beach.
'How can you like it?' I demanded, really annoyed now. 'It's a fucking corridor. You like sleeping on concrete?'
'That's what I was doing outside,' she said, calmly enough. 'And at least here I don't have homeless guys wanting to charge me a blow job for a place by the fire.'
'Because there is no fire.'
'But there is food.'
'Food's off,' I said bluntly. 'That was the last of it.'
She put her head between her folded arms again, as a way of telling me the conversation was over.
'I mean it,' I said. 'Food's off. You stay here, you starve to death.'
She didn't answer. Fine, so she wanted to be alone. I turned off the sound and left her to it.
'Dumb bitch,' I said to the monitor, even though she couldn't hear me now.
That was going to be the first item in a varied agenda of invectives, but I realized suddenly what had just happened, what was still happening. I was angry. I'd managed to get angry, somehow, even though on the face of it I didn't have the necessary equipment any more.
If I could do anger, then presumably I could do other flashy emotional maneuvers too. Quickly I fired up my computers and logged on to my U.S. trading board. I didn't surface for five hours, and by that time I was three hundred thousand up on the day.
Saint Nicholas was back, with gifts of ass-kickings for all.
After I closed out on the day, I checked in with the woman. She seemed to be asleep, but she stirred when I clicked the mike back on.
'What's your name, darling?' I asked her.
'Janine,' she muttered, looking muzzily to camera.
'You can stay here to night,' I said. 'Tomorrow we'll talk.'
But we didn't. Not much, anyway. I made a food drop at 6:00 A.M., before she was even awake, then came back upstairs and logged on. I had another good day on the markets, and the day went by in a blur. I did order a folding bed, though, and some blankets and pillows to go on it. I picked a local store that could deliver immediately, had them leave it round by the back door, and lugged it in myself after they'd gone. It made my skin prickle just a little to be in the outside air again, even though it wasn't a warm day or anything. Just psychosomatic, I guess.
Over the next few days, I furnished Janine's corridor pretty lavishly. She arranged it: all I did was buy the stuff and bring it to the door then let her choose for herself where to put it. I'd started to leave the mike on by this time so she could tell me what she wanted - a chair and a table, a kettle for making tea, a chemical toilet, even a little portable DVD player and a few movies for her to watch while I was busy on the trading boards.
The weirdest thing of all, though, was that I actually started talking to her while I was dealing. It seemed to help me concentrate, in some way I couldn't quite define. Most of the things she liked to talk about were stupid and irritating - her favorite celebrities, previous seasons of Big Brother, her hatred for supermodels. I just made 'I'm still listening' noises whenever they seemed to be called for and channeled the aggravation into some world-class short-selling.
It got so that if she actually shut up for a while, I'd throw in a question or two to get her talking again. Questions about herself she didn't like to answer, except to say that she was living on the street because of something that had happened between her and her stepfather back when she turned eighteen. I got the impression that it had been a violent and dramatic kind of something, and that the stepfather had gotten the worst of the deal.
'He came on to you?' I asked, genuinely, if slightly, curious.
'I suppose. He came into the bathroom when I was showering one morning and tried to get in with me.'
'That's pretty unequivocal,' I allowed.
'Clear-cut. Hard to misinterpret.'
'Yeah, right. So I smacked him in the mouth with the showerhead really hard, and then I ran out.'
'No, Nick. Not naked.'
'Then you were showering in your street clothes?'
A pause. 'I didn't run out straightaway. He fell down and hit his head. I had time to grab some stuff.'
This was in Birmingham, Janine told me, as if I could possibly have mistaken her accent. She'd taken a bus down to London the same day, hoping to stay with a friend who was studying hairdressing and beauty at Barnet College. But the friend had acquired a boyfriend and wasn't keen on that arrangement. She passed Janine off to another girl, whose floor she occupied for a while. Not a very long while, though: there was an argument about the rules for the use of the bathroom, and she was out on her ear again before the end of the week.
I was starting to see why Janine wasn't big on washing.
'So what about you, Nick?' she asked me, when we'd been doing this for maybe a week or so. 'What do you do for a living?'
'Well,' I said, 'when you put it like that, Janine, the answer has to be nothing.'
'I can hear you typing away up there,' she said. 'Are you writing a book?'
'Yeah,' I lied. 'I'm writing a book. But it's not to earn a living.'
'How come? You're already rich?'
'I'm already dead,' I said.
That remark led to a very long silence. The next time I checked on her, she was asleep.
In the morning, she asked me if she could see me.
'The cameras only work one-way,' I pointed out.
'I don't mean on the cameras. I mean, you know, face-to-face. '
'I'll think about it,' I lied.
But she wouldn't leave the idea alone: she kept bringing it up last thing at night, when I was logging off and cashing in. I kept being evasive, and she kept going quiet on me, which was fucking annoying. I'd say good night, get nothing back: she went to sleep each night surrounded by a miasma of hurt silence.
In the end, I did it by accident - almost by accident, I should say. When I unlocked the doors one morning so I could drop off a food delivery, I flicked one switch too many. She was waiting for me as I turned the corner, leaning against the open door with her arms folded in a stubborn, take- no-prisoners kind of pose. The crazy thing is, I sort of knew on some level that I'd done it, that I'd opened the final door and removed that last degree of prophylaxis between us. I just didn't let myself think about it until we were face-to-face and it was too late to back out.
She stared at me for a long time in silence. Then her face wrinkled up in a sort of slo-mo wince. 'You look horrible,' she said.
'Thanks,' I answered inadequately. 'You say the sweetest fucking things.'
That made her laugh just a little, the sound pulled out of her almost against her will. She took a few steps toward me, then stopped again and sniffed the air cautiously.
'What's that smell?' she wanted to know.
'Which one? I have a complex bouquet.'
'It's like . . . antiseptic or something.'
'Formaldehyde, probably. I'm pickled inside and out, Janine. It's why I don't smell of rotten meat.'
'You smell of that too.'
I bridled at that, like some living guy accused of having bad body odor. 'I don't,' I said. 'I went to a lot of fucking effort to-'
She made a gesture that shut me up, kind of a pantomime of throwing up her hands in surrender, except that she only threw them up about an inch or so. 'I'm sorry,' she said. 'You're right. You don't smell rotten. You just look like you should smell rotten. Your skin is all waxy and sweaty, and I can see stitches in your neck.'
My carotid was one of the places where I'd inserted a trocar to draw off some of my bodily fluids way back when I was fighting the war on rot. 'Don't get me started,' I advised her.
So she didn't.
'Show me where you live,' she suggested instead.
She stayed upstairs with me for an hour or so, wrapped in three coats against the cold. Then she retired back to her little dead-end corridor, home sweet home, and spent the rest of the day watching movies. Musicals, mostly: I think she was plugging herself back into the world of the living to make sure it was still there.
The next day I bought her a couple of hot-water bottles, and she was able to stay longer. I didn't mind the bottles, so long as she kept them under the coats so the heat stayed right against her skin. The thermostats were still set at the same level, so the room didn't warm up at all, and she didn't come close enough to me for the heat to be a problem.
I think that was the first day I forgot to lock her in, and after I'd forgotten once, it kind of felt like going back to that state of affairs would be a slap in the face to her - a way of saying that I thought I could trust her; but then decided I didn't, after all.
That thought raised all kinds of other thoughts, because it suggested that I did trust her. There was no reason why I should. Back when I was alive, I'd never felt more for people like her than a kind of queasy contempt, mixed with the unpleasant sensation that usually translates - by some spectacular whitewashing process - as 'There but for the grace of God . . .'
But God doesn't have any grace, and I don't have the time or the temperament for helping lame ducks over stiles. If I meet a lame duck, generally speaking, I make duck a l'orange.
So what the fuck was going on here, anyway?
At first, I justified it to myself by counting up my market winnings. Janine could make me feel things again, as though my endocrine system was pumping away like it did in the old days - and that gave me a lot of my wonted edge back. But plausible as that explanation was, it was ultimately bullshit. After a week or so, I was spending more time talking to her than I was in managing my portfolios. A week after that, I wasn't even bothering to log on.
At this point I was even making a loss on the deal, because I kept buying her stuff. It wasn't even stuff she needed to live any more: it was chocolates and beer and doughnuts and even - I swear to God - a fucking hat.
You're probably thinking that there was some kind of a sexual dynamic going on. Janine certainly thought so. When I presented her with the final little chachka - the straw that broke the camel's neck, so to speak - she stared at it for a long time without reaching out to take it. She looked unhappy.
'What?' I demanded. 'What's the matter? It's just a necklace. See, it's got a J on it, for Janine. Those are diamonds, you realize. Little ones, but still . . .'
She looked me squarely in the eye - no coyness, no pissing around. 'Do I have to blow you to sit at the fire?' she asked.
I thought about that. I wasn't insulted: it was a fair question, I assumed, given the way she lived outside on the streets. I also wondered for a split second if she might be offended if she realized how far I was from being attracted to her. She was dirty, she was as skinny as a stick, and she had bad skin. Back when I had a pulse, I would have sooner fucked a greased oven glove.
'There is no fire,' I reminded her.
She nodded slowly. 'Okay, then,' she said, and took the necklace.
But the writing was on the wall, because once I figured out what it wasn't, I couldn't hide any more from what it was.
That shitty old poem: it's not 'lame ducks over stiles.' It's 'lame dogs'.
I watched her sleep that night, and I knew. I let myself see it instead of hiding from it. Fuck, it was nice, you know - watching ghost expressions chase themselves across her face. Hearing her breathe.
The next morning I gave her a roll of notes - maybe twenty grand, maybe a little more - and told her to get lost.
She cried and she asked me what she'd done to hurt me. I told her she'd figure it out if she thought about it long enough. When she asked about the money, I said it was a one-time payment: she should use it to get the hell away from here, and not talk about me to anyone she knew on the street, or else I'd have all the homeless schmucks in Walthamstow climbing up my drainpipes.
She cried some more, and I knew she didn't buy it. It didn't matter, though: that was all the explanation I was prepared to give her. I walked her down the stairs, through the maze, all the way to the door. I unlocked it for her. She stepped across the threshold then turned to stare at me.
Neither of us said anything for the space of three heartbeats. Maybe four: my memory isn't reliable in that respect.
'Imagine if the necklace had been a collar,' I said.
She nodded. 'I get it,' she said.
'And if I fitted a little leash to it. Took you out for walkies.'
'I said I get it, Nicky. I don't think it was like that.'
But I knew she was wrong. Old ladies have their cushion dogs, their ugly little pugs and Pekes and Chihuahuas. Dead guys have homeless women.
'Thanks,' Janine said, 'for the money. It's more than I ever had in my life.'
'You're welcome,' I said. 'Rent a flat. With a bath or a shower or something.'
She refused to be insulted: she just gave me a slow, sad smile.
'It's not good for you here,' she said.
'It's great for me here. Two above freezing. Low humidity. A perfectly controlled environment.'
'Stay in the world, Nicky,' she murmured, her eyes still brimming in a really unsettling, organic way.
'Is that the same as the street?' I countered. 'I'll pass, thanks.'
She made like she was going to hug me, but I raised a hand to ward her off, and she got the point: no body heat or radiated thermic energy, by request.
'Bye, then,' she said, with a slight tremor in her voice.
'Bye, Janine,' I said.
'Is it okay if I write to you?'
'Why not? So long as you make sure there's adequate postage.'
She turned and ran, pretty much, across the parking lot and out of sight around the corner of the building. That was the last I saw of her.
I waited to see if she'd come back: it seemed quite likely that she might do that, think of one last thing to say or ask if she could stay one more night or something. I gave her ten minutes, in the end, despite getting that prickly feeling again from having real, unfiltered air flow across my flesh. Finally I shut the front door, did a quick round of the outer circle to make sure I hadn't taken on any more unwanted passengers, then went back upstairs and locked myself in again.
It was really quiet. Quiet as the tomb, like they say, except for the freezer units humming away behind the far wall. I thought about going down and grabbing one of her DVDs, but they were all feel-good shit that would make me want to hawk.
I didn't really feel like going online: the vibe was wrong, which meant the best I could hope for was adequate. But finally, around about midnight, I fired up my digital engines of destruction and got back in the hot seat for a few hours of Far-Eastern mayhem. Because, it's still true, you know? Still gospel, in my book:
The guys who stop never start again.