RED

By Rachel Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi

Chapter 27

Dawn claws itself into being on Brompton Street, revealing mannequins strung up at their necks by chains of coat hangers, weeping silk scarves from their middles like intestines. In another window, the head of one is sat on a table in the middle against the glass, its scalp ripped off, and cartoonish figures wearing signet rings painted onto the glass stuff the head full of numbers and cash, one swinging the keys to parliament in his hands. In another, ten are lined up with their legs spread apart, each dumping a painted baby on the ground that bleeds from its eyeballs. A few metres down, two painted figures on the glass carrying needles like guns bear down on top of a dismembered pile of plastic limbs.

It is past five when I take photos of each window, my baseball cap pulled laughably low over my face considering the undeniable ownership of the work. Adrienne is pacifying the curious cleaners inside, instructing them not to touch anything and to switch on the display lights when they leave. She had started feeding them my cover story but one of the older men had snorted, shaking his head.

’Think we don’t know a Red when we see it? Don’t worry, we’ll keep it safe ‘til eight at least.’

I stuff the camera in my bag just as Adrienne stalks out of Harrods’ proud entrance. She glides past the windows towards me, smiling widely at the deformed mannequins and releases a trill of laughter into the grey, drizzling morning when she looks to me.

‘Job well done, I’d say,’ she calls out as I shorten the distance between us quickly. Not quite ready to smile, I approach her, nodding. My brow will remain knotted until we cross out of enemy lines.

‘The tube’ll be open soon. We better go. I need to get those pictures up ASAP.’ Walking around Adrienne to lead us up the road I register the huge handbag swung over her shoulder.

‘You’re a natural at this espionage stuff,’ I say, pointedly eyeing up the dark leather beast as she turns to step in line beside me. ‘What’s in it?’

‘A bikini.’

‘Come on, I’m being serious.’

‘So am I.’

I stop and look up to her, my frown deepening. She holds my gaze and her smile softens, as if the invisible strings sewn into the corners of her mouth are now attached to the bags under her eyes. Adrienne’s painted face has slipped in the twilight hours spent sweating behind the shutters. For the first time I see the age creased into the folds of her skin. It’s like the first time I was shown a close-up picture of the moon and was shocked to see its ragged, cratered surface when it had spent years glowing so perfectly round and smooth for the little girl standing on the grass gazing up to the night sky.

‘You’re not coming.’ It is neither a statement nor a question. It is a sweet, wailing monologue compacted and hushed into four collapsed syllables.

‘I hear the call of warmer climes, darling.’ Her deep, legato words purr over the staccato of her high heels as she walks slowly towards a bus stop not far from where I will disappear underground. I follow a few steps behind until she lays her bag in the shelter and turns to look back at the visionary nightmare we created.

‘That place, this place, has stolen so many years from me,’ she says quietly. ‘I’m exhausted.’ I stand beside her and her gaze drops to me, her eyes gleaming orbs in the husk of morning. ‘I want more for me. Is that such a crime?’

I shake my head fiercely. ‘No.’ My bottom lip shakes just as the tall, beautiful half-deity trembles in the slight breeze that floats by.

‘Thank you.’ She pulls her coat tighter and buries her neck in the collar, looking back to Harrods. ‘I just wanted to do something to help before I leave.’ Her voice trails off as her eyes crinkle in pain like rice paper.

‘You’re the bravest person I know, Adrienne.’ I throw my arms around her neck, standing on my toes, and her forearms stretch round my back and squeeze tightly.

‘You’re no runner,’ I whisper in her ear before letting go with my first smile. ‘Especially not in those heels.’ I motion to her feet and she laughs gratefully, holding onto my hand for a moment. Up ahead, we hear the trundle of a bus and I look to see the big, grey double-decker ambling down the road towards us, its headlights catching the dance of the drizzle in their beams. Side by side, we watch it approach as it throws our shadows, long and dark, behind us on the pavement.

‘You know,’ she says as the bus comes to a halt. ‘Bobby would help you.’

I blink at the jarring sound of his nickname, more uncomfortable than the squeal of the bus’ brakes.

‘I don’t want his help.’

‘Darling, are you really in the position to be picky?’ The doors flip open and Adrienne smiles at me one final time as she heaves her bag onto her shoulder and steps on, touching in with her thumb. I take a step towards the doors.

‘Did you know he was a liar?’

She turns, just as the doors shutter close. In the plastic, all I can see is the reflection of my face, white and stark, caught in the middle of the long and dark shadow that is Adrienne. Then the bus shudders forward and she is taken away, along with my face, just as the daylight steals the image of the moon, left invisible and waiting when the night retreats like blotted ink.

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