“You’ll be starting in here.” Sedgewick’s expensive shoes sounded loudly on the polished floor as she followed him down the aisle between the filing cabinets. He was wearing a white shirt under a green and brown zigzag jumper and he’d rolled up his shirt sleeves. “Research,” he told her, “is the basis on which we build our theories.”
“She always appears as a girl in her late teens,” he said, over his shoulder, “or sometimes an adult woman. She always has dark hair and dark eyes. She drops in and out of history. Sometimes she is in significant places at significant times, but at others she appears to be nothing more than a spectator.”
“How do you know about her?”
He turned and grinned over his shoulder. He had a beard, clipped short and brown, and black-rimmed glasses. His eyes were piercing behind the lenses. She supposed he thought he was attractive.
“Stories,” he said casually, “Word of mouth. Carvings, pictures. Once you know what you’re looking for its easy.” He turned and hit the palm of his hand against the face of one of the cabinets. It reverberated loudly in the enclosed space and she winced.
“Start from here,” he told her. “I’ll be back in an hour.” He brushed past her, pressing close to her for a fraction of a second. She watched him leave and then turned back to the cabinet. He’d written a book about her, although clearly he hadn’t realised it. Or at least, he’d written a book about the people who had thought they knew her. A book about a concept. It was called Tracking the Trickster.
She pulled it out of her bag and flipped it open to the introduction. Her eyes ran to a point halfway down the page. “But what is the Trickster?” she read. “The question echoes through all of time and space. Something more than human, that is for certain. Omni-present. Omniscient. Almost omnipotent. And yet so few records exist of this most powerful of mythological figures.”
It was raining outside, she could tell, even though there were no windows in the archives. The air had that feel to it. It had been raining, too, she remembered, on the day she had come to Earth.
They’d been like her, in the same way a lump of rock is like a statue. Terrified of her. Wondering. Fearful. She had enjoyed the taste of power. She’d shown them, oh, so many things. How to move. How to hunt. How to work miracles. What had she been to them, those first people? There had been no words for them to say. There would be plenty of words later.
And the children. Oh, the children. Tiny and stinking and soft and infinitely wondrous to her. Always grasping, always reaching with that strange, blank curiosity. She’d seen it even then in them, that permanent hunger to touch, to taste, to control and to master.
I will never stop, she’d thought fiercely. Not until I’ve seen all there is to see of this and every Universe, not until I’ve tasted the water of a thousand Earths, seen the light of a trillion suns. I will never forget.
Harry. Harry had been her man. Her first. That, she could remember with the shock of smashed glass. He’d always looked at least a decade older than she was, with his blonde hair and mocking blue eyes. Really it had been the other way around. She had been older than him, infinitely older, but she’d never met anyone so much like herself before. So quick, not just mentally but physically too. So evenly matched in everything but terms of mortality.
She remembered how they’d kissed. If those kisses had ever meant anything to Harry he’d hidden it well and she had done the same. They weren’t an expression of desire or hunger or even emotion. Simply the transfer of energy from her own immortal flesh to his finite. She’d kept him alive as long as she could, as long as she could bear to watch him.
Finally, he’d refused to take it. She’d tried anyway, trying to push her own life into his skin by will power alone, but he wasn’t having any of it. He’d turned his head to stare sightlessly out of the little window of the house they’d both lived in, out to the shifting, sighing sea. He’d waited for her to stop. He’d waited for death to come. She’d tried again and again so many times, saltwater beading on his skin as it cooled, that she stopped trying to count.
Her screams still echoed in her throat. Sometimes she’d wake up in the hollow of midnight and realise that the screams in her dreams had been her own.
The scream of gulls. The stink of saltwater. The floor rocking beneath her feet. Boat. No. Ship. Why had that memory re-surfaced? More importantly, which memory was it? She closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the cool metal of the filing cabinet. With the rocking, a drawling voice. A sarcastic, intelligent look. A smell of unwashed bodies and alcohol. The sensation of darkness on a beach and laughter and a bonfire. Cooper. That had been his name. Cooper Red.
The fire on the beach. That was the strongest memory she had of him. It had been night time. It was the very beginning of hurricane season in this sea and the rising wind was making the palm trees dance and shake their heads wildly at the edge of the jungle. She had sung for them. That had been a mistake.
Then, the next day, four ship loads of soldiers. They didn’t appreciate piracy. The sand had been bloody and it had been her fault. Cooper had told her to run. She’d refused. This was where she could really make a difference, she had thought. This was where she could save them.
He had died with her name on his lips.
So many memories, now. So many faces. So much that had been lost. They all blurred together. Sometimes a face or a name or a snatch of conversation would float out of the morass, but mostly it was a fog of shifting shapes and colours. Robin had been sharp in her mind recently. She couldn’t think why, but maybe there didn’t need to be a reason. She couldn’t recall his face, but she could still taste what it felt like to be near him.
They’d pulled her out the river. Apparently she had been face down, floating on the current. Not that she remembered that bit, obviously. She couldn’t remember very much between Harry dying and Robin finding her. They’d dragged her out of the water and only then had they realised that her back was a welter of wounds. For almost a week she had been unconscious and then she had opened her eyes to green leaves, the sound of the wind, and voices.
He had been able to make her laugh. He was handsome, in a boyish, arrogant sort of way. And he’d had the luck of the Devil himself. They’d had fun together, good, healthy, exhilarating fun that involved climbing and fighting and dancing. She’d overawed them all. They had loved her.
It had become too much for them eventually. It always did. Sooner or later they began to fear her and then that fear turned to hate. She’d never been able to stop it. There’d been another skirmish. She’d been badly wounded, trying to save three of the gang at once. They moved too slowly and they weren’t properly aware of their surroundings. She’d paid for her concern with three stabs through her ribcage, one for each of her friends’ lives. But she’d cut down all the soldiers. Robin ordered the gang to leave and they went, leaving her lying on the leaf mould. She smiled at him, thinking he was going to carry her back to camp himself. She should have learned to recognise the signs by now. He crouched next to her, eyes cold.
“What are you?”
She laughed disbelievingly. Drops of blood from her lungs spattered the dead leaves. “What?”
“I asked what you are.”
“Oh, Robin, don’t be ridiculous.” She pushed herself into a sitting position against a tree trunk. He didn’t move to help her.
“Are we really going to do this now?”
He stood up, looming over her. He was a soldier, she remembered. He could be merciless.
“I’ve been watching you,” he said, distantly. “And I’ve realised. You move too fast sometimes. You see things you shouldn’t. You hear things that aren’t normal. You know things that are impossible. What are you?”
She’d had no answer. “Robin…”
He’d shot her again and again, from a few feet away. One arrow pinned her left shoulder to the tree behind her back. One took her above her right knee. Another in her stomach, another in her hand. She was pinioned. He lowered the bow and looked at her bleeding, at his own handiwork. Like he’d just finished the hunt. She begged. She begged. She begged. He stood there, watching. The anger rose up, flames licking the inside of her throat as he turned and walked away.
Again. Again. Again. She’d sobbed in her own heart as she screamed her betrayal after him. She cursed him with her last conscious breath as he disappeared amongst the trees.
Here was a diary. She lifted it out of the drawer and examined the label. With a jolt of surprise, she realised that it belonged to Melissa. Melissa Jackson. She’d never understood her obsession with keeping track of what had happened, every day of her life. But she was speaking from a vantage point of millions, billions of years. Melissa.
She’d been very pale and very pretty, in an English rose kind of way. Blonde hair, fair skin. Grey eyes, like somebody whose name slipped her mind. Young and frivolous. The kind of girl who became too easily attached to something new and mysterious. She remembered the conversation that had brought that particular relationship to an abrupt end.
“I love you!”
“But I don’t care about you,” she remembered saying, astounded by the depth of emotion that she seemed to have aroused.
“I love you so much. So much,” Melissa had said, holding out her arms entreatingly. She had ducked away from her, giving in to her instinct to do so for the first time in almost a year. The big, lacy skirts did not help in her escape as she moved quickly to the other side of the conservatory. It was just before afternoon tea. Servants from the kitchen would soon converge here, laden with cakes, sandwiches, scones, cream and tea.
“Why can’t you love me back?” Melissa wailed, as she made hurriedly for the door.
“Because I can’t love,” she’d said over her shoulder, as she ran to her room, as she yanked her way out of the corsets, as she stepped into the Inbetween. Because I can’t love.
Now here was something interesting. A scrap of tapestry. Where had that come from? What did it have to do with her? She held it up in its protective plastic bag and scrutinised it curiously. Tudor. A court scene. Had she ever been at court? Almost certainly. An easier question would be to ask where she hadn’t been. Ah. There she was. A tiny figure half-hidden at the back of the picture. All in black. Black hood. Black dress. Like an executioner’s daughter.
She heard the whispers as she slid into the room. Cruel whispers. Shocked whispers. Desirous whispers, and not only from men. Who is she? Where did she come from? Look at those eyes, look at those hands. I want her.
A young man, reddish hair and beard, wearing too much gold and jewels. They were dancing. When had that happened?
“Why do you mourn, sweet lady?”
A flicker of irritation. “Why do you mourn?”
She leaned in. “For the long years. For the turn of the Earth. For all the lost kisses.”
He was silent for a second. Then he laughed. “Prettily said, lady.” They twirled and span. Glimpses. Laughter. Gleaming fruit. Musicians. Young men, watching enviously. Another girl- woman- long black hair, a beautiful oval face, pearls at her throat and a gold “B” between her collarbones. She looked upset.
She was choking, choking on the leers, the closeness. Nothing was stable. Everything was closing in. She tore herself away and ran, stepping out of her shoes so she could move faster, out into the hollow of midnight.
Another book. This one wasn’t a diary, but a story. Jacob. He’d looked like Harry, to the point that she sometimes got their names confused. He’d been younger than Harry, fiercer and more aggressive. If she didn’t know better she would have said that he was Harry’s son. She’d never realised he could write like this. She walked out of the glow, she read, like a goddess out of the sun…
He shielded his eyes from the light streaming around her.
“What did you do?” he asked. There was blood on his shirt. She crouched next to him without answering and pulled him upright. The horses were dead, but that didn’t matter. He would probably pass out soon and then she could pick him up and leave him somewhere safe.
“Nothing, love,” she said, to keep him quiet. He turned his head downwards, screwing up his face against the pain.
“Your eyes,” he panted, “They look strange.”
She cursed under her breath and tried to move faster. There’d been a lot of them and she hadn’t had any other choice. She’d had to do it. That was a trick she’d learnt from Harry. She shook his voice out of her ears, telling her to not care about her opponents, and pushed onwards, taking the boy with her.
“Come on, Harry,” she managed, half-lifting him over a fallen piece of masonry from the city behind. She used too much of her strength, but he was half-wild with agony and didn’t seem to notice that.
“Who’s Harry?” he said, and hissed as the toes of his bad leg dragged over a rough patch.
She turned her body awkwardly to try and help him. “No one,” she gritted out. They struggled up the stony hill to the bent and twisted may tree that they’d left their belongings under. Clouds were beginning to gather in the South. The red sky looked inflamed, like an infected wound. Down on the plain, the remains of the city were still glowing with heat. Clinker drifted in the air.
She lowered Jacob gently onto the ground. The pain had exhausted him. He barely noticed as she put her hands on his leg and made the bone twist and melt back together. It was the eighth time she’d mended him. Eight times too many. She found his blanket and covered him with it. Time to go.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered, with closed eyes. She picked up her pack silently and slid her arms through the straps. “Don’t leave me,” he whispered again.
They’d loved her. All her little people. They’d all loved her so much. So much. That was her gift, wasn’t it? Five minutes and they’re mine, she thought. Five more and they’ve gone. The next drawer she picked at random, pulled it open, found a Perspex box filled with protective blue foam. Nested in the foam, a wooden bird. She stared at it. Hadn’t she destroyed that? Apparently not. But she remembered the fire. Or was that when they’d tried to burn her for witchcraft? That hadn’t worked, either. She lifted the lid off the box and picked the bird up. The acid in her skin would damage it, but she didn’t care.
All gone, gone. All gone, gone. All gone, gone. That was what the wood pigeons had been saying, not so very long ago when she’d decided that she was going to live her life in a straight line from now. No more wandering. No more stepping from one universe to the next, no more being worshipped, no more feeling the light of a different star on her skin. No more hurting.
“Found anything?” Sedgewick’s voice sounded close, right in her ear. She turned around. He was standing too close to her. He seemed to realise this and shifted back, but the strange smile stayed on his face.
“No,” she said. “Nothing here.”
(“What are you most afraid of? Are you afraid of anything?”
“Oh yes, my dear.”
“Well? Tell me.”