“They fly very swiftly, and prey upon the wing, being of great use to mankind, in clearing the air of innumerable little flies.” —Chambers Cyclopedia.
Temple Darnell had arranged to meet her new thesis supervisor in his office in the Department of Philosophical Geography, but he left a note asking her to catch the train to the city center instead. Dr. Greene met her at the platform and the pair walked through the mall next to the station to the older part of town. They had to push through a crowd of tourists, possibly fresh off a coach from elsewhere in Europe, then through a herd of teenagers, and finally they made it to the ramp next to the old concert venue.
“What are we doing here?” Temple asked.
“It’s difficult to explain, and better to show you.” He gestured towards a bench bolted into the pavement. He sat down and indicated that she should join him.
“The people. Watch the movements of the people. Understand the rhythms and structures of the city, here, where the older blocks constructed in the sixties meet the new.”
She sat down and then he pointed at another bench at the far end of the pedestrian area, within her line of sight.
“I’ll be there. Just take it in, then tell me your impressions afterwards.”
Greene bounded away without waiting for a reply. He was a nondescript man and seemed to blend into the waves of people, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair. By the time he reached the other bench and turned to wave, she had forgotten how he was dressed, and only his upraised arm indicated that she was looking at the right person.
Temple leaned back. She felt a cool breeze, so she zipped up her anorak. What on earth was going on? She had become bored with her previous thesis topic, filled with dry theology and endless trips to the library for books too dull to make it into the digital repositories used these days. This guy. He came recommended by several of her friends, at least one of whom she trusted enough to be impartial.
“Unorthodox,” Jared had said, “But I think you’ll like him. You’re unorthodox and you just don’t realize it.” She’d smiled, wondering how she’d given herself away.
Her graduate studies were a way to escape the constant demands of her parents to knuckle down and take up a job, begin a life that they could understand. She had tried to explain to her stepmother, the rich one, why she needed to stay on at university, why she had eschewed the milkround of applications and interviews for the non-specific “graduate-entry” jobs that her peers regarded so highly. “I don’t feel like I’ve learned enough yet, Susan. It’s like there’s a hole in my head and I haven’t filled it in yet.”
A group of teenage boys of assorted races and heights met in front of the bench. They were discussing girls and gaming, and their high spirits were infectious. They shook hands and arm-wrestled, then one pushed the cap off another. A third mock rugby-tackled his shorter friend, while the fourth was dispatched to retrieve drinks and crisps from a nearby shop. They larked about the slabs of concrete good-naturedly.
The boys did not stray past the raised curb of the main pavement that ran from Corporation Row. On the other side of the square lay two clothes shops for teenage girls. It seemed like a border-crossing, denoting a territory for which the lads had no visas. Temple caught them looking longingly at the huge, open display windows and the female mannequins therein.
A group of older people occupied another bench at a right angle between Temple and Greene, and their sector of the zone was more starkly delineated. Pensioners in wool cardigans over pressed shirts, prim dresses, shalwar kameez, or saris and propelled by assorted walking aids greeted each other with a hearty “How do” and a handshake that looked firm. The men talked to the men and the women talked to the women, before each couple would trudge slowly on. They skirted the edge of what she saw to be the boys’ turf and tutted, as though the boys were misbehaving.
Temple began to dictate notes onto her phone. The concrete square was the nexus of three different thoroughfares, each lined with bus stops and thus connected to the public transport network. The different passers-by corresponded to a range of stereotypical social groups, and each had its own territory, its own rituals of greeting and negotiation. She saw undergraduates fist-bumping and hugging, spreading out to explore a territory they assumed was their own, and she remembered her own gauche adoption of the new city when she had first arrived. She reported these things to the dictaphone.
A group of couples a few years older than Temple passed between the lads and the pensioners without even noticing them, as though the stratification she had observed just didn’t exist to them. A woman in a hijab with an American twang took the supermarket bags from her husband and then pointed at the childrens’ store; a curly-haired curvaceous woman in sunglasses straightened the collar of her Chinese husband’s sports coat, admonishing him for failing to look in the mirror. They all seemed oblivious as old and young parted before them. The transients and the residents, she noted.
There was Greene, stepping out of the crowd as though he had been one of their pack, his brown trousers and unfashionable anorak blending with their conservative attire. As he peeled off to stand before her, several of the husbands in the group, a traditionalist coupleopoly, seemed to nod in his direction, as though their movements together had been noted and approved of.
“Now, walk with me,” Greene said.
They strode towards the nearest women’s clothing shop. “Tell me about this one,” he said.
She stumbled, at first, wishing she’d used a notepad and not the phone. “Um. The boys are scared of this one, but it represents what they desire—the opposite sex. The old people ignore it.”
“What about the building? The corners.” His reply was lightning. She looked up at the red brick, was it sandstone? It was new, she decided.
“It’s fake,” she replied. “It’s a pretense of antiquity, attempting to blend into the early twentieth-century architecture that characterizes the row, but all of these shops are just simulacra, imitating the past without inhabiting its essence.”
He nodded, and then he said, “But when did you first go into it? What’s your experience of Top Girl, from when you were a student? Quickly!” They had walked around the entire frontage, and turned back to retrace their steps. Greene danced on and off the pavement, walking backwards, his excitement written on his face. Was this some kind of interview?
“I was nineteen when I came to the city and it was the biggest branch I’d ever seen. So much cheap fashion. I used it to forge my identity, changing my look like students have changed their look everywhere.”
“Was it a competition, was it collaborative?”
Warming to the subject, she continued. “We lived in some kind of a collectivist utopia, if you like. The girls in my house all shared their outfits and we would often swap clothes to match the best look, or pool our money to buy that one item that made a difference, that we could take turns wearing.”
None of it was true, she thought, but he seemed to accept it. It was so easy to slip back; the lies felt so comfortable. For a moment, she thought she heard a sound like the beating of giant wings. She shook it away.
“That’s it! What everyone says is the temple of ultra-capitalism is actually a hub of the collaborative and supportive social networks that people themselves create.”
Greene took her arm and pulled her along the street, away from Top Girl. In truth, the store had been the location for a hateful breakup with a girl whose name she no longer remembered. She always felt a thrill when she lied, and a pang of guilt, remembering her mother’s admonition that if she lied again, dragonflies would sew up her mouth and eyes, because that’s what happened to bad children who made up stories. Her mother always carried a needle and thread in her purse, the better to deal with liars, as she said.
They wandered back through the square and along one of the thoroughfares. Greene gestured at the bus stops and then said, “Once these were the sites of dragon pens, where the laborers of the ancient city could walk with the beasts of myth and legend.”
He pointed at the blue double-decker bus waiting for passengers and said, “The shape of the streets, the s-curve of the Queensway, originates in the pagan need to avoid the straight-line geometry beloved of the great behemoths. The bus here subconsciously mimics the way that dragons would move through the curves, constraining themselves to the shapes dictated by their wranglers, and not the direct lines available in the air.”
She couldn’t believe her ears, and spluttered out, “What?”
He wagged his finger. “We must rewrite the stories of the urban landscape, the buildings, the roads, the people. Tell me about that boy over there, for instance?”
“The boy?” She looked at a young man loitering outside a supermarket. “He seems—ordinary? Just a kid waiting for his mum. Too old, really, for that, but maybe she’s buying him something before he goes back to college?”
“What are they buying?”
“I don’t know. Food? School supplies?”
“What if it was his first weapon, so he can face the trials of manhood?”
“Like a sword or something?” She shook her head and stared at the kid. He seemed to notice the attention and turned his head to scan the passing crowds quizzically, as if looking for someone that he didn’t know existed. He raised his arm and she saw something in his hand, metal flashing in the sun. She looked back at Greene.
“Go on,” he said. She took a deep breath and then looked back at the boy. His tight curls above an Afro-Caribbean nose made him look kind. His eyes were sad. She couldn’t see what was in his hand.
“His mother returns with a big parcel wrapped in old-fashioned brown paper. She presents it to him and he takes it with both hands, but she cautions him not to open it. It is a coming-of-age gift to mark his sixteenth birthday, and he must use it to slay a beast.”
She cringed at the cliché, but Greene nodded and shuffled his feet, as though about to dance.
“The beast, or a ceremonial enemy,” he added.
When the boy’s mother came out of the shop she was smartly dressed, a middle-class professional, and she handed her son a carrier bag. It did not contain a paper- and string-wrapped weapon, though. Temple laughed and glanced at Greene.
“Come on. He still has a chance to slay something!”
A rampway channeled the foot-traffic through to the main road that ran perpendicular to the square, and they wandered through the crowds. Greene pointed at the open shopfronts on either side of them, then directed her gaze up to the old windows, ledges, and buttresses.
“It’s as though the mall aesthetic has been scrawled onto the older city, obscuring it with lurid-colored ink. But the traces are still here. Look up there!”
Her gaze followed the line of his outstretched arm to a woman leaning out of an ornate window two stories up, below her the matte-black display cases of a store filled entirely with soft baseball caps, headgear for the young and sporty. The upper floors were free of the modern plastic facade, and Temple could see in the curlicues and ornaments of the balcony the stately brick residence that had preceded the shops. The woman looked down at Temple for a moment, as though picking her out from the crowd.
Temple spoke, surprising herself.
“The woman up there is the secret priestess of a death cult. Her name is Ember.”
Greene smiled and nodded for her to continue.
“Ember is looking for her disciples, her Apostles. That’s them on the other side of the square.” Temple motioned to a group of teenage girls leaning against the wall outside a key-cutting store. They chewed gum and affected disinterest in everything that surrounded them.
“The Apostles are trained to hunt and kill with the curved knife—” She grasped for the name of the blade, thinking of the boy and his mother, but Greene shook his head, as if it didn’t matter. He took her hand and pressed his thumb to the pulse point on her wrist, urging her on.
He led her gently along the ramp and all the time she watched Ember, full-figured, standing at the window, her curled auburn hair cascading to her bare shoulders, her robes blown by some breeze that had not yet reached the ground. The robe was aquamarine, offset by a blood-red belt that nipped it in at the waist. Ember’s eyes were a deeper blue than the dress, and despite the lines around them, she looked sharp, hawkishly surveying her parish. Greene pushed Temple into the side and she stumbled, unable to take her eyes from the priestess.
“She needs blood to appease her god. Why does she need blood, Greene? Is that what the belt signifies? The Apostles will find a victim: should it be a willing sacrifice or do they hunt?”
Ember turned then, about to leave their sight. They saw a rent in the side of her gown, and it was stained with the most terrible ichorous black.
Temple finally managed to look away, gasping for breath.
Greene touched her elbow and led her on, away from the priestess and the girls and the young man, to the top of the slope and then across to another carless street that ran between two nineteenth-century buildings. The shops were boutiques, small and independent and expensive. There were horologists and jewelers, a bijou coffee shop and some other more esoteric shops that probably existed on barely one or two large sales per week.
Temple felt the transition in her stomach: they had moved into an area designed for a different class of people. She rubbed her sides, then ran her hands up to her face, covered her eyes, trying to clear the intoxicating memory of Ember by stretching her fingers out to cover her nose and mouth, blinking.
Greene said to her, “If that was Ember’s ministry, here is her dominion. This is where she was born.”
She couldn’t seem to focus her eyes. She stumbled as she tried, reaching out for Greene, but he stepped away and she dropped to her knees. The arcade whirled around her as she wheezed into her hands.
“This arcade, and its sisters in the big cities, are the creations of rich men,” Greene continued. “Vanity projects built between the buildings they owned or based their corporations in. The mini-malls were not for the workers, but for the owners’ and directors’ wives, which is why there are so many florists and jewelers and cafes.”
He spoke like a storyteller, measured and confident.
“Like the department store next door, this was built on sacred land. First there was an insect-ridden swamp, then the people came, and they hunted the mosquitoes and tamed the land and installed their gods. The blood of Ember’s ancestors was spilled and cursed here, long ago. It doesn’t matter why, or when. How could the industrialists and capitalists of the last two centuries understand the power in this earth, the curse that seeped into the foundations of every building here?”
Through her dizziness the window of the jewelry shop was stained an angry red, the coffee shop was filled with ghosts, the clocks and antique watches next door chimed simultaneously to mark noon. She felt nauseated and crawled to the gutter to vomit. Greene continued.
“The blood curse taints these buildings and the department store has never turned a profit. The offices on the other side contain only failed businesses and their bankruptcy lawyers and accountants.”
Temple glimpsed movement at the far entrance to the arcade. It was the teenage girls, a group of five or six drifting in a strange ballet from one shadow to another, like a hunting pack. She recognized the insouciance in their walk, the threat of violence in the flick of their hair.
Greene had seen them too. He stared at them, his lips pursed. “She sent them, don’t you think?” He stretched out a hand and helped Temple to her feet, solicitously offering a tissue. Unembarrassed, she wiped her face, her fingers lingering on the saliva on her chin, understanding that she had sullied the pristine street as she paid tribute to those below. They walked to the end of the arcade, where the street widened and stretched on towards the other side of the ring road.
The words came to Temple unbidden, “Yes. They’re hers.” She knew it deep within her. The modern edifices may have dominated the surface of the city, but the blood lay deep in the foundations, and the priestess needed to keep it topped up, to remind those who lived and worked on her hallowed ground that they were only visitors, tolerated guests. She didn’t believe for a second that the businesses here were failures. She wondered where the story was going.
In the arcade, the girls noticed a group of four besuited city workers setting off in the other direction towards the main shops, walking in a line that stretched the width of the alleyway. The masters of the city on their way, perhaps, to an early lunch. They all wore suits or heels, the uniform of the quotidian, and Temple felt repulsed, rebellious, in tune with the—with her Apostles. One girl, the sides of her head shaved, stepped into their path, causing them to swerve and break formation. The other four girls assumed similar positions to their shaven leader, trying to fill the available space, deliberately awkward so as to disrupt the flow of pedestrians.
She wished she could shave the sides of her head, like the daring Apostle, and paint her nails in bored black, like the others. If she wore jeans and a tracksuit top, maybe some scuffed-up trainers, she could join Ember’s gang.
The girls sauntered through the last stretch of the arcade until they were next to Greene and Temple. Greene approached them. She couldn’t hear what he said, but one of them turned and eyeballed her, then ever so casually spit on the ground. Two of the others laughed and then started talking—too fast—in response to something he said. The first kept staring.
It was outrageous! They had to be brought to heel!
She strode into their midst, walking tall and imperious. She reached back and unclasped her red hair, letting it fall to her shoulders. She unzipped her anorak, letting the blue tunic show as she moved slowly into the center of the group. Recognition came quickly, and they all lowered their heads except for the one who had been staring. Temple stared back and waited until eventually her Apostle showed the necessary respect.
Greene introduced her, though it did not seem necessary.
“This is Temple Darnell, kids. Temple, I’d like you to meet Jean, Charlotte, Zainab, Stacey, and Gov.” Temple realized that they were no more than children, fifteen years old perhaps. Gov was the shaven-headed girl, her skin a lovely mixed-race brown, her eyes bright and mischievous. How could she have thought they were dangerous? They were just like her.
Greene beckoned them all in close. “We’re playing a game, and there’s some cash in it for you if you follow us for an hour as we walk the city.” Temple was mystified. She turned her head and looked back into the arcade as the kids huddled up to discuss Greene, who was clearly a weirdo.
“What kind of perv are you, then?” said Gov, boldly, and began to haggle over what exactly they would do. Two of the girls—Stacey and Jean, she thought—made their excuses—dinner, a boyfriend—and took their leave.
Temple lost track of the conversation, though, for she saw the boy and his mother walking through the plaza, bearing parcels. The mother leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, and he was old enough to accept it, not to squirm away as boys in that middle stage did. He was carrying two packages, including, now, one wrapped in old-fashioned brown paper. They parted ways just in front of the Apostles, mother presumably returning to work. She shouted after him, “See you at home, Jason!”
Jason slowed to look at Temple, nodding as if they were friends, or that he wanted to check her out. Up close, she could see that he was seventeen, perhaps, and he looked strong, as if he played football or cricket. He was dressed in jeans and a sweater, clearly middle class, unlike the girls.
Greene, Charlotte, and Zainab all stepped to one side to let him pass. He barely noticed them. His eyes remained on Temple. His gaze shifted from initial sexual interest to a wary respect, then recognition. He opened his mouth as if to express surprise, then closed it, understanding nothing except the danger he was now in. He averted his eyes just as Gov took one step closer to him, her fists clenched. That natural pedestrian instinct to avoid obstacles, to avoid entering the personal space of others, helped him drift out of her range, and he walked away from the shops and towards the underpass and the flyover.
Greene watched him go, then turned to the Apostles and cocked his head to the side. He reached for his wallet and extracted a twenty-pound note, which he pointedly pulled taut, demonstrating its crisp newness. He handed it to Gov, then turned to lead the way.
Temple joined Greene ahead of the girls, about fifty paces behind the youth. He invited her to continue, saying, “What just happened?”
“The boy sets out to fulfill the rites of passage, to come into his maturity. The priestess sends her minions to test him, to challenge him. His mother gave him the weapon, from your story.” Temple set the scene.
“Good, good,” Greene said.
“But there’s something amiss,” she added, “She didn’t send them. You did.”
Greene quickened his pace and walked on ahead of her. He began to speak again, and Temple hurried to keep up, his words adrift in the breeze and the sound of traffic. Gov sped up and walked alongside her.
“The new bricks amidst the concrete slabs here at the end of the arcade mark the end of Ember’s territory,” he intoned. “You can see the change in color. The off-red is the blood mixed into the sand by the Apostles when the tiles are made.”
Hearing this, Gov turned to Temple and grinned, and for a moment her lips and gums were stained red. Temple blinked and then it was gone. Gov was just another schoolgirl avoiding lessons.
They were leaving the city center now, heading into a new development, fenced off beside the pavement by orange ribbon and metal stalks indicating the site of some future car park or tower block or luxury hotel. Temple wondered about the limits of development. Why was it not a theatre or an arts complex or a museum? It could only be an extension of the arcade, of the strip of businesses. Which tribe still had profit to be squeezed from them, she wondered?
The underpass ahead was concrete and graffiti-covered, the flowerbeds placed carefully around it had been left to die out, and the tunnel seemed marked for demolition. Temple had lived in the city long enough to see the slow disappearance of the old network of corridors and underpasses designed to keep pedestrians and car traffic separate. Without care, they became terrifying no-go areas at night, and the haunts of the disaffected and homeless by day. She spoke up.
“The underworld beneath the road marks the final end of her territory, and that of her allies in the arcade. Beasts roam free here, despite the city’s attempts to tame them.”
She wondered why she was still playing this game. The vagrant sleeping behind the flowerbed looked like no threat, and she would not move him on just for progress’s sake. Was Greene even listening? She had been so focused on the tale that she hadn’t noticed as he slowly dropped back to take the rear, idling behind the girls, still within earshot, still grinning, still the mousey little man in clothes she couldn’t quite remember.
The underpass actually led to the old Law Courts, still in use despite advancing decay, so she added, “Those who survive the underworld may find safety and order on the other side of the concrete river.”
Jason looked back at them, as if he had heard, and then he hurried on, past the sleeping beggar. She saw that he began to unwrap the parcel, shedding pieces of brown paper, leaving a trail, which they were clearly following. Gov picked up each piece and placed it carefully in her mouth, chewing it for a few seconds and then spitting it behind her.
And Greene watched all.
Temple heard sirens and saw an ambulance barrel along the curving road towards the flyover, a road that ensured that travelers were directed away from the heart of the city. If they wanted to stop, she thought, they must pay the toll and park, or drive on, seek out less constrained locales for their magic.
Jason disappeared into the tunnel, into the underworld, and the Apostles broke into a lolloping run after him, Gov snatching the last few pieces of paper as they tried to catch him. Temple looked back to see Greene’s reaction, but his expression and pace did not change.
“Shouldn’t we go after them?” she asked. He beckoned with one hand, flicking his fingers forward as if to say, “You go.” She brushed her hair from her face, then ran after them, concerned for Jason, concerned for her girls.
All daylight vanished in the passageway. It was a straight line about two hundred meters long, bookended by a half-staircase and a wheelchair ramp. It was lit by a string of old fluorescent tubes which flickered and hummed. Jason stood in the middle of the tunnel, facing her, facing her girls. In his hands he held the weapon, unwrapped, iridescent and puissant.
Her three Apostles crouched down so far that their clenched fists nearly touched the ground. She wondered if they were armed, and then realized her power. She spoke to Greene.
“My Apostles tip their curved blades with poison. They are short, but even the slightest nick will induce short-term paralysis.” She was proud of this one, and ran her hands down her robe—her turquoise dress—and licked her lips, eager to see what was coming.
She heard Greene’s voice behind her, echoing along the tunnel. He said, “Every modern city was given an underworld in the 1960s. You find them in lots of concrete edifices. The impetus must have been to harmonize the walkers with the drivers, to allow both access, but they also served to give each city a labyrinth where the monsters dwell.”
Temple looked back, but she could not see him. He continued, “Regeneration is taking them away: soon they will remove this one too, and the corporations will steal this land for their own.”
It was Jason who spoke next. He shouted back down the tunnel, “Why do we need an underworld at all?” He stepped backwards across a pool of water that had collected from the recent rain. The underpass was too deep for it to evaporate quickly and the concrete did not allow it to drain, so it lay near the center of the tunnel, a boundary that Temple was not sure she could cross.
Gov replied, running her hands along the dirt in front of him, “Because this is where we keep the beasts and this is where we feed them.”
Temple unconsciously reached down and tugged on her scarlet belt, then shook her head. She raised her hand and nodded to Gov.
The girls screamed and then leapt across the water onto Jason. He raised his shining weapon in response, but as they tumbled into him, he was knocked to the floor, and the weapon fell into the water with a steaming hiss.
Temple raised her hands and began Ember’s prayer, lost in the words and the experience, feeling the buzzing of the lights and the rumbling of the cars above them as if they were the sounds of the earth, pounding in her skull. If she could consecrate this corridor with blood, it would be hers, despite what her allies might think, and her influence would persist as the developers began to work on the land. She felt herself begin to chant and wondered when, exactly, she had become her own story.
Suddenly, she felt a sharp pain in her side. She collapsed to the floor, rolling with a shriek to see Greene standing above her, a bloody knife in his hand. She put her hand to her abdomen and brought it back covered in blood. The stain spread out across her dress, thick and black.
Greene stepped over her and walked towards the gasping bundle of limbs that was Jason and the girls. He began to speak once more. “Sometimes the beasts of the old city escaped from the labyrinth, from their pits, from their lairs, and took on the forms of men.”
He bent down over them and pulled one of the girls aside, throwing her backwards into the grimy water. Another, Gov, scrabbled backwards as she saw his weapon. She lunged back towards her friend, calling for Zainab, the last of the Apostles.
Greene stood exultant for a moment, then crouched down, swinging his arm up, then down again and again and again.
The screams were terrible, and Temple realized that she was screaming too. The pain was excruciating and she lay back on the cold and dirty path, staring up at the ceiling. She thought she could hear, and see, the people from just an hour earlier: the grubbing pensioners shuffling around their bench, the teenage boys pretending not to be as innocent as they were, the oblivious parenting couple. They were all in the underpass with her: Ember’s congregation had come to visit their priestess.
“The blood stains the stone and the sacrifice is complete. Her diocese expands and the priestess births the dragon once more.” Greene’s voice surrounded her and she clenched her eyes tight. She gripped her side where the blade had gone in and hoped that he was not coming for her.
Temple fell into a semi-conscious state. She remembered lying on a riverbank with her mother, a scarlet dragonfly hovering above, its wings beating so fast they could not be seen. Her eight-year-old self knew that it was just waiting for prey to appear—the mosquitoes rose as evening approached—but she looked into its bulbous eyes and imagined that it looked back. Does it know that I lied again? Does it know I pushed Jenny Thomas over in the playground, and then told the teacher that she fell? She was twirling in that embroidered dress and I just wanted to stitch it to her knees. “And that the dragons did it,” she said aloud. She twisted her fingers together anxiously, and then her mother leaned in to tickle her nose with a long blade of grass.
“The dragons did it,” the mother mimicked her daughter, and giggled, though she had no clue about Jenny. Then she whispered to Temple about the dragonfly nymph’s long adolescence, struggling in the water, cannibalistic, ugly, and its brief months silencing children who tell tales, stitching their mouths shut with its long needle.
Temple remembered also the sound of wings overhead, beating much more slowly than the insect, impossibly large, and she’d opened her mouth to warn her mother about the monster above, tell how it had come to rescue her, that it hated cruel mothers. She said nothing, though, understanding that her mother had no time for her stories, would never have time for them.
She felt a soft touch on her cheek and with a shiver, she opened her eyes a fraction.
Greene squatted before her, bathed in blood. It ran down his cheeks as he grinned at her. She did not know if it was hers or Jason’s, but she howled into his face, unable to stop herself, terrified that he would attack her again. He reached down to the wound and touched it, then brought his hand back, and wiped her cheeks and forehead with blood.
She fainted, and when she woke, he was gone, and the paramedics were lifting her urgently onto a stretcher.
Temple had not returned to the city centre since the televised reenactment of Jason’s murder ten years previously. The authorities had hoped to prompt new witnesses to come forward, but none had. She had participated as far as she could, speaking about her long and arduous recovery to the presenter, but had been unable to offer anything of value to the investigation and, later, the inquest. She rarely ventured far out of the suburbs now, but she had to take the tram into the city because she had forgotten to purchase a present for her father’s seventieth birthday, and it was too late to order anything suitable online. Her acquaintances—she didn’t have “friends”—had encouraged her to move, to relocate to the countryside or to the sea, somewhere far away, but she had not. She had remained in stasis, cocooned in her apartment.
The tram stopped outside the old department store and her plan was to slip inside, buy what she needed, and then catch the return tram, without having to venture near Corporation Row, the ramp, or the underpass. In front of the revolving doors of the store she stopped suddenly, causing an old lady to tut and her husband to push past too close, disrespecting Temple’s need for space. She felt the old ache and reached for her side.
A well-dressed man in a blue suit held another door open and gestured for her to enter before him, but she stepped backwards. He looked harmless: he was handsome with a disarming smile. Short blonde hair and a tiny stud earring that suggested a rebellious side. She shook her head, though, and looked away. The arcade was nearby. She could go look, just for a moment.
This street had been pedestrianized, but it intersected the place where she had first seen Ember and the arcade, and if she detoured across to a new alley between a coffee shop and a phone outlet, she might also see the underpass.
She turned away from the doors and marched resolutely along the pavement. At first she was struggling against the currents of the crowd, who all seemed determined to fight their way upstream. She imagined herself a warrior pushing her way through to the front. She fell in step with a group of teenagers and let them take the lead, breaking the flow of traffic.
She rode their slipstream and passed the end of the arcade. She glanced inwards and saw that the horologists and jewelers were still there. Still tastefully ostentatious. The glass roof had been removed, exposing the lane to the elements. She smiled at the thought that some catastrophe had reduced such a place to the status of just another city alley, albeit an affluent one. She imagined the city authorities deciding that profits were down, and the shopkeepers must be punished. A team of workmen arriving to remove the roofing and allow the elements in once more. Or a freak cyclone sweeping through, picking up customers, owners, trinkets and glass, shredding all in the whirlwind before depositing them, bloodily, across the town.
She did not stop, but wandered on. She found by peering through a gap between two buildings that the underpass was gone. She could see that it had been replaced by a three-story building and a car park. The main road had been rerouted and crisscrossed with lights and button-crossings, so that the pedestrian routes intersected with the vehicular.
She shivered, knowing she was finally on the ground sanctified by Greene. She walked slowly down the familiar pavement towards the building.
It looked dilapidated already, its lowest floor glass-fronted and bearing only “to let” signs. The upper stories were stepped, as though somebody somewhere had designed a ziggurat, only to abandon the plan mid-way through. The lights were out and some of the windows boarded up.
She said aloud, to no-one, “Ember’s ritual clearly failed. There is no prosperity here, and the darkness and the secrets have been buried, or erased.”
She walked on towards the ziggurat.
“What was Greene’s plan?”
There were bus-stops on the far side of the road and she saw a woman with a pram beyond them, waiting patiently at the crossing for a green light. She looked familiar. Her clothes were boring and middle class, the pram was the modern kind where no expense had been spared, she wore designer spectacles and a sharply cropped haircut, but it was clearly Gov, finally appropriate after all these years. She hadn’t seen Temple. Would she even recognize her?
There were four carriageways and two separate crossings before Gov reached her, and the building lay between them. This was a confrontation that Temple had avoided since the inquest and she decided to continue avoiding it. She quickened her pace and then stepped in to the side of the building, to wait for Gov to pass.
If she had a child, if she was respectably dressed, then Gov had not been harmed, surely? What right did Temple have to revive the story, to reintroduce it into both their lives.
And yet here she was.
Weeds were growing through cracks in the paving, and the rear of the ziggurat was in an even more parlous state than the frontage. The glass of the windows had been smashed more recently, and the wooden boards had been inexpertly propped up to cover them. She tentatively pushed, and watched the sheet fall backwards into a darkened room.
“What if Ember was cursing this area with the blood? What if Greene was?”
She spoke to nobody in particular as she climbed through the window, removing her cardigan and placing it over the frame, just in case there was broken glass.
She wandered through the empty rooms. There was no power, but enough daylight seeped in that she could see. The ziggurat was a conundrum. There were no signs of occupancy on the ground level: the floors were bare concrete in one room, half-laid tiles in another. Even its purpose, with the glass facades, was unclear. How long had it stood, cursed, at the edge of the development?
“Maybe the plan was to stop the new development in its tracks?” Temple enjoyed the sound of her own voice; she had not spoken for so long. She reached into her bag and pulled out the long red scarf she’d been given for Christmas two years earlier, which she had no memory of picking up that morning. Indeed, she’d never worn it. She folded it carefully and then tied it around her waist, letting it nip in the navy coat she was wearing.
The cobwebs and the mouse droppings in the corners of the room suggested that it had been vacant for a long time. Perhaps no one had ever occupied the place.
“The developers went bust? Legal troubles? Whose purpose is served here?”
She was in the central atrium as she said this. The tiles on the floor had been completed in a grey and white checkerboard pattern. Wires still hung from the sockets, as if the final fittings had not been provided. A staircase led up to what must be office space, or apartments. A doorway led down.
“They were building my ziggurat upwards, so let’s go down to the point of origin.”
She walked to the doorway, tried the handle. It was not locked, but why would it be locked? There were steps; of course there were steps. She had to return to the underworld.
The basement was a disappointment. She was not sure what she had expected. There were several rooms connected doorlessly, each brightly lit by fluorescent tubes. She didn’t feel the deep churning throb around her heart that she had anticipated. Why would Greene be there? She felt stupid for imagining that whatever secret magic had possessed them would return again. She tried to put it into words:
“After perverting Ember’s blood sacrifice, Greene entered a cocoon. ‘Dr. Greene’ had only ever been his pupal stage, the immature creature waiting to be reborn, preying on the weak, entertaining itself while it prepared to trigger the chrysalis. This is why the police never found him.”
She returned to the atrium above the basement and then continued up the stairs.
“Maybe he would live on high, watching over the scene of his becoming?”
She heard a voice below her, though the words were indistinct. The blonde man with the earring stepped out into the hallway and looked up the stairs at her.
“Hello? You do know that this building is unsafe and that you’re trespassing?” She opened her mouth to reply, but no words came. He continued, “I’m the realtor, Evan Young, of Green and Young.”
Temple bared her teeth and rubbed her fingers together. She found herself letting the waves of the story wash over her and take charge. She loosened her hair from the slide holding it back, letting the auburn curls fall to her shoulders. She surveyed her ziggurat, aggressively.
“Once it reaches maturity, Odonata lives a brief, beautiful life, preying on those smaller than itself, mating, and then dying before the winter.”
“I’m sorry?” he said. She walked down the stairs towards him. The fancy suit, the groomed beard and moustache. Sure, he was an estate agent, but he was as striking as Greene had been nondescript.
She smiled with her face but not her heart, and stretched out her hand to him.
“Temple Darnell. I was just looking at the old place. It played a part in my life.”
He smiled and said, “Really? They never did get anyone to occupy it. It’s been like this since construction was completed. I’ve lost count of the number of clients I have shown around. I must have talked until I was hoarse about the potential of this property, of this development. But you can’t stay here, Miss. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Temple shook her head and continued, “We told a story, you and I, and the words became real, and then you did something terrible to me. It appears you’re still telling people stories?”
He backed away, as if the territory he thought was his was truly someone else’s.
She strode slowly down the stairs, and intoned, “She consecrated the ground with blood, through her disciples. The lords of the city thought they could control her, but her ritual tainted the earth, damaging the spread of the city out here. They took away the old pathways, thinking the rich blood would appease the darkness underneath.”
Young backed slowly towards the exterior door, unsure what was happening. “You’re crazy. Darkness? Rituals?”
“Where did the beast go if it isn’t here?” she said.
A new voice interrupted, “Surely you remember the court case? This is her. The cult girl.” It was Gov, standing in the doorway, blocking his exit. Temple was excited to see that her disciple had not let her down.
She watched Young evaluating them both. We must look so unthreatening, she thought. She wondered if he understood that he was no longer the narrator.
Temple knew that it was him: there was no other reason for him to be there, on that day.
When they rushed him, he tried to fly. His wings were only visible in the half-moment before her eyelids reopened after a blink, but they caught him and pinned him.
“It’s no good, Greene Young,” she said. “I can’t tell the story like you can. I don’t have the gift for it, but I can stop you from telling it, stop you from drinking us in with your multifarious eyes, stop you from speaking your lies.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out the sewing kit she had taken to carrying. While Gov held him down, she carefully inserted the needle under his skin, pulled the thread tight, and then pushed it through again. When she had finished sewing up his eyes, she began on his mouth.
“The term devil’s darning needle is derived from a superstition that dragonflies may sew up the eyes, ears, or mouth of a sleeping child, especially one who has misbehaved.” —Encyclopaedia Britannica
The dragonfly darted away once more, chasing an unseen mosquito, and Temple lay back on the floor, clutching her side.
The man, whoever he was, tried to moan, but she ignored him. She had no further need to see him. This story was done.
She was vibrating, transforming. She thought: this must be what it feels like to shed one’s skin, to become.