Shadow Walkers

Shadow Walkers is an 88,000 word alternative reality novel set in a broken society forced to split its population into two groups: ‘Daylighters’ who live during the day and ‘Nocturnals’ who live at night. While resources are exploited to ‘24-hour’ potential, the split seems like a death sentence for those forced to spend their lives in darkness.

Twenty-year-old Declan is an unlucky Nocturnal. Son of a powerful navy commander, child of a terminally ill mother, brother to a high school dropout and best friend to a suicidal Nocturnal rebel, Declan’s choices carry dire consequences. It doesn’t help that he’s in love with a Daylighter who has secrets as dark as her eyes. Who will he save – his family, his city, or the woman he loves?

Sample: CHAPTER 1

The breeze blew from the North, through the bellows of the Red Desert and over the city of Atunda, dusting the dawn in an unnatural copper glow. Had Declan been looking up, he might’ve bathed in the impression of sunlight and compared it with memories of the day—something he hadn’t seen in almost two years. Instead, he walked to his bus stop with his head down, threadbare canvas shoes crunching gravel as he passed between the gravestones of Memorium Cemetery.

Something was about to happen. Dec could feel it in the air—his nose itched inexplicably, as it often did when something was about to go horribly wrong. He called it his ‘dung beetle sense’—to always know when the sky was about to dump another load of shit on him.

Sure enough, halfway to his stop, he heard a strange noise—something between a grunt and a cough—and looked up. On the far side of the cemetery, just past the cold marble pillars of the memorial, a shadow moved along the corrugated iron fence and disappeared behind a tapered headstone. He squinted. Was it a bot? Did they know what he and Tommy were planning? Were they tracking his movements? Or were his dung senses distracted by the stench of the dilapidated hospital he’d just left?

A low moan rose from the same spot, easing his paranoia. Bots didn’t make human sounds; they moved silently on wings you’d be lucky to hear if you were a dog. No. There was a person hiding behind that gravestone.

“Hello?” he said, drawing closer, curiosity killing his good sense. What kind of morbid individual—besides himself—would be passing through the cemetery so close to changeover? “Who’s there?”

In the silence beyond his words, he could just make out the zap, zap, zap of blowflies barrelling into the SolStore street lamps overhead. As his apprehension rose, so did the hairs on his arms and by the time he rounded the headstone, his nerves were strung as tight as his muscles.

He didn’t expect the woman to be crouched on the ground, her legs pressed against her chest, hands clasped around her middle. She wore plain clothes—jeans and a t-shirt too tight for an Atunda summer—and when Dec looked closely, he noticed a blossom of blood slowly seeping from her sternum and out between her fingers.

He leaned down to touch her shoulder, an exclamation of concern on his tongue, when her head snapped up and he stumbled back, the exclamation turning to a low defensive grunt. She was one of them—a Northerner. He should’ve known from the sheen of her raven hair and the stain of her skin which looked as though it’d been dipped in tea. She was just as he’d seen them on the news projections—eyes as dark as her pupils, lips full, permanently protruding in a pout. He didn’t, however, expect her to be so small, so delicately framed, with features so well-balanced on the parchment expanse of her moon-shaped face.

Her body went rigid and the whites of her eyes flashed in stark contrast to the darkness and shadows around them. She pressed herself against the gravestone as though trying to stay as far away from him as possible. Dec knew what she saw. Where he’d once been handsome in his angles and contrasts, he was now angry and pinched. His skin, like all Nocturnals, had become waxy and pallid, showcasing the extent of his sun depravation. His dark hair seemed to be getting darker all the time, as were the shadows under his eyes, giving him the hollow look of someone whose gaze was falling further and further into his head. Nobody would guess he was only twenty-one. The night had aged him. The horrors he’d seen had added years to his face.

Let her be scared, he thought. It was a small victory for what her people had done to his.

“Fancy seeing a Northerner out after dark,” he heard himself say, though his voice sounded far away and deeper than usual.

The woman winced, and for a second she almost looked scared. He didn’t know they were capable of feeling scared—or feeling anything for that matter.

“Go,” she said, the word coming out in a puff.

And that was it. One word, one syllable, perfectly pronounced. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but it certainly hadn’t been that.

“Go?” he repeated, eyebrows rising. “Go?” He shook his palm pod to life and pressed it down against the heat of his skin to clarify the screen—Northerner technology was one of the only perks of their re-settlement. He stared down at the face. 6.32 am. It was still Nocturnal time—his time. She was a Daylighter, as nearly all Northerners were. She was the one breaking the law. “You should be the one leaving. I could have you arrested.” Even as he said the words, he knew the threat fell short. The police, like the government and the naval forces were dodgy—many of them puppets for the Northerners. There was always the chance they’d take her word over his. Still, the threat lingered in the air between them.

Quick as a viper, the woman reached up and smacked his wrist, disengaging the palm pod. “Go,” she repeated, dark eyes flicking left and right. “You must go. Now.” She slapped his wrist again, leaving a smear of blood on his pale skin.

Dec blinked down at his arm, mind reeling. She’d touched him. No, slapped him and left her filthy Northerner blood on his arm. Who knew what diseases she had? It was said their subvessels bred bacterias, of which only they were immune. It was thought that because of those bacterias, Southerners like his mum were falling ill to a mysterious disease that affected their minds, made them go slowly insane. The ‘desert sickness’ they called it. A sickness that swelled the throat and eyes, dried them up until they cracked and bled. Some, like his mum, experienced mirage-like visions, the kind experienced by severe dehydration. And although scientists had disproved any link of the disease to the Northern invasion and said it wasn’t contagious, the fear of contamination was rife.

His hands shook with anger and the smear of blood flickered in the dim light. If he were more like his best friend Tommy, he might be tempted to kill her right there, to push over the gravestone and let the weight of it do the rest. Tommy would probably think it ironic, to kill one of them in the place where so many of his people had died—on the very soil that the July massacre had taken place only three years ago. She was already bleeding. It would look like an accident.

He shook his head, severing the thought at its root. He wasn’t Tommy. He’d once held a dying man in his arms and that was enough for him. But he wasn’t a saint either. A saint would’ve tried to help, would’ve taken her across the road, back to the hospital from where he’d come.

He decided to do neither.

Wiping his arm on the hem of his black t-shirt, he slowly retreated back to the bus stop, ignoring another raspy moan from the woman by forcing himself to remember the rumble of tanks, the unison tramping of soldiers boots, punctuated by ear-ripping screams. In the film reel of his mind, he watched it happen again, saw it play out from the eleventh storey of their inner city apartment across the street—the place he used to call home.

He remembered pressing his head against the glass, ears pounding with the thrum of his own heart, his breathy condensation steaming the window. He’d watched as they’d surrounded the protesters and flattened them like stalks of wheat in a field ready for reaping. Like a pig in a butcher shop, shot before blinking, he couldn’t look away. The chaos that followed, the faces of the Southerners as they tried to run for shelter in the surrounding buildings, barely human, hundreds of petrified eyes peeking out from faces caked with blood, sweat and dust. It was enough to exhaust any trace of empathy he might’ve had for the one, injured Northerner behind him.

Just as he reached the terminal, his bus rounded the corner and rolled silently down the hill, electric engine whirring. He spared one last look at the far side of the cemetery to find the woman gone, only a slight smear of blood where her hand had gripped the top of the gravestone for balance.

As he stepped onto the bus, the surveillance camera perched atop the concrete terminal swivelled to scan the contours of his face. Facial recognition technology in areas of high people traffic wasn’t unusual. It was the Atunda council’s way of keeping track of who was out and about when they shouldn’t be and who was congregating under suspicious circumstances. But he didn’t remember there being a camera on this particular stop the last time he caught the bus. This one must be new.

The hairs of apprehension rose on his arms again and he boarded quickly, keeping his head bowed. Since the bus was empty, he made his way to the back, shook his palm pod to life and tapped the screen twice to bring up his sister, Mel’s, phone number. He hit connect. She picked up on the first ring.

“You almost home?” Her tone was abrupt, but it did nothing to hide the strain of worry in it.

“On the bus now.”

“How was mum?”

“They wanted to keep her in observation. But she’s doing better.” It was a blatant lie. Adele had been worse than usual. She’d had another attack and the nurses had needed him to hold her down while they strapped her to the bed and injected her with sedatives. But Mel didn’t have to know that. She worried enough as it was.

Mel was silent for a moment, before she said, “You know it’s almost changeover.”

Dec checked his palm pod again. 6.39 am blinked back at him. He was cutting it fine. In just over ten minutes it would be daylight again and the Northerners would be coming out of their houses. He glanced at the bus driver, then back at the street, which was relatively clear. So long as nothing broke down, he’d be home before 7 am … just. “I’ll see you soon.” He hung up before she could give him the lecture he knew was coming.

Another call lit up his palm pod. It was Tommy, probably calling about tomorrow. Again, he glanced at the driver before answering. “Can’t talk. On the bus,” he muttered.

Tommy spoke quickly, in that mumbled way of his that sounded like he had a permanent fag between his lips. “Open the window.”

Dec slid the glass pane next to him ajar and blinked as the wind buffeted his face. “What is it?”

“I’ve got everything we need. You still in?”

Dec took a deep breath and pushed down the compounding sense of paranoia he’d been feeling all week and said, “Course.”

“Tomorrow. First thing. Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“And Dec—”

Just then, the bus driver glanced in his rearview mirror and Dec quickly hung up. He tapped his ear twice to engage his earpod and sunk low in his seat, letting the brain numbing thud, thud, thud, of the music take over. Leaning his head back, he watched the concrete cityscape roll away and fade into a halo of light.

The bus wound around tower cranes, which swung like giant diplodocuses, grazing on what used to be the lush parklands of the green band to make way for shiny skyscrapers. Through the tunnels and onto the freeway, the bus whinnied up the steep hill towards Blackforest Range at a frustrating crawl, passing crooked neighbourhoods, winding streets, and boxy apartments stacked atop one another like wobbly houses of cards.

It was hard to believe that only three years ago, Atunda had been a small city at the base of the Southern Isles—known for its sleepy seaside towns, farmland and mining. Three years ago, that had all changed when the Northern Isles announced its plan to ‘re-settle’ 62 million of its people in the South. It wasn’t a question or a choice. It was an ultimatum—agree with resettlement or face a bloody, full-scale invasion.

And just like that, the government of the Southern Isles folded—agreed to the resettlement as though it was a simple bank transaction. The people of the South, however, were outraged and took to the streets in millions. In Atunda alone, 350 thousand people, three quarters of the city’s population, stormed Parliament Square in a roar of stones and fire. They barged through the wrought iron gates, trampled the perfect grass and manicured box hedges and shot the city’s minister in the head with a gun stolen from his own weapons cabinet. At least that’s how the story went.

But nobody expected what would happen next. The military crack down was so fierce, it left even the most fanatic rebels in a daze. The July massacres, as they became known, were a violation of human rights like nothing the Isles had ever seen. The Southern government’s message was loud and clear—do not fight the re-settlement. Do not raise a hand against your Northern neighbours or else …

It was the ‘or else’ that kept the Southerners down. In Atunda, the memorium was erected in memory of the thousands that had died on that day and had become a stark reminder of what would happen if they dared to rise up in protest again. For those who didn’t care for self-preservation, it was the fear that the military could get hold of their families and take down those they loved that kept them silent.

And so the Northerners came in a flood of fancy sub vessels, their numbers inundating the city within weeks. Everything went into grid lock. Electricity failed spectacularly—in mass blackouts that lasted days. Everywhere the roads bottlenecked, tents were erected on the streets, crammed with so many sleeping bodies, that one Northerner became the next, their skinny arms propped against skinny legs. Atunda was rife with chaos and confusion.

It took one month for the Southern government to devise a solution to the sudden influx of people. ‘The Solution’, as it was ironically named, was a system by which they would run the country in two groups—Daylighters who would live and function during the day, and Nocturnals who would do so at night. Road traffic would be dispersed evenly, businesses would run twenty-four hours a day, and all resources would be used to their fullest potential. That was the theory anyway.

And so it was. Northerners and anyone who held jobs in high office became Daylighters, and Southerners, Nocturnals. The changes were implemented so quickly, and with such iron fisted cruelty, that anyone who dared raise their voice against the injustice, got their lungs shot out from under them. And when it wasn’t threat of dying that kept angry youths like Dec and Tommy in line, it was the threat that the military could get hold of your family and take everyone you loved down with you.

In a year, Declan’s life was changed forever. And he, like every other Nocturnal, was angry beyond their years. But he, like many others, had been gentled by fear. Fear that was wearing thin and showing holes with every hour he was forced to spend in darkness.

As the bus reached top of the hill, the sun cracked the horizon, sending a plume of blush pink light into the dusty overcast sky.

6.57 am.

Dec stepped onto his street—a laneway lined with roller door garages on either side, above which, apartments had been tacked on, built so high that the air in the lane had become stagnant, festering with the smell of piss and faeces from the stray dogs that now roamed the outer suburbs in search of food scraps. He bent down to unlock the roller shutter door of his home—a converted carport that sweltered in the summer and turned his sister’s lips blue in the winter. He stepped inside.

6.58 am.

He blinked into darkness, eyes adjusting to the single candle flickering in the corner, behind the dressing screen of his sister’s room and the muted news projections on the unpainted plasterboard of the living area. There was the off-kilter thug, thug, thug of the ceiling fan overhead and a shamble of dirty laundry spilling out of a plastic basket on the dining table in the middle of the room. The dishes, piled high in the sink, wafted the rancid smell of off milk.

“What took you so fucking long?” Mel poked her head around her bedroom screen, her glare an anomaly against her waif figure, so like their mum’s, and her fine filagree of skin so white, he could see her veins.

Dec went to the fridge and cracked open a can of beer, making a show of gulping it down so he wouldn’t have to answer.

7 am.

The changeover alarms blared from the megaphones on the street corner, sending the neighbourhood strays into a howling cacophony. He pulled the wooden soundboards over the cracks around the edges of the roller door to block out the majority of the racket and flopped onto his futon, not even bothering to change his clothes. His claustrophobia bore down in the darkness, closing the walls like the casing of a coffin in a sunken grave. Refusing to turn on the SolStore lights for fear of using up their sun reserves three days short of the week’s end, he fought the grave with sheer willpower, imagining great pillars of steel holding the roof up. He sighed as the pillars held true, the walls ceased caving in and he could once again focus on what needed to be done.

At the fall of the next sun set, he and Tommy would be out there with the strays, prowling the streets, doing what they shouldn’t. Now, he would try to get some sleep.

 

Dec’s nose twitched with the scent of a shit-storm. He was dressed in black. All black. From head to toe black. His cap was too tight and his face-stocking constricted uncomfortably around his neck. The alleyway was still and silent, holding its breath, the brickwork underfoot slowly seeping residue heat from the day. Dec held his breath too, bounced on his toes, checked his palm pod, bounced on his toes some more and swiped a drop of sweat from his brow.

7.28 pm. The sun had set almost half an hour ago. Where was Tommy?

Somewhere in the adjoining neighbourhood, a rusty door hinge screeched, high and eerie like a baby crying. He checked the time again. 7.29 pm. In half-an-hour, changeover would be complete, the limbo quiet of the streets would be filled with Nocturnals coming out of their houses and going to work. If Tommy didn’t come soon …

A tall, broad-shouldered man appeared at the end of the alley—the dark sheen of his skin seeming to swallow the SolStore streetlamps overhead. Dec recognised the top-heavy sway of his gait and released his breath, half out of relief and half annoyance. As Tommy swaggered towards him, Dec couldn’t help but notice how his friend had changed in the three short years since they’d graduated school.

They used to call him Tommy Bear because of his wiry curls, pot belly and stoner eyes. He was the class clown, the life of the party, the goof who never took anything seriously, except for how many marshmallows he could cram in his mouth. Now, he rarely smiled. After his lucky escape from the horrors of the July massacre, he’d taken up kickboxing, shaved his wiry curls to the root, and hadn’t talked about his experience to anyone. In his silence, Dec had watched the soft, smiling bear of his friend disappear behind a man of lean, compact muscle, with vengeance in his eyes.

That look was in his black agate gaze now. For a brief moment, Dec wanted to retreat down the alley towards home and curl up in bed for a precious half an hour of extra sleep. But it was too late to back out.

“Where have you been?” he said through gritted teeth.

Tommy dropped the gym bag that was slung over his shoulder. “Thought I had a bot on my tail. Had to take the long way here.”

“Shit,” Dec said, looking around. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.” He paused. “Why are we doing this again?”

“To shake shit up. Make the police’s life a misery. Why else?”

“I dunno. I just think, maybe there’s a better way we can ‘shake shit up’.”

“Well, when you come up with a plan, let me know.” Tommy withdrew two crowbars from the gym bag and handed one to Dec, followed by two cans of black paint.

Dec stared down at the spray cans. “Jeez. Where did you get these? Did they ID you?”

Tommy glared. “I’m not an idiot. Janet put me on to this guy—”

“Trainer Janet?”

Tommy nodded. “At Smackdown comp last week, she told me about this guy named Lazar. Works at Jupiters on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Said he can get us whatever we need.”

“What’s his deal?” Dec fingered the can, trying to get a grip on the nozzle between the slip of his wool gloves. “Are you sure we can trust him?” While Janet was Tommy’s kickboxing instructor and nice enough—she was also an ex con.

Tommy nodded. “Janet said he’s legit. A mastermind actually. He’s the leader of this new group called the NYR, or Nocturnal Youth Rights group. They’re a new revolutionary party—”

“Like the Bandits?” Dec interrupted.

Tommy scoffed. “Nah, nothing like those dickheads. This is the real deal. They’ve got money and power. Lazar even gets a say in government. He goes to their fancy parties to negotiate Nocturnal rights. Even got some sick kid daylight rights so he could spend his last days in the sun.”

“Sounds like fools gold to me.”

“Why don’t we see for ourselves? Janet got us invited to their meeting this Thursday.”

“I dunno,” Dec said.

“You just said you wanted a ‘better plan’.”

Dec scuffed his shoe on the pavement. “It’s not that. I’ve gotta work.”

Tommy rolled his eyes. “Take the night off. Can’t someone else box up grain for once.”

“Someone’s gotta pay rent.”

“You live in a shed. Don’t your Nocturnal incentive payments cover that at least?”

Dec averted his gaze. “Mum’s not working, so we can’t claim them.”

Tommy blew out breath. “Shit, that’s right.” He whacked Dec’s shoulder. “Mel told me about Adele. Anything I can do to help?”

Dec jerked his head up. “Told you what?”

“About Adele’s sickness. I didn’t realise, sorry.”

The crow bar shook in Dec’s hands. “I didn’t realise you and my sister were such good friends.” His words came out low and defensive, almost a growl. Tommy and Mel weren’t friends. Mel had no right to tell Tommy about Adele’s sickness.

Tommy busied himself with re-zipping the duffel bag. “You’re my best friend, Dec.” He threw the bag over his shoulder before looking Dec in the eye. “I just thought you’d tell me if something serious was going down in your life.”

I could say the same for you, Dec thought as he tucked the spray can in the back of his belt. Tommy’s refusal to talk to him about the massacre still surprised him to this day.

“Well, if you’re interested, we’re meeting at Mansions tomorrow night. 12 pm.”

Dec pulled a stocking over his face. His next words were muffled by the gauze. “Are we doing this or not?” He threw the question over his shoulder as he retreated down the alley.

Tommy didn’t reply, but his following footsteps were answer enough.

 

They crept along the outskirts of the skate park towards the avenues, keeping to the unlit line of hedges on the back fence. One-by-one, they took turns squatting before the shiny surveillance cameras, proffering a knee for the other to use as a springboard to launch themselves into the air. With the right angle and nozzle control, they blacked out one camera per minute, working in the kind of synchronisation that only two people who’ve known each other for a lifetime could possess.

Everything was going to plan. They’d tested police response times for a month by triggering car alarms in surrounding neighbourhoods then watching for lights and sirens from Black Point lookout. Fifteen minutes was average—a number that was growing each day as petty crime continued to rise. Dec calculated that if they kept their pace, they’d make it to tenth avenue without police interference.

They reached tenth without incident—the main street of Blackforest Range, where the local supermarket, petrol station and postoffice stood in a decrepit row of bleached signs and shuttered windows. Tommy and Dec switched their spray cans for crowbars and approached the camera atop the supermarket. Tommy went first, smashed the metal casing and severed the fuse with axe-cutter accuracy.

Dec went next, aiming his swing for the camera perched atop the post-office like a storm-set weathervane. But his swing veered off-target when he thought he saw the shadow of a passerby between the roller shutters of the post-office window. “What was that?” he hissed at Tommy, who looked in the direction of his gaze and shrugged.

“Don’t see anything.”

Dec looked again and saw only his own reflection, wide eyed and frozen, crowbar in hand. Shaken, it took him three swings to do any damage—his first glancing left, the second, right and the third leaving only a hairline crack in the glass. Before he could line up a final swing, Tommy grabbed his shoulder. “You were right,” he said. “We’ve got company.”

They squinted into the darkness. Something moved along the side fence of the post office and disappeared into the shadows. A low growl followed, reverberating up the street, along the shopfronts like a skittish Autumnal wind.

It took a hefty shove from Tommy to regain control of his body. He stumbled after his friend, who was already making his way around the back of the complex to the carpark and behind the large industrial bin against the wall. His nose flared from the stench of garbage and rotting food scraps while he waited for Tommy to retrieve their getaway bikes. Seconds later, Tommy was by his side, no bikes, crowbar at the ready. “We’ve got a problem,” he muttered.

Sure enough, there was an answering growl, followed by the patter of unclipped claws. The stray appeared, a wolfish breed, covered in wiry tufts of midnight black which were balding in patches on its hindquarters. Dec rose on his toes, ready to run. But Tommy stopped him with his hand. “Easy.”

The stray crept forward, haunches bristling and canine’s bared, its panting breath dousing them in the stench of decay. Tommy took a careful step to the left, eyes locked on the hunger-crazed animal, then right. The stray mirrored his movements with carnal precision, all the while emitting a low, rumbling growl from deep within its chest.

Suddenly, the stray sprung, bared teeth slashing the bottom inch of Tommy’s pant leg and taking away a token of denim. Tommy swung his crowbar in defence, but milliseconds too late, requiting nothing but air.

“Forget the bikes,” Dec said, glancing towards the main street. “Let’s go.”

But Tommy stood grounded, the vengeful gleam flashing in his eyes. And before Dec could stop him, he stepped behind the bin.

It happened in slow motion—Tommy’s crowbar drawing a leaden arc, a death scythe delivering an adjourning blow. It disappeared into the shadows with a stomach-wrenching wet thud like a meat tenderer hitting a T-bone. Again and again the crowbar came down until the stray’s strangled yowls were replaced by silence and Tommy’s heavy breathing.

Tommy emerged with their bikes, blood spatters making etch-a-sketch patterns on his skin. Dec turned away, stomach churning, resisting the urge to grip the steel bin to steady himself. Instead, he threw his crow bar and spray can into the iron depths of the bin, peeled off his facemask and gloves and stuffed them into his pockets before grabbing his bike and peddling away, through the carpark and down a back alley, Tommy in tow. Dec didn’t look back at his friend, just iron-gripped his handlebars and concentrated on the rush of rubber wheels on bitumen, a salve against the echo of the stray’s dying cries in his mind.

An apartment door swung open and he swerved just in time, brakes screeching. A woman appeared, surly-faced behind it, shaking one hand at them while attempting to tie the strings of her apron with the other. Further down, an old man opened the shutters on his apartment balcony, saggy turkey skin arms flapping as he flung a bucket of soapy water over the railing and onto the street. Dec ducked and swerved again, missing the flood of grey water by inches.

At the end of the street, Tommy’s gears ground out a series of metronomic clicks as he took a sharp left turn towards Blackpoint and his home. Dec swerved right towards Blackforest Range, cutting a crooked zigzag path through the streets to avoid remaining surveillance cameras. In his minds eye, he saw Tommy in the lamplight, a dark sheen etch-a-sketching the skin on his arms, reminding him of the man he’d held, who’d dragged himself into the hospital in the wake of the massacre still bleeding from a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He’d begged Dec to hold him as he shivered under a shock blanket, his midnight skin, just like Tommy’s, and his brown eyes struck with horror, even as they turned flat and glazen.

Dec pushed hard against the pedals, riding against the memory, trying to put as much distance between him, the stray, the broken cameras, and his best friend.

 

He burst onto his street with such speed, his handlebars quivered in his hands, only to find his the garage door of his home lit by a dizzying strobe of red and blue. A trio of glossy black police cars formed a Bermuda triangle around his sister who, still in her satin lilac pyjamas, quivered under the scrutiny of the wasps—police officers in black uniforms with bright yellow reflector pads on the arms. He slammed on his breaks, coming to a screeching stop—the echo of which drew the wasps attention away from his sister and onto him, followed by the white hot heat of industrial strength torchlights.

“Declan Hancock?” the shortest of the block-blue officers said, taking a dozen or so brisk strides towards him.

Dec shielded his eyes. “Yeah.” There was no point in denying it. No point in running.

The officer reached down and swivelled him around with one brusque shove. “You are to accompany us to the police station for questioning under reasonable suspicion of the destruction of public property.” Dec felt the familiar bite of metal around his wrists. “You have the right to remain silent … ”

Dec let the words wash over him. He’d heard them all before, when he’d been in for designing, printing and distributing a local ‘rag’ with first hand accounts of what had happened during the July massacres. Though he’d been released due to the fact that they hadn’t been able to prove his intent to ‘incite violence’, they’d done so with a warning that if he got caught up in any kind of politically motivated stunt again, he could expect jail time.

As Dec slid into the back seat of the police car, he caught sight of his sister’s face and felt his stomach clench. For a second, she looked like Adele, frail, wilting, the contours of her face stricken under the flashing lights.

 

The administration officer sat behind her glass security booth, tapping the data log touch screen with such intensity, it was a wonder it didn’t crack. She spoke to him without looking up.

“State your name.” Her voice was as monotone as the sound of her iron fingers smacking the screen.

“Declan Hancock.”

“Age.”

“Twenty”

“Occupation.”

Dec shrugged. He didn’t know what to call his shitty job. Floor worker, stock person, idiot who boxes up produce to be shipped offshore to the Northern Isles. He settled with, “Produce packer.”

“Company.”

“Overland Trading Co.”

“Residential address.”

Dec leaned forward in an attempt to look at the screen. “You already have my address.”

This made the woman look up. Her face was as white and pinched as his own. “Can you confirm that your current residential address is the ground floor of fourteen Carrington Street?”

“Yes.”

Iron fingers went back to typing. “Okay. Look at the camera. No teeth.”

Dec glared at the tiny dot of an ID photo camera hanging from the glass protection booth and waited.

Click.

The flash left white imprints in his eyes.

“Empty your pockets and remove your palm pod.” Iron fingers shoved a tray containing a large zip lock bag under the grill of the glass booth. Dec, only then remembering the woollen gloves and face stocking in his back pocket, hesitated.

Iron fingers pushed the tray further towards him. “Empty your pockets and remove your palm pod,” she repeated dully.

Dec hid his shaking hands beneath the counter and removed his palm pod first, as slow as he dared, to buy time to devise a plausible explanation for the gloves and stocking. Could the gloves have been borrowed? Perhaps he was returning them to a friend. Could the stocking have been a rag he used to clean his bike? He dropped the bag with the palm pod, gloves and stocking into the tray and slid it back under the glass grill, stomach sinking. He was so screwed.

Iron fingers barely glanced at the tray before she waved him through. “Body scan, then first room on the right.”

Dec removed his shoes and stepped inside the giant egg of a machine in the corridor. The ‘virtual butt probe’ as Tommy called it, was a human scanner that used a non invasive form of MRI technology to check for foreign objects stashed inside the body.

All clear. The machine flashed green and he was ejected from the other side by a rush of air. His socks made gentle padding noises as he made his way down the narrow corridor and into the interview room.

Officer Montague, or The Crabman as Dec had come to refer to him, leant over the lonely island of a table at the centre of the room, proffering an engorged right arm. The first time Montague had interviewed him, Dec had thought his arm was a natural deformity next to his other normal, almost underdeveloped arm, until Montague made a point of telling Dec how he built himself up that way so he could be best shot in the force. “One for strength, the other for dexterity,” he’d said. “Light on the trigger, steady on the hold.”

Dec winced as Montague took his hand now. His grip was just as it had been the first time—like getting your hand caught in a clamp.

“Declan Hancock. Didn’t expect you to be back so soon.” Montague’s voice was all sand and shell grit. “I see our recommendation to keep out of trouble didn’t quite sink in.” He motioned for Dec to sit.

Dec shuffled to his seat, suddenly aware of the fact that his socks didn’t match—one was grey, the other, black. He was also swelteringly aware of the fact that he was still wearing jeans a long black skivvy—suspicious choices on such a warm summer night.

Montagues beady eyes travelled over Dec’s attire, settling on his neck. He seemed to think so too. “As you’re probably already aware, we’ve brought you here to ask you a few questions. Where were you at approximately six thirty last night?”

Dec frowned. He thought this was going to be about his stunt with the cameras. Now, he wasn’t so sure. “I’d just visited my mum at the hospital on the Terrace. I was walking to my bus stop.” He gulped. Of course. This was about that Northerner he’d left in the cemetery.

“Did you notice anything … suspicious at that time.”

Dec shook his head. Innocent until proven guilty, he told himself.

“Then how do you explain this?” Montague tapped his palm pod and on the far wall, a projection appeared, featuring Dec leaving the hospital and waiting to cross the Terrace at the lights. The footage was taken from a birdseye view—a view that could’ve only been achieved by a bot. It was timestamped 6.29 pm. Wednesday night. Just before changeover. Dec’s heart palpitated.

“You’ve been following me?” His words came out bitten down through his clenched jaw.

“Looking out for you,” Montague corrected.

Dec stifled the urge to snort and turned back to the screen where, much to his horror, projection Dec crossed the Terrace and drew closer to the cemetery. In just under a minute, he would encounter the Northerner. In less than a minute, his life as he knew it, might as well be over.

The bot arced a wide 360 to get a side angle of Dec when suddenly, the image spun and jolted, went fuzzy before going black. Dec blinked. Had Montague purposefully stalled the footage before the incriminating climax?

Montague tapped his palm pod and the projection disappeared, leaving them staring at the blank white wall. His beady eyes settled on Dec’s neck once more. “Care to explain?”

Dec moved his lips, but no sound came out.

Montague lifted a mug-sized cardboard box from the floor at his feet and slammed it down on the table. “Tell me, Dec, how our million dollar, premium quality tracking device somehow ended up—” He lifted the lid of the box and pulled out a spangled carbon fibre casing. “An unrecognisable lump of hard rubbish?”

Dec gawked. “You think I did that? I didn’t even know you were following me.”

Officer Montague leaned forward, his bushy brows forming one long caterpillar along his forehead. “Mr Hancock, you do realise what the repercussions will be if we find out you’re lying.”

Dec stared right back, did his best to crease his forehead into an equally flat line. “Yes.”

Just then, a skeleton skinny policewoman with grey hair pulled into a swimming cap tight bun poked her head around the door. “Officer Montague. I’ve just been informed that Declan is to be released on bail without further questioning.”

Montague spluttered. “My ass.”

“His lawyer’s in the foyer if you want to ask him any questions.”

Montague tensed, then quickly masked his surprise with a shoulder roll. Dec, who was just as surprised to discover he had a lawyer, didn’t bother to hide his open mouthed stare.

“May I ask who said lawyer is?” Montague grumbled.

“Dirk Regulski.”

Montague slammed the lid of the box containing the bot shut and turned towards the wall. His face shuttered and for the first time, Dec couldn’t read any trace of emotion in his expression. Skeletor waited for an answer, checked her palm pod, and waited some more.

Dec looked from one officer to the other, expecting some kind of formal dismissal. When none came, he decided to take his own leave and stood. Officer Montague reached across the table and grabbed his arm, so firmly, Dec winced.

“You’re as slippery as a fish, Hancock,” he said. “But mark my words, you won’t be so lucky next time.”

 

A stone-cut man in a crisp grey suit waited for Dec in the foyer. He spoke into his palm pod, barely moving his lips. Between the thin line of his mouth, Dec saw pearly whites, clean as his diamond cufflinks. Dec looked like a dishevelled teenager next to him, one who’d just come out of the principals office having been caught doing something foolish like smoking fags behind the toilets—shoes untied, rubbing his arm where Montague had grabbed him, sweat slick hair like a smudge of grease over his forehead. He swallowed a yawn. Somewhere between the interview room and the foyer, nervous adrenaline had left him for exhaustion.

The stone man disconnected his call and held out a large palmed hand, smooth and white, veined in a bluish grey like a chunk of Cararra marble. Dec imagined Dirk and Montague taking each other on in an arm wrestle and got a vision of a crab wrestling with a clam shell.

“Dirk Regulski. Lawyer,” he said.

Dirk’s grip was cold. Firm but not bruising. As soon as the shake was over, Dec retracted his long-fingers and slipped them inside his jean pocket. His hand seemed embarrassingly slender inside Dirk’s chunky palm.

“Who hired you?” he said, the words coming out unintentionally flat and ungrateful. He owed this man much more than a handshake and yet his situation begged the obvious question: Why would a man like Dirk stoop to help someone like him?

Dirk’s chest rose with his intake of breath. “I’m not at liberty to provide you with that information, though my employer asked me to warn you that this is the last time he’s going to get you out of trouble.”

“The last time?” Dec frowned at the insinuation that there’d been a time before.

Dirk didn’t answer, just retrieved a folded piece of paper from his suit pocket. “My employer also asked me to give you this.” He placed it securely between Dec’s hands under the guise of another handshake, leaning forward as he did so. “Read it in private. Burn it in private.” He straightened. “And before I forget.” He tossed Dec the snap lock evidence bag containing the face mask and gloves.

Dec jerked his hand up and caught it just before it hit him square between the eyes.

“Interesting fashion choice for such a balmy night.” Dirk gave him a cold, marble look before striding out the door, shiny black shoes squeaking on the tiled floor.

Dec watched him into the lamplit carpark and disappear behind the largest four-wheel drive he’d ever seen—a gargantuan excess of jacked up wheels, bull bar and floodlights threatening to devour the white lines that attempted to box it in. It rumbled to life with the growl of a diesel tractor that rattled the waiting room windows in their frames. Rather than reversing out of the park, Dirk swung the monster machine over the curb, through the ornamental rosemary hedged garden and straight onto the main road, causing a passing car to burn rubber as they swerved to avoid him.

Dec unfolded the slip of paper in his hands, ignoring Dirk’s instruction to open the note in private. Inside, small, block letters, carefully penned, read:

 

ONLY ONE THING SEPARATES A HERO FROM A FOOL.

A HERO THINKS WITH HIS HEAD.

A FOOL THINKS WITH HIS HEART.

SMARTEN UP, SON.