Out of Egypt: Prologue ?>

Out of Egypt: Prologue

 

The man wore earrings, black buttons that covered his long earlobes and glowed with their own mellow light like treacle in a glass jar. The ears themselves were pointed, stranded either side of his tightly-curled head, and he was slim; narrow-backed and angular, his clothes fitted where they touched. More than that, she couldn’t see – he had his back to her, and stood like a slice of black paper against the rheumy light.

He had been the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. At first she almost thought he was a statue; he stood like one against the trickle of daylight, dark against the bruise-purple of the distant walls. His meagre frame did not seem, even, to breathe.

Gradually she heard it: the rustle of cloth, the whisper of breath as his lungs emptied and filled. Nothing more. Only a blur as the dust filled her eyes. That motionless body, tripwire-tight, as if he listened for the smallest sound.

She made none. She was lying on her side, her ear a hot mash of pain and her left arm humming with pins and needles under her – but if she moved, if she made a sound, then this strange man who stood guard only feet away would almost certainly notice. Sense it, like a rabbit feeling the ground echoes of another’s feet. Alice MacKenzie lay very still, with her eyes streaming and silver trails cutting sideways down her face, and watched.

He stood, with his back to her, for a very long time, and she began to wonder if he were deaf. Surely her breathing had changed when she woke up; surely he could tell. But the hard right angles of his shoulders were slumped, ready to stiffen at a whisper; his long hands curled and uncurled at his sides. There was no indication, at all, that he knew she was awake.

Perhaps . . . perhaps he really didn’t.

Cautiously she shifted her eyes to the right. The dun-coloured room was no room, but a warehouse. If she dared move, echoes would flee the vaulted ceiling like bats. Last daylight leaked through two narrow windows and lay in milky stripes on the concrete floor. It was empty save for a few remaining crates . . . and the man, of course. The man who stood sentry like a breathing mannequin, and cast his own shadow back over her in a black spindle.

He stood a little to her left, and rookishly left her far side wide open. If she could surprise him, if she could move before he even knew she was awake, then he would lose precious seconds in making up that extra ground. A few feet, but enough, perhaps – enough for her to get the head start she needed.

She shifted her attention to his straight, fleshless figure; his foot up on a fallen crate, his hand on his knee. That, more than anything, convinced her he did not know she was awake. For a few, precious seconds longer Alice watched him, and the arm under her fizzled and went dead as a spent battery. Her ear sparkled with coming numbness. No way of knowing if her legs would work, or simply fold up under her like jointed wood. She couldn’t test them, couldn’t make the experimental shifts she would in bed to see that they had woken when she did. No; when she made her move, it must be as sudden as if a corpse had sprung to life.

For a moment, that image caught at her: a body, a limp hand, a constellation of blood turning a green blanket black. For a moment a memory almost slipped in through the cracks, but like a reluctant word on the tip of the tongue it skittered away, and there was only the man. Only his back, sharp collarbones under black jersey. Only his breathing, shallow as the evening light. His foot, tapping against the crate.

Alice flung herself to her feet and to the right with the suddenness of birds exploding up into the sky; and, as she had hoped, he started at its suddenness too late to stop her. She didn’t dare look back, didn’t dare lose that second in order to see for herself. She ran.

The floor was uneven, but dry; where her feet slapped into the dust she barely felt it, barely touched the floor like so many dreams she had had, of bounding like a gazelle, of flying . . . and that meant that this was no nightmare. In nightmares you waded against an invisible current and you heard the panting of the monster behind you, felt it, on your neck. In your nightmares you tried to sprint but only crawled.

Alice sprinted.

She felt his fingers skate across her back and caught her breath in, sharp . . . because she hadn’t heard him coming. Just that initial, startled shout, and then silence: silent feet, silent breath. His fingers snagged at her sweater and Alice dodged right around a stack of crates; he dodged left to cut her off and for a second she caught a glimpse of his face. A large nose above a scribble of two-day-old stubble, a clean line of jaw . . . and, quick as a glimpse of an otter in dark water, a flash of large black eyes. Blacker, even, than her own.

With a single shove Alice sent the stack of crates crashing down on him. She heard him go down with a yell, and saw one of them glance off his shoulder: then a splintering of fallen wood, the scatter of kindling. He disappeared under the avalanche . . . and she ran.

The narrow door grew larger as she neared, the little rectangle of window, brighter. Alice closed sweating, thankful hands around the push bar and blinked out through the dirty glass into an alleyway – at long violet shadows, the cutout hulks of more crates limned with rose. The last rancid yellow of evening lay askance over a row of plastic dumpsters. At the far end was a glimpse of road, black tarmac and broken white lines. Alice wrenched downward at the bar, eager for that light, that road . . .

. . . and it didn’t move. The door was locked.

Behind her she heard the shifting of firewood, and a scuffle of hands and feet as the man pulled himself up. Alice glanced once, quickly, backward, and saw his shoulders rearing the crate atop them aside: his arm, pushing against another. He flung them away as if they were paper.

My God, he’s strong, she thought – a little in awe, more than half in fear. If he catches me . . .

She turned back deliberately to the steel door with its tiny window – large enough for her, perhaps, but certainly too small for him – and hesitated for less than a second. If he catches me, she thought . . . and without another hesitation punched her right hand through the glass. It shattered with a bright, white sound; blood spat back onto her face and flew out into the dying sunshine like wingless ladybirds. The pain would come later and the glass had not broken all the way . . . but as she gazed out through the bright hole in the glass and raised her hand to punch again, there was only a kind of starry surprise.

She pulled her fist back but before she could jab it forward again a hand closed around her wrist – that long, golden hand she had seen rested on the man’s knee, crunching in on itself at his side. It was strong; his inexorable fingers crushed the grains of glass deeper into her flesh until red spilled down her arm, until she gave a small scream that was more air than sound.

No. No, not now. Please . . .

But the man had clamped his other arm across her throat, and the light – that bitter, blessed daylight – was fading. The light she had almost made it out into, that some tiny part of her had made it out into, in those scattered drops of blood. His arms had looked slim, but they were strong, hard as shale across her windpipe.  They pressed back, and back, in a way the bar had not: sank the noose in deep and crushed her airways closed until her brain fired only in final, fitful flashes. Dark and light, like shutter-snaps.

He’s killing me, she thought, and it was her last thought before blackness slammed down over her eyes and her mind gave one last, lagging spark. Killing me . . . And the one, bright circle of daylight through glass dimmed like a dying eye. Went black, like one that has died.

“I’m sorry, Alice, I’m so sorry,” she heard him say – and then, nothing more.

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