She'd honestly thought the day couldn't get any worse.
That morning on her way to work the chain came off Li's bike. Not being the most practical person, it had taken her ages to fix. She was late. By the time she got to work, Walter, her boss and the café's rather dubious cook, was waiting at the door.
"There are plenty of other people looking for a Saturday job, Leanne," he snapped as he handed Li her apron.
"Liana," said Li, fumbling behind her back with the strings.
"And those people can be trusted to arrive on time."
"Good for them."
"Watch it. Good God, woman, what have you got on your hands?"
Li looked. "Uh grease?"
"Twenty minutes late, covered in filth "
"Minimum wage. You pay for what you get," Li muttered as she went off to wash her hands.
The café was a tiny, ugly building tacked onto a larger, uglier one that also happened to be a garden centre. For once it wasn't raining, so, as usual, half the population of Buckinghamshire had decided "Hey! I can't think of anything I'd rather do than buy a new gnome and a potted azalea!" This meant that the café was full of tired, irritable people who spilled earth everywhere and took the slightest mistake as a personal insult.
"What's this?" one man snapped when Li took over his coffee.
"It's a latté."
"This isn't a latté."
"It's what comes out of the machine when I press 'latté'."
"A latté is a white coffee," the man said. His gnome smirked at Li from the basket.
"Oh, I'd always thought a white coffee was a white coffee."
She'd felt smug for all of about thirty seconds, until Walter cornered her by the drinks cabinet.
"I don't know what's wrong with you today, Leanne!"
"It's Liana, and it's not me, it's them!" Li waved a hand at the nearest customers. "I don't see why hungry people always have to be stupid and rude!"
"They wouldn't be hungry if you did your job!"
"I could do my job a lot better if they stopped getting in the way!"
He made her go round and apologise to every customer, and judging by the grin on his sweaty face, he loved every minute of it. Still, Li thought on her way home, at least he didn't fire me. Lucky me.
Ten seconds later the chain came off her bike.
When she finally got home her feet were aching and it was starting to get dark. Li wrestled the bike into the hall, kicked off her shoes and went into the kitchen. "Mum, I'm in!"
Compared to her house, the café seemed spacious. Some people had toilets bigger than the Colemans' kitchen. Li picked a cleanish mug out of the pile left over from breakfast, switched on the radio and started to boil the kettle.
"Want a cup of tea, Mum?"
Li waited for a reply, shrugging when she didn't get one. She was probably upstairs on the computer, looking for another evening class to drop out of. Humming along to Hotel California, Li opened the fridge. At least she'd done some shopping. Fresh milk, not the health hazard that had been in there all last week. With Odette working late and Mum being Mum, they'd ended up eating beans on spaghetti and other delicacies.
"Mum, I'm having toast if you want some!"
Still no answer. Li dropped the teabag into the sink with the washing up and went to the bottom of the stairs.
A cold feeling started to creep through her stomach. Li realised she was biting her lip, something she only did when she was nervous.
There was no reason to panic. She'd been fine that morning. There was probably a perfectly sensible reason why she wasn't answering.
A speck of yellow caught Li's eye. She looked back along the hall and saw a note lying on the floor. Helpful as ever, Mum had stuck it on the door, just where it could fall off and be trodden on. Climbing past her bike, she picked it up.
Gone out with Jenny. Won't be back till 9ish. Dinner's in the freezer. There's some ironing to do if you get bored.
Be careful, love Mum.
Li had to read it a few times before she could take it in. Mum? Leaving her
at home on her own? Shaking her head, Li crumpled up the note and put it in
her pocket. Obviously now she was nearly eighteen, Mum thought she could handle
it. Things were looking up.
Judging by the smell and the wisps of smoke, the toast was done. Li went back into the kitchen, sipping her tea, while The Eagles faded away and the adverts took over.
Be careful. That was typical of Mum. She was alone in the house with nothing more dangerous than a toaster and a radio. What did she have to be afraid of?
Li guessed her dinner was the chicken pasta ready meal in the freezer - it seemed more likely than ice cubes, spinach or a bag of prawns. She started on the ironing when she was waiting for it to cook, switching on the TV for a bit of background noise. Three skirts in, the phone rang.
Dropping the iron, Li hunted through the piles of books and magazines till she found it. "Hello?"
"Your mum's out," said a matter-of-fact voice. Gayle, her best friend and, by a total lack of coincidence, Jenny's daughter. The two girls had known each other since the maternity ward.
"And what are we doing?"
Li shrugged. "I know what I'm doing."
"Lying in a pile of magazines. What are you doing?"
"Standing on one leg in the hall," said Gayle briskly. "So we're both wasting time."
"Well, I'm ironing too," Li picked herself up and made sure Christine's skirt hadn't burst into flames while her back was turned.
"Thrilling. You know what we should be doing?"
Li thought. Gayle's plans were usually quite easy to guess.
"What've you got?"
"A bottle of gin and a packet of chocolate digestives."
"How soon can you get here?"
"Give me an hour?"
"The biscuits'll never last that long."
"Shut up, you, I need a shower."
"I'll give 'Nisha a ring, see if she wants to come over too."
"Okay. See you in a bit."
Li put the phone down, picked up the iron and sighed as the timer on the oven started to bleep.
The chicken things was burned on the outside, frozen in the middle, and, worryingly, looked exactly like the picture on the packet. Deciding it was the best she was going to do, Li made herself a hot chocolate, pushed the ironing board back against the wall and sat down with the plate balanced on her knees.
The doorbell rang.
Li groaned and got up. It couldn't be Gayle already, which left only one alternative. Couldn't Mum enjoy one evening out without coming back to check on her?
"No, we haven't been burgled; no, no-one's tried to break in; no, the house isn't on fire; no, I haven't fallen downstairs and broken my - oh," Li finished as she opened the door.
"No, I'm not your mother," said her cousin Scott, squeezing past her into the hall.
"I didn't know - careful of the bike - I didn't know you were coming over," said Li, following him. There was something different about him, although she couldn't think what. He looked dishevelled, but no more so than usual. Scott had long since mastered the art of being stylishly unkempt. His dark brown hair was ruffled, his cheeks were hazy with stubble, and the shadows under his eyes had taken years of late nights to perfect.
Scott flopped down on the sofa and glanced at the TV, which was cheerfully telling the world about the latest miracle product that would win the war on limescale. "I didn't know you had such an exciting life."
"Why? Missing something good?"
Li scowled at him. "Do you only come here to laugh at me?"
"Nah, that's just a perk," Scott picked up her hot chocolate. "Where's everyone else?"
"Out, and don't even think about it," Li snatched the mug away.
"What about your mum?"
"Shocking, isn't it?"
Scott tutted and began to pick at her dinner. "What is she thinking, leaving her youngest daughter at home till "
"Neglectful woman. What the hell am I eating?"
"I think it's the bits of the chicken that the fast food people throw away."
Scott grimaced and put the plate down. "What about your sisters?"
"Odette's working late and Chris is round at Steve's," Li finished off her chocolate and sat down next to him. "Lucky you're here to protect me from I dunno. Monsters?"
"If I see any monsters I'm going to run away screaming like a normal person."
"First time for everything," Li dodged the kick Scott aimed at her. "Why are you here, anyway?"
"Er the nightlife?"
"Not important. How's the music going?"
Li groaned. The outline for her music coursework was getting more and more crumpled in the bottom of her locker, and she had a few tunes kicking around in her head that had been going nowhere for weeks. "It isn't."
"Ah. A good day, then."
"God, don't ask."
"Go on, I love hearing about your tragic little life."
Li hit him. "My bike broke, I nearly lost my job, I'm eating crispy frozen chicken bones and my cousin won't tell me what's wrong."
Just for a second, Scott hesitated. "Will you leave it? It's nothing."
"You've never driven all the way from Milton Keynes for nothing."
"Yes I have."
"Only the 'I've fallen out with my stepmum again but I don't want to talk about it' sort of nothing."
He sighed. Li watched his face. Being in a family as stiflingly close as hers had its advantages. She could read Scott like a book, and something was very wrong.
"I just need to talk to your sisters about something."
"You could talk to me."
"Sorry, I need a mature opinion."
"I'm the most mature person you're going to talk to any time soon," Li reminded him.
"That's really depressing coming from someone with chocolate all round her face."
"Oh Christ " Li started to wipe her mouth. Scott reached for the remote, but she grabbed it and hid it behind her back. "Tell me!"
"Oh, watch your limescale."
"It really isn't important."
"If it wasn't important you'd tell me," said Li, a little irritated. It was true. Scott was only two years older than she was, Chris was just twenty and Odette twenty-two, but the age gap still wasn't closing. She knew why, but that only made it worse. There was more to life than the past.
Sighing, Scott dug in his pocket and pulled out a creased brown envelope. "Someone put this through my door today. It's probably nothing."
"Nothing's ever nothing."
"That's either very deep or completely stupid."
"Shut up," Li started to open the envelope, when Scott put a hand on her arm.
"What was that?"
"What was what?"
He was staring at the door to the kitchen. "Did you hear something?"
"For God's sake, Scott, who's going to be hiding in the kitchen?"
"I dunno." Scott grinned. "Your secret boyfriend?"
Li whacked him with a cushion.
"Ooh, hit a nerve there "
"Shut up," Li settled huffily back down on the sofa. "Gayle and Anisha are coming over later, anyway, so it's not like I'm completely socially retarded and you're just stalling, aren't you?"
"Worked, didn't it?" Scott said smugly.
"Kind of pointless when I've already got this," She tore the envelope open and turned it upside down. Two photographs fell into her hand. Li held them up and stared.
"Who would send you these?" The pictures were old and grainy, but there was no mistaking the faces. The first was of her father, looking much younger than he did in any of her mum's photos, standing in front of a blank white wall. Li scowled. She still couldn't see anything of herself in that thin, worried face. Like her sisters, she took after her mother's side of the family.
In the second picture her aunt, Scott's mother, stood in front of the same white wall, glaring out with Scott's grey eyes. There was something in the top left-hand corner, a small slice of grainy black writing like the edge of a sign. Li squinted at it. -ensional Province. What was that supposed to mean?
"You just got them like this? No note or anything?"
"Not very flattering, are they?" She turned them over. There was nothing written on the back. "Like something off a wanted poster "
"Oh come on, you don't think-"
"I don't know what I think," Scott said shortly.
Li slid the photos away. "Well, you're thinking something, or you wouldn't be here."
"It makes you wonder, doesn't it? Fourteen years ago my mum up and leaves for no reason, and your dad-"
"This is nothing to do with that!"
"Oh yeah? How do you know?"
"You're completely overreacting!"
"I'm overreacting?" Scott echoed. "What are you getting so worked up about? You don't even remember-"
Silence fell, broken only by the slow tick of the clock. Li stared furiously at the wall.
The most frustrating thing was that she didn't remember. She wished she could. Protecting her from everything they'd been through had turned into her family's sacred duty, and it meant that she was completely shut out of several years of their lives. They were convinced that she was lucky not to remember, and nothing she said would change their minds.
"If you wait," she said finally "you could ask Mum."
Li looked at him. "Do you think ?" She tapped the picture of Scott's mother.
He shrugged. "I don't know. If it is her I don't know why she'd just put them through the door and walk away, but I don't know why she walked away in the first place, so it's par for the course, really."
"Do you still miss her?" Li asked quietly.
Scott shook his head. "I've done without her since I was five. I'm used to it. It'd be weird if she was around. But I'd still like to know why."
"Hey, you never know. Maybe when you're twenty-one they'll decide it's time to tell you the big family secret and then it'll all make sense."
"What big family secret?"
"It wouldn't be a secret if I knew, would it?"
"That's certainly true."
Li kicked him again, grinning. "Want a drink?"
"What've you got?"
"What, that hot chocolate?"
"Is it still on my face?"
Scott smiled. "Any beer?"
"No I'm not, I'm staying over."
"Beer it is," Li got up, sliding the envelope absent-mindedly into her pocket, and went into the kitchen.
There was one bottle of beer left in the fridge. It looked pretty elderly, but Scott wouldn't mind if she didn't tell him. She picked out some cider for herself.
There had definitely been something strange about those photos, she thought as she straightened up. If it wasn't a joke
She turned around. The bottles slipped out of her hands and smashed on the floor.
"Evening, Li," said the young man leaning against the wall.
Li stared. She felt like she'd been dropped into icy water. This didn't make sense. He hadn't been there.
Scott appeared in the doorway and stopped dead. Li hardly noticed. The man's eyes held her like hooks. They were as black as his clothes, twin points of darkness in his moon-white face. At first, they were even more terrifying than the gun he held.
"Li, get over here!" Scott hissed.
"I wouldn't if I were you," the young man said amiably.
"I really don't mind shooting her, Scott," He was smiling. "It'll be easier if you do as you're told. On you, that is, I'm happy either way," The man took a step forwards. "Scott, I'll need your car keys thanks. Now go outside. I'll follow with your lovely cousin. Don't rush, Scott, I can't miss her at this range."
Li whimpered. The gun was pointing straight at her head. She believed him.
The young man grinned and slid his arm around her waist. "Shall we go?"
Outside, the streetlights stained the road with ugly patches of yellow. There was a strange car parked opposite, but it was empty. Curtains were drawn across the few windows that weren't dark. No-one was watching.
The boy threw the keys to Li. Her hands were shaking so badly she nearly dropped them. "Open the car, will you?"
Fumbling with the keys, Li managed to unlock the door.
"Thanks," He took them back and motioned with the gun. "Get in the back. Scott, you can play hostage for a bit."
Chewing her lip, Li pushed the seat forward and slid into the back of the car. The boy kicked the door shut behind her.
She shut her eyes and hugged her chest. This couldn't be happening.
A hand clamped over her mouth and someone hissed "Don't scream!"
"It's okay! I'm here to help you!"
Another young man. A second ago, he hadn't been there. Forget screaming, Li thought. She could almost laugh.
He was different from the first boy. His skin wasn't that pale shade of dead. He looked nervous. He still scared her beyond all reason.
Slowly, the man took his hand away. "Keep still, Li, okay?"
"How do you know-"
Li glanced outside. The young man hadn't noticed; that, or he already knew. What the hell was going on?
"Okay. Right," the second man muttered. "Take my hand."
Too loud. The young man turned and saw them.
From that moment everything went too fast. Li only knew for sure what had happened when the nightmares had taken her through it so many times she knew it by heart.
The boy lunged for the door, but a shaven-headed man barrelled out of nowhere and knocked him over. Scott backed away. The third man flashed her a brief smile just before the young man lifted the gun, aimed at his face, and squeezed the trigger.
Then the man in the car grabbed her hand. She felt a lurch as everything became nothing and screamed as she started to fall. There was a rush of black, then silence.
It's a cool autumn day, but the sky is still clear blue. The city in the background is silent, but the park is full of gentle noise. Trees rustle in the wind and the occasional bird chirrups.
At a table under a yellowing tree, a woman stares at the chess board in front of her, frowning. Her hand hovers in mid-air, holding a tiny black pawn.
"Trust me," says the woman to her left.
The first woman bites her lip and sets the piece down with a click. She leans back in her chair, picks up a paper cup full of steaming coffee and takes a gulp.
"I don't like it," she says.
"I don't know, I just don't."
"You'd rather leave her with him?" says the man standing at her shoulder.
"No," the woman snaps. "It's just too sudden."
The man snorts. "When was it ever not going to be sudden?"
"Don't worry about her," The second woman squeezes her friend's arm. "She'll be fine."
"Really," Reaching into the pocket of her jeans, she pulls out a new piece and sets it on the board next to the other.
The first woman chuckles. "That's cheating."
Her companion smiles. "I'm only cheating myself."