There is pain, sound, light; a confused jumble of images. I think for a moment that I must have fallen asleep during a film, but the pain comes and a soothing hand touches my forehead.

“Sleep now…” and I am so very tired the voice commands as much as soothes and I retire from the world again, a pleasant blankness overcoming me.

In my dreams I’m a five year old girl and we’re having a tea party, my friends are coming around to play. The dollies and bears are sat at the table and the little plastic plates are laid out neatly with the fine china my mother has laid out for the “big people”. My friends come with their mothers, and the adults talk away in my mother’s large kitchen while we retire to the garden for our tea. There is cake and lemonade, and because I’m a very strange little girl a pot of tea and milk and sugar. Only I am allowed to pour it, because I am responsible. Natashia and Katie and Gemma all seem very subdued, they are very quiet, but I try and be jolly and nice, just as mother said. I am the perfect hostess. Mother has bought me some new shoes for this party to go with my little party dress, there is a stain on them, I wonder where that came from?

Well, mother says to pass over things like that unless they an emergency.

My friends really are very quiet, I pour lemonade and pass around little sandwiches with the crusts cut off, cucumber and ham, not together silly, separately, with real butter and the whitest of bread.

Mr Bear and Dolly are quiet too, I try and jolly them up, but there really is nothing you can do for some people.

One of my friends is crying, it’s Katie, she seems frightened, the others hold her, but she shies away from me, I only want to help, I only ever want to help. She is saying something, I notice that stain on my shoes again, there is something in the grass. Katie’s not crying now, she’s just afraid, and I’m not sure why, at least I’m not sure why until Natashia speaks, in a petulant voice, which I have never liked,

“Eww, why did you do that to your dollies? And there did you get that stuff? I’ve had enough, I want to go home!”

And it is then, only then that I look around at my dollies, and realised that every single one has been shot through the head with a small calibre bullet, and that stain isn’t a stain.

It’s Blood.

I wake with a start and a sharply indrawn breath, that wasn’t me whatever it was. I’m still surrounded by a bright light and a beep. The nurse comes in and takes my pulse, she is short, stocky, business-like.

“You’ve been asleep a long time. How are you feeling?” I have a tube, I just nod. ”Good, we’ll get someone to take that out.” I nod again, trying not to move too much. There is a tent over my legs, but my arms are free. My arms are free, there is no guard, I’m not under arrest in the hospital.

Why?

I remember the police men, policemen, police-men; they came in, I ran there was pain, so much…

The detective is dressed in a mac and an ill-fitting hat, it would be, he’s a giant teddy bear, he’s got a thick pencil and has to wrap his paw around it to write. He’s amazingly dexterous with it, and has a flowing script that looks musical. He’s sat next to me, I’m that little girl again and we’re in the garden. He has a sidekick, a ragdoll in a stitched on uniform, I can see my mother with her hand to her mouth being comforted by the others. The ragdoll kneels down, her hand in a glove and touches the blood…

I’m awake, no tube, I swallow urgently. There is no beeping. It’s dark.

I sit up and the movement triggers some lights, they blink on above me and spread out. White everywhere, I’m on a metal table, hard, steel, cold. Memory floods back. I pull up my trouser leg, I’m dressed all in black, loose linen, work clothes. My leg is a network of scars.

And then I look past my leg, to the only other thing that is here in this arena of whiteness.

A small dolly.

There is a bullet hole, and blood…

I’m whole. I know it, I can stand, I can walk. The pain is gone.

I slip off the metal bench, shiny, utilitarian. The doll occupies my mind, I thought it was a dream.

It was a dream, I must be dreaming now, it’s never been like this.

It’s there, lying on the ground, bleeding, no, not bleeding; that’s finished. I prod it out of a morbid curiosity, it’s like flesh, heavy, creepy. I’m frightened, frightened. I’m a killer, a professional; and now, I’m frightened. I’m reluctant to touch it again, my feel have some sort of leather slippers, I use my toe to turn it over.

It’s not pretty, brains mashed out the back, a proper exit wound from a too large gun. This was an alive thing, alive; it walked and presumably talked, but it looks like a doll, it’s a doll. It was living. I can’t look, I turn it back over. Did I do this?

I feel something, something new. It’s a rock in my heart, I think I might be having a heart attack for a moment, for longer than a moment; minutes pass, I can’t catch my breath, my chest clenches, the room, warehouse, swirls around me and I stagger few steps away and sit on the ground. There’s a sob, and another, and I look around for the source. It is only when the first black tears fall upon my hand that I realise that it is me. I’m crying. How can I be crying?

I don’t know why I’m crying, I feel stupid. I don’t where I am and I’m crying over a doll; but it’s a living doll, it was alive, alive! I’m stupid and I’m going to die, can’t breathe, air, I need air…

…I wake up a few minutes later, more rational. There is something wrong here. I have two things to do and one of them will bring me near the doll again, and I’m not ready for that. I must preserve myself.

I go to the table and look in the shiny surface. It’s me, and I glance away disappointed. When I look back, she’s there, holding her finger to my lips, it’s a shock, and we slide down the side of the table together her and I, and the doll appears in the reflection. I see her get up as do I, but she has infinitely more grace than I, and we walk over to the doll. I can barely see her but she is doing something as I turn over the doll again, and see the wound. I look over to her and she is examining something too,, she’s looking at me, and then we turn away and look more closely.

I see with a more clinical eye this time, that the fragments of skull and bone are not right, the arrangement of the wound is wrong. The exit must have been directly at the back of the head, that is normal, but the trail of blood and brains spattered over the floor implies that the doll was held, not free-standing. Held, not held, supported, like in a cradle, for something unconscious, or not alive.

I pull the clothes off and see the stitch marks, it’s a grotesque made of animal parts and sewn to together with an exquisite care. I have never seen the like of it, it’s so awful that I have to be sick, and I move some distance away, realising for the first time that I’m thinking of it as evidence. I spit until I’m clear.

When I look up, I’m nearer the table, and she is on her hands and knees too, her hair shrouding her face. I see a shadow behind her, someone pointing, pointing a gun, and when I turn, he’s there, pointing it at me.

Now maybe, there will be some answers.

“Well well.” I say, “This is the most normal thing that has happened in the last, I don’t know, long enough for me to be out of hospital.”

There is a gesture, with the gun, away from the, the doll thing. I get a chance to look at him. He’s wearing a suit, he looks like he’s preparing for a job interview at an undertakers. The suit is black, like midnight; the shirt is tailored in one of the rapid tailoring places in HK, the stitch count is off, but the suit is pure Savile row. His tie is silk, expensive silk, a thick knot; a double Windsor if I’m not mistaken. He probably thinks that he’s not giving much away, but the shirt tells me that something has happened to him lately. Something bad.

“It took a long time to find.” His voice is accented, Russian, somewhere near Tambov. I know these things. ”You are slippery customer.” Who is this guy? He must think he’s a Bond villain, slippery customer? His face creases up into a smile, or a semblance of one, it really doesn’t fit his body, which is slim, his face is heavyset and older than his actions, there is a certain sag to it, lugubriousness that speaks of a life hard lived, his dark beard shows even though he has closely shaved. There is a mole on his right cheek clearly damaged over time.

“Who are you?” It’s not really question, just a kind of opening gambit.

“Ah,” His face pulls up into that smile, it’s not really a smile, “that is a complicated question, but you can call me Polokov.” Another gesture with the gun, suits me, it’s further away from the, doll.

“Are you going to kill me?” I can see his fingers twitching for a cigarette, and the yellow stain becomes apparent. It’s deep within his fingers, a lifetime habit.

“No, no, probably not, if you do as I say.” I move as indicated, and we are walking slowly along this warehouse, square lights in the ceiling dissipating even a hint of shadow. In this light his clothes are like a black hole, they seems to get darker, and I cannot make out their features any more. He walks slightly behind be anyway, well out of range of any possible move I might make.

“Tell me, ” he says, “tell me why you kill for money.” I can hear him puffing as we walk, it’s quite at odds with his lean, slim frame, as if he is a much bigger, fatter man fighting for breath. Smoking will do that to you.

“It’s a moral matter, you wouldn’t understand.” He stops for a second, and then the slow pace resumes, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere, except, except further away from that thing. There is something in the distance though, a faint blob, it’s the first feature I have seen here. Polokov squints at it.

“You would be surprised what I can understand.”

“Then it’s for the money, but I could manage without that; it’s for the peace.”

“What peace?”

“Companies would go to war if not for me.”

“Is that true?”

“Yes, some of the street gangs, they are driven by the companies.”

“Mhph.” We walk in silence and the faint blob becomes close, it looks like another table, there does seems to be any walls here, as it the whole place stretches off to infinity, but it’s a trick of the intense light. ”I would have killed you where you stand if you had not said it was for the money. We all do things for money, we are no better than whores on the street.”

I’ve met these ladies, some of them barely more than children, some of them not even that, barely more; trafficked, abused, desperate, drug dependent. Oh sure a few are TV’s favourite, the “tart with a heart”, or “working my way through law school”, but these are just comforting tropes. Whores are generally desperate people. This offends me.

“We are better. We’re better off. ” I stop and turn, his grip on the gun tightens, “We can choose. I choose what I do, not because it is moral, but because I’m good at it. Until now.” He gestures urgently, and I move on.

“So you think you are judge yes?” His accent thickens, “You say we better because we can choose? Well what is your choice now, eh?”

“You’ve got the gun.”

“Then tell me way out.” He almost shouts, but it comes as a whisper. ”I need to get out.”

We’ve reached the table, it looks exactly like the table I was on, and beyond it, the doll.

Polokov shakes and shakes when he sees it, he’s not even holding the gun pointing at me now, he’s too disturbed. I move towards him cautiously, and then rapidly as his eyes turn up in his head. The gun drops and I catch it, placing it on the ground immediately so that it doesn’t go off, and I can catch him. He’s a limp mass and I can’t hold him, but I lower him to the ground as gently as I can. He is shaking and foaming, I’m not sure what is wrong with him, but I can see that he’s in a bad way.

It’s a vigil, and too near the, the doll, but I stay paying attention to him, avoiding looking in the table’s reflective surface. He calms after a while and his eyes look fairly normal. I’m not sure what has caused this fit, and I can do nothing about it. His breathing eases, and he slips into what seems to me to be a normal sleep. I don’t know how much time has passed, but I’m thirsty, that’s a bad sign.

Polokov wakes and I discover than I have been dozing on the floor by him. He is sitting up by the time I come to, and he looks at the gun, discarded only inches away from his hand. He picks it up by the barrel and hands it to me.

“Here,” he looks ashamed, I think, of his behaviour, “For you, you are more rational than I am it seems.” He starts to get to his feet. ”You took care of me. I appreciate it.” I nod, and he reaches down to me. I swap the gun from hand to hand, and take his, it’s the first thing resembling a handshake I’ve had in years. I don’t generally touch people if I can help it.

It strikes me that his hand is warm, yielding but strong, I had forgotten how strong people can be. I write about emotions and relationships, but I have not known the touch of others. I have avoided it. It is a guilt.

I kill people for a living.

The grotesque doll is still lying there, how we have come in a circle is a matter for some debate, but I assume we have, other possibilities are too complex to contemplate. The fact remains however, that we are lost in this place.

“You should walk some distance away, and we can assess how big this place is. You think you can manage that?”

“I can do that.” he says, accent thickening. Without another word he walks off. Perspective is warped, I should be able to see him for a long time, but within thirty places or so he becomes a speck and disappears.

“Polokov!” I shout. He answers from behind me, I jump.

“There is no need to shout friend. I seem to have gotten turned around again.” I look at him. I would have seen him turn, I’m sure of it.

“No, Polokov. This is an impossible place.”

“How can that be, we are in it?” I think for a moment.

“I will walk backwards and look at you, you will see.”

“What will I see? A man falling over when he misses a step?”

“No, watch.” I turn and start walking backwards. Polokov just looks at me, I point with two fingers to my eyes and to him, and he nods. The perspective trick happens again, and just as I lose sight of him, I bump into something. A second of terror forms in me, and Polokov catches me as I fall. I curse and curse and curse, and Polokov waits for me to finish venting my frustration and not a little fear.

“This is an impossible place.” I say it, eventually, without emotion.

“Yes.” He says, “Impossible.” And somehow he has the gun, and I cannot move quickly enough as he raises it to his head, and shoots himself.

There is no body, no blood this time, I am alone. And no gun either, I cannot escape like that. Polokov is gone, with nothing to say that he has been here. I look around the whiteness. I’m thirsty.

The table is still there, and I go to look in it, the shiny surface reflecting me for a brief second, and the as I blink, not me. She’s there again. There is nothing else there in the image, and when I look around, the hideous flesh doll is gone, and this little perspective is lost to me, apart from the table and her, there is nothing here and all is white with the world.

I miss Polokov already, but I think that I am dreaming, and this knowledge, or belief, finally is a revelation for me. It is like a wave of consciousness, and as I look into the reflection in the table I see she has had the same revelation, and I nod and smile as does she. It is a moment of clarity.

The light diminishes and I see a darkness coming from all sides as the ceiling lights go out. I’m at peace, for now, and the girl and I wave at each other with exactly the same gestures, the same smile, the same shrug of our shoulders, and the lights finally come to be just the one, which goes out.

__________________________

I wake up in the hospital. Polokov is there, sitting in a chair, dozing, but he becomes instantly alert as I move.

“So, you’re real.” I say weakly, “you escaped.” He nods, and opens his jacket a little to reveal a small handgun with a silencer. He speaks, his accent much more pronounced in what I assume is the real world.

“I have been sent to kill you.” He says quietly, “but you have been in my dream, or I have been in yours. I waited for you there for a long time you know. Years. Fortunately I am not a complicated man. Still, I was mad when you found me. Mad. I am not sure I am not mad now. I have been sent to kill you, but I cannot. It would kill her I’m sure, and we have a higher purpose now. I must run, my friend, so that I live for that purpose.” He holds his hand out. ”You saved me. You are my brother.” I look at him, not entirely understanding, but one thing I do understand.

I say with a dry throat…

“Run, my brother. Run.”

Polokov is gone.

I realise shortly after how many questions he could have answered if he knows about her. Either I’m still dreaming or she is real and I’m experiencing something other.

I get up from the hospital bed and wince in pain, this has to be real, my legs hurt. I take a look, the scars look just like in my dream, how long have I been here? I realise that I’m still hooked up, and unlink all the bits of plastic attached. Withdrawing the catheter is painful, but I’m careful, I’ve heard tales. There is beeping, a nurse comes in and starts fussing, but I’m not in the mood and blank it out while I go to the bathroom. She is flapping about, but I say nothing; the floor is cold, but I note, very clean.

I close the door of the bathroom, and look in the mirror, not without some trepidation, but all I see is a bearded me, quite a bush too, I’ve been out for a while. I take out the cannula in my arm as well, and run the shower.

It’s good, I have run it hot. I notice sore spots, bed sores I assume, I’m not as gentle with my skin as I should be, I notice some larger flakes coming off. I have been laid up for a good while, and there are other signs too, in my muscles and in my bones.

Everything aches.

When I exit the bathroom after about half an hour or so, there are two men in the hospital room. Unfriendly men, with badges. I look at them, then out the window, then at them. Hong Kong skyline, British Secret Service. I’ve never had any contact, I don’t know what to expect. I pull on a dressing gown and sit on the bed.

“Hicks,” says the shorter one, “and Charles.” Hicks opens his coat, taps a gun. ”Just so you know not to try anything.”

“…” I try to speak but it turns into a cough. Agent Charles reaches over and pours a plastic cup full of water. In deference to my theoretical skills, he pushes the wheeled table over to me, rather than trying to hand it over. I take a sip.

“Before you ask, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”

“You were trying to shoot someone.”

“I know nothing.”

“You’re lying.” Hicks is all business, he thinks he can bully me. Charles is waggling his eyebrows out the window as a Chinese nurse, she rolls her eyes.

“You can’t know that, how long have I been out?”

“Twenty-Six weeks.” I look up at him. There must be something in my eyes, certainly my heart is thumping, six months! Charles engages.

“Really, yes. Why do you think your legs healed so well? You broke then in seventeen places. We’re surprised you can stand, let alone walk.”

If I wasn’t already sitting on the bed, I would have to sit now. Hicks sniffs.

“You’re pretty professional by all accounts. We know who you were trying to kill. Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“We’re wasting our time here I see. Well, look when you’re prepared to talk, ring this number.” He hands me a card. ”Escape, don’t escape, we don’t care, we’ll track you down. In the meantime, you have to deal with the Hong Kong police, and you’re too weak to run.” They turn to leave.

“Wait.” There is a pause.

“I’ll come with you.”

“That wasn’t on offer.”

“You have to give me something if you want information.”

“You’re in no position to bargain.”

“Then the UK Government will have to have its curiosity unsatisfied then.”

“We’re at an impasse, good-day to you.” A hand on the door handle. I play my only card.

“Polokov.”

“Polokov.” There is a pregnant pause.

“He was sent to kill me. He left an hour ago.”

“He’s good, what did you do to him.”

“I saved him, he owed me.”

“Polokov owes no-one.” Charles steps out the door and talks into a radio. Forgive me, Polokov, I can’t be in the hands of the Hong Kong Police. Foreign secret service is better. Yeah I look like a Brit, but I was born here, my passport, passports, say Hong Kong. It’s China now, they take a dim view of assassination.

“He owes me, and if you want more you have to take me with you.” Hicks looks out the window at Charles, Charles nods.

“Are you strong enough to dress yourself?” And surprisingly, I am, though it hurts. Everything hurts. I’ve been lying down for most of six months. I need something though, a pen and a piece of paper. The girl, she’s in danger. I write “Police coming, get out” on a sheet of notepaper I find by the bed and go into the bathroom and hold it up to the mirror. I see her holding up exactly the same piece of paper reversed. Damn, that means they’re coming now. I smile at her as she smiles at me, and then I exit rapidly.

“We have to go.” I say. ”Now” Charles speaks more into his radio urgently and there is a movement of people on the hospital floor, a sudden influx of black coats. I dress, not bothering with modestly or dignity, and it is not lost on me that my clothes are black linen.

Staff are hustled out of the way, and I barely have time to don a pair of shoes before Charles and Hicks grab me both arms and hustle me to the lift. Hicks has a priority key and turns it before the doors have closed, and the lift plummets twenty-six floors down to the basement car park. We move quickly to a large black Range Rover, and the rest, the rest is a car chase through narrow streets.

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