The air was dense, filled with smoke, and the stink of spilled beer and sweating bodies, and the cloy of perfume and aftershave and hair gel, all mixed together with another, more sinister smell. Jesse tried to put a name to it, but all he could think of was desperation. These kids were driven, frantic to escape the senselessness of school and parents and money, lots and lots of money. He lit a cigarette then stubbed it out after a drag or two. For the first time in weeks an iron band had started to tighten around his temples, and his vision was even a touch blurred. If he didn’t leave soon, there was a good chance he’d be sick.
Jesse fought his way through the throng and the brutal pulse of the music. Sarah was dancing with a tall, older-looking bloke in battered jeans and a soft leather vest. His hair was long and straight and black, his eyes the jet and tilt of the Orient, and he had a thin nose, even thinner lips, and a very studied stubble, as if he were a French film star slumming for fresh young blood. Jesse realised that most women would find him extremely good-looking – sexy, Jesse supposed grimly. His heart began to pound as he saw how Sarah danced, and how this character watched her. She should never have worn that silvery spandex top; the heat had pasted it to her skin like a cheap swimming costume, every detail of her anatomy on public display. As Jesse approached, the would-be film star moved in very close and with a faint smirk pinched one of Sarah’s nipples hard enough for her to gasp, lose her chill, and take a step backwards. But she didn’t leave. Don’t get angry, Jesse told himself. Keep a low profile. There’s no problem.
Jesse gave the man a small nudge. His face paled greenly, and he put a hand up to his head. Without a word he turned and pushed towards the edge of the dance floor, stumbling and bouncing off gyrating bodies, then staggering on again like an eccentric billiard ball, finally coming to rest by lurching against one bloke who grabbed him and from the expression on his face seemed to be swearing violently. It was hard to tell from here. A few steps away from Jesse, Sarah watched as her future superstar vomited on the spot, splattering not only the lad who’d caught him, but his girl as well, who jumped back and retched visibly, shuddering with disgust. Her bare belly and navel piercing were now splashed with puke. The band continued to play, and the strobes flashed in nauseating spasms of colour.
Sarah rounded on Jesse. ‘You didn’t have to do that! I was perfectly all right.’
Sweat broke out on Jesse’s forehead. He was overtaken by a fit of shivering so strong that he had to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering. Her anger forgotten, Sarah took his arm.
He nodded, unable to speak. He leaned heavily against Sarah, who led him slowly towards the small brightly-coloured tables scattered like confetti at the fringes of the room. Jesse floundered more than once, nearly dragging them down. When she finally had him seated, she examined his face in dismay. His eyes were ringed in black, and his skin the colour and texture of old suet, and slick with sweat. He shut his eyes and leaned his head against the wall.
‘Stay here,’ Sarah told him rather unnecessarily. ‘I’ll be right back. I’m going to fetch some cold water for you.’
He spoke without opening his eyes. ‘Wait. Don’t go. Something’s wrong.’
‘I won’t be long,’ she promised.
Jesse sank into a doze – or something closer to a fugue state. Disjointed images floated in and out of his consciousness: skewed contorted faces, red and orange screams, a strong pungent odour that slid into his mouth and down his throat like an obscene tongue. Lines of flame zigzagged through his flesh, lacerating, tearing. ‘No,’ he muttered. ‘No.’
‘The band’s not that bad,’ a familiar voice said.
Jesse opened his eyes, slowly, his lids struggling with the weight of the coruscating lights. He squinted at the figure behind the voice. Tondi? Her image rippled and heaved and broke into pieces of coloured glass, then flowed together again. Tondi.
‘What do you want?’ he managed to croak.
‘You’re green as mouldy bread. A bad hit?’
Jesse licked his lips. It wasn’t worth making the effort to answer. Where was Sarah? He needed a glass of water. He needed her.
‘Here, drink this.’ Tondi was carrying two glasses of coke, one a good half-litre. She handed the smaller glass to him and sat down opposite. ‘Go on, you’ll feel better.’
He drank it down. It had an odd metallic taste, like a cheap aluminium spoon. Jesse shivered – all the signs of an impending migraine.
‘Got a fag?’ Tondi asked.
‘Leave me alone,’ he said, but laid his packet on the table. She shook out a cigarette, lit it with a disposable lighter from a pouch at her belt, inhaled. Eyes bright, she slipped off a shoe and lifted her foot to his lap. With a mocking smile she flexed her foot, then rotated it first in one direction, then the other. Jesse's eyes were riveted on her smoke rings, which seemed to taunt him, draw him into their midst. The air was thick, suffocating. The circles grew larger and more insistent. Suddenly she increased the pressure. He inhaled sharply at the familiar response, despite his revulsion.
‘Stop,’ he said hoarsely.
The room swam in and out of focus. Jesse closed his eyes and balled his fists, trying to fight the nausea, the waves of sensation from his groin, the heat.
Just when Sarah needs you most.
He tore his eyes open and shoved his chair back against the wall, staring at Tondi. It took every ounce of self-control not to torch her on the spot.
‘Something’s wrong. Sarah needs me,’ he gasped.
In his eyes Tondi glimpsed a depth of feeling – an intensity – that made her profoundly uncomfortable. For a moment another Tondi took possession of her, a Tondi who still believed in long ago and far away, in happily ever after, a little girl whose dad had not left one morning with a suitcase and an album of memories, who didn’t use sex as loose change – a Tondi who was ashamed of what she’d just been doing. She dropped her cigarette onto the floor and ground it out.
‘Look, I’m sorry. I’ve made a mistake. Mick said to be sure to keep you… to get you… I mean, the coke…You’d better go find Sarah, they wanted to try–’
‘Where is she?’ he cried.
‘I don’t know exactly. Maybe the back. There are some storerooms, an office.’
Jesse staggered to his feet. The band was playing a slow song, a low throbbing beat, bodies clung and fused and slid over one another.
Sarah. He had to find Sarah.
Smoke swirled languorously through the room, now masking the dancers, now parting to reveal an embrace, a styled pallid face. Intersecting blue beams sliced through the turbid haze, fingering first one victim before moving on to the next. Body parts appeared and disappeared in grotesque flashes.
He had to find Sarah.
With agonising slowness Jesse began to make his way through the crush. The air was stifling, and he could hardly see for the smoke. Even more kids were dancing than before. The room was crowded … overcrowded … packed to the salty brim. And the music – hypnotic, numbing, narcotic ...
He could barely tell where his body left off and the music began. By now the band had launched into a fast number again. The speakers howled. Loud … so loud … The sound buffeted his senses.
‘Jesse,’ she was crying, and he heard.
A surge of adrenaline. Heart racing, he ducked his head, hunched his shoulders, and charged through the last cluster of dancers to break free into the corridor off the bar.
‘What the fuck –’
Jesse elbowed aside a bloke carrying three cokes by the neck, hardly registering the shattering bottles and spraying liquid. Jesse slipped, landed on a knee, sprang up. Vaulted the kid he’d felled. Heard the curses from a great distance, his ears filled with Sarah’s desperate cries. Pounded his way down the corridor, rage mounting like lava in his gut. He’d cremate them if they’d touched her. Hurt her.
Jesse burst through the door into the storeroom, the flimsy bolt giving way under his foot. Gavin had Sarah on the floor. Mick leaned against a wall, eyes glittering, arms crossed.
Jesse was on Gavin in an instant. Kill him, a voice whispered in his head. Jesse grabbed Gavin with both hands, heaved him into the air, and tossed him like a sack of offal against the wall, noting with grim satisfaction the loud bone-jarring thump. Mick was already half through the doorway, he knew what Jesse might do. Could do.
‘Are you OK?’ Jesse asked, kneeling at Sarah’s side.
She nodded, her eyes filling with tears. Quickly Jesse smoothed back her hair, brushed his lips over her temple.
‘I’ll be right back,’ he said.
Mick and Gavin were at the end of the corridor, heading for an emergency exit. Another few seconds, and they’d be away.
The fireball struck the wall just as they made it out into the night air. A dull whump, more a sucking sensation than sound. Ceiling-high flames immediately enveloped the far end of the passage. Oh shit, Jesse thought. He hesitated for a fraction of a second. He would never know if he heard Sarah’s call, or merely imagined it. There was no question of a conscious choice, and no time for one. He raced back for Sarah.
‘Come on, we’ve got to get you out of here.’
He scooped her into his arms and carried her at a run down the corridor towards the dance floor. She was staring over his shoulder in horror at the flames. He set her down.
‘Look, we mustn’t cause a panic. That’s always worse than the fire itself. Just make your way outside. It’ll be OK. I’ve got to go back and deal with the blaze.’
She glanced fearfully behind them. They could both feel the heat, smell the noxious fumes. An old building.
‘Now!’ he cried, and pushed her towards the crowd.
‘For god’s sake just GO!’
She went, and he turned back towards what he – again – had wrought.
It had become a conflagration. And the air already too thick, too acrid, too deadly. How had it spread so fast? For a moment he was stunned, unable to think. Then, numbly, he asked himself how many exits there were. Two, maybe three. Possibly one or two more. For what? three hundred? four hundred people? If he didn’t do something now, a lot of kids were going to die. Trampled to death. Suffocated.
Had Sarah left?
He moved towards the blaze, forcing himself to concentrate. The flames abated a little. He could do it.
Had Sarah escaped?
Then it happened – what he most feared. Someone began to shout: ‘Fire! Fire!’ The cry was taken up by ten, then a hundred shrieking voices. ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ Bestial voices, driven by terror. ‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ The band choked off in the middle of a chord. The speakers crackled ... hissed ... Someone spoke, but Jesse couldn’t make out what was being said over the noise of the shredded, panicked throats. ‘FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!’ Screams of fright pummelled his ears, fists of sound as bruising as the bodies pushing shoving kicking clawing towards the exits, or where they thought escape would be. ‘FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!’ His concentration shattered, Jesse tried to fall back behind the crowd but found himself swept along by its mad inhuman rush. Black smoke was pouring through the building. A flickering red glow lit one of the walls. His eyes stung. A hand gripped his hair, jerked his head to the side. Other hands punched him in the back. He gasped. A terrible roar filled his head. Where was Sarah? Where was Sarah?
Somebody shoved Jesse hard. He seemed to take forever to fall. Over and over he tumbled, there was neither up nor down nor forward nor back nor yesterday nor tomorrow. His mind lost its hold on the centre. Sarah was gone, lost. No, he was lost. A heel ground into his hand. He cried out in pain, in hopelessness. What was he doing on the floor? All for nothing. Better just to lie there, nursing his throbbing hand, waiting for oblivion, almost welcoming it. Death by smoke inhalation was painless … his family hadn’t suffered. Jesse, where are you? It’s hot, too hot. Jesse! He closed his eyes, curled himself into a ball, sank back into memory. He could never save them all.
Do not go gentle, the voice whispered. You can do this. Now get up.
He shook his head weakly. Can’t – not strong enough. Not like Sarah. Vikings don’t give up. She’ll keep dancing into that good night. Unless she dies tonight. Dies ... the word jarred him from his lethargy. Sarah had given him what he’d once thought impossible. Sarah. She kissed him softly. Slowly she raised him to his knees, then his feet. And further …
A series of muffled explosions shook the building. The fumes and panic were beginning to take their toll, Jesse realised in anguish – the press of bodies had lessened. Sharp gunshots resounded in a loud volley overhead. Jesse looked up – no fuck no the wood in the old building was cracking from the heat and pressure. Then with a deep rending sound like Grendel’s lunatic howl – a monstrous death rattle that would echo for years to come and tear the psychic fabric of the city – a section of ceiling came crashing onto the frenzied mass of bodies, followed by two or three lengths of wooden beam and a shower of bright deadly sparks. The lights went out. But not the screams, the cries, the groans, the strangled whimpers…
It had to be now. The entire rear wall of the building was alive with flames. He would not let her die. He would not! For a split-second he thought he heard Emmy’s voice once more. Jesse, where are you? It’s so hot … Terror greater than any he had ever known seized him. Jesse… He was running through the night … running along the river … always running ... Jesse …
Not Emmy, but Sarah.
She’s alive! he thought with a surge of exultation as transforming as a vision, as powerful as the inconceivable energies of a quasar – and this gave him the final strength to summon the fire and carry it with him through the one gateway which stands outside all time and all space, which obeys no laws except its own: that ultimate trapdoor of the universe, which has been called by a multitude of empowering names – the expanding mind …
Jesse revived to the sound of sirens. He lay face-down on a patch of damp ground, protected by a bush or hedge whose lower branches were scratching his back. Cautiously he moved his head. Every muscle from crown to toe ached – though not painfully, not even unpleasantly – as if he’d passed through a cosmic meat-grinder. And perhaps he had: there was not a particle of his body which didn’t feel new and strange and utterly alive, buzzing with fiery and vernal charge. In some way he couldn’t possibly explain, he had twisted spacetime by an imaginative leap into another pattern, slight but very real. He opened his eyes. Strong searchlights illuminated the remains of the old warehouse, now blackened and smoking, yet with most of its walls and roof still intact – miraculously, newspapers and pulpits would later claim. The fire brigade was pumping forceful jets of water at the smouldering ruin but no flames were visible. Police and emergency vehicles were everywhere, and he could make out a TV van as well. People were milling about, although the police seemed to be doing a good job of keeping the mob in check.
How many people died? Jesse asked himself. For above the cacophony of motor vehicles and pumps and shouting voices and sirens and bullhorns and cries and thudding axes and guttural oaths and rescue equipment whining and biting its way towards the next victim, he could hear the keening, the soft weeping of those who had cause to grieve.
And then, with the immediacy of a tsunami: Sarah…? He was about to crawl out from under his protective cover when footsteps approached from the other side of the shrubbery. He waited, not quite sure why he didn’t want to be seen. They wouldn’t spot him – there were two of them, a man and a woman – unless they circled round; even then, they would probably have to come very near. In this smoke-palled night his body was just another patch of darkness. And their attention was elsewhere. He breathed carefully, trying not to stir. He could hear every word they spoke, so that a new fear took hold.
‘They’re looking for some kid, a runaway. Dirty blond, about seventeen.’ The man.
‘They think it’s arson then?’ Middle-aged, educated, posh.
‘Yes. The Powers boy – Michael. Mick, he’s called. My son goes to school with him. He told the police he saw this lad start the fire. A Molotov cocktail or something like that.’
‘Who is it?’
‘Some street kid with a record a mile long. History of violence. Apparently he’s been staying with that psychiatrist and her foreign husband. You know the one I mean. The magazine photographer. Never trusted him, myself. I even overheard the daughter arguing with the police. Defending a fiend like that. Can you imagine?’
Sarah – alive!
‘Those Swedes are way over the top. Didn’t something go wrong with the son too?’
‘A heroin addict. Died of an overdose a couple of years back.’
‘You’d think they’d have learned their lesson. Why take some delinquent in? They’re lucky he didn’t rape the daughter. Or murder them all in their beds. They’re pretty well off, from what I’ve heard.’ Jesse could imagine the woman shaking her head.
‘Family money, apparently. Swedish industrialists.’
‘No wonder he can afford to fool around with his pictures. But they certainly got burnt over this psycho.’ The woman didn’t seem to realise what she’d said.
‘Some kind of new therapy, my wife told me.’
‘Half-mad themselves, some of those psychiatrists. Tricked by every sob story you can imagine.’ Her voice rose in parody to a nasal whine. ‘Mummy beat me senseless. The old man was on the dole – he drank. I had to steal to eat. And sell a few drugs to feed my little brothers and sisters. Not my fault, is it, if I had to kill a few people.’
The man laughed, but uneasily. ‘He’s certainly killed enough tonight.’
And more in the same vein. Then their voices faded away. Jesse lay still, his heart leaden. All those kids … Sarah, he thought, I tried. I wanted it so much.
After an hour or more of circling round and round the site, keeping well out of view, Jesse gave it up as hopeless. He’d glimpsed Sarah several times, Finn too. But they were never alone. Once a police officer had been speaking to them; another time Sarah was clutching Finn’s arm and staring at a figure being zipped into a bodybag; the last time she was standing near one of the portable searchlights, and her expression was so bleak – her face smoke-blackened, tear-streaked, and etched with exhaustion – that Jesse had come very close to running out and gathering her in his arms. But he couldn’t take the risk, for there were any number of people in the vicinity. As he watched, another girl whom he didn’t recognise came over and hugged Sarah tightly. He realised with a jolt that there were entire areas of her life he knew nothing about, that he would never come to share. He hadn’t even got to see her dance in a proper ballet, onstage, when dancing meant so much to her.
It was time to leave.