The echoes of the sirens still resounded in the empty streets as Bill and Emily reached the only house with its porch light still on. 24 Wilberforce Way. Emily imagined the Entity wrapping invisible tendrils around them both as Bill hammered on the front door, ignoring the buzzer. This was no time for niceties. They had perhaps two minutes to gain access before things became really dangerous. Emily leaned against a pillar, struggling to catch her breath.
"Come on!" Bill muttered between gritted teeth.
"Why don't they answer?" Emily asked. "Everyone knows the rules, don't they?"
"Hell knows," said Bill, looking behind them for signs of other stragglers. The pervasive silence, broken only by the tinkling of a distant piano, revealed that they were the only ones still out. They couldn't be taking these risks forever. One day the Entity would catch up with them, as it always did. Either that or the Nightwatch patrols would slap a caution on them and they'd be confined to one specified domicile, with strict controls over their movements. That would make their business, and thus their lives, impossible.
Emily felt a strange chill fall upon her neck and shoulders, together with a tightness in her throat. Here it was, right on cue.
"In the name of God, will you open up?" Bill shouted through the letterbox, trying to sound more plaintive than angry.
It worked. There was a click and the door catch released. Emily felt a glutinous tug attempting to pull her back from the doorstep but Bill grabbed her arm and yanked her into the hallway, where they sprawled on expensive parquet flooring. Bill kicked the door shut with his foot.
Nobody was to be seen. Bill scrambled to his feet, cosh at the ready.
"Hey! Cutting it fine, weren't you?" he yelled.
Bill was short-tempered by nature. Emily found her fear and frustration quickly gave way to gratitude and relief once she'd found a Haven for the night. She didn't hold onto things for long; it wasn't wise in the late twenty-fifties to be quick to anger and slow to forgive but Bill was almost sixty and had been born before the coming of the Entity. He held a grudge that burnt like a red hot coal; easy to fan into vivid flame.
Nobody answered Bill, so they walked along the well-decorated corridor, past the stairs, alongside a series of doors. Emily and Bill tried each one - all locked. An open doorway lay at the end of the hall.
"They have cameras", Emily noted, spotting the tiny dimples above each door. "Old school."
The tech did look very retrograde, but this might still be a remote Haven, its door triggered from afar by someone. Everyone loved a remote Haven - you didn't have to do any of the awkward chit-chat.
"Jiminy," asked Bill, "any nanos or heat signatures?"
Apparently Bill had named his own nano after a character in an ancient cartoon. When Emily got hers, she followed suit; Emily's was named Tinkerbell.
No nanos but I'm detecting a heat signature from the attic, said Jiminy, floating just above and to the right of Bill's head.
"Shall we go say hello?" Emily asked brightly. She was the extrovert of the two, and actually liked meeting new people. For Bill, these random encounters were an occupational hazard.
"I don't think they want to meet us, sweetie. Remote trigger, remember?"
They passed through the open door at the end of the hall into a sumptuously furnished lounge - dark wood antique furniture, with the occasional twentieth century classic. An Eames chair in the corner, in front of a small writing desk, illuminated by an arcing floor lamp with a round copper shade. A Persian rug defined a central seating area, with several ottomans and a large wrought iron and glass coffee table, on which lay a neatly ordered pile of tasteful magazines and art books. Kokoshka, Klimt, Sonia Delauney. A relatively convincing faux-log fire blazed under an old marble fireplace. By the door through which they had entered, a grandfather clock ticked away the seconds. Whoever lived here had money and was painfully tasteful in spending it.
Also on the coffee table was a laminated A4 card. Helvetica, 72pt. Raising an eyebrow, Bill picked it up and read from it.
Dear Visitors, I am sorry I am not here to welcome you. I have Asperger's and find it difficult to meet new people. I hope you do not mind if I decline to come downstairs this evening. Make yourselves at home. There are two bedrooms unlocked for you on the first floor and a bathroom opposite. The kitchen is accessible by the door to the right of the bookcase. Feel free to eat or drink anything you find. I'm sorry but I have no screens; you are welcome to read my books. I only ask that you leave this Haven in the condition you found it. All rooms are monitored 24/7. Have a good evening, Monika.
No screens! Emily had felt a sense of something missing but hadn't twigged that it was the lack of videowalls. Nothing but paint and wallpaper.
"Tinks, are there any audiofeeds available?" Emily asked, looking around for her nano, which seemed to have found itself a perch on top of the mantelpiece.
This Haven is not feed-enabled, Tinks replied.
"I guess we'll be missing the evening report," said Bill, slumping down on an ottoman and letting his backpack slide onto the floor. "Any chance of a quick shoulder rub?"
Emily didn't mind missing the daily rundown of casualties of the Entity and it's current drift pattern. It was usually just depressing. The missing persons, the vegetative, the suicides, the imprisoned and the insane. Bill had once told her there was a dark-web book running on the daily numbers. Emily couldn't imagine anything more callous. She half-suspected Bill enjoyed a flutter now and again.
Bill lay flat on the ottoman and kicked off his shoes and Emily knelt on the rug beside him and rubbed his tensely knotted shoulders and neck. Maybe she shouldn't be so critical of her partner. His cynicism and lack of sentimentality had saved both their lives on more than one occasion.
"No telly either. What are we going to do, play board games?" Bill said.
You could make love to me, Emily thought, quickly quashing the notion. They'd tried that a couple of times and although it had been fun, broadly speaking, neither of them had been fully into it. They were very definitely better as friends and colleagues than lovers. Bill was still obsessed with his wife, Taken and incarcerated for her own safety. He couldn't love another woman while Suzanna still lived. Plus, he was too old and tired and desolate for Emily, who hadn't yet had her thirtieth birthday. She still hoped to have a child one day. Bill had laughed when she'd told him that.
"I wouldn't mind reading for a bit and maybe getting an early night," Emily said, finishing off the massage with a deep dig between the shoulder blades that made Bill yelp (as she'd known it would).
"All right, brainbox," he said. You read and I'll try and fix those screeners."
Instinctively, Emily put her finger to her lips to shush Bill. It was illegal to screen Visitors but Emily and Bill made their living selling tiny devices you could hammer into your front door to record whoever came knocking. The way Bill saw it, it allowed people to screen out those victims who still possessed the wherewithal and cunning to knock on doors when the sirens sounded. There had been dozens of assaults, rapes and murders committed by victims of the Entity (colloquially, the Taken) who were mistaken for ordinary citizens. Bill had explained to Emily that they would actually be helping the Nightwatch patrols as well as protecting the inhabitants of Havens, by selling their illicit devices. Emily hadn't bought this entirely but it helped her overcome her squeamishness about breaking the law.
Bill took out his box of secondhand screeners extracted from the front doors of customers who had died, moved on, or upgraded. He would reset them and sometimes physically straighten them out so they could be re-used. Sometimes he'd replace the tiny lenses on the diamond-tipped heads. Emily liked watching him work; he was a craftsman in his own limited way. Bill had told her that he once used to repair antique clocks and his dexterity underlined the truth of that assertion.
A shelving unit spanned the wall where a screen would normally be, so Emily perused the books. Twain, Eliot, Borges, Woolf, Murdoch, Golding, Auster - the inhabitant of 24 Wilberforce Way had an appropriately tasteful collection of literature. Nothing too outlandish - no satanic texts, no pornography. This too was reassuring. Emily picked up a collection of short stories by someone called Barthelme she'd not heard or and was about to choose a comfy chair when she saw a floor-level shelf containing a set of photo albums. Would it be wrong to take a peek?
Before she consciously answered her own question, Emily had reached for a volume at random and opened it. It did not contain the antique family photographs she anticipated. Instead, its pages contained small, square photographs showing people sleeping, taken in a greenish light, eerie and also strangely touching. Elderly people, children, teenagers, middle-aged men, all in different, vulnerable attitudes of somnolence. Some tangled in their sheets, others stretched out like cadavers. How peculiar. She replaced the album.
Emily felt a tug of disquiet but shook it aside and settled down with her book. Later she got up to explore the kitchen, finding the ingredients for a mushroom omelette and, to Bill's delight, some bottled cider. They ate voraciously, and Bill drank a little more than Emily thought wise, though she didn't criticise. By eleven o'clock they had both run out of reasons to remain awake and the evening had proved unusually peaceful. no Screamers, no spot checks by the Nightwatch, and, as promised, no appearance by the mysterious Monika.
As Bill washed up, doing the plates and cutlery by hand as there was no dishwasher, Emily found herself talking to their mysterious host, as she climbed the stairs to the bedrooms. Tinkerbell glowed softly, providing enough illumination to see by, without having to look for switches (the lighting was just as antique as the rest of the house).
"Its a shame you won't come down to meet us. You have a lovely home and we're very grateful to you for letting us stay. Well, I mean, I know you have to but you've been so hospitable. And your library is fantastic. I've never seen so many books in one place. Tinks, is that the biggest library we've come across?"
Tinks took a microsecond to reply. That is the fourth largest collection of paper books I have encountered. Jeez - Emily really ought to program in some personality for Tinkerbell. She was such a buzzkill.
"Anyway, its a lovely home and don't worry, we'll be out of your hair first thing in the morning. If you do want to say hi, we're going to bed soon, so now would be a good time."
Emily paused on the first floor landing, listening for a sound from upstairs, but there was nothing, save the usual creaks and whispers of an old house settling. Monika, true to her word, would not be drawn.
Emily opened the first bedroom door, locating a switch to her left and flicking it on. The room was simply but prettily furnished, with a large brass-framed bed and two fluffy towels on the counterpane. The window was shuttered and a small radiator oozed enough warmth to make the room cosy but not stifling. One detail caught Emily's eye - in front of the window hung a child's mobile with a series of balsa wood planes gently rotating in the convection currents from the radiator.
"Such a sweet room. I hardly feel I need to check the other one."
Of course, she did, hearing Bill clumping heavily up the stairs behind him. Emily felt momentarily irritated that he hadn't taken his shoes off. The second bedroom was larger, but a little colder and more spartan. She knew immediately that it would appeal to Bill. He appeared behind her, his hands on her shoulders. Bill got tactile when he was tipsy.
"Do you want this one?" Emily offered. Bill edged past her, looking around the white-walled room with its twin beds, tall oak wardrobe and heavy drapes. Bill yawned, then cracked a rare smile.
"I thought we might share tonight," she said, almost shyly. "If that's cool with you."
Emily hadn't expected that. Perhaps this would be another of their nights of comforting but inconsequential sex. Frankly, she couldn't be bothered.
"Sure, that'd be nice. I am really sleepy though."
Bill laughed. "Don't worry, I'll keep my hands off you. Too many cameras, anyway."
It was true. Although most Havens were heavily monitored, ones like this, with very visible camera points, made Visitors a lot more self-conscious. When you couldn't see the lenses, it was easy to forget they were there.
"Probably disappoint the mysterious Monika," Bill murmured.
"Don't be mean," Emily chided. "Come and see the other room. It's cuter."
Emily was pleased that Bill agreed they'd sleep in the smaller room and they both unselfconsciously stripped off to their underwear and went about their nocturnal routines. Bill even went back downstairs to fetch glasses of water for them both (unfiltered, but fine in a pinch). Who was he trying to impress?
Before Emily switched off the bedside lamp, Bill raised his water glass to the camera-dimple above the door.
"Here's to Monika, best hostess ever!"
They had both almost entirely forgotten the horrors of the last week.
Somewhere in the small hours, a key turned cautiously in a lock on the second floor. A petite, barefooted figure tiptoed down from the steep flight of wooden stairs leading up to the attic safe room. With feline grace, Monika walked along the hallway, placing her feet carefully, like a dancer. Even carrying the bulky bag against her side, she remained balanced and silent. This was a journey she had made many times, in near or utter darkness. Her feet knew which boards to avoid, and which steps to skip as she minimised the many creaks the ancient wood sounded. It paid to live in the same house for sixty-seven years.
In the kitchen, Monika was gratified to note that four of the eggs had gone, as well as a quarter of the milk. They hadn't spotted the tiny perforations in the shells or the slight sourness the drug imparted. Good. She looked at her wristwatch. Almost quarter to four. Perfect.
Monika adjusted the bag on her shoulder, feeling the dull ache of sciatica. Perhaps her project would be completed this year. She was no longer quite so fond of her nocturnal life, creeping about in a sinister fashion. The immorality of her actions now began to trouble her in particularly reflective moments. It had seemed like a reasonable thing to begin with, a little over five years ago, when the Entity arrived and the world went to hell. A safe Haven to all comers, in exchange for a secret gift, an addition to her library. Now, even her Asperger's-straitened mind knew that there was something unseemly about it. Still, if there was one thing Monika had learned, after all these years of solitude, it was the importance of finishing what you'd started.
In the middle of a very strange dream, Emily heard the whirr of a moth close to her ear, and a ratcheting mechanical sound. She felt herself stirring towards consciousness and half-saw, half-sensed a presence in the room. Her eyes struggled to open.
She'd been dreaming of a tiny, wizened lady with long, white hair and the gait of an a dancer, light-footing it across the floor with some sort of mechanism in her hands. As she struggled to consciousness, Emily began to wonder if this had been real. She heard the unmistakable click of a door closing somewhere, and managed to prise heavy-lidded eyes open enough to notice an indentation in the counterpane - had someone been kneeling there?
Emily rubbed her eyes and swiveled her legs out of the bed. Bill was snoring at her side, deeply unconscious in a way Emily could never comprehend. It was if he had forgotten the world's terrors entirely. She padded over to the door and opened it. Her head felt woozy and her senses remained indistinct. She listened. Was that a creak from upstairs? A noise of diminishing footsteps?
No reply, no chance of one really. She must have imagined it. Emily went back to bed and pulled the bedclothes up under her chin. Bill half-groaned and rolled onto his side, facing her. Still asleep, but somehow vigilant. Fortunately, sleep came quickly for Emily too and she had no more visions of nocturnal visitation.
As promised, the following morning, they made an early start. By seven thirty, they had both quickly showered and eaten some breakfast (toast for Emily, while Bill fried himself an egg). There was even coffee, a rare and expensive commodity these days. They planned to hit some of the rich homes on Chestnut Grove - somebody there would be looking to upgrade their surveillance. It paid to get to the clients before they set off to their various workplaces, in their air-conditioned luxury AVs (autonomous vehicles).
Emily found a pen and wrote a note for their mystery host. It read:
Thank you so much for hosting us this evening. Your generosity and your lovely home will stay with us forever. E & B.
Excessive perhaps? Bill couldn't hide a slight wince when he read the sentiments she'd handwritten. Emily didn't care. It was nice to be nice. Then, on the doorstep, Emily had another thought. She stopped Bill from closing the door.
"One moment. Something I need to check," she said. "Just give me a second."
Emily edged back into the house and marched straight through to the lounge, crouching to take out the photo album she'd looked through the previous evening. She made as much noise as she liked - she wanted Monika to know she was still there, even if their mystery hostess wasn't looking at her videofeeds.
Emily's heart began to pound as she turned to the last-completed page of the album and found a new photo inserted into the blank page opposite. Bill and Emily, of course, asleep in the "spoons" position they sometimes unconsciously fell into, unaware of the spectator taking the photo with whatever archaic device produced these shiny images.
Emily peeled the photo out of the diagonal slits holding it in place. It was sort of beautiful, she thought. She could take it with her; perhaps she even should. Emily instead fitted the Polaroid image carefully back in place and folded the album away, slotting it back onto the low shelf. She should probably mark Monika's front door with an invisible chemical cross that could be seen in blacklight only, warning off other travelers. But she didn't do that either. She just took one final look up at the camera dimple above the living room door and nodded, a tacit acknowledgement of a debt paid.
A simple transaction - a stolen image for a safe and restful night's sleep. They had both given a lot more of themselves to imperfect strangers.
(to be continued)