Ria was stalking a plump rabbit halfway up the side of a winding valley bright with pink saxifrage and thyme, coarse grasses and patches of yellow gorse. She kept low, crawling on her belly as she got closer, until she was in range. Then, stone in hand, her right arm already drawn back, she rose to a crouch and let fly - only to see her target bolt, startled by the sounds of shouts and loud whoops.
Who the fuck had spoiled her shot? She whirled in the direction of the noise, shading her eyes against the morning sun, and spotted a young Ugly male with a gimpy leg hopping and stumbling in terror along the valley floor a few hundred paces below and behind her. He was pursued by Grigo, Duma and Vik, youths of her Clan. Bellowing at the tops of their voices, waving stout wooden clubs, their bloodlust was up and Ria saw they meant to kill the helpless subhuman. On a whim, mainly because she disliked Grigo so much, she decided to stop them.
The winter before, Grigo's overbearing father Murgh had approached her brothers Hond and Rill and proposed she should marry his son. She would rather marry a head louse so she had refused. Hond and Rill, who loved and adored their younger sister, had supported her decision. But there had been bad feeling between the two families ever since and Grigo had found countless ways to annoy and offend her.
Now it was payback time.
The valley side was steep and strewn with boulders, but Ria ran down it with sure feet and soon the distance closed to two hundred and then just a hundred paces. Although they were charging straight towards her, neither the fugitive - intent on avoiding pitfalls at his feet - nor any of his pursuers - intent on murder - seemed to have seen her yet.
Grigo, tall and raw-boned, his lumpy features contorted with malice, was leading the pack. At seventeen he was a year older than Ria, but age-mates with Duma and Vik who looked up to him with such subservience it made her want to vomit. Vik was the fat boy of the gang. His body juddered like a big slab of seal blubber as he pounded along twenty paces behind Grigo. Then came Duma, last as ever, his spindly legs pumping under his scrawny buttocks, his flat unpleasant face covered in ripe pustules, and a look of fanatical stupidity in his eyes.
Ria scooped up a fist-sized rock without breaking her stride and, at thirty paces, flung it with a fluid overarm motion. Just as he was about to bring his club down from behind on the Ugly's head, the projectile struck Grigo in the mouth and knocked him sprawling. In the same instant, evidently overcome by exhaustion and fear, the Ugly collapsed and lay helpless with his two remaining pursuers bearing down on him fast.
But Ria was faster. She sprinted forward, jumped over the Ugly's body and confronted Duma and Vik with such ferocity they skidded to a halt: 'Leave him alone,' she panted. 'Shame on you, picking on a crippled kid like this.'
'None of your business, Ria,' responded Duma, his face seething. 'Just fuck off now, or . . .'
'Or what?' she taunted. 'Or you'll beat me up? Oooh. I'm afraid. I'm very, very afraid. Really I am.'
Out of the corner of her eye Ria saw that Grigo was no longer on the ground where she'd knocked him down. Then, without warning, he threw himself on her from behind. Somehow she'd failed to anticipate this even though she'd known from the beginning he was much more of a threat than his two spineless slaves. She felt his thick muscular right arm circle her neck, pressing on her throat, saw his chunky bigjawed face looming over hers, and smelled his foul breath as he forced her head back and hissed in her ear: 'You think you can mess with us because of your brothers but your brothers aren't here to protect you now.' He spat a gob of blood into her hair and added: 'We have to kill the Ugly first. We're going to torture him to death; you can watch if you like. After that . . .' He giggled - 'Hey, Duma. Hey, Vik. Why don't we all take turns to enjoy Ria and then kill her too?'
Grigo said it in such a casual way that at first she didn't get the seriousness of the threat. Enjoy? What could he mean? Then his strangle - hold tightened and she struggled, scratched and bit but couldn't break free. She felt her eyes begin to glaze over, gasped for breath and tried to reason with him - but no words came out through the tight grip on her vocal cords. As she choked and coughed she heard him persuading Duma and Vik to join him in raping her, murdering her, and dumping her body where it would never be found.
Vik sounded doubtful: 'Sulpa might not like it. He told us to kill Uglies. He didn't say anything about Clan.'
'Are you kidding?' Grigo laughed. 'You don't know him as well as I do. He's gonna love it.'
Ria had no idea what they were talking about. She'd never heard of this Sulpa guy.
Then Duma asked: 'What about Hond and Rill? If they find out they'll kill us . . .'
'They won't find out,' said Grigo with flat confidence. He shoved his left hand down the back of Ria's deerskin leggings and began to explore her arse and crotch. As he groped her he shifted his grip on her neck, allowing her just enough slack to reach the big sinew in the crook of his elbow and attack it with her teeth.
Grigo screamed, spraying blood and bad breath into her ear, and tried to jerk his arm free. But she clung on, biting hard, grabbed a handful of his face and tore at his flesh with her nails, seeking an eye to gouge. More oaths and bad breath. Then Grigo started punching her as well as strangling her. Her vision began to dim for a second time, but she kept on struggling until Duma and Vik pinned her legs and arms, dragging her to the ground. Finally Grigo lost his balance, all three of the hefty teenagers tumbled on top of her, and Ria thought, Shit, I'm going to die.
She felt as though she'd been crushed beneath an avalanche and blacked out for a moment. But as consciousness seeped back she found things were changing for the better. For a start, the weight on her chest was much less now. Duma and Vik had been lifted off her by someone and hurled in opposite directions. Then it was Grigo's turn. Descending from what seemed like a great height, she saw one of a pair of huge hairy hands seize his crotch; the other gripped his neck, and he was hoisted into the air and shaken so hard his teeth rattled.
Still on her back on the ground, Ria discovered with mixed feelings of alarm and satisfaction that what was holding Grigo aloft was a truly immense Ugly male with gigantic brow ridges - and massive yellow teeth bared in a terrifying snarl. The creature seemed poised to break Grigo's back across his knee, but for some reason he relented, tossed the teenager away and stepped over Ria to attend to the crippled Ugly youth whose rescue had got her into this mess in the first place.
Ria was calming down, taking in more and more of the scene unfolding around her. It wasn't just the big guy with the teeth. He'd brought along about sixty of his friends - Where did they come from? - males and females dressed in stinking, badly cured animal skins. Some of them carried clunky wooden spears like small tree trunks hafted to huge, crudely knapped stone blades. Others were armed with clubs and axes. Several had decorated their bodies with stripes of red and white paint. One of the females wore a necklace of bat skulls.
Moans and groans from Duma, Grigo and Vik told Ria they were still alive. She would be having words about them with her brothers very soon, she thought. Or she would be if they all survived. The Uglies looked furious, which was understandable not only because they'd caught three humans hunting one of their kids but also because of all the other shitty things the Clan had done to them recently. They had a thousand reasons for a revenge attack and this was a perfect opportunity. So the only question that really mattered to Ria was . . . had they seen her heroic and selfless rescue attempt?
But the Uglies didn't seem interested in revenge on Duma, Grigo and Vik, or in showing any special favours to Ria for putting her life on the line for one of them. They stepped past her and gathered round the cripple in a circle, arm in arm, emitting low hooting sighs. Very soon he shook himself like a wet dog and stood up.
They made him better, thought Ria, amazed by the kid's quick recovery. But then she corrected herself: Of course they didn't.
Like all his kind this youth looked strong. He could probably have outrun Grigo and his posse if he hadn't been hobbled by a deformed foot, turned inwards and downwards at an unnatural angle. He was about Ria's age, perhaps a little older, and what was weird - even disturbing - was that he wasn't bad-looking. His brow ridges weren't fully formed yet and the brown eyes beneath them gazed at her with unexpected warmth and intelligence.
The Uglies were supposed to be mindless animals, like aurochs or rhinos, lacking in smarts and incapable of any of the finer emotions. But the eyes of this youth, staring at her with such urgency, were entirely human and filled with sensibilities she had no difficulty recognising. The Clan had always believed the Uglies were too stupid to talk but with a flash of insight she understood this one was already communicating with her - somehow. She knew he was grateful to her for helping him out, for taking his side without thought of herself, and the moment she grasped this she heard a voice - not out loud but inside her head - that spoke her language and said, simply, 'Thank you.'
This was absolutely astonishing and strange but Ria was already convincing herself she must have imagined it when the Uglies began to move away, taking the club-footed youth with them. He shuffled along with his elders, shoulders hunched, head down, and she saw she would soon be left alone with Duma, Grigo and Vik. They were certainly going to finish what they had started with her.
She jumped up. 'Hey, Uglies!' she shouted. 'Take me with you.'
Leoni was seventeen and no longer kept count of her lovers. A few stood out as being sensationally good, a few she remembered for being dismally bad, but most were just . . . forgettable.
Like this one bouncing up and down on top of her now. He was so forgettable she'd already forgotten him. Was he called Mort? Hmm . . . Could be. But then again, maybe he was a Michael, or a Matthew? Or perhaps his name didn't even begin with an M. Perhaps he was a John or a Jim or a Joe? Might even be a Bill or a Bob.
Leoni waited with barely disguised impatience for him to finish. Then she stifled a yawn, dabbed herself down with his Versace T-shirt, made her excuses and left.
He lived in a mansion with lots of complicated corridors that kept bringing her back to his bedroom like one of those nightmares where you can't escape. Then, when she found a door and stepped out into the warm Malibu night, she couldn't remember where she'd parked her blue convertible SL500. She spent several frustrating minutes pressing the remote buttons on her key until she realised the car must be at the other side of the house.
As she trudged around the massive building in her high heels she thought: What did that bastard slip in my vodka? She felt stupid, like her head was full of bubbles. And where was the Merc? Beep beep. Ah, there it was. She crawled in behind the wheel and started up the engine. Better. Much better. Now all she had to do was find her way out. She flicked the control to put the top down. Whirr . . . hiss . . . click. Then it was Jimmy Choos off, full beams on, right foot down on the gas, and a satisfying spinning of wheels and splatter of gravel. She drove a couple of times round the big house to get her bearings, then tore down the main driveway and pulled to a screeching halt in front of the tall iron gates that barred her exit.
Leoni was beginning to feel thwarted. All she wanted to do was go home and sleep for, like, three days. But she couldn't get out. She put her palm on the car's horn, pressed hard and revved the engine. Deafening din. Then she backed up and charged at the gates, skidding to a stop just before hitting them. She backed up and charged again. On the third attempt her lover of the night must have pressed a button somewhere because the gates swung open and she shot out onto the road in her little blue car like a cork from a bottle, weaving from left to right before regaining control.
Pacific Coast Highway coming up. With the wind in her hair, struggling to light a cigarette, Leoni executed a spectacular left turn at about a hundred miles an hour towards Santa Monica, cutting sharply across the path of a shitty-looking black-and-white Ford travelling in the op - posite direction. She made eye contact with two startled faces - both male, one with a moustache - staring out at her from behind the windshield. Then she saw the seven-pointed gold star painted on the Ford's door beneath the words CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL, also in gold.
Leoni floored the gas pedal and was soon skimming along at around a hundred and forty, but in seconds the black-and-white loomed up in her rear-view mirror with its sirens blaring and its lights flashing. Jesus, those boys had turned fast. And their shitty Ford was hot. Accepting that she wasn't going to get away, Leoni cut her speed, pulled into the emergency lane and stopped. Her heart was pounding and she had stomach cramps. Jesus!
The officer with the moustache appeared at her side, scowled down at her and demanded to see her licence. He was in his mid-twenties, with short black hair and a Latino look, and he had a big Smith & Wesson strapped to his butt. Fumbling for her ID, Leoni spilled the contents of her purse all over the passenger seat and burst into tears to create a distraction when she saw, under the unforgiving glare of the street lights, not only her driving licence, credit cards, money, tampons, condoms and lipstick but also a dozen bulging wraps of cocaine. 'Ma'am,' said the officer, 'I need you to step out of the car NOW.'
Her father's attorney posted bail for her in the morning and whisked her out of a side door with a blanket over her head to avoid the press and camera crews waiting at the front. By lunchtime Leoni was back in Beverly Hills, slouching in the palatial kitchen of the parental home.
She had never hated mom and dad with such intense and personal revulsion as she did right here, right now. Her flesh was actually creeping with disgust.
Dad was a short, stocky middle-aged guy, running to flab, wearing a ten-thousand-dollar suit and a buffed Beverly Hills tan. He had blond hair, cut short, receding sharply at the temples, the cold blank eyes of a fraud investigator, and a long, suspicious nose that didn't seem to belong on the same face as his wet, fleshy, very red lips. He was a bully, the loudest voice in the room, but this morning his wife was doing all the talking and he stood near the door searching his teeth with his tongue as though trying to dig out morsels of food.
Mom was the taller of the two by four inches, skinny, hatchet-faced and mean as a rattlesnake. 'We've been fielding calls all morning from the rival channels and press,' she spat at Leoni. 'Even the National Enquirer, for Christ's sake.' She mimicked the headlines: 'MEDIA TYCOON'S RICH-BITCH DAUGHTER ON BAIL AFTER NIGHT OF DRUGS AND BOOZE.' Her upper lip trembled. Tears spilled through her eye make-up: 'You've shamed us again' she yelled, spraying spit. 'Shamed your father. Shamed me. Worst of all, you've shamed your brother in his first week in middle school' - she was triumphant now she'd managed to bring Adam the miracle child into the conversation - 'and I'll never forgive you for that.'
It was a big deal that Adam had skipped a grade and moved up to middle school. The precocious brat had just turned ten, making him more than a year younger than most of his classmates, and his brilliant performance was in stark contrast with his big sister's drop-out academic status - as her mother liked to remind her. 'Everything comes down to Adam for you, doesn't it?' Leoni sobbed. 'Adam this. Adam that. It's always about Adam. Never, ever, ever about me.'
But Mom yelled right back: 'What do you mean, it's never about you? You selfish little bitch. I JUST DON'T GET IT. Haven't we always given you everything you've ever wanted?'
You didn't even give birth to me, Leoni wanted to say, so how would you know? Part of her really wanted to get into all the big hurtful issues . . .
But she still wasn't sure if what she thought had happened to her was real or imagined.
'Look,' she said finally, 'I'm sorry, OK? This is a difficult time for me. I'm adjusting. Dealing with a whole lot . . . I haven't felt right about . . . anything for, like, the whole of this year . . .'
'Well, let's see how you adjust to having no car.' Mom cut her short. 'And no allowance. And how about we don't pay for an attorney to represent you when this gets to court? I guess the state can provide one for you. Some kid, fresh out of law school, still wet behind the ears, who won't be able to keep you out of jail. THIS TIME YOU EARNED IT, YOUNG LADY.'
This time you earned it, young lady. What a jerk, Leoni, thought, what a jerk you are, Mom. Her self-control broke. She uttered a short highpitched scream at the top of her voice, ran from the kitchen, colliding with her father on the way out, knocked over a lamp stand in the hall, pounded up the stairs to her bedroom and slammed the door so hard behind her that two of its wooden panels cracked and flakes of white paint showered to the floor. She stalked forward, snatched up her sketch pad and Magic Marker from the bedside table and with stabbing, slashing strokes scribbled a cartoon featuring her mother being mounted by a donkey. Then she tore the drawing into confetti and collapsed on the big pillow-strewn bed sobbing, feeling like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum. Why was it that Mom always managed to reduce her to this?
Five minutes later Leoni was still so angry she was shaking. But then she remembered she had just the thing. Kicking off her shoes she padded across the room to her underwear drawer and fumbled around in it for a rolled-up sock she kept way at the back. She could just make out her parents' voices down in the kitchen, faint and indistinct. They were shouting about something. Probably about what they were going to do with her. She retrieved the sock, unrolled it, and counted out five white OxyContin pills stolen, amongst other goodies, from her mother's drugstore-sized stash of legal prescription highs.
Leoni had not used OxyContin before but she had heard good things about it, excellent things, and now seemed like the time. The pills were ten milligrams each. Were five too many? Too few? She'd seen her friend Billy, crystal-meth addict and heir to a billion-dollar fortune, knock back a big blue hundred-and-sixty-milligram torpedo of OxyContin and suffer no obvious ill effects - so a teensy fifty milligrams wasn't going to do her any harm, was it? And did she actually care if it did? On impulse she upped the dose to eighty milligrams and then remembered Billy's advice that the effects could be intensified by crushing the pills and snorting the powder. Snorting was definitely something Leoni knew how to do.
With much effort and impatience, using the end of a steel nail file, she ground the eight pills down to a fine powder. Then she rolled up a hundred-dollar bill and took a gigantic sniff. Hmm. Not bad. Instant rush. Leoni snuffled up the rest of the powder and lay back on her bed to enjoy the euphoric glow suffusing her whole body. God, this was better than sex. Her mind drifted. At first she felt like she was submerged in a pool of warm jelly. But soon she started to shiver and her skin turned cold and clammy. The room seemed to be spinning round and something was suffocating her.
She tried to get off the bed, shuffle towards the door, call for help, but she couldn't coordinate her movements and fell to the floor. The sense of being smothered worsened until Leoni could no longer draw breath and slipped into deathly unconsciousness.
Ria had no intention of staying with the Uglies a moment longer than necessary. She wanted to put a safe distance between herself and Grigo, Duma and Vik. After that it would be goodbye to her big hairy yellowtoothed protectors, a tough hike through the backcountry, and then hello again to the safety of the Clan and the righteous vengeance her badass brothers Hond and Rill would soon be meting out.
She was still shaking with anger and shock at how close she'd come to being raped and murdered.
But there was something else. The three youths, Grigo in particular, were renowned arseholes. Even so, their behaviour had been strange. There were few grown men in the Clan, let alone untested boys like these, who would risk the anger of Ria's lean and lethal elder brothers. So what had changed?
She guessed it was their connection with 'Sulpa' that was making them stronger. And for some reason this Sulpa wanted them to torture and kill Uglies.
It was an idea that seemed to be catching on. Since the beginning of summer a powerful faction of the council of braves, led by Grigo's father Murgh, had been hunting the Uglies like wild animals, slaughtering whole families at a time, inflicting terrible tortures on those they captured alive, driving them out of their ancestral hunting grounds.
But none of Murgh's bullies, nor anyone else in the Clan, was called 'Sulpa'. The name had a suspicious alien ring to it. Ria decided it must belong to an outlander.
Why were Grigo, Duma and Vik taking orders from an outlander? They'd spoken about him in fawning and awestruck tones. Vik had sounded afraid of him, and Grigo had proudly claimed to know him better than the other two.
Why were they all so impressed?
Why would Sulpa have 'loved it' if they'd succeeded in raping and murdering her?
The whole thing gave Ria the creeps.
The Uglies lumbered forward at a good pace. The males were so heavily muscled their bodies bulged like rhino skins stuffed with large, irregular rocks. The females were almost indistinguishable from them in size and general appearance but if anything even more hideous and disgusting to look at. In recent years the sorry creatures had begun to imitate the dark eye paint and red-ochre lipstick used by Clan women of childbearing age - accessories that Ria herself had worn since her first menstruation three years before. But Ugly females just weren't designed for make-up.
Still, their misplaced effort at self-beautification was interesting. Like the fiercely intelligent and strangely human expression in the eyes of the boy she had saved, the amateurishly applied make-up of the women - seen now in close-up for the first time - had a most unexpected effect on Ria. She found herself feeling sorry for the Uglies, identifying with them somehow, and realising again in a very direct and immediate way that they couldn't possibly just be dumb mindless animals. They walk on two legs, just like we do, she reflected. They have hands with five fingers, feet with five toes. They have ears like ours, eyes like ours. Just like ours. The mothers hold their babies to their breasts to feed them, just like we do. They use tools and weapons just like we do - even if most of their stuff is crap.
On the other hand, no matter how well-disposed she was feeling towards them, there were differences that were hard to ignore. Ria glanced about, absorbing details of the Uglies who had surrounded her on the march. For starters those famous brow ridges of theirs were . . . well . . . not very human. They had almost no chins and their heads, which lolled forward, seemed to sprout directly from their hefty shoulders. There were matted patches of coarse red hair all over their bodies, which gave them a mangy look. Also, they smelled like shit.
Just then Ria became aware of a new presence limping along by her side - the Ugly youth with the club foot. He was looking at her with something like devotion and again, as their eyes met, she was shocked to hear a voice inside her head, clear like a mountain stream, speaking her language. What it said this time was: 'Protect you . . . Protect . . . Ria . . . I will protect Ria.'
So it hadn't been her imagination before. The kid's lips hadn't moved, but she knew, totally knew, that it was his voice she'd heard - that he had somehow figured out a way to talk to her inside her head. Like seeing the sun rise in the west or a river run uphill, this was so surprising it made her dizzy.
'How come you know my name? she asked, feeling spooked. 'And, by the way, sorry that I have to speak out loud like normal humans.' She rallied: 'You heard Duma call me Ria, didn't you? That's how you know my name.'
The reply inside her head was instant: 'Don't need words of Duma. I know your name. Without speak, I know your thoughts. There is a rope between us, you and me. From now, always, I will protect you. You are my . . . sister.'
'I already have enough brothers, thank you very much. What's this about a rope between us? And - hang on a minute - did you just say you know my thoughts?'
'Uglies are mangy. Smell like shit. Weapons crap. Can't wear make-up.'
Ria gasped: 'Oh. I see. So there's no privacy, then? Doesn't matter if I speak or not? Every random thought that crosses my mind I have to share with you? Is that how things work with you guys?'
'When we have a rope between us we can share,' Ria heard inside her head. 'Share feelings, thoughts, pictures. Clan has words. We listen. Learn your words, but don't like. Clan people speak: blah bar, blah bar, blah, blah, blah . . . Say one thing, mean another. We can't do spooky speaking out loud like Clan.' As though to emphasise this point the kid opened his mouth - like his elders he obviously hadn't cleaned his teeth since the day he was born - and emitted a low grunt followed by a hoot, which he repeated several times: 'Rugh . . . agh . . .Rugh . . . agh . . .Rugh . . . agh . . .'
What was this? What was Rugh . . . agh? With a stifled giggle Ria got it. The Ugly youth was trying - and failing - to speak her name, even though, inside her head, he could already say it perfectly. Now he pointed to his throat - or at least to where his throat would've been if he'd had a neck - and grunted some incomprehensible gibberish that sounded like a wild animal chewing stones.
'OK,' said Ria, 'I get it. You actually can't speak. Your throats won't make words. So you get straight inside each other's heads instead. Cool trick. Wish I could do it. Must save a lot of time.'
'Can hurt,' came back the kid's thought-voice. 'What's inside other's heads can hurt.'
Ria nodded in immediate agreement: 'I expect it can. I don't think I'd have many friends left if they knew what I was thinking about them all the time. Now listen . . . You know my name, so you should tell me yours. Fair?'
'My name. For you will be difficult.'
'Go on . . . Don't be shy.'
'Ah. I see what you mean. Would you mind saying it again? I'm sure I'll get used to it.'
'OK. Brindle it is, then.'
Ria looked back over her shoulder. The entrance to the valley could no longer be seen and they were climbing the slope of another of the many low hills characteristic of this area. Once they were over the summit and down the other side, she calculated, Grigo, Duma and Vik would be far enough behind for her to outrun them.
Brindle's voice invaded her head again: 'You will run? Not such a good idea. Boys who hunt will hunt you. Better you stay with us this night. Maybe tomorrow go back to Clan.'
You must be joking, thought Ria.
'Not joking. This night you stay with Uglies. Be safe.' And with the thought of safety came pictures and sensations - cave walls, something cooking within a flickering fire, a musky aroma of woodsmoke and roasting venison, a ledge with thick, warm furs spread over it that seemed to invite her to sleep.
'NO', Ria yelled at the top of her voice, causing Brindle to flinch and the other Uglies nearby to grunt and hoot. 'YOU MUST BE JOKING, OK? NO WAY AM I GOING TO STAY WITH YOU. NOT TONIGHT. NOT EVER.' Suddenly she broke to her left, shouldered past a couple of hefty females and, her heart pounding, sprinted towards the summit of the hill. None of the Uglies pursued her, which was good. In fact, with the exception of Brindle whose exclamations of alarm rang like -16- bird calls inside her head, the rest of the group showed no interest in her departure and just continued to plod ahead.
Soon Ria reached a big boulder just below the summit where she paused for breath. She looked back with a sense of triumph at the column of Uglies now two hundred paces below her. Phew. What a relief. For a moment she'd been certain they meant to keep her prisoner. Or that Brindle did.
Not prisoner, came Brindle's thought-voice. Never prisoner!
Ria shrugged. Fuck this. She was out of here. She scrambled the last few paces through thick gorse and bracken to the summit.
What she was expecting was a long downhill run to freedom. Instead, thirty paces below her, on the other side of the hill, hidden from view until now, she saw Duma, Grigo and Vik, climbing hard, with clubs in their hands.
Grigo had a glint in his eye. 'Hello, Ria,' he gloated. 'Ready for your gang-bang?'
Leoni was hovering in her bedroom, close to the ceiling, like one of those helium-filled party balloons. Hmm . . . There were cobwebs up here that Conchita must have missed when she cleaned yesterday. Left dangling amidst threads of dust and lint, a fat black spider and half a dozen paralysed bugs swayed back and forth in the gentle afternoon breeze that drifted in through the open picture window. Avoiding the wildlife, Leoni tried to brush the webs away with her fingers but couldn't do it. Her hands just seemed to pass through them. Poor Conchita was going to get her ass fired when Mom noticed this mess.
In a detached way, and without fear, Leoni knew that something odd was happening to her but didn't want to deal with it right now. Then she looked down and . . . Oh . . . my . . . God! There on the floor was her body, sprawled like roadkill, coke-snorter's nose buried deep in the thick pile carpet, skirt hitched up over her left butt cheek. On the table beside her bed was a glossy magazine dotted with a few telltale flecks of OxyContin powder - so she hadn't got it all, then - a steel nail file and a rolled-up hundred-dollar bill. Might as well have a sign on the door saying DRUG ABUSER LIVES HERE, she thought.
She zoomed down for a closer look at . . . herself. Was she dead? In a coma? The questions weren't urgent and Leoni was surprised to discover how little she actually cared about the fate of this prone, intimately familiar and yet somehow alien body which seemed reduced already to skin and bones, meat and offal. Besides - and this was totally fucked-up - she had some other kind of body now. She had transparent hands that could not sweep away cobwebs. She could see her limbs, feet and flesh but they were not solid. Overall there was a strange sort of diaphanous insubstantiality about her - an aerial quality, as buoyant and ephemeral as a glistening soap bubble. She found nothing threatening or fearful in this. Quite the opposite. She felt she was floating on a wave of light and joy.
Still, surely she must summon help? While there was even the faintest hope, surely she couldn't just let her meat body expire? Could she? And what would happen to her aerial body if she did? Perhaps she would just go pop! and disappear?
With that thought Leoni floated up and out of the bedroom window, down into the sunlit garden and through the open French doors into the kitchen where her parents' shouting match had ceased. Now they were seated at the table in their usual positions, Mom at the head, Dad at the side to her right, talking in lowered, serious voices.
'Listen, guys,' Leoni told them, 'I'm dying upstairs. You've got to get me to a hospital right now.'
They paid no attention.
'Dad!' She reached out to shake his arm, but it was as though her fingers had closed on air. She made a grab for Mom and was able to push her hand right through her chest and through the back of the chair behind her.
Leoni ascended and hovered over the middle of the table, looking down at the two of them. They seemed uglier than usual, like Komodo dragons in human masks, and their whispers had harsh, sinister undertones. She felt a mild but insistent force tug at her. She surrendered, and began to drift towards the garden, when her father said something that drew her right back: 'Leoni's putting us at risk. Pretty soon she's going to blurt it all out to some reporter.'
'My daddy made sex with me,' Mom mimicked in a high-pitched childish tone before adding, in her own voice: 'Little bitch. It's going to hurt the business.'
'We drove her to this.' Just for an instant Dad sounded remorseful until Mom butted in with a fervent look in her eye: 'It's what Jack wanted,' she said.
'Exactly,' Dad replied, brightening. 'It's what Jack wanted.'
'He delivered his side of the bargain,' Mom said. 'We delivered ours. Now it's time to clear up the dead wood.'
Leoni's mind reeled. She'd been plagued with doubts for years about the sick things she remembered her dad doing to her in two widely separated episodes of sustained attacks during her childhood.
Had any of it happened?
She'd so much wanted to believe it was just mad sexual nightmares and her imagination running wild, as Dad had told her again and again, but now here was Mom seeming to confirm that it had all been real - and that she'd been raped because that was what some guy called Jack wanted.
So who was Jack?
And what did Mom mean about clearing up the dead wood?
As Leoni struggled to find answers, the force pulling on her aerial body grew stronger - much stronger. For an instant it was like riding the lead car of the roller coaster at Santa Monica Pier, only a thousand times faster, plunging and soaring through vast domains of sky until - WHOOMF! - she was back in her bedroom again, hovering directly over her meat and bones. There was someone else on top of her as well - Conchita! She'd come back with a broom to dust the cobwebs - screaming for help between bouts of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
With a hair-raising plunge of the roller coaster Leoni drew a huge gasping breath and was impelled back into her body. The last thing she heard before she lost consciousness was Conchita dialing 911.
Then Leoni was hovering at ceiling height again but not in her bedroom. This was more like it. They'd got her to a hospital at last. It looked like an operating theatre with lots of sexy male doctors in green scrubs scurrying around. And in the middle of all the action, stretched out on a gurney, hooked up to an amazing array of tubes, wires and bags, was Leoni's poor pale body.
The docs were working at a frantic pace, doing things to her, and all of it was mildly interesting, of course. Then . . . what was this? Mad panic all round. Shouted commands. Whine of an electric-shock machine charging up. Looked like her heart had stopped. Over on the array of monitors Leoni could see the flat line on the ECG, heard the high-pitched buzz of the alarm and became aware again of that powerful gravitational compulsion that had drawn her back into her body earlier - only this time it seemed to be pulling her in the opposite direction, away from herself and into a staggering and awe-inspiring vortex of light that opened, like a tunnel, at her side. She just had time to think . . .
(Oh . . . my . . . God! This is really interesting.)
. . . when she found she was already inside the revolving tunnel and floating through it.
At intervals its walls were marked with large geometric grids, something like windows with multiple panes, in each of which faint images of people and places glowed.
Leoni was able to slow her forward motion to examine the images and discovered that if she concentrated on them they first sharpened and then dissolved into vivid memories.
Except the image she was concentrating on now couldn't be a memory because nobody could remember what happened to them when they were only a few hours old. Could they?
Instead, the panel showed her a scene that she had tried to imagine all her life, but somehow it was now infused with all the solidity and shadow of an observed event.
It is night. Rain spits down. A single street light casts its orange glow into a mean alley. The alley is closed at one end by a high brick wall topped with jagged shards of glass. A barred and rusted iron door is set into the wall and piled on either side are heaps of bulging plastic trash sacks, slick with rain. A young woman, blonde, pale, a livid bruise on her cheek, dark circles under her eyes, slips into the alley. Furtive, she looks back over her shoulder as though she fears she is being followed or observed. Dangling from her hand is a black plastic sack containing some small object and now, with further hunted glances, she places it amongst the rest of the trash and hurries off without a backward glance. The sack is not tied closed, merely gathered at the top, and as the woman's footfalls echo away something stirs within it and utters a feeble cry. The sack flops open and rain leaks onto the wrinkled face and blue eyes of a newborn babe.
The babe, Leoni knew, was herself.
The child nobody wanted.
In the next panel she had reached two years of age. She was wearing a little print dress and was seated on the floor looking up at a TV set in the Los Angeles orphanage where all her first clear memories began.
Here she was at three, out for the day with a family, hoping they might adopt her. She so much wanted to live in a real house, with toys that were hers and with real parents. But it didn't happen. Another panel, another visit, another rejection. The child nobody wanted.
Now she was nearly five, quiet, withdrawn, friendless amidst the crowd of other children. She sat alone with a crayon and a sketch pad. She always loved to draw.
The next panel showed her big moment, a few months later when, after a sudden rush of interest, she was adopted by Herman and Madeleine Watts. They weren't rich - the meteoric rise of Dad's business began right after Leoni's adoption - but she remembered how the house they'd lived in then in East Hollywood had felt to her like a fairytale palace.
Here she was at seven in their first Beverly Hills home, her best year. Mom and Dad must have wanted her otherwise they wouldn't have adopted her. Would they? They gave her so much. A tree house. All the pets in the world. A little car with a real engine to drive around the grounds. Closets full of clothes. Make-up. Zillions of pairs of shoes. She felt like Cinderella at the ball.
Now she was eight, the beginning of the bad times. She was asleep in bed in her cosy room. Suddenly someone grabbed her hair, jerking and shaking her, and she awoke with a scream. It was Dad. He had no clothes on. In the glow of the night light his eyes were blank as stones as he clambered on top of her, still gripping hold of her hair. She struggled, screamed - 'What's happening? What's happening? Dad? No!' - and he cuffed her face hard with his free hand, making her head spin. He was heavy. He sprawled over her, forced his knee between her legs and groped her. She screamed again - 'Mom! Mom! Mom!' - very loud.
But Mom didn't come to her rescue. She didn't come once during that whole year of terrifying night-time visits.
Now Leoni was nine. She was in the car with Dad. He was explaining to her that the rapes had never happened, and at some level she did believe they were just bad dreams and her imagination. The other problem - the damage to her body - was because she went a little crazy sometimes and hurt herself in her private parts.
In the next panel she was ten, on a family day out with her parents. Adam, their own biological child (they called him the 'miracle child' because of Madeleine's previous infertility) was celebrating his second birthday. As she reviewed the scene Leoni experienced again the pangs of envy and hatred she had felt that day at the way Mom doted on Adam, giving him all her attention, and was cold and neglectful towards her.
Now she was eleven. There had been no more rapes. Or dreams. She was in the schoolyard, mercilessly bullying poor Janet Lithgo, a smaller girl with a hair lip who later committed suicide.
Now Leoni was twelve. The bad times were back. She saw herself lying in her bed, as though paralysed, with her dad's body, sweaty, face averted, humping away on top of her.
( 'It's what Jack wanted.')
There had been thirty rapes that year and she hadn't screamed. Not once. She just shut her eyes and let them happen, did any positions he wanted, and never complained. It didn't hurt so much that way and while he was inside her she just pulled herself out of her body the way the Blue Angel had taught her.
The Blue Angel, who started to visit her in dreams around that time. Her secret friend who she never talked about.
Not to anyone.
Just the way she never talked about what her dad did to her.
In the next panel she was fourteen, on a shopping spree in Rodeo Drive. Mom and Dad had been showering possessions and money on her, she hadn't been raped for nearly two years and there had been no more dreams.
Here she was at fifteen, naked, down on her hands and knees in a big bathroom at a party. Five guys she didn't know were taking turns to screw her.
Now she was sixteen, on the floor of some other bathroom, sniffing up lines of cocaine, her nostrils red and her eyes stinging. And finally here she was at seventeen, overdosing on Oxycontin in her bedroom . . .
Leoni could still see the operating theatre behind, and sense the rush and chaos surrounding the body on the gurney in there; but all that was fading . . . fading. Ahead, getting closer, the other end of the tunnel was filled with an illuminated swirling fog through which tantalising vistas of green sunlit meadows dotted with trees appeared and vanished again.
Looks good, Leoni couldn't help thinking. Is it Heaven?
Then the figure of a woman materialised out of the fog filling the mouth of the tunnel, a tall, very beautiful woman, beckoning to her, surrounded by a cascade of white robes - a smiling woman with jetblack hair and indigo skin whose face was hauntingly familiar like an old friend not seen for many years.
The walls of the tunnel dissolved, full remembrance dawned, and Leoni found herself in the presence of the mysterious being she called the Blue Angel. They were standing barefoot on grass wet with dew, in the midst of a vast meadow. A herd of strange animals unlike any she had ever seen before grazed in the shadows of a nearby clump of trees and there were two suns in the sky, one almost at the zenith, one low down towards the horizon.
'Where are we?' asked Leoni.
'This is the land where everything is known,' replied the woman.
'Shall we walk a bit?'