Disclaimer: 'Being' is by Kevin Brooks and therefore Eddi, Robert/John and Ryan are his. However Seth and Maria are mine.
Maria glanced out of the dirt-smeared window and flinched away again almost immediately. A Suit was skulking across the street. She called them Suits though they'd long since stopped wearing them – it made them too conspicuous – but after ten years of being on the run she could notice them now. This one was hovering by a grocery store opposite, calmly turning over the apples in the outside cartons, examining them.
She didn't know how she knew he was one of them – she just did. It was like a sixth sense – and she knew she wasn't just being paranoid. Paranoid would be seeing them everywhere – but she'd been safe here for the last three days…still that was too short a time – usually she was safe for two weeks – how had they caught up to her so fast?
Regardless of how Maria knew she had to get out now. With a sigh she tucked her newly dyed blonde hair under a brown wig and rammed a ratted cap on top. She scooped up her rucksack and shoved her meagre possessions haphazardly inside, before swinging it onto her back.
He'd be arriving shortly and she didn't want to be here when he did.
Maria walked into the bathroom and shut the door, locking it behind her. It was a small, grubby affair but suited her purposes just fine…because it had a decent sized window. Not even frosted glass – but it opened for enough to let a skinny eighteen-year-old girl through. With a hiss she ripped back the shower curtain and pulled a face at a large spider sitting there. She didn't have time for this.
Ignoring the beast she twisted the shower on and watched the pellet like drops hammer to the floor. The Spider shied away from the spray – being just out of the way to avoid getting caught up. This made her smile for some reason.
Maria pulled the curtain back across and dropped the lid of the loo with a clunk, clambering onto its slippery surface. With some effort she heaved up the window catch, knowing it was doable, as she'd double-checked it the moment she'd decided to stay. The fire exit would've been no good for escape purposes; they'd have it covered, so the window it was.
With great effort Maria slammed her shoulder into it and it juddered open, leaving a small gap.
Maria grabbed the wall and swung her legs through, wiggling her body out after. She found herself perched precariously on a thin ledge. Her legs dangled into the huge drop and she felt a sense of vertigo well up. 'Stop it!' she chided and screwed her eyes tight shut, praying as she did that no one saw her and raised the alarm. Slowly she began to edge her way along the shelf. It didn't matter how many times she did this it always gave her a sickened feeling that she was about to die – but knowing that she would die if she stayed put - if they caught her – urged her on.
A drainpipe came into range and with a sigh of relief Maria grabbed hold of it. This part hurt – it always did – but she could handle pain. Pain was easy. You could ignore pain.
With practised movements she swung onto it and began it climb down, wincing as every so after a metal ring tore into her flesh. It was inconsequential; she was a fast healer like her father. The cuts would be gone by tonight.
Her father…a scowl crossed her face. He was the one who'd started all this. She remembered…she'd lived with her mother, single, just the two of them, in a small house out in the countryside in France. Thinking about it now her mum's parents must've owned it – there was no way her mother could've afforded it on her waitress salary. When she went to work she remembered a lady looked after her. Her Grandma? It was hazy. She hadn't really paid much attention to people. They found her cold and unresponsive. That's why she'd never had any friends to speak of. It had always confused her mother but made perfect sense to Maria now.
So there'd been her, her mother, sometimes the lady…and occasionally HIM. Her mother had said he was her father. John, she'd called him. 'Why was he never around?' She'd asked once. 'He travels a lot', had come the reply, 'it was his job'. Job! Bah…his life maybe. He'd always scared her to be honest. His eyes were always so sad and cold, and he never played with her…he'd just watched her. Watched her – as if he were fascinated by what she was. As if he couldn't believe she existed. She understood why now. By all natural law she shouldn't be alive.
Anyway, sometimes he was there and sometimes he wasn't. She couldn't remember if he'd ever stayed…there was no memory of him being around for any length of time. Once she'd challenged him on why – why he'd never hung around. She must've been about been about fourteen at the time. She'd had a lot of questions she wanted answering. Most he fobbed off – told her he'd explain when she was older – but this one he didn't. A pain had crossed his face and he'd suddenly looked old, really old. She could still remember the wash of sorrow…in fact she strongly remembered the feeling of regret that she'd asked. The words…she still remembered his words…because they were the basis on which she'd founded rule number one of her life.
"If I get close to people they get hurt."
The screams, crashes, gunshots reverberated around her head.
Maria shook them away desperately. Not now. Not now. She had to concentrate.
The images continued to flash through her head in a whirlwind of sickening colour as she dropped to the floor of the alley and forced herself to focus on the mouth where daylight spilled into the shadows and illuminated the rusted bins and decomposing, stacked cardboard…but she couldn't go out that way because that's where Suit One was waiting for her. Maria darted across the narrow corridor, using the rubbish as cover, keeping low. A meshed door was propped open opposite and she slipped inside.
She was in a kitchen of some sort. Everyone was too busy rushing around to notice her but she couldn't count on that for long. Swiftly Maria snatched up an apron that was hanging on a hook next to her, whipped the hat off her head and walked straight through the middle of the kitchen. Confidence. That was what let you get away with anything. If you look like you're supposed to be there no one will ask otherwise.
Calmly she pushed the swinging doors open and removed the apron in a fluid movement, tossing it behind one of the plant pots with an air of ease.
"I'll have a coffee to go please," she mumbled – slumping up to the counter. The person serving poured her one into one of those polystyrene cups and Maria pushed the change sullenly across the counter and picking up her drink she headed for the door.
A few steps away from it she veered to the right and into the toilets. Once inside the filthy room a transformation took place. The coffee disappeared down the sink and the cup was tossed into the bin. With a sharp tug Maria removed her wig, letting her blonde hair fall about her in waves. She was glad she'd gone to the hairdressers. Extensions were a wonderful thing. Next she locked herself in a cubicle and quickly shed her sloppy trackies and baggy top, replacing them with tight jeans and a strapy tee shirt. Everything she'd been wearing was quickly shoved back into the rucksack, pulling from it as she did so a large NEXT bag and a makeup holdall. The rucksack was quickly placed into the NEXT bag and Maria put the finishing touches to her transformation. Some eyeshadow, lippy, blusher. She brushed gently through her hair – getting out the tangles and sprayed on some light perfume. She snapped a second pair of earrings on – magnetic but no one would be able to tell the difference – and slipped a mobile into her pocket. Et Voila! Sulky sixteen-year-old Maria had just become trendy university student Jennifer. Looking at herself in the mirror she was suddenly grateful for the ability to look older or younger than she really was…and for the ten or so different identities she possessed, courtesy of her father. He'd mentioned once that a friend had taught him how to create fake Ids. Eddi. Apparently she'd had a whole business going at one point. When questioned as to where she was now he'd replied, "She's dead," in the coldest bluntest voice she'd heard yet.
Maria clicked her way out the loos in new heels and slid herself easily into one of the booths, gesturing to a waitress.
"A coffee please. Latte," her voice she changed in tone and emphasis. The waitress nodded and walked away.
Maria glanced across the crowded café and breathed a sigh of relief. No Suits…yet anyway. All she wanted to do was collapse across the table. She was so sick of the running and the hiding and the fear but doing that would blow her cover – something she could ill-afford. Besides, the adrenalin hadn't worn off yet so she had the energy to keep up the charade.
The bang of a cup on the table made her jump.
"Thanks," she drawled and picked the drink up.
The Suits shouldn't find her now. They were looking for a frightened teen with scraggily mop of brown hair, not a confident, cool blonde young woman. That was on condition that Seth wasn't with them. A small shiver went up her back. The others she could fool but Seth…he was a whole different thing all together. Seth unnerved her, which was always dangerous. There was always the chance that she'd accidentally reveal herself to him. A movement, a flick of the hand, a turn of the head and he could tell. She didn't know how but he could. He'd done it before.
She didn't have much time to worry about him turning up. As she was taking her first sip of coffee two Suits burst in from the kitchen area. She'd had years to practise the look. A mixture of shock and displeasure, hand paused in mid air, holding the cup suspended. Around the café everyone was in a similar position.
Someone in charge bustled over and started to exclaim angrily at the duo. Maria saw one of the Suits open his mouth and say something quietly, the words too soft for her to hear. The furious words abruptly stopped. She was interested in what the Suit had said. Not the truth, obviously, but the fabrication that clearly had the man in charge convinced.
Many people had gone back to their meals now that the drama had ended. It wasn't like the Suits were conspicuous. One was dressed like a waiter, the other a civilian. Nothing interesting. 'A customer complaining about service maybe' everyone thought – except her. She knew. Was that the lie they'd fed the authority figure? Or something different? Regardless, everyone had gone back to normal – as if nothing had happened. The only difference was the new waiter lurking outside the kitchen doors and the new civilian who had brought a coffee and was drinking it slowly by the entrance. Both escape routes were blocked. Maria felt a sense of claustrophobia threaten but she crushed it. They didn't know she was here. They couldn't. They were just making sure…but they'd looked – they hadn't seen who they'd thought she was so why didn't they leave? Maria's stomach lurched and her hand faltered as she brought the drink up to her lips. They suspected that she might have changed? No. Not they. Seth. He'd assumed she'd hide somewhere nearby. That's what the Suits were waiting for. He'd want to check the café out in person.
The blood fled from her face and she went weak. 'No! This is not the time to be faint.' She mentally shook herself. Damn human weakness. She had to be an emotionless machine or he'd spot her for sure. The Civilian was talking in a mobile, calling Seth in.
Maria took two deep breaths then slid out her own mobile, switched it on and started to text. To who? No one. There were no numbers on this phone. It was unregistered and untraceable, but texting meant she could lean forward on the table and place her head in one hand, effectively allowing a curtain of blonde hair to half hide her face.
Truth be told she didn't think it'd fool Seth but it was worth a shot.
The shop door opened and quietly clicked shut.
The noise of the café continued like the bubbling of river. Rushing, flowing, always changing. No sentence ever being said exactly the same way by the same person. Her thumb flicked over the buttons. Her heart was racing. Who had just entered? She wanted to increase her air of nonchalance by reaching for her drink but she was scared her hand would shake.
Who had just entered?
Was it Seth?
Curiosity and fear were eating away at her. One look wouldn't hurt. A glance. Everyone looked around the café occasionally. That wasn't unusual so Maria glanced up through her curtain of hair…and she saw him. Seth. He was standing in the middle of the café, leaning calmly against one of the partitions in dark trousers and a dark navy shirt…and he was looking directly at her – grey eyes locked onto her own blue. His gaze was piercing. Look away! Look away! Her mind screamed at her but she couldn't tear her eyes from his. 'How had he known?' she thought dimly, staring into his searing grey eyes.
Seth started to move towards her, pushing himself away from the counter. Each step smooth…calculated. A Panther closing in on its cornered prey, knowing it had nowhere to run.
Maria ripped her eyes away and looked down at her phone. Her hand was shaking. The game was up. She switched the useless piece of technology off and threw it in her bag. Call the police? Don't be stupid. These guys owned the Police. She could still try and bluff her way through…but she wasn't going to demean herself. Seth wouldn't be fooled. She could feel him standing next to her, unnerving her. She knew she should look up and ask him what the hell he was doing but she couldn't summon the nerve. If it had been anyone else…but Seth…he did something to her. She found it difficult to act around him. It was like he managed to trigger the human part of her and strip her of all her defences.
"May I sit here?" he asked finally, voice quiet and smooth.
She shrugged, "Sure." If she'd said yes she knew her voice would've cracked.
He slid into the seat opposite and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. Maria looked directly at him and a slow smile spread across his face.
"Hello there Maria."
She smiled back mockingly sweet, "Hello there Seth."
"No pretending?" He raised his eyebrows. "No 'who are you'? No 'who's Maria'?"
"You're surprised? What would be the point in all that? It didn't save me last time."
"No," he replied, picking up a sugar packet and crackling it in his hand. "I believe it was a shopping bag."
Maria smirked at the memory. A bag full of tinned food swung at his head. Out cold. Should've seen it coming if he was going to ambush her in a supermarket car park.
Seth clenched his fist on the sugar and narrowed his eyes at her.
"Smart girl hiding in a café," he hissed quietly.
Maria folded her arms and leaned back, crossing one leg over the other.
"So…how have you been Maria? What have you been up to?" He leaned back too and mimicked her posture. For all the world it looked like two old friends catching up over coffee – but if anyone had listened carefully they would've noticed the icy undercurrents in the voices and the tension flashing through the air between them.
"This and that," she replied. "Trying to get on with my life – of course people keep preventing that." The bitterness was ill concealed.
Suddenly the smile disappeared from his face and he leaned closer to her. "You know you're not even supposed to have a life."
She glanced at him. It was true. She knew it.
"We want to find out why…" he continued.
"By cutting me up," she snapped back.
Seth's eyes flicked over her in a way that made her shiver, not with fear…with something else. That was the reason he unnerved her. He made her feel things – even though he was her enemy…even though she wasn't human.
"That would be a shame," he agreed, meeting her eyes again.
Silence fell over the table and they just watched each other.
"All right," Seth said as she drank the last dregs of her coffee, "We can do this the easy way or the hard way. You can come with us quietly now or…" he left the threat hanging but there was a strange look in his eye and suddenly Maria got it. She understood why everything had been so pleasant and cordial and the knowledge made her grin uncontrollably.
"Or what?" she answered. "I'm in a café full of people. What would you do?"
They couldn't touch her. Not in front of all these witnesses…well…they could in theory if they didn't mind drawing attention to themselves but they did mind. Everything had to be done in utmost secrecy and kidnapping a girl in front of a crowded café was hardly discreet.
Seth's eyes hardened to granite.
"Is that the way you're going to play it?" his voice was icy.
Maria nodded quietly and without warning Seth smiled. It wasn't a friendly smile but full of untold menace.
"Very well. I'll play the game. We'll see who wins."
With that Seth pushed himself up from the table and strode out the café. The Suits followed.
Maria visibly sagged back against the seat. Now she had to think what to do next.