The Nearest

When a detective, a new mother, is assigned to the case of a horrific triple murder, it appears to be a self-contained domestic tragedy, a terrible event but something that doesn’t affect the rest of the community. But it slowly becomes clear that something much darker may be at play, something that spreads out from the scene of the crime to corrode the closest relationships of everyone it touches.

 

 

1

Kate heard a knock on the open door of her office, and looked up to see Anneke from dispatch, grimacing apologetically.

“I’ve got a shocker for you, Sarge. Sorry.”

Kate said, “Go ahead.” She’d been back from maternity leave for two weeks; she did not need a content warning for every case that was grimmer than the scenes of cavorting bunnies on her son’s nursery wallpaper. And after spending the morning reviewing a spike in missing persons that was probably just a meaningless statistical blip, she was ready to do anything to get away from her desk.

“Three deceased: a father and two daughters. Mother’s location unknown.”

Murder-suicide, with the fourth body yet to be found? Kate’s heart sank, but she kept her face expressionless. “Gunshot wounds?”

“No, all stabbings.” Anneke hesitated. “The girls were young: five and six. If you want, I’ll ask Roma Street if we can hand this over to Petrie.”

Kate shook her head impatiently. “So do I get a DC, or am I on my own?”

“No DC, but there are four uniforms at the scene you can use for the day.”

Kate bit back a string of expletives; Anneke was just the messenger. Some half-baked algorithm had already decided that this was a self-contained domestic that posed no threat to the wider public, and would more or less solve itself. Until she could prove otherwise, there was no point begging for more resources.

Anneke flicked the report from her notepad to Kate’s; Kate opened the document as she got to her feet and picked up her key fob.

On her way to the car, she read the summary from the officers who’d attended the scene. The deceased were believed to be Robert Mellish, Angela Grimes, and Isabel Grimes; the missing woman was Natalie Grimes. Natalie’s mother, Diane, had tried to call her daughter the previous evening. When she still hadn’t been able to make contact by midmorning, she’d gone to the house and let herself in, finding the deceased lying in their beds. There were no obvious signs of a break-in. The family’s station wagon was gone, but Natalie’s phone was on the bedside table.

When Kate reached the house there were two squad cars and a SOCO van parked in the street, but their presence had attracted no onlookers; it seemed the neighbors here had the decency not to flock around the blue-and-white tape, gawking, while the ever-economising clickbait sites were probably waiting for a chance to outsource their photographic needs to the next fast food delivery that overflew the crime scene.

Kate spoke with the officers who’d made the report, and the two colleagues who’d joined them; they were from the small community policing station in the nearby shopping precinct. With no crowd for them to manage, she decided to send three of them door-knocking.

Diane Grimes was sitting in one of the squad cars, drinking coffee that the shopfront cops must have brought for her. Kate introduced herself and joined her in the back of the car.

“Who’d do this?” Diane asked. Her teeth were chattering. “And why would they take Natalie? She would have torn their eyes out before she let them touch the girls.” Her daughter’s house was modest, single-story brick. Diane looked about seventy, plainly dressed, with no jewelry. Kate was fairly sure that she hadn’t stumbled on a hitherto unknown crime family, enmeshed in a bloody feud in the suburbs of Brisbane.

“Did Natalie or Robert have any debts that you know of?” Kate asked.

“Just the mortgage.”

“They weren’t asking you for money lately?”

“No. Why would they be?” Diane seemed annoyed at the sheer absurdity of the question; it made too little sense to be offensive.

Kate found it hard to see how the couple could have racked up drug or gambling debts that merited a more severe punishment from even the most sadistic loan shark than a broken limb or two. And two teachers at a government high school would make unlikely targets for the kind of heist or abduction that could go so wrong that it left three bodies in its wake.

“Robert was the girls’ father?”

“Yes.” Diane scowled. “Natalie kept her own name when they married, and she gave it to the kids. Why shouldn’t she?”

Kate shook her head, disavowing any opinion on the matter. “I just need to be clear what his relationship was. And as far as you know, was he ever violent toward her, or to the girls?”

Diane said, “Even if I’m the world’s worst judge of character and he fooled me completely, she would never have put up with that.”

“Okay. Were either of them depressed, or medicated for any reason?”

“No.”

Kate reached over and squeezed her arm. “There’s an alert out for the car. You don’t have to stay here; we’ll call you as soon as we have any news.”

“I want to be here,” Diane insisted. “What if she comes home?”

Kate spared her an opinion on how unlikely that was looking. “Is there someone we can call, to be with you? A friend, or a family member?”

“My son’s at work.”

“Can’t he take the afternoon off?”

Diane said numbly, “I haven’t told him yet. How can I tell him?”

Kate got the number from her and made the call. Patrick Grimes was an electrician, working on a building site in the city; it would take him forty minutes to get here.

She left Diane with the constable, and knocked on the side door of the van. The SOCO, Tim Ng, let her in and she joined him in front of the console.

“What’s the swarm got so far?” she asked.

“No signs of forced entry,” he said. “There’s a window that’s been left open in the laundry, probably just to cool down the house overnight, but no footprints or scuff marks anywhere near it to suggest that it was used to gain access.”

“What are you thinking for time of death?”

“Breakdown profiles from the bloodstains all say yesterday morning, but we’ll really have to wait for the autopsies.”

“Yeah. And the weapon?”

Tim turned to the console and took the view of the interior into the kitchen, tracking in on a slotted wooden block holding a set of knives. The largest slot was empty. Then he pulled back and turned into a passageway that led to the three bedrooms. On the floor, outside the nearest bedroom, was a bloodied knife whose blade the overlaid dimensions showed as matching the slot.

“Whose room is that?” Kate asked.

“The older girl, Isabel, according to the grandmother. The next one is Angela’s, and the parents’ bedroom is at the end of the hall.” Tim steered the view down the passageway, into the master bedroom. The drones had imaged the whole house at a moderate resolution on their first pass, but even as Kate watched, the scene in the bedroom was growing visibly sharper as new data flowed in.

Robert Mellish lay on his back on one side of the double bed. The top sheet had been drawn toward the foot of the bed, down to his knees. He was wearing only a pair of shorts, and his glasses were sitting on the bedside table. A single, deep stab wound pierced the middle of his chest; an anatomical overlay suggested that the blade had entered his heart.

He had no defense wounds on his hands. Kate supposed he might not even have been awake when he was killed.

“There’s a blood trail that starts from here,” Tim said, aiming the viewpoint toward the floor on Robert’s side of the bed, then following a series of congealed droplets out of the room and down the passage. Kate steeled herself as they pursued the trail into Angela’s room. This time, the killer hadn’t pulled the sheet away; the knife had gone right through it, and through the girl’s nightdress too. Kate felt acid rising in her throat, more from anger than nausea.

There was no more frenzy here than there had been with Robert: a single wound, positioned with care, had done the job. If not for the improvised weapon, it could almost have been a professional hit. A mother in the grip of psychotic depression was more likely to drown her children, or feed them sedatives—and then join them in the darkness herself. What kind of delusion would it take to make a woman kill the people she loved, and neither soften the act with some degree of faux gentleness, nor explode in uncontrollable rage, but just dispatch them, methodically and efficiently, with whatever tools were to hand?

“Go on,” she told Tim.

The scene in Isabel’s room was almost the same, the modus operandi identical. A bloody handprint had been left on the doorframe; unwrapped by the software, its size was consistent with a woman of Natalie’s stature, which Tim had estimated at around one hundred and forty-five centimeters from wedding photographs on display in the living room. Still, a hypothetical intruder need not have been particularly large or strong, especially if they had an accomplice to help keep Natalie from intervening. If there was no apparent motive for malevolent strangers to do any of this, nor was there one for Natalie herself.

“Any meds visible?” Kate asked.

Tim shook his head. But the drones couldn’t weave their way into every closed drawer and childproof cabinet in the house. “We could go for the sewerage pipes and do a metabolite analysis,” he suggested.

“That’s too slow.” Getting access to the family’s medical records would probably take even longer. Either Natalie was severely ill, and a danger to anyone she encountered, or she’d been abducted and was in danger herself; Kate needed to know which it was. “Can you plot me a route to check the likely places?” Once she set foot in the house, there was nothing she could do to avoid contaminating the scene to some degree, but if she did as she was told it would be easier for the system to subtract her out of the picture.

She put on a plastic suit, gloves, cap and booties, then approached the front door with her notepad in her hand, displaying the path for her to follow.

The door had been left open, wide enough that Kate didn’t need to touch it. She glanced back and saw a smear of blood on the inside handle. She walked straight down the entrance hall, past the living room, and turned into the kitchen. There were four drawers and three cabinets that the swarm had been unable to infiltrate, and one of the cabinets contained an assortment of over-the-counter painkillers, laxatives, antacids and allergy treatments. But there was no prescription medication, let alone antipsychotics.

She followed the path through to the bathroom, but the one unexamined cabinet there held nothing but cosmetics, shampoo and shaving cream.

Suddenly, she heard something slam against the back door of the house, and a dog began barking and whining. Kate spoke into her notepad. “Tim?”

“Yeah?”

“There’s a dog out back, going crazy. What’s the best thing I can do?” The drones hadn’t scanned the back yard yet.

“If you think you can calm it down without letting it into the house, that would be better than having it tearing up the lawn.”

“Okay.”

Kate followed her new route on the schematic, walking through the laundry room and up to the back door. It needed no key to open from the inside; she unlatched it, and positioned her body to block access as she came out.

The dog was a golden retriever, waist-high to her. It barked loudly but didn’t attack. As she emerged, closing the door behind her, it started running in circles, making a pitiful sound.

Kate squatted down, put her notepad on the ground and held out her hands. “Shh. Come here, it’s all right!”

The dog approached her, wagging its tail and barking. “It’s all right!” Kate repeated soothingly. The dog was wearing a collar; if she could get hold of it, she was fairly sure she could keep the animal still. “Come here!” She took off her gloves and cap and stuffed them down the front of her suit, hoping she’d look more human.

The dog came right up to her and pressed its head against the side of her body, whimpering. “Shh.” She stroked its head and got her hand around the collar. It struggled for a moment, but then gave up and sat, resting its head on her knee.

Kate was about to call the local animal shelter, but then she had another idea. “Tim?”

“Yes.”

“Can you ask Diane Grimes if she wants to take the dog for a while?”

“Will do.”

Kate looked out across the yard; there was a swing set, an above-ground swimming pool, and in the rear, a veritable forest of fig trees, like some enchanted grove out of a fairy tale. The girls would have been in heaven here.

She started weeping silently. The dog tried to pull away, then changed its mind and jumped up, licking her face. Kate tugged on the collar and dragged it back down, then got herself under control.

Tim said, “Yeah, she’ll take it. Bring it round through the side gate on your right, over the concrete path. That’ll do the least damage.”

 

2

As Kate pulled into the driveway, she heard Reza enunciating excitedly, “Look who’s home! Look who’s home! Look. Who. Is. Home!

Before she’d opened the car door, he came out onto the porch with Michael, who was peering toward her, unfocused but tentatively smiling. “Say khosh amadi, maamaan!” Reza urged him. “Welcome to our house.”

Kate said, “Now you’re just being sarcastic.”

Reza grinned. “Sorry.” Kate kissed him, then took Michael in her arms; he flapped his own arms excitedly, then beamed at her and started babbling.

“Someone still appreciates me.” Kate kissed her son’s cheek three times, as noisily as she could, and Reza held the door open for her as she walked into the hall.

“Do you want me to take him for a bit while you unwind?” Reza asked her.

“No, I’m fine.”

“Okay, I’ll start cooking.”

Kate sat in the kitchen, gazing into Michael’s face, engrossed by his responses to her monologue of flattering rhetorical questions. “Who is the most beautiful boy? Can you guess who that is?” Sometimes her words seemed to amuse him, sometimes he frowned in puzzlement. But so long as he was content, watching him was like floating in a warm, tranquil pool—and with the scent of herbs frying and the sound of the gentle sizzling of oil, she felt as if she’d been transported into some otherworldly paradise, as remote from the place she’d just left as waking life from a dream.

After a while, Michael closed his eyes, but Kate let him sleep in her arms until dinner was ready, then she put him down in his cot and joined Reza to eat.

“I’m glad you could get home before he slept,” Reza said. “Have things quietened down at all?”

“Yes, though not in a good way. We still haven’t found the missing woman.” Kate didn’t want to talk about the case, or even think about it for the next twelve hours if she could help it. “How was the bundle of joy today?” she asked.

“Joyous as ever. I think it’s going to take some serious teething before he can be bothered losing his cool.”

“I don’t know where he gets that equanimity from,” Kate marveled.

Reza frowned. “There’s only one possibility, surely?”

Kate wiped her plate clean with the last piece of bread and leaned back in her chair. “That was delicious. Thank you.”

Noosheh jaan.” Reza stood up and took her plate, then bent down to kiss her forehead. “I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

“Sure.”

“Do you mind if I visit my father tonight?”

“Of course not.” In truth, Kate had been hoping she could fall asleep on the couch beside him, watching something lighthearted and distracting, but Reza had been stuck in the house for the last six days, and he hadn’t seen his father for a fortnight. “When do visiting hours finish?”

“Nine.”

Kate glanced at the clock. “You’d better go right now. I’ll clean up here.”

He kissed her again, put her plate in the sink, picked up his keys and headed out the door.

When his car had gone, Kate sat for a while in the silence, then got up and made herself busy with the dishes. When she’d finished, she went to the living room and flicked through the TV’s menu, but none of the sitcoms did it for her when she watched them alone.

She walked down the hall into Michael’s room, and gazed down at his sleeping form, barely visible in the faint light that came through the curtains from the street lamps. If anyone laid a finger on you, she thought. Anyone. She could feel her heart beating faster. She tried to calm herself, stepping back and scrutinizing her own hyper-vigilance. She had no reason to think that her son was in any danger at all.

But she stayed in the room, watching over him, until she saw the headlights coming into the driveway.

Reza didn’t seem to be in a mood to talk, but when they were in bed Kate worked up the courage to ask gently, “How was he?”

“He thought I was his brother,” Reza replied. “He thought I was Amir.”

Kate tried to make light of it. “I don’t think you look much like your uncle.”

Reza smiled. “He had a lot more hair when he was my age. And a different hairstyle every month. One of them must have been a match.”

“Was he happy to see you anyway?” Kate asked. She knew that Hassan and Amir had been close; better a visit from his brother than from a total stranger.

“He was happy to have Amir to talk to, but not so happy about where they must have been.”

“Back in Isfahan?”

Reza shook his head. “He thinks he’s in immigration detention. Why else would he be locked up by people speaking English?”

“Jesus. I hope the staff there are nothing like those pricks.” Kate’s most enduring memory of all the stories she’d heard from Hassan had been the time some fresh-faced girl from Port Augusta—probably nineteen or twenty, knowing nothing of life, puffed up with self-importance by her uniform—had told this man who’d seen his parents executed by the mullahs, and who’d spent four years imprisoned in various corners of the Australian desert, that because he was on hunger strike he would be treated like a child, and denied such extravagant privileges as phone calls and visitors, until he learned to grow up.

“They do their best,” Reza said. “And I don’t think he thinks that all the time.”

Kate took his hand and squeezed it.

“I just need to show a makeup artist photos of my grandfather,” Reza mused. “With a few wigs and costumes and the right soundtrack, I bet I could take him back to the days before Khomeini.”

Kate laughed softly. Then she said, “What if you brought him here?”

Reza was silent for a while; he must have thought about it many times, but he’d never broached it with her. “It wouldn’t work,” he said finally. “Watching him and Michael at the same time would be impossible.”

“Okay.” Kate felt a twinge of guilt; she’d only dared ask because she was almost certain of the answer. “But maybe you can talk to the doctor about the best way to make him feel…” She groped for the right word; how could he feel free, when he really couldn’t walk out the door? “Normal.”

“Yeah. I’ll phone her in the morning.”

Kate switched off the bedside lamp and lay in the dark. The money they were paying for the nursing home would be enough to pay for some part-time home care; Reza wouldn’t have had to handle everything alone. But she could not have her father-in-law living in the same house as Michael. Nothing she’d seen or heard had ever made her think that he would harbor the slightest ill will for any child, whether or not he was capable of understanding that the boy was his grandson. But once someone lost their grip on reality, it wasn’t safe to make any assumptions at all about what they might do.

 

3

Kate was dragged out of sleep by her phone buzzing, with a tone indicating the kind of alert that wouldn’t leave her in peace until she responded with a suitably lucid acknowledgment. She picked the thing up off the table by the bed and peered at the screen.

“Copy that,” she intoned hoarsely. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“What is it?” Reza asked. He sounded more awake than she was.

“They found the car.”

When Kate arrived at the riverbank, the tow truck was still getting into position. Natalie’s station wagon had veered off this quiet road at a point where there were no real barriers between asphalt and water. It had left a trail of minor damage in the grass and reeds; to any passing motorist who’d given it a second thought, it probably looked no more suspicious than someone having tried to use the grass to make a U-turn. But tonight, an ER nurse on her way home from her shift had seen moonlight glinting off the metal bobbing in the reeds, and slowed down to take a closer look.

The water where the car had ended up wasn’t deep; the two traffic cops who’d come to investigate had reached it in waders. Kate was still waiting for Roma Street to authorize divers, but she doubted they’d find anything. If Natalie had been able to get out of the submerged car at all, she would not have required any superhuman abilities to make it back to the riverbank. This looked more like an attempt to hide the vehicle than an attempt at suicide. If she’d been overcome by remorse, she would have driven off a bridge.

Kate stood and waited while the traffic cops and the tow truck operator hooked up the winch and dragged the station wagon out of the water and up onto the back of the truck. Then the truck got bogged in the mud, so they had to put boards under the wheels to free it. By the time the truck was able to maneuver itself back onto solid ground, Kate had lost patience. She put on a pair of gloves and climbed up beside the station wagon, flashlight in hand.

All the doors were closed, and all the windows open; Natalie might well have been able to squeeze through a window, conscious and unharmed, but it seemed unlikely that her body had just floated out. The interior was full of silty water and vegetation, and anything not fixed that had been on the seats or the dashboard would either be buried in that muck or left behind in the river. Kate reached in and opened the glove box, which discharged a stream of water carrying a pair of plastic sunglasses and a chapstick. She groped below the dashboard for the manual release for the hood, fought with it against the sludge and grit that was blocking the mechanism, then finally heard a satisfying click.

When she walked around to the front of the car and peered in, she saw the black box, still intact. The data recorders were meant to be robust enough to survive battery fires, so a few days of immersion would be nothing. She turned and called out to the traffic cops, “Have you got an interface cable?”

“We should wait until we get to the compound, Sarge,” the older of the two replied.

“Do you have the cable or not?”

He stared back at her for a moment, then walked over to his car. Kate jumped down and went to fetch her notepad.

The data only took a few seconds to transfer, but it was encrypted; Kate sat in her car and fought her way through the process of persuading the manufacturer to send her the key. A magistrate had authorized the decryption on the day the car went missing, and she had a digital certificate attesting to that fact, but it still took three attempts to convince the Toyota website that she wasn’t a bot or a hacker.

She started with the plunge into the river. Natalie had shut off the driver supervision features ten minutes before, and while the car’s software fell somewhat short of psychiatric qualifications, up to that point it had not assessed her as being affected by any drug or medical condition: She had not been swerving erratically, or shouting obscenities, or nodding off behind the wheel. The manual override had amounted to telling the car not to trust any of its own systems from then on, so while the black box had dutifully logged her GPS coordinates as she steered off the road, the car itself had become agnostic about the wisdom of this behavior. For all it knew, the driver might have had an honest reason to believe that the car’s sensors were broken and it was liable to kill someone if it didn’t butt out and let a human take over completely.

But the GPS trace was enough to show that Natalie hadn’t been driving terribly fast at any point. She’d sped up enough to ensure that her momentum would take her over the riverbank and into the water, but she hadn’t slammed her foot down and accelerated wildly, rushing toward oblivion. When the car came to a stop in the water, it hadn’t even triggered the airbags.

Kate went back to the morning of the killings and followed the car away from the scene. At first, Natalie seemed to be heading straight for her mother’s house, but when she came within a few blocks of it, she changed her mind. She’d turned around and started driving toward her friend Mina’s apartment, only to back out again. Then her brother’s house. Then two other friends. She’d had no phone with her, and all of these people had claimed that they’d heard nothing from Natalie on that day, or since. But apparently, every time she’d made a plan to seek help, she’d given up on the idea without waiting to be rebuffed.

Kate could understand a woman who’d killed her family in a psychotic fugue snapping out of it and turning in desperation to her mother, only to decide at the last minute that she had no hope of being treated with anything but revulsion. But why would she then imagine that a whole succession of other people might be more forgiving, only to abandon that hope each time it was about to be tested?

After all the aborted journeys toward familiar faces, Natalie had driven to a shopping mall, far from her own home, and the car had remained parked there for almost three hours. That seemed like a long time to spend gathering provisions for a dash out of town—which she’d turned out to have no intention of doing, unless she’d somehow procured access to another vehicle. She’d taken her bank cards when she fled from the house, but hadn’t used them anywhere; whatever she’d bought in the mall, she must have paid for it with the remnants of her last cash withdrawal of three hundred dollars, from a few days before.

When she left the mall, she’d driven around the city in a wide arc until evening, as if she were simply killing time. She’d stopped at a fast food strip around nine o’clock, and then headed for the river to ditch the car.

Kate heard birdsong and looked away from her notepad; it was almost dawn. She checked the status of her request for divers; it had been flagged as “on hold” until a forensics team had examined the car itself.

She sent Reza a message to tell him she wouldn’t be home, then drove off in search of a diner where she could grab breakfast and use the restroom. In the mirror, she looked puffy-eyed and disheveled; she took off her shirt and washed under her arms. Natalie must have been in a much worse state when she waded out of the river, but maybe she’d been carrying a change of clothes in a plastic bag. After six days, three with rain, it was too late to send in dogs to try to pick up her scent from the riverbank.

Kate sat in a booth in the diner drinking coffee until it was almost seven o’clock, then she drove to the shopping mall where Natalie had parked for three hours. The security cameras covered the whole parking lot, and it wasn’t hard to find the moment in the recordings when Natalie drove in, but when she left the car, carrying two large, empty shopping bags, she walked away, out onto the street. Kate went through all the footage of the pedestrian entrances, but Natalie hadn’t doubled back. Whatever she’d bought in that time, she’d bought somewhere else. There were hundreds of small, freestanding shops within an hour’s walk of the mall.

Kate returned to the parking lot footage, at the time she knew the car had departed. Natalie appeared, with the shopping bags bulging, but it was impossible to see what they contained. New clothes? Hair dye? Scissors? It wouldn’t take much for her to render herself unrecognizable to anyone but her closest friends. A clear enough shot by a public CCTV camera might still trigger a face-matching algorithm, but she’d have to be much stupider than she’d proved to be so far to offer herself up to that kind of scrutiny.

The mall security guard had been watching over Kate’s shoulder. “That’s the woman who killed her own kids?” he asked. Natalie’s face was all over the media as a missing person, but the official line was still far from naming her as a suspect.

“Maybe.” Kate turned to him with a warning glance; she really didn’t want to hear anyone’s opinion on what fate Natalie deserved.

“Good luck,” he said.

She left the mall and walked out onto the street. “Mark every retailer in a six-kilometer radius,” she told her notepad, “and give me a path that visits them all.”

 

4

Kate woke with a headache and squinted at the bedside clock. It was ten minutes to three. She groaned softly and closed her eyes, then felt someone’s warm, naked skin brush against her.

She jerked her arm away and leaped out of bed. There was enough light coming through the curtains for her to see the man lying asleep where Reza should have been.

She was trembling from the shock, but she tried to calm herself and plan her next move carefully. She thought of going to the kitchen and arming herself with a knife, but if there was a struggle that might not work in her favor.

She snatched up her phone and tiptoed into the passageway. The safest thing might be to take Michael out to the car and drive away, before she even risked calling for help. But where was Reza? Any protracted scuffle in the bedroom would have woken her, so he must have been lured out of the room somehow—before being tied up and gagged, maybe drugged, maybe beaten senseless. So she had to get Michael to safety, but then return as quickly as possible, and do it all without waking the intruder.

She walked down the passageway in the darkness, treading as lightly as she could. As she entered the nursery, she felt her skin prickling with horror, and she had to cover her mouth with her hand to keep herself silent. She stared at the shape in the cot, afraid to raise the phone and illuminate it, but when she finally found the courage, the harsh light made the revelation unbearable. She staggered back, then fled.

She ran into the bedroom and switched on the light. “What have you done to him?” she roared. “What have you done to my son?”

The intruder shielded his face with his arm and then lowered it and peered at her groggily. “Kate? What’s happened?” He climbed off the bed and approached her; she flinched away from him, raising one hand with her fist clenched. She didn’t need a weapon; she’d beat the truth out of him with her bare hands.

“Kate? Talk to me!” He stood, rooted to the spot, feigning concern. “Has something happened to Michael? Should I call an ambulance?”

“Don’t play games with me!” she bellowed. “Where have you taken him?”

“Are you saying he’s not in his cot?” The intruder rushed past her, out into the passageway; she followed him halfway, but couldn’t bring herself to go back into the nursery. He switched on the light, then after a while she heard him whispering, “Shh, pesaram, it’s all right.” So this man spoke Persian—or was he just mocking her? Had he bugged the house and listened to all the things she and Reza said?

He came out from the nursery and walked up to her. “He looks fine to me. What got you so worried?”

Kate said, “You have ten seconds to tell me where my son is.”

“Now you’re frightening me.” The intruder reached down and scratched his hip beneath the waistband of his shorts, as unselfconsciously as if he spent every night wandering half-naked through a different stranger’s house. “Are you sick?” He reached up to put his hand on Kate’s forehead; she grabbed his arm and twisted it, bringing him to his knees.

“What’s wrong with you?” he gasped, wincing from the pain but keeping himself from shouting, as if his greatest fear was “waking” the mechanical doll he’d planted in the cot. Kate got him in a choke hold; he went limp in her arms, not even trying to fight her.

“I swear I’ll kill you,” she said. “If you don’t take me to my son, I’ll slit your fucking throat and hang you from a meat hook.”

The man started weeping, his whole body shuddering as he sobbed. Kate stared down at his blubbering face, desperately clinging to the hope that whatever he’d done to Reza and Michael that had left him so ashamed, they were still alive somewhere. “Take me to them now, and I’ll say you cooperated. The quicker you do this, the better things will go for you.”

“All right,” he replied. He sounded utterly defeated. For someone who’d been so brazen just minutes before, he hadn’t taken long to fold.

Kate released him and stepped away. “So where are they?”

He clambered to his feet. “I need to call someone. They’ll bring them here.”

“No, no, no!” Kate spread her arms so he couldn’t get past her down the hall. She wasn’t having him summoning accomplices. “You take me to them, alone. Are they in the house?”

He hesitated. “No. We’ll need to take a drive.”

Kate stood in silence, trying to think. She should call for backup, get the fucker cuffed and under control. But if he stopped cooperating, what redress would she have? As soon as she got anyone else involved, there’d be no point threatening to gut him like a pig; he could sit in his prison cell, laughing, while Reza and Michael starved to death, or worse.

“All right,” she said. “So you’d better put some clothes on.”

She walked into the bedroom ahead of him and scooped up Reza’s phone. She’d half expected him to try to flee, but he followed close behind her and proceeded to dress in Reza’s clothes. Kate stood watching him, dazed; not only did the clothes fit him—well enough—his resemblance to her husband was striking, right down to the pattern of freckles on his shoulders and the way his uncombed hair stuck up at the side. But did the kidnappers really think that she’d be fooled by such superficial details?

“Turn around and face the wall,” she said. He complied, and she dressed quickly.

“Okay, I’m done. Come on.”

“Can we take… ?” He gestured toward the nursery.

Kate scowled at him, disbelieving; she thought he was about to start crying again. “Why would we take that thing with us? I’ll put it out with the garbage.”

The intruder stared at her. “When you get back, with Michael?”

“Yes! It’s not a priority. Now, come on!”

He followed her out of the house; she unlocked the car and got into the driver’s seat. He joined her, and she reversed quickly onto the street.

“Which way?” she asked.

“South.”

She drove down to the corner and turned toward Gympie Road. There was no other traffic in sight, no lights showing in any of the houses. She glanced at the man, sitting meekly beside her in his borrowed clothes. “So, what was the plan?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were you going to ask for money? Or was this about fixing some case? You wanted me to tamper with evidence, or make a file disappear?”

He didn’t reply.

Kate laughed humorlessly. “And the idea that you could just lie down in my bed and that would buy some time to get them further away… for fuck’s sake, how stupid can you be? You might look a bit like my husband, but do you think I couldn’t tell the difference?”

The man said, “What gave me away?”

Kate shook her head. “One touch, and my skin crawled. So where are we going?”

“Herston.”

“Where in Herston? I’ll put it in the GPS.”

“I don’t know the name of the street, but I can give you directions once we’re closer.”

Kate wasn’t happy, but at this hour the drive wouldn’t take long. If he was messing with her, she’d know soon enough, and he’d regret it.

“How many of you are there?” she asked.

“Just me and my friend. And he won’t hurt anyone, I promise. I’d never have got involved if it was going to be like that.”

“So why did you do it at all?”

“It was his idea,” the man insisted. “I just went along with it.”

Kate frowned skeptically, but this wasn’t the time to start browbeating the only person who could reunite her with her family. Whether he was a simpleton who’d been led astray or a criminal genius who’d thought it was a good idea to climb into bed with her would be up to the investigating officers to decide, then the prosecutors, then a jury. Once Reza and Michael were safe, she would need to step back and leave everything to other people.

“How did you get Reza out of the house so quietly?”

“My friend drugged him.”

“With what, exactly?”

“Some liquid he put on a cloth. I don’t know what it was.”

Kate suspected he was lying; it sounded like something he’d seen in a movie, and if they’d tried it with chloroform Reza would have been struggling for so long it would have woken her ten times over.

“And how did you clowns even get into the house?”

“The spare key under the flowerpot.”

She fell silent. That was her fault; she should never have put it anywhere so obvious.

They were close to the city now; she could see the lights in the Aurora Tower ahead.

“Turn right here,” he told her.

“Past the hospital?”

“Yes.”

Kate turned into Butterfield Street, slowing down as they approached a small park that separated the road from the drop-off loop for the hospital’s entrance. In the early hours of the morning, there could well be visitors to the emergency department with all manner of substances in their bodies stumbling out from behind the greenery and onto the road without warning.

“And go left here.”

Kate brought the car to a halt. He was directing her into the hospital’s parking complex.

“What are you trying to tell me?” she demanded angrily. “Have they been hurt?”

“No. I promise you, both of them are fine.”

“Then why would they be here?”

The man said, “We need to go in. Please.”

Why?

Before Kate could stop him, he was out of the car, running back along the road and through the trees. She went after him, bewildered. The park was about the size of her back yard; he had no hope of losing her.

She caught up with him just outside the entrance to the emergency department. She’d feared she was going to have to tackle him to the ground on the concrete, but he stopped and turned, letting her collide with him, catching her in his arms so that their bodies came together in a sick parody of an embrace. She pulled away, furious. He smelled exactly like Reza, but that just turned her stomach.

He said, “Kate, I’m begging you, let them check you out.”

“What?”

“Let the doctors examine you. I can stay here with you, but you need to let me call someone to look after Michael.”

“If you think I won’t hurt you just because there are people around—”

The man held his hands up, shoulder high. “Look at me! If you don’t believe I’m Reza, tell me one thing that isn’t the same!”

Kate was tired. “You’re the right build, the right bone structure. Black hair and brown eyes aren’t exactly rare—assuming they’re natural—but everything else could be done with makeup.” Hadn’t Reza himself claimed as much, joking that he could pass for his own grandfather? Had they listened in to that conversation, too?

“Is that a professional opinion, DS Shahripour?” he taunted her. “Would you talk shit like that in court? Ask me something only Reza could know.”

“I’m not playing this game.”

He said, “I’m not a doctor, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But what if it’s a stroke? If you’ve got a clot in your brain…” He put his forearm over his eyes, wiping away tears. “Please, Kate, let them help you.”

Kate stared at him in the harsh light of the entrance. Every small, dark hair on his cheeks was precisely where she’d expect it to be. The idea that anyone outside of Hollywood would even try to reconstruct that level of detail was ridiculous.

“Let’s go in,” she said. They were in the right place, after all.

They stepped through the self-opening doors together. As Reza was looking around to see where they should go to join the queue, Kate spotted a pair of security guards. When Reza walked forward, she veered away from him, approached the guards, and discreetly showed them her badge.

“That man is my husband,” she said quietly. “I need your help restraining him so he can be examined, otherwise he could be a danger to himself.”

Kate stayed a few steps behind as the three of them approached Reza together. He spread his arms in a gesture of disbelief. “What is this? Kate?” He turned to the guards. “My wife is ill. I don’t know what she told you—”

“You need to calm down, sir,” one of the guards said firmly. “The doctors are busy, but if you wait quietly someone will be able to see you soon.”

“No, she needs to see them! She’s the one who’s sick! Our son is in danger.”

“Sir, if you start making threats—”

“Kate? What did you say to them?” Reza—or whatever it was that now animated the shell of his body—glared at her in self-righteous horror.

Kate told the guards, “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Until then, you need to make sure that he gets a full psych evaluation.” They did not look happy, but they deferred to her authority.

She turned and walked away, glancing back a couple of times as the remnant of her husband began shouting and struggling. The guards had handcuffs, batons and Tasers; he wasn’t going anywhere.

On her way back to the car she started sobbing. When she pictured Reza—the man she knew, as he’d been just a few hours before—the thought of abandoning him in this wretched state horrified her. But she had to trust the doctors to take care of him; she couldn’t stay here waiting for a diagnosis. What mattered now was finding Michael.

As she drove north, she thought of calling the station and sending someone to the house ahead of her. But how could she explain walking out on her infant son, without sounding like she’d lost her mind? Michael had to be lying on a blanket somewhere, sleeping through all of this insanity. Maybe Reza had risen in the night and quietly hidden him, acting with good intentions in some strange twilight state before he was gone completely—saving his son from the thing he was about to become.

Kate couldn’t stop weeping. She took her hands off the wheel and let the car steer for her as the rain began to fall. Was it some kind of Alzheimer’s, like his father? But that made no sense; even if the early-onset form could strike at such a young age, she’d never heard of it happening overnight.

When she turned into her street, she saw a squad car outside her house, and lights on inside. She stopped and switched off her headlights, but kept the wipers running. Had a neighbor heard her shouting threats before she left?

The front door opened and someone walked out onto the porch: a tall, blond woman in civilian clothes carrying a wailing baby, followed by a uniformed female constable. Kate peered at them through the rain, making the best of the moments of clarity after the blades had swept the windshield clear, before fresh droplets appeared and distorted everything. The woman resembled her sister Beth, though it wasn’t her. The baby was swaddled in a blanket, making it hard to see properly, but it sounded like some awful imitation of Michael.

Had the thing in the cot not been a doll, after all? Where would such a doll have come from? Had Michael and Beth both gone the way of Reza?

Kate covered her face with her hands. What could turn a human being into a walking automaton, a vacant caricature of the person they’d been? Some kind of toxin? Some kind of disease?

When she looked again, the two women were in the squad car. The engine started, and the car drove away. But the lights were still on in the house. Someone was in there, waiting for her to arrive.

The thing that had been Reza must have wheedled its way into making a phone call, and whoever it had called had either been fooled into taking it seriously… or had needed no persuasion, because it already thought the same way.

Reza had been infected. Michael had been infected. Beth had been infected. How many more might there be? If she walked into that house and shared the same fate, she’d be powerless to help any of them.

Kate started the car and reversed back down the street. After ten meters, the supervisor began chanting threats and admonitions. She said, “Shut down, you’re malfunctioning.” She kept going until she reached the corner, then she turned and drove away.

 

5

The teller machine took her card without complaint, scanned her face, then offered her the usual menu. Reza had never been in any position to cancel her card himself, but whatever his remnant had told the police, the best thing was to get her hands on as much money as possible while she still could. Kate moved some funds between accounts and then succeeded in withdrawing her entire daily cash limit of five thousand dollars.

She sat in the car, trying to clear her head and see the way forward. It was beginning to look as if Reza and Beth, and maybe anyone else in the same condition, could pass as normal to an interlocutor who didn’t actually know them. Once he’d stopped humoring her with nonsense about the “kidnapping”, Reza had spoken coherently enough, making claims that might have sounded perfectly believable to a naive bystander. For all Kate knew, charming the hospital’s security guards into giving him a phone call had only been the start of it; he might even have been able to talk his way through an entire interview with an overworked psychiatric registrar, accustomed to more florid symptoms.

Reza’s uncle was on the other side of the country, and Beth had been divorced for years. But some of their friends would surely be able to spot the changes, backing up Kate’s assessment and ensuring the three victims got the treatment they needed.

Her phone rang. She stared at it for a while, then answered warily, “Chris? How are you?”

“I’m fine, Kate. But I’ve heard that people are worried about you.”

Fuck. Of all the colleagues she might have trusted to help her, Chris Santos had been top of the list, but he’d only had to speak two sentences to make it plain that he was infected too. And he was going to parrot Reza’s line that she was the problem? Kate resisted the urge to tell him she was having flashbacks to the time a gaggle of dim-witted scammers had called her one by one to say, “This is technical department of Windows operating system; we have detected a dangerous virus on your computer.” However many of them she told, in no uncertain terms, that they weren’t fooling her, there was always another one the next day trotting out exactly the same line.

“I had a fight with Reza,” she said. “Not even a fight, more a misunderstanding. It’s all good now.”

There was an awkward pause. “It’s just, your sister had to take the baby. No one wants to talk about child neglect charges, and I don’t think it has to go that far. But you need to come in and be interviewed, just to reassure everyone. I think your husband’s still freaked out.”

Kate struggled to frame her reply, wondering what the point was in humoring him at all—but it was possible that the call was being shared with people who weren’t just going through the motions, and actually believed she’d been at fault.

“I understand,” she said. “I’ll be in around nine o’clock.”

“Can I ask where you are now?”

“I’m not at home,” she admitted. “I knew Beth was looking after Michael, and I didn’t want to be there when Reza came home. It was just… a bit tense between us. I thought this would give us a chance to cool off.”

“Okay. But you’ll be at Roma Street by nine?”

“Absolutely.”

Kate stepped out of the car, stacked her phone on top of Reza’s behind the rear wheel, then ran over them repeatedly. How had Chris’s wife not noticed what had happened to him? But Kate hadn’t really socialized with the two of them for years; maybe they were estranged, and she just hadn’t heard it through the grapevine.

She got out of the car again and inspected the shattered electronics. She was having second thoughts about walking away; maybe it would be simpler to go undercover and play happy families with Reza, pretending that nothing was wrong while she investigated the outbreak.

But even if she could be that good an actor, Reza might infect her, dragging her down into the same emptiness. She had to believe that he and Michael and Beth still survived somehow, however deeply they’d been buried—but when she pictured the grotesque effigies they’d become, all she felt was revulsion.

The sky was light now, and she could hear traffic sounds rising up amid the birdsong. She hated the thought of abandoning the car, but eventually people would be looking for it, and she had no idea how far the disease had spread through the police force.

As she headed down the street, Kate thought of Natalie Grimes, waking in shock to find herself beside the thing that had once been her husband. Walking from room to room, discovering that even her beautiful daughters were gone. Convinced that her family had been erased, their minds irretrievably destroyed, and that the only loving thing to do had been to put the twitching puppets out of their misery.

Kate could understand the power of the woman’s grief. But she was not going to give up hope, herself, until she had proof beyond doubt that there was no cure, and that everyone she cared about really was gone forever.

 

6

Kate found a small motel where the clerk was happy to take cash up front, and for a modest surcharge allowed her to check in without showing ID. In her room, she sat on the bed staring down at the torn carpet, trying to decide who she could trust to be her allies, now that Chris had been ruled out. She drew up a list of twelve names, but when she thought about each one seriously, her confidence began to wane. It was not that any of them had failed to be loyal and supportive in the past, but when she pictured the actual conversation she would need to have with them to enlist their help, the idea that they would back her seemed preposterous. Each time she played out the scenario in her head, every trace of the old friendships she was relying on simply faded away, and the encounter ended with a cold stare.

More than friends, she needed evidence. And since no epidemiologist was going to drop everything and come to her aid, she needed to start with testimony, from as many people as possible, showing that the symptoms she’d observed in her own family had been seen elsewhere.

Without knowing the mode of transmission it was hard to say how the disease might have spread, but the neighborhood around Natalie’s house was the obvious place to begin. Kate left the motel and set off on foot, taking care to avoid intersections where she knew there would be cameras.

When she arrived, the house itself was still cordoned off. She started with the neighbors on the right, but no one was home; it was only four doors down that she finally got an answer. Her knocking summoned an elderly man who was clearly not pleased to have been woken from sleep—but then, chastened by the gravity of the subject, he invited her in.

“I know you’ve spoken to my colleagues already,” Kate explained apologetically, “but if there’s anything else you remember from that time, it could be important.”

“Like what?” the man asked. “I never heard Natalie and Rob fighting. The kids could be noisy; you know how girls that age screech sometimes? But that was just playful. It never sounded like someone was hurting them.”

Kate said, “Apart from the family, has there been anything unusual you’ve noticed going on in the area?”

He pondered the question, but shook his head.

“Anyone acting out of the ordinary? Maybe a stranger, maybe not. Maybe even someone you thought you knew well.”

He ran his fingertips across his forehead, disconcerted by the apparent suggestion that some neighbor he’d joked with over the fence might have stabbed this family to death.

“Anyone acting out of character?” Kate pressed him.

“No,” he said firmly. But with the stakes seemingly so high, perhaps he felt compelled to err on the side of caution. Using the murders as a pretext for her questions was going to make it harder to get an honest response.

She worked her way down the street then back, sketching a map of the area as she broadened her search. Having missed her appointment at Roma Street and trashed her phone, she suspected that her badge number would have been revoked by now, so whenever people answered the door with their phone in their hand, she made an excuse and withdrew, lest they TrueCop-ped her and made things awkward.

By early evening, she’d conducted thirty-seven interviews. She was thinking of taking a break and grabbing some food when a door opened and before she’d even raised her badge, the middle-aged woman standing in front of her asked anxiously, “Have you found him?”

“I’m afraid not,” Kate extemporised. Whoever the woman was talking about, that was almost certainly true. “But I’d like to ask you for a few more details, if I could.”

“Of course.”

Kate identified herself and followed the woman into the house. In the living room, there were family photos: mother, father and teenage son.

“Is anyone else at home right now?” Kate asked.

“No, my husband’s in the city. He’s still looking for Rowan. Game arcades, McDonald’s… he’s got no money, but we don’t know where else he’d go to pass the time.”

Kate glanced again at a photo of the boy. The face looked familiar; he was one of the missing persons whose cases she’d been reviewing when the Grimes murders took over.

“Before Rowan went missing,” she asked, “did you notice any change in his behavior?”

The woman frowned. “Yes! I made a point of that to the other officer!”

Kate nodded apologetically. “I know it’s frustrating to have to repeat yourself, but part of the process is for me to try to come at this with fresh eyes, and make sure we haven’t missed anything.”

“All right.” The woman shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Kate wished she could remember her name, but there’d been more than thirty files.

“So can you tell me, in as much detail as possible: In what way did your son seem different?”

“He was so cold to us,” the woman replied. “He might have had his moods before—he might have been embarrassed or irritated when I said something that a thirteen-year-old boy doesn’t want to hear from his mother—but the day before he left, it was like he had no heart at all.”

“You mean he was deliberately cruel?” Kate asked.

“No. It wasn’t that I’d annoyed him and he was trying to be hurtful; it was as if I just didn’t matter to him, one way or the other.”

If Rowan had caught the disease that had afflicted Natalie’s family, what was the route of transmission? Kate confirmed with the boy’s mother that he’d attended the high school where Natalie and her husband had taught, though he hadn’t been in either of their classes, and it was hard to see how an airborne virus could have affected him while sparing most of the other students.

“Have you spoken to the families of Rowan’s friends?” Kate asked.

“Of course.”

“And have any of their children undergone personality shifts?”

“Not that anyone admitted.” The woman hesitated. “I don’t believe that Rowan was taking drugs, but I’m past the point where I’m certain of anything. So if you think that’s a possibility, and it could have something to do with the reason he’s missing, I don’t want you ruling it out just because my own instincts say otherwise.”

“All right.” Kate didn’t like misleading her, but her own hypothesis was hardly more reassuring.

On her way back to the motel, she bought a small notepad with Wi-Fi only, then she used the motel’s internet connection to download a gallery of missing persons whose names and photos had been made public. Rowan da Silva was there, and most of the other people Kate recalled from her review. At least she hadn’t been listed herself, yet.

In the next three days, as she spiraled out from the epicenter, she encountered twelve families with sons or daughters, husbands or wives who’d gone missing. In four cases, the person had fled without anyone noticing warning signs, but in the others, the distressed loved ones claimed that the event had been preceded by a change in behavior or demeanor that made them feel as if their relationship had disintegrated, for no discernible reason. “That morning, I swear he looked at me as if he was a trapped animal and I was a zookeeper,” one woman told Kate. “Maybe he woke up and decided that our whole marriage had been a mistake, and it took him another two days to find the courage to walk out. But two days before, he’d either been as happy as I’d ever seen him, or he was the best actor in the world.”

On the afternoon of the fourth day, Kate knocked on a door and found herself talking to a woman who spoke with a forced cheeriness and couldn’t quite look her in the eye. She had no missing family members, or any information to offer about suspicious activities in the neighborhood; she just seemed discomfited by Kate’s presence. Either she had a drug lab and a fresh corpse in her living room, or Kate’s time was up.

She found a café with Wi-Fi and did a quick search. Authorities had expressed concern about a missing police officer, Detective-Sergeant Katherine Shahripour (pictured). It wasn’t exactly the kind of news that would muscle its way into everyone’s feeds; she suspected that maybe one in fifty people in the city would see it. But the woman she’d spooked would have reported the encounter. It would no longer be safe to keep door-knocking the area.

Kate wasn’t ready to come in from the cold. Eight families with stories of sudden alienation wouldn’t cut it; after all, the original investigators had written that off as being down to the usual causes: teenage angst, midlife crises, drug problems, infidelity. At the very least, she needed to bring in some of the afflicted in person, fleshing out her collection of hearsay with actual subjects. Reza might have talked his way out of the emergency department, but if she could drag half a dozen of these fractured families, reunited, into the spotlight, that might be the start of a proper investigation, and the first step on the road to a cure.

As she left the café, she tried to picture a future where everything was normal again. But all she could think of was Reza’s bizarre charade, and the husk of her son lying in his cot like a cheap plastic doll. She lowered her sights, and made do instead with memories. The days before, when they had still been themselves, remained as vivid to her as ever. She would hold her feelings for them in that vault, and keep working to find a way to revive them.

 

7

Kate cut her hair and dyed it black, then bought some cheap earrings, a battered phone with no SIM card and an assortment of clothes from a charity shop. It took a while for her to find the right look, but at the end of the day she emerged from her room, satisfied that at least she wouldn’t be taken for a cop or a social worker.

She walked into the city, and made her way to one of the homeless shelters. As Leila, the volunteer, showed her the ropes, Kate took out her phone and brought up a picture of Suzanne Reyes, a missing woman a few years younger than Kate. “You haven’t seen my sister, have you? When she’s off her meds, I don’t know what she’ll do.”

Leila regarded her warily. “Sorry, no.”

In the dining room, Kate showed the photo around, but all she got was a few grunts of sympathy. She wished there were some way to seek all eight of her targets at once to better the odds, but it would be stretching credulity to claim a connection with even two of them, and Rowan’s parents had already done the rounds of the shelters. In the dormitory, she lay awake half the night, listening to the other women coughing.

She spent the next day on the streets, finding the places where the homeless congregated and asking again after Suzanne. It was close to nightfall when a thin, twitchy woman with a crumpled face squinted at the picture and announced, “Yeah, love, I’ve seen her. Just a few days ago.”

Kate closed her eyes for a moment, genuinely overcome with relief. “Thank God. Do you know where she is now?”

“She talked a lot of nonsense,” the woman complained. “I’m not surprised what you said about her medication.”

“Yeah, that’s Suzanne. Do you know where she went?”

“She tried to recruit me,” the woman recalled irritably. “Like a missionary. Like a fucking Mormon Scientologist.”

“What do you mean?”

“She wanted me to join her fight against the devil.”

Kate shook her head forlornly. “My sister said that? She thinks she’s fighting the devil?”

The woman thought it over dutifully. “Not the devil, exactly. She said she’s fighting the hollow men, the ones who’ve lost their souls. Raising an army of the… I don’t fucking know.”

“Do you know where I can find her?”

“Not really. I told her to piss off and stop bothering me.”

It was growing dark. Kate crossed town and tried a different shelter. “She might not look the same now,” she warned her fellow diners as she helped ladle out the night’s stew. “But maybe you remember her talking about the hollow men?”

No one could help her, but the next morning, as the shelter was closing, a young woman with long, plaited hair approached Kate. “I don’t think I’ve seen your sister,” she said. “But there was a man I met, talking like you said she talked.”

“In what way?” Kate asked.

“He was warning me about the hollow people. He wanted me to join the fight.”

“Where was this?”

“You know that spot in South Bank where all the buskers play?”

Kate nodded, but this wasn’t much help; she could probably stand there for a month without the same man reappearing, let alone approaching her.

“I told him I was busy with other things,” the woman continued, “but he said that if I ever wised up and changed my mind, there was a place where I could find him.”

Kate hardly dared breathe, but when the woman said no more she had to ask. “Asgard? Middle-earth? Hogwarts?”

“An old warehouse that’s used as a squat.” She gestured at Kate’s phone. “If that thing’s got a map, I can show you.”

 

8

The abandoned warehouse stood at the edge of a sprawling industrial park that still had a few tenants, but the place itself looked as if it had been derelict for years. The wire mesh fence around it had been bent almost horizontal in places, and the sign warning of security patrols, cameras and dogs was brown with corrosion.

Kate clambered over the lowest part of the fence and approached the building, carrying a blanket she’d bought for five dollars from a man camped in a city alleyway. Weeds taller than she was sprouted from cracks in the concrete forecourt. When she tried the office door it was securely locked, even though most of the paint had flaked off, but the roll-up door to the loading bay had been breached, torn away from its tracks on one side. The aperture was a tight squeeze; Kate pushed her blanket through, then followed headfirst. After the sunlit concrete, she couldn’t see a thing inside, but she ended up doing a handstand onto her blanket before her feet fell to the floor.

She waited for her eyes to adapt. The place still stank of some kind of oil or solvent, though there was human waste not too far away. Gradually, she made out the silhouettes of a stack of crates and pallets ahead of her, and some large metal drums of chemicals. She walked past them warily, squinting in the gloom at the hazard warnings, hoping that nothing volatile and carcinogenic had spilled out onto the floor.

Away from the loading bay, in the warehouse proper, a little sunlight made its way through grimy windows set high in the walls. But a dozen or so fluorescent panels hung by cables from the ceiling; no one had ever aspired to make this place function with natural light.

The floor was filthy, strewn with clumps of oil-clotted sand, scraps of yellowing invoices curling at the edges and a few newer burger wrappers and polystyrene cups. In the distance, someone sat on a bedroll, a slight figure with their back to her.

Kate called out, “Hi! Is it safe here?” The walls flung her voice back at her.

The figure turned and replied, “It’s all right. No one hassles you.”

Kate approached. It took her a while to be sure, but once she had clear sight of the boy, she knew it was Rowan da Silva.

“I’m Kate.”

He held out his hand and she shook it, but he offered no name himself. She looked around. “Are we the only ones here?”

“Right now we are. There’s a lot more people at night.”

“I heard this was a good place,” Kate said, “but you never know until you see for yourself.”

Rowan nodded distractedly, then lowered his gaze and stared glumly at the floor. If he really was suffering from the same disease that had struck Reza, Kate found it hard to discern the effects. With Reza, there had been a yawning abyss between the man she knew and the shop-window dummy he’d become, but with this boy she had no expectations to help her gauge the symptoms.

“How old are you?” she asked gently.

“Sixteen,” he lied.

“You don’t get on with your folks?”

“They’re dead.”

Kate said, “I’m sorry.” She hesitated, but decided not to push him into embellishing the claim. “My husband, how can I put it… showed me a different side.”

“Like he hit you?”

Kate wanted to say yes; it only mattered that she had a plausible story. But something in her rebelled against the slander. “No. He just changed.”

Rowan said, “You hear that a lot.” He rose to his feet, then picked up his bedroll and a cardboard sign. “Gotta hit the lunchtime crowds if I want to eat.”

“Yeah. Good luck.”

He wouldn’t make it to the city by lunchtime; he had to mean the nearest mall, some forty minutes away. Kate waited five minutes, then followed him. She caught sight of him on the main road, following the route she’d expected him to take, then she quickly moved to a smaller, parallel street so she wouldn’t be at risk of discovery if he happened to turn around. After crossing back along side streets a couple of times, she soon had a good enough sense of his pace to feel confident that she wasn’t going to lose him.

When she was almost at the mall, she spotted Rowan setting up his bedroll and sign on a public street near the entrance. Kate stood beside a tree and recorded video with her phone in one hand and her arm at her side, panning and tilting slowly to sweep the zoomed frame across a range of directions that she hoped would encompass him. It worked, well enough; she managed to extract a still image in which Rowan was clearly recognizable.

She circled around the mall and went in through a different entrance, then found a café. She’d spent all her small change, so she had to retrieve a fifty-dollar bill she’d hidden beneath an insole. Between that, her choice of wardrobe, and the acrid smell she’d acquired since showering in the shelter by trekking a dozen kilometers in the heat, she’d never felt more self-conscious, but the waitress took her money without a flicker of disdain and handed her the Wi-Fi password along with her coffee.

Kate logged in and created a Gmail account, then sent the pictures of Rowan to his mother, geotagged. She had to assume that Ms. da Silva now knew that she’d been suspended, so she kept the tip anonymous, and resisted the urge to offer suggestions for a medical examination that would probably sound even more bizarre and unwelcome coming from a stranger than from a rogue police officer.

She left the café and took up a position outside the supermarket, where she had a clear view of Rowan. Half an hour later, a squad car pulled up in the street, and both of Rowan’s parents emerged. Kate watched them arguing with their son, and when they failed to persuade him to come with them, one of the officers took him by the arm and got him into the car with a minimum of force.

She had no way of knowing if they would take the kind of steps needed to get him a proper diagnosis, but there was a chance that at least they could keep him from fleeing again for another few days, in which time she might be able to gather enough evidence of the outbreak to trigger a full-scale public health response, and clear her name to the point where she could make sure that Rowan was included.

When the squad car drove away, she sat on a bench in the mall, pondering her next step. She was on CCTV now, and regardless of her changed hairstyle it was only a matter of time before anyone seriously looking for her would be able to start reconstructing her movements.

So she had to return to the warehouse that night, or she might not get another chance.

 

9

Kate had expected the warehouse to be pitch black by nightfall—with the occasional beam from a phone, deployed sparingly—but it turned out that some of the squatters had obtained what looked like solar-charged hurricane lamps, which they set up on crates to spread a warm yellow light across the cavernous space. There was even a small portable microwave that people were using to heat up food. The mood of the place was almost cozy, as if they’d gathered here to ride out a storm or a flood, strangers united, however warily, against a shared calamity.

The squatters around her had been taciturn when she’d introduced herself, but she felt more like a newcomer than an outsider—on probation, not rejected. So far she’d sighted fifteen people, and among them she’d recognized four of the missing whose families she’d interviewed: Suzanne Reyes, Ahmed Fahadi, Gary Katsaros, and Linda Blethyn. Since none of them were minors, or the subject of warrants, there was no point trying to get police involved; it was possible that the best thing she could do would be to keep her mouth shut until morning, then find ways to tip off their loved ones. If she could get enough people who’d been affected by the disease reunited with the people who could recognize their condition, her job would be half done.

Gary and Suzanne had been using the microwave, but now Kate saw them walking straight toward her, carrying containers of food.

“Are you hungry?” Suzanne asked. “It’s Chinese, not too spicy.”

Kate nodded gratefully and accepted the meal, then she gestured to the floor and the three of them sat cross-legged on her blanket. Her companions were both around her own age, and though she knew Suzanne had spent time in shelters, both were better dressed than she was.

Gary looked around across the warehouse floor. “This isn’t how I saw myself ending up.”

Kate laughed sympathetically. “Me neither.”

“But when my wife changed, I couldn’t stay in the house. I couldn’t stay there, pretending that nothing had happened.”

Suzanne remained silent, but she was watching Kate intently. “Changed how?” Kate asked.

“Hollowed out,” Gary replied. “The first time I saw her, I didn’t think it was her at all. Everything that made her who she was had gone. Just because her face was the same, how could I recognize her without that spark? But it was her body, I had to accept that in the end. Her body was still there; it was everything else that had drained away.”

Kate stared back at him, unable to speak. He was not infected with the disease that had claimed Reza and Michael; his wife was. Kate had spoken to her for twenty minutes, but to a stranger, emitting the right words in the right order was enough for her to pass as normal.

Had they all been hollowed out—everyone she’d interviewed who’d claimed that it was the missing family member whose behavior had changed? Even Rowan’s mother? Kate struggled with her memories of the interview. It was one thing to be oblivious to the lack of familiar cues that only someone who’d known her for years would expect, but nothing about her fears for her child had rung false.

Suzanne said, “My husband was the same. When I woke up, I thought there was a rapist in my bed. If I hadn’t seen his appendectomy scar, I might have bashed his brains out.”

Kate looked down at the blanket. “It was the same for me,” she confessed. “My husband and my son. Then my sister, and one of my colleagues…”

Suzanne reached over and squeezed her shoulder.

“It’s spreading,” Gary said. “The hollowing is spreading. And it’s so hard to stop, because only the nearest can know who’s been taken.”

Kate said, “We need to go to the Department of Health. If there are enough of us telling the same story, they’ll have to investigate.”

Suzanne responded with the kind of smile that seemed to say they might as well light up the Bat-Signal. “I know two people who did that: a woman and her son. No one heard of them again. It’s spread to the government, it’s spread to the hospitals, it’s spread to the police.”

Kate shook her head vehemently. “But it can’t be everyone. It must be just a few.”

“How can you be sure?” Gary countered. “In someone you know, it’s unmissable. In anyone else, how could you tell?”

Kate had no reply. She’d thought she was close to turning things around, but all she’d done was send Rowan back to the robotic remnants of his parents, to be treated as if he was the one who’d lost his mind. Everything she’d been taking comfort from was being kicked out from under her.

Gary said, “The only way to fight this is for each of us to do what no one else can. We need to honor those who were our nearest. Prepare ourselves for what needs to be done, then go back to them and grant them peace.”

Kate’s fists tightened, but she spoke as calmly as she could. “Don’t say that. They can be brought back. They can be cured.”

“This is a war now,” Suzanne insisted. “Do you really think it would be merciful to spare them—and just sit around hoping that a cure is going to fall from the sky, while they spread the infection even further? Imagine a world where people like us are outnumbered. Do you have any idea how close to that we might be, even now?”

“So have you slaughtered your family?” Kate retorted, knowing the answer full well. She turned to Gary. “Have you?”

“No,” Gary replied, but his tone made no concession to her stance. “We need to act in concert, all on the same night. They can’t be prepared for this—we need to take them by surprise.”

“That’s monstrous.” Kate was numb. “You don’t murder people just because they’re sick.”

Suzanne said, “It’s the hardest thing you could ask of anyone, but Natalie showed us: If you’re strong, it can be done. If you loved them, and you face up to what they’ve become, it can be done.”

Kate had no words. Suzanne squeezed her shoulder again. “It’s tough,” she said. “You need time. We’ll talk again soon.”

They left her sitting on the tattered blanket. Kate watched as they crossed the floor and met up with Linda and Ahmed.

So this was the brave resistance against the horrors of the plague: people ready to abandon all hope in medicine, and just cull the herd. She could understand how shocking their personal experience had been, but the way they were reading it could not be right. No disease in history had ever spread so fast that the infected outnumbered the healthy.

Kate closed her eyes and saw an image of Beth, the big sister she’d worshipped, defending her from a clique of narcissistic bullies on her first day of high school. But then she pictured the shell of a woman she’d seen standing on the porch, holding the thing that had been her nephew. What were the odds that Beth had been infected at the same time as Reza and Michael, unless the disease had run rampant across the city? What were the odds that Chris Santos would be infected too? He lived on the other side of the river.

She lay down and curled up on the blanket. The world couldn’t change overnight, without warning. Nothing worked like that; it defied all logic.

But she couldn’t deny the evidence of her senses: Reza, Michael, Beth and Chris had all succumbed. Her only hope of proving the catastrophists wrong was to test their dismal hypothesis further. She had to put aside her fears of ridicule and betrayal, and take her story to as many people as possible who she had ever had reason to trust.

 

10

Kate slipped out of the warehouse just after dawn, leaving everyone else still sleeping. She’d been afraid that Natalie’s disciples might have had someone watching her, but they could hardly keep all their potential recruits under surveillance. And if she’d tried to turn them in, what would she say, to whom? That half a dozen homeless people were planning an uprising? Did the hollow men and women even understand their own nature well enough to conceive of the uninfected as any kind of threat? If they were just puppets going through the motions of living out the lives that their original hosts would have lived, how could that include any scenario that reflected their own difference?

As she strode down the highway, she tried to stare down her qualms and fix on a choice of confidant: someone who lived far from the center of the outbreak that had claimed Natalie’s family, and who had no more reason to be infected than anyone Kate might have plucked off the street at random.

Emily had been her closest friend in high school, and if they hadn’t met up in person all that often in the last few years, that had only been a matter of how busy they’d both become. She’d visited Kate just after Michael was born, and when Kate thought back over their conversation, she felt sure that she’d be able to tell at once if anything had changed inside her friend’s skull.

Emily was living in Coomera, some forty kilometers south; not exactly walking distance. Kate found a bus stop for the route into the city and joined a small queue of early commuters. She met one woman’s gaze and they exchanged polite greetings. Hollowed or not? Infected or not? If this disease spread so rapidly, so easily, how had she been spared, herself? Some natural immunity? Some genetic quirk? She’d survived sharing a bed with Reza, but how many of the hollowed could she share a bus with before her luck ran out?

It was midmorning by the time Kate arrived in Coomera, but Emily worked from home, so there was no reason for her not to be around. Kate rang the bell and stood waiting, anxiously. She could feel herself already gloomily prejudging the verdict, on no evidence whatsoever.

She rang again, then banged on the door. “Emily?”

A young man emerged from the house next door. “I think she’s still away for another week.”

“Oh.”

“Either that, or she’s tricked me into watering her plants while she sleeps all day,” he joked.

Kate smiled. “I should have called first.” As she walked down the road toward the bus stop, she remembered Emily talking about a business trip to Texas to meet with potential investors. She’d apologized for dropping in so soon after Kate came home from hospital with Michael, but she’d been preparing to leave in the next day or two. Kate hadn’t entirely forgotten; she’d just assumed she would have been back by now.

Half an hour into the long ride north, the bus passed a battered pay phone. Kate rang the bell and got off at the next stop. She walked back to the pay phone, trying to recall Emily’s number; it had been years since she’d had to dial it. When she punched her best guess into the keypad, a bland synthetic voice offered her a hint of success: “The number you have dialed currently redirects to an international destination. Do you wish to proceed with the call?”

Kate said, “Yes.”

After six rings, she heard: “You’ve reached Emily’s phone, please leave a message.” Kate slammed the handset down. She recognized her friend’s voice, but it had been stripped of any trace of warmth and humor.

She stood by the phone as the traffic sped past beside her, trying to understand what had happened. Had Emily been carrying the virus even before she’d flown out of Brisbane, and only succumbed to it after she’d arrived in America? And then… what? She’d re-recorded her phone’s greeting, to reflect her new, diminished state of consciousness? Unless she was actually an alien pod-person signaling to her fellow invaders, why would she even think of doing that?

Kate called the number again, listened to the recording again. She’d heard the same words dozens of times over the last ten years. And she could not put her finger on any change in timing, pitch, or intonation.

She called a third time, covering her left ear against the traffic noise. Every syllable was shaped and positioned just as it always had been—like the freckles on Reza’s shoulders. It was only the deeper meaning that had slipped away.

But this was a sound file, a digital waveform—and if it was literally unchanged, then any meaning with which the speaker had imbued it ought to remain intact.

Kate called again, trying to block out any emotional reaction to the voice and judge it entirely as she would a series of beeps in an audiology test. The result was not what she’d expected: The affectless drone she’d been hearing before suddenly seemed more human, not less.

Just as the tone sounded for the caller to leave a message, the faint hiss on the line changed, and a live voice, thick from sleep, said, “Hello?”

Kate said, “Emily?”

“Kate? Is something wrong?”

“No. Did I wake you?”

“It’s all right; it’s not that late here.”

“I didn’t realize you’d still be away.”

“Yeah… I’ve had a lot of interest in the project, but these things never go to plan.”

Kate kept the conversation going while saying as little as possible herself, prodding Emily along with small talk, while tuning her own expectations in and out. The more she sought a feeling of solace and intimacy, the more her friend’s voice mocked and disappointed her. But when she emptied her mind and just listened, everything sounded normal.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Emily asked. “You sound a bit out of it.”

“Work’s been crazy,” Kate replied. “There’s a case… I can’t talk about it now, but maybe when you get back.”

When she’d hung up the call, she sat on the concrete beside the pay phone. There was only one conclusion that made any sense now, but trying to acknowledge it was like trying to take control of an optical illusion. The cube needed to evert; the vase needed to recede into the gap between two faces. All along, she’d been confusing figure and ground. But she’d been right to believe that the people who’d fled their families had been the ones affected by disease; her mistake had been to change her mind. Because she had fled for the very same reason.

Kate felt her whole body shaking, as if she’d just clawed her way back from a precipice. Michael and Reza weren’t suffering from any kind of illness. Beth, Chris and Emily were all in perfect health. And whatever she’d been afflicted with, herself, she had to believe that it could be treated. She had to cling to that hope, just as she had when the roles had appeared to be reversed.

She staggered to her feet. She thought of calling Reza, to set his mind at ease, but she was afraid that if she heard his voice everything might flip again.

As she walked toward the bus stop, she pictured herself back in the emergency department—where she should have remained, as Reza had beseeched her to, all those nights ago. But once she was admitted to hospital, once the psychiatrists and neurologists were debating the cause and extent of her delusions, how seriously would any of her colleagues treat her testimony? How much of what she had actually discovered would they believe?

How quickly would they act to protect the families who were marked for the same fate as Natalie’s?

She couldn’t take the risk that they’d ignore her. She couldn’t run away and hide in a hospital bed while the righteous army rose up against the hollow ones, and the true believers honored those they’d loved by granting them peace.

 

11

“I’ve been wondering about something,” Kate said. She was sitting with the other runaways: Linda, Gary, Suzanne and Ahmed, huddled in a circle away from the merely homeless, who were hostile or agnostic when it came to their cause. “Exactly where did this disease come from? And exactly how does it spread?”

“Does it matter?” Linda replied. “We know it’s spreading fast, whatever the route.”

But Suzanne was less dismissive. “It could be important. Did you have something in mind?”

Kate said, “My yard has a couple of fig trees, right at the back. And those fig trees are full of fruit bats. I don’t actually go down there and roll around in the guano, but our dog was doing that all the time.” She looked around the circle, hunting for any sign that this scenario, based on what she’d seen at Natalie’s house, might be describing a shared condition. “Remember the Hendra virus? It went from fruit bats to horses, then people. What if this is something like that—but with dogs instead of horses as the link?”

The group was silent for a while, then Ahmed said, “My dog was acting strangely for a couple of days before I left. But my wife had nothing to do with him; she wouldn’t even let him in the house.”

“Do you have fig trees?” Kate asked.

“No. But our neighbor does, and some of the branches hang over the fence.”

She waited, but no one else volunteered their own zoonotic risk profile. If the details didn’t match, why not say so?

Gary said, “In any case, we know it must be jumping straight from human to human now.”

Kate frowned. “What makes you so sure?”

“Because of the speed,” Linda interjected.

“But what exactly do we know about the speed?”

Linda was starting to lose patience. “My mother, in Sydney, was already affected the very same day my husband changed. I called her up to try to tell her something was wrong, and she was… gone.”

Kate nodded soberly. “It hit my sister, the same night as my husband and my son. But this morning…” She steeled herself, ready to find out the hard way if her own revelatory experience could sway anyone else. “I called a friend who’s been in America for the last two months—”

Everyone turned away from her to look across the warehouse floor, back toward the loading bay. A woman was approaching the circle. Her eyes were lowered, and she’d shaved her head, but as she crossed into the yellow light of the hurricane lamps, Kate recognized her by the shape of her face.

Her four companions rose to their feet, and Kate followed them. Each of them embraced Natalie in turn, and then Gary introduced her to Kate.

Kate shook her hand in silence. Natalie didn’t meet her gaze. The six of them sat on the tartan picnic blanket that Gary had spread on the concrete floor.

Natalie said, “It has to be tonight.”

“Are you sure?” Gary asked. “Once we tip our hand, there’ll be no going back. And I still think I can get more recruits. Rowan’s gone missing, but he might turn up—”

“No. We can’t wait any longer.” Natalie spoke calmly, but with a tone of authority. “We need to send a signal to all the people who are still unreachable. We need to let them know that they’re not alone, that there’s an army on their side, and an example they can follow.”

“I understand.” Gary looked around the circle. “Is everyone ready?”

Everyone but Kate nodded, but Kate saw Ahmed glance her way uncertainly. If she gave him more reason to doubt, there might be a chance that she could break the consensus.

She said, “Please, can I share a story with you? It will only take a minute.” Forget Emily and her voicemail. She needed to cut closer to home.

Gary looked to Natalie, then said, “Of course.”

“The night I left my family,” Kate began, “I was driving around for a long time, trying to decide what to do. Then I thought: I’ll go to my sister. She’ll help me, she’ll understand. I didn’t have my phone, so I couldn’t call her. But as I drove toward her house, as I got closer and closer, the more I thought about what would happen once I knocked on her door, the more certain I was that she’d already gone the way of my husband and my son. I knew she was exactly like them—without even seeing her, without even talking to her.

“So I thought: I’ll go to my friend Chris. He lived much farther away, but I trusted him. So I set off south, heading for his apartment, glad I still had someone I could turn to. And the same thing happened. I never arrived; I never saw him, I never heard his voice. But I was absolutely sure that he’d been hollowed out.

“What does that mean? Do I have some magical sense of who’s changed, that I can know that without even meeting them?”

Natalie said, “You made a guess, that’s all.” Her manner was growing brittle and defensive. She was an intelligent woman; she knew there was no intuition that could work like this, no presentiment that could be trusted in the absence of a single fact to guide it.

“But the feeling was so strong,” Kate insisted. “As strong as when I saw what my husband had become, lying beside me in my bed. I never let him speak, either. I just knew, because it was so clear to me. But now, if I’m honest with myself, I’m afraid that it wasn’t him who changed. I’m afraid—”

Natalie snapped. She started screaming, then she leaned over and began pummeling Kate with her fists. Linda and Ahmed took hold of her, pulling her back, but she kept shrieking and thrashing. Suzanne began sobbing, staring at Kate in horror, as if she’d just stabbed all five of her comrades through the heart.

Kate kept talking, sickened by the cruelty of what she was doing to a woman already annihilated by grief, but determined to finish the job for the sake of anyone still tempted to follow her.

She said, “I’m afraid I’m the one who changed. The dog dug around in the bat shit, then she got sick, and I let her lick my face. My face, not my husband’s, not my son’s. I thought they’d lost everything that made them human, but now I know that it was all in my head.”

 

12

“Surprise!” Reza called out from the far side of the visitor’s yard. He was holding a child in his arms.

Kate approached them warily. “Is that really him?” As soon as the words slipped out, she wished she could take them back, but if Reza heard them as more than a figure of speech he did nothing to show it. “He’s grown so much,” she added.

“Yeah. I’m fattening him up for sumo school.” He smiled and held Michael out toward her.

Kate hesitated, afraid that after so long he wouldn’t recognize her. But he gazed placidly into her face, and offered no protest when she took him in her arms.

They sat together on one of the benches.

“That beard’s getting out of control,” she told Reza.

“Ah, but you love it, don’t you?”

“It helps.” The neurologist had suggested this trick, and it seemed to be working. The new Reza reminded her of the old one, just enough to invoke memories of him without raising her expectations too high, while she built a new set of responses to the way he looked now. Sometimes it felt wrong when she kissed him, like some sick game with twins, but if she had to choose between the old Reza being dead to her forever, or reincarnated in this imperfect look-alike, she’d settle for transmigration into a doppelgänger with a beard.

She turned to Michael, and he reached up and put a hand on her face. “Who is the most beautiful boy?” she asked. “Can you guess who that is?” He smiled, a little smugly, as if he knew he was being flattered simply from her tone. That seemed new, but she could love what was new. Everything that mattered most in his life was yet to come.

Reza put an arm around her shoulders, and she didn’t flinch.

“The last scan showed no inflammation,” she said. “And there’s no more trace of the virus in my CSF. So maybe another week. They’re still cautious; some of the others have had flare-ups.”

“I’m glad they’re cautious,” he said. “But we can’t wait to have you home.”

Kate bent down and kissed Michael three times in rapid succession. He cooed with delight and tugged at her hair. Nobody could tell her what the future held, for her or the seventeen others. “Capgras syndrome” was just a name for a cluster of symptoms that had been seen in half a dozen different diseases; it was not the means to divine a prognosis. But even if her raw perceptions of people had forever lost their power to evoke the emotional history that had once fleshed out their meaning, her love for her family had not been lost. She just had to find detours around the barriers, and dig tunnels to the deeper truth.

“How’s your father been?” she asked Reza.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Kate was worried for a moment, but Reza didn’t seem upset.

“This worked for him, too.” He stroked his beard. “He’s out of that fucking desert prison, back in Isfahan in the seventies. I don’t look like his father, but I can pass for one of his uncles, and apparently they got on pretty well. I told him he was staying in a posh hotel where the staff all liked practicing their English for the tourists.”

Kate began crying, but when she saw the effect on Michael she forced herself to stop.

“It’s all right,” Reza said. “He’s happy now. Everything’s going to be all right.”

Text copyright © 2018 by Greg Egan
Art copyright © 2018 by Ashley Mackenzie

citation

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