Almost the moment I woke I knew that it was going to be a significant day. I could feel it in the air like the electrical charge before a thunderstorm.
I expected Lorraine to pick up on it, but when I entered the kitchen she was humming to herself cheerily and mixing a fateful batter.
“Lemon drizzle,” she explained. “Feels like a day for lemon drizzle, don’t you think, love? Cuppa?”
I mumbled something vague and sat down in my usual place. When Lorraine was baking she liked me to stay out of the way and wait for her to bring things to me.
Hercules came to look at me while Lorraine was busying around. He at least did seem aware that something was up. His expression was serious, his eyes electric blue. I had the peculiar idea that he was trying to warn me not to mention the feeling to Lorraine.
I suppose that after a certain amount of time living with a self-proclaimed witch some of the superstition was bound to rub off on you. I wondered what mum and dad would say if they knew my landlady ran séances. Then I thought about how long it was since I’d spoken to them at all about anything and my stomach lurched with alarm.
I was opening my mouth to say something when Hercules swatted my foot. He glowered up at me meaningfully.
I closed my mouth and gave him a clumsy stroke.
After a quick breakfast I tried to paint, but I felt oddly nervous and shaky. I couldn’t relax into painting-mode, any marks I made felt wrong. Instead I looked through my completed pictures – and was surprised to discover how many there were.
One in particular caught my eye. It was the one that the handsome Kit had been interested by; the mysterious woman swathed in darkness. Today it seemed important for some reason. I stared at it for a long time, as if expecting some new meaning to eventually become clear.
I was startled out of my reverie by the doorbell. Lorraine was poised to answer. I watched from the backroom doorway as she let Kit in and showed him through to the front parlour.
He was even prettier than I remembered. He nodded at me as he followed Lorraine’s directions. I had a horrible feeling that I might be blushing.
Lorraine stuck her head back round the door and asked me to bring through some coffee and lemon drizzle. I nodded mutely.
How peculiar that Kit should appear just as I was thinking about him…
Lorraine was in full flow when I brought in the tray. Kit was smiling and making appreciative noises as Lorraine explained to him how clever she had been.
“We really do value your talents, Mrs Crossley,” he bravely attempted to interject.
“Please, love, call me Lorraine,” Lorraine insisted, before recommencing her talk. She was overexcited, keen to impress. Kit winked at me conspiratorially as she leant over to cut him a slice of cake.
The wink bothered me. I rattled around in the kitchen uneasily thinking about it. I was sure that Kit was planning something.
Hercules jumped up onto the work surface to get my attention. Stroking him made me feel immediately much calmer. He gave a rusty purr.
“I’m being ridiculous,” I said to him.
He gave me a pitying look with his wise amber eyes.
Kit appeared in the doorway.
“You’ve got six minutes,” he said firmly.
“Six minutes for what?”
“To pack anything you want to bring, before we get out of here.”
I rushed past him to the front room. Lorraine was slumped sideways on the settee with her mouth open and her eyes closed.
“She’s fine,” Kit said, behind me. “She’ll be fine. You won’t be, though. She’s been keeping you here, playing with your mind.”
I turned to him numbly. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked deeply into my eyes.
“Are you following me? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded sadly. My head felt suddenly, painfully clear.
“I can get you out of here,” Kit said earnestly. “I can help you. But only if you come with me now. There’s a car waiting outside. You have four minutes to grab anything you’d like to bring.”
“What about Hercules?”
Kit’s brow furrowed.
“The cat,” I explained.
“No,” Kit said firmly. “Marina is not a cat person.”
“Who is Marina?”
“Your patron to be,” Kit said. His habitual smile had faded.
Hercules was at my feet. He butted me with his head, which I read as a prompt to get moving. I crouched down to confer with him.
“Should I go?”
He butted me again. Yes, he meant. I rubbed his head fondly. He nuzzled briefly against my leg then sprang off to stand guard over Lorraine.
“Two minutes,” said Kit.
“Nothing I have here really matters.”
“Paintings?” Kit asked.
“Will there be enough room in the car?”
“Oh yes,” Kit assured.
He followed me into the back room and helped me to collect them up and carry them outside. A sleek black car with tinted windows was parked a little way down the road. Kit opened a cavernous boot and began piling the paintings inside.
I looked back at the house. Just an ordinary house on an ordinary road. A feeling of guilt washed over me.
Kit took hold of my shoulder and steered me away. He opened the back door of the car and beckoned for me to get in, walking round to take the driver’s seat himself. I slid into the back seat and closed the door.
“We meet at last.”
She was sitting on the other side. She smiled, with very red lips and very white teeth. She was the woman from my painting. She held out an elegant pale hand for me to shake.
“Marina Gallows,” she introduced herself.
“Edward Thompson,” I admitted, taking her hand warily.
“You’ve been through something of an ordeal,” Marina said tenderly in a tone that clashed cloyingly with everything else about her – sleek, seductive, hard. I withdrew my hand. She watched the move with interest, read my expression with her large, lovely eyes. “Don’t worry. Kit and I are here to help. No more harm will come to you while you’re under my protection.”
I looked to Kit in the driver’s seat. He caught my eye in the mirror and gave me a reassuring nod.
“Thank you,” I said cautiously.
Kit started the car with a smooth purr and pulled out into the road. In moments we had left the house and Lorraine far behind us.
“Drink this,” Marina commanded, handing me a silver hipflask, “it will help with the shock.”
I tried to catch Kit’s eye again, but he was concentrating on navigating a series of ‘traffic calming’ bumps in the road. Marina was holding it out expectantly and it seemed rude to refuse, so I accepted it. She nodded encouragingly, waiting. I held it to my lips and took the smallest possible of sips.
Everything went dark around me.
The room was very bright and clean. I was lying on a long, smooth sofa. Marina was standing at a huge window proudly displaying an amazing vista of London. She wasn’t looking at the view, though, but at my paintings, which were lined up against the glass.
“Oh good, you’re awake,” she said, before turning around. She called out to Kit to bring us some coffee then came over to sit in a nearby red leather armchair.
“I’m sorry about knocking you out,” she said simply. “I hope your head’s ok?”
“It’s fine,” I said, slightly surprised not be feeling groggy and disoriented. I pulled myself into a sitting position.
“It was supposed to help clear away the last of the enchantments from your mind. I’m afraid that I hadn’t been warned of its potency.”
“You must be fed up of feeling like a pawn in someone else’s game,” Marina said sympathetically.
“Something like that,” I said. I felt very deeply on edge. Marina was dangerous. I had known that when I was painting her, when she had just been a mysterious figure emerging on the canvas. Now that she was before me in the flesh, I felt like a young deer in the presence of a wolf.
“Kit told me about your paintings,” she said. She seemed to have decided that cooing and seduction were not the order of the day, and was speaking more or less plainly, fixing me to the spot with her dark eyes. “I’ll admit that I was curious to see them for myself. But I would have rescued you anyway. My moral code may appear dubious to some, but I certainly believe that people should be free in their choices. Not brainwashed into subjugation.”
Kit appeared with freshly made coffee in a cafetiere. He seemed rather subdued. He placed it on a low glass table along with two small cups.
“Milk? Sugar?” Marina asked. I shook my head mutely. “A man after my own heart. Coffee should always be black.”
Kit lingered for a moment, but drifted away when Marina did not invite him to join the conversation. Marina saw me watching him go and smiled.
“I’ll be honest, Eddie. I can see why she wanted to keep you. You clearly have a lot of… potential. But the way she went about things was all wrong.”
“She made me forget to go to my job,” I said. I could feel a deep stirring of anger somewhere. “It was the whole reason that I came to London, and she made me forget about it. And about my parents. They’ll be worried sick.”
“We can sort all that out,” Marina said calmly. “We can help you decide what to tell your parents. And if you still want that job, I can help you to get it back. I’m good at getting what I want.”
“Thank you,” I said cautiously, waiting for the catch.
“But,” said Marina, smiling again, knowing I had been expecting it, “I would really rather that you came to work for me.”
“More or less what you were doing for Mrs Crossley,” Marina shrugged, “only getting paid for doing it.”
“Hanging around painting things? Why would you pay me to do that?”
“You’ve really no idea of your own abilities, do you?” Marina laughed. “Don’t you think that it’s rather extraordinary that you painted me before we had ever met?”
“I supposed it is a bit odd.”
“It’s not just odd, it’s potentially very useful,” Marina insisted, “if channelled correctly, as I believe it could be.”
“Oh,” I said it. It was too much to take in after so much strangeness.
“Anyhow, you’ll need some time to digest and think about it. You are welcome to stay here for a few days while you mull it over. You could stay here indefinitely, if you so choose; there’s plenty of room. I’d pay you very well. And your free time would be just that. You could have your own life, explore London.”
“It’s a lot to think about,” I said.
“I know, darling,” Marina agreed. “No rush. Now, I have an engagement to get to. I’ll be back this evening. In the meantime, Kit will look after you. Anything you want, he’ll get it for you.”
She stood up, rearranging her long dark hair so it fell over one shoulder becomingly.
“How do I look?”
“Beautiful,” I admitted.
She smiled triumphantly and planted a kiss on my cheek before slinking away.
I clambered off the sofa and went to look at the astonishing view of the city. Wherever we were was very central and very high up. It was a phenomenal vantage point, with London spread all around alluringly.
“It’s a stunning view,” Kit said, materialising beside me.
“Yes,” I agreed. “She must be very rich.”
“Oh yes. Are you hungry at all?”
“Yes,” I realised with surprise.
“Rather than me burn things at you, may I take you out? On us?”
I agreed. I had a feeling that he had something that he wished to say away from the apartment. I followed him through the impressively lavish, tastefully decorated space, out to an opulent landing and very shiny lift. We stayed silent for the journey down and as we traversed the plush foyer. Kit nodded at the doorman as we exited into blustery London air.
“What sort of food would you like?” Kit asked.
“Nothing too fancy, please,” I said.
He grinned and took me away from the big, posh main street down a quieter side-road. From there he turned again into an even smaller road. Halfway down it was a café – far from a greasy spoon, but nothing particularly special. Kit steered us to a quiet corner at the back of the space. He waited until an unsmiling waitress had come to take our order before saying his piece.
“Marina isn’t so very different from Mrs Crossley, you know,” he started earnestly.
“I know,” I said quickly. He grinned with relief that he wasn’t going to have to persuade me.
“I don’t want to work for her,” I admitted. “I just want to go back to normal.”
Kit’s frowned with concern. “I’m not sure how achievable ‘normal’ might be at this stage.”
“I know,” I laughed. “It’s a bit late for that now. But I definitely don’t need anyone else trying to get inside my head or controlling me.”
“No,” Kit agreed. “I’m sorry about introducing you to Marina. I couldn’t think of a way of getting you out of that house without her help.”
“She won’t take no for an answer,” I ventured.
“She won’t,” Kit concurred. “Luckily, this is a big city. If you were to just disappear without saying goodbye, I’m fairly sure you’d be fine.”
“Right,” I said, determined, but rather daunted at the prospect.
“If you happened to look in the left-hand pocket of my coat when I visit the loo, you might find a few useful things in there,” Kit said casually. “Such as some money, an oyster card and a burner phone.”
“That’s too kind,” I protested. Kit shook his head.
“I’ve done some bad things recently,” he said sadly. “It’s time to start counterbalancing.”
“What about you? Don’t you want to get out too? You could come with me?”
He shook his head.
“Mate, I’ve made my bed. I’ll be fine. Honestly.” He tried to grin, but it wasn’t his most convincing attempt. “So. Good luck. Live well. Keep it subtle on your way out – just reach into my pocket like you’ve every right to when you’re getting the stuff, then slip casually out the door as though you’re going for a quick fag. Then go. Find a station, get on a tube, follow your nose. Have an adventure.”
He smiled properly, in the way that filled my heart with yearning.
“Right, I’m going for a slash,” he said loudly, slipping me a quick wink as he stood up and edged through the tables and chairs to the toilet.
It was easy. I did just as he said; reached into his coat pocket, pulled out the envelope, the oyster card, the phone, slipped them into my own pockets. I sauntered through the café, smiling at the unhappy waitress, and was suddenly out on my own in the streets of London.
I walked away at a purposeful pace; not so fast as to appear suspicious.
I felt oddly light as I walked through unfamiliar streets full of interesting looking goings on. There was so much to explore, so much to see.
It was time to start living, on my own terms.