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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

Hard Light

BOOK: Hard Light
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In loving memory of Bob Morales, the best friend Cass Neary ever had.

 

To put it more simply, you look most quickly and instinctively at those pictures that suggest, in their mere black and white pattern, something that was
feared
by your ancestor that lived in a cave.

—William Mortensen,
The Command to Look

 

PART ONE

LONDON

The coroner's photographer's job is gruesome, but it does not affect his appetite because when viewed objectively, his subject is little different from other still life, except it offers more complication.

—William Mortensen,
Flash in Modern Photography

 

1

A stolen passport will only get you so far. In my case, that was through Customs and Immigration at Heathrow, where I stood in the line for EU travelers, praying I wouldn't have to fake a Swedish accent as an impassive official ran a check on my documentation.

“You're here for three weeks.” She glanced at my landing card. “The purpose of your visit?”

“Vacation.”

There are advantages to being a six-foot-tall blonde arriving on a flight from Reykjavík. The passport official nodded, slid the passport back across the counter, and turned her attention to the person behind me.

In a police lineup you could mistake me for the woman in the Swedish passport photo: we were both tall, with shoulder-length ragged blond hair and gray-blue eyes. The main difference was that Cassandra Neary, of New York, New York, could be charged as an accessory to more than one murder. Dagney Ahlstrand of Uppsala, Sweden, was a junkie, but as far as I knew, she hadn't killed anyone. Yet.

I'd left Iceland under a cloud: Shortly after takeoff I looked out my window and saw a lurid red eye open then burst in the black wilderness far below. A volcanic eruption, an appropriate sendoff for a thirty-six-hour visit that had begun with me searching for my sometime lover and ex-con Quinn and ended with an escalating body count. The eruption delayed our landing, which gave me a chance to recover slightly from the lingering affects of hypothermia and a near-fatal amount of crank.

I was anxious to put as many miles as possible between me and Reykjavík, and even more anxious to meet up again with Quinn, who'd booked a later flight to Heathrow. We'd agreed to rendezvous at a bar owned by a friend of his in Brixton. I had my share of the blood money I'd earned in Iceland—a decent stash, but I had no idea how long I'd be in London, or how long until Quinn joined me. He'd said a few days. Given that thirty-odd years had passed before our most recent reunion, I could be in for a long wait.

I'd never been to London. Technically, I still wasn't here. Until recently, I'd spent my life thinking that downtown New York was the center of the known universe. The last few decades had eroded that belief system, as billionaires and chain stores moved in and NYU continued its land grab, converting the Lower East Side into dorms for kids whose dreams of beatnik glory didn't quite jibe with their eight-hundred-dollar Jimmy Choos and bespoke tablet cases.

The stolen passport belonged to an ex-girlfriend of Quinn's. Dagney resembled me in that we were both lanky women of a certain age with substance abuse issues. I could only assume I'd imprinted on Quinn back when we first got involved in high school—that would explain his predilection for rogue blondes who could throw a punch then hit the ground running.

I shoved the passport into the battered satchel that held my old thirteen-millimeter Konica, a couple of moth-eaten cashmere sweaters, socks, and an extra pair of stovepipe jeans, all black. That, my leather jacket and ancient Tony Lamas, and a few canisters of Tri-X B&W film were all she wrote. I don't own much, besides seven hundred vinyl LPs and 45s and an impressive collection of stolen coffee table books on photography, all back in my rent-stabilized apartment on Houston Street. No laptop, no smartphone, no presence on social media. I'm the ghost of punk, haunting the twenty-first century in disintegrating black-and-white; one of those living fossils you read about who usually show up, dead, in a place you've never heard of.

I unzipped my battered motorcycle jacket and headed for the exit, glancing back at the people who thronged the queue for non-EU and UK nationals. Three uniformed men were questioning a family group—a man in a rumpled suit, a burka-clad woman, and several small children. The man began gesturing angrily as a cop grasped his arm and dragged him toward a door. The woman began to cry.

I looked away, quickening my pace till I reached the door, where a beefeater on a brightly colored sign proclaimed WELCOME, WE HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY. I kept my head down and pushed my way through the crowd inside the terminal.

This, too, is what it means to be a ghost: You forever witness your own slow self-destruction, and that of those around you. But no one knows what you've seen until it's too late.

 

2

It was mid-afternoon when I trudged into a gray-lit tunnel beneath Terminal Three and made my way to the Heathrow Express platform to catch a packed train into London. I caught fragments of conversation among passengers who'd landed around the same time I had. A plume of volcanic ash from the Icelandic eruption had added to the disruptions caused by torrential rains and wind across the UK. Planes were being rerouted all across Europe. All flights from Reykjavík were canceled. Quinn's arrival no longer seemed a matter of
when
but
if.

By the time I reached Paddington, the platforms were crammed with grim-faced people dragging suitcases. An overhead flatscreen TV displayed a glowing mountain that spewed magma and flaming contrails across a black sky. The scene switched to monstrous waves smashing into a lighthouse. I stopped to join a crowd reading the news crawler.

MILLIONS STRANDED BY ICELAND VOLCANIC ERUPTION

FLOODING CONTINUES IN SOUTHWEST: RECORD 90-FOOT WAVE DESTROYS HISTORIC PERWITH LIGHT STATION

NO END IN SIGHT TO WORST RAINS IN 500 YEARS

I hoisted my bag and continued on to the Underground. After a few steps I halted, steadying myself against the wall.

The air around me shimmered. I felt dizzy, tasting copper in the back of my mouth. I coughed, touched a hand to my lips, withdrew it, and saw my fingertips flecked with blood. I struggled to remember where I was, stared numbly at an advertisement until Quinn's face filled my mind's eye, the shining arc of a metal wire slicing through a man's throat. I had a flash of the night terrors that had dogged me for months. When I looked up, I saw an armed policeman watching me from across the crowded concourse. I took a deep breath, and kept walking.

An hour later I emerged from the Brixton Underground station. The heavy rain had turned to sleet. My eyes watered as icy pellets stung my face. The cold felt good: Pain I could understand and fight, even if I lost. I hunched my shoulders, pulled up the collar of my leather jacket, and headed for the corner.

The clock inside the station had read 3:35, but outside it was already nearly dark. People rushed past me, half hidden beneath black umbrellas as they shouted into mobile phones. A ululating police siren wailed in concert with the sustained shriek of an ambulance. A guy wearing retro Ray-Bans and a knee-length black kidskin hoodie nearly shoved me off the sidewalk as he loped past.

I whirled, landed a kick just below the back of his knee with the steel toe of my cowboy boot, turned, and kept going. From the corner of my eye I saw him crumple as I turned the corner. I kept to the center of the crowd and after a few minutes ducked into an alcove, the entry to a boarded-up record shop.

A kid in a knitted cap and filthy hoodie leaned against a wall stained with piss. A scrawny dog crouched at his feet. The boy looked at me without interest.

“Wha' gwarn?” he said. The dog whined softly.

I dug in my pocket until I found the scrap of paper where Quinn had scrawled a name—Derek somebody—and the name of a pub. “I'm looking for a place called the Gambrel.”

The kid blinked, his eyes so bloodshot they looked as though they'd been scooped from his skull. “Dinno.”

“Rawlins Street,” I said. “Know where that is?”

He gestured vaguely toward the corner. “Electric Avenue, ask 'im.”

“I asked you.” I tapped my foot, the tip of my boot ringing against concrete. The mongrel's head shot up, black lips taut against long yellow teeth, its rolling eyes the same raw crimson as the boy's. I held its gaze until it turned its head sideways, still watching me.

“He likes you.” The kid grinned. “Or he'd'a tore your throat out. Rawlins off Electric Avenue.”

I nodded thanks. “What's your dog's name?”

“Meat.”

I tossed the boy a pound coin and headed back out into the freezing rain.

 

3

The London I'd always imagined was a mashup of
Blow-Up,
Thatcher's teenage wasteland, and the covers of a thousand LPs. Any details of place derived from rock and roll songs: Stepney, Muswell Hill, Knightsbridge, Waterloo Bridge, more soundtrack than landscape. Brixton meant a song by the Clash about the notorious 1981 riots.

Electric Avenue meant another song, and the soundtrack changed every few feet, fading from reggaeton to rap to techno to Abba to West African to Bombay pop. Awnings offered scant coverage from the sleet, but business didn't seem to be suffering much. I passed halal butchers and a stall selling nothing but pig snouts; open coolers where eels coiled and thrashed; carefully stacked pyramids of durians, melons, multicolored carrots and bundles of what looked like cattail rushes. One fishmonger had more exotic sea life on ice than I'd ever seen in the New York Aquarium. I peered into a basket filled with shark fins still seeping blood. Representatives of the World Wildlife Fund might net enough endangered species here to stock an ark.

I stopped to buy goat kebabs from a woman turning skewers on a hubcap grill, stood beneath a green tarpaulin and gulped down spicy meat hot enough to blister the roof of my mouth. I felt better when I'd finished. I left the shelter of the tarp and walked to a cart where a large umbrella advertised fresh jostaberry juice.

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