I’ve mentioned in the past how a long walk will often suggest characters or situations to me. It’s a process I’ve likened to having someone fall into step with me and start to tell their story as we go.
I had a hospital appointment this morning, and afterwards decided to take a stroll back through Southwark, across the river to St Pauls and up the Strand, revisiting a few old haunts. Damned if I didn’t get a companion, murmuring in my head as I strode up Carter Lane. She had a name which I’d heard before.
I wrote down the things she told me in a couple of caffeinated jolts in shops along the river. I haven’t told the half of it. The name Westinghouse is mentioned at one point. Astute members of The Readership might recall I’ve talked about her before.
Meet Cerise Sauvage. She has a soundtrack that you might find appropriate.
The girl had problems. That much was obvious. You only had to look at her jacket. Her police record, I mean, which was stuffed to busting with misdemeanours and misbehaviour. Although the jacket she stretched over the skinny wings of her shoulders was as good a clue as any.
Standard issue black leather, the fake sort that looks like it’s been stitched together out of the corpses of a hundred other coats. A Frankenstein jacket, brought to life by the electric energy that surged through the girl that wore it. It looked like it had been chased by an angry mob with pitchforks, chased halfway up a mountain, and stomped into submission before getting hurled into a crevasse. There were two badges on the left lapel. One said HEY HO, in that blocky sans-serif Ramones font. The other said FUCK YOU. This summed up the girls philosophy, mission in life and general level of interaction with the rest of society pretty neatly.
The girl had problems. That much was clear. You just had to look at her family. The Savages squatted on their corner of Far East London like a toad, like a fog cloud, like the plague. Pa Savage was a brick wall, wider than he was tall, unmoving, unbreakable. He spoke in grunts and koans, evil twin to the Buddha. He’d been a razor boy back when he still had hair and some vague resemblance to a human being, and carried a bone-handled straight blade from Trumper in his back pocket. It hadn’t been used in years, but everyone knew about it. The threat of it, and Pa’s history with the implement, was enough.
Rita Savage was a hard-faced, hard-eyed hard case. She’d married Pa more out of spite than love, flaunting her swelling belly at him as the only weapon against which he had no defence. He was a brute, a thug and a killer, and he’d put whole street gangs through the doors of Whipps Cross A&E clutching their neatly opened cheeks and jaws, but Rita could blunt his blade with a single sharp glance. She didn’t speak much either. When she did, you could hear the whip crack of her tongue lashings three streets away. Mostly, they sat in the front room of their semi on Winter Street, seething silently at each other. Trips out were restricted to the snug of the Black Goose, where they would hog a table much bigger than they needed, and growl when someone tried to take a chair. They were a pair. Their parents were worse, by all accounts. Evil ran in the family, a tide of sour bile and tainted blood.
The girl was their only daughter, the pride and joy, their aynjul. The sight of her was the only thing that would make Pa smile. This was a good thing. When Pa showed his rubbled teeth, you were reminded of the welcome given by a shark to his dinner. They spoilt her rotten, and in the process twisted something deep in her soul. She developed a horridly perverse sense of humour, and sociopathic tendencies that would send Freud screaming for a straitjacket.
Rita and Pa taught their aynjul everything they knew, everything important. How to eke out her trust in strictly rationed packets, and not to waste it on outsiders. How to open doors that were locked, how to pluck sustenance and treats from the unsuspecting. The best hiding places for the things that fell into her hands, and for herself when she needed to be invisible for a while. The importance of always having a sharp edge within reach, and the key points on the body across which to draw it.
She learned, quickly and well, and applied those lessons to her own talents. She soon made a name for herself. Cerise Sauvage. She wore her hair in a sharp, pointed bob dyed arterial-spray red. She charmed and terrorised in equal measure, and bought goods and services rolling into the big house on Winter Street. Ma and Pa were so proud.
She gathered up a police record, which only ever told a third of the story. She did short jabs of time in remand schools and later Holloway, six months here, a two-stretch there which was inevitably chopped in half for good behaviour. Prison filled the gaps in her education, lessons that she seduced or terrified out of the inmates on whom she set her furious fire-blue gaze.
She left prison in 2013 for good, and that’s where her story really starts. The dirty bomb in the crypt of St Pauls was her idea. The judder-virus that caused 3000 people to shake themselves to marbles in bags of bloody juice the following Christmas was her idea of a joke. She’d come across an old PJ Harvey album and thought she should do what the title told her. The Prince Harry kidnap? Go on, guess.
She realised pretty quickly that crime pays, but it’s no fun. Her empire was a net, a web, a choking trap snaring the country and it’s riches, gathering the gelt for her to pluck at will. But she paid it no attention. It was self-perpetuating, an engine that did the dull work while she concentrated on using it to drive her next project. Cerise Sauvage is the closest thing we have to a super-villain, a supremely amoral being that thrives on mayhem. She feeds on the horror and despair that she causes. It nurtures her, pleasures her.
The girl’s got problems.
OK. I don’t have much time, and I’ll need to save and revert this version before she gets back. Everything you’ve read up to now is a lie. The hair colour, the eye colour. The fingerprints, randomised fractal swirls that she peels off a stiff plastic packet every morning, on film as fragile as aynjul’s eyelids. The history. The house on Winter Street has been shuttered for years. The nice old couple that lived there died when their gas boiler pumped carbon monoxide at them in their sleep. The neighbours don’t remember a daughter.
The name, even. She got that off a bottle of Body Shop shower gel. Nothing about Cerise Sauvage is real, except the threat.
The thing is, for a certain kind of person, a girl with problems is irresistible. I should know. Lord knows, I’ve been chasing her for long enough. Trying to track her through however many layers of myth, conjecture, legend and lies. Hunting her, not realising that all the time she’s known, and she’s been watching me.
I was in a pub earlier this afternoon, collating notes. I looked up as a dark shape broke from the shadows at the back of the bar, and slid into the seat next to me. She was scented with honey and old roses. “Hello, Boswell,” she said, and stuck a needle in my neck, and hazed me out to nowhere.
And here I am, in this motel room [GPS attachment: blocked] somewhere on the wastelands that moat the London Orbital like medieval defenses. Me, and my cheap laptop, and her story. The story she wants to tell, the one she wants out in the world. The lie. The distraction. She’s got something planned. Something that’ll make the Thames poisoning look like a rough sketch. She’s outside, talking on one of the cheap phones she uses and bins as casually as chewing gum.
She’s talking about shipments, about a deadline, or what she calls an event window. She keeps talking about someone called Westinghouse. I guess this Westinghouse is a girl. The words bitch and whore are used extensively in conjunction with her name, anyway.
She’s talking about earthquakes, about volcanic activity in the Midlands. She’s talking just loudly enough for me to pick up key phrases. I think she knows I can hear. I think this might be part of the game. I can’t tell. I’m too scared to think straight.
She’s all in black, and her Frankenstein jacket is slung on the bed like the skinned remains of a meal. The two yellow badges wink at me, telling me all I need to know. She’s all in black, and she’s so beautiful, and her jeans are so, so tight. There’s a slim shape tucked into the back pocket, distorting the perfect curve, no more than a handle with a slight c-shape to it, and I think I know what it is. I keep thinking of her fictional father. I think she’s going to show it to me soon. I think I’m going to see it up close.
She smiled at me when she walked out just now. It was the smile of a creature that lives in deep darkness, that you only see the second before it rears out of your blind spot to feed. She’s hungry, and I won’t even do as an appetiser.
She’s hungry, and this time she’s planning a feast.