Chapter x

MARK

“I’ve waited a long time for this”

One evening, as Laura returned to her body after spending the whole afternoon investigating yet another new inhabited planet, she was plunged into panic and horror, as she realised that the thing she had always feared had actually happened.

Her body was tied up.

Hands behind her back, feet bound together.

There was duct tape stuck over her mouth.

She struggled, she tried to scream.

She looked around at her familiar bedroom – in a comfortable house in Australia which she had moved to a couple of years ago – and saw two men sitting looking at her.

One she knew.  He was the security guard she had been employing for the last six or so months.  She had paid him to guard her and keep her safe.  She had trusted him – trusted her body and her life to him.  Now suddenly she realised her trust had been misplaced.  She should have been more careful, more sceptical.  She supposed everyone had their price.

“Thank you, Dave,” said the second man, the one she didn’t know.  “You can go now.  And remember our arrangement.  I don’t expect to see you around here again.”

Dave got up and left the room.  She tried to catch his eye, to implore him for help with a look, but he kept his head down and his eyes to the ground.  Embarrassed to be betraying her, maybe, but nevertheless, no longer on her side.

Laura turned her eyes back to her captor and saw for the first time the gun in his hand.

‘No,’ she thought to herself.  ‘Not after all this, not with all my unfinished work.’  She began to tremble with fear.  Surely it couldn’t end like this?  Her weak woman’s body so easily overtaken by, and at the mercy of, an intruder.

So much for her uniqueness and sense of self importance.  So much for feeling like God!

She was tied up and alone with a gunman.  She could see no way out.

The man sitting on her favourite dressing table chair got up and came to stand over her.  She saw a bulky, middle aged character, with short cropped hair, a crooked face, and a strange way of holding himself, as if he was slightly disabled or had been injured.  She racked her brain but had no memory of ever having seen him before.

“At last we meet,” he said, looking into her eyes with curiosity.  “I’ve waited a long time for this.”

She made as much noise as she could, imploring him to at least enable her to talk.

“Oh yes, I’ll let you speak – in a minute,” he continued.  “I’m curious as to where you’ve been all afternoon.”

At this Laura went quiet, realising that this stranger must know about her ability.  But surely, he couldn’t know the whole story?  She would have to be very careful about what she revealed – except that it was too late to be careful.  The worst had already happened.

“I just wanted to introduce myself to you first, and to let you know how much trouble you’ve caused me.”  He leaned over slowly to where she was lying on the bed, and gently kissed her forehead in a rather ominous sort of way.

“Hello, Laura.  My name is Mark Stratford.  I am your nemesis!”

Mark was a broken man.

Literally.  He had had both arms and a couple of ribs broken.  And his nose.

Those bones had healed – eventually – but the part of his brain which had also been broken, though in a different way, still felt ruptured, and still bothered him on a daily basis.

It was all a long time ago now.  He should have been able to forget about it, put it behind him.  But it was difficult.

After the – incident – they had let him go.  He had removed himself to Bermuda as promised, and there had been no follow up.  He had lived a quiet life on the island for many years, not working, a mysterious recluse to his neighbours.  But it had given him time to reflect, and time to consider what he wanted.  And what he wanted – all he wanted – was to finish the job.  To find the woman he had originally been tasked to find, and to deliver her to the agency.  Not so that they would take him back – he had no interested in being further involved with them after what they had done to him.  Not even out of a sense of revenge and retribution.  But just because – it was unfinished business.  He had his own professional pride.  He needed to prove to himself that he could succeed.  That in the end something positive could come from the way this whole business had messed with his life.

He waited a long time.  First he had to heal, physically.  Then he had to accumulate resources, and carefully re-establish contacts.  He had no help, now.  He had to rely on himself entirely, and be extra careful about who he trusted.

And this time, once he had found her again, he waited even longer, to be absolutely sure.  He had her watched for years.  He set up all sorts of tests to convince himself she was the one.  Then he formulated a careful plan, and eventually, when he was ready – he put it into action.

The instant the tape was removed from her face, Laura spoke out.

“Whatever you’re being paid, I’ll double it.  Trust me, I’m very rich.”

Mark gave a little laugh.  “I know all about how rich you are.  But I’m not doing this for money, I’m doing it for personal satisfaction.  I’m finishing something I started a long time ago.  We’ve been growing older together, though you didn’t even know it.”

“What are you going to do with me?” Laura asked, her spirits sinking at his comments.

“Well, I’m not going to kill you,” Mark replied, sitting down on the bed beside her.  “So you can stop worrying about that.  But you might wish you were dead at some point in the near future – once they’ve finished with you.”

Laura went cold.  “Who’s ‘they’?”

“Well, I had one particular bunch of villains in mind, but now I’m not so sure.  Maybe I should sell you to the highest bidder, just for the fun of it.”

“Please untie me.”

“Can’t do that.”

“I need to use the toilet.”

“Unfortunate.”

She struggled.  He watched.

“Is this about Luca?  Is it something to do with – the Italians?”

“Interesting tip.  You mean the Mafia’s interested in you as well?  That might help get me a good price.”

She tried not to panic.  “I think you’ve got the wrong person.  I’ve just been asleep here in my home – I don’t have anyone who would pay a ransom.”

Mark pursed his lips.  “It’s not about a ransom.  That implies someone might let you go once some money changed hands.  In this case, no-one’s going to let you go.”

“So if I’m so important, why are you here alone?”

“I’m not alone, I’ve got two men downstairs and two out in the car.”

She didn’t know whether to believe him.

“Why don’t you pop out of your head and have a look?”  His grin was very nasty now.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Laura,” Mark put a hand on her shoulder and she tried to pull away.  “I’ve told you I know all about you.  You’ve been very careful, all these years, but not careful enough.”

“Let me go, please, and I’ll pay you.”

“Absolutely not.  Now go and assure yourself I’m not lying about my backup.”

She said nothing.  She didn’t want to admit to anything, and was certainly not going to leave herself vulnerable again, even for a minute, by leaving her body unattended.  She was staying put.

“Now I suppose I’m going to let you use the bathroom,” said Mark, standing up.  “And then you’re coming with me.  I’ve got a charming little hut in the outback all kitted out ready for you – kitted out with chains, that is.  It’s where you’re going to live while I conduct negotiations.”

“Can’t we stay here?” Laura tried.

“Why, so a friend of yours can drop by and call the Police?  I don’t think so.”

“Where’s the hut?”

“Miles away.  Only kangaroos for company, I’m afraid.”

Laura looked about her for some means of escape, but could see none.  She couldn’t get out of her bonds physically, and she could think of no clever way to cheat this man by using her skill.  Again she cursed the fact that all she could do was observe, never act or intervene in any way.  Now that limitation had become her undoing.

“Up,” he said, waving the gun, and supervised whilst, with her feet still tied together, she hobbled to the bathroom.

“Let my hands free,” she said when she’d finally got there.

“No.”

“You have to.”

“I don’t,” said Mark.  “I can do this instead.”

And with that, he stepped towards her, and pushing her body again the toilet wall, he found the edge of her knickers and yanked them down.  Then he pushed her roughly onto the toilet bowl and watched as her face got redder and redder with humiliation.

“What’s going on?” she said, shaking.  “You’re turning this into a personal thing now?”

“Oh, it’s always been very personal.  I hadn’t really planned on anything – intimate.  But having spent an afternoon watching you lying half naked on your bed, and now, well, this.  Maybe I’ll make the most of the situation.”

Unable to think of anything else to do, Laura spontaneously started to scream.  She screamed and yelled and shouted for help, but it was a mistake.  After a second or two her captor’s hand came down hard across her face, and her head spun with the pain of it.  She slumped onto the bathroom floor, and a moment later looked up to find Mark standing over her with a furious expression on his face and a wad of cloth in his hand.

‘Oh,’ she thought vaguely, ‘that must be what chloroform smells like.’  And that was the last thing she remembered.

When she came to, her head hurt dreadfully, throbbing with pain from the blow she had received as well as the effects of the drug which had been used on her.  She battled to recover her senses, and looked about her for sign of immediate threat.  She was lying on a mattress in a hot, dark room – well, a rather ramshackle room with walls made of wooden panelling and a corrugated iron roof.  Clearly this was the remote hut to which her captor had referred.  She discovered she was chained by her feet to a hook in the wall, but her hands were free.  She was wearing the same nightdress she had had on for her rude awakening back at the house, and had bare feet.  There was a jug of water standing in a corner by the mattress, and she reached for this and drank some down, though it was warm and foul.

Falling back on the mattress, which was damp from her sweat, she took a deep breath and slipped out of her mind.  She needed to know where she was, and whether her abductor was around.

It was a relief to leave behind her aches and pains – away from her body, she felt alert and refreshed.  Quickly she took stock of her situation.  Outside of the room her body was restrained in were two other rooms, both in a dreadful state.  One had once served as a kitchen, the other a store-room.  Both were filthy and deserted.  She whizzed round the outside of the building, and into a sort of outhouse or barn that stood nearby.  No-one there.  The land was a little hilly behind the property – maybe her tormentor was hiding out there?  She scanned in thoroughly.  Nothing.

She followed the only dirt track away from the building, and noticed some tyre marks in the dust.  After a few miles she found a farmhouse.  Everything was neglected and abandoned.  She searched around for any sign of Mark but there was none.  The only living thing she came across was, indeed, a lone kangaroo, sitting in the heat under a tree.

The next place she found was a little gathering of huts and houses.  It was less than a town, and hardly a village, but was graced with its own name sign, a battered notice proclaiming it to be called Hawk Vale.  Here she observed a few people going about their lethargic business, including an old one-armed man tinkering with a tractor, but again there was no sign of Mark.  It seemed he had left her entirely alone and unguarded – but he couldn’t be that far away.  He surely meant to come back at some point, or he wouldn’t have left her alive.  It seemed her predicament was far from good – but she was relieved that her captor was not around.  She had good reason to fear and dread his presence now.

Back in the hut, she turned her attention to another urgent but unpleasant task.  She explored herself with a hesitant hand, trying to ascertain whether Mark had, as he’d threatened, committed a further crime against her.  She felt no pain there, and no other sign, so as far as she could tell, it seemed he had not done so.

She breathed a sigh of relief, but stored up her anger towards him for everything he had done, and might have done.  With a shudder, she realised that she was still at his mercy, and that further horrors might yet be to come.

She then spent about three hours trying everything she could think of, first physically, and then mentally, to get free.

She tried to get the chains off her feet, to no avail – they were locked shut and far too tight to slip out of.  She yanked and yanked at the fitting on the wall to which she was chained.  She tried breaking the wooden panels around it, pulling at them with her bare hands, but he had chosen the strongest point of the wall to attach her to.  She stretched and stretched, but couldn’t reach the door or the window, and there was absolutely nothing she could use as any sort of tool – the only objects within reach were the mattress, the jug, and a bucket.

Grateful that she wasn’t gagged, she screamed and shouted for the best part of an hour, but no-one came, and it just made her weep to hear the sound of her own voice, so distressed.

No phone, no people – no way to get help.

Mentally of course, she was entirely free.  She scoured the country, searched the world – visiting familiar places, familiar people.  Desperately trying to influence someone or something, trying to signal to someone that she needed help.

Never had she felt so frustrated that despite her special power, she was entirely unable to help herself.

In the end she decided the only way it might help her was if she was forewarned of her captor’s return, so every few minutes she would survey the vicinity, looking for a sign of a vehicle approaching.  She planned to wait for him, maybe brandishing the bucket as a weapon (to hit him over the head with), maybe breaking the jug so that she could use a shard of it to attack him (slitting his throat) – but even as these strategies crossed her mind, she knew it was useless.  He would have his gun.  And he would easily overpower her.

In the event, she fell into an exhausted stupor, and so missed his approach after all, and found herself once again rudely awakened by his threatening presence.

He was hot and sweaty and carrying a small rucksack which he threw at her.  “Here, I bought you some food.  Don’t want you dying just yet.”

She was ravenous, but resisted looking in the bag.  She looked in his eyes instead, deciding again that her only hope was to win the man over.

“Look please, I’m sorry if I’m somehow the cause of your worries, but I’ve done nothing against you directly.  Maybe we have a common enemy – maybe I can help you get back at the people you’re at odds with.  Can’t we talk about this?”

He leaned on the doorframe and shook his head.

“I’m past talking.  The easiest way for you to help me is if I can pick up the price that’s on your head.  There’s nothing to negotiate.”

She sat and looked at him, trying not to despair.  “Look, I don’t see how the people you want to hand me over to can force me to help them.”

“Oh, you reckon you can resist torture then?”  Mark gave a nasty little laugh.

“I can leave my body remember, so I wouldn’t feel any of it.  And they couldn’t keep it up for that long, or I’d be no use to them.”

Mark considered this.  “You’re forgetting something.”

“I don’t see what.”

“Your brother.”

A horrible feeling of terror and remorse sweep through Laura.  This was like her worst nightmare coming true.

“You sort of abandoned your family early on, didn’t you?” Mark taunted.  “When did you last see them?  I don’t think you visit that much.”

Laura wrapped her arms around her knees.  “I decided it was best – if I kept all this to myself.”

“To protect them?”

“Yes.”

“But you haven’t done that.  They’re still alive, aren’t they?  Your parents, and your little brother, who isn’t so little any more.  In fact he has a lovely wife and three delightful children.  Do you really not care about any of them any more?  Do you really not love them?”

Laura’s eyes were filling with tears.  Of course she loved them.  Of course she knew where they were – she observed them sometimes.  But she had forced herself to keep away after all this time, so as not to have to explain herself, and to minimise any risk.

The revelation that this man – who had called himself her nemesis – knew the location of her brother and his family, was a horrible blow.

Despite her earlier reservations about leaving her body in his presence, she couldn’t resist flitting across the world to England for a moment, to locate her brother’s house, and see him sleeping soundly, the little children snuggled up together in a room next door.

“He’s fine,” she said, returning triumphantly.  “They’re all safe.”

“Oh no they’re not,” said Mark.  “I can get them picked up any time.  One phone call would do it.  And how are you going to warn them?  You can’t, can you?”

And that was the dreadful moment when Laura felt broken.  Trapped, terrified for her family and for herself, appalled at the turn of events, and frustrated about having to cut short her explorations and descriptions of other planets.

The only thing she could cling onto was that Mark hadn’t found out about her off-world visits.  She was desperate to know whether he knew – but resolved not to mention the subject, in the hope that this at least was something she could keep to herself.  For the first time ever she regretted publishing the books she had been writing.  She had meant them for the future, for posterity.  She hadn’t taken seriously enough the threat of someone finding them and using them against her in the present!  She hoped against hope that her captor hadn’t found them.

“Now you eat what I’ve brought you, and get some sleep,” said Mark, suddenly seeming a little bored with her.  “I’ll be back tomorrow, hopefully with someone who can take you off my hands.”

She couldn’t speak, but slumped back on the old mattress and closed her eyes, waiting for him to leave.  After a while she heard his car drive away.  She could have followed him mentally to see where he was staying, but as there was nothing she could do there anyway, she didn’t see the point and couldn’t face it.

Eventually she roused herself, pulled the rucksack towards her, and slowly ate and drank her way through everything in it.

It was a long, hot, lonely night, and the day that followed seemed to stretch out even longer.  She passed through stages of resignation, anger, fear, and frustration.  She tried again to get free physically, and again spent much time shouting at the top of her voice for help, even though she could tell from her mental excursions that there was no-one anywhere nearby.  At least it made her feel like she was trying something.

A plane flew over once, but she couldn’t even get to the window, never mind the door, so there was no way of signalling to it.

Another time she got a scare when there was a sudden noise from the next room, of something crashing to the floor.  But a quick mental glance showed her that it was just a wombat which had crept in through a broken door and was searching the place for food, disturbing old pots and pans as it went.

She looked at its little face close up, as if taunting it.  “A lot of help you are!”

In the afternoon she spent a long time ascertaining the location of all her family members back in the United Kingdom.  Not only her brother and his family again, but her own parents – aging now, and having no idea that their daughter was both a captive on the other side of the world, and in the room with them, following them about and aching with regret that she had not spent more time with them when she could.

The thought of any harm coming to them because of her was, well – appalling.  She could never allow it.  Which meant – that she would have to do whatever was asked of her.  In the end she was destined to be some sort of spy after all, forced to use her talents for other people’s ends.

There was no other option.  Other than –

Suddenly she heard a car engine again in the distance.  She flitted outside and sure enough, there was Mark pulling up in his battered old saloon, and this time there was another man beside him.

Dressed in black and with dark glasses and stubble, the newcomer looked calm and in control but at the same time full of pent up energy, which could explode at any minute.  The sight of him terrified Laura.  Whether he was Mafia or Army or MI6 or KGB or who knew what else – there was no doubt he presented a threat to her.  No doubt she would soon be passed into his hands.  She could only hope that somehow during the course of the transfer and whatever journey might have to be undertaken, she might have a chance to escape.

She watched the two men walk towards the hut, side by side.

Back in her body, she just had time to push the offensive bucket as far away as possible from her, and cover it with the empty rucksack, before standing up ready to face her oppressors with as much bravery as she could muster.

The door creaked open and the stranger stepped in.  He was tall, muscular, dark haired, and wearing a leather jacket and heavy boots, despite the heat.  He took his sunglasses off and looked her up and down, no smile on his face.

Next Mark appeared.  “Here she is, safe and well, like I said.”  He threw a bag into the corner of the room, and she wondered if this was more food or maybe some more chloroform, if she was to be drugged again for a journey.

“Please let me go!” she tried, appealing to the stranger.  “This man is holding me against my will.  I have done nothing against him and demand to be released!”

“Sprightly thing, isn’t she?” said Mark, stepping towards her.  “Lively, despite being past her best in years.  I tell you, I’ve been tempted, but have left her alone, just to make sure she remains in the best possible condition.”

The newcomer now turned to Mark and gave him an unfathomable look.  Then he spoke – to Laura’s surprise in quite a proper English accent.

“Okay, I can see she’s alive and in reasonable condition, as you put it.  But how do I know for sure she has the talent?  You said you could prove it.”

“Oh that’s easy now,” said Mark, smiling.  “She’ll confirm it herself, now she knows that I know where all her family live.  Won’t you, my dear?”

Shaking, Laura hardly knew how to reply.  Eventually she nodded her head weakly.

The newcomer stepped back a little to the window and pushed open the tatty wooden shutters.

“What’s the registration number of the car out there?” he asked, knowing that Laura’s line of sight wouldn’t allow her to read it by normal means.

Sighing, Laura sank down on the bed until she was sitting propped up against the wall.  She closed her eyes for a moment, and then spoke out quietly.

“CB 56 …”  As she gave the full number, the newcomer stared out of the window, checking that the information she was giving was correct.

“Happy?” said Mark.

The stranger swung round.  “Yes.  Now come outside so we can talk.”

“Ooh, goody!” Mark rubbed his hands together comically.  “Time to negotiate a price!  Let’s get this thing over!”

“Yes, let’s,” said the stranger.  And without looking at Laura again, they both stepped outside of the hut.

She heard them talking, and heard voices being raised.  What humiliation, to know that they must be bartering over her price!  She decided not to listen in; it wouldn’t have been a fun experience.

But then unexpectedly, argument turned into fight, and she could hear through the walls the sound of thumping and groaning, of fists slapping into flesh, of scuffling and grappling, as the two men fought to overcome each other.

It was over in a few minutes, with the sound of one big blow, and then the thud of someone falling unconscious to the floor.

But who had lost, and who had won?

A moment later, she knew the answer, as the tall stranger stepped back inside the hut, dishevelled and rubbing his head.  Laura was beyond terrified.  She stared at him without saying a word.

The man turned to the bag which Mark had deposited in a corner and stooped to rummage through it.  He pulled out Mark’s gun, and expertly checked to see whether it was loaded.  Then he stood up and turned to Laura.

“I’m sorry, but this is something I just have to do,” he said.

Laura stared at the gun, suddenly overwhelmed by an unexpected dilemma.  This man was going to shoot her, she was sure – but should she stay in her body while it happened, or leave?  If she left, well, she would escape the pain and her essence might have a chance of survival.  But wasn’t that what she had always feared – being trapped forever as a wandering spirit, with no body to go home to?

What to do?

But at that point the stranger turned away from her and went outside.  Too stunned to go and observe, she just sat there.  Less than a minute later she heard two shots from close by outside.  One very shortly after the other.

Curious now, she leaped outside and saw Mark lying on the ground, his head a mess from two gunshot wounds.

Back in her body, her terror was hardly any less.  The stranger had disposed of her original captor, but how she was just as vulnerable in the new person’s hands.  He would either kill her also, or take her away to some dreadful prison cell where she would be forced to use her skill for the rest of her days!

She pulled herself to her feet again, so she could face the stranger when he returned.  When he came in, she began to tremble, readying herself for the worst.           But the man’s demeanour seemed now to have changed.  He didn’t have the gun with him.  And he had taken off his dark glasses.  He left the door to the room open and leaned for a moment against it, then shrugged off his black jacket and let it fall to the floor.  Then he came towards her and she saw that what he had in his hand was not a weapon but a key – the key to her shackles.  He bent down to undo them, and she could have tried to topple him over.  She could have reached for the jug and tried to crack his head open with it – certainly, that might have been a sensible thing to do in the circumstances.

But –

But suddenly she didn’t feel threatened any more.  Something was different.

The man took her by the hand, very gently.

“Laura, come outside.  Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

She followed him out of the room and out of the hut, unsteady on her feet.

They turned away from where Mark’s body lay, and sat on a bench that ran along the shaded side of the building.

He returned to the bag and bought her out some bottled drink, and a stick of chocolate.  Then he disappeared again, and having searched around in the other rooms of the hut, brought her a piece of cloth to wrap around her shoulders – it was an old tablecloth but served adequately as a shawl, making her feel better psychologically, as this whole time she had only had on her flimsy nightgown from that first afternoon.

They sat on the bench for a while in silence, but then, after having drunk the drink and eaten the chocolate, Laura found enough strength to question the man beside her.

“So who are you, and what are you going to do with me?”

“My name is Paul,” the man replied.  “And don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Well, that’s good.  But who are you with and where are you going to take me?”

Paul shook his head.  “I’m going to take you home, Laura.  Your home.”

She didn’t dare believe it.

“Why did you kill him?” she pressed.  “So you didn’t have to pay him the money?”

“There’s no money.  I killed him so he wouldn’t bother you again.”  Paul ran a hand over his face.  “Believe it or not, I’m not in the habit of killing people – but that guy was too dangerous to leave alive.  I had to put an end to this thing.”

“So who are you?  Are you a Policeman?”

“No Laura.  Look, I’ll tell you everything, but shall we get away from this place first?”

“No,” Laura insisted.  “I need to understand, so tell me now.  Are you really with the good guys?  Are you really my saviour?”

“Well hopefully I’ve saved you from that idiot – but I’m not with anyone.  I’m operating alone.  I pretended to be a British agent and luckily he believed me.  But I don’t know who else he might have contacted, so we may not be safe here.”

The day was wearing on and the shadow of the hut stretched out further in front of them.

“So if you’re alone – well, how come you know about any of this?  What exactly is going on?”  Laura scoured Paul’s face, looking for the truth in what he was saying.

“Laura,” Paul said gently.  “I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

“Oh, no!” she jerked away from him.  “That’s what he said!  Don’t tell me you’re just another bounty hunter?”

“No – look, this is going to be a big shock to you, but it’s something I’m going to have to convince you of.”

“What’s the shock?” She looked into his dark eyes and suddenly had a strange feeling, almost like a premonition.  That what he was going to say was to be very significant in her life.

And so it was.  But so engrained was she in her thinking, that she never for a moment saw it coming.

“Laura.”  He stood up and looked down at her.  “I’m like you.  I can do what you can do.”

“What?”

“I thought I was alone, for many years.  I’ve spent my life looking for clues of anyone having the same ability.  I’d all but given up, but when I found your Pretonia book, and then the others, I guessed you must be – ”

“My books?”  Laura gasped.  “So you know about – ?”

“Well, I’m guessing or assuming certain things.  But the point is, once I started investigating all this, and investigating you – I came across all these other parties who think they know something, and want to get hold of us.  This guy Mark obviously didn’t know about me, but I’ve had my own encounters and close shaves.  I could tell you some stories!”

There was stillness all around in the bush, apart from some insect noises, and the gentle cracking of the timbers and pipes around the house, as they gradually cooled with the fading heat of the day.

Laura looked up at the man standing in front of her, certainly looking at him in a different way, but still suspicious.

“Paul,” she said his name for the first time.  “Sit down again for a minute.”  She gestured towards the bench beside her.  He sat, and she thought hard.

“So when you tested me, with the car registration?”

“Well, obviously I thought and hoped it was you,” Paul explained.  “But I’ve never actually seen you before, Laura, not even in a recent photo.  I wanted to be sure I was rescuing the right person, and that he hadn’t tricked me, and was holding you back for someone else.”

“So it’s my turn to test you,” she said.

“Okay, how shall we do it?” Paul rested his arms on his thighs and leaned back against the wall of the hut, closing his eyes and awaiting her instruction.

Laura considered leaving her body for a local excursion, but was still a bit scared of Paul and reluctant to leave herself vulnerable.  She tried to think of some way of testing him, somewhere she already knew.

“Okay, go down that road for about fifty miles, and there’s a small place – what’s it called?”

She watched him breathe in and out about three times with his eyes closed.

“Well, there’s a place called Hawk Vale.  Not really Vale though, so don’t know how that happened.”

“Any people there?”

“An old couple having their tea.  A guy with one arm, sitting outdoors on his porch.”

Paul opened his eyes again.  “That’s not good enough.  I could have driven through it for real, earlier.”

“Okay,” Laura thought again.  “Can you go to Sydney?  Go to the Quay opposite the Opera House, and there’s one of my favourite cafes there, called Browns.  Go inside and tell me what design is on the tablecloths.”

“What if they’ve changed the tablecloths?” Paul laughed.

“They won’t have.”

No more than ten seconds passed.  “Koala bears, loads of tiny cute koalas.  But this is Australia – that could have been a guess!”

Still rather in a state of shock at this turn of events, Laura tried to think of somewhere else.

“You must know England?  London?  Go along Piccadilly to Green Park, and right at the far end there’s one giant plane tree.  I engraved something on it once, many years ago.  And it’s always been there, whenever I’ve been back since.”

“What if I can’t find the right tree?”

“It’s right in the corner of the park, where it goes very narrow.  It’s the last tree, and it’s got a big bench around it.”

Paul closed his eyes again and his body relaxed.  Laura watched him, reserving judgement, hardly daring to hope.

It can’t have been half a minute later when he opened his eyes again, and turned to her, with such a warm look on his face.

“Laura was here, there and everywhere.”

And so came the moment when she was convinced, and they both stood up spontaneously and threw themselves into an embrace, hugging each other, laughing, and yes, kissing.  Because both had spent their lives feeling utterly alone, and now suddenly they had found someone like them – found each other.

Never had two strangers embraced so much like long lost friends, like reunited relatives.

“I can’t believe it!” Laura exclaimed, looking up at Paul’s smiling face.  “It’s so wonderful to meet you, I’d stopped even hoping a long time ago!”

Paul held her head gently in his hands.  Her face looked so fascinating to him, and he wanted so much to get to know her better.

“So are there others like us?” Laura asked.

“I’ve never found any, but who knows?  If there are two, there can be more.”

“And, well you mentioned the books.”

“Yes, it was them that first put me onto you, and made me wonder if I wasn’t alone.”

“So can you do that too?  Visit other worlds.”

“I don’t know, to be honest.  It had just never occurred to me as an option, and more recently, well I’ve never really dared try – you must be braver than me.”

“But you can go anywhere on earth?”

“Seems like it.  I reckon it gives us a very different perspective on life to other people, don’t you think?”

“Too right.”  Then something else occurred to her.  “My brother!  Mark was making threats, I need to make sure my family stay safe.”

“I’ll see to it, don’t worry,” said Paul.  “We’ll arrange it some way so that only you know where they’ve gone, so there’s no issue of you trusting me.”

“I trust you.”

“I’m glad.  But we both need to be careful.”

“So what are we going to do?  Practically, I mean.  There’s – well, the body to take care of.”

“I’ll deal with it.  We can burn this place maybe, or I’ll bury it.”  Paul thought ahead.  “We’ll take his car, hire another one as soon as we can.”

“Yes but maybe going back to my house wouldn’t be a good idea.  Someone else may be watching it.”

“You’re right, we’ll head somewhere new – back to Europe.  But Laura, there’s something I want to do now more than anything.”  Paul pulled her closer to him gently.  “How about a serious kiss, to say hello properly?”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes twinkling.  “I think that sounds like a very good idea.”

Later, she would tell him that by the end of that first proper kiss, she was already in love again.

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