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“An extraordinary novel that stands with the best of dystopian fiction, with dashes of The Handmaid’s Tale.” — -Cory Doctorow
The penalty for Dani Cumali’s murder: $84,000.
Theo works in the Criminal Audit Office. He assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full.
These days, there’s no need to go to prison — provided that you can afford to pay the penalty for the crime you’ve committed. If you’re rich enough, you can get away with murder.
But Dani’s murder is different. When Theo finds her lifeless body, and a hired killer standing over her and calmly calling the police to confess, he can’t let her death become just an entry on a balance sheet.
Someone is responsible. And Theo is going to find them and make them pay.
Perfect for fans of 1984 and Never Let Me Go, Claire North’s moving and unnerving new novel will resonate with readers around the world.
At the beginning and ending of all things …
She had not seen the man called Theo in the cards, nor did they prophesy the meaning of her actions. When she called the ambulance they said they would come soon, and half an hour later she was still waiting by the water.
And when she called again they had no record of her call, and gave her the number of the complaints department.
The sun was down and the street lights distant, their backs turned to the towpath. On the other side of the water: an industrial estate where once patty-line men had loaded lorries with bikinis and bras, pillows and sofa throws, percale fitted sheets, gold-plated anklets and next season’s striped trend-setting onesies for the discerning customer. Once, the men who laboured there had worn tags around their ankles to ensure that they didn’t walk too slow, or spend too much time taking a piss. If they did, there were worse places they could be sent. There was always somewhere worse.
Now there was black spew up the walls, and the smell of melted plastic lingering on the winter air.
A few white lamps on the loading concourse still shone, their glow slithering across the high barbed-wire fences down to the canal. The light made the frost on the bank sparkle like witches’ eyes, before being swallowed whole by the blackness of the water.
Neila thought of calling out for help, to anyone in the night, but didn’t have the courage and didn’t think anyone would answer. People had their own problems to deal with, things being as they were. Instead she wrapped the man up as best she could in old towels she wouldn’t miss, hiding her nice, fluffy towels under the bed. She felt a bit guilty about that, and alleviated her doubts by making him hot tea, which he could barely sip. Not knowing what else to do, she sat beside the man on the thin, mud-sunk grass by the gate of the lock and dialled 999 again, and got someone new who said:
“Oh my oh yes now of course yes bleeding by the canal do you have an address for that—no an address—how about a postcode, no I’m not seeing you on my map do you have premium or standard service support for an extra £4.99 a month you can upgrade to instant recovery and full rehabilitative therapies for the—oh you’re not insured …”
The call ended there. Maybe a timer cut them off. Maybe there wasn’t much signal at the moment. A pair of ducks waddled uneasily over crêpe-thin ice, now slipping into the water below, now lurching back up onto the transparent surface above, now flapping at the sound of an eager seagull looking for a snack, now quiet again beneath the thickening blue-brown sky, paddling in listless circles.
at the end and the beginning Neila spins in circles too
The man mumbled, through lips turned blue, “You’ve been very kind very kind I’m fine I’m sure I’ll be fine it’s just I’m fine …”
He’d tried saying this before, and fainted, only for a few seconds, then woke and picked up where he’d left off, and she hadn’t had the heart to tell him that he’d passed out while trying to be so stoical, so she let him talk until he stopped, and they stayed there, waiting, and no one came.
She decided to leave him.
At the precise moment she reached that decision, like a truck driving into a concrete wall she knew that she wouldn’t. The universe crumpled and blew apart, and at the centre of it she exclaimed, “This is fucking ridiculous.” She creaked to her feet, pulling him by a limp limb. “Get your backside inside the fucking boat.”
She had to help him walk, and he nearly hit his head on the low door at the stern of the narrowboat as she guided him in, and was unconscious, bleeding out on her white faux-leather couch, before she had got her boots off.
Time goes a little peculiar
when you’re not feeling so
so sometimes you wake and you remember that you will be an old, old man and that the one you love will die and you can’t work out
if they die
or you first
which would be more scary? Who will be strongest without love, alone, loveless, devoid? What is worse—for you to lose the one you love or for the one you love to be destroyed by losing you?
The man on the couch is vaguely aware, when he’s aware of much of anything at all, that he’s hit his head and that’s making things a little …
Neila wrung out blood-red water from her third-favourite tea towel into the mop bucket at her feet, and the bleeding still wouldn’t stop, and there was silence on the canal, and silence on the water.
In the early years when she had first started sailing, Neila had thought she’d love the quiet, and for a week after buying the Hector she hadn’t slept, in terror at the roar of whispers over still water. The creaking, the lapping of liquid, the insect-hiss of thin ice popping before the bow of a passing boat, the roar of a generator, the chug chug chug of the engine, the beating of wings, birds not really built for flight hounding each other half in sky, half on land for food, or sex, or maybe just something to do.
When exhaustion kicked in, she’d slept like a log, and now she understood the silence of the canal wasn’t silence at all. If anything, it was a racket, annoying in its persistence.
Not tonight. Tonight the silence made her nervous, made her think too much. She’d come to the canal to get away from thinking. Alone, once you’d thought everything there was to think, there was only being quiet left.
She turned on the radio, and listened to Pepsi Liverpool vs CheapFlightsForU Manchester, even though she didn’t really like football.
At the beginning of all things …
The man lies on the couch, and dreams and memories blur in a fitful crimson smear of paint.
Maybe it hadn’t been the beginning, but in his dreams it seems that there must have been a point where it all started, where everything changed. Back when he had a job, back when “job” seemed like the most important thing ever, back in the Criminal Audit Office, before the winter and the snow and the blood, at the beginning there had been …
—it seemed ludicrously banal now, but it was perhaps the place where it all went to piss—
… a training weekend.
The weekend was voluntary.
If you did not attend you would be docked one week’s pay and a note put on your file—“BBA.” No one knew what BBA stood for, but the last woman to have these fated letters added had been given a job at a morgue, showing family members the corpses of their loved ones.
Besides, everyone knew that team players were happy volunteers.
The Teamwork Bonding Experience cost £172, payable at sign-up. On the first day he was told to put a cork in his mouth, stand in front of his colleagues and explain his Beliefs and Values.
“Come on, Mr. Miller!” exclaimed the Management Strength Inspiration Course Leader. “Enunciate!”
The man called Theo Miller hesitated, hoping the burning in his face could be mistaken for the effort of not spitting out the dry brown bung, bit a little deeper into the cork, then mumbled: “I belef fat ul pepl arg detherfin of jusfic an …”
“Project! Pro-ject. Use your whole mouth, use your breath to lift you!”
At night they slept in dormitories on creaking metal beds, and were woken at 5 a.m. for a group run. He enjoyed that part. He stood on top of a hill and watched an eyelash of light peek above the horizon, growing hotter, bending the sky, liked the way the shadows of the trees broke out long and thin across the land, the visible light and visible darkness in the air as fog burned away. The walls of London were too high for him to see this sight, and the places in the country where sometimes he’d gone as a child had fallen to scroungers, and the trains didn’t go there any more. For a moment he thought of the sea below the cliffs, and the memory filled his lungs with salty air—then someone told him to stop dawdling, Mr. Miller!
So he ran on, and pretended to be out of breath and struggling at the back, where most of the senior staff were, even though he felt like he could have run for ever. It didn’t do to stand out.
Management joined them at 10 a.m. Management were staying up the road at a golfing resort, but wanted to demonstrate leadership and muck in with the troops. Edward Witt, 37, fresh from Company central office—personal motto “I achieve for me”—roared across the waving long grass, “Come on! Put some welly into it!”
Theo Miller did not smile, did not blink, but concentrated harder on the painted picture of the wooden man before him, drew the axe back over his shoulder and threw it with all his might. He was aiming for the head, but by chance managed to hit it in the nuts.
“Keep going, guys!” barked Edward, bouncing impatiently on the edge of the field as the Fiscal Efficiency Team ran up and down, one statistician suspended by ankles and armpits between two others. “Don’t let each other down!”
Theo wasn’t sure what all of this had to do with his job. He didn’t learn anything about the law, or finance, or governmental good practice. The only colleagues he felt any closer to were the ones he usually hung out with anyway, the hangdog dredges of the Criminal Audit Office who sometimes drank cheap wine on the seventh floor when the lights were out, and didn’t go to the pub because they couldn’t stand the noise.
If anything, the weekend only served to make office cliques tighter, as friends curled in for mutual support against the horror of the experience, shooting suspicious glances across the muddy field to ensure that everyone was suffering equally, losing all together. Edward Witt prowled up and down, encouraging competition, competition, get ahead, and one or two tried gamely, and Theo was always the third man eliminated in a contest, and penultimate man picked for a side.
It wasn’t that he was inept, or even disliked. There wasn’t enough personality in Theo Miller for people to love or hate. A psychic had once attempted to read his aura, and after a period of frowning so intense she started groaning with the effort of her grimace, announced that it was puce. Like everyone else from the mystic to the mundane, she too had failed to spot that his life was a lie, or that the real Theo Miller was fifteen years dead, buried in an unmarked grave. So much for the interconnected mysteries of the universe, Theo thought.
So much for all that.
At the end of the weekend they got into a coach.
The coach sat in traffic, covering twelve miles in an hour and twenty minutes, and Theo dozed. One time he saw a woman standing on the hard shoulder, waving frantically at the passing cars for help, but no one stopped, and tears rolled down her face. People didn’t like to stop on this stretch of the M3. The security fence kept out most of the screamers, the scroungers and the children from the surrounding enclaves, but Company Police signs reminded all that YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY, and no one doubted it for a moment. You heard rumours of tax dodgers breaking in through the fence and rushing down into the lanes when the traffic got too slow, to crack open boots and steal anything they could, until speed picked up again and they scuttled to safety or were mown down where they stood.
After four hours of snoozing to a soundtrack of inspirational speeches by Simon Fardell, Company ExO, the coach dropped them off at the office in Victoria. The pavements were too narrow for the tired, baggage-slung commuters waiting for their buses, leaves tumbling from the last of the shedding plane trees.
Though it was late, and they were tired and muddy and sore, Edward treated them to a sandwich dinner, held in the semi-sacred and barely used Large Media Suite, access usually limited to executive grade 2A and above. As they ate thin slices of cucumber between wet pieces of white bread, lights were dimmed, and Edward presented his PowerPoint of Vital Lessons Learned and Where We Go From Here, including a comic montage from the weekend of people falling into mud, dropping their axes and spraining their ankles to lighten the moment and boost team morale.
And when he was done the lights came up
and there were little pink pots of Angel Delight with a single half-strawberry on top and there
was Dani Cumali.
On the canal the man called Theo groans in his sleep and holds the blanket tight, and Neila sits with her head in her hands and wonders what the fuck she’s even done
And in his dreams
and in his memories
Dani is watching him, and that’s where it all went wrong.
In the past
These things are a little blurry but he thinks, yes, in the past, but not that past, the more recent past, the past had already happened, the less important yet more urgent bit of the past that is
(Neila wonders if she should try and give him a blood transfusion, but where the fuck do you even start, times being what they are?)
Dani Cumali stood at the edge of the Large Media Suite in the Criminal Audit Office, and stared at Theo Miller, and that was where the world changed.
Her black hair was cut to a pudding bowl around her ears, her skin devoid of make-up, lines around her mouth, grey and thin, lines between her eyebrows, a cobweb face. Her nails were scrubbed down to thin ridges, she wore the navy blue one-piece of the catering company
and she looked at him
and he looked at her
and they knew each other immediately and without a word.
- On Sale
- May 22, 2018
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Hachette Book Group