Mortal Ghost

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Chapter 1

Every night Jesse lies down to sleep with fire. This time, screams and a dark chord burning. This time, the beam falls before his hair ignites.

Jesse woke with a start, his heart thudding. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Something in his rucksack was digging into his cheek. Wincing, he shifted on the piece of cardboard that was his mattress. The solid blocks of stone at his back, rough and lichen-crusted, made good sentries but poor bedfellows. His neck was sore and kinked, his muscles cramped, and he had pins-and-needles in the arm he'd been lying on. He needed to pee.

The dream again.

Fingering the handle of his knife, he looked about him. Just after dawn, and the air smelled fresh and clean, with a dampness that hinted at rain. His sleeping bag felt clammy, and the grass along the riverbank glistened with dew. Water lapped close by, a sound from his past, and he could hear the noisy riverbirds scolding his sluggishness.

There was no help for it. Wait too long and somebody would appear. Shaking off the last whorls of sleep, he unzipped his sleeping bag and crept out. He stretched, then made a few circles with his head, grimacing as the vertebrae in his neck rasped like the sound of Mal crushing eggshells in his fist - one of his least offensive habits. A couple of knee-bends till Jesse's bladder protested. He glanced round once more, for he didn't like to leave his things unattended for even a moment - on the street, a moment's inattention could mean the difference between a meal and hunger, between safety and a vicious beating/mutilation/rape, between survival and annihilation.

He grabbed his rucksack, thrust his knife inside, and sidled barefoot down the grassy riverbank until he came to an overgrown bush. After relieving himself, he knelt at the river's edge and rinsed his hands, then splashed cold water into his face. Not exactly clean, but it helped remove the film of sleep and dross from the morning. Distastefully, he ran his wet fingers through his hair. He needed a good wash - failing a long hot punishing shower then at least a swim in the river. Later maybe - first he would have to eat. He kneaded the skin above his waistband; he'd lost weight again, he supposed. Hunger never quite retracted its claws: on the rare occasions when he had a full belly, there was always the next meal to worry about.

It would be another long day.

From his rucksack he removed his battered water bottle and trainers. After slaking his thirst he capped the bottle and considered his next move. He always tried to find a new kip each night, and if he got lucky he might be able to locate an abandoned warehouse or garage or even an allotment shed. The docklands looked promising, although there would probably be others with the same idea. Still, it was a largish place. He kept away from the squats. He wanted nothing to do with anyone else.

Jesse rummaged for the currant bun he'd kept back last night, then shook out his sleeping bag, formed it into a compact roll, and stored it in his rucksack, followed by the bun and his water bottle. After slipping into his trainers he wedged the cardboard between one of the bridge's massive stone abutments and a clump of wild briars, just in case he was obliged to return tonight.

It was still barely light, and except for a boat in the distance - a barge, from the long squat shape - and the birds and jazzing whirlybird insects and occasional frog, Jesse had the river to himself. He made his way along the bank in the direction of the city centre. There was a thin opaque haze over the water which the sun would soon burn away. Though overcast now, with a likelihood of rain, Jesse could tell that it would be hot later on, hot and humid. Good swimming weather. Usually the river was well trafficked, but he had yet to see anyone else swim. Of course, he always chose a secluded spot.

When hunger gnawed at him, he stopped by a sandy patch of ground, half-hidden by large boulders and a willow, to eat his rather flattened bun. He stared at his breakfast for a few seconds, then returned it to his rucksack. He'd wait. Impossible to predict how long it would be before he could earn some money. Pity that he hadn't saved that bit of sausage instead of feeding it to yesterday's stray, who probably needed it less than him.

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