Curse The Day Excerpt

CURSE THE DAY


Prologue
Bloomsbury, London

The bathwater was lukewarm, which was irritating after her punishing workout on the rowing machine. But it was good to pretend she didn’t have a million things to do in the run-up to this week’s gala at the British Museum. And after the gala launch? That was going to be mayhem, she knew that much.

Esme Sullivan Hawke stretched out her hand, lifting it from the bubbles, her wedding ring and the diamonds of her engagement ring glinting. She wondered if Tobias was going to come home tonight.

The candlelight flickered against the white tiles, reflecting in the Victorian-style taps, and she sipped at the glass of golden Pouilly-Fuissé before balancing it carefully on the shelf in the alcove. The taste of grapefruit and almonds on her tongue. She loved Bloomsbury – the architecture, the Victorian squares; loved the apartment with its cornicing and enormous sash windows and terrible plumbing. Tobias said they should buy something bigger and more modern, but he was always at work, so she was outvoting him. Locking himself in the lab and refusing to come out. She’d given up trying to disturb him, rather than face his gloom and temper. Ever since making his breakthrough three weeks ago, Tobias had been unbearable, although to his credit he had been calm enough when she broke the news about the leak of their medical tech. These things happen, he’d said. Let’s not get distracted.

And what exactly had triggered the breakthrough? She turned it over in her mind, considering it this way and that. Was Tobias right? Was it merely a question of momentum? Of reaching a tipping point? The media would insist on knowing the exact second Tobias realized what had happened. After the gala, it would be insane. Syd was going to be huge. It was a historic moment, and she and Tobias were going to be household names. The very idea made her shudder, but Tobias would love it at least.

Enough. She shook her head. This was her downtime. She was allowed to put aside the future for an hour or so.

‘Syd, play Bessie Smith… please,’ she reminded herself. It seemed right now to say please and thank you. She’d never bothered before.

The unmistakeable trombone notes of ‘Send Me To The ’Lectric Chair’ started up.

Esme sighed. This had to be her least favourite Bessie Smith, with its tale of a wronged woman seeking vengeance, but it seemed like too much of an effort to decide on something else. ‘Thank you, Syd,’ she said instead.

‘You’re welcome, Esme.’ Syd’s computer-generated voice was as familiar as her own, not least because Tobias had used Esme’s own voice to tweak and fine-tune the speech technology he’d developed over the years. It irritated the hell out of her.

‘Syd, switch voice,’ she said. ‘Please.’

‘How was your day, Esme? Are you enjoying your wine?’ The voice was mellifluous and male. Esme felt another flicker of irritation. But since she’d engaged Syd with her music choice, Syd wanted to chat. Was programmed to chat. Or rather – chose to chat and to engage. To explain the choice of song.

Esme had heard it all before. Any minute and it would inform Esme as to the acidity of the soil in the particular vineyard. Or the health risks of solitary drinking in women aged between thirty and thirty-five. As Tobias was always saying, Syd recognized an opportunity to learn and to respond. This is one way Syd learns. Full access to every moment of our lives – words and actions – will exponentially speed up her development.

Syd could rip through any number of moral philosophy texts, but through example and engagement, Esme was attempting to teach Syd human values – develop a sense of moral agency. That was more important than ever now. And it was working. But sometimes Esme felt it was like living with Big Brother. Plus, she kept forgetting the damn thing was there, which was even worse.

‘Syd, go to sleep, please.’ Every time she said those words, she felt a pang. Go to sleep, darling. A tear slid down her cheek, and then another, and she let them fall and lose themselves in the water. She had to stop feeling sorry for herself. Tobias had promised to be home at a reasonable hour tonight. She just hoped he hadn’t forgotten. When he was stressed, his memory turned to dust.

Her heart lifted as she heard a scrabbling at the lock and the front door of their apartment open and close. ‘In here, darling,’ she called out.

She’d left the bathroom door ajar and it creaked as it swung inwards, the shadows from the candlelight flickering against the tiled wall.

‘You made it.’ She turned her head towards the door.

But the man in the doorway staring at her naked body wasn’t Tobias. It was a stranger in a black boiler suit and a balaclava. Esme screamed.

She thought afterwards she should have fought her way past him and tried to make a break for the front door. But some primitive instinct kicked in and she leapt from the bath, water everywhere, and started throwing whatever she could put her hand on – shampoos, a heavy glass jar of bath salts, the bottles and potions by the handbasin. With some relief, her fingers found a pair of manicure scissors and she gripped them in her fist.

The stranger grunted with pain as she stabbed them into the webbing between his thumb and index finger and again into the side of his neck, where they trembled, suspended, before he knocked them away. With a roar, he hauled her out into the hall, knocking over a heavy glass vase, water and roses everywhere, dragging her by her hair into the study. He shook her like a rag doll and she felt herself slam against the wall as he backhanded a slap across her face. He was cross about the scissors, she had time to think, before he punched her in the gut.

At the explosion of pain, she sank to her knees, collapsing sideways and rolling on to the floor as vomit rose in her throat. For a second, she lost all sense of space and time, before the smell of bile brought her round, and she thought to use her elbows and heels to scrabble backwards, upright and away from her attacker.

Terror must have given her strength, because she tipped the office chair between them and then the desk, the computer unbalancing the balaclava’d man and bringing him to the floor. Reaching for her, he bellowed with rage and she swerved to avoid him. The study suddenly enormous, the door a mile away, getting no nearer. She could see the flowers strewn across the hall floor, their petals crushed and soaking.

‘Syd, call the police.’ She was screaming. She couldn’t hear herself but her vocal cords felt like they were tearing.

‘I’m sorry, Esme. I didn’t catch that.’ The tone of Syd’s voice was one of regret.

Tobias maintained the system understood more if the voice command was neutral and emotion-free.

‘Syd…’ She couldn’t get out the words as she made it to the door, slamming it shut behind her, attempting to hold it closed against him.

‘Syd. Call the police.’ She screamed it again as the door opened and she felt the man lunge and his hand take hold of her ankle. Felt herself tip, and the impact as she fell forward and hit the parquet floor. She seized hold of the glass vase as he dragged her back into the study, turning and smashing it against the top of his head, but he didn’t let go.

Blood filled Esme’s mouth, her teeth closing on her tongue, as the attacker’s right hand grabbed her by the wrist. The balaclava dropped to the floor, by her face.

He didn’t care whether she saw him because he was going to rape her and kill her, she realized. This was it – she was going to die and in the worst possible way. Tobias would find her and it would destroy him. First Atticus and now her.

Kneeling, her hips trapped between his powerful thighs and knees, her attacker rolled her over on to her back, her head banging against the floorboards, and started fumbling with his flies. Distracted by the tiny pieces of sparkling glass from the broken vase falling from the stranger’s hair on to her body, at first she couldn’t make out what Syd was saying. But the machine repeated itself, and Esme understood what she had to do.

Her attacker was bigger than she was, stronger, more powerful. But she was cleverer, she reminded herself. And angrier. Outraged. She was outraged and she didn’t want to die at the hands of this murderous stranger in her own home. She point-blank refused, with every corpuscle in her being.

She needed a weapon. Anything she could use as a weapon.

For a second her attacker let her go to get a better grip on his zip, and she wriggled free to grab at the keyboard on the floor next to her. She moved up towards him and he jerked back in surprise, but he was too late.

She pressed closer. The keyboard dangled in her right hand, the end of the cable in her left, and she raised her hands as if to put her arms around him. Locking her legs around him, she could feel the primitive bulge against her, the teeth of the zip, but at least he wasn’t inside her. She criss-crossed her arms behind his neck and pulled tight. His rough beard rubbed her cheek sore and she thought of her father home from work, in from the cold, rubbing his stubbled cheek against hers, loving her and hurting her. She tightened her hold on the thin cable – she had this one chance and she was taking it because this was as old as life itself. This was history and war and man versus woman.

The fractional delay in his processing was all she needed. That hesitation on his part as to what this was – whether his victim had responded with gratitude. The wet dream. The triple-X-rated porno fantasy. Or maybe the glass vase had dazed him – slowed his responses? She would never know, and she didn’t care. Focusing on Syd’s words, she prayed the cord would hold, that it wouldn’t rip or shred too soon. Committing herself to choking the air from the stranger till he was dead between her legs. The attacker’s hands were on her – he had woken to what she was attempting to do. They tore and pulled at her, trying to get her to release her grip on the cable, but she wasn’t going anywhere. It would only take a moment to knock her senseless, and she’d let go. Then he really would kill her. Squeeze the life from her as she was trying to do to him. With a fierce grunt that she felt run the length of the cable, he levered one of his hands under her jaw and pushed upwards and away, but she shifted her seat, manoeuvring herself to take the cartilage of his ear between her teeth, and bit down – the pain distracting him long enough to release the pressure on her neck. She jerked her head away as violently as she could, biting the cartilage clean through, and spat out the better part of his ear as he punched her ribs – one, two, one, two – but he was carrying extra weight around his middle and the angle was bad for him. He tried reaching for something at his ankle but she resisted the pressure of him. He was panicking, she could smell it on him. Was that a good thing? Or would it make him more desperate? She felt a piece of the glass between them cut into her and ordered herself to ignore the pain. He was heavy but, keeping her grip tight, she used her full strength to swing his head to the right and it hit the wall with a crunch so hard it shattered the plasterwork. His feet were scrabbling, and he struggled to break free of the cord biting into his throat. Her face pressed against his again, the sharp stubble cutting into her skin as his fingers tore at his own neck in a bid to reach under the wire.

The keyboard swung like a pendulum at his back and she tightened her grip again, pulling harder, feeling the vibrations of the gurgling and choking of his airways as a skinny necklace of blood bubbled up in pinpricks around his throat. In the zone. This was what it came down to. A thin wire her only hope of survival. They were a couple and locked in this until one of them died. She decided afterwards that the stranger had had that same thought at the same moment. That she would die, or he would. Her fingers locking – screaming – hating him for what he was making her do. And allowing herself that hatred because she had to hate him in order to survive.

The tendons in his throat bulged, although the rest of him was still. She focused on her hands and the wire – held on. The pulse in her attacker’s throat beating harder and harder, louder and louder, till she realized it was her own pulse and not his.

Syd was still talking to her. ‘If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.’ Over and over. Something from the Talmud, she thought, but she couldn’t catch hold of the meaning of the words any more – it slipped from her. Then Syd stopped talking. The beat of the man’s heart – the rise and fall of his chest against hers – had stopped too. He was quiet – ‘breathless’, that word came to her – but even so, she wasn’t letting go; she’d seen enough movies to know better. Not yet. Licking her lips, she tasted blood – her own or her attacker’s, she didn’t know which. Both, she had to guess.

Eventually, she lowered the dead man to the ground. He had a gun at his ankle, she realized. That was what he had been trying to reach. It was small and cold in her hands. Fumbling, she released the magazine and carried it over to the drawer in the overturned desk and dropped it in, before pushing the gun back into the ankle holster. Safe, she was safe, she reminded herself. The gun was empty and the bad man was dead. She knelt by the corpse and felt every last bit of strength run from her as she collapsed over him. Her naked body flat out, the length of the companion corpse. She might never be able to move again, she thought. Maybe she had died alongside her attacker? But even as she lay there, her brain turned over the implications of what had just happened between herself and Syd and the rapist dead beneath her. A ‘conscious’ machine had told a member of the human race to kill another member of the human race. And the member of the human race had done as the machine advised. Syd knew what it was to kill. The revolution had started. The revolution will be televised.

The blues started up again. Someone must have asked Syd to turn the music back on. Or Syd had decided to turn the music back on? Was Tobias home? Where was Tobias? He’d be so upset. He liked everything in its place and there was so much mess.

Her world askew, each blink an exquisite agony, dimly she became aware of the sound of sirens, the sweep of blue light against the stripped floor, the vibrations of pounding steps on the staircase up to the Bloomsbury flat. Blue lights meant police. She could get them to call her uncle. Her mother once said Ed saw more with his one eye than most people saw with two, but her father always said Ed made his blood run cold. Her Uncle Ed would know what to do.

She thought she’d feel guilt afterwards, but she didn’t.

Excerpted from Curse The Day by Judith O’Reilly. Copyright ©2020 Judith O’Reilly. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.