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Malu ~ Chapter One

Malu woke in the dark. The moving dark. Automatically she sensed the envelope of her skin. Other than a sting on her thigh, she was intact. Next, steadying her nerves for the shifting and the possibility of pain, she reached out with one hand. The other was beneath her head, as if she were a little girl who had gone to sleep quietly, rather than lying on her side in the weaving gloom.

Her hand encountered a wall close beside her. Cautiously, with the practised flinch of a long-standing habit, she ran her fingers down the grooved material. It smelled like wood and, in the close air of the box, her urine and sweat. Tugging her body flat on her back with as little betraying movement as possible, Malu stretched out her limber toes to feel the dimensions of her tiny prison. It was only slightly larger than her body. To some, its size and shape would have suggested a coffin. To Malu, it was just another box.

Convinced that she was alone, and likely not observed, Malu allowed herself to breath more deeply, to gather strength for a more rigorous test. She calmed herself, worked her arms, legs, hands and feet through several contortions that dissipated the strain of sleeping on the hard surface, then pressed her hands against what she knew was the box's top. Malu was never disorientated when she woke. Today, or tonight, was no exception. Once her hands were seated on the rough grooves of the wooden ceiling, Malu brought her thin legs up and planted her feet above her hips. Her toes gripped the planks. Arching her back and giving a noise like a tiny kitten, Malu strained against the wood.

Malu knew wood. She knew the many years it took for a tree to spread the soil into a shape and flow into the tallest being in the world. Her strength was puny pitted against such a dense mass, but she pressed until her muscles flexed her thin bones and her joints cracked against her tendons. For a moment, from where she lay panting on the box's bottom, Malu was nearly fooled into thinking that the ceiling was giving way.

Once she realised that the box was stronger than she could break, Malu lay quietly in the pitch black, waiting for the inevitable noises. She had woken a hundred times like this. It was always the same. Always she fought against the box and always they came.

The passage of time that preceded their arrival was difficult to predict, since Malu was so far from any indicators she knew. Her narrow chamber shifted in a steady tempo, and she had even begun to relax into her wary sleep when noises sifted through from outside. First, it was the clanging of shiny stones, then a hard grumble and a softer clutter of sound. Two of them. Hantus. Soft ones. She braced herself involuntarily, preparing for the inevitable while keeping her muscles loose. She would not fight. This time she would try to hold herself back, her disgust at bay, try a different strategy.

When light streamed into the box, Malu was at first unable to adjust her eyes. There was always too much light. Shading her eyes with her hand, Malu saw a larger box above her, and then the heads of the Hantus. Their faces were almost too much for her, and she struggled with her resolve not to attack. Whether they were surprised she could not say. They twittered and mumbled, their attempt at a real language hidden behind noises even a tapir would find embarrassing. Malu lay quiet. Perhaps they will forget, She thought, looking more for distraction than hope. Perhaps they will grow interested by some other thing and leave me alone to explore the larger cage.

Before long, after the exhalations of the Hantus had fouled the air, long arms and pale fingers reached into Malu's box. She was still. She thought of stinging insects and how tranquillity could be rewarded with honey, although she hated to lie to herself. They lifted her out of the box, their fingers too firm in some spots-bruising the skin on her thighs and arms-and too loose in others-making Malu yearn to thrash and scream. A mere repeat of the many times they had played this scene. Forcing herself to squint into the glare and observe, Malu crouched small in her shadow self and waited.

The two Hantus were much bigger than her. Carrying her was so little burden for them that one of them, the male, held a shaft in his other hand, prepared to bruise her even more if she squirmed. Malu congratulated herself that she had predicted their intentions. I am learning them, and they are learning me. Just as she had begun to be doubtful of their behaviour, they placed her on a long, low, flat metal surface that was positioned over the ground at about their midsection. Malu dreaded what was next. They would begin their exceedingly unpleasant examination.

Malu cast her mind away. She remembered the forest. The delightful chimes of voices. She saw the quick flash of the birds, and far below, the ground. Her mind drifted through the images, until, disoriented by her body's sudden shift onto her stomach, her face against the shiny surface, she found an image that brought her no comfort. She saw herself as though from above, but as her vision descended she saw her busy hands, chubby in their youthfulness, strip the flesh from a living frog. The amphibian screams were impossible to hear. But when Dit turned her on her stomach and tore a freshly cut branch through her skin, explaining between her screams that he merely mimicked her actions, Malu heard the frog. Turning on the spit of impossible pain, her back alight with blood and searing, Malu had learned.

The Hantus were probing the scar the branch had left, when Malu, torn by her memory, cried out. Surprisingly, their hands immediately withdrew, and Malu gathered her endurance for a fresh assault. The hands came back and turned her on her back, more gently than she had been touched in a long time. Their faces hovered. They brought covering and touched it to her face. Malu discovered that she had cried.

Deary Velsen, tortured by her name ever since she had realised its terrible fit, heaved her bulk into the tight chairs with which they had reluctantly furnished the temporary laboratory. "She's obviously been traumatised." Deary rarely asked questions.

"You're anthropomorphizing again. That thing in there is not human. Not in any recognizable way." Hemoltz Bernier fancied himself a strict logician, although his secret passion for organized sports gravely undermined his posturing.

"Semantics. Wouldn't you use a gendered pronoun for a dog?"

"Besides the point." Hemoltz's clipped sentences were his speciality. He'd refined them in primary school when the rest of his classmates were slinging chalk. In university he'd used them as weapons. "Is it what we wanted? There's funding to think of. I'd hate to think-"

"That we'd paid so much of the budget on a deformed hominid? Go ahead, say it. It's been on the tip of your hypothalamus ever since we left Sumatra. But you've also seen the dentition, and felt the angle of the tibia."

"Twenty thousand. That's a graduate student for two years. That's someone else writing your articles. That'd buy your friend a tenured position." Hemoltz seldom spoke idly, and never to hurt, but Deary's ongoing relationship with a graduate student had not gone unaccompanied by occasional snide comments. It was much worse in the department, Deary reminded herself, where every bit of funding that Limber received had to go through a prying committee.

"She'll be worth it. You just wait until you see what the blood tests reveal."

"If you've got the nerve to stick her with a needle." Hemoltz prided himself on his indifference to suffering-the "random firing of cells," as he called it-although he'd not offered to shove a needle into the thin arms of the crying being on the examining table.

Shifting tactics onto safer ground, Deary said, "I don't like the box. She could hurt herself in there. We need a more secure enclosure. We need to get some nutrient into her too, or we'll lose her. If all the others are dead, it was probably neglect that killed them."

"We'll find something. Amazing that she survived. Dragged as she was from village to village. A monkey in a crate to astonish the crowd."

Both Deary and Hemoltz shared their awe of the being under their protection, as they saw it. They had merely been looking for an interesting specimen, and when the zoos and research labs came up empty, they returned to the poachers. The poachers could be counted upon to procure the impossible, or at least illegal, and more than once their lab had benefited from the extra cash outlay. Hemoltz's lab specimen, or the thin girl, as Deary saw her, had been chained by the neck to an open-sided crate when they bought her, bedraggled and barely alive. Like other animals they had bought over the years, she was covered in scars, fearful of the slightest movement, but not, they hoped, as short-lived.

"She's a miracle. We should call her Miracle."

"I was thinking of '679'. Good lab name like that."

Setting the topic of naming aside, Deary and Hemoltz-who worked together well despite their apparent low-level animosity-discussed how they might get blood samples without more trauma, and how an x-ray and MRI could be effected without drugging the subject into a stupor. Pausing to look through the darkened window at their subject, who was prowling the empty room now that she had devoured half of the food they'd left for her, they debated the relative merits of various Ketamine mixes.

Winkler, as he called himself, spent most of his time alone. He was a good student, in as much as that was possible considering how ill-suited he was for the sciences, but his social skills needed improvement. He'd made a secret rule, which he was continually breaking, not to speak to his professors. Later, under the duress of missed cues and scattered laughter, he extended his exclusion to his fellow students.

Perhaps that was why, when his shabby yellow coat and loose-fitting boots appeared in the door of the animal rights league, all conversation immediately stopped. If that cessation of noise was calculated to make Winkler feel at ease, it did nothing of the sort. But standing his ground, Winkler met the dozen or so curious glances with a diffidence that revealed, rather than hid his insecurities. It was Nancy, the animal rights league's co-ordinator, who finally got up from where she'd been sitting on the floor debating veganism and greeted Winkler as if she'd been waiting for him to come.

"We were just talking about vegetarianism," she explained as she put out her hand and looked up at Winkler. He was easily a foot taller than her. Another six-footer in the world, Nancy thought.

"Vegans," Lenny interrupted.

Winkler retracted his hand from Nancy's grip and looked at Lenny. Lenny was also sitting on the floor, although his position looked cramped, as though he'd been shoved by a prison guard and was afraid to stand. With a diamond sharp insight, where anyone other than himself was concerned, Winkler saw the many nights Lenny drank, and how that released his fists. He saw the girls who had suffered Lenny's attention.

"Sorry I didn't bring a drink," Winkler greeted Lenny. "Next time." Winkler's was not a harm reduction model, and many times words had leapt from his tongue that he'd wished he could reel back and cast in a different way.

It was a remark that might have passed as a harmless witticism if no one knew Lenny, but as it was, more than a few people looked at Winkler again, looking past the worn cuffs and salt-stained boots. Lenny was bland and smiling, but the rage in his neck gave him away. Likewise, a perceptive viewer would have seen the girls sitting closest to him move a few millimetres further away, angle their heads to the side, and close their cupped hands.

Nancy brought Winkler in and introduced him, keeping her arm firmly on his thin elbow. She was determined, as co-ordinator, to indoctrinate one more willing participant. "This is Lenny and Kristie and Kurt-with a K-and Jessie, and Amber."

Winkler let the welter of names wash over him, just as he had ignored hours of lectures. His mind could store any information, he had assured himself, and if needed, he could regurgitate the steaming mass back. This visit was a mere foray. Feeling out the temper of new friends. Winkler was suddenly unsure why he'd come.

In the mountains, on an eastbound greyhound, Sam was shaken awake. He woke suddenly, stiffly, and for a moment Yashi Amura, the bus driver, the air still ringing with his yells, felt that he had made a mistake. Sam had grabbed Yashi's hand where it rested on his shoulder and began the movement, perhaps involuntarily, that would lead to a twisted wrist. Sam's pupils were dilated.

"What are you, on drugs? Calm down." Cursing the many crazies that he constantly encountered on the long haul buses, Yashi once again regretted not following his father into the carpentry business.

His grip released, Sam sat upright in the ripped vinyl seat. "What's going on?"

"Change buses. You're responsible for your own luggage. This is an hour stopover. Then the next bus leaves for Chicago." Yashi moved away before Sam responded. I'd rather not know, Yashi thought to himself. There's always a nutter.

Once he was alone, Sam visibly relaxed. His dream of a chase, of the hand on his boot, had slipped away, and he was still alive.

The station was not yet open, and although it was spring, someone had forgotten to inform the Montana mountains. The air steamed where the passengers, after hours in the overheated buses, released clouds of vapour. This was a crossways. Buses idled in the pre-dawn, their interiors warm and inviting, but regulations dictated no one could load until just before departure. The resentful passengers stood in the cold, their duffel bags and suitcases beside them, waiting out the arbitrary hour until the buses would open to them.

"I'll bust his ass." Eddy Prosser stood above the mess that had been Mick, their main gopher. Eddy was wearing his signature sports coat, which he'd been hoping would earn him the nickname teacher, but had merely alienated many of the people he dealt with on the street.

"You won't be busting Mick's ass anymore, I can tell you that." Makonicky, a hulking brute of a man, had a grim sense of humour and a certain callousness about violence.

"We've got to get that guy," Eddy continued. "He saw us kill that crip and if we don't get him, he'll go to the cops."

"What do you mean we?" said both Makonicky and Filler. Filler was thin and mild-looking. Although he could be relied on to sell more k's than anyone, his inoffensiveness was his best weapon, and danger made him squeamish.

"You were the one beating on the crip. For whatever it was, fifty bucks. Now we got no crip and no fifty bucks. All I've got is this." Filler held up a cheap watch. "What the hell you want me to do with this? And now you want us to find him. You're getting expensive Eddy. And not worth the expense."

"It's your ass on the line too. Accomplices. That's what the cops would say."

"And who's going to tell them, Eddy? You?" Makonicky moved from vaguely intimidating to threatening with a practised ease, a role more suited to his rounded shoulders and stocky build. "You wouldn't be in the pen long enough to get laid, you rat on us. This ain't our problem. You killed the crip. You kill the looker."

"Yeah," said Filler as they walked away, "and you won't be able to send Mick after him this time."

Eddy typically hid his fear behind his willingness to menace and abuse, if his victim was weaker than him. He'd relied on Mick to do his dirty work more than once, but this time Mick had fallen from too high a building, and he didn't look like he was going to recover. Once Filler and Makonicky were out of sight, Eddy sifted through Mick's pockets and took a blood-stained wallet, knife and keys.

Eddy traced their steps back to Mick's car, and then drove to Mick's apartment. He'd never been there, but his guess that Mick was stupid enough to register his license using his own address proved to be correct. There he sifted through Mick's shelves and under the bed, while Mick's girlfriend, or whatever she was, slept, tenderly cradling a half bottle of rye. Mick had been Eddy's main supplier, and Eddy needed some for the road. When he found nothing, Eddy woke up Mick's girl, shook her around a bit, and got her to lift the floorboard Mick had been dumb enough to let her see.

Knowing he'd never work in Vancouver again, Eddy lifted out the neatly packaged bundles. Three kilos. Now he had enough money for the road. Enough to get him out of town.

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