Empyreome
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Rhapsody for a Bohemian

It's funny when you stop to think about it: the cultural references we all share. These are the lyrics burnt into our collective consciousness. Somewhere, right now, there's a channel showing documentary re-runs where some smart-ass talking-head is describing the band's music as 'part of the shared cultural zeitgeist' or some tosh like that.

Their music (retro even then, but these things come in cycles) got me through some dark teenage years. It even drove me to learn a few chords on my pa's battered old Martin acoustic—something else he abandoned when he disappeared from our lives. Then, around the time things changed—for everyone, not just for me—I made some bad decisions. One of them was abandoning the music I loved. Some mistakes are fixable though. Fifteen years on, the band's music is back in my life, still the sound-track to regular gym workouts, often as not.

Sweet irony.

So here's the sting in the tail.

I'd just killed a man. Put a gun against his head and pulled the trigger. Now he was dead.

I couldn't argue with the facts—or their consequences.

You probably imagine me laughing on the inside at the absurd irony, even as I stood there with the weapon hot and slippery in my hands, my nostrils filling with the stench of gunpowder and my own ripe sweat, while people around me were screaming and scrambling for the exit.

You'd be wrong. Not laughing: crying somewhere deep inside.

Ah, yes. Being trapped on the inside... That was my problem in a nutshell.

One day earlier, the thing uppermost in my mind was a pain in the ass. No, literally.

I was within spitting distance of the Lagos suburbs, easing up from a sprint-cycle that had carried me over the low crest of a hill, leaning on the handlebars to catch my breath. Already I could see tiny flickering lights on the distant skyscrapers as dusk fell. I'd eaten up thirty-five kilometres in this last stage; another dozen to go. Lagos was special: the two-thirds marker on my world circumnavigation. I was saddle-sore and weary as hell but I wanted to make it before night-fall.

Then a woman tapped me on the shoulder, making the universal gesture for Can we talk?

I blinked, re-focusing. With a sigh, I slipped off the headphones and killed the exercise bike's video screen. I was rewarded with a bland wash of muzak of the gym's own peculiar choosing.

"Emilio Rasner?" the woman asked.

"Yeah?"

"I have something for you," she said. Her face bore a hint of angular, Slavic lines. Jet black hair was pulled back from flawless skin. Older than me, but only a little. Mid-thirties, I guessed. My memory for faces was poor, but I would have remembered her if we'd met before.

She held out a slip of paper which, after a moment, I took and unfolded. "Your phone number?" I asked, feeling confused and embarrassed in equal measures.

The woman smiled a tight little smile. "Your pay-check. Assuming we can agree terms."

I looked at the number again. All of a sudden it was hard to look anywhere else. Put into that context, the figure was compelling.

"My name is Jana Capek," she said, pointedly not offering a handshake. "I'll come straight to it. My husband wishes to hire you as a biological proxy. A hitch." She said it like the word left a bitter taste in her mouth.

I hesitated. "What makes you think—"

"Spare me the theatricals, Mr Rasner. Our enquiries have been discreet, but thorough. There's no point in denying what you are."

Her brusqueness struck a nerve, though that could be a good sign. I didn't like to be messed around. Erratic clients didn't pay well, and it had been, oh, months since my last job.

"I'm not licensed to carry out a hitch," I said. Not anymore. "Maybe you've been misinformed?"

Jana Capek waited patiently, one eyebrow raised while she let me think about the number on that slip of paper some more. "Okay, okay," I said. "So you're not bothered by a little technicality like a license. That's great. But I won't take on a hitch without a little research of my own. Are we talking business or pleasure?"

Jana smiled, though not with her eyes. "A little of both. Our art dealership has made a recent acquisition which is about to prove very profitable. But there are a few... details... to be resolved. And it's true: Myles deserves a little reward."

"Details?"

"I'd prefer not to say. Not here."

"And you're okay with all this?"

She got my meaning. So you're okay with your husband screwing around? Maybe not with his body, but certainly with his mind. In fact, so okay with it, you're prepared to make the arrangements on his behalf?

The only answer was a shrug.

I was no prude. I couldn't afford to be. The increasing elasticity of twenty-first century morals was what I hung my business off. Top of the list were men of a certain age seeking some kind of—let's not be coy—sexual liaison, yet executed in a manner that somehow salved their consciences. Because if your body stays faithful and it's only the mind which takes vicarious pleasure through the actions of another—well, that's not really betrayal, is it? Don't ask me to justify it. I was happy enough to take their money.

Some of the jobs were more esoteric: women who wanted to spend twenty-four hours in a male body—that was fairly common. Kind of a 'see how the other half lives' experience, I supposed. And then there were the other types of hitches I didn't like to dwell on.

Which left the occasional business job, usually something where the combination of the client's knowledge and the anonymity of a stranger was a clincher in some way.

But I wouldn't do anything illegal. (Well, nothing that could land me in serious trouble, anyway).

"I have a few questions of my own," I told her.

Jana Capek gave me an address. "Call tomorrow. Ten a.m. prompt. We'll cover everything then."

I nodded, my eyes drifting back to the slip of paper.

While I was still trying to think of a reply, she turned abruptly and left. Again, no handshake. All the same, it felt to me as if a deal had been struck. I told myself I'd be a fool not to take it.

Oh how I got that one wrong.

The address was in Mayfair and I lived across town in Pimlico, deep in the wet-zone—about as deep as it gets. I used to joke that I lived in the River Thames not beside it, but the joke soon wore thin. When it became uneconomic to maintain London's flood defences, most people chose the sensible option. They decamped from the London basin to higher ground. But some of us just moved up one story, accepted the gentle dilapidation and constant damp, and got on with our lives.

My irregular commissions covered the rent on a generous loft conversion in a drowned tenement. At dusk, the views south over the swollen river and the flooded city beyond could be breath-taking. The area was a sprawling archipelago of non-descript apartment blocks poking up through the gray waters, exhibiting a kind shabby pride in their new-found isolation and stubborn resistance to change. Water drove us out of our basements and ground floors. It forced a rethink of infrastructure and services—but you didn't choose to live in the wet-zone without accepting the consequences. Interconnecting raised walkways started at the end of the street. We managed.

I flagged for a floater and one came almost immediately. The boy paddled the dingy with confident strokes against a rising tide. I paid him at the end of the street, stepping up onto the raised walkway, already crowded with commuter foot-traffic. The queue for the aerial tramway was tolerable and I'd left plenty of time ahead of my meeting with Capek. Ten minutes later, I'd climbed the metal rungs to the little platform forty feet above canal level and taken my seat in the gondola. We rumbled from pylon to pylon, heading east to the Millbank Tower interchange and then north-west towards Buckingham Palace Terminus.

As we neared our destination, I could see kids playing in the water along the beach-front of the Mall, daring each other how far they could wade out to the rotting, skeletal trees that had once stood in St James's Park. The old neo-classical façade of the Palace itself was a sight to behold: cables erupting from every available balcony and window, and more anchor-points on the roof. Aerial tramway cars and hand-cranked two-person gondolas converged on the building like flies to a rotting corpse. Long lines of foot-traffic flowed out of the dry northern entrances, disappearing into the work-day bustle of the city, while sunlight glinted off the muddy water lapping at the southern flanks of the Palace.

With a final groan and a judder, the aerial tram slipped onto its stand atop the roof. I shuffled in line down once-grand staircases, grimy chandeliers overhead the only reminder of past glories, to the roofed-over courtyard of the main concourse and out into sunlight again.

The address Capek had given me turned out to be a set of rooms above a gentleman's outfitters in Mayfair. The door was answered by a young man who introduced himself as Antoine. Impeccably dressed in business gray and groomed to within an inch of his life, he seemed to take my scruffy presence as a personal affront. After a brief absence, I was ushered into an overly-ornate drawing room. Myles Capek rose and shook my hand. I observed with professional detachment a body not well looked after: paunchy, pallid flesh, receding hairline—but the eyes were sharp. I inquired after his wife.

"She won't be joining us I'm afraid. Business matters to attend to. Now—" He clapped his hands together. "Straight down to business, I think."

I pulled a folder from my shoulder bag. "First," I said, straightening the papers, "There are a number of conditions. Non-negotiable."

He frowned. "I'm listening."

"The usual indemnity clauses. Basically anything you do which is illegal or can be construed as such while inhabiting my body is your responsibility. The paperwork indemnifies me from all criminal charges and will be recognized as such in a court of law."

Capek grunted impatiently.

"Secondly, you don't make use of my home, my personal property, bank accounts or anything that falls outside the scope of the hitch agreement. You may go where you chose: public places, hotels, restaurants, night-clubs—they're fine. Any act on your part which I consider physically harmful or that might lead to harm will result in instant annulment of our agreement. I'll take back control before things can get out of hand." I paused. "You realize I'll be present throughout, an inactive component in the background? Observing. But I will be able to expel you from my mind and take charge whenever I choose."

"Ah yes. Snap-back."

"You're not obliged to tell me your intentions, but your wife mentioned business... and pleasure?"

Capek sat back in his chair, steepling his hands. He showed no sign of shame or embarrassment. Clients were usually reluctant to discuss their plans so I found Capek's sense of calmness, of entitlement, unnerving. It made me feel shabby. I tried to focus on the pay-check instead.

I'd done some digging. I knew all about the art dealership the Capeks ran, specializing in reclamation and restorations from water-damaged properties. Digging deeper had uncovered rumors of rather more questionable deals: occasional forgeries passed off as restored originals and 'reclamations' that were, to put it bluntly, a repackaged term for thefts. But theirs wouldn't be the first successful business founded on shady practices.

"I'm well aware what my wife told you, Mr Rasner." He let his gaze slide over me, the kind of appraising look not out of place at a livestock auction, and I felt my skin crawl in response. There were often days when I felt soiled and used; days when I hated myself for what I did.

Capek sighed. "A sad indictment of our society, isn't it? An enhancement that promised so much: the skill of the surgeon guiding the hands of a junior, teaching through kinetic memory rather than painstakingly building competence through error and repetition. Or learning from our great artists: experiencing the tactile sensations of deft brushstrokes and the painter's eye for shape and colour, or the sculptor's feel for the marble beneath her hands. To have the chance to directly experience the senses of a master craftsman! This extraordinary ability offers so many marvellous possibilities. Instead—" he rose stiffly and went to stand looking out the French windows. There were trees and shrubs in a little private garden below. Generally when I looked out a window, I was used to seeing only water and stranded buildings. "Instead, you choose to make yourself a high-class whore."

I said nothing, hoping the silence spoke for me. I'd been called worse, but that didn't make it any easier to take, especially from someone like Capek.

Myles Capek turned away from the window. "The money transfer to your account has been completed. I'm anxious to lose no more time."

"Now?"

"Why not?"

I could think of a dozen good reasons—but I was also anxious to get this over with. "One final thing," I said. "You understand this transaction is illegal? If the authorities find out, both of us will be in trouble."

Capek shrugged. "Then let's make sure we're not found out. Isn't that why I'm paying you so well?"

I scanned the signed contracts into my phone, sent a copy to my personal account and then we got down to business. There was a certain physicality to the process, a skin-to-skin bond that aided the transfer, but aside from the gene alterations I'd undergone, most of it was down to training and aptitude on the part of the receiver—me.

I asked Myles if he'd ever done a hitch before. "Never." Yet there was something about the quickness of his response that made me wonder.

Making a hitch is... hard work. The mind lives in its fleshy receptacle and the bond between mind and body runs deep. Persuading this amorphous blob of consciousness to take up residence inside a stranger's head is like coaxing the most timid of animals out into the daylight where it feels exposed and vulnerable. It's a difficult, skilled job—and even having done it as many times as I had, sometimes it took hours to crack. Occasionally I got a client whose grip was just too strong, leaving me with nothing I could work with.

Myles Capek was as easy as tipping jelly out of a mould.

His mind slipped free and into my own skull as though it was on greased runners.

With the transfer all but completed, I let myself shrink down into a dark corner of my own mind, making way for Capek and letting him take control. I liked to imagine some kind of rubbery membrane separating us, a demarcation of his consciousness and mine in that shared brain-space. I became an observer inside my own head, holding myself partitioned off in a tight ball, drawing the membrane around me. Any moment I chose, I had only to relax my grip and the membrane would snap back, flicking Capek out of my head as easily as I might flick away a fly that landed on my dinner plate. Until I did so, I was Capek's to do with as he pleased.

Capek/I glanced down without any great curiosity at the body just vacated by the essence of his consciousness. The 'floppy' (as some hitches like to refer to their clients) was inert; to all intents and purposes, comatose. It would stay that way until snap-back occurred when I pushed Capek back out of my mind and took back control. Consciousness seemed to need no map to find its way back, no matter how great the physical separation. Unlike the coaxing needed to start the process, snap-back was instantaneous and no more trouble than clicking one's fingers.

Boredom was my greatest challenge. Watching someone else live their life second by excruciating second—no matter what interesting things they might get up to—soon grew tedious. One's sense of self depended on the illusion of control, on a thousand tiny decisions that filled each hour of the day. Pick this cup up and drink. Look over there and see what's happening. Scratch that itch. Helplessness was not an easy state to adjust to.

But the money was good.

We left the house, setting off for Capek's business meeting. I wasn't worried. I was guessing he needed to negotiate some kind of deal without letting the seller know who the buyer really was. If it was just a little underhand wheeling and dealing, that was okay by me. Anything more though, any physical threat to Capek—to me—and I would seize control and get myself the hell out of there. Not that it would be necessary. Capek struck me as too classy for that kind of nonsense.

Capek/I walked south. The raised boardwalk down the centre of Victoria Street Canal—a sleek, metal-lattice affair that put the usual scaffolding-and-board constructions to shame—was moderately busy with a mix of sight-seers and workers on early lunch-breaks. Since the machinery of government had decamped north from Whitehall and Westminster, these once-prestigious addresses had reinvented themselves with endless rows of stilted eateries, smart coffee houses and boutique shops. They fed off a constant flow of tourists flocking to the damp-but-undiminished Westminster Abbey, which rose out of the water like some stone-clad cruise liner at berth. When the tourists tired of that, the lure of the Palace of Westminster shopping mall was just a short boardwalk away above the festering brown waters of Thames overspill.

Capek didn't seem to be interested in any of these places. We loitered at one of the viewing platforms looking out over the St James Park Lagoon, and toured the boardwalks in seemingly random fashion for half an hour. Then, as if reaching a decision, we joined the queue for a southbound gondola.

We didn't have long to wait. Soon the bright red carriage of a London bus came gliding past the rooftops.

When river levels had begun rising and the wet-zone claimed its share of the city, one far-sighted London council bought up a stock of the iconic—but now largely redundant—red Routemaster buses. Shorn of their lower halves and retrofitted with light-weight roof motors, the converted top decks made effective gondolas. Soon they were traversing the growing cable network linking the wet-zone communities that stubbornly persisted. There was something heart-warming about seeing London buses once again travelling the old routes, clanking and grinding along the wires slung beneath street-corner pylons.

Capek/I boarded from the aerial platform and found a vacant seat near the back of the gondola. He pulled up my jacket collar and seemed content to stare morosely into space. I would have preferred to watch London landmarks slipping slowly past the window, but Capek kept his gaze on the gondola's drab interior. As we pulled away from the next stop, he changed seats, moving up to an empty double near the front of the bus, slipping in behind a man who had just boarded.

Capek bent forward, rooting around in a bag he'd stashed at our feet but keeping our gaze on the seat in front. I felt his/my fingers brush against something hard in a side pocket. As he drew it out I felt the heft of it, the cold, dead weight of metal fitting snugly in my grip. I had no time to be afraid. No time to react either.

Capek leaned forward. "Hey." The man in front twitched at the sound of our voice, as though startled from some deep, private reverie. He turned around in surprise and I recognized him immediately.

It was Capek.

His features, his clothes. Not even an identical twin would have been this good a match—and I knew very well from my research that Capek had no siblings. The look on his face told me he was every bit as surprised as I was.

It was plain impossible. Capek was inside my head. He was controlling my body. We had made the hitch together only an hour before. You couldn't share consciousness between two bodies. His mind simply couldn't be in two places at once. And if Capek was hitching a ride in my body, it must follow that his own was lying comatose on the couch back in his Mayfair apartment. Had to be.

Yet here he was.

A nasty little thought insinuated itself. If this was Capek right in front of me, just who was hitching a ride inside my skull?

While I was grappling with these thoughts from the little segregated corner of my own head, my arm calmly raised the gun and pointed it at Capek.

I fired.

Capek jerked as though a sudden thought had struck him: maybe a gas burner left on in the kitchen or the plumber about to call when nobody was home. He looked down at the neat little hole drilled into his chest, glancing up again, befuddled and uncomprehending. That made two of us, I thought.

The sound of the shot was curiously diminished, scarcely louder than the thumps and bangs coming from the overhead gantry as we lumbered across Parliament Square. Involuntarily, my hand raised the gun a little higher, firing at point blank range into Capek's temple.

Time froze. The passage of a mere second stretched into eternity. When the world started up again, an arc of blood had splattered across the double windows at the front of the gondola like some cheap, impressionistic work of art. A woman was screaming somewhere behind me.

OUT! I pushed hard from my dark corner, demanding to take back control. GET OUT OF MY HEAD RIGHT NOW! But my hitch wasn't budging. They pushed back, and pushed hard. It was like wrestling with some vast, pulpy sac. The more I pushed, the more it bulged around me, refusing to yield. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The membrane I drew around myself always snapped back into place the moment I wished it to, flinging my hitch back to their own body instantaneously. Always.

That told me this hitch was strong—and that strength scared me. What if I couldn't take back control? The thought of staying a mute observer forever in this little dark corner of my mind, didn't bear thinking about. More than a few days and I would be raving incoherently.

I stood (but not because I chose to), turning to face my fellow passengers scrambling for the only exit at the rear of the gondola. At that moment, we lurched into the next station, the wrangler on the aerial platform snagging the gear mechanism into neutral. The gun slipped from my fingers to clatter on the floor.

Unbidden, my hand withdrew my phone from a coat pocket and dropped it next to the gun. My boot-heel crushed it into shards of plastic and metal.

Every instinct screamed at me to run but the hitch in my head wasn't listening. Police response units would be here in moments. Their restraint methods in this kind of situation weren't known for their subtlety. Yet Capek-or-whoever kept me rooted to the spot. It was almost as if he wanted me to be caught.

DAMN YOU, LET ME BACK IN!

The gondola was rapidly emptying. The last few passengers were throwing urgent, scared looks over their shoulders to see if the crazy man with the gun was about to take an interest in them. All except one. He was battling against the exodus, fighting his way towards me, a grim look on his face. Off-duty cop? Just my luck.

With one final desperate effort that made my entire body shudder, I pushed. Pushed hard. It felt like the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object, but at least I could try to be that irresistible force. Then for no particular reason, I felt my hitch relax and let go. An instant later, I was back in charge. I could have wept with relief.

"Just stay where you are, mate. Stay calm and we'll get this sorted." I stared at the approaching man. Both hands were held out as though in supplication.

Yes. Stay calm. Reason this through. You've done nothing wrong. Okay, so a black-market hitch would land me in a bit of trouble, but that was nothing really. Not when it came to murder. I hadn't been the one to pull the trigger.

Except that wasn't how it looked to everyone else.

No. I could prove the hitch had taken place. I could prove I wasn't the one in control at the time. I had the signed contract and the waivers.

—Scanned into my phone and sent to my cloud-store courtesy of Capek's network node. I glanced down at my crushed phone. What was the betting I'd find some kind of convenient 'network glitch' had destroyed my version of the contract? But there would be a very large and incriminating sum of money in my bank account.

Whoever my hitch was, they had taken me for a complete idiot. I could prove nothing.

"Just stay right where you are." The man's voice was calm, measured. Just him and me left in the gondola now. That would change soon enough.

"Everything's gonna be fine."

I stared at him. I really wanted to believe that. But I could see in his cold, gray eyes he didn't believe it himself. I was in deep—and first chance he got, he'd see that I was buried.

He lunged. I swept up the gun from the floor and pumped two shots into the window next to me. The glass shattered and an instant later I was through and falling. Forty feet doesn't sound like much—not when you're falling into water—but people forget, the old streets are only a few feet under. In summer months when the Thames' flow turns languid, sometimes the pavements even resurface: black slimy mud-flats that stink to high heaven.

I hit hard, on my back. The shock of cold water closing over me knocked my breath away, but I'd been lucky not to break my neck. Probably the only reason I hadn't was thanks to a high tide and some kind of submerged space at the old pavement level: descending steps maybe, or basement frontage long since flooded. Through murky water I saw the gondola hanging above, silhouetted against a blue sky criss-crossed with cables and support lines as though some angry god had slashed the sky with a knife. Curious faces peered down from the nearest boardwalk. Distantly, the tower of Big Ben jabbed heavenwards like a disapproving finger.

Someone dropped into the water just yards away.

I felt the hard edge of stone against my shin, judged that it seemed to be descending in one direction, opening up a channel, and pulled a couple of quick, powerful strokes underwater. When my lungs felt as if they would burst, I surfaced, gulping down a froth of air and stagnant water. I could hear sirens and shouting—and splashing from close by. Soon they would be sealing off the square, moving in weaponized drones; closing the net. The police weren't about to let a murderer escape the crime-scene—not here in such a public place.

Fight-or-flight instincts crowded out more rational thoughts in my head. I sucked in another breath and dove again.

Surfacing some way off, I saw in front of me the top-most section of a tiled arch, the unmistakable red-and-blue 'Underground' symbol not quite submerged. Had there been a Tube station here once? I recalled vague childhood memories of entranceways and a concourse bustling with passengers, labyrinths of connecting tunnels. But they were no use to me now. A fine mesh grill sealed off the dark tunnel beyond.

Then above the slap of water against stone, I thought I heard the angry whine of a drone approaching.

I filled my lungs with sweet air and used the mesh to pull myself down into the murky water. At the very bottom my fingers found a gap where the mesh didn't quite meet the floor. Just a few inches, but it might be enough. I shoved my head and shoulders through the gap, wriggling and thrashing, feeling sharp wire ends bite into my flesh. It seemed to take forever before I pulled myself free on the far side.

By now my lungs were beginning to ache. I was counting on an air pocket, some kind of cavity where high-water didn't reach. But the tunnel only led me downwards, away from the murky daylight filtering through the entranceway. My head cracked against ceiling tiles and I scrabbled along under water, feeling my way by touch. There was no respite, just slick tiles against my cheek. I kicked out, going deeper, my lungs on fire now and the edges of my vision starting to shrink inwards. I'd wanted to take back control, hadn't I? Make my own decisions again. Well, this is where it had gotten me.

Then I felt an edge, an upward turn where the ceiling widened and became flatter. I followed it, my strength ebbing fast. My fingers pushed through a boundary layer and I thrust my face into an air pocket only inches deep. The air was rank: a mixture of sewage and something oily. It tasted wonderful.

I moved on through the gloom, finding air pockets in strange convolutions of the old abandoned concourse. I didn't doubt my pursuers were not far behind. How long would it take them to retrieve the building schematics of the old underground station? How long before they had the exits located and sealed, divers prepped? Speed was the only factor in my favour.

Strangely, I had a dim memory of this place in pre-flood days: a long pedestrian tunnel piercing the heart of the station beneath busy road junctions, ones of the exits leading out onto the old river embankment path. But I wasn't sure I could trust old memories any more.

I found a likely passageway only three quarters submerged which took me in the direction I wanted to go. I swam along it, pushing away a crust of detritus washed in on the last tide. That was a good sign; it meant the passage drained and filled with each tide. River access. When the passage began angling upwards, it wasn't long before I was wading not swimming, a distant half-circle of grey daylight drawing me on. When I realized this exit was also blocked by a barred gate, I swore loudly. But it came away easily when I yanked, the hinges weakened by rust and no match for someone who had little left to lose any more.

Beyond was a moored wooden platform, sheltering in the lee of one of the vast stone buttresses of Westminster Bridge. Probably somewhere for floaters to tether their boats when not ferrying clients across the river. I hauled myself up, and lay like some beached creature, sucking down fresh, clean air. A tourist cruiser pulsed down the central channel no more than a hundred feet away. I forced myself to give a cheery wave, not wanting to appear too suspicious. But this was the wet-zone. Bedraggled people were hardly a usual sight. Two or three people waved back.

An empty floater puttered by in the wake of the cruiser and altered course when I hailed it. "Can you take me as far as the Southwark lagoon?" I called. The owner stared at me wordlessly. "Uh, yeah," I said, forcing a laugh. "Bad day. Slipped off a walkway on the way to work. Need to get back home pronto and change." After a moment, he nodded and we set off in his patched dinghy, a misfiring outboard motor punctuating every few cycles with an oily cloud of smoke.

Waterloo Island passed to our left, the hulk of the old mainline station dominating the island, ribs of metal exposed where the fabric of the building had sagged. Not there. I wanted to push as far south as I could into the crowded, lawless waterways beyond. Nowhere would be safe once the authorities found my trail, but I needed somewhere that would buy me time to figure out my next move.

I'd been a fool. That much was inescapable. If the contract documents had been intercepted, there was nothing to prove the hitch had ever taken place and nothing to absolve me. Multiple witnesses in the gondola could testify they had seen me murder Capek in cold blood. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to set me up.

Something wasn't adding up though. With Capek's body dead, his mind had nowhere to return. Maybe he had thought to stay permanently inside my head. In the end though, whoever it was had simply stopped resisting, letting me regain control. So was this just some bizarre act of suicide? Then why go to such elaborate lengths to implicate me as a murderer?

Had someone else hitched into Capek's body after he transferred to me? Hmm... That was a possibility. Capek's body would be an empty receptacle. Someone who knew what they were doing could slip inside.

But that still didn't explain why the Capek-in-my-head had murdered his physical self. In hindsight it was clear everything had been meticulously planned; the encounter on the bus no coincidence.

As the little craft puttered on towards Brixton Landing, everything circled back to one thing. I was in deep trouble. I was going to need help. Which really only left me with one option.

The pub had seen better days. Most likely it had seen better centuries. But while there was still lager on tap and a big screen showing the football, there were punters. If I had to gamble on one thing in the universe, it would be that I'd find Brody here, nursing a pint and watching the game.

The place was quiet on a week night, no more than a half-dozen regulars. I slipped onto a stool near a corner table in the snug bar, and settled my sweating glass onto a beer-mat. Brody sat in the corner, alone as usual. He didn't seem to notice me, although he shifted slightly to get an unobstructed view of the screen. After a moment or two, I picked up the stool and plonked it down directly in his line of vision. His gaze settled on me slowly as though recognition was returning from some distant place.

He swore. "I thought—I hoped—I'd seen the last of you, Leo."

"I'm in trouble, Brody." I kept my voice low and told him my story.

"You're not wrong there," he said. "Big trouble. Good luck with that." He picked up his drink and turned back to the screen.

"There's no one else..."

"Whose fault is that?" Brody took a sip, set the glass back down. "You've got a nerve, Leo. Really. After what happened."

There was an awkward silence. "How is Caz?" I said quietly.

"Oh now you ask, you bastard. As if you care. My sister's doing fine actually. Great, since she no longer has any contact with you. And you better make sure it stays like that."

"I'm really sorry—"

"Yeah. Well you know what you can do with your regrets. You weren't around for her when it mattered."

An uncomfortable silence descended. Brody's eyes seemed to want to drift back to the big screen. He looked anywhere but at me.

"Brody. You know I wouldn't ask if there was any other way."

He made a noise that sounded like a cross between a sniff and a laugh.

I sucked in my breath. "Um. About that money you still owe me?"

Now his eyes snapped to me. "Yeah?"

I shrugged. "You still owe me."

His face twisted into an expression of disgust. "Extortion, Leo? After everything else?"

"Hardly that. I just... I really need your help, Brody. And there's no one else."

Brody turned back to the game without answering. Minutes passed. I was beginning to think he was blanking me when he spoke again. "This has to be it. Finito. All debts settled. If I do this, I want a line drawn under everything. A thick black line—and then the page torn out and the bloody ledger burned. Do you understand me?"

I nodded. "I'm very grateful."

"You damn well ought to be, getting me mixed up in this."

He raised his glass and drained the last of his drink. "The least you can do is get me another one of these and let me watch the bloody game in peace."

I nodded. I owed him that.

There were no parking bays on the street so the big brown UPS van double-parked, hazard warning lights blinking while the driver lugged the box up the steps and rang the doorbell.

Antoine, the PA, answered—not looking his usual sharp self. He was flustered; wary. There were dark rings under his eyes as though he hadn't slept much.

"Parcel for Mrs Capek," I said, stepping into the hallway.

He reached for it.

"It says addressee signature only. Mrs Capek in?"

"No."

I peered down at my clipboard. Brody's eyesight was atrocious but I guessed he couldn't afford the laser surgery. "Yep. Can't hand it over unless she signs."

I watched Antoine hesitate. "Wait here."

Moments later, Jana Capek appeared, face impassive but hardly the image of a grief-stricken wife.

I handed her the clipboard. "My condolences."

Her hand froze, mid-signature. "Do I know you?"

For a moment, I had an uncanny feeling she was trying to peer behind Brody's eyeballs, looking for the kernel of consciousness that nestled in his brain. "The plan was inspired," I told her. "Hitching into your husband's head just before the proxy arrived, then hitching into Mr Rasner's body to make him believe you were Capek. No wonder that transfer was so easy. Capek was already carrying a hitch—you—so the jump across into Mr Rasner was easy. By the time Myles realised what was happening, it was too late for him to do anything about it. And all so that you could get away with murder. That is how it happened isn't it, Mrs Capek?" She stared at me, expressionless. "There must have been a good reason for murdering your husband. I'm betting it was money. Or perhaps control of the business?"

"Get out." She spoke quietly, her words almost a whisper. She'd come this far and I knew better than to expect her to blab a confession to the delivery man. 

"Or maybe it was the other women you couldn't stand? Body-faithful but mind-cheating. That would put a strain on any relationship." Something I knew only too well. I saw a muscle in her face tighten imperceptibly. A new thought occurred. "Or maybe other women weren't the problem. Other men, perhaps? Young boys?"

Her eyes flashed with anger. "Was a little discretion too much to ask for? Some pretence of keeping the truth from me—if only so that I could preserve some dignity? But, no. He didn't care about that. Not about me or the reputation of the business."

I kept Brody's face carefully blank. "That would have driven anyone to the edge of insanity." 

"Sanity was never an issue. I've known exactly what I was doing every step of the way." She moved closer. "Who are you? Behind that face?"

She held my gaze even though I wanted to turn away. I saw a bottomless void in those eyes, a darkness that was both absolute and terrible. For a sickening moment, I felt as though I teetered on the edge of a black pit and that if I pitched into it now, I might never reach the bottom. How many times had Jana Capek hitched into someone else's mind? Enough to loosen her own sanity, like some critical component of an engine removed and refitted so many times it had worn down to a point where it could no longer be properly seated.

"Was it hard to dupe your husband into making the hitch?" I asked quietly. "I wonder what excuse you gave? Could you feel him caged in a little corner of his own mind, watching it all happen, raging impotently in the darkness while you made all the arrangements?"

"It wasn't hard; it was easy. Myles was a vain man. And vanity is a weakness that can be exploited." She blinked slowly. "It's you, isn't it?"

"And you were so strong." I shuddered, remembering. Strong enough to keep Myles a prisoner inside his own mind. Strong enough to do the same to me.

I tapped the new phone in the breast pocket of my shirt. "Not much of a confession but enough to work with, I think. It will corroborate accusations already detailed in a separate statement."

"I know who you are. Remember how it felt when I was in your head? How much stronger I am?" Suddenly Jana was moving towards me with dangerous, deadly speed. "Too late. The truth's already out there," I said, thinking of the phone's open connection. The look in her eyes was cold hatred.

"Sorry buddy. Time I was going. Over to you."

A flicker of incomprehension crossed her face. "What?"

Of course, I was speaking to Brody not her, warning him to get ready. I pulled the pepper-spray from my pocket and fired a burst in her face. She reeled backwards, hands clawing at her eyes, and then I was gone, snapping back to my own body. Brody could handle the rest. I reckoned I'd bought him enough time to make good his escape.

On the other side of town, I sat up slowly on Brody's patched-up little sofa, breathing hard. It occurred to me that if I kept my promise, those would be the last words I ever spoke to my friend. Another regret I could carry around in my hollowed-out soul.

It wasn't as if I didn't have room.

I'd not brought much because I didn't need much, and what there was fitted into my old army-green rucksack with room to spare. A battered old guitar case rested between my knees. A client of mine had been a gifted player, some kind of session musician, I think. I remembered watching from the dark corner of my mind while he took control, witnessing my own hands making the instrument sing. I marvelled as the ability—his not mine—flowed through me, a union of perfect timing and control.

The gondola jolted its way over cable runners at a street corner junction and I glanced around at the pale, grim faces of my fellow passengers, wondering if Jana Capek was staring back at me through borrowed eyes. I tugged my hood up a little farther and tried to shrink back into its shadow. I had no doubt she was out there somewhere, too clever to fall into the trap I had set. Which made me a loose end she would want to tie up. The authorities were still searching for me too—if not for the murder, then probably as an accessory. Time to disappear, get the hell out of the wet-zone and leave London far behind. Emilio Rasner was dead—if not literally, then figuratively.

And there were other reasons to bury my past.

I'd never learned to play guitar as well as that one-time client, but I remembered. Remembered how it had felt, just for a brief time.

And I could learn, couldn't I?

And if I could learn, I could teach others: let them slip inside my head and show them. Let them experience the movement of fingers and wrists, replaying muscle memories until it became instinctive. Put my abilities to a better use. I knew just the song to start with.

It would be something. I'd heard that the wetland communities along the new south coast didn't ask too many questions of newcomers. Maybe that's why Caz had gone there after our break-up. I believed in fresh starts. Now I couldn't help wondering if Caz did too.

In my headphones Freddie sang, Any way the wind blows. Doesn't really matter to me.

The gondola rattled south out of the wet-zone, and after a while I felt myself swaying to the rhythm of its passage.

About the Author
David Cleden lives in the UK, works in London and is the 2016 winner of the James White Award, with published work in Interzone, Betwixt, Electric Spec, The Colored Lens and other venues. His day job is writing business proposals but at the weekend he writes fiction. He can't stress enough how important it is not to muddle them up. One day he will have a proper author's website and write something intelligent on it, but for now he can be found on Twitter as @davidcleden.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link