After my time in O'Toole's Pawn, and settling in my newfound companions beneath my bed in the apartment, I set out for Saint Helens to find my sister. I held a crumpled letter in my hand, peering at the address Eileen had written. It was worn and faded with the passing of years; I could barely read it.
I came to the place which I had thought the letter was addressed from, and spoke with several of the Rainhill area's residents. None I spoke with knew of my sister, or could identify her by my description. I found the block managers for several of the apartment buildings, but my questions found no answers with them either.
After a couple hours of searching and questioning, I wandered until I found a pub to grab a drink and a bite in. The neighborhood was a bit shoddy, with several of the buildings around the pub seeming to be sinking into the ground. I went in and took my meal and drink in silence, contemplating my being unable to locate Eileen and what that might mean.
I finally finished off my meal, took another beer, and then decided I would try checking with the factory which she had said she was working for. It was quite a hike over to Stockport from Rainhill, to the Tynes Textile Mill, and it was almost quitting time for the workers there when I arrived. I decided I would stay close to the entrance of the mill and await the departing workers to exit.
This proved to be a good strategy, and eventually provided me with some of the information I needed. I was altogether displeased with what I came to learn of Eileen's fate, however.
Three of the workers I spoke with had converged upon me while I was speaking with some of their co-workers, having heard my inquiry. They all confirmed that Eileen had been relieved of her employment when it had been discovered that she was becoming less and less productive due to a fascination with what they called "tabs". I wasn't sure exactly what they were referring to, and didn't press, after they mentioned that Eileen had a female friend who still worked at the mill who might know something of her whereabouts.
I left rather quickly after learning of this, to track down this woman they called Polly. They had said she could be found in a club in Manchester called The Factory, with the day being a Friday and all. I was tired of walking, so I decided to catch a Hansom cab for the trip.
Thankfully, the cab driver had known of the location I gave him, and even gave me plenty of information on the place itself that I would be able to use once I arrived there. The most interesting piece of information I was to learn was the fact that this place was a haven for the counter-culture of Manchester. Which meant there would be a lot of young people dissatisfied with their lot in life there, and resentful towards Imperial authority; this, I was sure, meant that my leather jacket with the Royal Irish Rangers patches and rank insignia would be very, very out of place.
The Factory, I was also to learn, was a place where cutting-edge music could be found, with bands from all over the Empire, and indeed the world, performing live. This, of course, went hand in hand with the sale and usage of a variety of illegal drugs, and with that bit of conversation I came to learn more about these tabs I'd heard of earlier. 'Scope tabs could alter a user's consciousness, projecting it into an artificial reality known as the Etherscope, visitors to which could shape that reality to their liking with their force of will.
I'd heard of the 'Scope as a boy, but never had time for such frivolities as I'd had to hold down several odd jobs at once to bring food to the table of my home as well as make a few shillings to pay for the heavy usage of the local gym to hone myself into something the British army would want to enlist. I'd also heard the horror stories about how one could lose themselves in such a perfect reality, crafted by one's own thoughts and dreams, and lose touch with the real world outside of that realm. And that was certainly something that didn't appeal to me.
It must have had some deep appeal to Eileen, though, and I could hardly wonder why. Faced with the life we were forced upon as children, our father's suicide, our mother's destitution, our step-father's abuse, and then... well, and then I had left. I told myself a million times that Eileen was a tough girl, that she would get out and take care of herself just fine after I had joined the Army. I don't know if I ever truly once believed that, though. She'd only been fourteen when I had left.
There was a slight sense of guilt I had felt in leaving her to her fate, in not protecting her from life's abuse, for years after I left. The constant drilling and training and regimentation that came with joining the RIR had dulled that sense for years, until we had started writing after Mother's funeral. It came back then, briefly, but dulled yet again upon Eileen's assurance to me she had been doing just fine. But that sense was welling up again as I rode to The Factory. Had she been doing fine, really?
I must have lost myself in my thoughts for a time, for the next thing I knew, I found the Hansom cab coming to a stop and The Factory awaiting me. The cabbie smiled as I handed him a couple of fivers and told him the extra was for the information, and he slipped a calling card into my meat hand as I stepped down from the coach. I straightened my jacket, eying the place before stepping in.
The sounds of loud, pulsating music could be heard from within, and stroboscopic lights streamed from the areas of the window that weren't boarded up or painted over. It looked from the outside like some old Gothic structure from a penny dreadful, and I am sure its owners carefully cultivated that image to draw its patronage. A large African man was standing in the massive iron double doors, a red velvet rope before him. He was letting some people in without a second glance, while others were waiting in a long line.
I decided right then I didn't care for waiting in that line, and so strode up right to the man.
“End of the line,” he said to me without a second glance at me, and then lifted the rope for a beautiful young couple.
“I've not a care in the world for waiting in that line for hours on end, bucko. I'll make you a deal. I'm looking for Polly,” I said to him in as cool a tone as I could muster.
I showed him a handful of notes. He put his rope down, blocking the entrance yet again.
“I'm not sure who you mean, sir. End of the line,” he replied gruffly, indifference in his eyes.
My patience was wearing thin with this act quickly, so I moved next entirely on instinct and irritation. I reached down with my cybernaughtic arm, clamps opened wide, and gripped the African's balls firmly. His eyes grew wide. I could've crushed his jewels right then, but instead I smiled and slipped the notes in the breast pocket of his immaculate white suit.
“Don't have time or inclination to be fucked with, mate. Polly, is she in here?”
I hadn't come here with making a scene in mind, but this elitist door greeter was getting on my last nerve only a breath after my first. He nodded vigorously after a brief moment, his face pained as the clamps began to tighten upon him.
“Keep those notes, and be glad I let you keep your magairle intact as well,” I growled into his ear as I yanked the rope out of my way and walked into The Factory.
People were everywhere, dancing and drinking, moving alone or against someone, packed in so close one could hardly breathe. The music was so loud, its vibration through the building set your body to move even against your own will. I had to put a hand up over my eyes, because the strobe lights were so initially disorienting. Even the tables were packed with people, sitting alone or together, one or sometimes two or even three to a chair. Every one seemed very amused.
I could tell right away this wasn't my kind of place. So I opted to go straight away to the bar, where the bartender would surely point me in the right direction. I was right; he knew exactly who I was talking about, and pointed to a raised ramp which lead up to an area above the stage. The music and lights swirled to a sudden stop then, and a group of young men began to take the stage as I made my way up the ramp.
As I arrived at the top of the ramp, I looked upon an alcove which must have been reserved for the beautiful people. Many of them looked on coolly and rather indignantly at my presence among them as I made my way towards what could only be Polly. The fellows at the textile mill had said she was hard to miss, and they weren't far wrong with that statement.
She was tall and lean, with a dancer's body. Her long platinum blonde hair hung to her hips, and swirled in the air around her as she danced alone to music that wasn't being played yet. She wore clothing that I was not accustomed to seeing on a woman, which was not entirely unusual in this place. A short halter of black leather was cut low to expose much of her small, high bosoms and her flat, well-toned stomach. Her pleated plaid skirt hung low on her slowly gyrating hips, and barely reached mid-thigh. She wore many rings in her ears and a small diamond in her left nostril. Her eyes were painted with black kohl, closed in some reverie she shared with only herself and her dance. Her lips were full and sensual, curved into a slight smile of an amusement that perhaps no one else but she could understand.
A small light from above rested upon her for only a moment, and in that moment I realized that I found her utterly beautiful. Then her eyes opened and caught me staring. Her lips widened into a broader smile as she took in the sight of me. I could hardly help but watch as she moved closer to me.
“Don't see to many of you around here,” she said in a husky voice that tugged at me, her blue eyes sparkling.
Then the music started, and her next words were drowned by an electronic cacophony. She leaned in close enough for me to feel her lips against my ear, shouting.
“Dance with me, Soldier-Boy!”
And she grasped my cybernaughtic arm and pulled me to her. I never had, until that moment, understood how even the hardest man could lose himself in the softness of a woman. I'd never before allowed myself the weakness of doing so, never could allow myself. I'd started to tell myself I couldn't then, but the softly alluring scent of citrus that clung to her pulled my thoughts away. The feel of the soft skin of her back under my hand, and the way she began to move against me, pulled my thoughts even further away.
I was becoming distinctly warm and uncomfortable, yet not entirely uncomfortably so, when she turned her back to me and ground her backside against me, moving my hand along her side. She turned swiftly to me after a moment, a wide smile and a laugh upon her lips. She leaned in close to me.
“Mmm, and a very naughty Soldier-Boy you are!” she shouted, and darted in to playfully nibble at my ear.
I was completely unprepared for such, and the feel of her lips upon my skin was delightful and yet too much so for me to stand. I moved her a bit away with my hands, and her lips turned into a pout.
“I came here to discuss business with you, Polly!” I tried to say above the din surrounding us.
She gripped my hand, turned and drew me towards some booths, and I thought she had understood me with the flash of slight disappointment upon her face. We passed the booths, and went further back into the alcove, into a small area filled with seating. She pushed me down into a small ruby velvet couch, in an area where the music was just muted enough to hold a conversation without quite shouting.
“I wanted to play, Soldier-Boy, you disappoint me. So what can I do for you if I can't do anything to you?”
Her smile widened at my expression, which must have reddened a bit, and she crossed her long legs and leaned in towards me. I was transfixed by her crystalline eyes as she locked them to mine.
“I'm... ah, I'm looking for a girl-” I started.
“I'm a woman, Soldier-Boy, and I'm right here in front of you,” Polly purred as she lowered her eyes and raised one corner of her lips.
“Dammit, I know that much, thank you! I meant to say, I'm looking for Eileen Kendall. She's my sister,” I rushed to complete before I could be interrupted again.
At that moment, a couple was walking by us, the woman's musical laughter ringing in my ears. I recognized it, although I hadn't heard her laughter for years. Then she turned to look at the two of us, seated upon the small couch.
“Robb? Is that you?” Eileen asked me.
She was thin and drawn, and although she was dressed from head to toe, the slick-seeming rubber that encased her clung to her form.
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” I answered, rising from my seat, “What sort of mess have you gotten yourself into, Eileen?”
Eileen's eyes flashed angrily then. Polly rose, slipping something in my hand and pushing her lips to my ear.
“I'll just leave you to your family reunion. Come see me sometime, Soldier-Boy,” she whispered in my ear, then sucked my earlobe for the briefest moment, and then was gone.
“What the bloody hell do you mean, what sort of mess have I gotten myself into, Robb Kendall? I've been doing just fine without you around!” she said, her voice rising.
“Listen, Eileen,” her companion interrupted, “About the stuff-”
“f*ck off, mate,” I growled to him.
His eyes widened, and he stepped back, then turned and began to walk away.
“Oh now that's just keen, Robb, you've cost me fucking money now!”
I saw she was holding in her hand a plastic bag filled with what looked to be pills, which she had been poised to hand to the man she'd been with. I began to become angry as well. I reached to grab her with my meat hand.
“Come with me, Eileen. You don't need to make your money this way. This is no life for you,” I said.
She yanked her arm from my grasp.
“Don't you think that if I am selling, someone's supplying, and they'll be damned pissed at this! Besides, what gives you the right to barge into my life after you left and take over it!”
“I'm only thinking of you, and-”
“Oh, aye, and how much were you thinking of me when you took off, all eager to join the all-mighty Imperialistic Army, to impose our way of life on other cultures! How much were you thinking of me when you left me to the tender mercies of Pete Holcroft and our dear Ma, to run off and learn how to be a babykiller!”
My passions were running as high as hers then, and I drew back my hand for only a moment at that. It was my cybernaughtic hand, and her eyes caught it and narrowed even as I stopped myself and lowered it.
“So they are done with you now, are they? Took away your life, taught you how to kill women and children, then threw you out like the garbage you'd become when you weren't any use to them any longer? How does that feel, Robb? You like being an Imperialist tool?” she said with a hateful tone.
“I've never killed any babies,” I began with a cool edge, “but yes, I've seen some things and done some things in the service of this country that you as a civilian couldn't ever begin to comprehend, let alone approve of in your limited view of how the world really works. I've killed some women, and even a couple of children, but only when they were armed and intended to kill me or my countrymen. I've killed men who were torturing, raping and murdering hundreds of their own people, and would have continued to torture rape and kill hundreds if not thousands more if something hadn't been done. I've-”
“But you never once stepped in to save ME, you bastard!” she interrupted again, her hand arcing out in a stinging slap as tears began to pour from her eyes.
“You never said anything to me-”
“Here, now, lad, you want to be stepping away from dear Eileen,” a voice came from behind me.
I turned, hands raised, as I heard the click of a pistol being cocked. A quartet of men stood behind me, all looking ready for trouble. I looked to the man with the pistol, and instantly recognized him as Vernon O'Keefe. He'd been one of the lads I'd taken a beating from many years ago, and the same lad whose ear I had bitten off.
Two of the men immediately moved to grasp my arms. Then I heard a dangerous, silky smooth yet hard-edged voice speak out.
“Is something wrong here? Eileen, did this man hurt you?”
She only sobbed, and fell into one of the couches with her hands over her face.
I knew that voice. It was Dashing Matt O'Connell; he'd once been a gofer for the Irish Mob, back when I was running errands and odd jobs in Huyton. We were about the same age. He'd always had a charming smile and an eye for the ladies.
He was dressed impeccably in a suit too expensive for this club and this crowd. He moved to Eileen's side, speaking in soft and soothing words that I could only hear the tone of. Then he stood straight up and adjusted his tie.
“Boys, remove this man from my club.”
I tried to resist, but Vernon pressed the ugly muzzle of his autopistol against my temple.
“Give me a reason, you bastard,” he said.
They dragged me down the ramp and out a back door. We passed Polly along the way, and she looked sadly on me until we were through the door and it was slammed shut behind us.
“Oh, I've waited a long time for this, Kendall,” Vernon said, “I don't think you know who you're fucking with, mate, but I aim to make sure it doesn't happen again.”
He stood back a bit, gun leveled at me, while the three others worked me over with their fists. It took them a while to beat me down, but I took the beating. Vernon's gun never wavered from its aim at my head the whole time. I didn't feel like dying just yet, and I was fairly certain they weren't out to kill me just yet.
When it was finished, I lay on the ground groaning in pain and clutching my broken ribs. I spat blood from my mouth, feeling a tooth slide from between my lips. Vernon leaned over me and spat into my face, then moved back quickly. They left me there bleeding, making their way back inside The Factory.
Fucking amateurs. They should have killed me.