WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?


CHAPTER 15

AURA SITS on a plastic bucket-seat in an empty subway car. It rocks its way through the corridors of the Lujo underground. Electric strip-lights fizz and sputter. The floor is littered with bottles of facial scrub, makeup removal brushes, long curls of skin, and lipstick-stained cigarette butts. There is a smell of second-hand flesh. On the seat opposite, somebody has left behind a handful of photographs, all of them pulled too quickly from an instamatic camera. They show images of an old woman, ghostly, her face and body smeared by chemicals.

Aura grows tired. Her fingers touch at the gun, inside her tunic. Is this my life, she thinks. My only life?

There are, perhaps, half a dozen passengers in the carriage, these shadowy figures who sit mumbling to themselves. They pay her no attention. The shroud is still in place, the digital mask that Cage gave to her. No one can look at her, not truly. They will never see her real face. Once there was a young girl, who sat down upon a scorpion. Was that a story she used to know, a song once sung? Aura watches herself in the window, the rushing blackness. Where is she being taken to? She waits for the voice, the next instruction. There is something wrong with her reflection. Aura blinks rapidly and catches her breath.

'Who do you want to be?'

A young woman stares back at her, with a dreamy, faraway expression. Her body is still lined with puppy fat. Her black patent leather stilettos complement her bra and panties. She wears a silver cross on a chain at her neck.

She is a Bad Good Girl.

Pictures flicker on and off. Who is this person, this woman shivering in the glass? Aura remembers, or seems to remember, the rough claiming hands of a shantytown pimp. How could that be? She is not supposed to have memories, except for the ones that Doctor Cage allows her.

'Who do you want to be?'

Another image appears in the pool of darkness. This time of a young girl standing at the side of a cold, empty highway with a small rucksack beside her. Night has fallen, and she is dressed only in a white blouse, checked skirt, ankle socks and pumps. She is looking towards a distant bend in the road, where headlamps now can be seen, slowly approaching.

She is a Teenage Runaway.

Aura remembers. The night she ran away from her father's house. She was picked up by a middle-aged man in a saloon car. Yes, that was it. He was a travelling salesman, with a suitcase filled with 'high quality religious fetishes'. Smelling of cheap cologne and talking of his daughters. They stopped at a roadside inn. He would not stop looking at her, appraising her. He showed her a 'genuine X-ray of our Lady of Sorrows, recently discovered'. And afterwards…

'Who do you want to be?'

This voice, questioning. Is it Doctor Cage, talking to her? Aura is angry now. No. Not that. That was not her. It was somebody else, somebody else's memories. Buried deep. A stranger's face.

Aura puts her hand against the glass. The image fades and is replaced by another. The woman's eyes are lined with kohl, an unforgiving smile hovers on pale lips. Wrapped in green silk, her body moves with practised ease. Across the bottom of the screen, three scorpions are illuminated, in chrome, marble and velvet. Four more icons wait to be captured. Holding a Thompson 9mm above her head in both hands, the woman strikes a series of dramatic poses. Aura recognises the close-cropped hair, the low maintenance style favoured by those often called away.

She is an Action Babe. The beautiful killer.

Yes, this is her preferred female identity. The one designed for her by Doctor Cage, in the black laboratory. He was always so kind; he filed his nails, before using the various devices upon her body.

'The Paradise Hotel. All change.'

The voice on the car's public address system is not quite male and not quite female. 'All change,' it says. 'End of the line.'

The darkness has sucked away the stream of images. Aura grips the handrails of her seat as the car squeals to a halt with protesting brakes; the doors open with a shudder. There are no other passengers. Only now does Aura notice the sweat which has dampened her skin during the ride. The voice comes to her, properly this time.

The next victim is named. The comedian…

Aura steps out onto the platform. The station is deserted. There is blood smeared all over the walls. An old mattress in the corner is heaped with a mess of dirty white sheets. Flies buzz the smell. Candy wrappers are caught in a swirl of foul air. The lift is broken. The only stairs lead downwards, a dark spiral littered with bird shit and feathers.

The special agent checks her weapon.

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WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?