Kimble swallowed, rubbing his face, blotting it dry with the towel, swallowing hard, again and again: it helped.
The new mattress had been unrolled and spread out. When he lay down on it, it still smelt of the plastic it had been packed in. He rolled over on to his back and looked up at the sunlight through the window.
Breathe. He kept breathing.
Don’t flinch. Don’t fight. Don’t talk. Breathe.
Breathing in, past the ragged check and flutter of his throat because of crying: exhaling like a sigh. If that was all he did, all he let himself think about, just from one minute to the next, he could live. He could keep breathing.
Six days. No more decisions. Six days.
The noise was the door opening. Kimble rolled over, trying to get up on his knees, but he was dazed: his arms grabbed Don’t fight and cold metal clicked round his wrists and he was lying on his back with his hands cuffed together. The man who had come in was the one Sam called George, the older man with the faded-sand hair. Sam might not want you dead, but I’d have killed you.
“Sam wants you downstairs,” George said.
Kimble rolled over and used both his hands to push himself up, awkwardly. He got halfway there. George stopped him with a word. He was holding something else in his hand: a strap with a mouthpiece. Kimble knew it at first sight: an official gag.
Hands grabbed his face and pushed the mouthpiece past his jaw. Once in, the strap buckled and locked at the back of his head.
Breathe. Don’t fight. Don’t flinch.
“Are you paying attention to me?”
Kumble nodded. He let his tongue run along the inside of his lips, reminding himself that he wasn’t gagged. Yet.
“Sam wants you downstairs. If you say one word – if you even open your mouth and I think you’re going to speak – then this goes in – ” he held the gag up, in front of Kimble’s face “ – and I don’t intend to remove it. I’ll let Sam decide when he wants the use of your mouth again.” George paused. “Let me hear you understood me?”
Kimble found it difficult to speak out loud. “Yes, sir.”
“No. Tell me in your own words what you understood. Or I’ll gag you before you go downstairs.”
Laggingly, uncomfortably, Kimble managed to repeat it.
“Well done.” George didn’t sound sarcastic. “There’s one more thing you need to know. No matter what you hear, no matter what Sam or anyone else says, you’re not being sold. Sam isn’t going to sell you to the man downstairs, or to anyone else, or let you go out of the house at all. Let me hear you understood me.”
Kimble nodded. He licked his lips again, and again tried to repeat this. He didn’t know how it came out, but George nodded, once.
“Well done,” George said again. “On your feet, now. We’re going downstairs for you to be looked at. Have you got it? Not one word out of your mouth, or I’ll gag you: keep your mouth shut, keep that daft look on your face, and remember nothing is happening to you today but going downstairs and back up the stairs again. With a gag in it, if you’ve opened your mouth.”
“Yes, sir,” Kimble said, and set his teeth.
Sam was sitting at the desk by the far end of the room, his chair turned to face another man: the man downstairs, George had said, the man who wants to buy you. For some reason Kimble had supposed he would know this man, but he was a stranger.
“Told you I wouldn’t ask you to buy a pig in a poke,” Sam said. He stood up. There was a note in his voice that Kimble had only ever heard before when Sam spoke to him: but this man was not a slave.
“I assure you, Mr Gerard, this is quite unnecessary,” the man said: his voice was unfamiliar, too, pale and clipped. “My employers are prepared to pay what I think you must agree is a very generous price. There is no need for any kind of inspection.”
George’s hand on Kimble’s arm made him walk a little further into the room: Benton and Ray were sitting on the couch. Their laptops on the coffee table in front of them, but they seemed to be paying more attention to Sam and the man who wanted to buy him than to their work.
“I assure you,” Sam said, “I wouldn’t sell a dog to someone who didn’t care to look at it first.” He made a gesture with his hand, and the man stood up and turned round.
He had a narrow, sour-looking face, with very deep-set eyes. He looked Kimble over once, briefly, and turned his head away to say to Sam “All right, I’ve seen him.”
Sam had already moved round the man and was walking towards them. He was smiling: he still had that note in his voice. “No, no, you haven’t had a fair chance to look him over. Come here.”
The man followed. He was not looking at Kimble, though this might not have been obvious to anyone but Kimble: his face was turned towards Kimble, but his eyes were looking away.
“Are you satisfied that this is the man your employers wanted to buy?” Sam asked.
“Yes,” the man said, and turned away. His face was in profile to Kimble for an instant.
Kimble’s eyes dropped to the man’s hand. It did not quite match his skin, though it was a good colour: a hand slightly too smooth, too symmetrical, to be real.
Don’t flinch. Don’t talk. Breathe. Live.
“Turn around,” Sam said. The friendly falseness had all evaporated from Sam’s voice: Kimble very nearly turned, even though George’s hand on his elbow reminded him this could not be meant for him.
Breathe. Live. Don’t flinch. Live. He could now remember why he had wanted to.
The man turned. “What the hell do you want?” he snapped. “I’ve looked him over, we want him, I’ve offered you the price. Are you trying to raise the bid?”
“Would you pay it if I asked for it?” Sam asked.
The man gave Sam a poisonous look. “I would need to consult with my superiors if you were to raise the price from my final offer. Can we at least get the man into my car while we discuss the final price? I have my own shackles.”
“No,” Sam said. “George, take him back upstairs, will you?”
“Very good, sir,” George said, and a pressure on Kimble’s elbow warned him to turn. But the man had taken two steps closer, standing almost at Sam’s side. Consciously, Kimble relaxed all his muscles, dropping his head. Helen.
The man said “Deputy – ” and got no further: Kimble launched himself without looking again. He brought his cuffed hands up and hit the man under the chin, and went down with him, landing half on him at the wrong angle, moving up him roughly, a three-legged animal with death in the front clubbed limb. Helen. He brought both his hands up, clenched together, the cuffs on his wrists locked and painful, and meant to bring them clubbing down on the man’s throat, but a weight hit hard on the back of his skull.
Hurt radiating out from the back of his skull was the first thing he knew: he was lying on his face on a carpeted surface, his hands locked behind his back. He hurt: not only his head but his sides and his arms. Another bruising thump landed: a noise was kicked out of his mouth.
“Put that gun down, sir.” The voice was cold and rough, and brutally familiar.
“Put that gun down now,” the voice said again. Sam.
Sam. Kimble closed his mouth.
“That man’s mine.” The voice wasn’t Sam’s. “You saw him. He’s fucking out of control. I paid you and I’m taking him.” The voice sounded breathless and uncontrolled.
“I didn’t take your money, sir,” Sam said. “We have him under control for all ordinary purposes.”
“He attacked me!”
“That’s unfortunate, sir, and you have my sympathies. But you moved too close to him. You were aware he was dangerous. Fortunately my men were able to disable him before you came to harm.”
“I bought him and I’m taking him or I’ll shoot him now.”
“I wouldn’t do that, sir,” Sam said. “It might raise questions in our minds why your employers want to pay so much money for him, yet you felt able to kill him.” There was a pause. Kimble understood, like a light coming on in a darkened room, who Sam was talking to. The one-armed man. The man he hadn’t killed. Sam sounded amused. “And I will send your employers a bill for redecorating this room.”
“And your collection of illegal DVDs?”
“What?” Sam still sounded amused, but his voice had a snap to it.
“My employers are aware you have in your possession contraband DVDs. My employers may feel that they should report your contraband material. What else do you have in this house besides a Final contract slave you’re not using, and contraband DVDs you shouldn’t own?”
There was a moment’s silence, and then Sam laughed. “Is that all you got? Get out of here.”
“A moment,” George said. He was standing almost on top of Richard. “Sam?”
“You don’t have to tell him anything,” Sam said.
“Mr Sykes, I’m from Great Britain originally. I have a large collection of British DVDs I bought, quite legally. I’m also an alcoholic,” George said with bitter precision, “and Sam stores my collection here for me because they’re irreplacable. Does that clarify the situation for you?”
“If your employers want to know how I’m going to make final use of my slave, they can call me up and ask,” Sam said. He had moved away. “But you are leaving my house right now. Benton. Ray. Escort Mr Sykes to his car.”
The toe of George’s shoe prodded Kimble in the side. Kimble set his teeth. He hadn’t opened his mouth. He tried to turn his head, but that shoe prodded him again, harder this time, and he gave up.
The door of the room closed sharply. Sam’s footsteps came back across the room.
Kimble lay still. His lips were pressing into carpet.
“He’s not still out of it?”
“No,” George said. “I didn’t hit him hard. He’s been conscious for a few minutes.”
“Richard. Sit up.”
“You may be expecting a bit much there,” George said.
The cuffs made a clicking sound as they were unlocked. The relief of pressure around his wrists. His arms, no longer locked together, slid apart and fell – he did not seem to be moving them – to lie on the carpet. That felt comfortable enough: Kimble couldn’t bring himself to move. He could breathe more easily.
“Richard,” Sam said, and his hand on Kimble’s shoulder reminded him that he must do things besides breathe: use his arms to push himself upright, scramble back till he was kneeling with his buttocks pressed against his heels and his hands on his thighs, facing Sam.
Sam bent and put his hand against Kimble’s face, his palm feeling cool, tilting his head upwards. “I think he’s got a concussion. Okay. Richard. Can you hear me?”
“Don’t give me any shit. Talk to me.”
Kimble swallowed. He opened his mouth, meaning to say Yes, Sam, I can hear you, but what came out was “I didn’t kill Helen.”
“Yeah,” Sam said, as if this made perfect sense. “I know it.” He nodded. “I know it. You looked at his arm after you looked at his face. And he knew you, and he was scared out of his gourd you’d know him.”
“Sykes knows you know it,” George said.
Sam nodded. He didn’t take his eyes off Kimble’s face. “If they start trying to shove things around, cover up the evidence, we’ve got them good. Okay. Richard. I have got to take you through to the other side of the house, let Dana take a look at your head. You’re going in cuffs, but nothing’s going to happen to you. Got it?”
Kimble shook his head, slowly. He managed to get to his feet, and keep his balance, though the room was swaying. He squinted at Sam. “I can’t,” he said, even though slaves weren’t allowed to say I can’t. Everything beyond lying on his face breathing seemed impossible. He held out his hands and felt the cuffs lock round them. Sam took his arm and held him upright, walking him towards the door.