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A Hole in the Hedge

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If anyone asked her, Pepper would say that she doesn't remember much about that time. She thinks it's better that way. Not that there's anyone around to do the asking. Brian's got his head deep in his garage, coming up only for a change of oil and to chat up his lady customers. Wensleydale's in Germany or Belgium or wherever the multinational he works for needs a chartered accountant this week and Adam....

She works hard at it, the not-remembering. It's not even the memories really, the things that did (did not) happen. She knows the difference. She's sure of that.

But she's only human, after all.

--------

The alarm rings and she stumbles out of bed, pulling on her dressing gown as she heads for the kitchen. She drinks her tea and spreads a bit of marmalade on her toast. On the radio, the presenter is solemnly holding forth on the plight of Indians in America.

"Bang," says Adam. "You're dead."

Pepper falls from her horse. Her bow and arrows lay scattered around her. Under her cheek the ground is warm and dusty but she can only feel it distantly. The sun is setting - no, her eyes are closing. Her heart stops.

"You'll never take me alive, copper!"

Pepper opens her eyes.

"Oi, give it up, mate! You're nicked," she calls around the corner of the building, gesturing for the men behind her to circle the other way. The most fearsome gangster in history is somewhere up ahead, daring the police to capture him. She runs a hand down her crisp blue uniform, pulling her trusty truncheon from its place. It's smooth and warm, its wooden weight familiar in her left hand.

In her right is a gun.

Its weight keeps changing as it cycles from Dirty Harry's .357 magnum to a snub-nosed pistol and back again. She tightens her hand around it and charges ahead.

The gangster leads them a merry chase, running down alleyways, vaulting parked cars, exchanging whizzing bullets and wisecracks. He's always a step ahead, the crowds on the street parting before him. He scoops up a baby from a runaway pram and gallantly returns it to a sobbing mother, his brilliant yellow trench coat flaring around him. He tips his hat, winks over his shoulder at Pepper before dancing away.

Pepper's men fall far behind. She follows him up vast marble steps, fluted columns framing big brass bank doors. They play hide and seek among the pillars. She presses tight against a column, feeling the deep groves bite into her back. "C'mon, we know it was you what done the London job and the Norton robbery and knocked over old man Taylor's shop. We've got you dead to rights."

She strains to hear something in the sudden hush, her pulse pounding in her ears. She eases her head around, peering into the shadows. The chill of the marble sends a shiver along her spine and she whirls, a whisper of sound warning her a moment too late. Merry blue eyes, lighter and brighter than her uniform, meet hers.

"Bang," says Adam. "You're dead."

Pepper opens her eyes.

The tea's gone cold and the toast tastes like ashes.

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Nigel from Marketing leans on her desk, waiting for the Midlands figures. He plays with the bits and pieces she's collected: the woven baskets from Majorca, a nice brass Degas dancer from Paris, a little donkey from her mum's holiday in Torremolinos, the novelty pencils that proclaim "Happy Christmas!" and "You're Doing Great!" and other cheerful messages that Natalie the perky intern scatters throughout the office.

The printer's spewing paper out and she fusses with it, squaring the sheets and sliding a clip onto the corner. Nigel reaches for the report just as she pushes it toward him.

"Ow!" He shakes his hand before popping his thumb into his mouth. "Damn paper cuts. Hazard of the workplace."

Pepper barely hears him. There's a perfect triangle on the report, three drops of blood that hold for a breath then slide into one another, a tiny puddle that slowly sinks through the papers underneath.

The hangings in the tent are white. There's no telling what color her uniform had started as; earth and blood and other things had stained it dark long ago. Outside the plains are covered in burning bodies, the smoke rising to dim the noonday sun. Inside is cozy and light, filled with soft cushions and lit by scented braziers. Adam's lounging on the white pillows, dressed all in white, his hair and eyes the only flashes of color. He's lost in unknowable thoughts but looks up as she strides in, the sword swinging on her hip. "Victory?"

"Of course. It's all over, Adam. It's all yours."

He laughs, sweet and bright, cutting through the wails and cries outside. He opens his arms to her. Pepper drops to her knees beside him, unbuckling her swordbelt and tossing it aside. They undress each other with the ease of long practice. Adam smells of sandalwood and spice. She moves along his body, drinking him in. She's sweaty and begrimed, the taint of smoke and oil in her hair, but everywhere he touches her the filth is swept away. His mouth presses against hers, dark and lush, singing praise against her lips, her tongue.

They roll across the cushions. A brazier tips over, sending out sparks that hover like fireworks before settling down to smolder on the rug. Adam pulls at one of the gauzy hangings and catches it around her shoulders, winding them up in it together. And every thing they touch, every place they set their eyes, bleeds.

"Got a plaster?" Nigel asks.

Pepper digs into her desk drawer and hands him one. He takes it along with the report and wanders away. She sits there, breathing deeply, her hands flexing. She can smell the perfume of Krista at the desk next to her, the cigarette that Tim sneaked on his visit to the toilet, the ink from a leaking biro.

She squares her shoulders and goes back to work.

--------

The market is crowded when she stops by on her way home. Tight-faced mothers gathering dinner for the screaming children hanging from their trolleys, tense singles looking for just the right sauce for the latest pasta craze.

Pepper moves through the aisles, automatically composing her sack lunches for the rest of the week. She hesitates over end-of-season apples, picking through them to find one that hasn't gone to mush, and the heady tang of over-ripe fruit is almost visible around her.

There's a waterfall splashing somewhere behind the veil of boughs and vines, the light breeze sending an occasional mist against her face. The grass is thick and lush underfoot, an invitation to curl up and doze in the lazy sunshine.

Adam's already there, clean and golden against the green, spread out under an apple tree. He rolls up onto one arm as she nears him, grinning up at her. She reaches down and takes his hand. He stands up easily, turning her to lean back against him, skin to skin from head to toe.

They stand there for a long time. All about the clearing, animals come and go. The lion and the lamb, the unicorn and the dodo. From far away, on a wind scented of the sea, whale song hangs in the air. A phoenix, scarlet and gold tail trailing, arrows through a cloudless summer sky.

"You know what would make everything perfect?" Adams whispers in her ear.

She looks up over her shoulder. "Hmmm?"

"Children. A family. Other people. It's time to start it all again."

Pepper is confused. There's her and there's Adam. That's all there is and all there has been and all there will ever be.

Adam smiles. "Hang on. I forgot. First things first." He reaches up and pulls an apple from a low-hanging branch. He offers it to her, holding it against her mouth. Its dappled skin, rose and cream and splashes of gold, glows in the slanted rays of the setting sun.

She bites.

"Miss! Miss! Are you going to buy that?" The clerk's tone says she had better.

Pepper looks down. She's dug her nails through the apple's skin so far that juice is dripping down her hand.

She drops the mangled apple in her trolley and joins the queue to pay.

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Pepper doesn't dream much anymore. But when she does, she's pretty sure it's in black and white.