She was nowhere in sight. No doubt she was already exploring those narrow streets and gardens beyond the cafés whose lights were so inviting. Will lifted up his tattered tote bag and walked slowly across the road toward them, moving very carefully in case it all disappeared.
The air of the place had something Mediterranean or maybe Caribbean about it. Will had never been out of England, so he couldn’t compare it with anywhere he knew, but it was the kind of place where people came out late at night to eat and drink, to dance and enjoy music. Except that there was no one here, and the silence was immense.
On the first corner he reached there stood a café, with little green tables on the pavement and a zinc-topped bar and an espresso machine. On some of the tables glasses stood half-empty; in one ashtray a cigarette had burned down to the butt; a plate of risotto stood next to a basket of stale rolls as hard as cardboard.
He took a bottle of lemonade from the cooler behind the bar and then thought for a moment before dropping a pound coin in the till. As soon as he’d shut the till, he opened it again, realizing that the money in there might say what this place was called. The currency was called the corona, but he couldn’t tell any more than that.
He put the money back and opened the bottle on the opener fixed to the counter before leaving the café and wandering down the street going away from the boulevard. Little grocery shops and bakeries stood between jewelers and florists and bead-curtained doors opening into private houses, where wrought-iron balconies thick with flowers overhung the narrow pavement, and where the silence, being enclosed, was even more profound.
The streets were leading downward, and before very long they opened out onto a broad avenue where more palm trees reached high into the air, the underside of their leaves glowing in the streetlights.
On the other side of the avenue was the sea.
Will found himself facing a harbor enclosed from the left by a stone breakwater and from the right by a headland on which a large building with stone columns and wide steps and ornate balconies stood floodlit among flowering trees and bushes. In the harbor one or two rowboats lay still at anchor, and beyond the breakwater the starlight glittered on a calm sea.
By now Will’s exhaustion had been wiped out. He was wide awake and possessed by wonder. From time to time, on his way through the narrow streets, he’d put out a hand to touch a wall or a doorway or the flowers in a window box, and found them solid and convincing. Now he wanted to touch the whole landscape in front of him, because it was too wide to take in through his eyes alone. He stood still, breathing deeply, almost afraid.
He discovered that he was still holding the bottle he’d taken from the café. He drank from it, and it tasted like what it was, ice-cold lemonade; and welcome, too, because the night air was hot.
He wandered along to the right, past hotels with awnings over brightly lit entrances and bougainvillea flowering beside them, until he came to the gardens on the little headland. The building in the trees with its ornate facade lit by floodlights might have been an opera house. There were paths leading here and there among the lamp-hung oleander trees, but not a sound of life could be heard: no night birds singing, no insects, nothing but Will’s own footsteps.
The only sound he could hear came from the regular, quiet breaking of delicate waves from the beach beyond the palm trees at the edge of the garden. Will made his way there. The tide was halfway in, or halfway out, and a row of pedal boats was drawn up on the soft white sand above the high-water line. Every few seconds a tiny wave folded itself over at the sea’s edge before sliding back neatly under the next. Fifty yards or so out on the calm water was a diving platform.
Will sat on the side of one of the pedal boats and kicked off his shoes, his cheap sneakers that were coming apart and cramping his hot feet. He dropped his socks beside them and pushed his toes deep into the sand. A few seconds later he had thrown off the rest of his clothes and was walking into the sea.
The water was deliciously between cool and warm. He splashed out to the diving platform and pulled himself up to sit on its weather-softened planking and look back at the city.
To his right the harbor lay enclosed by its breakwater. Beyond it a mile or so away stood a red-and-white-striped lighthouse. And beyond the lighthouse, distant cliffs rose dimly, and beyond them, those great wide rolling hills he’d seen from the place he’d first come through.
Closer at hand were the light-bearing trees of the casino gardens, and the streets of the city, and the waterfront with its hotels and cafés and warm-lit shops, all silent, all empty.
And all safe. No one could follow him here; the men who’d searched the house would never know; the police would never find him. He had a whole world to hide in.
For the first time since he’d run out of his front door that morning, Will began to feel secure.
He was thirsty again, and hungry too, because he’d last eaten in another world, after all. He slipped into the water and swam back more slowly to the beach, where he put on his underpants and carried the rest of his clothes and the tote bag. He dropped the empty bottle into the first rubbish bin he found and walked barefoot along the pavement toward the harbor.
When his skin had dried a little, he pulled on his jeans and looked for somewhere he’d be likely to find food. The hotels were too grand. He looked inside the first hotel, but it was so large that he felt uncomfortable, and he kept moving down the waterfront until he found a little café that looked like the right place. He couldn’t have said why; it was very similar to a dozen others, with its first-floor balcony laden with flowerpots and its tables and chairs on the pavement outside, but it welcomed him.
There was a bar with photographs of boxers on the wall, and a signed poster of a broadly smiling accordion player. There was a kitchen, and a door beside it that opened on to a narrow flight of stairs, carpeted in a bright floral pattern.
He climbed quietly up to the narrow landing and opened the first door he came to. It was the room at the front. The air was hot and stuffy, and Will opened the glass door onto the balcony to let in the night air. The room itself was small and furnished with things that were too big for it, and shabby, but it was clean and comfortable. Hospitable people lived here. There was a little shelf of books, a magazine on the table, a couple of photographs in frames.
Will left and looked in the other rooms: a little bathroom, a bedroom with a double bed.
Something made his skin prickle before he opened the last door. His heart raced. He wasn’t sure if he’d heard a sound from inside, but something told him that the room wasn’t empty. He thought how odd it was that this day had begun with someone outside a darkened room, and himself waiting inside; and now the positions were reversed—
And as he stood wondering, the door burst open and something came hurtling at him like a wild beast.
But his memory had warned him, and he wasn’t standing quite close enough to be knocked over. He fought hard: knee, head, fist, and the strength of his arms against it, him, her—
A girl about his own age, ferocious, snarling, with ragged dirty clothes and thin bare limbs.
She realized what he was at the same moment, and snatched herself away from his bare chest to crouch in the corner of the dark landing like a cat at bay. And there was a cat beside her, to his astonishment: a large wildcat, as tall as his knee, fur on end, teeth bared, tail erect.
She put her hand on the cat’s back and licked her dry lips, watching his every movement.
Will stood up slowly.
“Who are you?”
“Lyra Silvertongue,” she said.
“Do you live here?”
“No,” she said vehemently.
“Then what is this place? This city?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where do you come from?”
“From my world. It’s joined on. Where’s your dæmon?”
His eyes widened. Then he saw something extraordinary happen to the cat: it leaped into her arms, and when it got there, it changed shape. Now it was a red-brown stoat with a cream throat and belly, and it glared at him as ferociously as the girl herself. But then another shift in things took place, because he realized that they, both girl and stoat, were profoundly afraid of him, as much as if he’d been a ghost.
“I haven’t got a demon,” he said. “I don’t know what you mean.” Then, “Oh! Is that your demon?”