“The bad man might be there soon, Mummy?” Riley was wide-eyed, trying to peer out the living room window from the couch.
Jess lowered herself from the pull-up bar and smiled at her daughter. “Maybe, darling. Baddies can be tricksy sometimes.”
“Did you catch lots and lots of them when you were in the army?” Riley said. “I bet you were a good catcher.” She clambered down from the couch.
Jess grunted and bent to the side, stretching her back muscles, then wiped the sweat from her face. “I did what I could, we all did, darling.” She leaned down and kissed Riley on the forehead. “So all the precious little soldiers like you can grow up free and strong.”
Riley pushed her toy train along the floor, plastic wheels rolling over polished wood slats.
Jess cracked a window open and let the cool air wash over her skin.
A motorbike engine thrummed like thunder in the distance. Louder and louder, it forced its way through the streets until it roared outside the house, rattling the windows.
Jess checked her watch. “Right on time.” She lifted the binoculars from the window sill.
The man parked his motorbike on the yellow lines in front of the building across the street like he always did, unclipped his WW2 style half-helmet, and ran a tattooed hand through his beard. His face was a deep brown like the bike seat’s leather. He spat in the gutter then approached the gang of youths loitering on the corner.
Shoulders swaying in his baggy sweater, the man reminded Jess of a guy she’d started cadet camp with – Rewiti, or Rawiri, something like that. He’d later been thrown out of the Army for sneaking bourbon into the camp.
The man waved to a boy slouched on his bike like the other hoodlums. The youngster’s bike frame, probably once a gleaming pearl white, was faded and dull. Pinpricks of rust dotted the chrome handlebars like chickenpox. Dressed in track-pants with one leg rolled up, a red bandanna knotted around his calf, and a matching rag crowning his head, the boy looked like a poor imitation of an American gangster. The blood-red paisley on his bandanas set him apart from the cafe traffic on the other side of the street. At least with his ‘Straight Outta Porirua’ t-shirt, nobody would need to ask him where he was from. He looked young to be on the street, dimples pulled his cheeks under narrow, dark eyes.
The man talked with the boy, a mute conversation of hand gestures and nods from where Jess stood. They shook hands then the man stepped away and scanned the street. Jess panned the binoculars back to the boy. Had they exchanged something in the shake? The man glanced at Jess’s living room window. Jess knew he couldn’t see past the tint. Keeping watch undetected was easy on home soil. The hostiles Jess had been surrounded by in her last overseas stationing would make bandana-boy piss his pants.
The industrial building across the road squatted on the street like a grimy cigarette-butt on fresh swept pavement. The bearded man swaggered toward its door.
Jess stepped around her daughter and headed to the kitchen. She pulled protein powder from the pantry and placed the shaker on her pearl white bench-top. Taps crowned in chrome matched the accents on the espresso machine. The rosewood-red grain of the floorboards pulled it all together. Three loads of powder into her shaker. She pulled the milk from the fridge and glanced at the newspaper clipping on the door as she swung it closed: ‘4 year old killed in gang shooting cross-fire.’
“Choo-choo. Engine blowing. Get the goods to where they’re going.” Riley sang and wove her train around the scattered plastic toys on the floor. Jess glanced at her then back to the news clipping. “That could’ve been you, ya’ know baby. Or one of your little friends. So much for freedom.” Milk. Lid. Shake.
“What’d ya say, mummy?”
Stooping to pick up a curl of last night’s spaghetti from the floor, Jess tsked. “The new cleaner didn’t do a good job mopping, did he, darling?”
Riley pressed her face against the bars of the baby-gate securing the kitchen, the afternoon sun bathed her furrowed brow in blocks of light as she gripped the bars. “Will you growl him?”
Jess stifled a grin at Riley’s serious little voice. “Might have to.” She picked the binoculars back up and aimed them at the man.
The man patted a heavy-set pitbull guarding the building’s entrance then stepped through the door and was swallowed by darkness. Jess leaned forward, trying to get a glimpse of the building’s interior as the door swung shut.
She rested her hands on the stone counter and stared at her daughter.
Jess squeezed her phone in frustration. She didn’t like how relaxed the woman on the other end of the line sounded. Typical. Civilian cops were no different to the MPs she’d dealt with in the forces. All excuses and no action.
“No, ma’am. I haven’t seen any drugs out in the open,” Jess sighed. “They’re not tying bloody cards on them like roses in a florist. Customers aren’t walking down the street and showing them off. I’m telling you, they spend all day running them out of the building and giving them to those… kids.” Jess cleared her throat. She glanced at Riley lying in front of the TV on her elbows, watching her afternoon allowance of cartoons. “You know a 4-year-old was killed out here just a few months ago, right?”
“OK, ma’am. Are any of the people going into the building wearing gang patches or insignia?” The woman’s voice crackled, disinterested and monotone.
Jess lowered her voice. “Look, it’s as plain as day there’s bad shit going on there. Just do your job before it gets worse.”
“I understand, ma’am. We’ll send a unit to investigate as soon as we can. In the meantime, please do call us if you actually see any illegal activity.”
Jess ended the call and biffed her phone at the couch.
“Good to see you, Stella. I can’t believe it’s been two years.” Jess stood with her back to the living room window, facing her friend. She glanced at Riley playing with her train in the corner. “Two years a civilian.”
“Well, Sarge, everyone on base misses you. Last week there was a fight between a couple of recruits in the mess-hall. It got me the girls reminiscing about the time you made Major Tawhiti eat her teeth for lunch.”
“That old cow’s a Major now?”Jess snorted and put her coffee down on the window sill. “Still charging around like she owns the paddock?”
“You know it.” Stella shook her head. “I can’t believe we’re getting you out for a beer and a boogie.”
“You know Alice would never let it go if I missed her big night, Jess replied. “Plus it’s been a while since I shot anything other than baby birthday photos. But yeah, baby-sitter’s sorted, fridge is ready with tomorrow’s rehydration. We are good-to-go. I’ve even—” Jess craned her neck forward. “Quick, here. This is what I was talking about.” She nodded at the window.
Stella rushed to Jess’s side as a woman in a hairnet and apron exited the building across the road, her breath turning to mist in the cool morning air. The lanky woman looked up and down the road then walked to the corner and handed a brown paper package to one of the waiting boys.
The boy stuffed the bundle inside his backpack and zipped it up.
The woman spoke to the rest of the gang, then passed the boy a folded piece of paper. He looked at it, put it in his pocket then pedaled down the street.
“We could follow him in my car, see where he goes? Been a while since I’ve done any recon,” Stella said.
Jess shook her head. “They’d make our location too easily. I’ve called the police. Lotta good that’ll probably do, though. There’s obviously a whole operation being run out of that building – pretty much next door to Riley and me.”
“That guard dog looked serious. Why don’t we call up the rest of the girls and sneak in for a look?” Stella lowered her voice. “Maybe we’ll find some treats for Alice’s hen’s party?”
“I don’t think those are the kind of drugs they sell. I can handle the dog. It’s the armed guards who’re probably propped up behind the door I’m worried about. But we don’t need to call in the calvary just yet.” Jess gazed out the window again. “It’s my problem, not yours.”
“Jeez, I was joking, Sarge. I’m sure the cops will send someone when they can.” Stella’s voice remained steady and low as she pressed the point. “Don’t go bust the door down or anything, aye?”
Jess forced a chuckle. “Yeah sure.” She gazed at the clear sky above the building, then back down into her coffee.
“You’ve got that look in your eyes, which means it’s time for me to leave.” Stella reached down and pulled up her army-issue backpack. “Stay safe, Sarge.” She headed for the door. “See you tonight.”
As Riley settled for her midday nap, Jess took the drone out of the packaging. She ran her hands along the sleek black plastic and followed the setup instructions, connecting her iPad as the viewfinder. Spindly legs perched on the living room carpet like a robotic insect. The mid-range device was far from the military hardware her unit had relied on overseas, but it should do the trick. Slowly, she pushed the thumb-stick on the controller up, the rotor blades buzzed to life and the device rose from the carpet, hovering in the centre of the room. The flurry of air from the props made her pinned recipes flutter against the corkboard beside the fridge. She calibrated the auto-hover feature and landed the unit softly back down on the carpet.
“Perfect,” she said to herself.
Jess checked her watch. Three hours since Stella’s visit, the morning rush of cafe traffic had died. The street outside Jess’s window was empty. No boys loitered on the corner, and the woman with the apron hadn’t emerged in the last ninety minutes. Jess opened her front door slowly. She snuck a furtive glance down the street, placed the drone on her doorstep, then ducked back inside and shut the door.
“Oscar Mike,” Jess whispered to herself. She launched the drone straight up over her house, high above the corner where the rabble of boys on bikes kept watch. The viewfinder showed blue morning sky stretching off into the horizon, the image curved through the drone’s high-end camera lens. Tin-roof, tile-roof, then the slanted iron of the building across the road. Jess glided the drone across the street and over the warehouse.
Once she was on the other side of the black building, she nudged the left control stick down, decreasing the throttle, and lowered the flying unit close enough to inspect the rear wall. A row of windows backed on to a small, deserted carpark. An empty scaffold frame stood propped against the wall and looked as if it been there forever. Jess grinned. The high windows were a perfect vantage point for the drone. She moved it close
Streaks of grime coated the first window and reflected the drone back on Jess’s screen, it hovered like a giant mechanical insect. Jess couldn’t see anything through the filthy glass. She moved the thumbstick to the side and watched the drone’s reflection sidle along to the edge of the window. Weatherboard filled the screen on her iPad, then the next window came into view. This one was just as dirty and impossible to see through.
One more window in the row. Jess held her breath as she sent the drone towards it. “Come on.”
Pixels blurred on the screen as the drone’s camera took a second to adjust past the glass and focus on the warehouse interior. The fish-eye lens showed a busy warehouse in curved full view on the iPad screen.
Jess exhaled quietly. “Gotcha.” She hit the red record button and set the drone on auto-hover as she peered at the screen.
The motorbike rider paced the floor. In front of him, rows of people hunched over benches, working away at something Jess couldn’t make out. Medical face-masks hid their noses and mouths. Eyes peeked from un-covered panels of mostly brown skin, some behind what looked like safety glasses. Jess counted under her breath. Ten workers. A massive operation.
A tall, skinny figure stood and stretched. Greasy-looking dreadlocks wormed out from under his black cap. He strode to the next bench over and handed something to a giant of a man who accepted the item with both hands like a child receiving a gift. The action looked bizarre from such a broad-shouldered monster. His medical mask couldn’t hide the giant tattoo scrawled across his cheek. From the window, it was just an ugly mess like a green birthmark or deformity. Dreadlocks returned to his bench and carried on working.
After a few minutes, the big man stood and lumbered to the apron-clad woman who sat at a desk near the door. The woman took a small bundle from the tattooed man, wrapped it, wrote on something to the side of her desk, then walked out the factory door with the package tucked in her apron.
Soon, Jess knew, one of the boys would be pedaling down the icy street to supply the gang’s customers.
With the footage captured, Jess flew the drone home from its recon. Two delivery boys now stood at attention facing the warehouse. Jess kept the device high, out of hearing range of the lookouts, before landing it on her doorstep. She nudged the door open and recovered the drone, still and innocuous, with no hint of its journey into enemy territory. Jess leaned on the kitchen bench and reviewed the footage of the factory. Even zooming in on the screen, it was too hard to see the actual drugs, but she hit Save and sent the file to Stella anyway. First rule of ops planning: always have a backup.
‘Check this out,’ she typed.
The streetlights were on and the babysitter was sitting on Jess’s couch scrolling through the TV menu.
Jess pulled on her hoody then peered down the hallway to Riley’s door. “She should sleep through. Once she falls asleep, she’s usually out to the world.”
“All good.” The young woman pulled a book from her backpack.
Jess’s phone buzzed and Stella’s reply popped up on the screen: ‘Damn! Looks like a major operation. Let’s talk about it at the party tonight. See you soon!’
Jess put a spare lens in her camera-bag and draped the camera cord over her neck. Waving to the babysitter, she mouthed a soundless ‘thank you’ and stepped out the door.
The early evening air was crisp and charged with the threat of rain. Jess stood on her doorstep, surveying the buildings in front of her home. Butterflies performed an aerial show in her stomach. This kind of thing used to feel normal but it didn’t now. She’d been away from it all for too long. What was she now? Civilian or soldier? Both?
She set off into the glow of the streetlights, their bulbs painting a yellow line on the footpath as if God himself had highlighted her path with a giant pen. Jess lifted her hood. Black activewear hugged her calves and thighs – not exactly what Nike’s designers had in mind, but the leggings were perfect for a night like this.
The corner was empty, and the windows lining the front of the building were soft orange squares in the quiet of the dimming dusk.
Jess crossed the street to the back of the building, her mini-flashlight a weighted reassurance in her pocket. She sent Stella a message, ‘Going in closer to get some evidence shots with my tele-photo. Tell the girls I’ll be a bit late.’ She switched the phone to silent.
Though the scaffolding behind the building was rust-pocked and looked long-forgotten, it sat in perfect position below that last, clean window. Jess gave a tug on the highest rung of the ladder within reach, tested the one at her feet then glanced around the carpark once more. All clear.
Placing one foot after the other, she climbed to the platform above.
Jess crouched on the scaffolding in front of the window. The platform’s ridged steel bit into her knees and palms as she peered over the edge. Heights had never been an issue for her, armed guards and attack dogs she could handle if needed. Still, her heart thumped as she glanced at the pavement below. She breathed in slowly for a five count, out for seven. Controlled adrenalin, the perfect performance enhancer and every soldier’s other best friend.
Baked-on street-grime blackened the window in the dusky darkness. She rubbed slow circles in the glass with the sleeve of her hoody. Sections of the soft fleece cuff turned from marle-grey to tarry black.
Through the streaky glass, the factory floor was shadowy and still. Light leaked from a door to the side. Silhouettes of equipment she couldn’t quite make out. Cluttered benches. A sheet was draped over something like a shroud on a dead body, and what looked like an old supermarket trolley was parked beside it. Choo-choo. Engine blowing. Get the goods to where they’re going. Jess thought of Riley and her train, and wondered how many thousands of dollars worth of illegal substances had been moved in and out of the trolley’s wire carriage.
Jess stood slowly, tensing her legs and distributing her weight evenly to avoid the platform rattling. She tested the strength of the handrail, and reached into her pocket for the flashlight as the last glow of the setting sun faded. Half-way out, the torch caught. The rounded nub slipped from between her fingers, and as if in slow motion, fell to the platform with a stomach-churning clang, shattering the quiet dark.
Jess’s heart leaped. She swung her stare back to the window, checking for movement. She held her breath. Nothing. She gripped the rail with one hand and grabbed the torch like a fallen sword then straightened.
The handrail shuddered, steel squeaked, the barrier gave way with a metallic howl.
Jess lurched forward. She threw an arm out, her palm hit the hard building wall.
“Oof”. She groaned quietly, then sucked in a sharp breath through pursed lips.
The rail crashed loudly on the pavement below.
Light flicked on in the building. Jess’s heart thundered and seconds stretched by.
The door below opened with a creak.
Jess shook as she tried to stay still, her weight leaning against the wall, straining the muscles under her arms.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice. “Who’s there?”
Jess held her breath, whole body tensed. Both palms pressed against the cold concrete facade, she breathed slow and deep, years of training once again taking over.
As if in answer to her prayer, the heavens let loose a torrent of rain. Jess was protected by the overhang of the roof and the downpour clanged on the scaffolding beyond her feet.
A beam of light shone from underneath, less than a metre to Jess’s side. Through the holes in the platform, white circles moved on the building like the rotating starry night lamp glow against Riley’s bedroom wall.
She fought the urge to look down at the light’s source and stayed still, knowing any movement would give her away.
Something clicked. Was that a gun loading? The beam of light grew wider. She shifted her foot slightly, twisting her body to see. The angle of her head and shoulders was wrong.
She turned slightly more to the side. Nearly enough to get an angle.
Her foot slipped on the now slick steel and she gasped. The light jerked closer.
Her foot slid from under her and she tipped forward. Her forehead banged onto the wall, her knees buckled, and she tumbled through the gap between platform and building. She landed with a crash on the dumpster below and screamed as her shoulder popped, pain thundering down her arm.
“Oh my God.” The woman’s voice.
Jess blinked her eyes open. Everything was brilliant white. She squeezed them shut again. “Sonofabitch.” She grimaced as the light covered her vision like a blanket.
“You OK?” the woman asked.
Another click and the white faded from Jess’s eyes. A tall woman wearing an apron and beanie faced Jess and pointed a flashlight at the pavement. Jess ran her eyes down the woman’s length looking for signs of a weapon.
Another moan tumbled from Jess’s mouth as she sat upright on the dumpster’s plastic, bouncy lid. Her shoulder exploded in more pain from the movement and her ankle throbbed.
“Ugh.” Jess panted, pain stealing her breath.
“Let’s get you out of the rain and I’ll call an ambulance.”
The woman helped Jess down from the dumpster.
Inside, the woman sat Jess on a seat next to a long bench.
Shock wearing off, adrenalin pinged around Jess’s body. She scanned the room and noted two exits. The back door was closer than the front but she’d never make either on one foot.
She assessed the woman standing before her. Slim frame. Tall. Probably 70-80kg. Jess shifted in the chair and her shoulder screamed.
Small tools littered the bench – brushes and blades that looked better suited for dentistry than chemistry. With her shoulder out of action, none of it would help in a fight. Before her, a device with what might be a test tube cleaner had a handle wrapped in duct tape and a clamp holding its base together. The sheet-covered bench lay waiting to reveal its illicit secrets. Lockers lined the wall to her right.
The woman’s eyes were wide as she examined Jess. She shook her head. “What the hell were you doing out there?”
Jess reached her good hand into her pocket and gripped her phone. “The cops know where I am,” she lied. She ran her finger over the phone screen and unlocked it.
Something flickered in the women’s eyes. Fear? “Cops might be a bit over the top, don’t you think?”
Jess nodded at the equipment. “My friend has a video of your operation – it’s over.
The woman tilted her head to the side and frowned.
Jess paused. Pain-free for a moment, her thoughts slowed. A clock above the back door showed 7.20, 15 minutes since her text to Stella. Not long enough to ring any alarm bells. “What are you doing here so late?”
“Me? This is my husband’s set-up.” She shook her head as if clearing it. “I’m Roimata. We’ve got a… thing on out back. Not my scene.” Roimata’s grimace finished the sentence. “Your turn. Talk.”
Jess frowned. “Does your husband ride a motorbike?”
“Huh? Yeah. Look, either you tell me—”
“I know what your husband and his people do here.” Jess had spent years alongside men and women who enjoyed inflicting pain, and while she judged Roimata harmless, she was obviously part of the operation. “I’m sorry, but I had to think about my daughter’s safety. Your husband is putting lives in danger.”
“Danger?” Roimata screwed her face up. “Hardly. The crew has been doing this for a while. They know what they’re up to.”
A moment passed between them – Jess could almost see the thoughts processing: What to do with the woman who’d figured them out? Jess moved her head, casing the room for anything of use. No point playing dumb now. Roimata followed Jess’s sweeping gaze, then her expression loosened, eyes widening as if reaching a conclusion. She turned back to Jess, fury flashing in her stare.
Adrenalin flooded Jess’s muscles. She read the change in situation and her training kicked in. Time was up. She leaned forward. Tried to stand but the moment she touched her injured foot to the ground, fire shot through her ankle. She gripped the chair with her working arm and balanced on one foot, heart pounding in her chest.
“Sit down.” Roimata’s voice was flat, unflinching. She narrowed her eyes. “His dad taught him how to do it, he was a bit of a local legend. Now he’s helping others, giving them work. Do you know how hard it is to find a job around here? I’m guessing not.” Roimata stared daggers at Jess. “Enough talking.” She thrust her hand into the pocket of her apron, reaching for something. One corner of her top lip twitched in a snarl as she pulled out a phone and tapped her thumb on the screen.
Jess lowered herself back into the chair, trying to keep her shoulder still. She sat facing off with Roimata who stared back, eyes cold and hard. Jess had misjudged her.
The door to the back flew open with a crash. Jess’s eyes widened as the man from the motorbike barged into the warehouse, no longer on the other side of the living room glass. The guard dog lurched along beside him, thick chest moving in time with its muscled legs.
The man beckoned Roimata over with a jerk of his head. He had a commanding presence and his energy filled the room more than his physical frame.
Roimata bent her head close to the man’s ear and whispered. He looked even more dangerous with the business shirt bunched around his shoulders, the edges of his tattoos peeking out from under his cuffs.
The pair were ignoring Jess for the moment. She kept her face forward, slid one hand from the desk and reached into her pocket, then slowly pulled her phone from under the bench and shifted it into her right hand. She unlocked the screen without looking.
The man glanced at her, then back to Roimata and nodded.
Roimata lifted her phone to her ear.
Jess sneaked a glance at her screen and tapped ‘Recent calls’, then scrolled down to ‘Stella’.
Jess trailed her eyes down the benchtop toward her phone. Come on, keep talking. I just need—
“Oi,” the man growled from the corner. Jess nearly jumped out her seat. “Roimata reckons you’ve got some ideas ‘bout what we get up to here?”
Jess tapped her thumb blindly on the call button and slid the phone back into her pocket.
“Well, since you’re here,” the man said, “you’re gonna find out what the bad men and women you already know so much about are capable of.” The man’s face darkened, he flicked Roimata a look that Jess couldn’t read then glared at Jess again with bloodshot eyes as angry as the tattoos on his knuckles. “You can either hobble behind us or get dragged. Up to you.”
Jess clutched the phone in her pocket as the pair started toward her.
She leaned against Roimata’s shoulder, taking the weight from her throbbing ankle as the warehouse door clicked closed behind them. A dim corridor stretched ahead, lit by a single bulb and lampshade hanging from the ceiling. Pushed by an unseen draft and swinging in a lazy circle, the light threw shadows like black flames flickering on the walls. The man blocked her front, Roimata, her side, and the closed-door her back. Nowhere for Jess to run, even if she could.
The attack dog marched ahead and stood beside the man, two hulking menaces before a door at the corridor’s end. Jess stared in mute terror at the big man and the entrance to somewhere she didn’t think she wanted to go. The door frame was off-white with gouges of chipped paint along the edges revealing a long-ago coat of flesh-red as if the corridor itself had devoured chunks from the door.
With every limping step, the air inside the hallway seemed to press tighter and tighter, charged and oppressive between the walls. As they neared the door, Jess fell back on her training. Slow breaths. In through the nostrils, out through the mouth.
She could handle this.
“Hurry the fuck up, eh.” The man’s voice boomed down the hallway.
Jess heard Roimata swallow in the echoing silence.
“Don’t worry, Levi is more bark than bite,” Roimata whispered.
The woman’s words didn’t slow the rising ball of fear in Jess’s chest. As they reached the door, she looked at Levi looming over them, and gulped.
Levi reached a hand to the doorknob and paused.
A sound of scraping metal like someone sharpening a knife came from behind the door.
“Go on, give him a bit more, he deserves it,” a husky voice growled. A rough laugh responded.
Levi pushed the knob, and a stripe of white light opened in the gap between door and frame, illuminating the shadowy corridor.
Inside the room, Jess stood leaning on Roimata and squinted, adjusting to the increased light.
The room behind the door was like a different world. A table humming with conversation and bottles clinking stood in its centre, surrounded by brown faces in collared shirts.
A monstrous man stood behind the table facing Jess and the others. She recognised him from the video, one half of his face was disfigured by curling tattoos. Something illegible was scrawled across his other jaw – everyday English block letters twisted into an obscenity of black ink. He wore a butcher’s apron crisscrossed with stains and held a large knife.
The smell of roast meat and herbs rushed Jess’s nostrils. She blinked and shook her head as she breathed in the strange smell.
Beside the man, a boy in jeans and a polo shirt waited, his shirt collar contrasting white and pure against the muddy-brown skin of his neck. It took Jess a moment to recognise him as one of the street kids from outside the building.
“Guess so. Done your bit.” The butcher’s voice was like a steel rake through gravel. “Here you go, young blood.” He bent over the table and came back with a thick meat-cut skewered on the knife’s tip. Gravy dripped as he slid the juicy fillet onto the boy’s plate.
“What the… don’t tell me you want some, too?” The butcher laid the knife on the table and grabbed roughly at a small, beautiful green-eyed girl standing waist height next to the man, and hoisted her into the air. The girl’s hair lifted and fell, long and dark like Riley’s.
“No, Daddy. Don’t eat me!” The girl cried in mock terror.
The man let loose a maniacal laugh and spun the girl round on his hip. “I’ve already eaten my share of little girls today. You can go free.” He set her down gently beside the table and carried on carving the meat.
Levi cleared his throat.
The street kid turned and looked at Levi, and the noise in the room lulled to silence.
“Fam. This is Jess — our neighbour.” Levi’s tone lifted when he gave her name. “Jess, why don’t you tell the crew what they’ve been up to since you got us all figured out.”
“Um.” Jess’s shoulders moved back and at the same time lifted her fingers toward the phone in her pocket then froze as the room stared.
“No? OK then, bro, show her what you’ve been working on.” Levi raised his eyebrows at the butcher.
Jess stared as the big man moved around the table and strode to within striking distance of her. He reached behind his back, pulled something out and thrust it toward Jess. She flinched, pulled her head back, and half-raised her hand to intercept his.
She looked down at the white brick sitting in his hand and frowned.
The man nodded and Jess picked up the little brick to give her fingers somewhere to go in the silence. Hard as stone, its edges rested in the hollow of her palm as if it had been there a million times before. It was heavier than she’d expected, about the size of Riley’s Duplo.
“Parāoa, whalebone.” Roimata’s voice was lighter than Levi’s but pushed through the room just the same.
Jess ran her thumb along the grooves etched into the front of the bone, spiraling out from the centre.
“Levi started the carving studio when he got back from Oz. He convinced this lot to give it a go and mentors kids like young Pehi here to give them something to do instead of hanging on the streets all day. Not to mention a few bucks in their pocket. Now we’ve got orders coming in from all over the country.” She nodded to the room. “Pretty damn incredible what he’s done for all of you, all of us, aye?”
“This is what we’re capable of.” Levi’s words punched across the room. “Making something out of nothing. Hell, less than nothing. Some of the crew here’ve been through shit you wouldn’t believe.” His eyes were wide and shining. “Getting this place going was easy compared to all that.”
Jess’s cheeks and ears warmed. She rubbed the back of her neck and gazed at the half-finished carving in her hand. The two curved ends were glass-smooth against her thumb, while the sides were un-worked and rough, flecks of darker grain smattered amongst the pearl. She ran her fingers along the top, the pad of her thumb discovered a ridge she hadn’t noticed and she traced its curve down the bone’s length. The start of something, what it might become, she couldn’t guess. She thrust her hands into her pockets and looked at her feet. She remembered the machines, the facemasks, the wrapping paper.
“What’d you think we were up to here?” Levi said. “Drugs? Selling stolen gear? Chop-shop? Bunch of people like us must be doing something illegal, aye? Couldn’t possibly be a —”
An aggressive knock rapped on a door beyond the room, urgent but muffled by the distance.
Levi and Roimata shared a glance then both stared at Jess.
A minute later, heavy steps approached the door, and two uniformed policemen barged into the room. They scanned the crowd and looked to Levi.
“Evening, officers, thanks for getting here so quickly. We’ve apprehended the prowler.” Levi nodded towards Jess. “We can talk about the trespass orders tomorrow. I think we’re safe from our misguided neighbour for –.”
“I’ve got a young daughter,” Jess said. She clenched her empty fist into a ball. “I was just trying to protect her.”
“What do you think we’re doing?” Levi asked as he waved an arm around the room. “Who do you think this is for? We’ve got kids too. We’re protecting them from people like you.”
Jess tugged on the sides of her hood and glanced away, unable to look Levi in the eyes. “Sorry.” She pictured Riley, face pressed against the window asking about the man on the motorbike. What would she say now?
The policemen advanced towards Jess.
“Oh, and we’ll have that bone back too, thanks.” Levi said. “You’ve taken enough tonight.”