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(excerpt from "The Braid" by Philip Why)

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Prelude

She was alone with him and she knew with reasonable certainty that she was going to die. It had rained and the warehouse was cold and damp and everywhere there was the smell of dust and wet cardboard. She was naked, but she had wrapped herself in the driest piece of carpet felt in the corner of the small derelict office, partitioned off from the main hall. The windows were broken; the plasterboard walls were rippled and warped, with the odd bloom of fungus along the edge where it met the floor. Here and there the odd oily puddle on the rough concrete shone dimly in the gloom, an occasional glint of rainbow colours on the surface stifled by the greasy lightless windows.

He was there somewhere, in the hall outside, doing something. He was tearing strips of cloth it sounded like and arguing with himself in a repulsive childish voice. In between grunting with effort, she could hear him breathing heavily. She couldn't move closer to the door to see him. She couldn't move at all, because she was handcuffed to a rusty radiator. She pulled her wrist against the cuffs again, making them clank and grind against the rusted carcass of the radiator. She couldn't see the rest of the room, only the thin beam of light coming in through the doorway. There were strange shadows in the corners of the room and she kept squinting to make them out, but it did no good. They might have been dead bodies, her imagination told her, but more likely they were just folded carpets. It was impossible to tell. There just wasn't enough light, so her imagination won that discussion.

She was going to die in semidarkness at the hands of someone she had trusted yet hardly knew and there was nothing she could do about it. He'd tricked her so completely and she'd fallen for it so willingly and without a momentís hesitation. She was afraid, she was alone, but mostly she felt so utterly foolish.

He'd asked her if she wanted a coffee and she'd agreed. She was flattered by his attention and although she knew that she shouldn't go with him, she did it anyway. That would show them. Show who? Why did she do that? How many hundreds of times, explicitly and implicitly, had she been warned? And every time she had thought to herself that she knew better and beside those kinds of warnings were meant for other people, for what her mom had called 'bad girls'. Now she wished that she had really listened and more than that really understood why the warnings were given. An older girl would just make a decision like that and be okay, right? A woman can take care of herself and make decisions, right? But no, she was now painfully aware of her youth and inexperience in a way she had never been before. There was a big bad world out there and some of it really was out to get you, especially here in Los Angeles. She looked around the room hoping for a small glimpse of light, a small fragment of hope. But there was nnothing. This was it. She would never act in a movie, probably never see the sun again and most painfully of all never see her mother again. All because she couldn't wait another couple of summers to make the break.

There was a sound from outside, a sigh of completion and the scuffing of shoes on concrete, then footsteps getting closer. Tears formed in her eyes and overflowed, rolling down her cheeks and down onto the dirty carpet around her. She pulled it more closely around her and a few rotten pieces came off in her hands. She scrabbled at it, trying to pull it over her, but then she stopped when he saw his shadow fall over her and heard his mouth making that soft "tsk!" noise that mothers make to their babies when they are doing something naughty.

His voice trembled slightly when he told her it was time and how much he had loved her. Of all the girls he'd known she was the most beautiful, he said, but there was something he had to do, and he hoped he could forgive her. She tried to plead but nothing came out of her mouth except dry air. He told her to dry her eyes and as she did so the cold metal of the handcuffs brushed her cheek. He asked her if she could make some noises for him, perhaps he might cheer her up? How about a cow? Can you do a cow? A little piggy? A doggie? Woof woof? Aw fooey. Never mind I'm tired, he said with grim finality.

He raised his hand from his side and the light caught it. In the fist was a rope braided from torn strips of cloth. It was thin and strong. She recognized some of the colours running through it as her blouse, the one she wore to the office, the one she was wearing when she first met him. It wasn't entirely co-incidence that she was wearing it again today, as she'd wanted him to remember her. But he had known who she was at once, as if he was expecting her. In LA when someone recognizes you and remembers your name, you can't help but be inspired by hope. They remember you so they might help you, give you a part, get you a good agent . . . unless they remember your name for an altogether different reason, as he did. He remembered her because he was thinking about this moment, longing for it. The moment when he would come to the door and she would be naked and . . .

He'd guessed that she wasn't 18 like she'd told everybody else. He guessed it right out, as if it was printed on her forehead in magic marker. She'd been scared; as if he was going to tell on her, call her mom. But he hadn't. He'd asked, in a friendly voice, how old she was really. When she'd told him he'd reacted perfectly, an amusing cartoon disbelief and she'd thought that was so cool. He'd understood that she wanted to be thought of as a woman and he'd said he respected that and he wouldn't tell a soul. He also said that he knew that the name she'd given wasn't her real name, but he said that in Hollywood nobody used his or her real name anyway, so why worry.

She'd worn a wig to the office because she wanted to be exotic. Her mousy hair really sucked and a black bob cut was so much more showbiz. More gothic and mysterious. Besides it looked way cool with the fire engine red lips. She was a regular three-alarm fire. But there was no way in hell that anyone would know she was missing. She was trying to stay invisible, stay low until she had a good job, then she would contact her parents. She hadn't used her credit card, just the money she'd saved. Her parents wouldn't be able to track her unless she used the card and she hadn't needed to yet, what with that cash from her job under the mattress at the hotel.

He laughed an awful dry laugh and savoured it with a long sigh at the end. Then silence. He was ready now. The games were over. The teasing, the crying, the voices and the horrible sex.

All done. It was time.

He was tired of the game now and he walked towards her, twirling the braided cloth and flipping the door closed behind him, shutting out all the light.

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