Malik almost cracked. He almost lost his composure for long enough to growl, how very dare you speak that name to me. Almost. Instead, he hid his indignation behind a mask of baffled incredulity, screwing his expression up like a paper ball and demanding in a strained voice, ‘Why bring that up now? That guy’s as dead to me as he should be to you, and what does it have to do with Elise?’
‘A whole lot more than you understand, I’d bet.’ Danika folded her arms, forcing Malik to make a little space for her up against the hospital wall. She kept her eyes locked on Malik’s steadily, while his gaze hesitated – not looking away, but jittering and darting manically, searching her not for a way out, but a way through. ‘Save the duck-and-weave routine for the ring, yeah? This is important. Did. You. Sell—’
‘Absolutely fucking not.’ Malik interrupted, his eyes suddenly firm and commanding. ‘Not once did I ever sell any drugs to Hayden Archer.’ He spat the name rather than spoke it. ‘Not that I‘d expect you to just believe me—’
‘I actually do, Malik.’ Danika’s arms dropped to her sides wearily, her voice and eyes becoming soft and sincere. ‘I didn’t know what to think after catching you dealing rocket fuel in the fucking cave—’
‘Yeah you did. You thought “I am totally telling the cops straight away.”’
‘—and I am not sorry. But when I asked you that, I needed you to look me in the eyes when you answered, so that I could be sure.’ She half-smiled, and finally dropped her gaze for a second. ‘And now I am. Congratulations, Malik,’ Danika absently reached a hand out to briefly brush her fingertips against Malik’s chest, and he stiffened in shock at the gesture. ‘You just passed a character test of sorts. It must feel nice after all these years spent repeating the class.’
At that, Danika gave Malik a quick, playful grin, and his mind filled with a warmth he had not felt towards her, or anyone, for at least seven years, and he realised that for the first time since then, he could answer her with something other than anger or contempt.
He smirked. ‘This ain’t school anymore, Shortcake. I was a good little boy once, and I’m sure you remember as well as anyone how far that got me.’ He noticed Danika glancing over his shoulder. ‘How long you been lurkin’ there, Crane?’
‘Ever since “absolutely fucking not.”’ Alison sauntered up to the two of them, making Malik and suddenly self-conscious of how close together they had been standing. ‘I got tired of tryin’ to make awkward small talk with your boyfriend in there,’ she announced, directing a glance at Danika. ‘I mean, don’t get me wrong, dude’s a total wet dream but there’s a time and place, y’know? Being a third wheel out here has been much more fun.’
Malik caught Danika studying Alison closely; she appeared to reach a decision before speaking. ‘Alison Crane. You are not in fact a lesbian, are you?’
‘No I am not.’ Alison replied, smiling back sweetly.
‘Cool.’ Danika shifted her attention back to Malik. ‘We aren’t going to see eye to eye on a lot of things, Malik, but you want to look out for Elise, right? You said she must have angel dust coming in from another supplier?’
Alison caught the look in Malik’s eye before Danika did. ‘You already know who, don’t you?’
‘Don’t ask.’ Malik grunted. ‘It’s best you don’t know.’
Although Malik wasn’t expected at work until his arm healed, he was still keen to do something about the big racial slur scratched into the driver’s door of his Monaro. Alison volunteered to join him at Ginny’s and do the actual work for him.
‘No probs. Just a lick o’ paint, right?’ She said dismissively, adding with a wink, ‘I’ll think of a way for you to pay me back later.’
Malik rolled his eyes. ‘Should I be scared or aroused?’
‘Terrified would be appropriate.’ Alison gave the steering wheel a playful sharp swerve for no reason other than emphasis before gliding Malik’s car straight past the carpark and into the workshop. She was the only other person Malik had ever trusted to drive his car since he bought it. ‘What’s the name of the shade of yellow on this thing?’
‘Devil.’ Malik replied.
‘Of course it is.’
‘I keep a tin of it spare at my bench.’ Malik said, pointing as they alighted from the car.
‘Cool cool. Well, I’ll get to work.’ When Malik didn’t leave straight away, she added, ‘I’ll be done faster if I don’t have you standing there looking at me like I’m performing delicate surgery on your firstborn. Go say hi to Chris or something.’ From the office, Chris looked up and waved.
Malik shrugged. ‘I’ll leave you two alone then. Thanks again.’
When he reached the workshop’s office door, his voice became mock-worried. ‘Christopher, you’re at the computer. Should I be concerned?’
Unfazed by Malik as usual and clearly in a good mood, Chris ignored the insult. ‘Just sending off an email before I close up.’ He spoke of his task casually, as though he’d used email more than twice before in his life. ‘You guys are fine to stick around, of course.’ He swivelled his chair to face Malik, bringing his eyes very obviously to rest on the sling on his left arm. ‘Slipped, again?’
‘Oh, you know me, mate.’ Malik drawled cagily. ‘Regular fuckin’ klutz.’
‘You don’t have to tell me anything now, alright? You just rest up, spend some time reflecting on how whatever happened was absolutely your own doing, and we can talk about it when you get back.’ He motioned to Alison, still at work on Malik’s car door. ‘What happened there?’
Malik grinned at him mirthlessly. ‘My own doing.’
After finishing her work, Alison arranged to have her dad pick her up from Malik’s house before she drove him home, then chastised him for being a risk-seeking dick once more on the front porch for good measure.
‘I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve thought of what favour I’d like in return.’ She threatened. ‘And I can promise you it won’t be as easy or pleasurable as satisfying most of the other women in your life.’
Malik took a risk on a half-joke. ‘Oh. And there I thought we’d made such progress.’
‘Progress.’ Alison eyed Malik levelly, and he realised how poor his choice of words had been. Her expression reminded him of the one Danika had worn only hours before outside the hospital, when she had unexpectedly turned civil; disappointed and exhausted. She sighed as her dad’s car came into view at the end of the street.
‘Malik,’ she started, ‘We’re friends, OK? Really good friends. I like what we have because I think it tethers you to who you really are. Not the gangster. Not the fuck boy. I mean the sweet, funny, well-meaning kid I met in high school. You’ve been denying it for years, but I know he’s still in there. That’s who I like.’
Malik snorted, a contemptuous reflex he reserved for memories connected to the old Malik, Weak Malik. ‘You’d sleep with him, huh?’
‘Oh, I’d sleep with you,’ Alison smiled distantly and insincerely as her ride pulled up next to them, ‘Once I’ve given up on him.’ She shut the door on her dad’s Toyota with no further parting words and hid her face from him as they corolled away.
Malik turned to face the house before Alison’s ride was out of sight, and shook his head angrily, as if hoping all the scattered, messy thoughts and feelings in his brain would settle into the right places if he could only dislodge them from where they were stuck. For the first time since being dropped off, he noticed how late it was; the sun had almost disappeared, which in an Australian summer meant – he checked his phone to confirm – Huh. Fuck me, it’s almost 9pm. He checked the carport for his parents’ cars. Dad’s home. Mum’s not. And I still have some business to address while I’m alone. No rest for the Devil, he thought as he pulled his phone back out and sat in a garden chair around the side of the house.
Justin answered on the third ring. ‘Yo boss.’
‘We almost definitely have a problem,’ Malik announced without pleasantries. ‘Looks like there’s some PCP circulating we don’t know about. You heard anything?’
‘News to me, mate.’ Justin replied flatly. ‘As far as we know, there’s only one guy who even bothers with Moonlake, and we have an agreement.’
‘Yeah. I wanna shake that tree to see if anything falls out, but in the meantime we should keep our ears to the ground for any other leads.’
‘How long’s it been since you met with him last?’
‘Not long enough, and I bought a stinkload off him that time, too. I don’t wanna frighten any horses, so we’re going to have to wait a bit, and then just get in touch for another deal, keep things routine until I’ve got him in front of me.’
‘I’ll let the guys know. Have a good night mate.’ Justin signed off.
What a fuckin’ day. Malik let out a long breath and headed around to the front door. Dad’s probably wondering what the fuck I’ve been doing out here all this time.
Malik was utterly unprepared for what greeted him when the door opened onto the living room. No Dad, just mess. As if the place had been turned over by a burglar. Malik scanned quickly. Nothing obviously stolen. ‘Dad?’ Malik called out.
A muffled response came from the kitchen. Malik walked in to find his father, Omar, sitting at the table the family once ate dinners at, eyes glazed and red, showing evidence of the first tears Malik had ever seen the old man shed. The kitchen itself was in a similar state of disrepair to the living room – table items laying broken on the floor, toaster and kettle overturned, curtain rod hanging on by one end.
Malik’s voice shrank. ‘Where’s Mum?’
Omar raised his head slowly. ‘Gone,’ he choked out. ‘Your mother has left us.’