"Where is she?" The meaty stink of his breath is hot on my face as he grabs me by the hair, tilting my head back to see me more clearly.
Spittle flecks from the corners of his mouth as he speaks again. "Where is she?"
How did I ever think Aiken was amusingly pathetic? The rounded, soft jaw and humorous double chins are lost in a furious sneer of pink flesh. The watery blue eyes seem to have been taken over by the angry slashes of his eyebrows. Was this really the same man I had mockingly called 'Bacon'?
He's leaning over me, his thick fingers grasping the arms of my chair. I instinctively pull my head back to avoid him, neck craning at an awkward backwards angle.
"Don't mess me about! Where is she? I know you know!"
The smell of men who eat meat is still unfamiliar to me, even after seven weeks in the camp. Although beef or pork is cooked regularly, it is only available to the officers. The rest of us get by on seasonal vegetables and rice or potatoes, and occasionally lefftover gravy with flakes of an unidentifiable meat floating on the surface. Was this why Mother objected to eating animal protein? Did she know it made you stink, and made your chin merge with your neck?
Aiken uses his clipboard to whack me sharply on my own chin. It smarts, but before I can raise a hand to rub where a welt must be forming, he leans into my person space again.
"Where. Is. She?"
"Give her a chance to answer." The younger officer leans back casually against the doorframe, his shoulders blocking the small window. "She's probably still trying to figure out what's going on."
"Trying to think up a good cover-story, more like." Bacon – Aiken, I correct myself. For God's sake, don't call him 'Bacon' to his face – doesn't take his eyes off mine. "Where is she?"
I manage to reply. "Who?" The look on Aiken's face suggests I am being disingenous. "I don't know what you're talking about. Maybe you could take a minute to explain - "
This time he uses the bulldog-clip end of his clipboard. It's going to leave more than a welt. Metallic blood fills my mouth before a hot, achy pain begins to blossom over my cheekbone.
"Don't mess me around!"
My smarting eyes glance towards the younger officer, confused and beseeching.
"Look at me!" Aiken's hand is under my aching jaw, pulling it to force eye contact. Inexplicably, instead of taking his hand away he moves it down lower, gripping my throat. Maybe he thinks it will frighten me into providing an answer I couldn't possibly have.
"She was last seen in your sleeping quarters." He really is unstoppable. Judging by his colouring, this kind of high-pressure perseverance can't be good for his heart. "No one has seen her since morning ablutions."
I shake my head helplessly. He tightens his grip on my throat to stop the movement.
"Don't think you can flutter your eyelashes and act all confused. I'm not a man who goes gooey for anything in a skirt." His face relaxes for a second. The grip on my throat does not. "I'm a soldier for truth. I can't be bribed into forgetting my calling. I believe in this cause, and I'm not about to let two bored farmgirls destroy just because they can't find anything productive to do with their days."
He pauses slightly, admiring the effect.
At least, I think that's what he's doing. A slight gurgle escapes my lips.
"Aiken, I think you're strangling her."
"What? Don't be absurd, there's hardly any pressure at all." He takes his hand off me. A print of sweat remains.
I take a deep breath and release it in a sigh. Accidental death by Bacon would be humiliating. Aiken gives me a slightly hurt look. Don't look at me like that, buddy. My cheek's pretty hurt at the moment too, and the handprint on my neck is a far cry from the necklaces I prefer.
"Look," I say with another sigh, 'Can you just tell me what the hell is going on?"
I was six years old when my mother moved us into the country. The murder of her sister had been the catalyst, and during the three days between Aunt Sicily's beaten body being found under the garbage bags in an alleyway and her funeral in the Grace Chapel, Mother had found, bought and furnished a small cottage up in the hills. She drove us there straight after the funeral; my sister and I snatching sleep against our seatbelts, my mother facing the road red-eyed.
The cottage was three hours' drive away from the nearest town, and another three hours on top of that would take us to a modest city on the coast. This suited Mother to the ground. We rarely took the dirt road into town and no one ever took it up, apart from very occasional visits from the milkman or the farmers who leased the fields.
About once a year Mother would go into the city to buy things the town did not store; heavy jackets, boots, furniture, stationary supplies. We never attended.
Memories of my city life quickly faded. I remember snatches of time spent in parks or school, but they are faded and vague, like a memory of story you heard from someone else. The cottage and the fields around it became my new habitat.
Tammy took to it with a similar gusto. Being slightly older than I, her boundaries exceded the fields and extended into the forestry. I can't even guess at how many times I raced her over the fields, startling the cattle, only to stop nervously at the treeline and watch her tanned limbs disappear into the greenery with a giggle.
Invariably I would return to the house long before Tammy re-emerged from the forest. Mother would never comment on my sister's absences, but would always give me a special, sweet smile when she saw I was by myself.
"Here," she would say, pouring me a cup of hot black tea. "This should keep you warm."
My sister got a slightly different reception when finally, traces of pine needles in her hair. "Back again?" Mother wouldn't even look up. "Go help your sister with the dishes."
It strikes me without surprise when Aiken admits that Tammy has gone missing. But as to his questions of 'where', his guess is as good as mine.
"Look," I say, before he raises his clipboard in frustation again, "The only place that Tammy and I ever lived was in the Catlins, about three hours from Cromwell. It would be the first place I'd look, but she's not stupid. She would know she wouldn't have a snowball's of getting back there."
Aiken is still dubious but the younger officer nods. He shifts his weight onto his back foot. "Do you know anywhere closer she might have gone to?"
"No. Not unless someone in the camp mentioned anything to her. But she probably would have told me if she was planning something. We've always been close." Have we? Certainly we've always been in the same vicinity.
Suddenly, the possibility that she has been taken somewhere by force hits me. I look towards the officers and open my mouth to voice my fears, but Aiken is already talking.
"Well, she can't have gone far. It's only been two hours." He makes eye contact with the other officer. "You, stay here and make sure she doesn't go anywhere. I'll check with the others, and see if they've any leads on the other one."
He strides towards the door. The younger man stands aside to let him pass.
Two hours. What could have happened in two hours? I rub my bruised chin thoughtfully. After leaving our sleeping quarters in the morning, Tammy probably would have gone straight to the mess hall to begin preparing breakfast for the senior officers (who, of course, kept gentlemen's hours). However, if Aiken was right and I was the last person to see her, she must never have joined the other girls in the kitchen.
I close my eyes, trying to visualise the journey from the women's barracks to the mess hall. A small network of concrete and dirt paths, slightly muddy from the early morning dew. There were many corners of buildings to duck behind – or be dragged behind – but nowhere that could hide a person for two hours. Especially not at that hour of the morning, when the sun would be climbing and everyone would be in a scramble.
Even now it must only be about eight o'clock.
Tammy, where have you got to?
The young man shifts his weight again. I'd almost forgotten about him.
"You can take a seat."
He starts. Looks like he forgot about me, too.
"I should probably stay standing." His voice sounds as stiff as his posture. Maybe he's too proper to sit near a 'detainee' like myself.
I pay him a bit more attention. The lights in Aiken's office are out and the man's shoulders block most of the light, but I can still see the outline of a straight, sharp nose and his clear skin. He looks young; he can't be older than his mid-twenties.
"Why?" He gives me a look, and I realise there has been a delay since his last comment and my response. "Why should you stay standing, I mean?"
I see his face curve in a smile. "In case Aiken comes back and catches me."
"Oh. Well, I won't tell if you won't."
Another smile. "Maybe next time." He turns around and looks through the door's small window.
It seems I have got all I can out of my guard, so I gaze absently around Aiken's office and start rubbing my chin again. The flimsy desk and chairs and various station items are par for the course, but a dated picture of a young boy next to Mickey Mouse gives me pause. I soon bore of the game and begin picking at my nails compulsively.
Tamara... What have you done this time?