Bracken's feet were cold.
Grudgingly she opened her eyes, then wasn't sure whether she had quite managed to do it properly as all she could see was velvety blackness. It felt like a carpet of fur over her retinas.
Intending to investigate why her toes were so icy, she tried to reach down to touch her feet. This was the point at which she noticed that she was unable to move. Frowning deeply, she realized that she was strapped down. Furthermore, as she wriggled her toes with the determined ferocity of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, she came to the conclusion that some bastard had removed her shoes.
She gave a raw, gusty shout of frustration.
"What is going ON," went the shout that Bracken yelled.
"My bairn, my family, my flat, and now my fecking SHOES taken off me? In NOVEMBER?!"
Nobody responded. She seemed to be by herself, and by virtue of that fact, alone.
As someone in the distant past had taught her several years previously, Bracken took some deep breaths to calm herself, and thought hard.
It took some considerable effort, but eventually her racing heart slowed. She listened to the sound of her own breathing and heard the steady pulsating of her own heart inside her head. It felt claustrophobic, but she resisted the temptation to panic. That would mean that the forces of evil had beaten her, and she wasn't having that. At last, her pulse slowed to the point where it sounded like footsteps crunching in fake snow.
She wondered briefly whether the guys from the library had noticed anything unusual about her departure. Masked men, unmarked cars, that type of thing. It didn't seem very likely, she decided. They were nice enough chaps, but not very observant. Always had their noses in books.
Before falling into yet another reverie about the relative merits of Aloysius Hunkington-Smythe, she turned her attention to developing an escape plan. By this point she had established that her eyes were definitely open, and that wherever she was was totally dark. Unless she'd gone blind, she thought, but she quickly pushed that one away. Her gooseberry jam eyes were famed throughout the McCracken dynasty for their 20/20 vision. Or they had been, once.
But what dynasty was that, she wondered with another salient frown. There was just her and Nicky, Nige and the wean now. And her aunt, Neglecty McNeglectalot of the clan Forgetful of course. But where were all those short sighted McCrackens who envied her eyes?
She hovered on the cusp of a half remembered thought. Maybe it was some sort of dream she'd had once. A particularly vivid one, but a dream nonetheless. One where she was from an enormous dynasty that had crazy reunions that she loved but hated attending at the same time. You always had to wear smart clothes with itchy collars, like a child in a book by Edith Nesbitt.
A face from the dream popped into her mind's eye (which was transmitting in full colour and didn't seem to be at all bothered by the darkness). It belonged to a woman with dark curly hair and gooseberry eyes. She looked familiar, but Bracken couldn’t place her. Maybe she was one of the teachers at the school she lollipopped outside?
The oddly familiar woman’s mouth moved whilst Bracken watched her. It was almost as though she were talking, perhaps even trying to tell her something, but Bracken couldn't make out any of the words.
'Maybe I'm deaf too,' she thought, in a resigned sort of way. That would just be typical after everything else that had happened.
"You're not deaf," said a familiar voice somewhere to her right. She couldn't quite work out who it sounded like, but she knew she had heard them before. What a day for de ja vu this was turning out to be.
"You are blind though,” the voice continued airily. “But don't worry, it's only temporary. Sadly the medication we give to new arrivals hasn't been perfected quite yet. Still, at least we manage to get rid of the sickness and crippling headaches. And the stomach ulcers – they were the first thing we managed to fix. Too much sodium in the mixture, as it turned out."
"You give people stuff that makes them blind, without their permission, and call it medicine?" Bracken scorned like a particularly virulent teenager. "Are you mental? There was nothing even wrong with me before I got here."
"You wouldn't have come on your own," the voice said, "nobody ever does. So you had to be...” - there was an overly long pause, whether to wrack up tension or word count Bracken could not be sure – “Persuaded."
With the clear-eyed logic of the hostage she swiftly replied,
"Have you ever tried asking anyone?"
There was a further silence, thick as gingerbread milkshake and similar in colour.
"No-o," her captor admitted slowly. "But I'm 99% certain people wouldn't come if they knew why I wanted them here."
"And why DO you want to bring people here, Esmeralda?" for Bracken had recognised the voice as her senses began to wake up.
"Ah, you remember me," Esmeralda said in the manner of a Bond villain trying to eke out their role as far as possible.
"Well yeah, I saw you this morning."
Esmeralda was silent.
“You gave me a lift to the library? Then presumably snuck off to meet your goons so that you could lay in wait for me outside..”
"Touché," Esmeralda interrupted, trying to rescue the situation in favour of her looking at least a little bit cool.
"You can touché my arse,” Bracken snorted, “Where have you brought me and why, ya ringlet haired weirdo?"
"Questions, questions," Esmeralda said infuriatingly. Bracken could just hear the woman’s smug facial expression, taunting her like the playground bully she undoubtedly was throughout school.
She refused to lose her temper.
"Aye,” she said fiercely, “so how about you give me some answers, answers? Like, yesterday?"
Esmeralda smiled loudly.
"You gonnae make me, like?" she smarmed, convinced of her victory.
"I just might," Bracken retorted, "but have you ACTUALLY tied me down? What is this, cowboys and Indians?"
"Nobody gets tied up in cowboys and Indians," Esmeralda replied, slightly unsure of her position.
"They did the way me an' Nige played it," Bracken said grimly.
"But you probably thought yourself too ladylike for games like that. Do a lot of needlepoint as a kid, did you?"
Esmeralda considered the rows of cross-stitch scenes that littered her grandmother's summer home, all gifts from a sycophantic little granddaughter desperate for approval.
"No," she said, quite convincingly.
"More into watercolours, were you," Bracken guessed, without skipping a beat.
It would be fair to say that she had hit upon a raw nerve with this. Esmeralda had tried for years to get to grips with watercolours, the pursuit of all true ladies, but she'd never been very good. She liked her lines to be clean and straight, not soaking out into the paper every which way. There is not much room in the craft for technical diagrams, as her private tutor had dryly pointed out when she produced yet another cross section of an animal she had cut apart to try and see how it worked.
"I'm going to go away now," Esmeralda said, "and give you some time to reflect."
"Can you give me my shoes back first," Bracken asked, "my feet are cold."
Esmeralda considered the request. She obviously took too long, because Bracken continued,
"Why did you take them, anyway?"
"Well,” Esmeralda said with a reluctant swish of her left shin, “if you must know, I figured that with your background you'd probably have a flick knife in there, which would aid and abet your escape somewhat."
"What?!" Bracken didn't know whether to be offended or amused. "You dinnae ken anyhin about my background! What mums do you ken that go about wi a blade? What lollipop ladies have you seen stabbing folk up?"
"Nine," she said, but it had been a typo. She meant none.
Bracken shook her head in disbelief - well, she tried, but as discussed she was strapped down so she couldn't really move it.
"Have you strapped down my literal head," she asked, although it was more a rhetorical question given that was the only thing that could realistically have happened.
"Yes," Esmeralda said, "this is antique equipment from a Victorian insane asylum run by my great great great grandfather. There are more straps and buckles than I know what to do with and, I if I want can use it to run little electric shocks through you."
"That's inhumane," Bracken observed accurately.
"Well sometimes you have to crack a few eggs to get people to do what you want."
"Dude, seriously," Bracken replied wearily, "you need to try talking to people. This is last resort kind of territory, y'know?"
“Talking is for the weak,” Esmeralda blustered, although she really wasn’t sure about that, having never thought to try it before. How had she managed to miss that, after all this years of careful research into the manipulation of other human persons? It was ridiculous. Someone would have to be fired for not bringing it to her attention.
“What childhood trauma makes a bright, attractive woman with more surnames than is reasonable think that the best way to interact with folk is to bash them over the back of the head and whisk them away to a secret lab?” Bracken wondered aloud.
“Well, maybe I’ll tell you a bit later on,” Esmeralda said, “but as I mentioned a moment ago I am now going to leave you for a while to reflect on what you’ve learned.”
“I haven’t learned anything,” Bracken exclaimed, “other than you’re shit with people and possibly criminally insane – whether the latter is a direct result of the former I have yet to decide.”
“Surely that’s enough to be going on with?”
“Well no really,” Bracken said, “it’s not much is it? And where are you going anyway? Got other prisoners to confuse, or torture with your Victorian junk? What’s the matter, couldn’t afford up to date equipment?”
“I don’t actually torture people,” Esmeralda said stiffly, “I just said that I could.”
“Oh well, my apologies,” Bracken said sarcastically. “So what is it then, time for a cup of tea and a biscuit? Whilst I lie here strapped to a table wondering whether my eyesight will ever come back? That’s some life you’ve got eh.”
“Actually,” Esmeralda said quietly, “I just really need a loo break. I’ll be back really soon.”
“Oh well,” Bracken said, rolling her eyes without even realizing, “that’s fair enough. When you’ve got tae go you’ve got tae go, hen.”
Esmeralda chose to ignore the continued vein of sarcasm, nodded her thanks – redundant though that gesture was – and high tailed it to the ladies.
When she returned, Bracken seemed to have fallen asleep.
Esmeralda watched her flickering eyelids and the gentle rise and fall of her tracksuited torso with an emotion close to affection.
This would be her greatest experiment yet, she thought, with a whispered maniacal cackle. She’d show the world what modern science could – nay, should – truly be.