If snow hadnt fallen a l.., p.6
If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story), page 6
‘Seriously, do you know many men who voluntarily watch modern ballet?’ I asked.
‘Well, not many,’ said Tulloch. ‘But I don’t tend to move in arty circles. And how many sophisticated white women would hang around a crime scene at night in very distinctive fancy dress?’
Fair play, she had a point.
‘If you see her again, by all means bring her in for questioning,’ said Tulloch. ‘I do agree that it’s odd. But what we need is something concrete on some of our suspects, and we won’t get that by hunting ghosts.’
I agreed with her. She was my boss, why wouldn’t I? But as we said goodnight on the doorstep, I was already making plans for a night of ghost-hunting.
I WAITED UNTIL the park was closed before slipping in through the broken railing and making my way over the crazy cobweb of prints in the snow to the spot where the flowers lay. The tributes left immediately after Aamir’s death had all shrivelled in the cold, but a solitary red rose lay amongst them. It had been plucked from a garden, one of the rare blooms that cling on in London even into December. Its petals were scorched and limp with frost, but its colour was as vibrant as spilled blood in the moonlight.
She brought this, I thought.
I bent and left my own offering. Not for Aamir, this one, but for the woman who’d loved him and who, I increasingly believed, needed my help. It was a carrier bag of food: sandwiches, fruit juice, chocolate. I’d also left a note, written in three languages with the help of Google Translate. I won’t hurt you, it said, in English, Urdu and Arabic. Trust me. And I’d included my address. With no need to hang around, I went back to my house, climbed to the roof and waited until the woman in black appeared.
I didn’t have to wait long this time. I watched her walk across the snow, bend, open the carrier bag and find my note. She read it and stood up, startled, looking round at the houses that ran close by the park, probably knowing she was being watched.
Which she was, and not just by me. While my attention had been fixed first of all on the package I’d left and then on her, others had gathered around the outskirts of the park, still beyond the railings but getting dangerously close. I saw one tall, dark-clad figure approach, then another. I couldn’t be sure, but there might even have been movement at the far side of the park. She was surrounded.
I had no idea whether she heard me. I was some distance away and had the noise of London to contend with. I switched on the torch I’d brought, waving it around my head. ‘Run!’ I screamed.
Whether she did or not, I had no idea. But I ran. Back into the house, down the stairs, out through the front door and along the street. I had my radio in my hand, was shouting out my need for urgent assistance. I got to the back of the street, scared to breathe in case I smelled smoke, or worse. At the park gates I looked inside to see – nothing. Even the package I’d left had gone.
As the sirens drew close, I ran round the perimeter of the playground, looking out across the playing fields for any sign of the woman in black or her pursuers. They’d vanished. As I reached the gates again I heard a car pull up and doors slam. Now I had some explaining to do.
I DIDN’T STAY home that night. After uniform had searched the playground and the surrounding sports fields and found nothing, I waited over an hour in case the woman in black turned up. She didn’t, and it looked as though she might have been scared away for good. So I did what I’d vowed many times I wouldn’t do and had told myself repeatedly that I couldn’t do. I drove across town and parked near the Chelsea and Westminster hospital.
He was asleep, which was a huge relief and a massive disappointment at the same time. The door to the small private room whooshed along the tiles as I pushed it open and I held my breath, but Joesbury’s chest was rising and falling noticeably and his breathing was louder than anyone conscious would be comfortable with. Not snoring, more of a protracted wheeze.
He’d shrunk. Where was the man who always seemed so much bigger than his body? Partly the change was due to the fact that he was, unmistakably, thinner. Also, lying prone, he didn’t seem so tall. The scar around his right eye, the one I carried no blame for because he’d had it when he met me, was red and livid against his pale skin. The one I had caused, above his right lung, was hidden from view, but beneath the thin fabric of his grey pyjama top I could see the outline of bandages and dressings.
His suntan had gone completely. His eyelashes were long and thick on his sallow cheeks and I found myself dreading that he’d open his eyes and that they’d no longer be the vivid turquoise I remembered.
There was a Christmas tree on the cupboard by his bed, a small plastic model with blue and white silk baubles and several homemade decorations. Get well soon, Daddy, said the card in front of it.
I sat down beside him, hardly knowing what I’d say if he woke. I wasn’t even sure why I was here. All I knew was that I’d spent several days now thinking about a woman who was grieving for the man she loved, and it had finally dawned on me that I was doing exactly the same thing.
Except the man I loved was still here. Still living and breathing, and likely to continue to do so. What would she give, the woman in black, to be in my shoes right now?
Wishing my hands were warmer, I closed my fingers around his. He sighed in his sleep, and seemed about to move, but then a look of pain crossed his face and he gave up the effort.
I don’t know how long I sat beside him before I fell asleep. I hadn’t planned to stay more than a minute or two, but the room was so warm, the sound of his breathing beside me so surprisingly soothing, and the padded armchair had a headrest at just the right height.
I woke to the sound of a trolley outside. Nurses, with meds. Knowing he’d wake for sure if they came in, I pulled my hand out from beneath his and got up. Sometime, while I’d been asleep, my hand had slipped inside his, rather than the other way round. I took one last second to let my finger hover a millimetre above his lips, tracing their outline. I almost, I think, bent down to brush my own lips over his, but his breathing was lighter now and I knew he was very close to waking up. I backed to the door. His eyelids were flickering. Any second now. I couldn’t even risk whispering goodbye.
‘Thank God you lived,’ I mouthed, before slipping out.
I ARRIVED HOME with a Chinese takeaway, from the restaurant Mark Joesbury had taken me to the night we’d met. Call me hopelessly sentimental if you want, it just felt appropriate. What with the hot food, a handbag, a couple of carrier bags from my supermarket trip, not to mention keys, I had no hands free to switch on lights. I dumped the food on the kitchen counter and carried on. From my bedroom I can see through a small conservatory directly into the garden beyond.
Of course, had the lights been on I almost certainly wouldn’t have seen the figure in the garden, but due to the dark interior, the moving shape stood out against the moonlit snow. She was back. And she was here.
Shocked and surprisingly scared, I stood frozen to the spot, wondering if I’d locked the conservatory door. I was sure I had – I always do – but it’s a question you ask, isn’t it, when someone who really shouldn’t be in your back garden has their attention fixed intently, almost hungrily, on you?
Each time I’d seen the woman in black up till now, she’d inspired my interest and sympathy. Up close, she was frightening. At a distance, the black of her robes had seemed to intensify against the snow. Close up, it was a different matter entirely. Just yards away from me, the blackness of her seemed to lose substance, no longer solid against a white background, but empty. I looked at where black fabric should be and saw nothing. It was as though the woman in black were sucking away the world and leaving a void in its place. For the first time, I began to feel afraid of her, to wonder if this really were the vulnerable, grieving woman I’d conjured in my head.
For one thing, those eyes, the only part of her I could see clearly, were just so intense. Catching the ligh
The plan, so far as I’d had one, had been to approach her quietly when she showed up, to welcome her inside, encourage her to tell her story, to hold her hand as we went together to the police station. None of that seemed possible right now.
But someone had to move, because the longer we stood and stared at each other, the harder it became to break the deadlock. Yet still she continued to stand there, as though someone had dropped a life-size granite statue into my garden.
Looked like it was going to be me, then.
I reached for the door that led to the conservatory. At the same moment, she stepped back and faded into the gloom.
‘Wait!’ I called out. By the time I reached the back door, I couldn’t see her.
I opened the door, but stayed within the psychological shelter of its frame, still feeling the need for the protection of my own home. I could see nothing of the woman. When I was certain she was no longer close, I stepped outside.
It wasn’t possible. She could not have vanished. My garden was white with snow. Except it wasn’t really, not now that I was out there. The snow-covered jasmine that scaled the wall to my right was washed orange by a nearby streetlight, and the moonlight had spun a path of pale gold which ran from one corner of the garden to its opposite diagonal. The white of the snow had become silver, even blue, in places, and the dark and shadowy corners had, in contrast, become deeper and gloomier.
Surely, though, there was nowhere to hide? The path was too narrow, the foliage on either side too thick. Leaves would be trembling, snow falling to the ground like shaken sugar if she were tucked amongst the shrubbery. There hadn’t been time, not if she moved like a mortal woman, to run the full length of the garden and tuck herself away behind the shed. And yet, where else—
I heard movement, a scraping sound. She was behind me. I turned and saw her halfway up the wall. She climbed impossibly quickly, springing up like a cat, before pausing at the top and leaping out of sight.
No point trying to follow her. I knew I could never move half as fast as she’d just done. And I was the fittest person I knew.
A starving Muslim woman who could scamper up eight-foot walls like a squirrel? In floor-length robes? This wasn’t feeling normal to me. And the door to my shed, where I store my fitness equipment and which I always keep locked, was open.
My garden was just too dark, I decided as I neared the shed. The walls were high and overhanging trees cut off most of the light from either the moon or the streetlamps. With the snow, it was bad enough. When it had gone, it would be worse. I needed lights out here.
And my sense of unease wasn’t helped by remembering the last time I’d come out here to investigate an intruder. It had been some time in the early hours, and as I’d approached the shed, I’d seen the warm flicker of candlelight. My punchbag, hanging from a hook in the centre of the roof, had been ‘adorned with the addition of a real human head.
I wasn’t in the mood for any grisly early Christmas presents this evening. I pushed at the door, relieved – I think – to find the shed in darkness. Switching on the light didn’t throw up too many surprises either. Everything was much as I’d left it. The punchbag rotated slowly, but it always did when I opened the door. On the other hand, the padded mat that I use for floor work appeared to carry the indentation of a human form. I bent down and touched it. Slightly warm. And that was a chocolate wrapper on the floor.
The woman had eaten in here – the chocolate was the same brand I’d bought in the supermarket – and had lain down on my exercise mat. So Tulloch had been right. She was homeless. I’d given her my address and she’d moved in.
WHEN I WOKE in the night, it was to the immediate thought that she was back. The electronic clock told me it was just after two in the morning. I’d been asleep for under three hours. I was groggy, with that ache in my chest and weakness in my limbs that told me the only sensible place to be was back in the land of nod. But I’d heard something that hadn’t been the usual nighttime noise of a kicked beer-can or a horny cat. I sat up and the air around me felt unusually cold.
I’d left the door open. Even now, she was inside, letting cold air and malevolence sneak through the flat.
Except I knew how carefully I’d locked the doors and windows after my adventure in the garden. I’d even switched on the alarm. For a modest, rented flat in south London, my home has state-of-the-art security. Joesbury had arranged it for me when it had looked as though our Ripper copycat was getting just a bit too focussed on me. The windows were double-glazed and lockable, the two outside doors had bolts top and bottom and heavy-duty deadlocks. There were security cameras and an alarm, both of which had at one time been wired up to Scotland Yard. I was no longer on a direct line to the Yard, but everything else was still in place. She could not be inside. But she had come back. There was definitely someone moving around out there. And that was the sound of the outside door handle. Well, I’d practically invited her round, and maybe this time she’d talk.
Not wanting to take her by surprise, I switched on a small bedside light and then, more nervous than I’d have liked to admit, raised the window blind and peered through.
Beyond the conservatory, my garden seemed dark and empty. If anyone were in the shed, I was too far away to be able to tell. I pulled on a sweatshirt before unlocking the door between bedroom and conservatory.
The glass extension at the back of my property is heated, but not efficiently, and I felt a sharp dip in temperature as I stepped from one room to the other. The quarry tiles felt as though I were stepping out across a frozen pond. I pushed the key into the lock and something made me pause. Something made me wipe the glass clear of condensation and lean my forehead against it to look out.
There are many ways in which fear can grab your heart and squeeze tight, but few, I think, can beat the experience of starting out scared, finding the courage to face your fear, and then realizing that what you are up against isn’t fear but mind-numbing terror.
The men who’d set fire to Aamir Chowdhury, and taunted him while he burned to death, were in my garden, not three yards from the door I’d been on the brink of opening. The wolf was closest, his loose, dark clothes in sharp relief against the white backdrop, his teeth gleaming like headstones in the moonlight. Just behind him was the green, huge-eyed alien, and over their shoulders I could see the goblin. Exactly as I remembered them, only this time they’d come for me.
I didn’t scream. My survival instincts weren’t going to waste energy on anything as pointless as making noise no one would hear. Nor did I freeze in horror, beyond that first split-second. I fled, fumbling for the phone I keep by my bed at night, meaning to put another door, ideally another lock, between them and me. But the key fell out of the bedroom door and as one of them started to bang on the glass of the conservatory, I didn’t stop to pick it up.
In my kitchen I leaned against the wall for a second. I had time, surely, to summon help. The reinforced glass of my windows and doors might break under enough force, but not easily or quickly.
Someone was at the front door. The door was making the noise it always did when the postman was trying to deliver something. That was the letter-box being opened, but what landed on the carpet wasn’t paper. That was the sound of liquid being poured. And then the entire room was filled with the smell of petrol and I got it at last. They were pouring petrol through my letter-box. I’d only seen three members of the gang in the garden. The other two were at the front, soaking my carpet with petrol, and a lit match would surely follow.
I dived forward, knowing that if the match came now it could be the end of me. Petrol fumes, as much as the liquid itself, ignite and I was already right in amongst them. The carpet was greasily wet but I reached the letter-box and managed to push it shut. I heard a muttered curse on the other side of the door. It would be the Queen out there. The Queen and the zom
My radio was on the table and would be faster than the phone, but to reach it I’d have to take my hand away from the letter-box, and the second I did that the match could come my way. With some difficulty, working with only one hand, I managed to dial 999 and waited to be connected.
Something bounced against the front window and landed with a soft thud in the slush outside. The glass held. But if they’d come determined to burn me alive, they’d probably brought petrol bombs. If they managed to get a can or a bottle filled with petrol in here, I had no hope. Once the fuel ignited, it would create a massive fireball as the droplets of fuel spread out around the site of impact. A huge fire would follow as the rest of the fuel burned. I had no sprinkler system, and even if I had, water is no use against petrol bombs.
‘Police,’ I told the operator, and thought about my options.
Someone was pushing against the letter-box, trying to force it open again. It gave a fraction before I pushed it shut. I had to keep it closed. Petrol alone couldn’t hurt me. Just as long as it wasn’t ignited. But the hands on the other side of the door were stronger than mine and there were more of them.
I was connected to the police operator. I explained the situation, gave my address clearly, stressed the need for urgent assistance, suggested the attendance of the Fire and Rescue Service and added that I was a police officer working with DI Tulloch, who also needed to be informed. And if that gives the impression that I wasn’t practically screaming and sobbing with terror then we’ll just go with it, shall we?
A loud crashing sound came from the conservatory. They’d hurled something large and heavy at the glass. I didn’t think they were inside. I hadn’t heard the sound of glass breaking, but it could only be a matter of time. I had to lock the bedroom door but I couldn’t move. While I held the letter-box in place, there was no easy way they could get a flame inside. Once they did, I’d had it. The place was awash with fumes. I had petrol on my hands and in my hair. My phone stank of it.
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