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If snow hadnt fallen a l.., p.8

If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story), page 8

 

If Snow Hadn't Fallen (A Lacey Flint Short Story)
 


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  I caught up with him. ‘The river?’ I thought of swirling, icy-black, merciless water. He wouldn’t last five minutes if he went into the river in December. ‘Hashim, do you really want to die?’

  ‘They won’t rest while I’m alive. If they can’t get me they’ll come for my family until I give myself up. I can’t watch someone else that I love die.’

  His eyes closed briefly. When they opened again, they shone with the misery of a life built on secrets and shame. ‘Thank you, Lacey,’ he said. ‘Assalamu Alaikom.’

  He turned from me, would be gone in less than a second. If he went in the river, he would die for sure. It would be over. I took hold of his arm and made him look at me. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I told him. ‘But you’re right. There’s no other way. You have to die.’

  21

  EIGHT O’CLOCK THAT evening was the time we’d agreed upon. Still plenty of folk around, but most would be mushy with Christmas cheer. The chances of our being noticed by the wrong people were slim.

  As a nearby church clock struck the hour, I left the flat via the back door and walked to the shed. I was wearing gym clothes; the officers at Scotland Yard watching me on CCTV would think I was going to the shed for exercise, as I’d already informed them I often did.

  I closed the door, switched on the light and got my breath. The punchbag had gone. So had the duvet and pillow that Hashim had used. There was no trace of him, other than the black robes hanging from the hook where he’d almost hanged himself, and he wouldn’t be needing those any more. I pulled the burka over my head and let it fall to my feet. It was long on me. The headdress was next. I’d already researched how to wear and tie it.

  I hadn’t expected the feeling of claustrophobia that would overwhelm me when my world was reduced to an inch of vision and the suffocating warmth of my own breath, but I’d no time to waste getting used to it. I left the shed, careful to avoid the lines of the camera, and then, much less elegantly than Hashim, I climbed the wall.

  On the other side, I let my robes fall into place, pulled the eye-slit straight and set off through the snow. Now I was the woman in black.

  I saw the men before they saw me. Two of them in a green saloon car parked close to the corner of the street, huddled in padded jackets, one of them with fluorescent triangles on the shoulder. That one I recognized now as Aamir’s younger brother; the other man I’d never seen before. They watched me make for the main road. I didn’t look their way, but walked as quickly as I could through brown slush and over patches of ice. The car engine started up as I passed them.

  The other men watching my flat, those in the unmarked police car, had no interest in the heavily veiled Muslim woman who’d appeared from the back of the row of houses. They stayed where they were.

  I crossed the Wandworth Road and saw a bus heading my way. That was the first bit of luck, because I really didn’t want to spend too long hanging about at a bus stop. In the shop window ahead of me I could see the green car waiting to pull out of my road. They’d want to be sure of where I was going before committing themselves. I reached the bus stop. The bus was twenty yards away. It arrived, I stepped on board and saw the green car pull out into the path of oncoming traffic. Horns sounded. Someone yelled out of a car window and the bus pulled away. I didn’t look back.

  Two stops later I pressed the bell to get off. Not far now, but this was the tricky bit. On the street again, I moved as fast as I could. They believed themselves to be following a strong and agile young male, they’d expect him to be nimble. I hadn’t far to walk, but along pavements that alternated slush with ice, past tipsy crowds who saw no irony in wishing a Muslim woman a Merry Christmas, and with the ever-growing awareness of the hunters getting closer.

  For a hundred yards or so, the traffic kept pace with me. Then it cleared, the saloon drew level and moved ahead. I was yards away from the entrance to Vauxhall Underground Station. The car pulled into the kerb and Aamir’s brother got out of the passenger side. They were expecting me to head down the steps into the station, to try to lose them on the Tube, and one of them was set to follow me on foot.

  Smart thinking. But wrong. I turned a sharp left, picked up my skirts and ran.

  The covered walkway of St George’s Wharf was free of snow and had been sprinkled with grit to stop the smooth stone tiles from icing over. I ran at speed past the pink stone columns, up the steps and further into the modern complex of shops, apartments and restaurants. I glanced back as I reached the riverside. Two of them, Aamir’s brother and an older man, were coming fast. I ran on along the south bank of the river towards Vauxhall Bridge, and down beneath the underpass. Out on the other side, I dived to the left. This was the crucial part. I had to be seen, but not by them. I had seconds.

  Very close to the point where the bridge leaves the land to reach out over the water, there is a steel access-ladder that – if you’re brave enough – will take you up off the embankment, over the river wall and down on to the beach below. I pulled myself up and swung over, clambering down a couple of rungs before dropping on to wet sand. The tide was high and there wasn’t much beach left. Pulling my robes free, I ran left beneath the shadow of the bridge.

  ‘Thought you were never coming,’ said a voice from nowhere.

  Without bothering to reply, I tugged off the headscarf and robes. Breathing heavily, I held back both arms and let Emma pull a black jacket up over my shoulders. I took the black woollen hat she was holding out and tucked my hair up inside. Emma, like me, was dressed entirely in black.

  ‘How far behind are they?’ she whispered, as I peered into the shopping trolley that, an hour earlier, she’d pushed down to the river using an old concrete ramp that runs down the side of the MI6 building. Nestled in the trolley was a lumpy, misshapen Father Christmas. I pulled off the Santa mask to see the punchbag from my shed. If all went to plan, it had taken its last pummelling from me.

  ‘Couple of seconds,’ I replied. ‘But they’ll carry on along the embankment until they realize they’ve lost me. Did you have any trouble?’

  I sensed, rather than saw, her shake her head. ‘I staggered a bit, mumbled, “Penny for the Santa”, everybody thought I was pissed,’ she said. ‘You know London, nobody wants to get involved.’

  Time was tight, so Emma held a torch and shielded the light from it with her body, while I got the punchbag ready. The buoyancy aid that would keep it afloat for a minute or two was already in place. I pulled off the Santa Claus costume and replaced it with the burka and veil, tying both securely in place. Then, between us, Emma and I carried it to the water’s edge. The tide had turned about an hour ago and was on its way out.

  ‘Go,’ I told Emma, and watched her jog out from under the bridge and disappear into the darkness. It would take her around ten minutes to find her way up the ramp and then back on to the bridge. Eight minutes had gone by when my phone received a text.

  Now.

  I pushed the woman in black out across the water. The tide took her, whisking her out towards the centre of the river and off downstream.

  Above me, on the bridge, Emma was shouting, convincingly playing the part of a passer-by who’d spotted someone in the river. I saw the beam of her torch on the water, thought that it perhaps picked out swirling robes. Pretty soon she was joined by other people. Someone announced that they were going to run downstream to keep it in sight, and then I heard footsteps banging down the steps.

  Closer than felt comfortable, I heard male voices speaking in Urdu, and knew they’d be looking over the wall. I pressed close against the underside of the bridge. I didn’t move until long after the voices and the footsteps faded away, becoming cold as stone, until a second text from Emma gave me the all-clear. Then I made my way back to street level and lost myself in London.

  22

  I MET EMMA again at midnight. She’d spent most of the intervening time being interviewed by officers of the Marine Policing Unit, who were out, even now, searching the river. She told me the men who’d follow
ed me had stood beside her on Vauxhall Bridge, watching the form they believed to be Hashim disappear on the dark water. They’d left before the police arrived.

  ‘Where is he?’ she asked me, speaking low as though, even now, people could be listening.

  I looked at my watch. ‘Possibly the Channel Tunnel,’ I replied. ‘Or they might have just arrived in France.’

  Hashim had joined a coach party from the north of England who were heading for the Christmas market in Bruges. Once I’d distracted the attention of the men watching my flat, he’d slipped out. While I was still hiding under the bridge, he’d sent a text to say he’d safely boarded the coach at Covent Garden.

  ‘I promised I’d let his mother know he’s safely away,’ said Emma. ‘She’s worried she couldn’t give him much money.’

  Earlier that day, Emma, who was unknown to the watching members of the Chowdhury family, had visited Hashim’s mother and told her our plan. The elderly Pakistani lady, half frantic with grief and worry, had given Emma Hashim’s passport and as much money as she could afford.

  ‘He has enough,’ I said. I’d given him cash too. Several years ago I’d inherited a lump sum that I kept handy, just in case. I’d always expected that I would be the one who’d have to disappear quickly. Increasingly, it was looking as though I wasn’t going anywhere.

  ‘I still can’t believe it,’ said Emma. ‘Aamir’s whole family. Even his mother, his sisters.’

  ‘I think his sisters were terrified,’ I said. ‘And I wouldn’t be surprised if his mother tried to save him. We never did find out who called the police that night.’

  For a minute or two we watched the river moving relentlessly on into the night.

  ‘They’re getting away with it,’ said Emma. ‘The worst crime I can imagine and they’re getting away scot free. Lacey, are you sure you can live with that on your conscience?’

  If Emma only knew the burden my conscience carried around, every single day. I smiled at her. ‘I’m good at secrets,’ I said. ‘Merry Christmas, Emma.’ The following story, carrying Emma Boston’s byline, appeared in several national newspapers and online news websites in the ensuing days.

  The Marine Unit of the Metropolitan Police is still searching for the body of a woman believed to be from London’s Muslim community, who fell or jumped into the River Thames near Vauxhall Bridge on Friday evening.

  The alarm was raised at 8.20 p.m., when passers-by spotted a woman in the water, wearing the long, black robes of the burka. ‘We ran downstream, keeping her in sight for as long as we could,’ said Peter Staines, thirty-two, of Kennington. ‘But the tide was heading out fast and the surface of the river was very choppy. We lost her around Lambeth Bridge.’

  Around fifty bodies are recovered from the Thames every year, according to the Marine Unit, most found in the tidal section between Teddington Lock and the Estuary. Many are suicides who leap from one of London’s bridges in a desperate attempt to end their own lives.

  CCTV footage provided by MI6, whose London headquarters are directly adjacent to Vauxhall Bridge, shows a woman dressed in the traditional Islamic burka appearing on the embankment from the Vauxhall Bridge underpass and climbing an access ladder down to the beach.

  A spokeswoman for London Muslim Women’s Group commented, ‘If this woman was from the Islamic community then her actions reflect the seriousness of her situation and the depths of her despair. Suicide is a sin under Islamic law. We see many young people caught between their desire to lead their own, Western-influenced lives and the pressures of their traditional families. We hear of forced marriages, abductions and imprisonment, intolerance of sexual freedom. For some, sadly, suicide is the only way out.’

  Chief Inspector David Cook, head of the Marine Unit, said that whilst his officers would continue searching the river in the coming days, the high water levels and strong currents made him less than optimistic. ‘For all our best efforts,’ he admitted, ‘sometimes a body will simply disappear without trace.’

  Despite appeals on television and online news sites, no one from London’s Muslim community has been reported missing, and it is now looking increasingly likely that we will never know either the identity of the woman or the story behind her actions. It seems the traditional Eastern communities that have made their home in our city, like the great river that runs through its heart, will sometimes guard their secrets well.

  Snow continued to fall during the days that followed. The shops began to run out of snow boots and the local councils out of salt for the roads. The Marine Unit stood down their search for the woman in black and book-makers shortened their odds on London having a white Christmas.

  I had a text message from Hashim, who was safe and well in Belgium. It was the last I ever heard of him.

  They say that snow covers everything that is mean and sordid and ugly in the world and I guess that’s true. It covered the scorched grass where a dying man breathed his last. For a while, it even hid the sickening story of why he died. It covered the footsteps of the woman in black, just moments after she’d made them. But beneath the carpet of white, the ugliness remains, and the snow will melt and there’ll come a day when it’s visible again.

  At least, that’s what we have to hope.

  S. J. Bolton is the author of 5 thrilling novels.

  Read on for the opening scenes of…

  DEAD SCARED

  OUT NOW IN PAPERBACK AND EBOOK

  Someone is watching you…

  Prologue

  Tuesday 22 January (a few minutes before midnight)

  WHEN A LARGE object falls from a great height, the speed at which it travels accelerates until the upward force of air resistance becomes equal to the downward propulsion of gravity. At that point, whatever is falling reaches what is known as terminal velocity, a constant speed that will be maintained until it encounters a more powerful force, most commonly the ground.

  Terminal velocity of the average human body is thought to be around 120 miles per hour. Typically this speed is reached fifteen or sixteen seconds into the fall, after a distance of between five hundred and six hundred metres.

  A commonly held misconception is that people falling from considerable heights die before impact. Only rarely is this true. Whilst the shock of the experience could cause a fatal heart attack, most falls simply don’t last long enough for this to happen. Also, in theory, a body could freeze in sub-zero temperatures, or become unconscious due to oxygen deprivation, but both these scenarios rely upon the faller’s leaping from a plane at significant altitude and, other than the more intrepid skydivers, people rarely do that.

  Most people who fall or jump from great heights die upon impact when their bones shatter and cause extensive damage to the surrounding tissue. Death is instantaneous. Usually.

  The woman on the edge of one of the tallest towers in Cambridge probably doesn’t have to worry too much about when she might achieve terminal velocity. The tower is not quite two hundred feet tall and her body will continue to accelerate as she falls its full length. She should, on the other hand, be thinking very seriously about impact. Because when that occurs, the flint cobbles around the base of the tower will shatter her young bones like fine crystal. Right now, though, she doesn’t seem concerned about anything. She stands like a sightseer, taking in the view.

  Cambridge, just before midnight, is a city of black shadows and gold light. The almost-full moon shines down like a spotlight on the wedding-cake elegance of the surrounding buildings, on the pillars pointing like stone fingers to the cloudless sky, and on the few people still out and about, who slip like phantoms in and out of pools of light.

  She sways on the spot and, as if something has caught her attention, her head tilts down.

  At the base of the tower the air is still. A torn page of yesterday’s Daily Mail lies undisturbed on the pavement. Up at the top, there is wind. Enough to blow the woman’s hair around her head like a flag. The woman is young, maybe a year or two either side of thirty, and woul
d be beautiful if her face weren’t empty of all expression. If her eyes had any light behind them. This is the face of someone who believes she is already dead.

  The man racing across the First Court of St John’s College, on the other hand, is very much alive, because in the human animal nothing affirms life quite like terror. Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury, of the branch of the Metropolitan Police that sends its officers into the most dangerous situations, has never been quite this scared in his life before.

  Up on the tower, it’s cold. The January chill comes drifting over the Fens and wraps itself across the city like a paedophile’s hand round that of a small, unresisting child. The woman isn’t dressed for winter but seems to be unaware of the cold. She blinks and suddenly those dead eyes have tears in them.

  DI Joesbury has reached the door to the chapel tower and finds it unlocked. It slams back against the stone wall and his left shoulder, which will always be the weaker of the two, registers the shock of pain. At the first corner, Joesbury spots a shoe, a narrow, low-heeled blue leather shoe, with a pointed toe and a high polish. He almost stops to pick it up and then realizes he can’t bear to. Once before he held a woman’s shoe in his hand and thought he’d lost her. He carries on, up the steps, counting them as he goes. Not because he has the faintest idea how many there are, but because he needs to be marking progress in his head. When he reaches the second flight, he hears footsteps behind him. Someone is following him up.

  He feels the cold air just as he sees the door at the top. He’s out on the roof before he has any idea what he’s going to do if he’s too late and she’s already jumped. Or what the hell he’ll do if she hasn’t.

  ‘Lacey,’ he yells. ‘No!’

  1

  Friday 11 January (eleven days earlier)

 
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