Advent Stories #8

OUTFANGTHIEF

At the moment the car slid out of control, Sarah Running had been trying to find a radio station that might carry some news of her crime. She had been driving for hours, risking the M6 all the way from Preston. Though she had seen a number of police vehicles, the traffic had been sufficiently busy to allow her to blend in and anyway, Manser would hardly have guessed she would take her ex-husband’s car. Michael was away on business in Stockholm and would not know of the theft for at least another week.

But Manser was not stupid. It would not be long before he latched on to her deceit.

As the traffic thinned, and night closed in on the motorway, Sarah’s panic grew. She was convinced that her disappearance had been reported and she would be brought to book. When a police Range Rover tailed her from Walsall to the M42 turn off, she almost sent her own car into the crash barriers at the centre of the road.

Desperate for cover, she followed the signs for the A14. Perhaps she could make the 130 miles to Felixstowe tonight and sell the car, try to find passage on a boat, lose herself and her daughter on the continent. In a day they could be in Dresden, where her grandmother had lived; a battered city that would recognise some of its own and allow them some anonymity.

‘Are you all right back there, Laura?’

In the rear view mirror, her daughter might well have been a mannequin. Her features were glacial; her sunglasses formed tiny screens of animation as the sodium lights fizzed off them. A slight flattening of the lips was the only indication that all was well. Sarah bore down on her frustration. Did she understand what she had been rescued from? Sarah tried to remember what things had been like for herself as a child, but reasoned that her own relationship with her mother had not been fraught with the same problems.

‘It’s all okay, Laura. We’ll not have any more worries in this family. I promise you.’

All that before she spotted the flashing blue and red lights of three police vehicles blocking her progress east. She turned left on to another A road bound for Leicester. There must have been an accident; they wouldn’t go to the lengths of forming a roadblock for her, would they? The road sucked her deep into darkness, on either side wild hedgerows and vast oily swells of countryside muscled into them. Headlamps on full beam, she could pick nothing out beyond the winding road apart from the ghostly dusting of insects attracted by the light. Sarah, though, felt anything but alone. She could see, in the corner of her eye, something blurred by speed, keeping pace with the car as it fled the police cordon. She took occasional glances to her right, but could not define their fellow traveller for the dense tangle of vegetation that bordered the road.

‘Can you see that, Laura?’ she asked. ‘What is it?’

It could have been a trick of the light, or something silver reflecting the shape of their car. Maybe it was the police. The needle on the speedometer edged up to 80. They would have to dump the car somewhere soon, if the police were closing in on them.

‘Keep a look out for a B&B, okay?’ She checked in the mirror; Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently.

Sarah fumbled with the radio button. Static filled the car at an excruciating volume. Peering into the dashboard of the unfamiliar car, trying to locate the volume control, she perceived a darkening in the cone of light ahead. When she looked up, the car was drifting off the road, aiming for a tree. Righting the swerve only took the car more violently in the other direction. They were still on the road, but only just, as the wheels began to rise on the passenger side.

but i wasn’t drifting off the road, was i?

Sarah caught sight of Laura, expressionless, as she was jerked from one side of the car to the other and hoped the crack she heard was not caused by her head slamming against the window.

i thought it was a tree big and black it looked just like a tree but but but

And then she couldn’t see much because the car went into a roll and everything became part of a violent, circular blur and at the centre of it were the misted, friendly eyes of a woman dipping into her field of view.

but but but how can a tree have a face?

*

She was conscious of the cold and the darkness. There was the hiss of traffic from the motorway, soughing over the fields. Her face was sticky and at first she thought it was blood, but now she smelled a lime tree and knew it was its sap being sweated on to her. Forty metres away, the road she had just left glistened with dew. She tried to move and blacked out.

*

Fingers sought her face. She tried to bat them away but there were many fingers, many hands. She feared they might try to pluck her eyes out and opened her mouth to scream and that was when a rat was pushed deep into her throat.

Sarah came out of the dream, smothering on the sodden jumper of her daughter, who had tipped over the driver’s seat and was pressed against her mother. The flavour of blood filled her mouth. The dead weight of the child carried an inflexibility about it that shocked her. She tried to move away from the crushing bulk and the pain drew gray veils across her eyes. She gritted her teeth, knowing that to succumb now was to die, and worked at unbuckling the seatbelt that had saved her life. Once free, she slumped to her left and her daughter filled the space she had occupied. Able to breathe again, she was pondering the position in which the car had come to rest, and trying to reach Laura’s hand, when she heard footsteps.

When she saw Manser lean over, his big, toothy grin seeming to fill the shattered window frame, she wished she had not dodged the police; they were preferable to this monster. But then she saw how this wasn’t Manser after all. She couldn’t understand how she had made the mistake. Manser was a stunted, dark man with a face like chewed tobacco. This face was smooth as soapstone and framed by thick, red tresses; a woman’s face.

Other faces, less defined, swept across her vision. Everyone seemed to be moving very fast.

She said, falteringly: ‘Ambulance?’ But they ignored her.

They lifted Laura out of the window to a cacophony of whistles and cheers. There must have been a hundred people. At least they had been rescued. Sarah would take her chances with the police. Anything was better than going home.

The faces retreated. Only the night stared in on her now, through the various rents in the car. It was cold, lonely and painful. Her face in the rear view mirror: all smiles.

*

He closed the door and locked it. Cocked his head against the jamb, listened for a few seconds. Still breathing.

Downstairs, he read the newspaper, ringing a few horses for the afternoon races. He placed thousand pound bets with his bookies. In the ground floor wash room, he took a scalding shower followed by an ice cold one, just like James Bond. Rolex Oyster, Turnbull & Asser shirt, Armani. He made four more phone calls: Jez Knowlden, his driver, to drop by in the Jag in twenty minutes; Pamela, his wife, to say that he would be away for the weekend; Jade, his mistress, to ask her if she’d meet him in London. And then Chandos, his police mole, to see if that cunt Sarah Running had been found yet.

*

Sarah dragged herself out of the car just as dawn was turning the skyline milky. She had drifted in and out of consciousness all night, but the sleet that had arrived within the last half hour was the spur she needed to try to escape. She sat a few feet away from the car, taking care not to make any extreme movements, and began to assess the damage to herself. A deep wound in her shoulder had caused most of the bleeding. Other than that, which would need stitches, she had got away with pretty superficial injuries. Her head was pounding, and dried blood formed a crust above her left eyebrow, but nothing seemed to be broken.

After quelling a moment of nausea when she tried to stand, Sarah breathed deeply of the chill morning air and looked around her. A farmhouse nestled within a crowd of trees seemed the best bet; it was too early for road users. Cautiously at first, but with gathering confidence, she trudged across the muddy, furrowed field towards the house, staring all the while at its black, arched windows, for all the world like a series of open mouths, shocked by the coming of the sun.

*

She had met Andrew in 1985, in the Preston library they both shared. A relationship had started, more or less, on their hands bumping each other while reaching for the same book. They had married a year later and Sarah gave birth to Laura then, too. Both of them had steady, if unspectacular work. Andrew was a security guard and she cleaned at the local school and for a few favoured neighbours. They eventually took out a mortgage on their council house on the right-to-buy scheme and bought a car, a washing machine and a television on the never-never. Then they both lost their jobs within weeks of each other. They owed £17,000. When the law centre they depended on heavily for advice lost its funding and closed down, Sarah had to go to hospital when she began laughing so hysterically, she could not catch her breath. It was as Andrew drove her back from the hospital that they met Malcolm Manser for the first time.

His back to them, he stepped out in front of their car at a set of traffic lights and did not move when they changed in Andrew’s favour. When Andrew sounded the horn, Manser turned around. He was wearing a long, newbuck trenchcoat, black Levi’s, black boots and a black T-shirt without an inch of give in it. His hair was black save for wild slashes of gray above his temples. His sunglasses appeared to be sculpted from his face, so seamlessly did they sit on his nose. From the trenchcoat he pulled a car jack and proceeded to smash every piece of glass and dent every panel on the car. It took about twenty seconds.

‘Mind if I talk to you for a sec?’ he asked, genially, leaning against the crumbled remains of the driver’s side window. Andrew was too shocked to say anything. His mouth was very wet. Tiny cubes of glass glittered in his hair. Sarah was whimpering, trying to open her door, which was sealed shut by the warp of metal.

Manser went on: ‘You have 206 pieces of bone in your body, fine sir. If my client, Mr Anders, does not receive seventeen grand, plus interest at ten per cent a day — which is pretty bloody generous if you ask me — by the end of the week, I will guarantee that after half an hour with me, your bone tally will be double that. And that yummy piece of bitch you’ve got ripening back home. Laura? I’ll have her. You test me. I dare you.’

He walked away, magicking the car jack in to the jacket and giving them an insouciant wave.

A week later, Andrew set himself on fire in the car which he had locked inside the garage. By the time the fire services got to him, he was a black shape, thrashing in the back seat. Set himself on fire. Sarah refused to believe that. She was sure that Manser had murdered him. Despite their onerous circumstances, Andrew was not the suicidal type. Laura was everything to him; he’d not leave this world without securing a little piece of it for her.

What then? A nightmare time. A series of safe houses that were anything but. Early morning flits from dingy addresses in Bradford, Cardiff, Bristol and Walsall. He was stickier than anything Bostik might produce. ‘Bug out,’ they’d tell her, these kind old men and women, having settled on a code once used by soldiers in some war or another. ‘Bug out.’ Manser had contacts everywhere. Arriving in a town that seemed too sleepy to even acknowledge her presence, she’d notice someone out of whack with the place, someone who patently did not fit in but had been planted to watch out for her. Was she so transparent? Her migrations had been random; there was no pattern to unpick. And yet she had stayed no longer than two days in any of these towns. Sarah had hoped that returning to Preston might work for her in a number of ways. Manser wouldn’t be expecting it for one thing; for another, Michael, her ex-husband, might be of some help. When she went to visit him though, he paid her short shrift.

‘You still owe me fifteen hundred quid,’ he barked at her. ‘Pay that off before you come grovelling at my door.’ She asked if he could use his toilet and passed any number of photographs of Gabrielle, his new squeeze. On the way, she stole from a hook on the wall the spare set of keys to his Alfa Romeo.

*

It took twenty minutes to negotiate the treacherous field. A light frost had hardened some of the furrows while other grooves were boggy. Sarah scuffed and skidded as best she could, clambering over the token fence that bordered an overgrown garden someone had used as an unauthorised tipping area. She picked her way through sofa skeletons, shattered TV sets, collapsed flat-pack wardrobes and decaying, pungent black bin bags.

It was obvious that nobody was living here.

Nevertheless, she stabbed the doorbell with a bloody finger. Nothing appeared to ring from within the building. She rapped on the door with her knuckles, but half-heartedly. Already she was scrutinising the windows, looking for another way in. A narrow path strangled by brambles led around the edge of the house to a woefully neglected rear garden. Scorched colours bled into each other, thorns and convulvulus savaged her ankles as she pushed her way through the tangle. All of the windows at the back of the house had been broken, probably by thrown stones. A yellow spray of paint on a set of storm doors that presumably led directly into the cellar picked out a word she didn’t understand: scheintod. What was that? German? She cursed herself for not knowing the language of her elders, not that it mattered. Someone had tried to obscure the word, scratching it out of the wood with a knife, but the paint was reluctant. She tried the door but it was locked.

Sarah finally gained access via a tiny window that she had to squeeze through. The bruises and gashes on her body cried out as she toppled into a gloomy larder. Mingled into the dust was an acrid, spicy smell; racks of ancient jars and pots were labelled in an extravagant hand: cumin, coriander, harissa, chilli powder. There were packs of flour and malt that had been ravaged by vermin. Dried herbs dusted her with a strange, slow rain as she brushed past them. Pickling jars held back their pale secrets within dull, lustreless glass.

She moved through the larder, arms outstretched, her eyes becoming accustomed to the gloom. Something arrested the door as she swung it outwards. A dead dog, its fur shaved from its body, lay stiffly in the hallway. At first she thought it was covered in insects, but the black beads were unmoving. They were nicks and slashes in the flesh. The poor thing had been drained. Sarah recoiled from the corpse and staggered further along the corridor. Evidence of squatters lay around her in the shape of fast food packets, cigarette ends, beer cans and names signed in the ceiling by the sooty flames of candles. A rising stairwell vanished into darkness. Her shoes crunched and squealed on plaster fallen from the bare walls.

‘Hello?’ she said, querulously. Her voice made as much impact on the house as a candyfloss mallet. It died on the walls, absorbed so swiftly it was as if the house was sucking her in, having been starved of human company for so long. She ascended to the first floor. The carpet that hugged the risers near the bottom gave way to bare wood. Her heels sent dull echoes ringing through the house. If anyone lived here, they would know they were not alone now. The doors opened on to still bedrooms shrouded by dust. There was nothing up here.

‘Laura?’ And then more stridently, as if volume alone could lend her more spine: ‘Laura!

Downstairs she found a cosy living room with a hearth filled with ashes. She peeled back a dust cover from one of the sofas and lay down. Her head pounded with delayed shock from the crash and the mustiness of her surroundings. She thought of her baby.

*

It didn’t help that Laura seemed to be going off the rails at the time of their crisis. Also, her inability, or reluctance to talk of her father’s death worried Sarah almost as much as the evidence of booze and drug use. At each of the safe houses, it seemed there was a Laura trap in the shape of a young misfit, eager to drag someone down with him or her. Laura gave herself to them all, as if glad of a mate to hasten her downward spiral. There had been one boy in particular, Edgar – a difficult name to forget – whose influence had been particularly invidious. They had been holed up in a Toxteth bedsit. Sarah had been listening to City FM. A talkshow full of languid, catarrhal Liverpool accents that was making her drowsy. The sound of a window smashing had dragged her from slumber. She caught the boy trying to drag her daughter through the glass. She had shrieked at him and hauled him into the room. He could have been no older than ten or eleven. His eyes were rifle green and would not stay still. They darted around like steel bearings in a bagatelle game. Sarah had drilled him, asking him if he had been sent from Manser. Panicked, she had also been firing off instructions to Laura, that they must pack immediately and be ready to go within the hour. It was no longer safe. And then:

Laura, crawling across the floor, holding on to Edgar’s leg, pulling herself up, her eyes fogged with what could only be ecstasy. Burying her face in Edgar’s crotch. Sarah had shrank from her daughter, horrified. She watched as Laura’s free hand travelled beneath her skirt and began to massage at the gusset of her knickers while animal sounds came from her throat. Edgar had grinned at her, showing off a range of tiny, brilliant white teeth. Then he had bent low, whispering something in Laura’s ear before charging out of the window with a speed that Sarah thought could only end in tragedy. But when she rushed to the opening, she couldn’t see him anywhere.

It had been the Devil’s own job trying to get her ready to flee Liverpool. She had grown wan and weak and couldn’t keep her eyes off the window. Dragging her on to a dawn coach from Mount Pleasant, Laura had been unable to stop crying and as the day wore on, complained of terrible thirst and unbearable pain behind her eyes. She vomited twice and the driver threatened to throw them off the coach unless Laura calmed down. Somehow, Sarah was able to pacify her. She found that shading her from the sunlight helped. A little later, slumped under the seat, Laura fell asleep.

Sarah had begun to question ever leaving Preston in the first place. At least there she had the strength that comes with knowing your environment. Manser had been a problem in Preston but the trouble was that he remained a problem. At least back there, it was just him that she needed to be wary of. Now it seemed Laura’s adolescence was going to cause her more of a problem than she believed could be possible. But at the back of her mind, Sarah knew she could never have stayed in her home town. What Manser had proposed, sidling up to her at Andrew’s funeral, was that she allow Laura to work for him, whoring. He guaranteed an excellent price for such a perfectly toned, tight bit of girl.

‘Men go for that,’ he’d whispered, as she tossed a fistful of soil on to her husband’s coffin. ‘She’s got cracking tits for a thirteen-year-old. High. Firm. Nipples up top. Quids in, I promise you. You could have your debt sorted out in a couple of years. And I’ll break her in for you. Just so’s you know it won’t be some stranger nicking her cherry.’

That night, they were out of their house, a suitcase full of clothes between them.

*

‘You fucking beauty.’

Manser depressed the call end button on his Motorola and slipped the phone into his jacket. Leaning forward, he tapped his driver on the shoulder. ‘Jez. Get this. Cops found the bitch’s car in a fucking field outside Leicester. She’d totalled it.’

He slumped back in his seat. The radio masts at Rugby swung by on his left, lights glinting through a thin fog. ‘Fuck London. You want the A5199. Warp Factor two. And when we catch the minging little tart, we’ll show her how to have a road accident. Do the job properly for her. Laura though, Laura comes with us. Nothing happens to Laura. Got it?’

At Knowlden’s assent, Manser closed his eyes. This year’s number 3 had died just before he left home. It had been a pity. He liked that one. The sutures on her legs had healed in such a way as to chafe his thigh as he thrust into her. But there had been an infection that he couldn’t treat. Pouring antibiotics down her hadn’t done an awful lot of good. Gangrene set in. Maybe Laura could be his number 4. Once Dr Losh had done his bit, he would ask him the best way to prevent infection. He knew what Losh’s response would be: let it heal. But he liked his meat so very rare when he was fucking it. He liked to see a little blood.

*

Sarah woke up to find that her right eye had puffed closed. She caught sight of herself in a shard of broken mirror on the wall. Blood caked half her face and the other half was black with bruises. Her hair was matted. Not for the first time, she wondered if her conviction that Laura had died was misplaced. Yet in the same breath, she couldn’t bear to think that she might now be suffering with similar, or worse, injuries. Her thoughts turned to her saviours – if that was what they were. And if so, then why hadn’t she been rescued?

She relived the warmth and protection that had enveloped her when those willowy figures had reached inside the car and plucked out her child. Her panic at the thought of Laura either dead or as good as had been ironed flat. She felt safe and, inexplicably, had not raged at this outrageous kidnap; indeed, she had virtually sanctioned it. Perhaps it had been the craziness inspired by the accident, or endorphins stifling her pain that had brought about her indifference. Still, what should have been anger and guilt was neutralised by the compulsion that Laura was in safe hands. What she didn’t want to examine too minutely was the feeling that she missed the rescue party more than she did her own daughter.

Refreshed a little by her sleep, but appalled at the catalogue of new aches and pains that jarred each movement, Sarah made her way back to the larder where she found some crackers in an airtight tin. Chewing on these, she revisited the hallway and dragged open the heavy curtains, allowing some of the late afternoon light to invade. Almost immediately she saw the door under the stairs. She saw how she had missed it earlier; it was hewn from the same dark wood and there was no door handle as such, just a little recess to hook your fingers into. She tried it but it wouldn’t budge. Which meant it was locked from the inside. Which meant that somebody must be down there.

‘Laura?’ she called, tapping on the wood with her fingernails. ‘Laura, it’s mum. Are you in there?’

She listened hard, her ear flush against the crack of the jamb. All she could hear was the gust of subterranean breezes moving through what ought to be the cellar. She must check it out; Laura could be down there, bleeding her last.

Sarah hunted down the kitchen. A large pine table sat at one end of the room, a dried orange with a heart of mould at its centre. She found a stack of old newspapers bound up with twine from the early 1970s by a back door that was forbiddingly black and excessively padlocked. Ransacking the drawers and cupboards brought scant reward. She was about to give in when the suck of air from the last yanked cupboard door brought a small screwdriver rolling into view. She grabbed the tool and scurried back to the cellar door.

*

Manser stayed Knowlden with a finger curled around his lapel. ‘Are you carrying?’

Knowlden had parked the car off the road on the opposite side to the crash site. Now the two men were standing by the wreck of the Alfa. Knowlden had spotted the house and suggested they check it out. If Sarah and her daughter had survived the crash – and the empty car suggested that they had – then they might have found some neighbourly help.

‘I hope you fucking are,’ Manser warned.

‘I’m carrying okay. Don’t sweat it.’

Manser’s eyebrows went north. ‘Don’t tell me to not sweat it, pup. Or you’ll find yourself doing seventy back up the motorway without a fucking car underneath you.’

The sun sinking fast, they hurried across the field, constantly checking the road behind them as they did so. Happy that nobody had seen them, Manser nodded his head in the direction of the front door. ‘Kick the mud off your boots on that bastard,’ he said.

It was 5:14 p.m.

*

Sarah was halfway down the cellar stairs and wishing she had a torch with her when she heard the first blows raining down on the door. She was about to return to the hallway when she heard movement from below. A lot of movement. Creaks and whispers and hisses. There was a sound as of soot trickling down a flue. A chatter: teeth in the cold? A sigh.

‘Laura?’

A chuckle.

*

The door gave in just before Knowlden was about to. His face was greasy with sweat and hoops of dampness spoiled his otherwise pristine shirt.

‘Gun,’ Manser said, holding his hand out. Knowlden passed him the weapon, barely disguising his disdain for his boss. ‘You want to get some muesli down you, mate,’ Manser said. ‘Get yourself fit.’ He checked the piece was loaded and entered the house, muzzle pointing ahead of him, cocked horizontally. Something he’d done since seeing Brad Pitt do the same thing in Se7en.

‘Knock, knock,’ he called out. ‘Daddy’s home.’

*

Sarah heard, just before all hell broke loose, Laura’s voice firm and even, say: ‘Do not touch her.’ Then she was knocked back on the stairs by a flurry of black leather and she was aware only of bloody-eyed, pale-skinned figures flocking past her. And teeth. She saw each leering mouth as if in slow motion, dark lips peeled back to reveal teeth so white they might have been sculpted from ice.

She thought she saw Laura among them and tried to grab hold of her jumper but she was left clutching air as the scrum piled into the hallway, whooping and screaming like a gang of kids let out early from school. When the shooting started she couldn’t tell if the screaming had changed in pitch at all, whether it had become more panicked. But at the top of the stairs she realised she was responsible for most of it. There appeared to be some kind of stand-off. Manser, the fetid little sniffer dog of a man, was waving a gun around while his henchman clenched and unclenched his hands, eyeing up the opposition, which was substantial. Sarah studied them properly for the first time, these women who had rescued her baby and left her to die in the car. And yet proper examination was beyond her. There were four of them, she thought. Maybe five. They moved around and against each other so swiftly, so lissomely that she couldn’t be sure. They were like a flesh knot. Eyes fast on their enemy, they guarded each other with this mesmerising display. It was so seamless it could have been choreographed.

But now she saw that they were not just protecting each other. There was someone at the heart of the knot, appearing and disappearing in little ribbons and teasers of colour. Sarah need see only a portion of face to know they were wrapped around her daughter.

‘Laura,’ she said again.

Manser said, ‘Who the fuck are these clowns? Have we just walked into Goth night down the local student bar, or what?’

‘Laura,’ Sarah said again, ignoring her pursuer. ‘Come here.’

‘Everyone just stand back. I’m having the girl. And to show you I’m not just pissing in my paddling pool…’ Manser took aim and shot one of the women through the forehead.

Sarah covered her mouth as the woman dropped. The three others seemed to fade somewhat, as if their strength had been affected.

‘Jez,’ said Manser. ‘Get the girl.’

Sarah leapt at Knowlden as he strode into the pack but a stiff arm across her chest knocked her back against the wall, winding her. He extricated Laura from her guardians and dragged her kicking back to his boss.

Manser was nodding his head. ‘Nice work, Jez. You can have jelly for afters tonight. Get her outside.’

To Sarah he said: ‘Give her up.’ And then he was gone.

Slumped on the floor, Sarah tried to blink a fresh trickle of blood from her eyes. Through the fluid, she thought she could see the women crowding around their companion. She thought she could see them lifting her head as they positioned themselves around her. But no. No. She couldn’t accept that she was seeing what they began to do to her then.

*

Knowlden fell off the pace as they ran towards the car. Manser was half-dragging, half-carrying Laura who was thrashing around in his arms.

‘I’m nearly ready,’ she said. ‘I’ll bite you! I’ll bite you, I swear to God.’

‘And I’ll scratch your eyes out,’ Manser retorted. ‘Now shut the fuck up. Jesus, can’t you do what girls your age do in the movies? Faint, or something?’

At the car, he bundled her into the boot and locked it shut. Then he fell against the side of the car and tried to control his breathing. He could just see Knowlden plodding towards him in the dark. Manser could hear his squealing lungs even though he had another forty metres or so to cover.

‘Come on Jez, for fuck’s sake! I’ve seen mascara run faster than that.’

At thirty metres, Manser had a clearer view of his driver as he died.

One of the women they had left behind in the house was moving across the field at a speed that defied logic. Her hands were outstretched and her nails glinted like polished arrowheads. Manser moved quickly himself when he saw how she slammed into his chauffeur. He was in third gear before he realised he hadn’t taken the handbrake off and he was laughing harder than he had ever laughed in his life. Knowlden’s heart had been skewered on the end of her claws like a piece of meat on a kebab. He didn’t stop laughing until he hit the M1, southbound.

Knowlden was forgotten. All he had on his mind now was Laura, naked on the slab, her body marked out like the charts on a butcher’s wall.

*

Dazed, Sarah was helped to her feet. Their hands held her everywhere and nowhere, moving along her body as soft as silk. She tried to talk but whenever she opened her mouth, someone’s hand, cold and rank, slipped over it. She saw the pattern in the curtains travel by in a blur though she could not feel her feet on the floor. Then the night was upon them, and the frost in the air sang around her ears as she was swept into the sky, embedded at the centre of their slippery mesh of bodies, smelling their clothes and the scent of something ageless and black, lifting off the skin like forbidden perfume. Is she all right now? she wanted to ask, but her words wouldn’t form in the ceaseless blast of cold air. Sarah couldn’t count the women that cavorted around her. She drifted into unconsciousness thinking of how they had opened the veins in their chests for her, how the charge of fluid had engulfed her face, bubbling on her tongue and nostrils like dark wine. How her eyes had flicked open and rolled back into their sockets with the unspeakable rapture of it all.

*

Having phoned ahead, Manser parked the car at midnight on South Wharf Road, just by the junction with Praed Street. He was early, so instead of going directly to the dilapidated pub on the corner he sauntered to the bridge over Paddington Basin and stared up at the Westway, hoping for calm. The sounds emanating from that elevated sweep were anything but soothing. The mechanical sigh of speeding vehicles reminded him only of the way those witches’ mouths had breathed, snake-like jaws unhinged as though in readiness to swallow him whole. The hiss of tyres on rain-soaked Tarmac put him in mind of nothing but the wet air that had sped from Knowlden’s chest when he was torn open.

By the time he returned, he saw in the pub a low-wattage bulb turning the glass of an upstairs window milky. He went to the door and tapped on it with a coin in a pre-arranged code. Then he went back to the car and opened the boot. He wrestled with Laura and managed to clamp a hand over her mouth, which she bit, hard. Swearing, he dragged a handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed it in her mouth, punching her twice to get her still. The pain in his hand was mammoth. She had teeth like razors. Flaps of skin hung off his palm; he was bleeding badly. Woozy at the sight of the wound, he staggered with Laura to the door, which was now open. He went through it and kicked it shut, checking the street to make sure he hadn’t been seen. Upstairs, Losh was sitting in a chair containing more holes than stuffing.

‘This was a good boozer before it was closed down,’ Manser said, his excitement unfolding deep within him.

‘Was,’ Losh said, keeping his eyes on him. He wore a butcher’s apron that was slathered with blood. He smoked a cigarette, the end of which was patterned with bloody prints from his fingers. A comma of blood could be mistaken for a kiss-curl on his forehead. ‘Everything changes.’

‘You don’t,’ Manser said. ‘Christ. Don’t you ever wash?’

‘What’s the point? I’m a busy man.’

‘How many years you been struck off?’

Losh smiled. ‘Didn’t anybody ever warn you not to piss off the people you need help from?’

Manser swallowed his distaste of the smaller man. ‘Nobody warns me nothing,’ he spat. ‘Can’t we get on?’

Losh stood up and stretched. ‘Cash,’ he said, luxuriously.

Manser pulled a wad from his jacket. ‘There’s six grand there. As always.’

‘I believe you. I’d count it but the bank get a bit miffed if they get blood on their bills.’

‘Why don’t you wear gloves?’

‘The magic. It’s all in the fingers.’ Losh gestured towards Laura. ‘This the one?’

‘Of course.’

‘Pretty thing. Nice legs.’ Losh laughed. Manser closed his eyes. Losh said, ‘What you after?’

Manser said, ‘The works.’

Wide eyes from Losh. ‘Then let’s call it eight thou.’

A pause. Manser said, ‘I don’t have it with me. I can get it tomorrow. Keep the car tonight. As collateral.’

Losh said, ‘Done.’

 

The first incision. Blood squirted up the apron, much brighter than the stains already painted upon it. A coppery smell filled the room. The pockets of the pool table upon which Laura was spread were filled with beer towels.

‘Soft tissue?’

Manser’s voice was dry. He needed a drink. His cock was as hard as a house brick. ‘As much off as possible.’

‘She won’t last long,’ Losh said.

Manser stared at him. ‘She’ll last long enough.’

Losh said: ‘Got a number 5 in mind already?’

Manser didn’t say a word. Losh reached behind him and picked up a Samsonite suitcase. He opened it and pulled out a hacksaw. Its teeth entertained the light and flung it in every direction. At least Losh kept his tools clean.

*

The operation took four hours. Manser fell asleep at one point and dreamed of his hand overpowering the rest of his body, dragging him around the city while the mouth that slavered and snarled at the centre of his palm cupped itself around the stomachs of passers-by and devoured them.

He wakened, rimed with perspiration, to see Losh chewing an errant hangnail and tossing his instruments back into the suitcase. Laura was wrapped in white bath towels. They were crimson now.

‘Is she okay?’ Manser asked. Losh’s laughter in reply was infectious and soon he was at it too.

‘Do you want the off cuts?’ Losh asked, wiping his eyes and jerking a thumb at a bucket tastefully covered with a dishcloth.

‘You keep them,’ Manser said. ‘I’ve got to be off.’

Losh said, ‘Who opened the window?’

Nobody had opened the window; the lace curtains fluttering inward were being pushed by the bulge of glass. Losh tore them back just as the glass shattered in his face. He screamed and fell backwards, tripping on the bucket and sprawling on to the floor.

To Manser it seemed that strips of the night were pouring in through the broken window. They fastened themselves to Losh’s face and neck and munched through the flesh like a caterpillar at a leaf. His screams were low and already being disguised by blood as his throat filled. He began to choke but managed one last, hearty shriek as a major blood vessel parted, spraying colour all around the room with the abandon of an unmanned hosepipe.

How can they breathe with their heads so deep inside him? Manser thought, hypnotised by the violence. He felt something dripping on his brow. Touching his face with his fingers, he brought them away to find them awash with blood. He had time to register, as he looked up at the ceiling, the mouth as it yawned, dribbling with lymph, the head as it vibrated with unfettered anticipation. And then the woman dropped on him, ploughing her jaws through the meat of his throat and ripping clear. He saw his flesh disappear down her gullet with a spasm that was almost beautiful. But then his sight filled with red and he could understand no more.

*

She had been back home for a day. She couldn’t understand how she had got here. She remembered being born from the warmth of her companions and standing up to find both men little more than pink froth filling their suits. One of the men had blood on his hands and a cigarette smouldered between his fingers. The hand was on the other side of the room, though.

She saw the bloody, tiny mound of towels on the pool table. She saw the bucket; the dishcloth had shifted, revealing enough to tell her the game. Two toes was enough. She didn’t need to be drawn a picture.

And then somehow she found herself outside. And then on Edgware Road where a pretty young woman with dark hair and a woven shoulder bag gave her a couple of pounds so that she could get the tube to Euston. And then a man smelling of milk and boot polish she fucked in a shop doorway for her fare north. And then Preston, freezing around her in the early morning as if it were formed from winter itself. She had half expected Andrew to poke his head around the corner of their living room to say hello, the tea’s on, go and sit by the fire and I’ll bring some to you.

But the living room was cold and bare. She found sleep at the time she needed it most, just as her thoughts were about to coalesce around the broken image of her baby. She was crying because she couldn’t remember what her face looked like.

When she revived, it was dark again. It was as if daylight had forsaken her. She heard movement towards the back of the house. Outside, in the tiny, scruffy garden, a cardboard box, no bigger than the type used to store shoes, made a stark shape amid the surrounding frost. The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t.

One of them swooped down and landed by the box. She nudged it forward with her hand, as a deer might coax a newborn to its feet. Sarah felt another burst of unconditional love and security fill the gap between them all. Then they were gone, whipping and twisting far into the sky, the consistency, the trickiness of smoke.

*

Sarah took the box into the living room with her and waited. Hours passed; she felt herself become more and more peaceful. She loved her daughter and she hoped Laura knew that. As dawn began to brush away the soot from the sky, Sarah leaned over and touched the lid. She wanted so much to open it and say a few words, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

In the end, she didn’t need to. Whatever remained inside the box managed to do it for her.

 

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