Later, she would say she not known it was a body right away. A plausible assertion. After all, as she rose her hand, trembling with wet eyes, pointing, James had turned to see only a shape in the dark. A lump half way along the cramped and shadow-ridden alley. It would have been easy to write it off as bricks beneath a sheet, fallen branches from the unsteady ancient tree that hung above the walkway, or even a drunk, sleeping off a heavy night. All these might have been reasonable suppositions, and yet, as soon as he saw it, James knew they were not right. He would not have been able to say how he knew this, only that he did. The only reason his mind searched for other possibilities was denial, flaring up like hives, demanding acknowledgement.
For some time her hand remained aloft, shaking like the branches on the tree, frozen by fear and shock.
“It’s okay,” James said, sensing the need to help Megan before anything else. He altered his position to block the shape from view and took her pointed hand in his. As though she might break at the lightest touch, he pushed down, easing the arm to a more natural position by her side.
Having been looking right through him, still seeing the body that was no longer in her eye-line, Megan jumped at his touch. Their eyes met, hers weak and afraid. Had it really been seconds ago he thought he might kiss this beauty?
“What is it?” she asked, her voice a hoarse whisper. A fresh tremble came over her, and she tried to look past him, as though afraid the dark spirit of the body might rise any moment.
“Probably nothing,” he said, hearing the lie in his voice and hoping she couldn’t. He touched her cheek, tilting her face so she was looking at him, not it. “I’ll check.”
The words came true as an arrow shot by Robin Hood, finding the target of her fear and damaging it. Her expression softened, and his promise gave her a little strength. Enough that he could not back out.
Knowing to stay any longer was to invite an inability to act, he turned to the darkness of the alley, the shape on the stone. It was a needle of fear and adrenaline pressed into his heart, and it took all his inner strength to walk from the beauty of Megan to the ugliness ahead.
The journey was shorter than he would have liked. Five steps and he was at the mouth of the alley, which hung wide, ready to swallow him. Fear tore at the edge his resolve like an invading army pulling down a castle. A second and a breath was all he allowed himself before slipping between the greedy walls and into what lay beyond.
The darkness was a door, and the place it led to was cold. He became sure, if he twisted to where he had come from, he would see not Megan waiting, full of anticipation for him to call false alarm, but a black canvas or eternal corridor leading to nothing. Refusing to confirm his fears, he focused on the shape ahead, stepping forward and dropping beside it, his toes bending, aching, his knees an inch from being dirtied by the ground below.
Seconds ticked by. The shape remained as it was, rolled away from him, wrapped in darkness. His hand extended towards the rounded lump that might have been a shoulder, his fingers bending in on themselves as they drew near, as though an invisible forcefield defended it. He gritted his teeth, determined to proceed against his raging fear.
On he went, pushing his fingers through the forcefield, further and further until they were touching the edge of the shape.
The silence was shattered by a wave crashing through the mouth of the alley behind him. He closed his eyes and felt it hit, drenching his clothes and freezing his skin. It surrounded his ankles and began to rise. Fast. Coming towards his head, desperate to drown him.
He opened his eyes, thought that would break it, but saw the water rushing over the shape. More black than blue, and laced with lines of red, running through the water like veins beneath the skin. Blood. Blood in the water and it rose towards his head, touched his chin as he –
Jerked backwards. His feet kicking the ground as though he could propel himself through the black, bloodstained water and arrive safely on the other side.
It didn’t go like that. The kick was misjudged and sent pain through his ankle and lower leg. Enough to jog his mind back to reality, escaping the demented visions of his hyperactive imagination.
Too late to fix the move. He fell onto his back, hand leaving the shape as he went. He watched it twist and roll and grabbed the scream that leapt up his throat seeking freedom, sure he had awakened a zombie which would crawl atop him, gnashing and gnawing at his flesh, tearing him to pieces in a few bloodstained seconds.
“James, are you alright? What happened?”
Again he was yanked from the clutches of his imagination. Putting his back to the shape, although it filled him with unease to do so, he saw Megan, standing at the edge of the alley, clutching the wall tight in case hands reached from the dark to pull her in. He went to respond, then saw she wasn’t looking.
Turning back to the shape, he saw what it was. The moon, perhaps sensing the change in situation, was forcing its beam through the branches, illuminating the face beneath the tree. Blood ran from head to ground, and this time he knew it was no illusion.
“Call an ambulance.”
He needed to check the pulse, but fear took his hands like binds and held them as the moon continued to spotlight the man who had stood before him hours ago.
This couldn’t wait. He tugged his hands, tearing the binds, and placed two fingers on the clammy throat.
Slow, like an owl’s, Megan’s head twisted on the neck, her eyes falling on, but not seeing him. James saw the tears on her cheeks like clear blood, mirroring the real stuff on the neck he now touched.
“Is it – is it?” she couldn’t even ask.
“Is he alive?”
“For now.” He said again: “call an ambulance.”
She moved, slipping from the wall and stumbling, almost going to ground. He heard her dialling. Speaking. He relegated the voice to background noise as he slid his jacket from his back.
The blood didn’t seem to be flowing too fast, but this meant little. Mohsin may already have lost too much to be saveable. Playing it safe, he ran his fingers along the back of Mohsin’s head, searching, searching and –
There. He withdrew the fingers and found them drenched with hot, red blood. Someone cast a faint spell, and he almost fell. He could see the water again, trickling around the body, mixing with the blood and carrying it away. The back of his skull began to throb, and he placed his hand on his head, lacing the dying man’s blood into the hair his hairdressers always described as volumous. The feel of it slapped him back into the real world, and he placed the hand on Mohsin, lifting his head and putting the folded jacket where he believed the danger spot was.
Someone had hit him. The thought came as sudden as the weapon must have come to Mohsin. Unexpected, unstoppable. He span, as though expecting the culprit to be waiting in the dark.
He looked for what might have been the weapon, could see nothing, then remembered the girl. Running, afraid, regretful. What had she done?
And who was she?
He pictured the scene. Mo and the mystery girl. Shouting, fighting. Him turning from her. Her reaching for something. Lashing out. A moment of passion then –
He rose, knowing it was selfish. Knowing he needed to stay with Mohsin but unable. His courage was fleeing and, as though chasing it, he staggered to the end of the alley.
Emerging onto a new road the fresh air hit him like breaking the surface of the water after too long under. He breathed deep and held the wall to steady himself, thinking about the man dying behind him.
Emma, Mac, this stranger. Mohsin seemed quite the lothario. Guys like that often got their comeuppance, though such comeuppance was rarely so brutal.
Releasing the wall, he stepped onto the road. Around him, silence reigned. No cars, but if one had flown by he doubted he would have moved. Too dazed.
Ahead of him sat a house much like Megan’s. To it’s right a stretch of grass leading into the woods which trailed as far as he could see in either direction, hugging the village. To the right, his eyes followed the street. More houses, gardens, cars and –
So slight he almost missed it. Would have if he wasn’t so strained, alert. Now his eyes darted back, and he saw it. A car parked at the side of the road shapes moving within it.
Unthinking he stepped forward, and the shapes dived beneath the dash with a flash of black and green. He sped up.
What was he doing? Two teenagers lost to lust would have seen nothing but each other. Confronting them would achieve nothing but embarrassment all round.
Returning to the edge of the alley he breathed deeply again, before once more diving beneath the surface of the darkness, back to the body.
“Run me through it one more time.”
The throbbing was back, this time brought on not by visions, but Officer Rickson’s insistence on hearing the events of the evening again and again and again.
“I told you,” he said, launching into it once more, clenching his fists as though his mounting frustration was held within them.
The latest rendition ran on autopilot. Officer Rickson seemed to listen, but James had checked out, his eyes drifting to Megan, looking weak and defeated as she went through the same ordeal, but with more pain in her ankle.
“And this girl, describe her for me?”
And what are the pen and pad for, if not recording such details?
But he didn’t say that. Could be he was talking too fast, and the cop was missing a lot. Adding more to his notes on each pass of this merry go round, till he had the whole story. James went slower this time.
Having returned to the alley, he had seen Megan, clutching that same wall for dear life and staring at Mohsin. The fear and sadness in her eyes had given James strength, and he’d strode forward with purpose. Lowering himself by Mohsin and checking the situation. Pulse active. Blood pumping, but not at optimum performance. He had stayed, holding the jacket against Mohsin’s head, until the air was heavy with sirens, at which point he had gone to Megan.
“And you have no idea why someone might want to hurt the victim?”
“Mohsin,” James said. He flinched every time the cop called him ‘the victim.’ “No, I told you. This is my first night in the village. I’ve never met him before.”
The cop gave a nod that suggested he thought this was mighty convenient. Worthy of suspicion, even.
James repressed a sigh. He had been angry the first time he’d seen that nod, but after so many repeats was used to it.
“Can I check on my friend?”
He nodded to Megan, taking the chance to look into the alley. Nothing to see anymore. The ambulance had been and gone. Forensics, too. There’d still be blood on the floor, he guessed, but nothing he could see under darkness, even with the moonlight’s assistance.
“Thought you’d only met today,” the cop said, eyes narrowing, lips turning up, pleased to have caught James out. “Could you call her a friend so fast?”
The cop waited, but James saw no need to elaborate. After the allotted amount of time to decide James was not about to spill his innermost secrets under the strength of the silence, Rickson turned to catch his partner’s eye.
A meaningful or meaningless look passed between them. James’ cop gave a curt nod.
“Go see your friend,” he sneered. “But don’t go anywhere. We’ll be over in a second.”
James nodded, resisting the urge to question where he might go, given the ice cream man had toddled off to bed some time ago and Megan’s house was mere metres away. He crossed from Rickson to Megan, passing the other cop in the middle, like political prisoners traded on a bridge.
“This is hard work, huh?” Megan said, her voice wavering a little. “If I’d had this many passes at my maths GCSE I’d have done better than a D. Woulda driven me mad though.”
He smiled. A real smile. He couldn’t help it around her. She looked at him and almost gave one of her own.
“You’re pretty much the strong silent type, huh?”
He almost laughed at that.
“I’ve never heard it.”
“Never heard it before,” she said. “Heard it now cause I’m telling you. Strong cause you helped carry me home and dealt with Mohsin when I went to pieces. Silent… well, that speaks for itself. Unlike you.”
“Is it good?” he asked, trying to sift the hope from his voice. For a moment the injured, perhaps dying, Mohsin was all but expelled from his mind.
“We are all different, aren’t we?”
His heart sunk at her words then soared as she continued.
“Good for me, cause I like to talk. You notice that? The less a man talks, the more I can.”
She paused, and they were looking into each other’s eyes again. There was something there, and he thought she knew it because she scrabbled onto safer ground.
“Mark can be quiet too, when he has a mind.”
Again his heart plummeted, and the constant rising and falling was beginning to make him ill. He thought saying something witty might help but, before he could, Megan looked over his shoulder and said: “Mark,” as though trying to drive her relationship status home like a stake.
They arrived together. Two cops and the angry man from earlier. Though he looked calmer now. More handsome, especially in the moonlight. James tried not to hate him.
“What’s going on?” he asked. Megan began to explain. James turned to the officers.
“We have all we need for now,” Rickson said. “You’ve been very helpful, but we will need you to come to the station tomorrow morning to make an official statement. First thing, if you wouldn’t mind.”
James did mind. He was not a keen environmentalist, but it was hard not to weep for the planet with such blatant paper wastage as the pad dangling in Rickson’s loose grip.
“Sure,” he said, and tuned in to Mark when he heard him say:
“He should stay at ours.”
James turned to find the couple watching him, and the attention made him so uncomfortable he almost ran after the cops as they dropped into their car, begging to come with them.
“Agreed,” said Megan. “We can go to the station together tomorrow. Give this stupid official statement. We should have recorded ourselves this evening. Could have played it back. Saved some time.”
“What do you say, James?” Mark said. Behind him, James watched the police car depart, like seeing the last lifeboat float into the distance.
“I can’t,” he said. The idea of spending the night so close to Megan was intoxicating. But he felt it would be somewhat ruined by the man sharing her bed.
“I promised I’d be home,” he continued, deciding not to mention ‘home’ was a bed & breakfast. Of course, there was that lasagne to think about.
Megan looked disappointed. Or he imagined she did. Mark put an arm around her shoulder, as though rubbing it in.
“Understood,” he said. “But I got to thank you. For looking after my Meg. I should have been here, but I’m glad someone was.”
James nodded and might have mumbled ‘you’re welcome’ but couldn’t be sure. He wanted to get away. With a forced smile he turned from them both, and for the second time, that night saw a women burst through the alley, barrelling towards him.
This time he protected his shoulder, but she was more in control and stopped before she reached them. He recognised her.
“Claire, what’s wrong?” said Megan.
Another girl appeared from the alley. Young, white as a sheet. Speed both women ran they were lucky they’d not slipped in Mohsin’s blood. This girl James didn’t recognise but could guess who she was, having heard her mentioned.
Amy the babysitter.
“Claire?” Mark pressed because she had only stood and stared in response to Megan. He stepped forward, and she collapsed into his arms, sobbing. He looked at Amy, his eyes asking the question.
“It’s Charlie,” Amy said, tears filling her eyes.