Gravel pops under the tyres as they roll to a standstill. The engine cuts. It makes her flinch. The blindfold covers her ears; her shallow in-out breaths whisper between them.
‘Can I take this off now?’
She pulls her senses free. It’s dark outside, but for a pink, glowing halo around a huddle of silhouettes in the near distance.
‘Better get masked up,’ he says, handing her a feathered, resin half-face that looks like an exotic bird crossed with a plague doctor.
She slips it on. It blinkers her vision; overstates the round of her cheeks. It makes her feel closed in, like when her skin used to swell and her face felt full and smothering. A band of tension wrings her midsection. She looks down. Red shoes. Pointy red shoes and fishnet legs.
‘Let’s go,’ he says from beside her door, his mouth curling beneath his disguise. ‘Relax, it’ll be fun.’ He slips a cable around her neck, threading the ends through a loop to make a leash.
Fishnet legs. Shoes on gravel. Red shoes.
A threadbare fox drags its hind leg across their path. Its slack jaw hangs open; tongue wilting over its canines. It starts and stares as they approach. They eye each other, he with his snout, they with theirs. Then it limps into the night, keening like a strangled baby.
She shivers, teetering towards the bristling body of semi-naked revellers that are drawn towards the neon.
It’s underground. Oh shit, it’s underground.
The heels of her stilettos catch on scabs of tarmac. She wobbles. He catches her elbow.
‘OK?’ His voice is muffled, like John Merrick. Or Joseph, that was his real name. He doesn’t look like Joseph Merrick though. Underneath his black beak he’s quite normal.
She nods, but she isn’t OK. She feels sick. Saliva pools at the back of her throat. Her palm slides against his. She cranes her neck so that she can see her feet approaching the first step. Red shoes. Pointy red shoes. Fishnet legs.
He tugs at her tether and clucks his tongue.
She tries to swallow. Can’t breathe inside the mask. Hot breath rising. Whale bones squeezing her ribcage.
The throb of the bass tickles her toes as darkness swallows the lowest step. Then the rush of a curtain, and a gust of hot air that is thick with sweat and semen.
‘Welcome to Gethsemane.’
Her eyes adjust. She looks around. The floor is alive. The walls are rippling. Skinny limbs and fleshy limbs. Greasy bodies. Squirming bodies. Bodies bound with rope. Bodies wrapped in rubber. Shackled by wrists and by ankles. With bruises and welts. Lashed and lacerated. Pierced and punctured. All ribs and bellies and loins and feet.
Then a stranger’s mouth is closing over hers. Sticky, sweet and wet. Stealing her breath.
Black beak turns and smiles. He snags the leash.
‘The one who is kissed, Bridie.’
Sybarites shuffle out of the shadows, closing around them, lips moving in chorus.
‘Gooble-gobble. Gooble-gobble. One of us. One of us.’
My name is Bridie Shine. I’m a writer of thriller stories. I’ve recently placed my first novel with an agent and I’m hopeful that a publisher will soon follow.
Forgive me for approaching you, but I remember your case from the news when I was younger. I’ve been following your blog and have read with interest that you and your legal team are working on an application for appeal. I’m contacting you regarding my next project, about a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned for murder. I want to explore the impact that this injustice has on him, and those who are close to him.
I would like to talk to you about your time in HMP Manchester and your fight to have your conviction overturned. Please be assured that any research that informs my work will not be identifiably linked to your case, or be published without your consent.
If you are willing to speak with me, please let me know if I can visit you, or whether you prefer to correspond by letter or by phone.
I hope that you will consider this request in the genuine spirit that it is intended and I look forward to hearing from you.
With best regards,
Bridie held her breath as she folded the letter and slipped it into an envelope that she’d already taken care to address. She traced with her finger the ridges left in its surface by her heavy-handed pen. She didn’t have any stamps, and for now she didn’t plan to get any.
A sigh surfed her out-breath as she picked up her mug and took a few sips of tea. Then she picked up the envelope, ran her thumb under the seal, took out the fourth draft of the most important letter that she would ever write and re-read it. Her eyes flicked over the lines she’d carefully crafted to strike the right tone – professional, courteous, ever-so-slightly naïve. He’s a smart man, she knew that much from reading his blog. But still, he might go for it. And if he did, would she find the truth? Or would she find a believable liar?
One or the other. The felon or the victim.
That people get convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, whilst others kill and go undetected, were the themes she was to explore in her latest story. What she had neglected to mention in her letter to Connor Abel, was that there are two key players in her tale – the one who claims to be a victim of injustice, and the one who gets away with murder.
All moot points if she can’t get him on board, and to do that she needed to post this letter.
A calendar prompt lit up her phone. 10: 45 Annabel Guest. Her agent. She needed to get gone. ‘Goodbye Brígh Slane; hello Bridie Shine,’ she said, picking up her car keys and bag. The Deed Poll paperwork lay next to them; better take that too.
Her new name was symbolic – her chance to break free, her chance to shine. To be the main character, not side-lined in a supporting role. She’d tell people that it was her pen name, but the real reason for the change was that this Slane little girl wished to be slain no more. Because that’s how she felt, robbed of life. Planning her every move like a frightened child. Writing about adventures she was too scared to chase. With heroes who travelled for her. Because they didn’t panic when the wheels left the ground, or when the doors on public transport hissed and suckered shut. Slain in her twenty-seven-year-old prime.
She shook herself out of her threatening funk as she dashed out through a spattering shower to her VW Golf. Not one of the swanky modern models, but a 1985 GTI Mk2. She’d won many head-light flashes from vintage VW owners for her choice of wheels, and she could pass as a fangirl, but the truth behind her apparent taste in classics was that it wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity. A four-door so that if someone else were driving she could still get out via its traditional (non-centrally-locked) doors that are opened with a real (not-electric-fob) key and if that failed she’d be able to bail out through the hand-cranking (not-automatic) windows. All wish-list features for a car-owning claustrophobe. Because you never know when you might get trapped in the back seat with the engine ablaze.
Do you Mum?
Who fuelled her desperate fear of being buried alive, breaking down in a tunnel, drowning, rolling a car, getting stuck between floors in a windowless lift? Who but her overprotective Mum. Be careful. Take care. Go safely. Perhaps it was her language of love. Because God knows she didn’t speak any other.
But her mother’s fear just fanned the flames. It was another who started the fire. If Kait hadn’t been such a head fuck. It could all have been so very different.
She threw herself behind the wheel and turned the engine over and with it her train of thought. Focus Bridie (she had to get used to calling herself Bridie). Today her mission was to make it to Manchester using her roadworks-free route, then find a side road to park in so she could dodge the one-way panic-system, avoid the multi-storey cartrap and sidestep using the agency’s basement cargrave. Then she’d walk the three-quarters of a fresh-air mile to her agent’s high-rise, find the back entrance, which had manual open-and-shut doors rather than those revolving, vertical contraptions, and scale the ten flights of fire-escape stairs to Annabel’s office.
That’s if she could get the bloody car to start. Damn the drizzle. The motor slugged its way through two more key-turns then coughed into action.
She flicked on the wipers, mopped the windscreen with a rag and pulled off. The SatNav quoted an hour and a half to take the scenic route from Hatherton to Salford Quays. She’d allowed three, but was already feeling a whorl of worry in her gut as the car struggled to respond to her jabbing the accelerator. After a few fretful minutes the engine settled into a throaty rumble and she forced the breath out of her body. Relax, there’s plenty of time.
She snaked her way through the narrow, privet-lined lanes. Living out in the sticks wasn’t the most convenient when you were trying to hotwire a writing career, but the chequered expanse of Cheshire Plain that she and Tom looked out on from his bungalow, the sour yet sweet dairy farm air, the gentle slopes of grazing land that stretched for miles without a soul but a few sheep, meant the logistics of getting into the city were worth every carefully mapped-out moment. She could breathe out here.
As she idled through a fork in the road the day grew dark and loaded. Spinning gusts of wind kicked up hedgerow debris in mini cyclones. Inky-blue clouds pressed the light out of the sky, spitting spears at her metal box. Twisting on the headlights and flicking the wipers to fast, she struggled to make out anything through the downpour.
She was on the hairpin bend before she could see it, braking hard around the apex and aquaplaning towards a tractor that was lumbering out of a side-track. Eyes squeezed shut and still gunning the brake, Bridie yanked the wheel sharply and thumped against the door as the car spun to a standstill.
‘Jesus,’ she heaved, eyeing the rear-view. The tractor lolloped and splashed around the next corner. She was facing the way that she had come. Taking in air slowly through her nose, she blew it out in three short bursts. ‘You’re OK. Get it together.’ Her arms were trembling even as her fists still gripped the wheel. She took a few moments to steady her pulse, then turned the key.
The engine grumbled lethargically like a jostled drunk. She tried it again. It shrugged her off. And again. It griped, but wouldn’t roll over.
‘Shit,’ she said, checking the time. The car had done this before in the rain, but this deluge hadn’t been forecast. It wasn’t factored into her painstaking planning. If she was patient the engine might dry out and turn over again. But the wind had dropped and the clouds loitered, shedding their payload without a care for Bridie’s appointment with her agent.
She tried to pacify herself with the thought that Annabel would be understanding if she was a little late. When they’d first spoken and she’d asked Bridie to present her elevator pitch for the book. Bridie had asked ‘What’s an elevator pitch?’ ‘It harks back to the days of studio movie production’, Annabel had said. ‘The story goes that you have to imagine you are riding the elevator – lift in our parlance – in the studio lot. The doors open and a movie producer steps in. You have two floors to pitch your script idea to him. Shoot.’ To which Bridie had responded ‘I’ll never find myself in a lift with a movie producer or anyone else for that matter. I’m claustrophobic’. ‘Your one flight of stairs pitch, then’, her agent had said.
Bridie sat vacantly listening to the rain stabbing the roof, then she tried the ignition again. It barely cleared the frog from its throat. ‘Sod it,’ she said, pulling out her phone and tapping the number for Roadside Relay. Canned music and pre-recorded platitudes dribbled through the earpiece. Fifteen long minutes later, the agent took her through the security protocol.
‘Thank you, Miss Slane. How can we help you today?’
‘My car has died in Crewe Road, Hatherton. I’ve got a really important meeting and—’
‘I’m afraid a multi-car pileup on the M6 is causing havoc in the area. Our patrol may take some time to reach you. Are you in a safe position?’
‘I’m right by a blind corner. Listen, I can’t afford to wait—’
‘I’m so sorry, it’s going to be at least an hour.’
‘Likely longer. We’ll get there as quickly as we can. You can track your mechanic on our app if you have it?’
‘Yes. Thanks.’ She hung up and opened the app. He was one hour and forty-five minutes away. ‘An hour,’ she said, huffing. She hit Annabel’s number on speed dial.
‘This is Annabel Guest. After the beep, you know what to do.’
‘Annabel, it’s Bridie. My car’s broken down. I’m waiting for a mechanic.’ She strained to hear herself over the rattling rain. ‘I’m going to be late. I’m sorry. Bear with me, I’ll call you back.’ She threw her phone onto the passenger seat and tried the car once more. It slurred, then fell silent.
‘Bloody hell, why today?’ She thumped the window with the side of her fist. Why hadn’t she got the distributor cap sealed the last time this had happened? Idiot. Her stomach turned at the thought of a taxi. Let alone the train. She checked the app again for her mechanic. Stationary on the M6. Her payback for choosing the cheapest company on the comparison website.
Tom, he might be able to leave the job for an hour or so; come and wait here while she borrowed his car. She tapped her Find friends app.
He wasn’t at the site. He was at his ex-wife’s house. During working hours.
Why would Tom be at Sandra’s house? They were estranged, hadn’t spoken for months, or at least that’s what she’d been told. And let’s face it, she was so pathetic that even if he could come speeding to her rescue, she wouldn’t be able to drive his car because it had CENTRAL BLOODY LOCKING. And that central-bloody-locking car was sitting right outside his ex-wife’s central-fucking-town-house.
She tried to push that thought away. She’d have to raise it with Tom later, complicated though it may be, but right now she needed to get moving.
Bridie wound down the window to get some air. The rain needled her nose and cheek but she didn’t care. Her breath had misted the windows and colluded with the water streaming down her windscreen to stir the first flutters of fight or flight. She could blame herself for not getting the car seen to. She could blame herself for buying bargain breakdown cover. She could. But why should she? She wouldn’t even have this old rust box if it wasn’t for her phobia. She wouldn’t need a car so bloody old that it had manual doors and manual windows and real keys. She wouldn’t be hamstrung in this so-very-important moment if she wasn’t crippled by her fear of confined spaces and all the bullshit that came with it. No, she wouldn’t, Kait. No. She swallowed the urge to cry.
What was Tom doing at Sandra’s house? She should call him. Catch him at it. But she was in no state of mind to listen to him lie. That’s what he would do; that’s obviously what he had been doing. He said they weren’t speaking. Hadn’t spoken for months. The thought brought a sting of tears to her eyes.
‘Don’t be pathetic, Brígh. Be Bridie now.’ She sniffed, checked the app again, then tossed the handset. Half an hour had passed and no knight in shining armour. Just a cheap car mechanic stuck on the M6.
Pushing her head out into the rain, she let it soak her. It felt fresh and clean as it trickled down her neck and beneath her collar; the air smelt earthy and of damp grass. Sod the straightened hair and mascara, she wasn’t going to make the meeting with Annabel. She resigned herself to calling the agency back when her chirruping phone beat her to it. It had landed face down on the seat. If it was Tom she’d ignore it. Make him wonder what she was up to. She turned it over.
‘Dad? Hi, I was—’
‘Brígh, it’s your Mum. She’s had a heart attack. Come now, lovey.’ A stifled whine took his voice. ‘Leighton. Ward 3.’
How long ago? Will she make it? How to get there?
Call Tom? No. Call a taxi? No. Hitch a ride? No one around. Call Jaz? Try the car again first.
The car was dead.
Call Jaz. She tapped out her best friend’s number.
‘Hi this is Drive with Jaz. I’m afraid I’m with a student right now, but if you leave your name and nu—’
‘Shit.’ Call Tom or call a taxi. Taxi. Can’t deal with Tom right now. Call a fucking taxi. Fuck you, Kait.
‘Oh God. Come on, Bridie.’ Her hand was shaking so badly she could barely tap the four letters into her browser.