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Short story – Suspense

Short story - Crime, Short story - Mystery, Short story - Suspense

The Runner – Part Four

He walked swiftly and purposefully, his navy Italian suit and crisp white shirt allowing him to blend in easily with the crowd spilling out of the tube station. Strongly built, mid-30s, with close-cropped hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he fitted right in with the thirty-something bankers and businessmen walking round the City. Their expensive suits and inflated sense of status belied the precariousness of their jobs. It was Friday lunchtime, everyone winding down for the weekend, leaving their desks and screens to reward themselves in the expensive bars and restaurants near their offices. The heavy traffic was at a standstill so he crossed the main road, walking quickly between cars and vans: he knew his route and the area well. Checking his watch, he turned left towards the busy shopping area filled with outdoor cafés: thirty minutes early. He sat at the nearest free table and ordered an espresso.

Two smiling girls, laden with backpacks and brandishing an open map, approached him. ‘Excuse me, could you show us how to find our way to the nearest tube? We are so lost.’ As one girl pushed some loose strands of golden hair behind her ears and smiled at him, her dark-haired companion attempted to spread a map on his table. He put out his arm to block her and the map, his eyes never leaving the blonde girl’s face. ‘It would be great if you could just . . . ’ The words faded away as the smile started to falter. His arm remained outstretched and the dark-haired girl looked hesitantly at her companion, waiting for a cue. Still he said nothing but just stared, knowing she would break first. She scowled and swore at him under her breath, then nudged her companion.

They roughly bundled up the map and turned to leave, mingling back into the crowds of shoppers. He watched them approach a group of smartly dressed businessman sitting at the café opposite, their large table strewn with empty wine glasses and half-eaten plates of food. They were only too happy to give directions, flirting and smiling, unaware that when the girls left they would be missing two mobile phones and a laptop bag.

Checking his watch again, he threw some coins on the table then made his back on to the main thoroughfare. Crossing in to a side street, he walked past smaller shops and fewer people then turned right into an alleyway. Halfway down was a metal door with a buzzer and pad. He tapped in a six-digit code and pulled the door. It didn’t open. He frowned and re-entered the number, more slowly this time. Again, the door didn’t open. A prickle of fear crept up his neck. Hesitating for a moment, he knew he had no choice but to go ahead. The cameras would be on; they would know he was there. He buzzed and, after a moment, the door opened with a click.

He blinked in the darkness of the stairwell. Glancing up, his hand instinctively reached inside his jacket but he saw no one looking down at him. He straightened his shoulders and climbed the two flights of stairs quickly, feeling a damp sheen of sweat starting to collect under his shirt.

When he reached the unmarked black door he tried the handle, half-expecting it to be barred too. It swung open and he stepped into a dark, bare room, the unwashed windows on the far side covered with grime and dimming the daylight. It looked like an old office space, the business it once housed long gone. The walls were shaded, the wood chipped and marks on the paint showed where notice boards and shelving had once hung. The room was almost empty except for a cheap old wooden desk, a couple of mismatched plastic chairs and a man who put the fear of God into Gibbs.

Grey was on the phone, his back to the door. He didn’t look round or acknowledge Gibbs’ entrance but there was no doubt he knew who was standing there, waiting. Grey paced slowly, listening intently to whoever was on the phone as he walked over to look out of the grimy window. His tone was quiet, controlled and, though there was no sound except the distant hum of traffic, Gibbs couldn’t make out anything Grey was saying other than his final words: ‘Do it now.’ The call finished, but still Grey didn’t turn round or acknowledge Gibbs. It was an unnerving and effective way of setting the tone of the meeting.

‘So. What went wrong?’ Grey asked, slowly: only then did he turn to look at Gibbs. The newcomer stood straight and tall, his broad shoulders and athletic build perfectly clad in the expensive wool suit under the arms of which sweat patches were creeping. Grey knew at a glance that Gibbs was desperately trying to hold his nerve.

‘She has proved to be more resilient than I thought but I am confident we will get her,’ Gibbs replied.

‘More resilient than you thought? You were the one who recruited her. You brought her in. You bloody well vouched for her. Have you any idea what a screw-up this is? She could bring the whole thing down around us. She’s leaving a trail of dead people behind her and is starting to attract the wrong kind of attention.’ He spoke with a quiet menace, not even raising his voice. He didn’t need to.

‘This is your mess. I am calling everyone else off. You brought her in and you can get rid of her. You worked with her and you trained with her, so you must know how she thinks. You’ve got a week to close this off.’ Grey stared at Gibbs intently, reading in his face every nuance that Gibbs was desperately trying to blank out.

‘Don’t have any misplaced loyalties on this one, Gibbs. Either she dies or you die. It’s the only way you can save yourself. You have one week. Go.’ Grey turned away, signalling Gibbs’ dismissal. After hesitating for a moment, Gibbs realised there was nothing more to be said and left the room. He ran down the stairs, two at a time, and went through the heavy door into the alleyway. He stretched his fingers then clenched his fists, repeating the exercise until he felt his heart rate normalise. He started walking, slowly, running his fingers around the inside of his shirt collar then pulling down his cuffs and straightening his jacket to release some of the heat from his back and neck. It calmed him while he allowed his mind to pause, briefly.

His thoughts started to come together as he walked through the crowds, passing four or five tube stations. The pace of his steps picked up as his mind started speeding through the possibilities and the consequences.

She’d saved his life once. She had the strength and stamina of men twice her size. He had trusted her. She was the first person he thought of when Grey told him a position had opened up on the team.

The one thing he hadn’t factored in was the strength of her integrity; it was her greatest weakness where this operation had been concerned. Why couldn’t she have just taken the money and left her conscience behind, like the rest of the team?

He had dreaded it coming down to this. But he knew it was inevitable when he had heard Jackson had been found dead, dumped in a hotel skip.

She was feral when she was cornered, completely ruthless. Gibbs needed to get to her before she realised who her pursuer was.

To be continued

With grateful thanks to Lesley Close – Editor


Short story - Crime, Short story - Mystery, Short story - Suspense

The Runner – Part Three

She drove north on the motorway for about two hours, using the time in the car to think, to take stock. She knew they would be looking for him; it would only be a matter of time before they realised something had gone wrong. But how was he going to contact them, what was their procedure? Would he have used the mobile phone that she had dumped down the grating? It must have been a pay-as-you-go, nothing to tie the phone or number to anyone except calls made and received. It would only have been used a couple of times on this one job, then destroyed.

She knew she had taken a risk by stealing the car, but the priority had been to get off scene as quickly as possible in case he had support positioned nearby. She instinctively knew the number plates would be fake. How clean was the car? What other risks had she taken?

She signalled to turn into a service station and parked the car away from the main forecourt to avoid being caught on camera. She got out and casually looked around. There was no obvious tail: it was a good two minutes before the next vehicle, a school minibus, pulled in to get petrol. She opened the boot and ran her hands quickly and expertly around every seam, fixture and crevice. Nothing. Closing the boot, she opened the rear door. Leaning in, she ran through the same careful inspection process before moving to the front seats. She slid the passenger seat as far back as she could then, angling her body, she sat in the footwell and looked under the dashboard. Her heart sank, even though she had known all along she would find it somewhere. Sitting back, she started to think. Just fix this problem first before planning anything else. And don’t ever assume you will only find one. She checked the rest of the car and the engine, but found no other trackers.

She looked over at the minibus, a bunch of excited kids on their way to a football tournament. Some of them spilled out of the shop, loaded with sweets and fizzy drinks and shouting excitedly to those waiting on the bus. They looked so young, so happy. Some were already dressed in their team kit even though it was now dark and the only football they would see tonight would be on TV. She looked away. She couldn’t do it; her conscience wouldn’t let her.

‘Alright darling? Lost something?’ The man’s voice made her jump, even though she had seen him in her peripheral vision. She had assumed he would walk past her towards the shop. ‘No! Thanks. Actually, I was just trying to find a pen. Could you lend me one? Just need to write down a number while I remember.’ She had already scanned him and knew he was no threat, given his weight, laboured walk and food-stained clothing. She turned her full-on smile at him, knowing the effect it would have on a fat, lonely, middle-aged trucker.

‘Yes, sure sweetheart. Always happy to help a damsel in distress. Come with me back to my wagon and let’s see what I can do for you.’ He chuckled suggestively.

‘I’ll follow you over. Just let me grab my bag.’

She turned back to car and watched in the mirror as he reached the door of his wagon and lumbered up to the driver’s seat. Sprinting as fast as she could from the car to the wagon, she jumped up the step to the cab then slipped and fell into his lap.

‘Oi! You’re keen aren’t you?’ he laughed, making to grab her round the waist.

She immediately straightened up and moved away from him, appearing flustered. ‘Gosh, so sorry. Lost my footing there. Is that the pen? Do you mind if I have it?’ It was a cheap biro and, as quickly as he nodded agreement, she was gone. Running back to the car she gunned the ignition, leaving a puzzled and disappointed trucker staring after the rear lights of the BMW as it shot off to re-join the motorway.

Checking the rear view mirror a moment later and seeing no vehicle behind her, she finally allowed herself to let out a long, steadying breath. Where to now, what was the best strategy? She knew the fact that she didn’t have a settled plan or a fixed destination made it harder for them to predict her next move. They had bargained on her winning the fight against whoever they had sent in the BMW: that was why they had planted the tracker. But what would they think now?

It wouldn’t take them long to work out that the hit had gone wrong. He would have had to send some sort of coded confirmation to them so, when they didn’t get that, they would have been relying on the tracker. They would catch up with the trucker pretty soon, no doubt flashing badges, using blue lights and giving official warnings to force him to pull over. Checking, just in case, but knowing the tracker had been switched over.

She needed to sleep and eat, to keep her energy up and her mind functioning. After another hour of taking exits, joining new roads and zigzagging, she pulled into a layby where there was a mobile canteen. She bought a bacon sandwich and tea as well as extra bottles of water and some small snacks. After another hour’s driving she pulled into a picnic area and switched off the engine. A couple of hours’ sleep, then let’s see what first light brings. But the inevitable question kept going around in her mind – how long could she keep running?

The only answer was As long as they keep coming after me.

Short story - Suspense

The ravine

If I keep my eyes shut, he won’t see me. I repeated the thought like a mantra as I crouched in the middle of the gorse bush, my arms wrapped round my knees and my head bent to avoid the prickly branches.

Caitlin would be all right, I told myself. She knew how to take care of herself. Since we’d first met I’d been able to tell that she had an understanding of the world that was far beyond my own. I clutched my knees tighter and tried to numb my screaming thoughts by thinking back through the summer and how we’d met.

I’d first seen Caitlin on the lip of the ravine. My mother had sanctioned a rare route through the ravine, from the garage where our car was being repaired, but had lagged at the entrance to chat to an acquaintance. I’d trudged slowly ahead, savouring the shade after the blazing heat of the garage forecourt. As I walked, I had been tearing leaves from the bushes I passed and dropping them behind me surreptitiously. This was my favourite game, used to pass the time in school lunch-breaks as I waited for the bell to welcome me back inside. I would create a leaf trail across the playground; then, from my lessons, I would gaze out of the window and try to see where I had been.

Reaching the steps that marked the end of the ravine and the climb to my own neighbourhood, I had snapped off a final twig and sat down heavily on the bottom step to wait for my mother to catch up. She became nervous if I moved too far ahead. As I’d shredded the twig to a small, dry pile at my feet, I had heard a sound from above and glanced up. An elongated figure had been standing at the top of the steps, haloed by the sun. I had lowered my dazzled eyes and heard light footsteps descend.

“Why were you pulling all those leaves off the bushes?” had been the quiet question.

I had flushed as I’d realised my secret game had been noticed. My eyes had focused on a thin girl, about my age. She was dressed in denim shorts and a boy’s T-shirt and despite the heat, she’d looked cool. I had become conscious of the sweat pimpling beneath my thighs and the tight elastic pull of my smocked dress across my chest. I’d looked back down the pathway, but my mother was not yet in sight.

Dropping the shredded twig, I had looked away from the censure in the calm blue gaze and focused on the bush I’d violated. Finally I had answered in a mumble, “I was . . . playing Gretel.”

I remembered feeling a shift as she had registered what I’d said. She had smiled slightly. “They’re breadcrumbs? I thought it was Hansel who dropped them. Gretel didn’t do anything till she pushed the witch into the oven. You need to be Hansel.”

There was a pause, then she had continued, “I could be Gretel, if you like.”

It had been at least ten minutes before my mother puffed up to find us deep in acting out the babes in the wood beside the bottom of the steps, and by then the friendship had been set.

From that day, Caitlin had become my daily routine. I would push back from the luncheon table, wiping my milk moustache, and pack my backpack with a selection of props. With it bumping awkwardly from the handlebars, I’d ride my Chopper ten minutes to the ravine.

I never told my mother where I was going. She hadn’t noticed that I’d changed the route I took on leaving the house; she still thought I went daily to our local, manicured park, where I’d spent the previous summer watching the cricketers and the other children’s games. Although she’d been polite when they met, I knew she wouldn’t really approve of Caitlin: I’d never met anyone from that side of town.

We would hardly see a soul on those summer afternoons. The ravine was too out of the way of the town centre to attract any shade-seekers other than the occasional garage mechanic on a cigarette break. Even then, its coolness was only an advantage in the mornings; by afternoons, its depth turned the air stifling and the swampy creek at the bottom gave off unpleasant smells.

The ravine was an anomaly. The deep and narrow fissure created a rough divide between the sprawling, tree-lined avenues where I lived and the industrial and council estates past the town centre. I’d seen photos of splendid gorges in other parts of England and understood that our ravine was related to these, but it lacked their grandeur. It was as if it had never quite grown up.

Too big to ignore and too small to exploit, the ravine was an inconvenience the city could do without. The council had grudgingly laid a brick pathway through it, and wide steps that climbed to approach my neighbourhood. Then after that, it had been left largely alone.

At night, the ravine was more popular. It was known as a haunt for teenage parties and Caitlin and I sometimes came across thrilling and inexplicable relics as we explored: circles of charred wood, crumpled beer cans and peculiar objects like dull, squashed balloons.

This had been our kingdom all summer.

It was the hottest summer on record. We explored the secret places of the ravine, built forts and made each other imaginary meals of leaves and bark. The best part was finding virgin corners that we claimed as our own. My favourite was the gorse bush; from the outside it looked an impenetrable mass but we’d found our wriggly way in to a hollow centre where we would curl, invisible, to plan our next adventure.

This was our last afternoon before school would begin again. We hadn’t talked about it but I knew that I wouldn’t see Caitlin again until the holidays, if then. The bus to my new private school left early and returned late, and my mother would be ferrying me to a crammed schedule of activities and classes each weekend.

The two of us were sitting cross-legged on the pathway, playing jacks, when we heard a voice. We hadn’t heard him approach, and having anyone there was alarming: we’d come to think of the ravine as our private space, so rarely did anyone venture through. He was the age of a dad, but he wasn’t in a suit. His thin black T-shirt, grey trousers and sandals seemed an odd combination in the stifling heat. He spoke in a reedy voice.

“Girls, can you help me? My puppy’s run off. Do you think you could help me find him? He can’t have gone far.”

I had jumped to my feet, full of eager Brownie promises, and began peering hopefully into the bushes straight away. Caitlin slowly swept up the jacks and ball and rose, shoving them into her pocket.

“I didn’t hear a dog,” she said.

“No, he’s really quiet. I’m worried he might have gone to the creek and hurt himself. If we all split up I’m sure we can find him,” continued the man. “Of course, if you don’t want to help . . . ” he trailed off, turning away.

“Of course we want to help!” I said firmly. “Caitlin, you take the left side of the pathway and I’ll take the right. We’ll find him, don’t worry!”

Without waiting for an answer I plunged off the pathway and into the bushes, busily planning a systematic zigzag along the whole side of the ravine until I would get down to the entrance again.

I pushed my way through the bushes. It was very quiet. I stopped from time to time and called, “Puppy! Here, puppy!” I hadn’t thought to ask its name. But no noise came back to me, not even an answering call from the others.

Suddenly my foot caught on a trailing vine and I fell sharply, flat on my front, one hand plunging into a muddy clump of grass. I had reached the creek. Winded, I lay for a moment then began to push myself up. As I lifted my head, I saw the man’s sandals close by. He’d approached without noise again. He extended a hand to help me to my feet.

Once upright, I moved to pull my hand from his but his grip tightened. He raised his other hand to grasp my upper arm so we stood like awkward dancers in a stiff half-embrace.

Confused, I stammered, “I haven’t seen the puppy yet.”

His face was twisted into a strange smile and he pulled me closer. “Are you really looking?” he asked softly. “Are you really looking hard?”

On his last word, his firm grip pulled me closer into him until my body was pressed against his. I pulled my head back to try to see his face and in his eyes there was something I didn’t understand. His head bent closer down towards mine and I twisted desperately, trying to pull away.

In that moment Caitlin exploded from the undergrowth like a startled pheasant, a harsh scream erupting from her throat, her hands clawed and aimed towards his eyes. Her whole body weight thrust against us and knocked us off-balance, loosening his grip.

“Run!” screamed Caitlin.

I wrested myself free and stumbled away blindly, panicking. I couldn’t see where I was running and the undergrowth that had been so familiar all summer suddenly seemed strange, and frightening; like Snow White lost in her forest, each tree seemed to leer at me and each trailing vine to ensnare.

As I fought my way through, my panting breath drowning any other sound, my blurred eyes focused on a familiar shape. Trembling, my hands found the weakened place in the gorse bush and I thrust myself inside, heedless of the scratches. I curled up to a ball, trying not to make any move that would expose me.

If I keep my eyes shut, he won’t see me.