Be the first to read a thrilling short story from Gillian McAllister, in which the lives of three people unexpectedly intertwine when someone desperately needs their help.
Be the first to read a thrilling short story from Gillian McAllister, in which the lives of three people unexpectedly intertwine when someone desperately needs their help.
Abdul had decided earlier that he would end his day with a cappuccino and a novel. It was a Sunday, after all. He had always been able to drink coffee late into the evenings. He had bought Heba that red Nespresso machine in John Lewis, a few birthdays ago – in another lifetime, actually – and they’d each had several coffees a day from that bright red machine for several months. Heba’s ears moved up a centimetre or two when she smiled, when she was really, really happy; you could spot it if you looked closely. No. Get back in the bad memory box. The smile and the Nespresso machine filed dutifully away from his mind’s eye.
He took his shoes off and put his feet in the grass. It was already dewy, and the skin between his toes became sticky and wet. The nights were getting longer, bleeding into the day. Three minutes less daylight each day until December. Three cruel minutes – no. He would not go there. He had a McDonald’s cappuccino – the best, and the cheapest – and he had a new novel; he had finished one earlier that day. He opened The Red and the Black, from Shoe Lane Library, but it didn’t grab him immediately. Shame. He couldn’t get another for a long while. But this was fine. This was all absolutely civilised.
A mosquito landed on his arm. A lazy insect, left over from the summer like out-of-date food. Casually, he brought a finger down onto its back. He could feel it moving underneath him, and he increased the pressure. It shifted, then stilled. He brought his finger and thumb together, rubbing the debris onto the grass beside him.
There was a noise out on the street. He turned his head and listened. A cry. A low, female cry. He couldn’t resist. Poor impulse control. The story of his life.
He left his book on the grass and rose to his feet. He would be fifty next year, but he was fine, just fine: his knees had always ached. He glanced behind him at his book and coffee; they’d be okay. His trousers were ripped at the bottom, and their ragged ends trailed underneath his feet. He tripped on one of them, and reached a hand against the brick wall to catch himself. Right. What was he doing? Oh yes – that commotion.
He emerged onto the high street. The streetlights were on – it really was too late to be sitting in the grass, reading, he thought – and it was eerily quiet.
Down the street, though, he heard it again; a kind of moaning in the night.
There they were. Three men. One woman. The first man opened the door to the nail bar – The Daily Nail – and they all went inside. But there was something about the woman. She looked a little like Heba, with narrow, angular shoulders, but it was more than that. The second man had a hand on her lower back, and a hand out behind her head, too. As though she might bolt at any moment.
Abdul felt his body curl in on itself. The last man went inside. The leader, he guessed – a man with a long, slim face, lion-like, almost. His eyes flashed as they flicked left, then right, down the street, and then he closed the door behind them.
Abdul heard the moan again. Muffled, this time.
He backed into an alleyway, trying to keep out of trouble. He patted himself down. He had nothing with him. His cooling coffee was just over there on the grass. He should go and get it.
Two policemen strode down the high street. Abdul walked out of the alleyway and raised an arm to them. ‘Something’s going on in that nail bar,’ he said. They exchanged a glance, but ignored him.
‘Sorry – excuse me,’ he said. ‘Just there.’ He pointed down the street.
One of them turned around. He had too much fat in his face. It bunched up, puffing out his cheeks. His nose looked like rubber.
‘Sorry?’ the policeman said politely.
‘Three men just went inside that nail bar, with a woman who looked like she didn’t want to go,’ Abdul said.
The policeman just stared at him, and then performed a slow, distasteful scan of his body. ‘You got somewhere to go?’ he said to Abdul.
‘No,’ Abdul said. ‘Obviously not. It was the nail bar. Just there.’
‘Okay, we’ll be sure to check that out,’ he replied. He looked at Abdul as though he thought he was mad; on drugs. The policeman’s cheeks were red. What was it they said about that? Too much alcohol. Abdul had never touched a drop. ‘Time to move along now,’ he added.
But where to? Abdul looked down at himself. Jeans. Undoubtedly cheap, but clearly not rags. No shoes, alright, but only because they were over there on the grass. No smell that he could detect – he showered in a council gym, used the shower gels left lying around, the dregs of them. He was saving up for a pair of scissors, so he could cut them open and get more out, but each day he decided that a cappuccino was a better alternative. He had always loved coffee.
Was it that obvious? He didn’t think so. The line between being a scruffy old posh man and a homeless man was a fine one, and he liked to think he walked it just fine. He could have food, sometimes, and coffee and – God – was this – was this really his life, day after day? He listened to the prattle of his mind and closed his eyes. He was kidding himself if he thought he was okay. If he thought that a cappuccino every other day, paid for by kind-hearted strangers, was compensation for this; this hunger, this cold, this meagre existence.
Abdul sometimes wondered what might’ve happened if he hadn’t bought the Nespresso machine. He had to pay their rent on a credit card that month – it pained him; it was haraam, even if he paid it back within the time limit – and, the next month, he couldn’t afford it all plus interest. He didn’t tell Heba. He got a payday loan – one of those with the immoral interest rates, run by villains – and then, the next month, he got a fresh credit card. The numbers stacked up. He checked them each month on his internet banking, tilting the screen away from Heba – she was very good at spotting things on screens. Four thousand. Six thousand. Fifteen thousand, as the months wore on. Then the texts began.
Account ending 4509 is overdrawn. To avoid further fees your account must be within arranged limits by 23:45 today.
He would look at the texts and listen to the clock ticking in the kitchen, just above the coffee machine, and delete them. It would all work out; it was only money, his father used to say to him.
It all unravelled one Friday evening when the doorbell rang. Bailiffs. Heba’s face, the whites of her eyes around her brown irises. A man with huge, bulbous biceps taking away his table, his television, his damned coffee machine. His landlord arrived, a man with a crooked nose and a walking stick, a Dickens character. The landlord called a locksmith. Abdul watched the ball of wool unspooling in front of him. They’d been about to cook baked potatoes, but instead they were homeless by 23:45.
He stared at the police. They were ignoring him, just like the bailiff had. They were the valid people, existing in the real world, and he was the outsider; the nuisance.
Heba had gone to her mother’s, her eyes watching him as the bus departed. He could see the bailiff’s massive arms, in the corner of his vision, carrying his possessions down the driveway. He could hear the drilling behind him as the lock was removed, replaced with one he couldn’t open.
He called the local authority from the Starbucks down the road, but they had closed at five. Cuts. They used to be open all weekend.
It was amazing how quickly it all became unstuck. Cut off by his mobile phone company. No money, no data. No phone numbers to call. He went to the library, but it was closed, so he wandered around, trying to find a shelter – he asked a woman in Pret A Manger, but she didn’t answer him, looking horrified instead. In the end, at ten o’clock, he had found one, behind Oxford Street, but it was full for the night. He peered past the woman at the front desk and he saw the men there. The men he used to walk past on the way to work. Some bare-footed. Beards. Red faces. Queuing up for their dinner.
His mind seemed to fracture, then, standing in line for the shelter that wouldn’t take him. Debts. His Nokia 3210, useless, in his left hand. His wallet full of maxed-out credit cards. No spare clothes. Work on Monday, and nowhere to live. Where would he wash? The men’s bare feet were hanging off the ends of the beds in the shelter. He could see their grubby toes.
He found a payphone and used his last ten pence to call Heba, but she didn’t want to know. He had lied to her, she had said, emphasising the word lied, as though she couldn’t quite believe it herself. She’d always hated liars, she said, and a sad, heavy feeling had settled into his stomach and never left again. It wasn’t about the money, or the debt. No, his efforts to protect her from those things had ruined it all. His lies had ruined it all.
It was one night. He would sleep – or not – in the Finsbury Circus Garden, and, the next day, he would sort it. That’s how it started, of course. First night: high chance of getting housed again. Second night: lower. And lower and lower and lower. Until: seven years on, his skin was rugged from living outside, Heba was gone forever, his family had retreated; ashamed of his sinful debts.
‘Honest, try in there, in the nail bar,’ he said again to the police.
‘Sure,’ they said in unison. The fat one nodded.
‘I could give a statement,’ he said to their backs. He would gladly accompany them to the warm police station, with meeting rooms and coffee and cells and beds.
But he couldn’t. They weren’t listening. He’d have to follow them there like a stray dog. He had some dignity left. Just a bit.
He turned away from them.
His coffee was, luckily, still where he left it. He finished it, and picked up The Red and the Black. He couldn’t sign up for a proper library card – no place of abode – but at the first visit, the one where you gave the fake address, you could get three books. He’d been all over. He would run out soon. He thought they knew, the librarians. But he always took the books back, so what did it matter, really?
It did matter, though. He didn’t want to be taking books like that. Or sipping cold coffee and pretending he was happy. He threw the cup across the lawn. This wasn’t how it was supposed to – this wasn’t how it was supposed to – he couldn’t go on, he couldn’t, he couldn’t . . .
No. Quiet. Stop that.
He sat on his bench with his feet in the grass and turned his sleeping bag to the south east. He knew the direction of the Qibla by heart now, in London. He knelt precariously on the bench – it wasn’t ideal – and began his nightly prayers. After a moment, though, he stopped them: the first time he had done so in five years. It was a scream that stopped him. A woman’s scream in the London night.
Charlie took a long swig from the bottle of Skol Super. It was proper stuff, this. Fizzed in his chest. He leaned against the Sports Direct doorframe. It was one of his favourites; nice and wide, sheltered, fairly quiet, too, if you were pissed enough. His dog, Anna Jacobson – no relation – sat next to him, a paw on his lap. He loved her big, fat paws. Her long claws.
He hadn’t wanted to end up this way. Know what he wanted to do? He’d always wanted to write – whatchamacallits? – screenplays – that’s what. He’d spent his twenties saying it to his mates on nights out. ‘How’s it going? The retirement plan?’ Kev would ask.
‘Slow and steady, man, slow and steady,’ Charlie would say. But he hadn’t been writing at all. He’d occasionally open the document on the PC in the living room, but he rarely wrote anything. He just liked the way it sounded – writer – like he was a tortured, deep soul or something. And he was, just not one that enjoyed writing very much.
He shifted on his bag, in the doorway of Sports Direct, and Anna Jacobson shifted too. He shook his can from side to side. Still had half left. He’d need more before bedtime. But the world was swaying pleasantly; he was halfway there. He needed some dog food, too. An old sausage roll from the bins behind Greggs, maybe? She liked those. He wasn’t sure pastry was very good for her, but she seemed to enjoy it. Bit like him and Skol Super.
Four kids – three boys and a girl – were going into the nail bar, across the road, right in front of him. He narrowed his eyes at them. ‘Get. In,’ he heard the first man say through gritted teeth. She screamed, a high-pitched almost squeal, and they shut the door behind her.
Thugs. Frightening a woman. But not really, not properly. This, Charlie thought, swigging from his can, was acting up. If you want to truly fuck everything up, lads, sit down right here with me and try going to sleep in the doorway of a Sports Direct.
They closed the door behind them and Charlie slid his eyes away from the doorway. Fuck them. They could do what they wanted. The entire world did what it wanted, moving past him, stepping over him when he sat in the entrance to the tube with Anna Jacobson.
He’d never robbed. He was a drunk, sure, but never a robber. Never drugs, either. He was married to alcohol, and saw no reason to stray. ’Til death us do part.
He’d gone into hospital after his mum died. His diabetes had been getting worse and worse, and his blood sugar went mad at her funeral. He went to the walk-in centre on the way home, still in his black suit, black tie, silver cufflinks. They’d admitted him – it was off the scale, apparently – and he hadn’t left for three weeks.
He arrived home, a stone and a half lighter, and with no house. The authority had reallocated it. The prick who told him this officiously informed him his address was now St Bart’s Hospital NHS Trust, Smithfield, London. He’d tipped over some arbitrary threshold, and he now lived there. His address was the fucking hospital! How he had laughed. Until he had realized they were serious. They were actually serious.
He didn’t even try to get back on the council housing list. Fuck you then. He would end up on the streets, no screenplay to his name, and he would drink and eat whatever he wanted. Somebody called him up about a bed and breakfast in Milton Keynes – a kindly woman who wanted to place him, almost against his will. He took it, but he couldn’t handle it. Making noodles from a kettle, storing his milk in the communal fridge. It had started like an itch that he couldn’t scratch. Wouldn’t it be better if . . . It had steadily become worse. He had to come home before midnight. Have breakfast at seven, with a load of strangers. No, he didn’t like that. The day he left the bed and breakfast, he stepped out into the warm summer air and thought: I am free. The next day, he bought Anna Jacobson off a man in Covent Garden, and a can of bitter Skol, and here he fucking was.
The boys came out of the nail bar. They’d left the girl. Weird.
He could see their attitude from the way they walked, could see where it was heading. First, the walk, that peg-leg walk. Then, the swearing, smoking, skipping school. Self-sabotage. Show the world how cruel the world is. He laughed out loud, and a woman walking by him jumped. The illogic of it. The world didn’t care, did it, Anna Jacobson? They stood, waiting to cross the road, and they actually waited for the green man. Laughable. He stared hard at them. The woman had been frightened, like how Anna Jacobson got on bonfire night, her entire body braced. That was not cool. Scaring women like that. And then they’d abandoned her there.
They were chatting as they advanced towards him. They didn’t look at him. Charlie was used to that, though. Some people genuinely didn’t see him, like he was street furniture. Others pretended he was, studiously avoiding his gaze.
‘Yeah, she’s a good one,’ one said to the other. He was tall and lean, with a moustache.
‘Is she?’ the second said. The third said nothing; seemed not to need to.
‘She’ll be fine. Up and working in the morning. Earning the moula.’
Charlie blinked. Up and working. He tried to think about it logically through the Skol fuzz, but he couldn’t. He let them drift past him.
A second later, he heard a scream. Loud this time, like a fox’s cry in the night.
The boys ignored it.
‘You did good.’ The third man reached over and clapped the first guy on his shoulder. A loud, manly clap. Charlie closed his eyes momentarily. Human touch. Warm hands through a coat.
He shifted and lay back against his bag, but then he opened his eyes and looked at Anna Jacobson’s mournful face and thought: fuck it. He’d go to find that woman. He’d help her. He’d speak to her. Maybe even make a friend.
She had the best spot in the City, yeah, so long as she got up early which she’d never really liked to do, but it was a small price to pay. At the back of the nail bar, a shed in the garden. It was long, and narrow, like a coffin, so she could stretch out in her sleeping bag in the warmth amongst the spare stock of nail polish, nail files, bottles of strange chemicals, where nobody could ever find her. She didn’t sleep much – four, five hours, like Maggie Thatcher, ha – because she had to get in late, else the others would figure it out, and someone would steal her spot forever, never leaving like a squatter. They kept the key underneath a cracked terracotta vase. It had been easy enough to figure that out.
She didn’t ever see the nail bar clientele, which was a shame. She’d kill for a manicure. A deep, dark mauve for the autumn. Simple things, wasn’t it?
It was late, now, after midnight, and the nights were getting cold. It wasn’t even November yet. The newspaper she’d used to eat her dinner off last night said they were in for the worst winter since records began; she had laughed when half of the R from records had imprinted itself onto the side of her chip. The shed wasn’t quite warm enough in January, February. She thought she’d be used to it by now – two winters, three summers living out – but she wasn’t. She was skinny, had always felt the cold. Had been at her happiest in a bath with no cold water in, before. A clear line marked the pink and the white of her skin at the water’s surface. It was the bath that did it, come to think of it. She’d finally left him – violent Pete, she called him – and got offered a house on the authority. It was in Croydon, not exactly ideal, but she’d gone to see it. No carpet. A hole in the wall – fist-sized, she’d shuddered – but it was the bath that did it. Black mould. Shit-coloured scum marks all round the plug. Green tinges round the taps. She couldn’t lie there, naked. She couldn’t do it.
‘I can’t take this,’ she’d said to the council woman whose mouth had formed a judgemental pout.
She should’ve taken it. They have to clean up, get you carpets, once you’re in. But she hadn’t realised. That bath. Because of a dirty, awful bath, she’d fallen off the bottom of the waiting list, like a sick person forever waiting for a kidney that never came.
She slept out that next night. It wasn’t that bad. She couldn’t take a bath either way and, somehow, being out amongst the dirt and grime wasn’t worse than living in a filthy flat. How did that work? She didn’t know.
She heard something creak, across the yard. In the nail bar. She stopped moving in her sleeping bag, and brought both ears out to listen. Nobody ever came in at night. They painted nails until eight, in forty-minute slots, and then everybody went home.
It was her first thought. Just when she thought she’d escaped the repetitive, boring, fearful thoughts, her reaction in situations like this gave her away: it was him.
She listened. The thump of a door. Voices. It would be him, and he would find her in her little happy shed and he would fuck her again, and punch her again, and she wouldn’t have any make-up, this time, to cover the black eyes. She’d lost her friends, her family, gone into hiding, and he had found her.
She heard a voice. It wasn’t his. Her whole chest relaxed, like a balloon had been popped.
‘Upstairs, now,’ the voice was saying.
‘Quickly,’ another said.
The night was silent as she heard them moving around in there. She closed her eyes. Go back out the front way, not the back. Not the back. Not the back.
‘You start tomorrow,’ the first voice said. It was deep. Not like his. Pete was a scouse. Nasal sounding. These guys were London through and through.
She heard nothing for a few seconds. She lay still, listening. Five seconds. Ten. Twenty. She could count all night, often did.
Yeah, they’d gone alright. The evening was silent.
It hadn’t been him.
She felt giddy with it. Yeah, she was hungry, and too thin, and a little cold. But didn’t she have everything she truly needed, right here in her safe little shed? She rolled over onto her front and snuggled down into her sleeping bag. The polyester was cool against her toes.
And that’s when she heard the scream. It was a lonely scream. A scream of somebody realising that they were somewhere they didn’t want to be, and couldn’t get out. She would know the sound anywhere. She stood up and peered out of the old shed window. It was covered in moss and ivy, and her view was obscured, but she could see enough. The window at the top. The curtains parted by a slim hand. No, that wasn’t a woman: that was a child.
Lorna slid out of her sleeping bag and ventured across the lawn to the back of the nail bar. The door wouldn’t open. She backed up, into the garden. The girl was still at the window. Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai? Lorna was embarrassed she couldn’t tell. She beckoned to her – come down – and she disappeared from the window.
The girl reappeared after several minutes, shaking her head. She was locked in. What was that thing Lorna had read recently in the Guardian? She was well-read, in the newspapers, because she ate her dinner off them most nights. Human trafficking, using a high-street shop as a front for it? Surely not. Lorna squinted up at the girl. She couldn’t be over twelve. Jesus.
But what could she do? She stared at the child and the child stared back, but Lorna was powerless; the least powerful person on the planet.
She was just heading back to her shed when she heard them: footsteps. Two sets. One set slapping on the wet pavement – it had begun to rain. Shoe-less. Another homeless person.
‘No, it was in there,’ one said to the other. She thought it might be Abdul. She knew him to say hello to. This was typical of him; he was socially conscientious, always worrying if he had an extra pound that he should give it away. He was always trying to buy her things he couldn’t afford. A Dominoes when a Greggs would do. Poor impulse control.
Sure enough, Abdul and Charlie – a total skank – arrived in the garden. She stood there, shoeless in the grass, and stared at them.
‘You see the woman?’ Abdul said to her.
‘Girl. Yes,’ she said. ‘She’s up in the window.’ She pointed. The child was still gazing out at them, doll-like.
‘Some thugs put her in there,’ Charlie said. It was barely comprehensible, the words running into each other. How much money must he spend on that stuff? She didn’t understand it. She ate out of bins. If he didn’t drink, maybe he could afford rent; she didn’t know – she’d never paid any herself. It seemed worth a shot, though, to her.
‘She was crying,’ Abdul said quietly.
‘Alright,’ another voice said. ‘Nobody move.’
A man emerged out of the back door of the nail bar. He was all in black. Tall. Over six feet, and his body looked like it was made of stone. Oh shit.
‘Who’s that girl?’ Abdul said to him, pointing up to the window.
Leave it, leave it, leave it, Lorna was thinking. Panicked thoughts. Leave it, or they’ll hurt us, and they’ll take my shed, and I’ll never be warm again, never be alone again, never be safe again. She closed her eyes and imagined she was in the bath. Warm water, right up to her earlobes, steaming. Tickling the back of her neck like a hot whisper.
‘Inside,’ the man said. He turned his gaze on her. He had hard black eyes and big ears, a moustache. He couldn’t be over twenty – her age – still a child himself.
‘What?’ Charlie said. Even that one word, that one pathetic syllable, was slurred. She grimaced.
He led them into the back of the nail bar. Lorna’s heart was beating hard, right in her ears. The lights were off and the rows of nail polishes on the shelves looked like tiny soldiers, sentries, watching over them. Perhaps these were to be her final moments, here in a dirty nail bar in the City. Perhaps it would be over soon. She cast about inside herself, looking for a reaction, but she couldn’t find one. At least the struggle would be over; the daily struggle for food, for shelter, for water. Indifferent, that’s what she was. She was indifferent to life.
‘You don’t want to be keeping young women locked up in rooms,’ Charlie said. He must be bolstered by the alcohol. Lorna closed her eyes.
That was all it took. The big man rubbed at his face – furious, she thought – then brought something out. It was over in a glint of metal, before Lorna could properly see what it was. Charlie was on the floor. Deep, dark mauve quickly surrounded him, the colour of the manicure she had craved. It travelled quickly across the linoleum floor. Lorna swallowed. Her mouth was full of saliva, her heart still pounding in her ears. She hoped the blood wouldn’t reach her toes. She saw the blade as he returned it to the inside pocket of his coat. The blood dirtied the edge of his coat.
Didn’t he have a dog? What would happen to it? She guessed it would get taken in. The RSPCA would have it. Stray dogs got taken in; stray people didn’t.
‘You. Upstairs,’ the man said to her.
‘Me?’ she said. Her voice was low, quiet. Perhaps if she was frightened enough, they would let her go. She swallowed hard, thinking of Charlie, dying right in front of her. She couldn’t look at his body.
He didn’t answer. Just stared at her, then pointed to the door. She wordlessly left the room. How had this happened? She thought of her shed, just over the way. The chips she had saved up for, tomorrow. She had 89p ready in the lining of her sleeping bag.
The stairs had no carpet on them. She was directed to the fourth room on the left, a tiny box room with no window.
He closed and locked the door behind her. There was a bed. She couldn’t help but feel an irrational surge of happiness. A bed!
After a few minutes, downstairs, she heard the exchange with Abdul. ‘I’ll say it was me, I’ll say it was me,’ he was pleading. ‘Just don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.’
The man came upstairs, and then she heard the sirens. She wondered if Abdul was just standing there, surrounded by the blood. Waiting.
The sirens were loud outside on the street. Flashing on and off. On and off. The room was lit blue, then black, blue, then black, the colour of bruises.
Eventually, she heard Abdul’s voice.
‘It was me,’ he said loudly. She closed her eyes against it. He’d get a television in prison, wouldn’t he? Three meals a day. Cups of tea. Blankets, pillows. Showers. The stuff of life. Of human existence.
The man moved Lorna and the girl, after Abdul’s arrest, and before the Scene of Crime officer arrived. They went to another nail bar, just down the road.
It wasn’t so bad. They let Lorna out after seven hours, the next morning. She had to do the filing, take the calls, operate the till, downstairs all day, for no money, but she got every fourth Sunday off. They’d train her to paint nails, too. The girl – eleven, from Vietnam – swept the floors. She didn’t get any days off.
But they weren’t violent. Not often, anyway. Less often than Pete had been.
After two months, she was allowed to have a bath, and she stretched her aching limbs out inside it, cat-like, in the sun that came in through the dirty window. She thought often of Charlie and Abdul, while she lay in the clean water. Charlie, dead. Abdul, locked up. And she, locked up, too. Was that better than being homeless? She wasn’t sure. Sometimes, her mind drifted, imagining all the different ways life could have turned out for them. She in a women’s refuge. Charlie in a rehab clinic. Abdul at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, sorting out his debt. They’d start over. Get nice houses in the suburbs. Cars. Holidays. Normal things. Just normal.
Games & activities
To celebrate the last mystery in the bestselling Murder Most Unladylike series, we’ve got all you need to throw your own – socially distanced, of course – Detective Society Forever party.
Ruth Ware, Abir Mukherjee, Lisa Jewell and more on the crime books that shaped them – and the genre itself.