Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 10


Mark came off duty shortly after two am. He saw my car outside the house and gave me a smile of wry sympathy. "Ah. Thrown you out has he?"

Hugh would never do anything so theatrical. Besides which, I was so torn up with thinking about Hamish's mad brown eyes I hadn't time to spare for Hugh. Hamish was derranged, certainly: but arrest, interrogation- it would do him no good, to put it mildly. And I kept hearing Ryan's voice. If it wasn't for me, and my meddling, and my jumped up conclusions, Lucy might be alive.

I didn't want the responsibility for destroying Hamish.

"Just an argument." I said lightly. He held the door open for me. For comfort as much as anything else, we ended up in bed together.

"Its all wrong." I told Mark at some point in the middle of the night, unable to keep my mouth shut on the turmoil any longer. "Lucy doesn't fit in to this. Why Lucy? She wasn't involved in the Elite, she only heard the rumours. Why would your psychopath pick on her?"

Hamish. Please talk to me about Hamish.

"Don't you ever give up?" Mark demanded from under the duvet. "I don't tell you how to do your job."

"Even if you look at the drugs, this supposed ring- which I've heard nothing more of-"

"We have." Mark said bluntly. "Look, your domestics are your immediate problem aren't they?"

"Has this man you arrested been charged with anything?"

Mark was silent for a minute. Then he said quietly, "It wasn't him. He had a cast iron alibi for the time McDonnell died. He was in the cells on a D&D."

"Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

"Because I knew you'd go mad. We're working on this Elite gang, they're the main suspects, this guy could have sent someone else to do the job for him."

"Did you find any Elite on her?" I demanded.

"No. but-"

"Was there any in the house?"


"Sam puts Lucy's death down to those religious maniacs. He told me she lied to us."

Mark gave up and turned the light back on.

"Okay. And what do you think of that?"

I thought it over. "I don't know. I don't know enough about her. But why would this Elite gang kill her? If you found no drugs-"

"She could have dumped them. Maybe she knew who else stole from their supplies. Maybe they did her to pressurise Sam if he had any stashed away."

"What about the people in that nut house? If they found she was consorting with Sam- with his gang for God's sake, a whole gang of these men they thought were so evil-"

"Joss I can't talk to you about this, it's official business. Just believe me, that doesn't match the leads we have."

"I'm sure she and Sam are clean."

Mark pulled his pillow round and lay down again. "There's nothing you can do about it, just go to sleep."


Mark was falling asleep again. I thought of Hamish and bit at my nails, wondering what the hell to do. Maybe the best bet was to talk to Ryan, ask him what he knew of Hamish's history and see if he'd talk to him. That was if Ryan was still talking to me.

We were woken by my phone, shrilling what felt like only minutes later.

Mark's alarm clock stood at two forty five am.

"Don't you ever turn the damned thing off?" Mark inquired, handing it to me. I glared at him and flipped the aerial up, hoping it was Sam. No, hoping it was Hugh.

"Joss?" Hugh's voice crackled over the line. "Where are you?"

His voice petrified me.

Mark ran a finger down my back. I glared at him. "You were the one who told me to go away."

"Joss listen." This wasn't easy for him, he didn't want to talk to me either, and he sounded strained. "Mick Durnell's just phoned me for the workshop keys to clear equipment. It's flooding. The river's on flood alert-"

"The river's miles away."

"It's all flood plains. The roads around the workshops are already under water and they're putting out alerts on the radio. There are flood plains all over the town."

So a few roads would be under a couple of inches of water. So what?

"It'll be fine by the morning."

And this is a pathetic excuse for ringing.

"I just wanted to tell you to be careful. Put the radio on, they're listing the areas being closed."


"Be careful."

He broke the connection before I could answer.

"Well?" Mark asked dryly. I lay back and shrugged him off when he tried to touch me.

"Joss- he'll get over it. You're not married to him."

"There's a flood alert on," I said to distract him. "He rang to say the workshops are under water."

"Christ, already?" Mark got up and went past me to tune in his radio. "There were warnings this afternoon, they were talking about flash floods then."

I was taken aback by his seriousness. He found a local radio station and I listened in shock to locals calling in, reporting roads flooding fast, residential areas as well as the river areas.

"Is it going to get bad?" I asked him. He shrugged.

Within twenty minutes, Mark's own phone rang. All police in the area were being called to duty.

"That means residential evacuations." He said grimly when he put the phone down. "What do you want to do? Stay here?"

I watched him dress, swallowing on a churning stomach. "I'll go home."

"Are you sure?"

"I've got to face him some time. If it gets bad I can always go to my parents."

It was still raining outside. Mark leaned on my window when I dropped him off in the town centre.

"Go home through the ring roads, they won't be affected."

"It won't get that bad will it?"

"Who knows." He shrugged at me and jogged across to the station building.

I took a few deep breaths and took the main road that would take me home. I was the only car in sight and the driving conditions were atrocious. My phone ringing was about the last straw. I pulled over and watched a police car zoom past, lights flashing.


"It's me. Sam."

His voice was rough with panic. My stomach turned over.

"Sam? Where the hell are you?"

"I can't talk, Joss, he's following me."

He, not they.

"Who is?" I demanded, stupidly, knowing. Of course Sam was the next logical choice on Hamish's list. The last one left of Lucy's boyfriends. Why the hell hadn't I told Mark? A blast of static forced me to raise my voice. "Sam! Where are you? Can you get to the police station?"

"-flooding, near the square-" buzz, crackle. I lifted my voice.

"Sam! Where are you?"

Crackle, fizz. I just about caught the word `library'.

"Stay there!" I shouted, hoping to God he could hear me. "Just stay there, I'm five minutes away. Stay out of sight!"

And look out for that giant maniac.

The idea of the square flooding was ridiculous. The town centre was some way from the river. I turned the car quite illegally and headed back into town, heart thumping.

"He's after me."

The rain was worsening. I flicked the windscreen wipers onto double time, speeding despite the slippery road surface. I must be driving through several inches of water now. On a corner, I saw a man running, caught a glimpse of a face, streaming with rain.

The car jerked in my hands.

"Good hunting Gawain."

I could believe Hamish was capable of anything, once convinced it was right.

Red traffic lights made me slow. The road was deserted. I hesitated and then ignored them, heart hammering until I felt sick with it. Gawain was courageous, all the stories were about his courage. I bet he didn't ride into his battle with the Green Knight about to throw up-

The green knight.

I had a flashing image of a green man, a green giant with an axe. Hamish, behind the wheel of a car, his beautiful face peaceful with determination.

"Good hunting Gawain."

Gawain. It clicked together so suddenly that the car swerved in my hands and I grabbed the steering wheel to keep control. Gawain. Gawain and the Green Knight.

I knew the pagan myth of the Green Man, a character who in our culture was known by other names. Robin Hood, Herne – in Saxon myths the protector of the oppressed, protector of the hunter. Natural justice, above the rules of civilisation.

"She has been led beyond the gates and into the hands of the knight…"

Hamish's speech was littered with fantasy, I could believe he knew exactly what his allusions were. The Green Knight he'd been telling me of was known to every kid on the streets, was trusted, and was undoubtedly quite capable of hunting Sam down as methodically as he had put down the other four victims. And I knew why. The very essence of the Green Man. Take from the rich and the greedy to feed the poor.

Physically sick with shock and with terror, I hammered the accelerator. Phone. From the bleeps, the battery was running very low, and Hugh sounded openly distressed.

"The low roads up to the ring road are flooded and the ring road is probably going to be closed in the next half hour, where are you?" he said without any preliminaries as soon as I picked it up.


"Hugh I can't talk now!"

"What the hell are you doing?" Hugh said sharply. "You're driving aren't you? I can hear the engine – Joss they've got half of Westfield on evacuation alert. This is going to get nasty. Where are you?"

"Sam called in-"

"He knows the roads better than you, he'll be fine!"

"I've got to find him."

"He's long gone if the TV pictures are right- the town centre's under water. Joss think. I've seen floods before- what if you get stranded? What if you ground your car? What are you going to do?"

"I've got to do something, he's going to kill him!"

"Joss be sensible, please. Look, is Mark there?"

My heart thudded. "Hugh-"

"Stay with him for God's sake."

Another treble bleep from the complaining battery, "I know who killed Mel and Craig-"

"Where are you?"

"He's looking for Sam-"

The phone cut out. Hugh was right. Practically he was right. I chilled very fast. Once I was wet, I'd be hypothermic very quickly, and I didn't stand much chance of swimming out of trouble if the car got stuck. I was at a distinct disadvantage. I speeded up and turned into the next road, aware that the water was rising the closer to the town centre I got.

The square was flooded. I could feel the car swaying in the water as I drove, and before long I saw the first streams of water in the well by my feet. The water was nearly up to the wheel arches now. I tried to keep a steady speed and prayed the engine wouldn't flood. I searched the square ahead of me. A few maniacs in canoes were playing outside Marks and Spencers in three feet of water. Someone was wading, carrying a large dog up what under the water were steps to the market place. As I turned across the square, the electric lights guttered, and then flashed out as far as the eye could see across town. The road thank God turned up hill a little by the library building and I strained to see, headlights on full, not daring to stop the engine. I could see no one. Then I saw a flash of black out of the corner of my eye and someone moved through the water. Dark hair and a moustache. Ryan. His green coat, the coat he always wore, was wet through. He didn't see me. My heart chilled over at the sight of him. I yanked the window open and shouted, bellowed at the top of my lungs. "Ryan! Ryan!"

Either he didn't hear me over the rush of the water, or he had other things on his mind. Shaking with fear, I pulled the car off the road and drove across the empty market, aware that I was barely controlling the car in the force of the water. Benches and litter bins floated freely. A horse suddenly shot out of the alley beside a green grocers and reared in front of me, kicking the car. I watched it plunge away towards the multi storey with a growing sense of bewilderment. Flood plains. It must have broken it's way out of the fields in panic as the water rose. Hugh was right. Flood plains would carry the water straight through the town as easily as the horse had run. There was nothing to stop it. I leaned on the horn and shouted, shouted until I was sore.

"Sam! Ryan! Sam!"

"Hail Gawain."

Hamish, balanced on the back of a bench, just inches above the water line. He bowed to me gravely and smiled, his face shining with water, then he spread his arms like wings and jumped out of the beam of my headlamps. All I could do was follow the road.

At the back of the station, where the road dipped sharply between two banks, I felt the back end of the car lift and swing round in the water. I struggled uselessly with the wheel and at last the engine stalled. I had no chance now, I wouldn't re start it, never mind get it out of the water. And if the water kept rising, I stood a good chance of the car being rolled and crushed, or flooding. I had one option. Get out and try to get to safety. That was when I hit reality hard. The light was bad here: I could barely see my body and I was wearing dark clothes. I can't feel my position in space: unless I can see myself, I find it incredibly hard to move, or even to know where I am. Torn between terror for Sam and terror of the water, I came within a few inches of panic. I am not good with cold water. My temperature bottoms out within minutes; I've had trouble swimming in the sea on hot days. This was a cold night and the water must be freezing. I opened the car door, bracing myself, and was shocked at how fast the water was moving. I could see very little. The windscreen wipers were still thudding and the headlights reflected enough to see deep, black water rushing past the car. I put a hand in it and felt the strength of the current. It dragged with a power that dried my mouth with real horror. There was no way I was going to get my chair out, or use it in this. The car moved in the sway of the water. That decided me. I gripped the doorframe and more or less fell down into the water. I was lucky. I could just about sit on the road with my chin above water, but it was a struggle. At least I wouldn't have to rely on swimming if I cramped, I had my body weight to anchor myself. I struggled for a minute to pull my chair out of the car, straining at it behind the driver's seat, then the car lifted and I watched aghast as it swept down the road and crashed into the traffic lights at the crossroads. I was too cold to panic now. I dragged myself hurriedly through the water, choking at the splashing over my face. The sound the current made was incredible. Car horns sounded further up the road, I could hear a few shouts of other motorists in trouble, but the struggle to keep my head above the water was all I could focus on. It felt like hours that I dragged myself against that current. My hands hurt like hell in the cold, and then numbed. Water splashed into my eyes until I could barely see. Then suddenly it began to shallow. I pulled myself up, gathering confidence as the current slackened. Another four or five feet and I felt grass under my hands, slippery with mud, then I was dragging my legs out of the water. As soon as I had my breath, I pulled myself as far up the grass bank as I could, straining against the mud. There was no saying how far the floods might rise. My teeth were chattering and my arms were shivering violently, but from the chest down, all was still and serene. I didn't want to look. It was too dark to see my car or trace any of the human sounds to bodies, only the movement of the water as it rushed past. Trees whipped above the bank, making ominous sounds. All I needed now was for one to fall. That stirred me again. I turned onto my front and crawled, using my arms and all my strength to drag myself up to the top by the trees. There was some shelter from the wind up there, and if anything fell, it would hit the lane below. Without phone, without means of moving, or any chance of attracting attention, I wondered vaguely what I was going to do now. I shouted a few times, but I was only one voice shouting in the racket of several grounded cars, people splashing and wading and the roar of wind and water.


Several voices. Men's voices.


Piercing whistles. I struggled out of a doze. I could feel nothing from the neck down, and it was difficult to open my eyes. Several different voices were shouting  by the water. I knew one of them and responded automatically.


Crashing. They blundered for a minute, and then a blue light stabbed at me, and Hugh ran up the bank, slipping on the drenched grass. He was as wet as I was. His hands swept plastered hair out of my eyes and untangled my legs. Police. Uniforms. Flashlights. There was a lot of chatter going on and none of it made much sense. Someone pried my hands away from the tree- Mark. I recognised him briefly before Hugh's arm hooked under my knees, and reflexively I put my arms around his neck. The police- or whoever it was in uniform- wouldn't let him carry me down the bank. I remember several of them, passing me from hand to hand, bracing on the grass, and the cigarette smoke smell of heavy uniform fabrics against my face. There seemed to be boats in the road, braced in the rushing water with a couple of men in wetsuits, moving between them. Boats sailed past us.

A woman wrapped in a blanket, a man carrying a child. Police sirens, flashing lights and voices still shouted by the bank.

"Ryan." I said to Hugh. "Ryan's down there."

He put both arms around me, holding me between his knees as the boat sailed away down the high street.

And Hamish. Hamish, waiting on the bank below.

"I couldn't reach him. I tried."

Hugh's arms tightened around me.

Somewhere in the dark and the cold and the fog, there was a sports hall, painfully bright, and full of loud voices.

When I really came to, I was lying on a crash mat beneath a basket ball hoop. Hugh had me mostly stripped off and was towelling my legs. They were an unpleasant shade of blue and I flinched when I saw them. A strange woman in a St John's uniform offered me a mug of tea. It was brackish with an unpleasant aftertaste, but Hugh took it from her and pushed it against my mouth until I drank. I remember blankets, the gym smell of sweat and dust, the cold of the crash mat and the noisy running footfall of kids playing around us, but I don't remember anyone talking. Eventually an uncomfortably firm pinch over my thumbnail woke me, and my father's voice said sharply,

"If you don't answer me, we're going straight to the hospital."

I had no idea what he was doing there, but the threat worked. He looked tired and untidy, and his slacks were wet from the knees down.

"I could strangle you." He said sincerely.

"You'll have to wait your turn." Hugh was sitting at the end of the crash mat, cradling a mug between his hands. I pulled myself together enough to look at my watch and found it was six in the morning.

"Sam." I struggled up to look around. The hall was full of people. I could see Hamish, looming head and shoulders above everyone else. There was no one else I recognised.

My father exchanged glances with Hugh and came to lift me, then stopped and moved back to let Hugh do it.

I vaguely remember Hugh and Kerry - I have no idea how we got home. Apparently there were army vehicles being assembled for use by then. There was also Kerry's partner Brian, who I'd met once or twice and who was stroking Lucifer in front of the morning news. They all talked over my head and I understood about one word in five. Of course I had hypothermia. Kerry and Hugh apparently spent nearly two hours with me in the bath, gradually raising the temperature of the water until my heart rate picked up. My father was dragged into service at the leisure centre and kept busy with broken bones, bruises, exposure and shock all that day and much of the following night.

I started to take notice again at about late afternoon when I woke in our bed and found Hugh asleep beside me, dressed and lying on top of the covers. The curtains were open and it was still raining. He stirred when he felt me move and jerked awake. We looked at each other while I tried to sort out what could possibly have been real from last night. He sat up and touched my face, pushing my hair back.

"How do you feel?"

"Fine." I moved experimentally and found every muscle pulled. "Knackered, but I'm fine."

He went on staring at me in a way that told me I had terrified him. Eventually he hooked an arm around my neck and kissed me, with a thoroughness I remembered from the first few weeks we'd been together. I clung to him, eyes burning. There had been twenty minutes last night when I had seriously thought I was going to die, and it would have been entirely my own fault. He should have been wringing my neck, not holding me like this. When he drew away, I pulled his head back. He had to fend me off to see my face. "Your father left a message- something about the catheters and p/h balance? I wasn't listening too well- he did a cath for you last night, do you remember?"

"Bits of it." I frowned, then jolted as I remembered Sam. "Oh Christ, Hugh, has anyone found Sam?"

"He'll be in one of the emergency stations set up around the town." Hugh said at once, "Don't worry about him, he knows the town better than you."

"Ryan was hunting him last night."

Hugh's eyes softened, deeply. "Sweetheart. I've got some bad news. Ryan was the one casualty the police picked up last night. Your father certified him dead. That friend of yours brought him in- Hamish? Carried him in like a baby. I'm so sorry. Jenny phoned this morning but you were asleep."

"Ryan was the killer." I said unsteadily. Hugh's hand froze on my face.

"What? You can't be- Joss you don't mean that."

"Hamish knew. He called Ryan the Green Knight- it's all logical. Steve was an accident, Adair told me that. Mel and Craig were both kids we wanted off the St Giles lists. I remember what Ryan said about Craig, that he'd had his last chance. Look at how they were killed. It was quick, careful- remember Lucy wrapped in the blanket?"

"Why Lucy? Why leave her on the drive?"

"Because I was asking too many questions? Ryan sent me out of St Giles, he was the one that suggested we went away for a while. I don't know. I saw him last night, he was in the square where Sam was-"

"Sam'll be fine."

He didn't believe me, I could see it in his face.

"I ought to phone the police." I said, struggling upright and remembering belatedly that my chair was probably floating around the city centre somewhere.

"The phone lines are down. And the electricity. The flooding's only half a mile from here. What are you going to do?"

Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's Supercrip…. I started to laugh from sheer hysteria.

"I'll just swim down to the police station and drop Adair a line."

"Believe me," Hugh said, eyeing me, "You are not going anywhere."

Continue on to Part 11 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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