Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 7


The next thing I knew, the carpark was full of people. Ryan’s green jacket caught my eye and I twisted my head, blinking against the sun. I was lying on the concrete within sight of my car and Ryan was holding my head, swearing at someone out of my line of vision. When I tried to move away he glanced down and held me still.

“Joss, don’t move, there’s an ambulance coming.”

“Why? What the hell’s going on?”

I fought him off and sat up. My head was splitting, I felt sick and dizzy and thoroughly confused. Most of the people around us were office staff. My car boot was still open, and my chair was overturned beside it.

“Did you see who it was?” Ryan asked me. “Anyone you knew?”

“What happened?”

He sighed and let me go, kneeling on the concrete opposite me. “You were on the ground and out cold when I got here.”

I checked my pockets. Keys, wallet, all still there. I showed them to Ryan. Police cars screamed into the carpark, sirens flashing. The spectators paused; interest re aroused, but continued to drift away as the police got out. Adair jogged across to me, grim faced.

“Are you all right? What happened?”

“As far as I can see, he was mugged,” Ryan said for me, since I had no idea. “The caretaker and I found him ten minutes ago, he was unconscious. I thought he’d fallen until I saw the chair overturned.”

Adair lifted my chin and winced. I put a hand up to my face where it was hot and stinging.

“Pass me my chair.”

“You shouldn’t move,” Ryan advised gently, “Have you any idea if you’ve broken anything?”

That gave me pause for thought. I have no feeling below the chest; I’ve broken bones before without noticing. The usual warning that something serious is wrong where I can’t feel it, is a bad headache: my body complaining to me in the only way it can. I had the headache all right, but whether from a blow or an injury I had no idea. Ryan gripped my shoulder reassuringly.

“Stay put. You’d better go to casualty and let them check you out.”

“Who was it, Joss?” Adair said above me. I shrugged, trying to find his face in the sunlight that shone in my eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t even remember being hit.”
“No faces, nothing?” Adair demanded. I shrugged.

“I was getting out some files; that’s all I know.”

More sirens. An ambulance turned into the carpark from the main road. Adair straightened up to meet it.

I ended up in a curtained cubicle in the local A&E department, with Adair, who had followed the ambulance.

“Are you sure you don’t remember?” he kept asking. “Anything?”

“Nothing. Maybe they were after my wallet and got disturbed,” I offered.

“It can’t have been a deliberate targeting if they didn’t say anything or make themselves known – what would be the point.” Adair told me. He was restless, pacing in the narrow space beside the bed. “Unless they were disturbed.”

“Or they said something and I just don’t remember.” I reminded him. He muttered and twitched at the curtains.

“Do you mind if I get a coffee?”

I’d been banned from drinking or eating until it was known if anything was broken.

“Go ahead. Can you hang around like this on duty?”

“You are duty; this is another attack on St. Giles.”

The curtain pulled back. Hugh, standing there in his jacket, his face white and his hands still grimy. From the way he was breathing and the state of his hair, he’d run at least part of the way. I sat up and he edged past Adair to get his arms around me. I could feel him trembling. “Are you hurt? Ryan phoned me.”

“I’m okay, calm down.” I resisted the urge to grab him, and managed a fairly casual hug.

He leaned on the edge of the bed, hanging on the rail the nurse had insisted on raising.

“Have they told you anything?”

“I’m just waiting for X-ray results, they don’t think anything’s damaged.”

Hugh looked Adair over, still holding my hand. “What happened? Ryan said something about you being mugged?”

“Mr. Milliner was found unconscious in the carpark,” Adair said in his policeman voice, looking awkward. “The security guard found him beside his car at five past eight- Mr. Bennett saw a couple of youths by the main entrance when he arrived a few minutes later.”

“Probably kids from the project.” I gripped Hugh and he squeezed back, reaching to push my hair away from my scraped forehead.

“Does anything hurt?”

“My face a bit.”

“Are you sure it was these kids? You’ve had struggles before now but no one’s ever waited for you- it’s never been a planned attack.“

“I don’t remember,” I said, yet again. “I really don’t remember anything about it until I came round in the car park in the middle of a crowd.”

“Did Ryan recognise any of the kids?” Adair asked.

“I don’t know.”

“He’s often very shaky after a fall,” Hugh said without warmth. “This probably isn’t a good time to be asking questions.”

Adair muttered something to himself. “Joss, can you think of anyone who might want to carry out this sort of attack? Any reason why someone would do this to you?”

I lay back, tired and aching and not having to try too hard to be evasive.

“You know the clients I work with-“

“And a lot of them have problems, yes I know,” Adair said grimly. Hugh turned his head and looked at him. Neither of them said anything but after a minute, Adair cleared his throat.

“I’ll see if there’s a description from Mr. Bennett. If not, I’ll come by later and ask you for a list of clients you feel might make this sort of attack. And you will give them to me.”
I looked at him. He glared at me and left.

Hugh leaned on the side of the bed and waited. Green-black eyes, cat eyes, in a planed face. I put a hand up and outlined his lips, faintly light-headed. “Sorry to yank you out of work.”

“Wasn’t much work to leave. When Ryan rang and said he’d found you unconscious-”

He linked his hands on the rail above me, fingers interlaced. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”

“I don’t think I’ve damaged anything. Just bruised and a bit shaky.”

“Then are you going to tell me what it is that you’re playing at?”

I was too surprised to flinch. Hugh didn’t take his eyes off me.

“Who were they?”

“I told you-“

“Joss, I know you. Who were they?”

I flushed. “A couple of kids from a hostel. Ryan’ll give them an earful; I’m not going to charge them.”

He didn’t swallow it: I could see it in his face. “Why were they waiting for you?”

“I don’t know. We get blamed a lot of the time, you know that- they trust us, things go wrong, they blame us for it-“

“And this is nothing to do with this Elite gang, or any of these hit and run deaths? Joss, if you wanted to be able to lie to me, you should never have let me move in with you. You’ve been evasive for days. I knew you were sneaking around this gang, I can live with that, but if they’re going to start beating you up I want to know about it.”

I hesitated. Hugh’s voice sharpened slightly.

“What if this is just the first step? Am I going to find you knifed on the drive tomorrow?”


“How do you know that? Don’t sulk at me, I’m not your father.”

“Meaning what?” I demanded. He didn’t waver.

“That you’re a spoilt little beggar and I don’t fall for you sticking your lip out at me.”

I sighed and gave in.

“It wasn’t anything to do with the gang. It was that lunatic from the religious house- Hamish. He didn’t do anything really, it wasn’t much more than one good push.”

Hugh said nothing but his hands folded on the rail above me, and he looked at his watch for some time. “Are you going to tell the police?” he asked eventually. I shook my head.

“I know why he did it. I upset Lucy when I spoke to her, and he adores her. He didn’t mean to hurt me.”

“You could be in traction now.”

“He doesn’t know that. He’s harmless, Ad. Just a large child. He isn’t all there, I’m not going to get him arrested and charged.”

“What if he tries it again?”

“I don’t think he will. He probably didn’t expect me to be knocked out by a straightforward fall. He won’t do it again.”

The hospital released me just before lunchtime, having found nothing on the X-rays to warrant keeping me in, despite the panic amongst the staff when they discovered whose son I was. I held out no great hope of this being kept from my father for long. Hugh drove my car home, then rang his office and told them he wouldn’t be in for the rest of the day. I didn’t mind. Any fall unnerves me. I’m a wreck for hours afterwards.

“Who is this Lucy?” Hugh said eventually, unwillingly, as if he didn’t want to ask but couldn’t help it.

“Remember that kid we saw outside Rivo’s? Sam?“

“Yes. With a girl.”

“The girl’s in with some sort of religious sect in town. The police spoke to her after I warned Sam away from that group- the ones Craig and Steve were hanging about with. Her name’s Lucy, she knew the gang around the dealers. Her guess is from listening to them that Steve and Craig were killed for nicking the Elite. She thinks Mel was a warning to Craig, which presumably he didn’t take.”

“So who was this Hamish guy that attacked you?” Hugh asked, frowning as he tried to work it out. “A friend of hers warning you off? Did she tell him you were asking questions?”

“Pass,” I admitted. “I don’t think so. He adores her and he’s not that complicated- I’m sure this was just a straightforward payback for having frightened her. She didn’t want to talk about the deaths or the Elite.”

“Is she involved with this Elite group?”

“I can’t be sure.” I sat back to let him see my face and know I was being honest with him.

“Maybe we’d better see if she’s all right,” Hugh said shrewdly. I shrugged.

“I thought of that. But if she isn’t, I’m not going to help by interfering. Ryan or Jenny will probably check on her today, Ryan was worried when I told him.”

“You told him about Hamish?”

“Just about Lucy and what she said. I asked him what he thought. I wondered if I ought to tell Adair. Check she told us both the same story.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Wait,” I admitted. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

I slept a lot of the afternoon, probably from mild concussion. I woke during the six-o’clock news to Hugh’s voice, quiet, but irritated.

“-really isn’t up to this, I don’t want to wake him-“

“Who is it?” I mouthed at him over the back of the sofa. He pulled a face but held the phone out to me. “Sam.”

“Sam?” I took the receiver and tried to wake myself up. “Hi. Is Lucy all right?”

“I don’t know; I don’t know where she is.” Sam sounded near tears, frantic and scared. My stomach chilled at the sound of his voice, I pulled myself together and tried to keep my voice calm. "What’s going on?”

“I don’t know what Lucy told you, but Mel never knew Craig- I know she didn’t. Lucy called me last night and said-“


“She’s gone. She’s gone, Joss, I just went down to that bloody house and she’s disappeared- if Lucy’s gone I’ll be next, I know I will.”

He was near sobbing with fear. Whatever had happened had terrified him. I gripped the receiver and looked up at Hugh who was leaning on the back of the sofa, reading my face.

“Sam, where are you?”

“On the by road near Hagley,” he said at once, clearly, “I need somewhere to go, Joss, please, I can’t be out tonight-“

“I’ll find you a bed. Where on the road?”

“Near the bridge- you know, by the forge pub on the edge of the village-“

Miles out of town. “Yes I know. Stay there, I’ll come and get you.”

“I’m coming too,” Hugh said at once as I slid the aerial down.

“You can’t, it’s a client.”

He shouldered into his coat, taking no notice of me.

“There are regulations,” I muttered in the car, “They don’t like strangers-“

Hugh sat back and paid no attention.

It wasn’t hard to find Sam. He was shivering on a verge, in an anorak and torn jeans, and he burst into tears when I tried to talk to him. Hugh got out of the car and joined me, watching for a moment before he put an arm around Sam’s shoulders and got him into the car. I had a hostel in mind: run by a woman I got on with very well, who never objected to last minute arrivals. I dropped Sam off shortly after eight pm, talked briefly to her and left him with promises of locked doors and no written record of where he was.

“Did he say anything?” Hugh said when I got back into the car. I shook my head.

“Too upset. I’ll try tomorrow morning.”

“You could call Adair and leave it to him.”

I looked at him. He sighed. “You’re concussed; you shouldn’t be working tomorrow. You shouldn’t be driving now.”

I snorted at him and drove home. He got out of the car before I pulled onto the drive, took the front door keys and went ahead of me to unlock the door. I parked the car, got out and transferred across to my chair, aware of shaky wrists and an unsteady grip, noting the strange car parked behind Hugh’s.

Hugh was standing stock still beside it. As I rounded the bonnet of his car, he came to life, took a few steps backwards and got in front of me, forcibly pushing my chair away.

“No. Get back in the car.”

“What’s the matter?” I demanded, struggling to get past him. I’ve been conversant with wheelchairs a lot longer than him and I twisted the wheels, feinting to get past him, but for the first time since I met him, he took blatant advantage, grabbed the handles and forced me to take my hands off the wheel rims. He was white and jerky and he nearly snapped at me.

“No, Joss. You don’t want to see.”

“What is it?” Light dawned. Horribly. “Who is it?”

“I think it’s probably Lucy.”

Copyright Ranger 2010

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