by Ian Coates
It was Trish McGowan’s addiction to a daily half packet of Lambert & Butlers that saved her life.
She had been leaning against the back wall in the small delivery yard and had her mouth open when it happened. They said afterwards that had helped too—something about protecting inner organs from the pressure wave that threw her across the concrete.
As she had unlocked the shop’s door on that April morning there had been no sign that the premises of Sylver & McGowan Interiors weren’t as she’d left them. McGowan adjusted her fringe of green and pink hair in the reflection from the picture window, winked at herself, and cast an eye over the display. It still wasn’t quite right, and she made a mental note to try moving the cushions closer to the curls of wallpaper.
She let herself in and disabled the alarm. Later she would wonder how someone had managed to circumvent the security system but leave no trace.
With nostrils full of the aroma of fabrics and of vanilla from the neatly arranged candles, she headed for the back office. She passed the watercolour she’d painted for her aunt of Rectory Cottage with the slogan We listen to customers and design to exceed expectations. It still took pride of place on the wall behind the counter. She now reckoned it sounded cheesy, but had left it there in Flo’s memory.
McGowan lit the gas heater, booted her PC, and went to fill the kettle in the tiny alcove she called the kitchen.
Just time for a ciggie while the water boiled. Humming gently to herself, she strolled out into the rear delivery yard. There had been no sign of a break-in at the back either. Yet he had managed it somehow.
She pulled a packet of cigarettes from her jeans’ pocket. ‘Never smoke in the shop,’ Aunt Flo had instilled in her. ‘The smell puts punters off.’ When breast cancer had ripped her spinster aunt from her and left her with no-one, it had become McGowan’s shop, but she still held Flo Sylver’s edicts as law.
McGowan leant back against the wall and drew in a mouthful of smoke, holding it inside her mouth for a few seconds before attempting to puff a smoke ring into the still air and failing as always.
The world suddenly turned white. A blow to her back hurled McGowan across the yard, slammed her down on to concrete. There was no sound. Something sharp dug into the back of her head and arms. She tried to yell for help, but no scream came out. God, what’s happening?
Needles pierced her jeans and jumper, stabbed into her skin. She tried to push herself up but her arms collapsed. She fell forward, cracking her jaw on the ground. Warm liquid seeped across her thighs, sending more panic surging through her. Was she bleeding? Desperately, she tried to twist, to feel between her legs, but a spasm of pain immobilised her. She screamed; heard nothing.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw something long and dark crash into the ground and break apart in a cloud of dust.
She couldn’t breath. Her chest heaved in vain as she tried to suck air into her lungs. Why can’t I breathe?
Suddenly a raging heat scorched her legs and the back of her neck. She tried to crawl—to escape it—but her arms were useless. Her lungs burned as she gasped for oxygen before slumping into unconsciousness.
* * *
The wind that swept across Hampstead Heath plucked at Matt Casey’s hoodie when he emerged from the trees. He grabbed the hood to keep it hiding his face. He was walking slowly towards the car park that had been chosen, waiting for the second text message.
He slowed further, his tatty trainers making little sound on the footpath. Can’t afford to get there too early.
He unconsciously scratched at his goatee and licked his lips. The next couple of hours would be the worst bit—the point it could all go wrong.
A crisp packet scudded across the grass before disappearing into the stream of cars on the nearby road. Between the tree trunks to his right he caught glimpses of the pond. He’d been here a few times as a boy, had memories of flying kites followed by an ice cream at the cafe while his mum and step-dad shared a pot of tea.
Casey passed a couple of dog walkers going the other way, chattering to each other while their dogs sniffed at last winter’s leaves. Casey kept his face down.
His phone suddenly vibrated, and he jumped violently, even though he’d been expecting it. He stopped walking, opened it with his heart racing. Short and to the point as always but it had what he needed—vehicle type and registration. Casey memorised them, deleted the message, and hurried to the parked cars he could see ahead.
He scanned the dusty area for a white VW Golf, spotted it right in the middle, and glanced around.
A woman with bare legs and a short red skirt that quivered in the wind stood at a Range Rover. She leant over a toddler that screamed loudly as it fought to get out of its buggy. Good—anyone who looked in this direction would remember them, not him. She had a great figure, but this wasn’t the time to stare. An old man in a flat cap peered over his glasses at the ticket machine. They were both oblivious to what he was doing.
Casey pulled on leather gloves and marched to the car, the stone chippings crunching loudly underfoot. He pulled a key from its wheel arch and, with pulse quickening, dropped into the driver’s seat. There was no need to check the boot; he knew what would be inside.
The cabin stank of pine air freshener, reminded him with disgust of his old school assembly hall. Keeping his hood up, he fired the engine, keen to be away. There was no doubt the car was stolen. The plates would have been changed, but he couldn’t know how much time that might give him.
The journey would be over an hour, out to the M25, then south towards Guildford. He drove cautiously. At one point on the motorway, a police car overtook him, and Casey stared straight forward, keeping well below seventy. He imagined them radioing in to check the car. Don’t be paranoid, he scolded himself.
The crawl past Heathrow made him late, and it was approaching lunch by the time he swapped the main roads for ones that curved through stretches of woodland and along the edges of freshly drilled fields. Casey slowed, searching for landmarks he might recognize from last time. Half a mile on, he spotted the familiar lay-by, pulled in, and cut the engine.
Trees stretched to the kerbside in eerie silence; patches of purple rhododendron bloom were the only things breaking its brown-green monotony. There were no houses in sight, no pavement, no streetlamps, no bustle. Alien territory.
Casey took the large empty envelope that had been left for him in the glove box and hurried with it to the boot. After a nervous glance around, he grabbed the parcel that lay there and slit it open with a penknife. Hunched over, worried the wind might snatch its contents, Casey pulled out wodges of twenty-pound notes and transferred them to the envelope, fumbling slightly because of the gloves.
Some notes were new, others crumpled and dog-eared. He hurriedly rammed them into the envelope, slammed the boot, and pushed the original Jiffy bag deep into the roadside bin. If anyone had secreted a tracker in its padding, it wouldn’t help them now.
He climbed back into the Volkswagen and waited. A single car swept past in the other direction before the road again fell silent. Come on. I can’t sit in a stolen car all day. He tapped his fingers against the wheel, then pulled his phone from his pocket, checked it had signal, and dropped it on the passenger seat. He continued to drum gloved fingers. His hands were sweating inside the leather.
He’d feigned a stomach upset to get the day off work to do this. How many more times could he get away with that? he wondered. Do it too often and Dragon in HR would demand a chat.
The text message arrived three minutes later. He snatched up the phone and read the single word. “Now”.
The room had bright white walls and ceiling. Trish McGowan tried to focus her blurred vision, but pain stabbed through her skull. She quickly screwed her eyes shut again.
Hospital. She recalled disjointed threads of memory, people leaning over her, talking to her, movement. They’d told her she was in hospital, but she couldn’t remember why. She wiggled her toes, felt the brush of rough sheets. She did the same with her fingers. Everything was there, everything worked. She slipped back into blackness, away from the pain.
McGowan drifted in and out of sleep while various doctors and nurses came and went. ‘You were very lucky,’ they kept repeating. ‘Just as well you were outside.’ ‘No permanent damage.’ ‘Do your ears still ring? That’ll fade in time.’
There were other women in the ward—all sorts of ages, varying levels of noisiness. She took little of it in.
The nightmare realisation of what had happened started to dawn during the afternoon with the arrival of the first policeman and his questions.
He looked a few years younger than she, mid-twenties maybe. He sat awkwardly on the hard plastic chair at her bedside. ‘What happened in the shop this morning?’ he asked. Can’t remember.
When she didn’t reply, he prompted gently, ‘Any gas appliances? Anything that could have exploded?’
She tried to nod but pain spiked through her head. Instead she mumbled, ‘A Calor Gas heater. I use it if I’m cold.’
‘Could it have been leaking?’
Why was he asking such stupid questions? She stared at him intently, noting for the first time that he was slightly boss-eyed and that his cheeks still bore the scars of childhood acne. McGowan pushed a lock of green hair back out of her eyes. Her right shoulder throbbed like hell. ‘Why are you here?’
‘They’re just routine questions,’ he said defensively. ‘We need to be sure of what happened.’
What the hell’s he talking about? She tried to sit up, gave up. No strength. ‘What d’you mean?’
‘Well, the fire brigade have largely finished—’
Fire brigade? ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Panic rose in her chest.
‘Didn’t they tell you? You were caught in an explosion.’
She couldn’t remember. ‘Where?’
‘At your shop.’ That snapped her into full awareness for the first time. She stared at him, and the panic became an unstoppable tsunami that pumped adrenaline through her bloodstream, fighting hospital drugs.
He continued, ‘There’s no need to worry. The brigade has made everything secure.’
McGowan closed her eyes again and leant back, breathing heavily. Stay calm. She felt as if she might faint. She ignored him, kept her eyes tightly closed. An accident? He’s presuming it was an accident, but how can he be so sure?
Kurt Wendell. It had to be him. She remembered the emails and the letter. This couldn’t be an accident. The bastard just tried to kill me.
Calm down. It won’t help to panic. You’re safe here.
All those months ago she should have stood up for herself, should have refused to have had anything to do with him. It had just been one stupid mistake, but now she was involved right up to her idiotic neck. No escape.
She heard the scrape of the chair as the policeman stood. ‘I’ll come back later once you’ve had a chance to rest,’ he said softly, and his footsteps receded across the ward.
Wendell tried to kill me, she repeated but it suddenly struck her that Wendell had no reason to think he’d failed. He would think her dead after the explosion. And if Wendell thought he’d succeeded, she would be safe….
She relaxed and drifted back into sleep.
That evening Cliff and Beth visited, the two employees of her interior design business. Cliff’s lanky body hesitated at the open door to the ward. Beth, her round face full of concern, pushed past and hurried over.
McGowan propped herself up on the pillows. ‘How’s the shop?’ she asked hoarsely even before they’d dragged chairs round to face the bed.
‘Stuff the shop,’ Cliff said. ‘How are you?’ He ran feminine hands through his waves of hair. ‘They wouldn’t let us visit this morning; they said you were resting. What happened?’
Beth added, ‘We were told there had been some sort of explosion and that you were in hospital.’
‘Really, I’m fine,’ she insisted. ‘Everyone keeps telling me I’ve been very lucky. It’s just some bruises and cuts. Now, tell me about the shop, please.’ She sounded almost pleading.
Cliff and Beth looked at each other for a moment, and Cliff winced. ‘It’s a bit of a mess to be honest.’
Beth said quickly, ‘But we’ll soon have it tidied. Don’t worry. All the glass blew out at the front and back, but that’s been boarded up already and we can easily get it re-glazed as soon as the insurance company’s been round.’
‘There’s quite a lot of fire and water damage on the stock, though,’ Cliff said.
McGowan felt tears prick at her eyes. Sorry Aunt Flo—this is all my fault. Beth noticed the look on McGowan’s face and continued quickly, ‘I think we can salvage much of the stock. Cliff and I can deal with everything. Just you relax.’
‘What about diary appointments? I was meant to be visiting that big house over in Amersham tomorrow and I haven’t finished the mood board yet.’
Beth laid a hand on hers. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said firmly. ‘I’ll finish it. I know what you were aiming to achieve. I’ll have a stab this evening and bring it over in the morning for you to see, and we can make changes before I take it round. I’ll present it to the client for you. Okay?’
Beth’s soft brown eyes locked with hers, re-assuring. She was a good designer. It was just her natural style was more Art Deco than Riviera, which was what the client wanted. Oh, just let her do it, McGowan told herself. She’ll be fine.
By the time they left, McGowan was feeling calmer. It helped, too, to remember that Wendell would think he had succeeded.
Her optimism was shattered two days later.
By Thursday she was recovering well, but it was what Beth brought with her in the afternoon that thrust McGowan back into the nightmare and threatened to change her life forever.
Beth dropped that week’s Bucks Herald on the sheets. ‘We thought you might like to see this. You’re a celebrity. Look at the front page.’
McGowan stared in horror at the article. Smoking Saves Shop Owner’s Life. There was even a picture of the shattered front of Sylver & McGowan Interiors with a fire engine outside and hoses that snaked through the front door.
Nerves tightened in her guts. She’d been telling herself that Wendell would think she was dead. Not now, though. One look at the local paper and he would know he had failed.
In which case, he would come back. And this time, she wouldn’t be so lucky.