Authors: Michael Joseph
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Retail, #Thrillers
He was having trouble keeping his target in sight. Although she was never more than a few yards ahead of him, the sheer number of weekend shoppers meant he regularly lost sight of her. Each time it happened, a feeling of desperation engulfed him. Then, he would catch a glimpse of her yellow jacket once more and emit a sigh of relief. He had been following her for a few minutes now. It was time to make his move.
With a well-practised deftness of foot, he sidestepped a dawdling couple and accelerated his walking pace. Careful not to attract attention to himself, he snaked through gaps in the crowd until he was right behind her. She was oblivious to his presence, gazing nonchalantly into shop windows as she strolled along. He was so close to her now he could almost whisper in her ear.
Suddenly, she slowed down, forcing him to do the same. He craned his neck to look past her. They were coming level with the entrance of a large department store. Was she going inside? He realised not. Like everyone else around them, she had simply been forced to a snail's pace due to the swell of people outside the store. As the crowd began to bunch up, he realised this was his opportunity. A large throng of tightly-packed, slow-moving shoppers, each preoccupied with making their way to their next destination or deep in conversation with their companions.
All in their own little worlds.
An ideal time to strike.
He slid out an arm towards her.
Sam Carlisle pushed open the door, stepped out of the store and welcomed the fresh air. Something immediately caught his attention. In amongst the mass of people mingling in front of him, a tall, muscular young man was reaching out and dipping his hand into the handbag of an unsuspecting woman. Sam watched intently as the man slyly withdrew a purse from the open bag. A thin smile appeared on the thief's face.
Over-confident at the ease of the lifting, and distracted by the potential rewards to be found in the purse, the thief unintentionally brushed against his victim's shoulder as he drew back his arm. A quick glance behind her, a sudden realisation she was being mugged, and it all started to go wrong for him. The woman screamed and grabbed for her purse back. Unable to accept defeat when he had been so close to pulling the job off, the thief refused to relent and allow her the purse back. For a few seconds a frantic tug-of-war ensued. A swift mismatch that was only going to have one winner. With one final, supreme effort, he tugged hard on the purse with one hand and shoved her in the chest with the other. The woman went crashing to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably even as she struck the pavement.
Sam had taken in events while expecting some upstanding citizen to step in and intervene. He watched the faces of those in the vicinity, initial confusion replaced by clear reluctance to assist the helpless woman. Grown men backed off and watched. Others glanced and carried on walking. Sam felt disgust. Sure, the assailant was well-built and athletic. Not a man to mess with lightly. But to stand by and allow this...
The thief was finally free. He had become careless, and the woman had surprised him with her tenacity, but now he was away. Nobody had tried to stop him. Cowards! He hoped the booty was going to be worth all the effort. Shoving people aside, he spotted an alleyway across the road. That was his escape route.
He never got the chance to reach it. A sudden blow struck him between the shoulder blades, and like his victim moments earlier, he was also sent reeling, powerless to prevent himself from plummeting face first onto the concrete below. Before he could get back up, a knee was pressed forcefully into his back and a strong hand placed on his head. He was pinned down and couldn't move. Breathing hard on the dusty paving slab, he wondered who the hell had jumped him.
Sam hadn't wanted to get involved. He had been willing somebody else to jump in and be the hero. When it became apparent that wasn't going to happen, he felt he had little choice but to halt the mugger himself. It was no big deal. Now it was over, he just wanted to get away. Thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, he lowered his head and marched away from the scene.
'That was very impressive.'
Sam simply grunted in reply to the praise and kept walking.
The same refined voice again. Slightly more urgent this time. Sam ignored the shout. He had already been showered with kind words and slaps on the back following the arrival of the police. It made him sick. Strangers who had been prepared to stand and watch a mugging take place now giving it the big one. Spewing out their congratulations while explaining how they were about to jump in themselves. Let them kid themselves.
A hand rested on Sam's shoulder, causing him to stop in his tracks and sigh out loud. This one was persistent. He turned around to face a heavy-set man wearing a broad smile. A few years older than Sam, his smart suit matched the well-spoken voice. The stranger, perhaps noticing the irritation in Sam's face, held up his hands in a friendly gesture as he spoke.
'I've got a proposition for you.'
Carl Renshaw had walked by the department store in time to catch the end of proceedings. With keen interest, he observed how Sam had tackled the assailant with ruthless efficiency. Noted how easily he kept him constrained on the ground until the police arrived. Admired how he then gave the officers a clear but modest account of events. All done with a minimum of fuss and no little expertise.
Carl Renshaw believed he had found his man.
Jenny ran to the end of the garden and forced herself through the bushes gracing the edge of it. As she did so, she glanced behind her and caught a glimpse of her twin sister, Katie, standing tall in the centre of the lawn with her hands over her face. Jenny giggled as she caught the faint strain of Katie diligently counting up to a hundred.
Burrowing on into deeper shrubbery, Jenny found a tree trunk to hide behind. She pressed herself into it at the very moment Katie called out she was coming to find her. Jenny grinned. The garden was so big, and there were so many places to hide, that neither girl found the other immediately during their games of hide-and-seek.
However, seconds later, Jenny heard a noise nearby. It came from behind her, farther back in the undergrowth. A crunching sound. Twigs being broken underfoot. Disappointed, Jenny couldn't believe her sister had discovered her so quickly.
Another noise. Nearer still.
Jenny ducked down behind the nearest bush. It was a low, sparse affair that provided little cover. There she waited, hoping Katie would somehow pass her by undetected. When a footstep sounded from behind the thick screen of bushes only yards away, Jenny resigned herself to being caught. Sulking slightly, she couldn't help but marvel at how quickly Katie had managed to circle her position. And in such quiet fashion-
Jenny felt a chill sweep through her. Her sister failed to do anything quietly. Least of all play hide-and-seek. Every hunt on Katie's part was routinely accompanied by a playful running commentary. Jenny always heard her sister coming before she saw her.
Another footstep. Heavy. Too solid for a young girl. The screen of bushes began to part. Rooted to the spot in fear, Jenny held her breath.
At that precise moment, Katie's gleeful squeal floated into the undergrowth from the garden. She was calling out to Jenny, informing her their mother had returned home. It was the jolt Jenny needed. She guessed her sister was at the other end of the garden, near to the house.
Certainly not a few yards away, creeping towards her.
Turning her back on whoever was approaching, Jenny stood up and sprinted towards the garden. She ran like the wind and didn't look back.
Sam ignored the tapping on his front door and finished his whisky. Placing the empty glass down on the table in front of him, he picked up the small white card lying next to it. Apparently, it was a business card, but gazing at it for the umpteenth time, Sam still failed to see how it merited such a description. It simply stated the name of Carl Renshaw and his mobile telephone number. No indication of the business he was involved in. No address. No fancy design. Sam considered it an impressive paradox. Straightforward, yet mysterious. A bit like Mr Renshaw himself.
Having been stopped by Carl following the mugging, Sam had reluctantly allowed him a few moments. Carl asked him outright if he was working, to which Sam hesitated, bemused by such a personal question from a stranger. Taking Sam's pause as confirmation of his non-employment, Carl then asked if Sam could drive. Sam told him he could, but made it clear he was walking if Carl didn't get to the point soon.
Leading Sam over to a quiet corner, Carl apologised for the questions and introduced himself, looking up and down the street nervously as he talked. He explained in hushed tones that he was a local businessman in need of some personal security. A bodyguard, as such, and after witnessing Sam's ability to handle himself, Carl wanted to offer him the job. He also emphasised Sam would be handsomely rewarded if he accepted the offer.
Sam asked Carl why he needed security. The answer he got was a rambling one about being a rich man with a young family. How Carl felt it was his duty to take necessary precautions to protect himself, and therefore, safeguard his family. Fair enough, Sam told him, but why not go to a reputable security company? Hire private bodyguards with a proven track record? Carl began to get vague, mumbling about time and paperwork.
The whole scenario didn't sit right with Sam. He didn't know anything about this man, aside from the fact he was very much on edge. It was too out the blue. Too random. Sam's intuition told him to walk away there and then. Not to get involved. Which is what he did, but not before Carl had pressed his card into Sam's palm, asking him to give the offer some thought.
Re-filling his glass with another generous measure of finest malt, Sam leaned back in his chair and put the drink to his lips. Carl's proposal was needling him for one reason alone. Sam needed the money. Badly.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Light rapping. Tentative. Almost reluctant.
Sam sighed and forced himself out of his chair. The room swayed a touch as he placed his glass down on the table. He glanced at the whisky bottle. Half-empty and still only six o'clock in the evening. Dismissing any guilt, he made his way to the front door. He tried to recall how many visitors he had received to his ramshackle cottage, situated in the middle of nowhere, during the eighteen months he had lived here. Two, as far as he could remember. Neither of them invited. An elderly couple lost in the countryside, looking for directions, and a local farmer welcoming him to the area. He presumed the old folks had found their way back to civilization, and he had seen no more of the farmer. That suited Sam fine. He had moved here for the solitude and intended to keep it that way.
Opening the door, Sam was initially confused. He saw no-one, only a small blue car parked at the end of his pathway. Through slightly blurred vision, he squinted hard. The car appeared empty. As he strolled down the path to take a closer look, a figure appeared around the driver's side. Female. Head down, unlocking her door.
'Can I help you?'
The woman looked up, startled, obviously having given up on finding anyone home.
'Oh, hello,' she replied shyly. Locking her door once more, she walked around the car and back up the path. As she did so, Sam found himself backing up until he was on his doorstep again. With a tinge of shame, he casually leaned on the door frame to steady himself.
Sam realised it was the woman whose purse he had rescued that morning. She looked younger than he remembered. Then again, the image he had been left with was of a face contorted with fear and anger, softened little by the flood of tears that followed. She was wearing a light summer dress and small cardigan despite the chill of the early winter evening. Sam noticed a small graze on her cheek.
'I'm sorry to disturb you,' she said softly, self-consciously brushing her long, brown hair out of her eyes. 'I didn't think anyone was home.'
Sam simply nodded. A lack of interaction with the human race recently combined with the alcohol currently washing around inside him seemed to have stunted his social skills.
The woman offered her hand.
'My name's Lucy,' she said with a nervous laugh. 'You, er, helped me this morning.'
'Yes, of course,' replied Sam, finally finding his voice. He took her hand and shook it lightly. 'I'm Sam. How are you?'
Lucy hesitated a moment.
'Fine, thanks,' she replied. 'Still a little shaken, but I'll live.' Her weak smile betrayed the positive words. 'I just wanted to say thank-you in person. The police gave me your address. I hope you don't mind.'
Sam noticed the wary expression on her face.
'No, I don't mind,' he told her, trying to inject some warmth into his voice. After her ordeal, it couldn't have been easy to come here and do this. He presumed it was part of the recovery process.
As if reading his thoughts, Lucy carried on, noticeably more at ease.
'It was just something I wanted to do,' she explained, twirling her car keys in her hand. 'You know...say thanks...explain how...'
Suddenly, she seemed lost for words. She bowed her head for a moment, then raised it again and looked him straight in the eye.
'I wanted to explain how much my faith in people was lost by that...by that...tosser...'
Sam smiled. He had never got used to women using strong language.
'...and how much you restored it with what you did. So, thank-you. It was brave and unselfish. There you go, speech over.'
Looking as though a weight had been lifted off her shoulders, Lucy beamed at Sam. A heart-warming smile accompanied by a twinkle of the eyes. Sam realised how pretty she was. However, he was consumed by one thought.
He needed another drink.
'That's okay,' he told her, shuffling his feet. It was his turn to struggle for the right thing to say. He wondered if she could smell the whisky on his breath. 'I didn't give it much thought at the time. I just did what I thought was right.'
Sam cursed inwardly. How lame did that sound?
An awkward silence followed.
Should he invite her in for a cup of tea? No, he hardly knew her. But he could hardly tell her he had to return inside to satisfy his remorseless desire for alcohol, and shut the door in her face.
Thankfully for him, Lucy made the next move.
'Well, I'll be off now,' she told him cheerfully. 'I'm glad I got to see you and say my piece.'
'And I'm glad to see you're okay,' replied Sam with genuine feeling. 'It was a pleasure to meet you, although I wish it had happened under different circumstances...if you know what I mean.'
Lucy blushed slightly.
'I know what you mean,' she said. 'It's been a pleasure to meet you as well...even under these-'
She stopped herself.
'Let's leave it at that, yeah,' she grinned.
They both laughed freely. For a moment, Sam even forgot the bottle of alcohol waiting for him indoors.
Lucy bid him farewell and strolled back to her car. Sam waved to her as she climbed inside, then hurried back into the cottage. He didn't even hear the roar of the engine as she pulled away. His focus was entirely concentrated on the whisky he was downing.
Lucy Pargeter drove home satisfied. A curiosity had taken over her from the very moment she got her purse back. Was the man who retrieved it for her simply a thug? A lout who had seen the opportunity to boost his ego with his actions? Or was he a genuine good Samaritan? Lucy couldn't explain her need to know. Perhaps it was some adverse reaction to what happened. A desperate need to reassure herself the world was not a totally unpleasant place. The police officer who provided her with Sam's address had certainly looked bemused.
So, off she had set, aware of the risk she was taking in tracking this stranger down. What was she hoping to find? If a shining knight provided closure for her, then what would the opposite do? But having set the wheels in motion, there was no going back. She pushed any negative thoughts out of her mind and concentrated on finding the address she had been given.
Having judged Carl Renshaw as a mystery, Sam would have grimaced at the irony of Lucy's character assessment of himself. She could tell immediately Sam was a genuinely decent guy. Modest, quiet, polite. By the same token, she couldn't fail to notice the run-down living premises. The smell of alcohol on his breath. The unsteadiness in his feet. The troubled look in his eyes. She had witnessed first hand his strength, now she was catching a glimpse of some vulnerability. A rough diamond? A troubled soul? Lucy mulled it over as she pulled up outside her home.
She realised she didn't care.
He was a good man at heart.
That was all that mattered to Lucy Pargeter.