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Authors: Gillian Galbraith

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BOOK: The Road to Hell
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As she lurched forward, she stumbled and fell, twisting her knee on the way down. Breathing more rapidly, and aware of that fact, she raised herself onto all fours and began to crawl out of the
gully. Her headache seemed worse, a thumping pain in her right temple, every time her knees made contact with the ground.

Behind her she heard something which sounded like a twig snapping, and shuffled round to see what was there. But nothing was visible. Teeth chattering like castanets, she forced herself onwards,
but heard, once more, something behind her. She was sure of it, frightened by it. The sound was like breathing, heavy human breathing, coming closer all the time. It was followed by a light,
tinkling laugh which echoed in her head. Ungainly as a wounded beast, she twisted round on all fours, her head poking out in front of her, determined to face whoever was playing these pranks on
her. Please God, please, please God, it would be kiddies. The ones she had heard earlier.

‘Who’s there?’ she demanded in a gruff voice, her tongue feeling oddly swollen in her mouth. A pile of dried leaves rose in the wind and hit her in the face and, frantically,
she batted them away with one hand, temporarily blinded by them. On its own, her other arm could not bear her weight, so she collapsed, face first, chin hitting the ground, buttocks high in the air
like those of a devout Muslim in a mosque.

‘Who’s there? Who’s there . . . please, please?’ she begged, terrified now, desperate to see whoever it was who was following her, tormenting her. Feeling weak, she
managed to get to her feet and started to limp away from the sounds, the eerie laughter. Her hair flapping into her eyes made them sting and water, and she clenched and unclenched her jaw, forcing
herself onwards, trying to ignore the knife-like pain in her knee.

Another noise filled her ears, this time like the hissing of a snake, and she looked up and saw a figure standing in front of her. It seemed huge, looming over her, and she knew in her bones
that it intended her harm. Without thought she tried to escape from it, flinging herself into the nearby thicket, fighting her way through the jagged hawthorn and blackthorn bushes, feeling nothing
as their thorns ripped through the flesh of her head and hands. Startled, a bird flew up at her, again hitting her squarely in the face, and she screamed, unable to contain herself, horrified by
its feathery feel.

From some place deep within the thicket came a strange scrabbling sound, as if something, or someone, was clawing its way through the undergrowth to get to her. To get at her. Hearing it, she
quickened her pace until her damaged knee gave way, and she fell forwards, exhausted. She had reached a clearing at the edge of a rock face, and a hundred feet below, the burn shone like polished
steel in the light of the newly-risen moon. In the silence she remained motionless, breathing shallowly in an effort to keep quiet, terrified that the sound of her teeth chattering might give her
away.

For five more minutes she remained where she was, unable to stop the shivering that racked her body, but alert, listening for any of those horrible sounds. None came. Whatever it was that had
been pursuing her had, finally, gone. It had given up. She let out a sigh of relief, newly conscious of her own thumping heartbeat. And then, both behind and in front of her, she heard the
familiar, tinkling little laugh.

 
4

The first to wake the next morning, Alice slid from under her lover’s outstretched arm and edged quietly out of the bed. In the dark her hand scrabbled on the bedside
table searching for her watch. Finally she found it, carried it into the kitchen and turned on the light. 7.32 a.m. Christ almighty! Neither of them had remembered to set the alarm and now she
would be late for work. But all was not lost, she thought. If she drove instead of walking as usual, she could still make it on time.

In the cold bathroom she hurriedly threw on those of yesterday’s clothes that she could find, and then brushed her teeth using the disgusting sweet, striped stuff that Ian insisted on
buying. She made a mental note to beg him once more to get something else. Or, conceivably, to do the shopping herself, for a change.

The bread bin contained only a single, stale croissant which she scanned for mould. Finding only a patch the size of a pinhead she ate the croissant with some raspberry jam, mould and all.
Gulping down the last of her tea she set off down the tenement steps towards the street, confident that she would make St Leonard’s by eight-fifteen. Halfway down she remembered that she had
neither closed the front door of their flat nor given Ian a farewell kiss. Rattled at having to use up more precious minutes, she turned round and tore up the two flights of stairs and rushed,
panting, back into the flat.

Unthinkingly, she clumped along the bare boards of the corridor leading to their bedroom and flung the door open. Despite the racket, Ian remained asleep. A miracle, she thought, or, and more
likely, the effects of last night’s drink. Light from the corridor outside illuminated his face, and for an instant she gazed at the slumbering man, touched by his vulnerability. Time stood
still. His dark hair lay in curls over his forehead and his long lashes were visible against his unnaturally pale skin. She bent over him and planted a light kiss on his cheek, but he did not stir,
only groaned slightly and flicked his head with his hand as if brushing away a fly. Amused, she closed the door as quietly as possible and tiptoed back towards the front door.

He would have no recollection of any kiss bestowed by her, remain unaware until the evening that she bore him no grudge and was, almost, but not quite, ashamed of starting their quarrel. What
did it all amount to now? The hearing had been abandoned and she was free of it. So what the hell? What did it matter if he had forgotten all about it? If only that ghastly Cici had not been there
they would not have argued because, apart from anything else, she would have been unable to keep in her good news, would have blurted it out the minute she had seen him. Then their evening would
have ended very differently. Probably, in bed together with only a bottle of wine between them. No. There was no doubt about it; that woman was a menace.

Alice crossed the street to her car and turned the key in the ignition, but as soon as she had edged it out of its parking space she became aware that something was wrong. The steering wheel
felt unnaturally heavy between her cold hands, and the cobbles appeared to have grown overnight, become rougher, larger and more uneven. Even the sound made by the wheels as they rolled over them
seemed different, louder, and punctuated by an occasional heavy clunking noise.

Just before she reached the junction with Broughton Street, she stopped, clambered out of the vehicle and made a quick inspection. The tyres on the driver’s side appeared entirely normal
but as she walked round the car she noticed that the passenger-side rear tyre was flat, its hubcap unnaturally close to the ground. Examining it, the front one looked soft too. For the moment
nothing could be done. She would simply have to park the sodding thing back in the space she had just vacated, leave an explanatory note on the windscreen for any over-eager wardens and get it
fixed that evening. Thinking about it, there was a spare in the boot, and with luck Ian would give her a hand. He was better with jacks.

With the clanking noise getting louder by the second, she reversed slowly in the direction of her space, hoping that the axle would come to no harm. Looking in her mirror, she saw a red VW Golf
slide into the very slot at which she had been aiming. The man got out of his car and walked away, apparently unaware or unmoved that he had just stolen her space.

She looked at her watch, 8 a.m., and then at the unbroken line of parked cars on either side of the street. All the residents’ parking spaces were occupied, and so, too, were those
reserved for ticket buyers. The only empty ones were marked by double yellow lines.

At a snail’s pace she drove onto the double yellow lines and parked the useless vehicle. As she locked the door she caught sight of a deep scratch on the driver’s side extending the
full length of the car, and any thought of leaving a notice for the wardens left her mind. Someone had used a screwdriver or penknife on it. The bastard! They would have to get a lock-up sooner
rather than later.

Now sweating before the labours of the day had even begun, she started to jog up Hart Street and, cursing to herself, felt the first few drops of rain fall on her unprotected head.

In the Hermitage, Simon McVicar stopped at the little ford to catch his breath, listening to the thin winter birdsong which was just audible above the roaring noise made by the
burn. His lungs hurt. No doubt, he thought, the pain was attributable to all the cold air he had been sucking so forcibly into them. Or, maybe, he was simply a little unfit? Bent double, his head
dangling down, he could feel his spare tyres being compressed against each other, and in his skimpy new running shorts his pasty legs looked rather too solid, with no taper to the ankles.

Feeling suddenly self-conscious about his appearance, he looked round, hoping desperately that he would see no one from his work. In his normal clothes he appeared, in his own eyes at least, as
a reasonably trim figure, but in this kit every imperfection was accentuated. Concluding that in motion they would be less obvious, he straightened up, took another deep breath and set off jogging
down the wet tarmac path once more.

A little while later he was trotting past Hermitage of Braid House, his legs feeling shaky and heavy as lead. Briefly he wondered about stopping again and taking another rest, when a man, far
bulkier than himself, drew level. Glancing sideways at him, he decided that his fellow jogger must be at least ten years older than he was and appeared to be carrying an extra couple of stone or
more. The brute had a neck like an old bull. This was no athlete. To be overtaken by such a figure would be beneath him, undignified to put it mildly. The man looked like a slob, someone who had
let himself go completely. Probably a couch potato ordered out by his spouse.

So, without his rival realising it, he decided he would match him pace by pace, prevent him from drawing ahead. Determined to keep in front, he lengthened his stride and attempted to breathe in
a more regular, rhythmic fashion. The moisture now running down his brow trickled into his eyes but he ignored it, occasionally shaking his head in an attempt to get rid of it. By the time they
reached the raised bridge he was scarcely able to breathe, and unpleasantly aware that his heart was racing in his no longer flat chest. The tubby man seemed to be gliding along effortlessly, the
only sign of exertion being his complexion, which seemed slightly ruddier than before.

Gasping, and now desperate to stop, McVicar decided to simulate a trip. Taking a break for an injury was perfectly legitimate, he decided. So he stopped dead, and with what little wind he had
left, let out a mild expletive, looking angrily at the ground as if intent on punishing the rut or ridge responsible for his stumble. Standing on one leg and rubbing the ankle of the other, he
attempted to convey to any passers-by and to his oblivious competitor that he had only come to a halt because of his injury. But without a backward glance, his former running mate powered onwards,
as unaware of the faked accident as he had been of the scarlet-faced man who had recently been huffing and puffing beside him.

McVicar wandered over towards the burn, its waters now brown from the overnight rain, and tossed a twig idly into it. He watched as it was carried away, twisting and turning in the swirls and
eddies, occasionally submerged but always bobbing up again. When it finally disappeared from view, he set off once more, still heading in the direction of the Blackford Depot. If he was ever going
to get into his best suit again, this pain would have to be endured, otherwise a diet of lettuce leaves lay ahead of him. Of course, rabbit food and exercise together would be the most efficient
combination, but life was not worth living without chocolate and red wine. The odd latte, too.

Seeing a little-used path peeling off on his left he decided to take it, thinking that the sight of unfamiliar scenery might occupy his mind and make him forget about the raw ache in his lungs.
A grass surface would be springier too, less damaging to his no longer young knees.

For a very short while, the new sights did seem to supply him with a burst of energy. But the soaking ground seemed to go on sloping ever upwards, forcing the puff out of him, and there was no
plateau in sight. Forcing one weighty leg in front of the other, trying not to groan, he felt a slight twinge of pain in the left side of his chest. Fearful that he was on the verge of a heart
attack, he stopped abruptly, intent upon resting, preventing any further damage.

A large boulder resting on the rabbit-grazed grass caught his eye. He walked slowly towards it and sat down on its smooth surface. After a period of immobility with his head between his knees,
the pain in his chest disappeared and he decided that it must have been heartburn. This time. He stood up, relieved that he had done no permanent damage. He had quickly reached the decision that a
new suit would be in order, with him alive inside it. No point in being a slim corpse. Thinking about things realistically, no one’s figure remained unchanged throughout their late teenage
years, or even their early twenties or thirties. If for any reason he could not find a suit he liked in M&S then he would simply wear his kilt to the wedding instead. After all, he was not at
the last hole of the straps yet and a judiciously-placed sporran would camouflage any slight pot-belly.

BOOK: The Road to Hell
8.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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