13th novel in the Ben
Cooper and Diane Fry series.
Glen Turner awoke to a drowned world. His brain
felt waterlogged, his skin loose and wrinkled, his body as sodden as if he'd
stayed too long in the bath. He was lying on his back, and shivering so
uncontrollably that his hands twitched in helpless spasms. An icy chill had
spread through his limbs and struck deep into his flesh, knotting his stomach
with fear. Things had gone wrong. Very wrong. More badly wrong than they'd ever
been in his life.
Glen Turner awoke to a drowned world. His brain felt waterlogged, his skin loose and wrinkled, his body as sodden as if he'd stayed too long in the bath. He was lying on his back, and shivering so uncontrollably that his hands twitched in helpless spasms. An icy chill had spread through his limbs and struck deep into his flesh, knotting his stomach with fear. Things had gone wrong. Very wrong. More badly wrong than they'd ever been in his life.
Turner's mind churned frantically, flailing for something to cling to, a solid fact that he could recognise as reality. For a while, there seemed to be nothing. Then, with a shock, he realised he was naked.
A flood of panic surged down his spine. Where were his clothes? What had he been doing before he went to sleep? Had he been asleep at all, or was it something else? Did he have an accident. Had he been taken ill? A heart attack? A stroke? Could he be lying in hospital? His memory was totally blank.
Turner tried to force his eyelids open, but they refused to move. He sensed that he was surrounded by darkness and water. An unnatural silence was broken only by a faint pattering, like thousands of tiny feet. And it was so wet and dark, and cold. Wet, and dark, like - what? He didn't know. His mind couldn't focus enough to come up with any connections, let alone an explanation. The great blank space in his mind terrified him. Not knowing what had happened was more frightening than anything. It made him feel physically sick. His guts heaved, but his muscles cramped and seized rigid, forming a hard ball of pain in the centre of his abdomen.
He really was so cold. As cold as stone, and as stiff. He had to do something now, or he would die here.
With a great effort, Turner managed to move a hand. It seemed like a huge achievement, with each finger so inflexible that it was reluctant to peel away from the next. Slowly, he slid the hand across his body, finding that his wrist was too weak to lift it clear. He felt it crawl crab-like across his stomach, his muscles twitching as he recoiled from contact with his own skin. His limbs were completely numb. There was no blood circulating into his hand, and he had to push the entire forearm from the elbow, dragging it in a clammy trail across his hip until it dropped clear and fell with a splash by his side.
Yes, that was a splash. He heard it clearly. So he really was lying in water. He could feel the liquid movement now, the water surging sluggishly against his shoulders and lapping around his ears, as if his numbed hand had been a fish disturbing the surface of a pond. He wanted to lift those fingers to his face, to feel his eyes and reassure himself they were still there. Why were his eyes still closed? Or were they actually open, and he'd gone blind?
For a few moments, Turner lost all self control. His chest tightened, and his breath gasped in his throat. A sound came from him - a faint, whimpering croak that he would never have recognised as his own voice.
"God forgive me, whatever it is I've done."
He said it again, over and over - but only inside his head, where no one but God would ever hear him. He was screaming in the darkness of his own soul, his terrors lashing out blindly inside in his brain.
Blindness was one of Glen Turner's greatest fears. The dread of being alone in the dark had haunted him since he was a child. He could still remember lying in his bed night after night, crying out or his mother, for light, or just for the sound of another person near him. He couldn't bear the thought of total darkness, even now. And blindness was surely his ultimate nightmare. It was being alone in the dark for ever.
He began to weep, his tears hot and slow as they slid across his face and dripped soundlessly into the water. They made no difference to his fate. Inch by inch, all around him in the darkness, the water continued to rise.
His paralysed body was trying to respond to the danger. It knew he was about to drown in the rising water, that in the next few minutes it would reach his mouth and cover his face, and that would be the end of him.
Yet Turner's mind was saying something different. It was sending him a message that he'd drowned hours ago. He could recall the pain in his airways, the gasping for breath, the pounding of his heart. In his memory, he re-lived the frantic, failing struggle to draw air into his lungs instead of water.
knew it was impossible, but he remembered it clearly. And that was what
bewildered him, the cause of his greatest fear. His brain kept insisting that he
was already dead.
With a grunt of discomfort, Charlie Dean straightened his back and glared at his car. The night was as dark as he could wish for. As black as pitch. Night time was his friend for so many reasons. And one of those reasons was pressing on his mind right now, as he stood by the side of a deserted back road in Derbyshire, with mud splattered on his trousers and the palms of his hands wet and sore from pushing.
Well, at least in the dark, no one could see the colour of your car. The torrential rain falling on this part of the Peak District made his BMW gleam like a great, black fish. Charlie wanted to think of his car as a shark. Sleek and powerful, with a grille full of sharp teeth. But right now the shark was beached and helpless. The rear wheels of his vehicle churned uselessly in the mud at the side of the road.
He'd owned the BMW too long, of course. If he'd replaced it with a newer model, he could have had the all-wheel drive version. That would have got him out of the mud, for sure. Right now, though, he was stuck. The front wheels were on the edge of the tarmac, but there was no traction at the back, just his tyres hissing and screaming as they dug themselves deeper into the mire, spraying mud everywhere. Instead of creeping back onto the road, it was in danger of slipping further towards the shallow ditch and
"What if someone comes? We're sitting ducks here, Charlie. They'll see us in their headlights plain as day."
Dean looked at the woman standing in the roadway. He'd left only his sidelights on, to avoid flattening the battery. But they were good enough to pick out her skinny legs, a bright green skirt turning darker and darker in the rain, a pale face above thin shoulders hunched inside a totally inappropriate woollen jacket. When he'd picked her up earlier in the evening, her hair had been blonde and pushed into eye-catching waves. Now it was lank and sticking to her skull. the result wasn't very attractive. Not for the first time, he wondered what it was that he'd ever seen in her.
Headlights. Yes, she was right. Anyone could see the colour of his car in the beam of their headlights. And worse - they could make out the number on a licence plate too, unless it was obscured by mud.
Dean made sure the handbrake was on, then walked back to the rear of the car. It wasn't too bad. No shortage of mud there. He smeared a bit more across the plate, completely obliterating the numbers before the letters TKK. Those two numbers gave away the year the car was registered - narrowed it down to a six-month period, in fact. He didn't know much about these things, but he imagined having the numbers would make it much easier to trace a vehicle. How many models in the BMW 5-series were registered in the UK in those particular six months? Not many, he supposed. Especially this colour.
"Don't worry, Sheena, we'll be fine," he said. "There's no one around at this time of night. We'll just give it another try."
Up to now, he'd been doing the pushing, with Sheena at the wheel. But she did have a tendency to press the accelerator pedal too hard. She didn't seem able to exercise any restraint, no matter how often he shouted instructions at her.
"Too late, Charlie," she said.
He looked up. "What?"
"I said 'too late'."
And she was right. Again
Dean twisted round when he caught the flash of light in his wing mirror. He couldn't see the make of the other car as it turned the corner near the woods and came slowly down the road. Its lights were on full beam, and they dazzled him, so that he had to raise a hand to shield his eyes from the glare.
At first he thought the driver was intending to go straight past them, as most people would. Everybody was reluctant to stop and help strangers, especially late at night and in a remote spot like this. You just never knew what might happen, or who you were dealing with.
But the car braked and drew into the side of the road. Dean found himself praying that the driver wouldn't be someone he knew. They weren't all that far from home, just a few miles outside Wirksworth. And so far tonight his luck hadn't been good. He'd already missed the chance to push Sheena into the ditch and make her hide. They were picked out in those headlights like a pair of sitting ducks.
For a moment, the doors of the car remained closed. Who was sitting in there behind that glare? It wouldn't be a woman on her own, at least. No solitary female would have stopped in these circumstances. It was much too risky. It would have to be a man, perhaps two or more.
Dean began to get anxious now. He started to calculate what possessions he had on him that might be valuable to robbers - about two hundred pounds in cash, his credit cards, an iPhone, a decent watch. And of course there was the BMW itself. If they could get it out of the mud, they were welcome to it. There was nothing else of any value.
"Who is it, Charlie?" asked Sheena plaintively.
"I've no idea. Just keep quiet. Let me do the talking."
He thought he heard her snort. She had an unappealing little derisive laugh that irritated him sometimes. But perhaps she was just catching a cold standing in the rain. He had a mental image of a sniffling Sheena with a red nose and watering eyes, her bag stuffed with tissues. That would be just great.
As he waited, Dean wiped the rain from his face and pulled up his collar. He was ready to run, if necessary. If there were two or three of them, it would be hopeless trying to resist. He pictured himself racing through the mud and hurling himself across the ditch into the trees, where he could disappear into the dark. They would never pursue him through the woods. He wasn't worth that much bother. Darkness was definitely his friend.
But just one man got out of the car. He stood behind the headlights, so that Dean couldn't see him at all, except for an impression of a large, bulky figure glistening with water, an outline that looked entirely the wrong shape for a human being.
"Hello?" said Dean tentatively. His voice sounded weak, and he decided to try again. "Hello?"
the man finally moved forward into the light, Dean saw that he was wearing a
heavy rain jacket. It had a peaked hood and
a double storm flap that fastened across the front of his face, completely
obscuring his features, except for a pair of deep-set eyes faintly visible
inside the hood. The expression in those eyes was one that Dean hardly dared to
analyse. It made him look away uncomfortably, his skin tightening with unease.
The voice that came from inside the hood was strangely hoarse. The man seemed to
be breathing heavily, as if he'd been running or exerting himself in some way
for the last few minutes, rather than just having stepped out of a car.
stuck in the mud," said Dean, though he thought it ought to have been
obvious to anyone, even with eyes like that.
a bit of a push?"
got behind wheel and the stranger positioned himself at the back of the car with
his hands braced against the boot. A few seconds later, the BMW had finally
churned and skidded its way back onto the road. It sat slightly askew on the
carriageway, liquid mud dripping from its rear bumper, steam rising from the
bonnet and mingling with the rain.
Dean slid down the driver's window and tried to locate the stranger in the darkness.
"Oh, that's great. Thanks," he called. "We can be on our way at last."
"It's a bad night to get yourself stuck like that."
"Yes, but - . Well, we're fine now - thanks to you. So off we go, eh?"
He knew he was sounding too hasty and nervous, but he couldn't help it. He just wanted this man to go and leave them alone. He would have felt happier if he'd still been struggling with the car. Somebody else would have come along eventually. Somebody a bit more... normal.
peered into the night, disorientated by the lights and the drumming of the rain
on the roof of the car. It was suddenly hurtling down, bouncing off the road and
obscuring the windscreen completely.
sorry? You were saying?"
voice came from a direction he wasn't expecting. Dean realised the stranger had
moved closer to the side of the car without him realising it, and he was now
standing by the open window. Why did that feel so much like a threat?
you very much again for the help. But we really ought to be getting along
you in a hurry, then?"
Right up close, Dean could tell that the rain jacket was red. He could see an expanse of fabric in front of his eyes, a deep, wet red that made him think only of one thing. Blood.
Though he was anxious to escape, he could hardly tear his gaze away from the glistening redness a few inches from his face. He began to think that he could actually smell blood on the air. His head swam, and he felt nauseous. In his wavering vision, the fabric of the jacket became a side of beef, the skin freshly peeled away to expose the red slabs of muscle underneath. When the man moved, leaning closer to the window, rain gathered and pooled in the folds of his jacket, dark splashes of water dripping onto the paintwork of the car.
"It's late," said Dean. "You're out late, too."
man grunted. Dean
tried to get a look at his eyes again, but his courage failed him. Instead,
he tried a laugh, and nodded towards Sheena.
hates to be late for anything. Always blames me, of course. Says I'll be late
for my own funeral. We're expected… somewhere, you see. But
with all this rain and everything, and the mud. Well..."
course, Dean knew he was beginning to sound hysterical. He glared at Sheena, who
still said nothing, clutching her coat up to her ears, her eyes wide. She looked
as though she was frozen to the spot.
you get in the car, dear?" said Dean loudly.
stared at him stupidly, a rabbit in the headlights. Literally, almost. She was a
scared animal, waiting for someone tell tell her what to do next.
tried to make his voice sound firmer: "Get in, Sheena."
he was betrayed by a tremble on the last word, the final vowel sound cracking
and pitching too high, like the voice of pubescent schoolboy. It made him sound
as though he was asking a question. Begging or pleading even.
she moved. The passenger door opened and she squelched into the BMW, fumbled
automatically with the seat belt. Dean winced when he thought of the damage to
his leather seats from the water.
then," he said, and pressed the button to wind up the window. With that
thin sheet of glass between him and the stranger, he instantly felt safer.
"Where did he come from?" said Sheena, when the windows safely closed.
"I don't know."
"Did he come out of the woods?"
"I couldn't see."
"He scared me, Charlie."
"We're okay, he's going back to his car."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. Fasten your seat belt and put the heater on."
"Oh, I'm soaked."
put the heater on, then."
He squinted at the headlights still reflected in his rearview mirror and waited for the other car to pull out and pass him. A minute passed. Then two.
"What the hell is he doing? Is he waiting for me to go first?"
Dean felt uncomfortable about the idea of setting off with the other car behind him. What if this man followed his BMW into Wirksworth, maybe all the way back to his house? He didn't want anyone knowing where he lived. He certainly didn't want him knowing.
Finally, the headlights swung across his mirror. But instead of passing, they suddenly lit up the opposite side of the road. Dean looked over his shoulder, saw vertical sheets of rain illuminated into a glittering curtain, pools of water forming on the roadway, alive with light and fresh raindrops pouring in their surfaces. The stranger's full beam had turned the road into a stage set. What was the next act going to be?
"He's turning round," said Sheena.
"So he is."
The other vehicle twisted across the road, and straightened up. Its tyres hissed on the wet tarmac as it accelerated away. Dean stared into his mirror, but the rear window was blurred by rain and he could see nothing of the car but for two smudges of red light moving away. By the time he got the rear wiper working, the vehicle was too far away to make out clearly.
"Oh, well. That's it, then."
He wondered why he didn't feel a lot better, now that the car had gone. The uneasy feeling had been just too strong. It would take time for it to pass. He'd need a few drinks, in fact. He had a hip flask tucked into the back of the glove compartment. Good quality brandy too. But maybe this wasn't the time to get stopped by the police and breathalysed for drink driving.
It turned out that Sheena was even jumpier than he was. Before he could get the car into second gear, she cried out.
"Wait. What was that?" she said.
Dean slammed on the brakes. "What was what?"
"By the side of the road. There was something... Oh, I don't know now."
He shrugged. "I didn't see it, whatever it was. A fox? A dead badger?"
She hesitated for a moment, then sagged back in her seat. "It doesn't matter, I suppose."
Dean released a long breath and put the BMW back into gear.
"Don't do that, Sheena. Just don't do it. You nearly frightened me to death."
Glen Turner could sense that his mind was failing now. His body had already let him down. He'd been unable to move more than a hand, and now the water had risen until it was creeping over his face.
He was incapable of forming logical thoughts any more. Just one phrase kept running through his brain, over and over and over.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God."
They said your whole life flashed in front of your eyes when you were dying. Yet his immediate past was a complete blank to him. His life was a desperate nightmare in which nothing had happened, and nothing ever would. When he looked into his own mind, he saw only a void. It was like standing in an echoing cave, a place as cold as rock and just as lifeless.
As the hours passed and the water rose, it stayed that way. Right up to the moment Glen Turner stopped breathing.
* * * * * *
Copyright Stephen Booth 2013
ALREADY DEAD is published in hardback in the UK by Little, Brown in June 2013
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