An hour past in silence and inactivity, Jean was amazed to find that she dozed for minutes at a time on the sofa, and Lesley, completely exhausted, had fallen so deeply asleep in the chair that she was snoring gently. The phone was on charge and when it chimed with a text notification, Jean was across the room and opening the message thread before her sister had properly woken.
‘Bridge. 20 minutes.’ And that was it. Her stomach lurched but she punched the air and hissed out “Yes” as she handed the phone across to Lesley.
She handed it back with shaking fingers, “I’m so scared, I can’t cope with this. I feel sick.”
Jean glanced at her watch. It was just after midnight. The rain had stopped outside but it would be cold. She fetched her jacket and pushed a torch into one pocket, she had a silver survival blanket in her hiking kit and she put that in the other. Lesley frowned in puzzlement but she wasn’t about to tell her it was in case she found Carl injured. She reimagined the girl floating on the dirty water, and recalled the wet clamminess of her clothes as she cradled the body.
Carl’s phone went into one pocket in her trousers, and she put her Swiss Army knife into the other. “Right, I’m going, Lesley. Look, don’t worry.”
“Okay, yes that was a silly thing to say, but, I’m going to bring him back now.” She had no idea what she would tell these thugs or what she could do, if she got to the bridge and all she found was Carl, dead in the water. For now, she just had to be strong, and go forward one step at a time. She opened the door and then threw her arms around her sister in a hug. “Wait until half past one. If I’m – if we’re, not back by then call the police. Bob Rather’s number is in the contacts on the landline, tell him what’s happened.”
She went through the front door, turned at the gate and headed towards the canal bank, just as she had only two days, and a lifetime ago.
At the canal, she switched on the torch. Where the going was smoother, she jogged. It would have been easier and safer to take the other route, through the houses, but it was important to be there first. She wanted to see them before they saw her, and hoped that an early arrival might mean that it would be possible to protect Carl from anything they may be planning.
The path was a nightmare, muddy and wet, and the water beside her was an unfriendly gleam when the dark, blowing clouds occasionally allowed light from a waxing moon. The weather had kept everyone indoors, and moving along the narrow path, she was alone in the world.
There was no car on the bridge. The footpath on the other side of the canal was lit by streetlamps and there was no sign of any vehicle over there. Jean stopped a short distance from the steps, here was good with sight of the road, and both ways along the towpath. She pushed back into the bushes, turned off the torch and waited in the hushed darkness, heart pounding in her throat.
In the quiet, waiting for something to happen, the writerly part of Jean’s brain, the part that hummed away always, in the background, taking in information and storing it for later, remembered a short story she had written. ‘Redirection’ she’d called it and the hero had left his home to meet some thugs. While he was away his wife and family had been terrorised. She turned on the torch and checked her watch, it was now more than twenty minutes since she had read the message on Carl’s phone. Was it possible that even now, as she hid amongst the hedgerows, Lesley was in the midst of terror back at the house?
She stepped forward and peered back and forth along the towpath, there was still nothing and no-one. The bridge was dark and silent. The undergrowth rustled and Jean jumped and spun, sweeping the torch beam onto the path where it landed on the dark back of a water rat rooting in the wet leaves near the water.
She must ring Lesley, make sure she was safe, tell her to check the door locks. She pulled out the phone. There was no turning back time, there was no undoing what had happened but she would do whatever it took to get Carl and Lesley back together.
Right now, until they came, she was powerless, helpless, and frustrated.
She slid the knife from her pocket and opened the biggest blade, turning it in her hand. How insignificant it was, but it was better than nothing. She wrapped her fingers around the smooth metal handle, woke the mobile and began to punch in her home number. That was when there came the low rumble of a car. It moved from the darkness, out of sight, approaching from behind her and the low gleam told her that whoever was driving was using sidelights only. It drove on to the centre of the bridge where it pulled up tight against the old stones of the wall.
Jean leaned forward but didn’t show herself, she would watch, wait to see what they would do. The interior stayed dark. There was the dark shadow of a figure behind the wheel, illuminated by the street lamps at the end of the bridge. As far as she could tell there was no-one in the rear seat, so – where was Carl. She stepped a little further out, across the path. Maybe they had him in the boot, the thought chilled her to the bone.
She barely heard the rustle in the grass, the small sounds of footsteps across the hard-packed earth. The first she knew of alarm was the sudden pressure of hands on her shoulders, heaving her sideways, taking away her balance and forcing her nearer and nearer to the slippery slope that led down to the gleam of black water.