Warnings: Some physical violence, injuries
Chapter 12 – Thursday pm
John Shepherd. Rebecca thought about him as she headed for home and bed, unaware that she was being observed by a man who was tensing himself ready to move as soon as she was clear of the cameras that monitored the entrance.
She walked away, her back to him, the sharp night air stinging her eyes, the frosty chill clouding her breath and as she passed by one of the narrow ginnels between the buildings there was a movement from inside. Her hands tightened for an instant, the keys digging into her palm. She scanned the darkness and sighed, loosening her grip on the bunch of keys as a large shape stepped out to stand under the street light.
‘On your way home?’ Dale dropped his cigarette end to the ground and crushed it beneath his heel. ‘Bit late isn’t it, Miss Steel? Sorry,’ he paused, ‘Hope I didn’t startle you. Just not used to seeing you going home at this hour,’ he said, his voice soft and apologetic.
She laughed, ‘Hello Dale. Yes it’s late, but I just wanted to check that things were okay.’ She turned to leave just as the other men shuffled out of the alley, intent on getting back into the warmth and comfort of the Shelter,. They greeted her, offered her a cigarette, a beer, all their usual little gestures of camaraderie. In an obscure way they were a band of brothers, drunks, and addicts and homeless, but Rebecca knew that she was safe with them. She chatted, warned them not to get too drunk, and said goodnight. They stood there, drinking their last dregs and dragging on butt ends and watched her go up to the high street at the top then turn out of sight.
‘Right, let’s get inside. It’s too cold out here,’ Dale ordered, and headed back to the Shelter door a few yards away. He pressed the intercom. ‘Dale. And mates.’
A loud buzz signalled the unlocking of the door and he led the way inside.
The man waiting out there on the street, still concealed from sight, swore under his breath as Rebecca disappeared from view. On an impulse he hurried towards the knot of men pushing and jostling to get inside the entrance. It was easy to join them, to step quickly aside onto the shadowed landing once he was behind the secure door and let them all traipse down the stairs.
He stood there, in silence, unseen by anyone, rubbing his bare arms to get warm. Then, once his shivering had ceased, he pulled out a knife from his pocket, hefting it loosely in the palm of his hand as if to familiarize himself with its weight. Breath smelling of whisky, thoughts dark with the memory of being turned away from here without any consideration. No woman did that to him.
The common room was by now crowded, with loud voices arguing over football, and the pungent smell of beery breath and cigarette smoke heavy on clothes. Shepherd stood up, unobserved and unnoticed, desperate for fresh air.
The reception area was as he remembered it from his first night. Brightly lit, just the one person on duty; Sam, standing by the desk, reading the day’s briefing notes. He was tempted to go outside, to feel a cold breeze on his face, anything to keep him awake rather than face the possibility of yet another nightmare. He hesitated, and just at that moment, as he stood there about to speak, the inner door at the bottom of the stairwell slammed open. He spun around.
The stranger’s eyes flickered once over John, casually dismissing him as yet another incompetent and drunken misfit who was not worth a second glance. Instead the intruder lunged at Sam, his eyes cold with malice, his mind set on revenge.
A sharp blade. The knife was razor-sharp. Shepherd could tell by the way it shone, by its thin appearance and the way it was held with such contemptuous confidence. He took it all in with that single glance before pushing Sam to one side and safely out of the way then reaching for the intruder’s arm as the night worker yelled in horror.
Too slow. The blade flashed as it stabbed at him, ripping through the cheap fabric of his dark sweatshirt, slicing through cotton and skin with ease. Fight or flight. Adrenaline numbed the sharp pain, helped him to reach out, grabbing the hand with its fingers clasped around the blade. His other hand fastened on the intruder’s elbow and then John Shepherd slammed the forearm down across the edge of the desk.
The crack of bones snapping echoed in the confined space, followed by a shriek of agony, both sounds blotting out the clatter as the knife fell, and was kicked out of reach.
Sam’s yell broke through the noisy chatter in the common room, and in that second of absolute stillness, before anyone had time to even think of reacting, more sounds filled the silence. A thump as if somebody had fallen heavily or had been pushed to the ground, then harsh screams of pain and Sam’s voice again, crying for help.
Dale, for all his bulk, was first to get there. Sam had taken refuge behind the desk, shaking, while Shepherd, with an expression of utter intensity, was crouching, both knees on the back of a man lying face down on the floor, hands pressing down on the shoulders of the intruder. Both of them spattered with blood. Dale looked, saw bone protruding from the ruin of the stranger’s arm, turned away and noisily vomited.
Rebecca had made it back home, but hadn’t even managed to unfasten her coat before the urgent buzz of her phone interrupted her. Enough. She had had enough. This was the last bloody straw. ‘Yes.’ She waited. If this was another stupid waste of time she would rota Sam on duty for New Year’s Eve. That would teach her.
‘Rebecca,’ Sam sounded shaken, her voice trembling, ‘There’s been an incident. Everyone’s fine and the police are here now, but I think you should come back.’ She sounded breathless, as if she had been running.
‘On my way.’ She was moving for the door even as she closed the phone, clattering down the stairs to the lobby of the apartment block, not bothering with handbag, gloves, scarf.
Thank god she was still wearing her flat shoes. She could run in those. And she did.
The side street, usually dark in the late evening, was a carnival of glittering primary colours. Blue emergency, red police warning, yellow hazard. The street was sealed off further down by two police cars and an ambulance was outside the entrance to the shelter. Fuck.
She pushed past the small crowd of onlookers, and hurried down the steps. Familiar faces clustered in a group around the desk, Sam, sitting there, pale and shaking. Blood drying in dark stains on the desk and spattered on the floor and the wall.
‘Who’s been hurt?’
Chapter 13 – Thursday pm
Shepherd had spoken to the police, a brief exchange of information just enough to satisfy them for the night, and had then gone to his room. No questions asked by the residents, no curious glances as he walked carefully away from the reception area, his hands still spattered with blood, his fingers clenched as if remembering that moment when he smashed the man’s arm.
Head down as if he was embarrassed, he walked with precisely measured steps to his room, unlocking the door and then locking it again behind him before lowering himself to the bed to sit there, stiff and rigid as if afraid to move.
It took him a few minutes to summon up the courage to strip off his sweat shirt. The cheap fabric had no stretch, and caught mercilessly on his ribs as he eased it up. It was simpler to take the t-shirt off with it, at least that way he didn’t have to reach up more than once. Hissing and clenching his teeth against the sharp pain, he pulled them off with slow caution. He gave the sweat shirt a cursory look before dropping it onto the floor, seeing the dark wetness under the sleeve, the extent of the long gash in the cotton evidence of his failure to avoid the intruder’s knife.
There was nothing he could do yet, not until the police had finished and everyone had gone to bed. Not yet. Once the building settled down and it was quiet again, he could go across to the bathroom and clean himself up, get out of his stained jeans, have a shower, wash away the cloying blood that clung to him, sticky on his hands and body. Until then he would have to sit there and be patient.
He leaned forward to reach for the small scrubby hand towel he had been given on his first night here and even that small movement was sufficient to make him dizzy, to make him nearly cry out with the burning flash of pain that tore through his skin.
He pressed the towel against the wound, hoping that the damage was not too severe, that he would not need stitches. It was just a case of waiting now.
It took time for Rebecca to get all the facts straight. Sam was beginning to recover from the shock, Dale standing solicitous in the background, offering coffee and tea to all and sundry, the police finishing their initial interviews, the assailant under arrest and on his way to hospital. John Shepherd was nowhere to be seen. Dale told Rebecca that Shepherd had spoken to the police, had explained what had happened and had then gone to his room. No one had seen him since. But that was not her concern right now.
She ushered Sam home in a taxi, sent the men to their rooms with half-joking threats of eviction if they didn’t comply, and then started. She would be able to get the incident typed up before Sam’s replacement arrived. And then, well there was a bed in the medical room; she would kip down there for the remainder of the night. It was simply too much effort to contemplate going home again.
Sitting there, alone in the dimness of his solitary room, John Shepherd listened to the sounds outside. The hand towel was beginning to feel warm and wet under his hand, the cherry-red stain slowly spreading. It had to stop soon. Surely. Bending his head he forced himself to relax as he heard the others go by, tried to breath shallow even breaths, to will his body to heal itself, to push the pain away.
Despite the warmth in the small room he was beginning to shiver and he tugged one of his blankets up and around his shoulders, even that movement enough to make him stifle a gasp. The sounds outside as the other men headed for their rooms and beds made him sigh with relief. It would not belong now, and then maybe he too could sleep when he had cleaned himself up.
The buzz of the intercom roused Rebecca out of her doze, her computer screen still lit in front of her, the report waiting to be finished, saved, filed, and probably forgotten in a few weeks. She let the night worker in before going back to typing, her fingers stiff and clumsy. It had to be done though, before the facts all merged into a blur, before details were forgotten and while she could still recall what had been said.
A toilet flushed, voices growled and muttered and the last footsteps echoed down the corridor, while John Shepherd waited there, alone, trembling with the cold that had pervaded his body. The soft noises died away, feet shuffling, doors slamming in the distance as he sat hunched on the bed rocking ever-so-slightly backwards and forwards to try to ease the throbbing discomfort that seemed to have taken over one side of his chest. He did not dare to move the sodden hand towel yet.
Silence at last. Cautiously he stood, flinching as the blanket slid off his shoulders, his left arm still across his body, hand pressed against his ribs with fingers splayed in an attempt to keep the slash from gaping. His bath towel was on the hook behind the door and he dragged it down to let it fall over his shoulder rather than try to carry it. It was difficult lifting his right hand to reach for the door lock; that simple movement was painful enough for him to be aware of sweat breaking out as he forced his reluctant fingers to twist the catch. Pulling the door closed behind him, he leaned against the wall, summoning the strength to take the first steps across the corridor. It would be easier once he had got warmer, had loosened up maybe.
Once inside the tiny bathroom, behind the safety of the locked door, he relaxed. The light was brighter in here, and he carefully eased the temporary bandage away, wincing as dried blood caught and tugged. Even turning the shower on was painful.
The room was filling with steam by the time he had struggled out of his remaining clothes and shivering almost uncontrollably, stepped under the torrent of water.
Rebecca sighed, clicked ‘save’, and logged off before she stretched and stood up. Aching with tiredness she walked into the common room, to head for the sanctuary of the medical room at the far end of the corridor.
There was something on the common room floor; she could see it dark and shining on the pale background. Flicking on the light she winced in the sudden bright illumination, the sharp shadows.
Blood. Spattered in small drips. A faint and unobtrusive trail that led to the further corridor and then puddled in neat blotches on the floor outside room 20, John Shepherd’s room. She stared, and tried the door. It was locked and her fingers on the handle felt not smooth metal, but a cloying, tacky sensation. Without pausing to think, she pulled out her pass key and opened the door.
The room was in darkness and she flicked on the light switch without thinking, only just realising as she did so that he might be asleep. Too late; but the room was empty. She took it all in with a single glance, the bed, sheets rumpled where he had sat down, one blanket tangled and twisted, a small heap of discarded clothes on the floor as if dropped in haste, smudges of blood on the floor.
Rebecca picked up the sweatshirt, the t-shirt still inside it as if he had stripped both off together, and held them, the dark material cold and wet in one place. She stretched the fabric out, seeing the crimson stain that surrounded the slit in the fabric. A narrow slash that had gone through both garments. She dropped them back to the floor and, heart pounding, began to search for John Shepherd.
It was easier than she had thought. The small splashes of blood might have gone unnoticed but she knew what to look for now and she followed the trail that led from his room across the corridor and down to the nearest bathroom.
She stood outside, listening to the sound of running water, and, angered and yet also concerned, twisted the catch to open the door, before marching in ready to vent her wrath.