His warm, mighty hands encased her fragile neck as he reached down and touched her throat, the malicious grin in his eyes mocking his deadly straight mouth. Here she was, trapped, and bitterly cursing her repression of that initial, inexplicable repulsion in the heat and excitement of his promises.
Now, as he wrapped his hands more tightly around her throat and compressed with greater force, that nagging inkling – the early, disregarded sense of his character that she formed at their first meeting – haunted her acutely.
Her choked, helpless scream seemed only to fuel his attack.
Struggling wildly, but in vain, to release herself from the vice-like clutch, she wouldn’t – couldn’t – resign herself to the full horror of her situation, though his compression continued with immense strength.
Then – a stroke of fortune. As though startled, his eyes widened and she imagined their desperation to be the picture of her own. Her hasty and thankful release was accompanied by his own attempts at escape; he mirrored her to the last until, finally, he fell limp to the floor before her.
A quick glance at the figure behind him, her saviour, as they darted into the darkness was enough to awaken her numbed senses; realisation seeped into her dazed mind. To an onlooker, a patrolling policeman perhaps: an abandoned corpse, accounts of her relationship with him, witnesses who had seen them together that night. Shaking, she turned to take a final, contemptuous look at the lifeless body of John Harper, before also disappearing into the night.
* * * * *
“Run Annie, run! Run!” she screams to herself. Stretching her long legs, she tears down the street, whipping her head around to assess the proximity of her pursuers.
A sharp turn through an alleyway and she’s back into the centre of the bustling market, straightening up and craning her neck backwards, listening.
“Oi da’hn ‘ere lads!” the well-known cockney accent of Officer Tom, chief copper, rings. His pettiness irritating her, she tosses the stolen apple to the floor, tired of the chase.
“Look there she is! Oi! You!” he hollers to her back.
Turning swiftly, she bolts down Chapel Street to the church, reluctant to give him the satisfaction of catching her, despite severe weariness. A few long bounds take her to the town library, and she can relax. Heaving open the monstrous door, she saunters to a seat between two shelves, near the back, ignoring the murmur of disdain which stalks her passage. She begins to peruse a newspaper collected from the large oak table, indifferent to its contents but gratified by its ability to shield her from the predators, inside and out. Breathless, she collects her thoughts and, turning her face from the door to the shelf behind her, she scans the latest novels.
Fatigued and uninterested, and certain that Officer Tom’s short attention span will save her from further pursuit, she rises and heads towards the door. As she exerts herself to effect a movement of the heavy wooden panel, her attention is snatched by a strong Irish accent, “Excuse me, Miss.”
Turning on her heel, she meets his eyes; their thousand shades of blue cannot fail to seize her notice.
“Sorry, do you mean me?” she responds, somewhat entranced, then wincing as her strong cockney intonation resonates painfully around the large, hushed room. She scans his features as surveys her in turn. Strawberry blonde hair, more ruby than golden, hidden beneath a bowler hat; milky white skin and a suit of rough material with a matching waist coat. His long overcoat is lavish but his otherwise workman’s attire contradicts its indication of wealth.
“Yes. Oh excuse me,” he bashfully extends his hand, “Tom Madison, pleasure to meet you.”
His broad palm envelopes hers as she returns the gesture.
“Nice to meet you I’m – ”
“Annie Scott,” he finishes, as if possessed by instinct, then, just as quickly, and with a deep blush of embarrassment which is checked almost before she notices it, “the gentleman next to me murmured your name as you entered – it sounds like you’re quite well known in these parts.”
Arrested by the softness of his eyes and manner, she suppresses the initial surprise elicited by his interruption and subsequent confusion, and accepts the justification with little hesitation.
Setting down his newspaper neatly, he starts to button up his coat.
“Can I walk you home?” he asks, with a tenderness which captivates her. Responding in the affirmative, she places her arm in his and they exit side by side.
As the pair amble back down Chapel Street and dusk approaches, she becomes increasingly at ease and forgetful, comforted by his effortless charm and interested conversation. Without revealing the cause of her hasty departure from home, she confides a degree of regret at not having seen her family since arriving in London and his promises to help her visit them sometime seem to be in earnest; his sincerity and genuine attention fascinate her. At length they arrive outside her small lodgings on the shabby outskirts of the capital, yet her pleasure in his company compels her to propose a detour to appreciate the dark sky’s transformation of the isolated river.
His warm response is filled with an equal eagerness to draw out the evening. Arriving at the embankment wall he sits and motions for her to join him, gently wrapping his arm around her shoulders as she takes a seat at his side. She cranes her neck slightly to meet his gaze, and is overwhelmed by a sudden sense of déjà vu.
“Annie – you don’t remember me, do you?” he whispers. Stunned, she draws back with a shiver and wraps her shawl more tightly around her shoulders in the sudden absence of the warming contact, and, instantly defensive, fuels her question with accusation.
“What do you mean?”
“Calm down,” he responds sheepishly, sighing as she denies him the hand which he attempts to take hold of. “I didn’t expect you to – “
“What are you trying to tell me?” Her voice is shaking with the effort of suppressing rising suspicion and anger.
“I know about John Harper. We were at school together; never close friends, but I knew him by reputation. I could tell straight away he was up to no good when I ran into the two of you that night at the Queen’s Arms. He was in a foul mood, which had evidently soured you against any of his associates, so I left you both alone after the initial introduction. But there was something about the animosity I could sense between you; I just couldn’t get this sense of foreboding out of my mind.
“You left pretty early, having barely said a word to each other, but the way he bundled you out as soon as he’d finished his drink seemed so … brutal. I quickly swallowed the remainder of my own pint and followed you a few minutes later – I couldn’t tell you exactly what I expected to happen, even now. Of course you resumed what I assumed was your earlier argument as soon as you were alone, and, even in the dark, from a few paces behind, I could see him tensing, as if with an insuppressible fury. You didn’t seem unnerved in the slightest, but I’ll admit I was surprised when you followed him inside without the slightest hesitation.
“I lingered outside for a while, unsure how to proceed, or why I’d even bothered with the excursion. I was close to abandoning you to your own problems when I heard a kind of choked scream; it sent me bursting through the door and, remembering myself, treading lightly up the stairs. When I eased the door open, his back was facing me – it seemed such a stroke of luck. In the moment I just rushed forward, and -” he pauses, assessing her reaction, “well, you know the ending.”
Dazed, she appeals to his eyes, imploring them to add a final detail to the narrative which would remove the whole horror of it, but she remembers that night all too well herself, and cannot envisage a solution.
Stunned tears stream down her cheeks as she stands and stumbles away, breaking into a run as his entreaties falter and fall without catching up to her. Throwing open her front door, she hurries up the stairs and slams her bedroom door, sobbing and screaming into a worn pillow.
Her sense of obligation to this saviour had evaporated as his lack of remorse became increasingly clear. No longer can she feel indebted to him for his service as she begins to appreciate the nature of the rescue and its implications: not an instinctive response to remove immediate danger, but a calculated murder, albeit swift. Why not burst into the room and prise his hands from her throat, or knock him temporarily senseless with a blow to the head? Why not holler and distract him from his focus?
Why, she shuddered at the thought, commit an equivalent crime?
Recalling the look of unadulterated fear in John’s eyes in the moments before he fell she trembles at her recent proximity to his killer. Defence, she knows, did not warrant murder.
A knock at the door temporarily halts the flow of tears.
Expecting the friendly neighbour who undoubtedly heard her distressed cries, she turns to welcome comfort and beholds, with a jolt, the subject of her recent rebuke.
She scuttles backwards on the small bed as he approaches mutely, and with her tear-filled eyes, beseeches him to leave her. Her sense of déjà vu returns as he steps closer to stroke her cheek and neck with a rough hand; before she can retaliate or cry out, her delicate neck is trapped in his cold, unwavering grip.
He begins to crush, and, like in that teenage close shave, and the nightmares which followed, she is powerless to stop him. Again, a choked scream effects no release, and she sorely laments ever receiving his confession, for which she now must be silenced.
No startled expression in her killer’s eyes arises to discharge her this time. The well-lit hallway lies deserted behind him.