“Drew’s fucking history, Susan!” The wind ripped Carl Brayden’s furious words away.
Susan Brayden ran up the short laneway, swearing at her own stupidity and praying her brother wouldn’t come after her. She listened for the slamming of a car door. When she heard the roar of an engine and the squeal of tyres instead, she stuttered to a halt and pressed her back against the wall. It gave her some shelter from the sleet that had been falling most of the night, but if she didn’t get inside soon, her jacket would be ruined. She pulled her collar up to protect her neck and as much of her blonde-streaked hair as she could. Walking hurriedly towards the end of the laneway, she was thankful she’d opted for low-heeled boots instead of her new four-inch heels. If she couldn’t catch a bus or flag down a taxi, she had a long walk ahead of her.
She rubbed at her upper arm where Carl had grabbed for her as she bolted from the car. Christ, how had a simple night out gone so fucking wrong? Why did she have to have an overprotective dickhead for a brother? They’d never been close, and the six-year age gap had only widened the rift as Carl had left home shortly after Susan had started secondary school. But ever since he’d changed jobs a few years back, he seemed to have made it his mission to keep her on the straight and narrow. “Dad’d be so disappointed in you, Suze. Throwing your life away like this.” Why did he think she’d care what their dad thought? All she could remember was sting of her dad’s hand across the back of her legs. Twenty-odd years he’d been gone, and they’d been good until Carl tried to step up. Uptight prig needed to learn to lighten up as she had, and if she was making a bit of money on the side, wasn’t that her affair?
Susan had always managed to fob Carl off before, tell him he was making a mountain out of a molehill. She’d been careless tonight, and royally screwed up, and now he was off like some misguided knight in shining armour. Carl had never liked Drew – he’d never liked any of her boyfriends – and now he was out to… Susan wasn’t sure what Carl would do. She’d seen him angry before – although Carl had a long fuse, when he blew you ran for cover – but tonight, as he ranted at her in the car, she was certain he was going to hurt her if she didn’t get away. Of course, the problem now was that not only was Carl out for blood, he was going in the wrong bloody direction.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” How in the hell had he grabbed her bag? She had her phone, she’d kept that in her jeans pocket, but she had neither keys nor money. “Think, you stupid cow,” she muttered angrily to herself. Carl had to be stopped. If he made it to the house where he thought Drew lived, her reputation, her freedom, and her lucrative little sideline could come crashing down. If he somehow got inside the unremarkable cottage he’d probably get his head ripped off, or worse, he’d see enough to bring the whole business down, and then get away.
She made a call.
“Len? Suze. Shut up an’ listen.” You had to silence Leonard Pemberton quickly. He was good at what he did, but, shit, Len loved the sound of his own voice. If you let him get started, the self-important idiot would waste precious minutes. “I had to get a ride home with Carl. He knows about the coc– the merchandise, and he’s seriously pissed off. Now he’s after Drew.”
“Don’t worry about it; Drew can take care of himself. Why the fuck were you even in a car with Carl, you know–”
“Because Drew stranded me with my family and I’m pissed off at him, but that–”
“What was wrong with a bloody taxi? If you’d–”
“For fuck’s sake will you let me finish?”
“Fine.” She could imagine him rolling his eyes.
“He’s headed for the Oakley house.”
“He thinks it’s Drew’s place.”
“Why would he–”
“He followed you, me, and Drew out there last weekend.”
“He what? Why the hell didn’t you say something before?”
“I didn’t know until tonight, okay? Anyway, he’s going out there because he’s got it in his head it’s Drew’s place. He was going on about putting a stop to it all.” She was getting frustrated.
“Stop to all of what?”
“I don’t know.”
“How much does he know?” Len’s voice rose.
“I don’t fucking know, okay?”
“Fuck. Any other cheery news?”
“He’s got my handbag.” She heard him hawk and spit.
“Leave it with me,” he muttered. “You are aware the boss’ll have to be informed; this can’t be ignored or hidden.”
Susan’s faint hope Graham Hawker wouldn’t find out was shattered. Hawker was the most nondescript man Susan had ever met. He was the sort of man you could pass in the same place at the same time every day and not register he was there at all. However, when he made his presence known, he wasn’t someone you forgot in a hurry, and God help you if you crossed or disappointed him. She knew even Len was wary of him.
“Get home and wait for me or Graham to contact you. If your arsehole of a brother fucks this business up…”
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. Susan knew exactly what was at stake.
The call cut out.
“Thanks, Len,” she muttered, jamming the phone back into her pocket.
The wind drove the sleet against the windscreen. Only Carl’s anger stopped him turning back toward home. Ever since their dad had passed away, Carl had sworn to keep his baby sister safe. He believed it was what his dad would have wanted, but Susan didn’t make it easy. She was easily led and her choice of boyfriends was abysmal, from the first bastard who’d slapped her around as a fourteen-year-old to this drug-dealing wanker she was with now. Carl hadn’t trusted Drew from the first moment he’d met him – all swagger and muscle and Susan couldn’t keep her hands off him – and when he’d first seen cocaine residue in Susan’s house he’d known immediately it was Drew-bloody-Caulfield’s influence. Carl had tried to scare Susan away from Drew, threatening to report her to the police, but Susan had called his bluff. Carl had had to admit, Susan might not always make the wisest choices, but she wasn’t stupid. For Carl, putting Susan at risk of being sent to jail would be the worst possible thing he could do to her. Susan needed help not punishment.
Carl had tried a different approach instead, warning her more than once that he was going to make an example of Drew. Susan had pleaded with him to back off, and had promised she wouldn’t touch cocaine again. Like an idiot, he’d believed her. He knew she’d manipulated their mother for years, but had always thought he was too aware of her ways to be fooled by one of her tricks. He’d been an idiot.
He muttered to himself. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice… bitch.” Carl glanced down at Susan’s bag, where it rested in the passenger footwell. When he’d accidentally knocked it off her chair at the restaurant, and the small bag of cocaine had fallen out, he’d been horrified. He was going to string Drew up by his balls when he got him, and shove his cocaine so far up his arse he’d be able to snort it without using a rolled up five-pound note.
He banged the side of his fist against the steering wheel. Despite most cars moving along at a snail’s pace, he’d had to crawl around several multiple car accidents, often having to wait until the way was cleared. On any other day, Carl would stop and help; it was what he did. Not tonight. It was almost with a sense of relief when he took the turn that would take him to Oakley, leaving most of the traffic behind.
One car joined him on the road. Carl had first noticed the dark saloon pull in behind him over fifteen minutes earlier, as he’d crawled past the second accident. It was a pity it wasn’t Drew’s Jeep. He could have it out with him here and now, and save himself the rest of the drive. Without warning or reason, the driver of the saloon turned their high beams on.
“Turn your fucking lights down, you arsehole,” Carl muttered, ducking his head down to avoid the blinding light reflected in his rear-view mirror. He accelerated as fast as he dared in the slippery conditions, trying to put some distance between himself and the other car. The second car kept pace.
Carl tried slowing down. The second car slowed down. The distance between the two cars remained constant. Carl wasn’t a coward, but he was starting to feel uneasy.
When he took the quick right then left-hand turns to get himself onto Horton Road, the second car vanished. Carl assumed they’d turned left to head for one of the small villages off the B4027. He took several slow, deep breaths, and focused on what he was going to do to Drew the Blood-Sucking Leech.
He drove carefully. In the sleet-darkened night, the trees loomed closer to the road than he remembered from the couple of times he’d driven up following Susan and Drew. Last time he’d followed them they’d left Drew’s Jeep behind and driven up with some poncy bloke in his flash car. Carl didn’t know he was, but he’d been keeping his eyes open and would find out. If the ponce was a mate of Drew’s then he was probably dirty too, and Carl wanted to see every drug-dealing bastard strung up. He passed the cluster of buildings on Woodperry Hill, visible only because of the lights still glowing in the windows. Power was still on, then.
He reached the beginning of the woods.
“What the fuck?” he yelled, as the interior of the car was lit from behind. Bright, white light bounced off the rear-view mirror and his side mirrors. The car suddenly jolted forward, and the steering wheel spun out of his hands. Had he been hit? Was it black ice? The trees rushed to meet him.
His head hurt. He could smell petrol and the sleet. His face was freezing. He’d had the windows up and the heater on. Why was he so cold? Carl opened one eye slowly. There was a jagged edge and something else familiar in front of him, but he couldn’t focus on it. Window’s broken, was the only coherent thought he could manage. The shape moved closer and began to take form. Whatever he’d expected to see, it wasn’t the blurry outline of a face. “Help me?” Carl rasped.
“Sorry. I can’t do that,” came a calm, resigned voice.
Susan sat by the window and waited. Beth had gone back to bed, muttering about the ignorance of those who didn’t know what it was like to work twelve-hour shifts on your feet. The phone vibrated in Susan’s hand.
//It’s under control. Graham will contact you later to give you further instructions. Keep your phone on. I’ll try to call you later.//
She shuddered. The last time Graham had given her ‘further instructions,’ he’d twisted her elbow so hard it had taken two weeks for the bruises to fade and the swelling to go down. She’d told colleagues she’d done it trying to stop herself falling when she’d slipped on wet tiles in the bathroom. When she’d later tried to brush off Drew and Len’s questions, they’d both seen through the lie.
“I warned you he was more Mr Hyde than Dr Jekyll,” Drew had said. “He’s not like me or Len. What you see with Graham is most definitely not what you get. Be careful.”
The phone buzzed again. Though there was no caller ID, the content of the message left her in no doubt as to the identity of the sender. Graham’s instructions were not to be questioned.