Steven was born and educated in Bradford and graduated from Kent University. After years in teaching, he moved to Derby, self-publishing his first crime novel, Reaper, in 2007. The book was optioned by Harper Collins and released as The Reaper in 2009. A sequel, The Disciple, followed. Deity was released with Headline in 2012 and The Unquiet Grave in 2013 and was shortlisted for East Midlands Book Award. His new novel, A Killing Moon, will be released in May this year.
CAITLIN DOWNED THE SHOT, SLAMMED the glass on the counter and followed it with an urgent sip of ice-cold Guinness to dissipate the heat burning a path to an empty stomach. She revelled in the unfamiliar buzz of alcohol and grinned across at her disapproving friend.
‘What?’ she shouted above the pulse of the band thrashing out their unsubtle rhythm from the stage. ‘Another one over here, Jack.’ She waggled a hand at the barman to flag up her empty glass.
After a brief hesitation to assess her condition, the barman swept up the glass for a refill and pointed at the name tag on the breast of his shirt. ‘I’ll serve you if you can read this.’
Caitlin peered myopically at the badge. ‘Jake.’ The barman nodded and moved over to the optics.
‘Going at it a bit hard, aren’t you, Kitty?’ hissed Laurie. ‘Celebratin’,’ slurred Caitlin in return. ‘It’s something you celebrate, is it?’
‘I’m Oirish,’ giggled Caitlin. ‘I missed the craic on St Patrick’s so I’m making up for it.’
‘You know what I mean.’
Caitlin sighed. ‘Laurie, it’s Friday night, I’m having a drink. Tomorrow I’m away home to Belfast. That means I don’t have to endure another lecture for three weeks, and that includes yours.’
‘You don’t wanna talk about it,’ nodded Laurie. ‘I get that. But you don’t fool me.’
‘Meaning I know what it cost you,’ replied Laurie, her eyes burning into her friend’s. ‘So if you want to talk about it, I’m here.’
Caitlin looked at the floor to find the words, then, wishing she hadn’t, managed to relocate Laurie’s face in the murk of the bar. ‘Look, it’s in the past. I’m grand now . . .’
‘No more lectures, okay.’ Caitlin smiled. ‘I’m a free agent again – happy days.’ She took another long draught of Guinness.
Laurie relented with her own smile. ‘Okay. And as a bonus, I suppose you found out what a shit Rollo is.’
‘Don’t think there was ever much doubt about that, was there?’ Caitlin hiccuped and threw a hand to her mouth, feeling the first peep of vomit at the back of her throat.
‘You okay, Kitty?’
‘Never better,’ mumbled Caitlin, trying to persuade herself. No, she wasn’t okay. She hadn’t had a serious drink in weeks and now the alcohol was biting back hard. The room was beginning to sway and her head felt like it was bobbing around on a stick.
Suddenly, instead of enveloping her in a hubbub of dark contentment, the pub began to crowd in on Caitlin and details began to grate – the music, the crush of bodies, the sudden heat in her chest and the dots of sweat appearing on her forehead. She splashed her pint glass on to the bar and pushed through bodies for the exit. ‘Toilet,’ she garbled over her shoulder.
A moment later she slithered out into the cold Derby night as the first rush of vomit heaved its way out of her mouth and on to trampled snow on the pavement. She groaned with self-loathing and propped her hands on her knees to wait for more. After a second expulsion, she was finally able to stand upright and wipe her watering eyes, feeling better now the poison was out of her system. She took a few deep breaths, enjoying the bite of winter after the dank perspiration of the pub. About her, snow was falling in fists, throwing its gentle veil over the city’s customary bustle.
Recovered, she pushed at the black and white door of the Flowerpot, but hesitated at the wall of bodies in front of her, all nodding to the rudimentary music crashing over them from the stage. After a moment’s hesitation, she pulled out her phone and thumbed out a message to Laurie.
I’m done. Heading off. Coming?
Caitlin walked briskly along King Street, feeling the cold leave her bones as her strong young legs bounced her along, crunching through the snow. At Five Lamps, she turned on to Kedleston Road, heading towards the university and, half a mile beyond that, the small down-at-heel bungalow she rented with Laurie. Although it was a Friday night, the hum of the city was numbed by the curtain of snow falling across her vision. Only the occasional crescendo of cars tearing past on the A38 ahead and the buzz of approaching and receding street lights broke the silence. The harsh weather had deterred all but the hardiest travellers.
Her phone vibrated. Where R U?
On Ked. Halfway home.
Caitlin stopped on the bridge over the A38, tapped out a smiley face. She leaned on the rail to get her breath. A passing white van slowed as it approached the bridge, and she turned disinterestedly towards it. Having worked out which road to take, the van driver sped past her, spraying slush on to her shins.
‘Asshole,’ she shouted after it.
She let out a quick laugh and returned her gaze to the four lanes below, feeling a glow of anticipation. People going places. It raised her spirits. She felt tranquil for the first time in weeks. She’d be on the train to Liverpool tomorrow, then the boat to Belfast to see her sister, Mairead. Travel was good. It soothed her, gave her time to think, time to stare out of the window or down at the timeless water to mull over her life.
She stood upright. Well, her life was going just fine again, and now she wanted to get on with it. Another text from Laurie. Tommo’s here, getting a cab to his. Sure U R OK?
Caitlin sent a final reassuring message – Never better – and continued on her way, tramping through the snow, which squeaked underfoot, enjoying the solitude and the pale light of the leaden sky. She glanced to the university buildings looming large up the hill on her right, and at the shadows of Markeaton Park on her left.
She’d walked a further hundred yards down the road when she became aware of a sudden movement and rustling of leaves in the bushes to her left.
Something crashing around the park in this weather? Must be a stray.
She cocked an ear for subsequent noise, but heard nothing. No barking, no panting. ‘Here, boy,’ she called. No reaction. A second later she resumed her journey but almost immediately came to a halt, her head snapping round at the low voice calling from the blackness of the park.
Frozen in shock, she stared towards the dark holly bush from where the voice had seemed to emanate. Was that a human shape crouched in the foliage? Snow fell in her eyes and she blinked furiously to keep her vision clear. She stared on, aware only of the falling snow, her beating heart, and the vapour exhaled from her mouth.
The darkness in the bush didn’t move. If it was a human shadow, it was incredibly still. Embarrassment invaded her features and she turned to move away.
‘Guinness and vodka,’ she muttered, falling into step once more. ‘Lethal combo.’
‘Kit-ty!’ The voice again, muffled yet urgent, demanding attention.
Caitlin swivelled, all her senses supercharged. Her heart pounded in her chest and she flushed with heat in spite of the sub-zero temperatures. ‘Who’s there?’
‘Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty.’
A tingle ran down Caitlin’s spine and she picked up her pace again. Don’t run! Don’t panic! Walk quickly but calmly. She’d learned that in her women’s self-defence group. Self-control was everything. Fear was an aphrodisiac to some of the perverts out there.
‘Don’t turn round,’ she told herself as she walked briskly without breaking into a run. ‘Someone’s lost their cat, is all.’ But when she heard the crashing of undergrowth behind her, she broke into a trot.
‘Kit-ty!’ The voice was louder now, panting, on the move.
She turned to look but, seeing nothing, kept moving.
Caitlin slithered to a halt and turned. Who would know my nickname, if not a friend? She gazed intently behind her, raising a hand against the flakes blurring her vision.
‘Rollo? Is that you?’ No reply. No movement and nothing to be seen. She was about to retrace her steps when, through the white curtain, she saw a burly figure appear some twenty feet away, standing perfectly still, breath steaming in the air, looming large. ‘If that’s you, Rollo, then say something, you stupid fecker. You’ve got a bloody nerve after what—’
‘Kit-ty!’ cried the voice, growling now, using her name like an accusation, the voice mournful but with an edge of hate.
Caitlin wanted to run but was transfixed, staring through the blinding flurries for a clue to her tormentor’s identity. The snow confined her, cut her off from all but the distant lights of houses, the occupants safe and warm. She looked about for the comfort of other pedestrians, a car even, but there was no one to answer an appeal.
‘Jesus, this is so not funny. I mean it!’
‘Kitty.’ The voice was harsh and rasping, exuding aggression, confidence. ‘Here, puss-puss. Come to Daddy.’
Finally Caitlin turned from the voice and broke into a sprint, keeping her eyes firmly on the path ahead but all the time listening for noise of pursuit behind her.
‘Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!’
Again she slithered to a halt. The voice was in front of her now. The same voice? No, different. A higher pitch. Someone younger? A boy? Hard to be sure. What she couldn’t mistake was the malevolence, the mocking tone, taunting her. She hesitated before deciding to cross the road and make a run for it to the university. As she retreated, she saw another form emerge from the shadows ahead of her, and, letting out an involuntary whimper, she pivoted to run in the opposite direction.
In the split second of consciousness remaining to her, Caitlin registered the large form with which she collided, as well as the crackle of electricity. There followed a searing pain that jolted through her body, robbing her muscles of function, and she collapsed to the ground with a crunch.
(C) Steven Dunne 2015
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.