Authors: Kate Rhodes
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For Jack, Matt and Frank
‘If a man is not rising upwards to be an angel, depend upon it, he is sinking downwards to be a devil.’
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It’s early, but already the heat of the Tube station is more than you can bear. Your shirt clings, and the starched linen of your suit is beginning to wilt. The platform heaves with tourists and commuters, jockeying for position, elbowing you out of the way. You don’t stand a chance. Years ago you could have barged through them, and made sure you were right at the front of the queue. But fighting doesn’t interest you now. Not even the cut and thrust of work − watching the markets crest and fall, grabbing the best deals. It’s hard to believe that you’re standing here, shoulder to shoulder with the great unwashed. But your driver called in sick again, which means that you’ll have to let him go, even though he’s been with you twenty years. You dab the sweat from your forehead with a silk handkerchief. A young woman is jabbering to her friend, her mouth an ugly blur of crimson lipstick. She’s not worth a second look, but her voice grates in your ears like nails on a blackboard. Bodies press against you so tightly that you can hardly breathe. Then there’s an unexpected reprieve. The crowd shifts like a lung expanding, and you’re car ried forwards to the ideal spot, at the edge of the platform. For the first time today, your body relaxes. Soon you’ll be strolling through the finance district, watching the pinstripes race to their desks.
The train’s approaching at last. You sense rather than hear it, the air circulating more quickly, a faint ringing sound rising from the tracks. And that’s when you feel it. Someone’s touching you, tugging at your briefcase. You hold on tightly, cursing under your breath. Whoever it is, he’s got the cheek of the devil, fingers sliding inside the pocket of your suit. You struggle but there’s no room to move, or even to turn round to identify the thief. The train’s closer now, thank God. Two white lights blinking at you from the tunnel. The platform fills with a rush of engine noise and overheated air. You’re safe again. The pickpocket has moved on to someone else, and the fat weight of your wallet is still there, snug against your ribcage. The train is yards away now, wheels hissing as it slows down. And that’s when it happens. A hard thump between your shoulder-blades. You’re too shocked to call out, too busy trying not to fall, grabbing at thin air.
No one tries to pull you back onto the platform. Perhaps they don’t even see you pitching face first onto the tracks, as if you were diving into a swimming pool. Your briefcase flies over your shoulder, high above the commuters’ heads. But you are not so lucky. The machine is eating you alive. For a few seconds the pain is unimaginable, your whole body electrified, every nerve ending shrieking the same message to your brain. And then you’re calm. You don’t lose consciousness, not even for a second. You hear every sound. The brakes squealing, metal gasping against metal as the wheels grind past your eyes. Your face presses against cold stones, the taste of engine oil filling your mouth. Somehow you must have survived, landed safely between the tracks. Laughter rises in your throat. You twist your head, but it’s impossible to move, the black underbelly of the train pressing down on you. There’s a glint of pale metal a few yards away, and for a second it doesn’t make sense. When your eyes blink open again you see that it’s your Rolex, still attached to your severed arm, sliced neatly at the shoulder. The fingers are twitching convulsively, grasping at something they can never have.
The foyer was heaving when I reached Guy’s. A gaggle of new interns was being shown around, and I couldn’t help pitying them. They were beginning their careers in the middle of the worst heat wave for fifty years, and the temperature was about to rise even higher. They had a year of hell to look forward to − sixteen-hour days of fretting over every diagnosis, with registrars bullying them at every turn. I forced myself to summon the lift. Even though I’d been using it every day, my claustrophobia was refusing to come under control. Jogging twenty-four flights of stairs to my department still seemed a far easier challenge.
Someone tapped me on my shoulder as I pressed the button. When I turned round, a young man was staring down at me. He was standing much too close, a flush of red across his cheekbones, hair shaved to a raw stubble. My mouth opened to say hello, but his name escaped me for a second.
‘You don’t even know who I am.’ His breath smelled of cigarettes and last night’s beer. ‘I’m just a number to you, aren’t I?’
‘Of course I know you, Darren.’ His probation officer had brought him to one of my anger management groups, and gradually he’d begun to join in, volunteering ideas without being asked.
‘You cancelled my group, just like that.’ His hands clapped together like a book closing, inches from my face. ‘No one even told me.’
‘I’m sorry, you should have had a letter.’
‘Who needs a letter? I haven’t even got a fucking address.’
There was a mist of sweat on his forehead, eyes staring, as though he held me responsible for every bad thing he’d seen. And that’s when I made my mistake. I took a step backwards to let him cool down.
‘That’s right,’ he snapped. ‘Walk away, you stuck-up bitch.’
Things went into slow motion after that. His arm coiled back, and his fist flew towards my face. I dodged just in time, because the first punch landed on my shoulder, then another on my ribcage, knocking me to the ground. When I looked up again, two interns were holding his arms, but the fight had already drained out of him. He was pale with shock, like a child waiting to be punished.
‘Call the police,’ one of the interns yelled at the receptionist.
‘No need. It was a misunderstanding, wasn’t it, Darren?’ I struggled back onto my feet.
‘What have I done?’ He kept repeating the words to himself like a new mantra, his eyes screwed tightly shut.
‘You can let go of him,’ I told the two interns. ‘You’ll behave, won’t you, Darren?’
He gave a miserable nod, and I made him sit down on one of the hard plastic chairs by the entrance. The receptionist was flicking through a magazine. Assaults on members of staff must have become so routine, she no longer batted an eyelid. Darren stared at the floor, his elbows propped on his knees.
‘I never hit a woman before.’ He dragged his sleeve across his face. ‘You should let them put me away.’
‘That wouldn’t help, would it? But you’ve got to stop this. It can’t happen again.’
His tears splashed on the tiled floor, and I rested my hand between his shoulder-blades.
‘It’s all right, I know you didn’t mean it.’
‘Nothing makes sense any more.’ His voice had dropped to a whisper.
The pain in my side was still throbbing, but there was no sense of panic. This was nothing, compared to the things I’d already lived through.
‘We’ll help you,’ I told him. ‘Things will get better.’
He shook his head vehemently. ‘I got the sack. I’ll never find another job.’
‘What were you doing?’
‘Cleaning, in a bank. I was lucky to get it. No one gives work to ex-cons.’
‘They will, if you keep trying.’
After a few minutes he seemed calmer. He waited in silence while I booked an emergency appointment with my boss the next morning − Hari has the ability to neutralise even the worst kinds of rage. Darren clutched his appointment card, but his gaze had slipped out of focus, as if he was having trouble seeing me properly. When I looked back he was still staring at me as I got into the lift.
I wanted to pull up my shirt to inspect the damage, but a gang of nurses had pressed in behind me, chattering gaily to each other. It was my ribs that hurt most, a hot burst of pain every time I breathed, and there was no chance of going home. Patients were booked at forty-five-minute intervals for the whole day, and most of them had waited months for an appointment.
My consulting room smelled of stale air, dust and cleaning fluid. The air conditioning had packed up just as summer came to the boil, but the maintenance team was still on strike. I opened the window and tried to catch my breath. Two hundred feet below me, London glittered. The Thames was binding south and north together, like a skein of dark brown thread. The city was a haze of sunlight and reflected glass − from this distance it was hard to believe it had run out of cash. I glanced around my room. Almost everything was waiting to be replaced, and my computer had developed a habit of withholding information. It occurred to me that a normal person would have been weeping buckets by now, releasing the shock of the attack in one quick outburst. The idea made me envious. My emotions were still as unpredictable as my computer, with broken connections and gaps in the circuitry. I gritted my teeth and got ready for the first appointment of the day.
Hari appeared at eleven o’clock. He looked as calm as always, beard neatly trimmed, wearing his immaculate saffron turban, eyes wide with concern.
‘Why are you here? You should go home.’
‘I’m okay, really.’
‘No one’s indestructible, Alice.’
I knew he was remembering my injuries after the Crossbones case, and I wanted to tell him to stop fussing, but his kindness negates every argument.
‘Can I get you anything?’ he asked.
‘Funding for my therapy groups, please. Or a lot more people are going to get hurt.’
Hari looked embarrassed. ‘The trustees aren’t listening. I’ve sent a complaint to the BPS.’
I shot him an ironic smile. There was nothing the British Psychological Society could do, because they didn’t hold the purse strings. He patted my hand, then escaped back to his office.
By the time my last patient arrived, I was high on Nurofen and lack of oxygen. It didn’t take long to diagnose her social phobia. Everyone and everything scared her – parties, strangers, walking through crowds. All she wanted was to barricade herself in an empty room where no one could reach her, for the rest of her days. But the session reminded me why I’d opted for psychology instead of medicine. Her troubles shrank as she voiced them, and by the end she looked relieved. I knew she’d respond well to rational-emotive therapy, because she was keen to learn techniques that would help her recover. I told her she’d need between ten and twelve sessions, and advised her to try exercise − yoga or t’ai chi. She still looked anxious as she prepared to leave. A world of uncontrollable noise was waiting outside, strangers barging past while she clung to the edges of buildings.
The thermometer in my room had reached thirty-two degrees, and the pain in my ribs felt like someone was beating them into shape with an invisible hammer. Someone knocked on the door while I was packing my briefcase.
‘Come in,’ I called.
My visitor was vaguely familiar, tall and heavily built, like a rugby player gone to seed. His suit hung from his wide shoulders, as though a bigger man had loaned it to him for the afternoon. But it was his eyes that gave him away, bright and obsessive, determined not to miss a trick.
‘It’s like a blast furnace in here, Alice.’
‘It’s never who I think it is.’ I gaped at him. The shape of his face had changed completely, from a circle to an oval. ‘You’ve been going to the gym, DCI Burns.’