by Alan Barker
‘Hi, Lisa!’ I chirp as my sister’s face appears on-screen.
‘Kate, how are you?’
We exchange girly waves into our iPads and I say, ‘You’re looking tired round the peepers. Are you sleeping?’
Lisa makes a show of holding her eyes open with her fingers. ‘Gradually getting the hang of it again.’
‘Is Ged still harassing you?’
She rakes a hand through her hair. ‘A couple of weeks ago he turned up one evening hammering on the door, shouting he was going to fight for custody of Ben. I’m sure he’d been drinking; it really shook me up. The weird thing is, I haven’t heard a dicky bird from him since. I don’t know what’s worse: aggressive Ged or quiet Ged.’
‘Perhaps he’s busy looking after that mad mother of his.’
Lisa grimaces. ‘At least I haven’t got her on my case anymore, telling me how to bring Ben up. Blooming cheek—it’s not as if Ged’s exactly a role model.’
‘How is Ben?’
‘Upstairs taking a nap; you Facetimed me at the right moment. He seems a bit better now his daddy’s not around. I just want to see a smile back on his little face.’
‘Ah, bless. Gutted I can’t come over though. If this lockdown doesn’t end soon I’m going to miss his first birthday.’
Lisa manages a smile. ‘So how are things with you?’
I shrug. ‘Same old, same old. Going for a walk each day. Exercising at home. Missing my aikido lessons, that’s for sure.’
‘I hear they’ve made face masks compulsory in public.’
‘Yes, Steve’s been wearing his all week, even at work. He …’
I break off as Lisa cocks her head and says, ‘I think there’s someone at the door. Hold on a mo.’
She disappears from sight and I glance at the clock: two thirty. From outside there comes the distant sound of sirens, and I wonder if there’s a surge in people falling ill with the virus.
I hear a door bang and look back at my iPad, frowning; Lisa hasn’t returned yet. Then a scream rings out, followed by what sounds like a thud.
‘Lisa, what’s happening?’ I shout, but there is only silence, save the renewed wailing of sirens.
I continue to stare wide-eyed at the screen – all I can see is a bare wall. Presently a jacketed arm appears; it hovers momentarily, then reaches down. The screen goes blank.
I swear vociferously. Lisa’s been attacked in her own home, almost certainly leaving little Ben in danger.
I think of Ged, Lisa’s intimidating ex-partner and Ben’s father.
I need to act.
I clench my teeth as I wait to be put through. Come on!
After what seems an eternity a man asks for the nature of the emergency and the location.
‘My sister’s been attacked at her home,’ I say breathlessly. ‘I was speaking to her just now when someone came to the door and forced their way in. She’s in serious danger along with her toddler. Please help.’
‘All right, madam,’ the man replies in a raised voice. ‘I’ll get someone there as soon as possible. But we’ve a serious incident on our hands at the moment, so we’re stretched to the limit.’
Once I’ve provided the details he asks for, I end the call and ring Steve, my husband. As usual, he’s “unavailable”, and I’m invited to leave a message.
‘Steve, please get over to Lisa’s. Someone’s attacked her – I think it’s Ged – and I’m worried about Ben. Hurry!’
I swing my Fiesta out of Stoughton and turn left at Dennis roundabout, picking up speed on the dual carriageway.
The roads are virtually deserted. On the local radio station a report comes through that a group of youths has gone on the rampage in Guildford town centre, breaking shop windows and stealing goods.
The lights at Stoke Crossroads are red but I ignore them. On my left, a blue light flashes. I gasp and slam on the brakes as a police car sweeps through, heading for central Guildford. Undeterred, I set off again, speeding past the Spectrum and the green expanse of Stoke Park before crossing the AA roundabout to Merrow.
Soon I pull up outside Lisa’s house; the journey has taken only ten minutes. I climb out of the car, not bothering to lock it, and take a deep breath. All seems quiet.
I let myself in through the front door and close it softly behind me. I’ve no idea if the intruder – who I assume is Ged – is still in the house. Equally, I don’t know where Lisa or Ben are or whether they are safe.
I consider calling out their names but decide against it. I step into the sitting room which is unoccupied. Toys are scattered around the carpet and I notice Lisa’s iPad on the coffee table, the lid closed. I backtrack and try the kitchen but again no one is there.
Back in the hallway, I gaze up the stairs and listen. I detect a faint noise from one of the upstairs rooms but am unable to decipher it.
Steeling myself to be as calm as possible, I climb the stairs slowly, trying not to make a sound. As I reach the landing, the noise repeats itself and I can tell it comes from Ben’s room.
Tentatively I push the door open.
‘Ben!’ I exclaim and rush to his cot where he stands pressed against the side.
He stares at me blankly, as if I’m a stranger.
I reach out to him but sense movement behind me. Before I can turn, an arm is thrust round my neck, almost pulling me off the floor. In the window’s reflection I see a figure wearing a white face mask, baseball cap and dark leather jacket. He is brandishing something that looks horribly like a syringe.
Instinctively I grab his left forearm and we tussle as if arm-wrestling. At the same time I force my right hand between his elbow and my neck and twist my body sharply. Summoning all my strength, I roll him round my left side and am astounded when he loses balance and pitches against the side of the cot.
I pick up Ben and rush out of the room, noticing a case half-filled with his clothes. Was Ged trying to kidnap the poor boy?
Panting, I hurry downstairs and out through the front door. Ged doesn’t seem to be following – yet. I dash across the road and knock on the first door I come to.
No one appears.
I try the next door. After a few seconds an upstairs window is flung open, and a man wearing a vest shouts, ‘What d’you want? Don’t you know there’s a deadly virus going round? And why aren’t you wearing a face covering?’
I start to speak but he slams the window shut. In desperation I hurry back to my car and dump Ben on the back seat, murmuring reassurances to him.
This time I lock it. I glance along the road but there is no traffic at all and certainly no sign of Steve or the police. I’d like to wait for someone to turn up but I’m worried about Lisa.
I stride back to her house. Presumably she’s still in there as is Ged, armed with a syringe containing … what? Ketamine, perhaps? I read somewhere that a substantial dose in your bloodstream can render you unconscious for at least an hour. Whatever has happened to Lisa, I desperately hope it’s nothing more sinister.
I step inside, leaving the front door wide open. All is quiet again. Now I notice the door to the cupboard under the stairs is slightly ajar; I open it and peer inside. Lisa is lying in a foetal position and isn’t moving. Kneeling down, I check for a pulse and breathe a huge sigh when I find it. I shake her by the shoulders, hissing her name in her ear, but she doesn’t respond.
I hear a creak from the landing. Instinctively I close the cupboard door, immersing us in darkness. I’ve fended off Ged once but am not sure I have the strength to do it again.
The sound of unhurried footsteps comes from directly above me, descending the stairs one at a time. I stare upward, unseeingly.
I hear the front door being closed and then there is silence, save for a faint murmur from Lisa’s lips.
Has Ged gone out or is he still inside? I imagine him staring through that faceless mask at little Ben, perhaps tapping the car window. Ben will be terrified, but at least the car is locked.
But my eye is drawn to the narrow gap between cupboard door and floor – a faint shadow falls across it.
Silence. I hold my breath.
Then my mobile phone bursts into life, making me jump. I snatch it from my pocket.
Steve. I hit the green button hard.
Before I can speak, the cupboard door is yanked open and Ged grabs me by the arm and hauls me out. I scream but he knocks the phone from my hand then stamps on it and kicks it down the hallway.
He clamps his hand on my throat and eyeballs me. ‘Give me your car keys. Now!’
I stare into the black pupils of his eyes. He seems to be pulling something from his jacket pocket but I can’t see what it is. I think of the syringe.
Removing my keys, I hold them out. He releases my throat but his attempt to grab the keys is too slow, and I jab the ignition key into his eye.
He steps back and howls, clutching his face.
He’s dropped the syringe and without thinking I grab it and plunge it into his thigh. Briefly he remains standing, emitting a strange keening sound, but then collapses and is still.
I wait while I get my breath back then pull off the baseball cap and face mask to check it is indeed Ged. But a mass of hair tumbles free and I realise it isn’t.
It’s Irene, Ged’s “mad” mother. And Ben’s grandmother.
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