Authors: Sam Baker
The Woman Who Ran
Published by HarperCollins
The News Building
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins
Copyright © Sam Baker 2016
Cover layout design © HarperCollins
Cover photograph © Elle Moss/Trevillion Images
Sam Baker asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780007464357
Ebook Edition © January 2016 ISBN: 9780007500390
To Jon, as ever
Paris, late August 2012
I wake to the sound of someone choking. It takes me a moment to realise it’s me; my body convulsing like a child shaking its parent awake in the deepest hours of the night.
Just in time, I roll sideways, bile splashing on the floor beside me. Acid burns my throat, and my eyes sting shut against billowing smoke the second I try to open them.
The smell of burning is all around me. The air filled with a buzzing, brown noise I know I’ve heard before.
Electrics burning and fizzing perilously.
An acrid stench. The unforgettable telltale smell of singed hair, flesh …
The memory plays at the edge of my mind. Teasing, torturing. I snatch at it, but it slips away, replaced by the heat that claws at my throat and sears my lungs.
Where am I?
It takes me a second or two to realise. Shock reduces me to choking. In what used to be my bedroom. On what used to be my bed. Naked.
I attempt a breath, gag on it, and try to suppress the panic that rises along with the bile. Nothing makes sense. Not my being here. Not the thick, dark smoke clouding the room and hiding its high ceiling.
Everyone believes fire crackles and rages from the start. A Hollywood idea of a fire. It doesn’t, not really. Not at this stage. Not yet. Fires like this take hold by stealth, then, when they’ve got you, in their own time, when they’re good and ready, they let rip.
The seconds preceding that sound like this.
That’s how I know I still have time. A few precious seconds, maybe a few more.
If I can only make myself
. If I can only make myself
My brain is as thick with smoke inside as the room is without.
‘Move!’ it shrieks. ‘Run!
’ Or maybe it’s me who shrieks. My voice is sucked into burning oxygen and absorbed. Legs buckling, I force myself up, head swimming dangerously, body swaying as the heat sends me crashing to the ground. Here, at least, with hot cheek to cold tile, there is air.
One lungful, two, three … I suck in as much air as my burning lungs can stand and try to think. My clothes … Where are they? Why aren’t I wearing them?
Blindly I crawl round the bed, one hand in front of the other, towards the heat, the only way out, until my hand hits cloth. I grab at something – a T-shirt, then thicker fabric, jeans, rivets searing my fingertips as my hands close on them.
I drag myself along the wall until brick gives way to wood. Pulling myself up, I twist the metal door handle hard, screaming as my palm blisters. Heat billows around me and flames burst in behind, as if they’ve been waiting, vampire-like, to be invited.
I plunge into sickly orange fog, flames crackling now. An ominous crack across the room makes my heart lurch. I close my eyes, blinking against the smoke and stumble forward. Thinking only of the door, I begin to count.
Willing myself to be calm:
One, two, three …
As I fumble on, my hand lands on something
. Warm and soft, it gives beneath my weight. I gasp, and hear a whimper, like a kicked puppy. The noise, faint as it is, comes from me.
Scrambling backwards, I force myself to look. Through streaming eyes, I can just about make out the shape of a body, curled in on itself, in the corner between me and the door.
Despite the flames, my skin is suddenly ice; the fine downy hairs on my arm bristling even as I smell them begin to singe. I can’t bring myself to touch him again. I can’t make myself turn away.
My brain urges.
I glance back. As I do, flames erupt behind me, blackening the rug and scorching my heels. Finally, my body obeys. Reaching for the handle to the corridor beyond, I hurl myself through.
‘I would not send a poor girl into the world, ignorant of the snares that beset her path … nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will, to watch and guard herself.’
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
SCANDAL-HIT HOSPITAL THREATENED WITH CLOSURE
Upper case, 124 point. Headline framing a picture of a dilapidated red-brick Victorian hulk, surrounded by a rash of outbuildings all stuck on over the last half-century. A seventies extension here, a Portakabin there. Paintwork peeling, signs with letters missing –
ardiology, out-patien s
– and that was before you started on the state of the equipment inside. Rumour had it – well, the rumour behind this latest crisis – that the families of long-stay patients were being asked to bring their own meals and take away soiled laundry. Beneath it a rogue’s gallery of administrators and hospital managers whose neglect and cost-cutting had contributed to its place in the NHS’s last-chance saloon.
‘Not bad.’ Gil Markham stood back to admire his handiwork.
As front pages went, it wasn’t his finest, but it would do. It ticked the boxes. A real story, with real implications for the local community. Everyone knew someone who’d suffered as a result of the hospital’s decline, or knew someone who knew someone. It was like that round here. The last place in Britain where news travelled just as fast via garden fence, front doorstep and public bar as it did online, if not faster. Even that – a love of good old-fashioned local gossip – wouldn’t be enough to save his beloved paper.
Gil sighed, glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one had heard.
A hospital closure wasn’t the swansong he’d had in mind, but he could leave with his head held high. No small achievement for the end of August. He could just as easily have ended up with a silly season story or a hospital visit from a minor royal. He’d done enough of those over the years.
‘Boss –’ one of his subs appeared at his side – ‘it’s short. Want me to pad it on page four or shall I find a filler?’
Gil rolled his eyes. ‘How short?’
‘Hundred, hundred and fifty, thereabouts.’
‘Hell of a lot of padding. Got anything else?’
‘This just came off the wire.’ The sub – a temp, Gil couldn’t remember his name, if he’d ever known it – handed him a printout. ‘Reporter, bit of a hotshot back in the day, missing after house fire.’
Gil perked up. ‘Local angle? Got family round here? Leeds? Bradford?’
‘Nah, fire was in Paris.’
‘Paris? I don’t call that local.’
‘Steve says he was a trainee at the
same time as him.’ The sub indicated an old hand on the news desk. ‘Reckons he was born Sheffield way, moved south when he was a kid …’
‘Still, a bloody long way from West Yorkshire.’
The sub shrugged as Gil balled the sheet of A4, lobbed it in the general direction of the recycling bin and missed. Both men watched it bounce across the floor and roll to a halt by the printer.
‘Pad it,’ Gil said. ‘But no fluff. Full names, ages, marital status – bung in some details about that last MRSA scandal, if you need it – that sort of thing.’
While the sub filled, Gil skimmed the two tiny pars below the headline, removed a widow and tracked back the sentence, more out of habit than necessity. Any reader whose attention span was too short to turn, as directed, to page four, would find all they needed here. If he had to hazard a guess, Gil would put that at upwards of 90 per cent of them. Made him wonder if it was worth bothering with page four at all.