AM02 - The End of the Wasp Season

Also by Denise Mina

Still Midnight

Slip of the Knife

The Dead Hour

Field of Blood

Deception

Resolution

Exile

Garnethill

For Louise

The silence startled Sarah from a hundred-fathom sleep. She opened her eyes to the red blink of the digital alarm clock: 16:32.

The yips of small dogs came from one of the gardens downhill, insistent, ricocheting off the ceiling and around the curved room.

Quiet. The radio was off. Sarah routinely left the radio on in the kitchen when she was here, tuned to Radio 4. The conversational coo took the edge off the emptiness. Heard from another room it gave the impression that the house was full of charming, chatty people from Hampshire. Burglars might find that strange in Glasgow but it was plausible in the exclusive village of Thorntonhall. Sarah left strategic lights on too: hall, stairs, anywhere that couldn’t be seen into. She had a talent for making things seem.

Quiet. This was not the burgling hour. The house was at the top of the hill, visible in daylight, especially at this time when neighbors were out in their grounds, critiquing the gardeners’ work or goading fat pedigree dogs around. A thief would have to be very confident or very stupid to break in now.

Exhausted and desperate to sleep, she considered an innocent explanation: either a fuse in the kitchen had blown or the old radio had finally stopped working. Everything in the house was old and needed fixed.

So she decided that the radio had died, smiled and shut her eyes, curling up under the crisp duvet, almost glad to have woken up for the delicious tumble back to sleep.

Her mind slid softly into the dark warm.

A sudden crack of floorboard at the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes snapped open.

She raised her head from the pillow, the better to hear.

A shoe scuffing over carpet, amplified by the stairwell and a hissed two-word instruction. A high voice. A woman’s voice.
“Go on.”

Sleep-befuddled, Sarah sat up, imagining her mother on her stairlift, her whirring, inexorable rise to the landing. Her mother, pinch-mouthed and imperious. Her mother wanting answers: why did they fix on that care plan? Why was Sarah never there to bathe her? Why didn’t Cardinal Geoffrey conduct her funeral service?

Nonsense.

She threw the duvet off and swung her feet to the floor, attempted to stand up but her drowsy knees failed her and she toppled back, landing awkwardly on the bed with an undignified bounce.

Exasperated with herself, she realized that she was vulnerable because she was at home. Sarah had been in strange places, scary places and managed to stay alert and calm. She always mapped the fire exits on the way in, arrived in charge and stayed in charge, but here she was defenseless.

But this was different to those stranger rooms because here she was a normal householder. She could call the police, ask them to come and help her.

Relieved, she flopped forwards over her knees, reached into her handbag at the side of the bed. Her nervous fingers fumbled past tissues and receipts and passport to the cold metal back of her iPhone. She pressed the button as she pulled it out and was delighted to see the face light up. She had turned it on as she stood in the aisle of first class, waiting to get off at Glasgow Airport. She didn’t always. Sometimes she left it off for twenty-four hours until she’d had a sleep. Now, using both hands to concentrate on the screen, she unlocked it, selected phone, selected keyboard, jabbed 999 and pressed call just in time to hear movement outside her bedroom door.

It was more of a sensation than a sound, air shifting on the landing. A body brushed the wall by the door, low down, as startling as cold fingers to the small of a bare back.

She shoved the iPhone into a little cave in the duvet and stood up.

The door moaned softly as it fell open.

It was not the ghost of her mother but two teenage boys, gawky, awkward. They wore baggy black jogging trousers and matching T-shirts, inside out, the seams showing all the way down the legs, along the arms. They wore the same black trainers too. The strange uniform made them look like the members of a cult.

Tentative at first, shuffling, they occupied the doorway. Not desperate but confident, boys on a dare.

She almost laughed with relief. “What are you doing in here?”

One of them was tall, shaven-headed. He couldn’t look at her and squirmed slightly at the sound of her voice, stood sideways in the door, his shoulder out on the landing as if he’d like to leave.

“Look,” she said, “get out of my house. It isn’t empty, this house…”

The other boy had longer hair, black and thick, but he wasn’t tentative. He was angry, standing square to the door frame, looking straight at her, taking in her face.

Sarah knew she wasn’t very pretty but she made the best of herself, was slim, had a good haircut. In a kind light she could be thought attractive. This boy wasn’t finding her so. He was disgusted by her.

The taller one elbowed his friend. The angry boy didn’t break eye contact with her but answered him with the jut of a chin, ordering him into the room. The tall friend flinched, giving a half shake of his head. They continued their conversation in micro-gestures, the angry boy holding her eye, hating her.

“My mother died,” she said, voice fading as it dawned on her that they weren’t surprised to find her here. “I still live—”

“Where’s your kids?” asked the angry boy.

“Kids?”

“You’ve got kids.” He seemed very certain.

“No…,” she said, “I haven’t got kids.”

“Yes, you fucking have.” He glanced around the room as if her children might be hidden under the edge of the duvet, in the armoire, under the bed.

His voice was high, the voice from the stairs, but the accent was what she noticed: not Glaswegian, not west coast at all. It wasn’t even the tempered, indeterminate Scottish of the local kids. He sounded east coast but English: Edinburgh and London maybe. They’d come here, not stumbled across the house, but had traveled here. She suddenly had no idea what this was.

Sarah tried again. “You’re in the wrong house.”

But he looked at her and said firmly, “No, I’m not.”

The money. They must be here for the money. It was the only thing in the house they could have come for. And yet the cash was in the kitchen and this room was through a door, along a corridor, across a hall, upstairs. They had come here looking for her.

A little more confident now, she looked at them afresh. They weren’t getting the money. She’d deny all knowledge if they asked because she’d called the police now, and they would come and take the boys away and question them and she needed to sound innocent.

“Look,” she said, trying to sound reasonable, “you should go. I called the police a minute ago, they’ll be on their way. You could get in a lot of trouble being here.”

The angry boy held her eye as he slid his foot into the room, his toe touching the edge of the yellow Persian carpet, invading the sacred neutral space between them. He saw her bristle with alarm, she saw a spark of empathy on his face before it hardened and he jutted his jaw defiantly. He moved his foot forward again, half an inch, until it lipped over the fringed edge, telling her that he could come over to her, that he would come over.

Irritation shocked her awake and she took charge. “I know what you’re here for,” she said, stepping towards him, waving a hand towards the stairs. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, you’ve made a mistake—”

“STOP.”
The angry boy bared his teeth. “Get
fucking
back.” He took a firm step towards her, smiling now. His teeth seemed unnaturally dry and that scared her.

Sarah stepped backward to the bed. She could see the corner of the phone peeking out of the duvet. She flexed her fingers, a quickdraw gunfighter rehearsing.

His eyes slipped from her face, snaking across her T, down to her thighs, and he looked away, suddenly repulsed. She had no knickers on, she realized. She had been so tired when she got in that she’d pulled her coat off, dropped her shoes in the hall and tramped up the stairs, shedding her dress and knickers on the bedroom floor. The old T-shirt she slept in only came down to her thighs, barely covering her. She hadn’t slept for twenty-four hours. She was sore. Her mum had died. She deserved to sleep.

She shouted as loud as she could: “GET OUT OF HERE THIS INSTANT!”

The tall friend flinched but the angry boy didn’t even blink. His lower jaw jutted forward as if he’d like to bite her. It was the anger, the tinge of deep-rooted bitterness that she recognized and she suddenly knew his face.

“Who are you?” she said. “I
know
you.”

The tall boy was thrown by that, afraid, and looked at his angry friend.

“I definitely know you.” She wasn’t sure though: it was a grainy memory, as if he had been on television or in a newspaper. “I’ve seen a photo of you.”

The angry boy’s face pinked in blotches and he spluttered when he spoke. “Photo? You saw a
photo?

She shrugged awkwardly and saw that he was clenching his fists.

He raised one and punched himself hard on his heart. “…showed
you
a fucking photo of
me?

His voice was cracking on the upper register. The friend jerked his hand across, pulled the fist free from the chest and yanked him backwards. “Stop. Stop, man. Breathe, take a breath.”

Sarah stole a glance at the iPhone, looking for a glow of hope but saw nothing.

The angry boy sputtered still: “Fucking handbag! Fucking get her phone!” He was changing color, paling, looking at the floor by her feet. His friend followed his eye and let go of him, stepping long-legged, colonizing the precious distance in two careless steps. He dropped to a crouch by her feet, shoving a rude hand into her favorite handbag. He was less than a foot from her thigh and Sarah uncrossed her legs, baring herself at him, shocking him into a freeze.

But the angry boy was unmoved by the sight of her. “Squeak, fucking
move
.”

The crouching boy tore his gaze away, pulled his hand out of the handbag. He was holding a cell phone. It was a brick, the sort of phone a pensioner would have. Red plastic with big buttons, small screen with a picture of a palm tree on it. It did look puzzling up close because the screen didn’t light up—it was a phony phone. Dismayed, Sarah realized that she had forgotten about it. She always forgot about it and she should have used it.

The boy held the phone up over his head to show his friend by the door. The angry boy’s face twitched. “What else is there?”

The crouching boy shoved the brick phone into his pocket and reached into her handbag again. He seemed pleased to find her purse. He stood up, held it up triumphantly.

Sarah almost laughed with relief. “You want money?”

But they were focused on the purse, the tall finder stepping back to his friend, still holding the purse high. They were little more than muggers, stupid kids wearing inside-out clothes and she realized that they were hiding a school logo.

She watched the angry boy yank at the zip on her purse. She knew that nose, the short splay, the wide, round nostrils. She knew it very well. She guessed:

“I know your dad—”

She was right: he hesitated in tugging the zip open so she said it louder,

I know your dad
.”

The tall thin boy looked from her to the angry boy, panicked, and she raised her voice: “You’d better get out of here. What do you think he’s going to say when I tell him you’ve broken in?”

A dad. That could be anyone. A sniveling dad, powerful or a pathetic drunk. Maybe Lars had decided he didn’t trust her and wanted it back. Lars. It was Lars’s nose.

“Lars!” she blurted. The angry boy looked hurt.

For a moment she expected him to drop the purse, give it back, apologize, back out. For a moment her blood slowed and she caught her breath. Bitter Lars, hurt, thrashing Lars who despised her but needed her and had never needed anyone. Lars wouldn’t flinch from killing her if it suited him. But it didn’t suit him. Lars hadn’t sent these boys.

The angry boy was looking at her, that self-same deep hurt in his eyes, his lids lowering to hate. He kept looking at her as his rude fingers fumbled inside her purse, scissoring around a couple of big notes and a taxi receipt, drawing them out.

Sarah took her chance and lunged for her iPhone. As she toppled onto her side, her fingers found the cold metal, wrapping hard around it because she knew it was slippery. She held it up, stabbed at the face, it had locked itself while on the call and she tried to slide it open, missing twice:

“POLICE! HELP ME! TWO BOYS ARE IN MY HOME—”

The angry boy was next to her. He grabbed her clenched hand, pulling her upright, easily yanking the smooth phone from her fingers, but Sarah continued to shout at it: “—IN MY BEDROOM. ONE—I KNOW HIM—”

They all froze, looking at the phone, imagining themselves heard, suddenly conscious of an audience in their play. The angry boy was the first to break out of it: slowly he lifted the phone to his ear and listened.

A smirk erupted on his face. He jabbed a finger at the screen, hung up and threw it on the bed.

They stood close together, a tight clump of animosity in the rambling husk of a house.

Behind her the tall boy shuffled a foot, moving close until his breath was hitting her hair. She felt the moisture from it settle on her ear. The angry boy read the desolation on her face and she saw his eyes brim with fury at it.

Behind her shoulder the breathing was getting faster, more shallow.

Once, in a hotel in Dubai, Sarah had met a client and had dinner with him. He was a fat man. She remembered the sadness about him, desperate, distant, and though she tried to make conversation, he remained quiet throughout the meal and drank a good deal, which wouldn’t help. In the lift up to the room she rehearsed her speech: it happens to everyone sometimes, isn’t it just as nice to touch and talk, the next time they could use a pill if he wanted…On the bed, facing down into a pillow as instructed, she heard that same breathing behind her, rapid, suddenly animal, and she turned around to glimpse a flash of metal in his hand. She’d kicked him off the bed, grabbed her clothes and run. She only got away because he was too fat to chase her.

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