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Ripples

By Matthew W. McFarland All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Horror

Ripples

“Let me help,” said the old man, standing up from his seat. Anne was clearly struggling to heft her luggage onto the overhead rack of the railway carriage. There wasn't much in the suitcase, as she'd spent far too long searching for it amongst boxes and old furniture in the attic and had nearly missed the train, but it was rather large, and unwieldy.

“Thanks,” she said, not at all keen to be drawn into a conversation. The man sat back down with a contented sigh, pleased that even in the twilight years of his life he was able to perform such selfless acts of chivalry.

Anne could see him turning over the next gambit in his mind, looking for the best way to make her open up. He sat at a table of four seats, just across from where Anne had landed when the train jerked into motion and away from the station. They had the middle of the carriage to themselves, save for a teenager whose music was audible through his headphones from eight feet away.

“I once killed a man too, you know,” said the old man, from across the aisle. “They gave me this,” he said, gesturing to a scrap of coloured fabric which poked out from underneath his overcoat.

“I'm sorry?” Anne said, her voice cracking just in the slightest as she shifted almost imperceptibly on the hard seat.

“I've seen that look before. No matter how much you go over it in your head, what's done is done.” His tone was so gentle that Anne thought she had misheard him, but still her whole body crept with dread.

Anne risked a glance at him, starting with his immaculately polished brogues, a hint of tightly-pulled socks disappearing into neatly pressed trousers, his knees and feet spaced equally apart. His narrow tie would not have looked out of place in a nightclub on a Saturday night, such is the circuitous nature of fashion, but it was drawn tightly up into the collar of a plain shirt in a manner which struck her of well-practised precision. He appeared to be in his sixties, with a kindly face, lined and pocked with the accoutrements of age. Meeting his gaze, however, the eyes were bright, those of a much younger man. He leaned close to her, and spoke gently.

“You need to clean up a bit. Your hands, your feet, and why don't you take this?” He handed her a well-worn knitted scarf and nodded his head in the direction of the toilet, some twenty paces down the dim and swaying carriage.

As she looked into the cracked mirror in the tiny cubicle, Anne saw that he was right; filthy toes poked out from her severely impractical shoes, her knuckles were bruised and bloody, and the musty scarf would do a good job of covering the deep bruises on her neck. The little tube of anti-bacterial gel which she carried everywhere with her was quickly exhausted as she scrubbed at the grit and mud covering her feet. The cuts on her hands stung from the disinfectant, and she could feel the fresh scratches on her back oozing into the lining of her coat.

Five minutes with her make-up case, and she looked infinitely better than she felt. The train hissed and shuddered as the brakes came on, slowing gently to the next stop, but as she went to open the door back into the main carriage, she was met by the old man who looked her dead in the eyes.

“You need to get off, now. Come on!” he said. He reached through the open window, grasping the handle on the outside of the door with one hand, pulling her along with the other. The train was still moving when they hit the ground, and as they hurried off the narrow platform she glanced back to see two policemen in high-visibility overcoats making their way down the carriages, examining each traveller's face in turn.

They cut into a small park and he sat her down at the first bench they came to. With trembling hands, she took the proffered cigarette, a roll-up he had produced from a battered tin which disappeared back into his overcoat. The click and snap of an equally battered Zippo startled her slightly, but soon she felt calmed, as she drew the rough smoke down into her lungs.

“Why did you help me?” she asked. “Wait. How did you know?”

“Well,” he replied, “your description was on the radio when my taxi was taking me to the station. And like I said, I've seen that look before." For a moment his eyes peered into space, staring deep into some old memory. With a start, he turned back to her.

"So what happened?" Anne took a deep breath, deciding what to tell him. The cigarette was burning slowly, tendrils of smoke rising into the breeze and mixing with the condensation from their breath.

“It wasn't my fault,” she said. “It wasn't my fault at all.”

Stanley, for that was the old man’s name, listened intently for the next thirty minutes as Anne explained what had happened the previous night. He said very little, allowing her to get through it at her own pace. When she stopped talking he waited for her to continue. When she cried he gave her a handkerchief. When she smiled, he smiled back.

The night before, Anne had gone out like she had nearly every Wednesday since the start of term. She was a second year geography student at the University, and like most of her classmates, she took advantage of the cheap drink offers in the students' union. She was lucky not to have any lectures on Thursday mornings.

Anne wasn’t the sort of girl who did one night stands. She had broken up with her long term boyfriend six months earlier, under the pressures of University, a long distance relationship, and more than anything else, a new-found sense of who she really was. The things she had wanted as a sixteen-year old schoolgirl seemed to belong to another universe entirely. Happy hour and cheap drinks are, however, notorious for lowering inhibitions, and part of Anne’s nascent self was the strand of her being which believed she was an independent young woman whose body was her own.

The boy who had chatted her up that particular Wednesday night was handsome in his own sort of way. Like many of his fellow students he went for a kind of dishevelled chic, with rips in his jeans, scuffed shoes, an old grey jumper that had two round holes with charred edges on the underside of one of the sleeves. He was attempting to grow a beard, more successful on one side of his face than the other, the way moss on one particular aspect of a building or tree will grow thickest.

Anne liked him anyway. His name was Patrick Marsh. They shared a tutorial together on Friday afternoons, when the late September heat sent waves of stifled yawns around the small classroom. When he sat near her she could smell the mustiness of eked out washing powder, laundered clothes left damp for too long, a hint of rolling tobacco.They sat together for several hours, their respective friends drifting away as the night went on. Their long booth in the union bar was almost taken over by another group of students, so that they were pressed together in the corner, surrounded and entirely alone. Later, the lights in the bar came on, and the bouncers began to clear the room, and Anne and Patrick were herded outside into the night.

“Can I walk you home?” asked Patrick. He took her hand and they strolled down the hill from the University campus towards the area of the city which had been taken over by the student population. The few remaining local residents hated the students. They were noisy at all hours of the morning, they littered, and a few times there had been drunken cases of petty vandalism, traffic cones left on cars, wing mirrors kicked off, andgarden furniture stolen.

Anne and Patrick weren’t the only ones making the same journey. There were rowdy groups of boys together, higher-pitched groups of girls, and pairs of both like themselves, meandering slowly, putting off the inevitable.

“Let’s take the shortcut,” said Patrick. They turned off the main road, into a steep cobbled street which dated back hundreds of years. The cobbles were slick with dew, the whole street shimmering in the light from a waning crescent moon. They were both unsteady on their feet. The street was narrow, hemmed in by the backs of old houses, and completely deserted.

As Anne slipped, Patrick took hold of her and they ended up in an embrace which she felt had been planned. They kissed, Patrick’s beard tickling her.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s get back to my place, it’s only ‘round the corner.” They turned down an alleyway, unlit and quiet. Patrick stopped beside an old wooden door set into a high wall, and pulled Anne towards him. They kissed frantically for what seemed like hours against the wall in the stillness of the old passage. Anne felt his hands, cold against her thighs through the thin fabric of her skirt.

“Stop,” she said.

“Can you climb?” asked Patrick.

“What do you mean climb?”

“I lost my keys last week, and my flatmate isn't around.”

“Where is he?” asked Anne.

“I dunno, he comes and goes. I hardly ever see him, but it’s no big deal. He seems to come up at the weekends and go home during the week. He’s a little strange.”

“So why are we climbing the wall?”

“I told you, I lost my keys. I left the back door open, it’s fine.”

“I don’t know about this,” said Anne. Patrick was already halfway up the wall, his toes scrabbling for purchase against the stone as he dragged himself upwards. He sat with one leg dangling down either side, beckoning her.

"Come on," he said, "it's easy."

Anne slipped off her shoes, dancing from one foot to the other on the freezing cobblestones. She threw them up to Patrick and followed him up to the top of the wall, grasping his hand firmly as she suddenly realised the height. They climbed down by way of an old compost pile, heaped against the back wall of the garden. Again they paused to kiss frenetically.

The back garden was eerie in the moonlight, grass and other weeds knee-high and tangled. There was a well-trodden path leading from the compost heap to the back door of the house. It was old, like much of the rest of the student quarter. Once an impressive building, home to upper-middle class Georgians, it had been carved up into smaller houses and apartments by savvy landlords. The section Patrick lived in looked to be old servants'quarters or the like. There was no light or sound coming from any of the surrounding block.

"When did you say you lost your keys?" asked Anne. Patrick didn't answer, instead concentrating on threading his arm through a jagged hole in a pane of glass in the door.

"There we go," he said, the hinges squealing as the door swung open. He used a long kitchen match to light a candle. The surreal trip over the wall and through the overgrown garden made the darkened house seem exciting, the candlelight throwing shadows which hid the surroundings as much as illuminating them.

"No electricity," said Patrick.

"Did you forget to pay the bills?" said Anne. Sometimes she played a kind of 'chicken' with her own flatmates, seeing who would give in first and open the envelopes from their energy providers.

"Yeah," said Patrick, as he moved further into the house, "I forgot".

In a sparse bedroom, he lit half a dozen more candles, all of them melted together into grotesque shapes and colours. The floorboards were bare, and the primitive light did not reach into the corners, or to the high ceiling. The bed was an ancient wooden fourposter, with musty drapes hanging loose.

"Please don't use the bathroom, it's broken."

"Does anything work in this house?"

"It's surprising what you get used to," said Patrick.

In the middle of the night, Anne woke up, dying to use the toilet. Too much alcohol. She remembered what Patrick had said earlier, but figured she could pee in the sink, the bath, anywhere. The pressure in her bladder was too intense to ignore. She crept out of the huge bed, and tried to find her way through the house in the half-light.

Sitting on the park bench, in the morning sunshine, Anne paused in telling her story. She accepted another cigarette from the battered tin. The tips of her ears were crimson, partly from the cold, and partly from recounting the less salubrious parts of the story to the elderly gentleman beside her.

"When I opened the door, my god, it was like a dream, or a nightmare, even. The smell was awful, and I threw up everywhere. The bathtub was full of a white liquid, and something was moving in it. I don't even know what. I keep thinking about it, but still, no idea. I sneaked back into the bedroom, and got my clothes, but before I could get dressed he was behind me."

"Patrick?" asked the old man.

"Yeah."

"What happened?" Anne shuddered.

"What were you doing?" said Patrick. "I thought I told you not to use the bathroom." He stood in the darkness, stripped to the waist. There was a tension to him that made Anne feel small.

"I couldn't help it, I was going to wet myself," said Anne. "What the hell is that?"

"It's a shame you had to go in there," said Patrick, "I liked you."

"What is it?"

"Where were you going?" He took a step closer. His head was cocked to one side, and his eyes were dark.

"I want to go home," said Anne.

"You're not going anywhere."

"Patrick, stop it. It's not funny. I feel like shit and I want to go home." He circled around her slowly and backed up to the door.

"I mean it, Patrick, get out of my way." Anne tried to push past him, but he flung her back towards the bed. She tripped over her own feet, and fell against the hard wooden edge.

"This isn't funny, you really hurt me." There were tears in her eyes now, the situation which had started out as mildly irritating becoming increasingly sinister.

"I haven't even started," said Patrick.

After the third or fourth blow, Anne blacked out, and when she came to, found herself bound to an old pipe, hands tied together with rope which bit into her flesh. Patrick was nowhere to be seen. The room was bare, and bitterly cold. The decrepitude of the house was obvious now, and the strange antics of Patrick, and the way in which they had entered the house together seemed both a lifetimeago and no longer bewildering. Anne lay there, arms stretching up to the top of an antique radiator together,shoulders off the ground, aching, for what felt like a very long time. She almost gave up.

Only the thought of that bath, the surface glistening white in the semi-darkness kept her going. The ripples of something indefinite. Adrenaline began to course through her body. It blotted out the pain as the rough fibres lacerated her wrists. She could feel her joints cracking and popping under the pressure as she used the entire weight of her body to stretch the bonds. Her hands were numb, and a peculiar shade of blue when she finally freed herself. Slipping through the half-open door, she found herself at the top of a flight of stairs, peering down into the darkness below, straining to hear any sign of her captor.

Too late, she heard him behind her. As he went to push her, Anne grabbed hold of Patrick's arm, pulling her with him. They ended up in a heap at the foot of the stairs, Anne feeling dazed, but unhurt. As she pulled herself from underneath him, she realised that Patrick was motionless. Stumbling away, she looked back to see his eyes, open but unseeing, his neck and right leg resting at unnatural angles.

"Why did you run?" asked Stanley.

"Because I killed him," said Anne.

"But it was self-defence," said Stanley, "You had every right to protect yourself."

"Why would anyone believe me? I went there with him of my own free will. And what can I do now? Everyone will think I killed him because I ran."

"They will listen to me," said the old man. He reached inside his overcoat once more, this time pulling out a leather wallet. He flipped it open to reveal a flash of gold, and a police warrant card.

"Inspector Stanley Mason, retired," he said. "At your service."

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