Chapter 1



God, he was going to kill her, she thought.

          Surrounded by bodies, Jess yelled in vain.  The claustrophobic mass of sweating flesh heaved and ground against her.  Their restrictive force prevented her escape.  Her shouts to Courtney were beaten down by the constant thud of the music and then trampled into silence by the many feet on the hard floor.

            Her dad will be so cross; Jess should have been back hours ago.  She was only meant to go for a drink at the Three Sheets then home as she was temping the next day, but Courtney had dragged her off to Jimmy Gee’s with a couple of lads from the pub.  Her friend had urged her to go, saying that Jess needed some fun after the month she just had.  She had broken up with Tyler, her Gran had died and she had lost her job.  Maybe Courtney was right and she did need to go on a bender.  Jess had just chosen the wrong night.  God, tomorrow was going to be a killer: she would be hanging.

            Jess raised her hands in frustration and looked for the way out.  She was about to shout again but her friend was busy getting off with the fit one of those two students they had chatted to earlier.  Courtney wouldn’t want to leave yet, but Jess had to.

“See you at the weekend, Courtney,” she sighed, and inwardly groaned at the thought of fighting her way through two hundred crazed clubbers to get to the green neon exit sign.  She began to politely squeeze between people.  With a smile taped to her face and only swiping a look at those she disturbed, she was able to make good progress.  She clenched her teeth as a few guys grabbed the opportunity to paw her breasts while she continued to push herself through the crowd.  She had almost reached the double doors to freedom when she felt fingers crawl under her skirt.

Jess cried out.  Slapping the hand away, she turned and saw a man grinning like a chimp, who undeterred, went to grope her again.

“Piss off!”

The grin broke out into a cruel laugh.  She scowled her frustration and elbowed her way to the cloakroom.  On her way, she glanced back twice and wished she hadn’t as he was still watching her.

Jess grabbed her little jacket and hurried through the double doors of Jimmy Gee’s night club, taking the man’s disturbing stare with her.  She stepped out into the streets of Shirley in Southampton during the early hours of a Wednesday in April.  Her insides shivered as she breathed in the chilled air.

Something drew her attention down the street.  She first thought she saw a person dimly lit by the streetlight, standing in front of the park gates.  But, that wasn’t right: those gates were four metres high, and the figure, this thing, was the same height.  It was much darker than the shadows in the park behind; denser than the night surrounding it and it seemed to be waiting.

Jess felt uneasy.  She told herself that it was a tree and that she should get on her way home.  But her tired, drunk brain pushed her to peer more closely and as she did, two more shapes unfolded on either side of the figure.  These were bone-grey and spread like wings.  Don’t be so stupid, Jess, she said out loud.  It’s a bloody tree.

“You all right, darlin’?”

Jess spun round to see a tall, shaven-headed man in a heavy overcoat standing over her, smacking his gloved hands together hard.  A second bouncer came out of the club to join him.

“Er, yeah.”  She quickly looked back and saw the gate’s metal bars: the black figure … the tree had vanished.

“Did you see that?” she asked, frowning.  His forehead was quite pronounced.  He frowned back at her with his mouth open.

 “Nah, guess you didn’t,” she answered for him.  “Me neither.  I’m going home.”

            Her heels tapped quickly away from Jimmy Gee’s in the direction of the taxi rank, as she checked her little black, spangled purse for the fare.

            “Two bloody quid!”  It would be at least twelve to get to her house.  Where was all her money?  And where were all the bloody cabs?

            There was only one taxi on the rank.  The driver, a slime of a man with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, was standing outside his car.  A long line of ash drooped from the burning stem.

            “Excuse me,” she said.

            Initially, he ignored the voice, then acting as if she had just disturbed him, he slowly faced her.  In the same sloth-like manner, he regarded her barely covered, almost boyish body.

            She pulled her thin jacket closed.

             “Can I ask you a favour?  I’ve only got two pounds,” Jess began, ignoring the urge to knee him.  “Is it all right if I give you the rest when we reach my house?  Please?”  She looked pleadingly at the taxi driver, whose rolls of flesh stretched his home-knit jumper and overflowed onto his jeans.

            He examined her legs, before removing his cigarette, which had become stuck to his lower lip.  The ash crumbled onto his jumper and he flung the butt into the gutter, grunting, “Sorry, love.  No can do.”

            “Please, I’m really late and my dad’s gonna murder me.  I need a cab.”

            The driver looked at her, nonchalantly, and opened his car door.  “No favours.  Might do a runner, see?”

            “Excuse me?  Do I look the kind of person that’s going to do a runner?” Jess asked him, shocked.  The horrible man’s inability to understand was upsetting her.  It was just one thing after another.

He took her question as an offer to leer at her some more.

“Just help me please?  My money’s been stolen,” she sniffed.  Her eyes scanned up and down the empty street, half expecting the monkey from the club to be lurking in the shadows.  She could still feel his hand.

             The driver was getting into his cab.

            “No please don’t.  Oh, for fuck’s sake!”

            She heard the clunk of the central locking.

            She wanted to hit the roof of the car; to scream at his window.  Instead, she stamped her feet and started to cry.

©E A Nash

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