Chapter 12: Cornered
Drew came to stand at my side and the flame crackled, reaching forward like a finger towards him. If he felt it, the charged connection between us, he ignored it and focussed his attention on the scrap of newspaper I was holding.
“This is a photograph from that night,” my voice sounded strained. I smoothed the paper and pointed to the photograph trying to take no notice of the burning pain in my chest, trying to ignore the slithers of energy that pulled me closer and closer towards him. I coughed, straightened up and tried to make my voice sound formal. “This is from the band’s second gig at the club.”
Drew peered down at the black and white scene scanning the faces in the crowd, the faces of his friends playing on the stage.
“Wow. I can’t believe you found this.”
Drew’s face was a strange mixture of amazement and grief. His expression showed that he was fully aware that he was staring at the last night of his life, the last moments he had spent before he was pushed off the bridge. There was no rage or anger on his face; nothing to show that he was aware that, as he skimmed over the nameless faces, he was possibly staring into the face of his murderer. Or if he did, he was trying to keep his emotions in check.
I took a deep shaky breath and stabbed my finger at the blurry face that was turned up at the stage in disgust and loathing.
“I think that this was who probably started the fight at the gig,” I swallowed hard, feeling choked by what I was telling him, by what I thought I had worked out. “If he started the fight, was dealing out punches and kicks…” I trailed off, letting the charged silence buzz between us like electricity. I leant back, cringing, waiting for the moment Drew would understand what I was trying to get at.
Drew’s head snapped up, his grey eyes wide, boring into mine. I knew he had followed my train of thought exactly; he didn’t need me to finish the sentence because he knew.
“If he started the fight,” he began in a seething tone, a whisper so dark and menacing I found myself physically stepping back, away from him. “If he started it then he probably finished it…with a push.”
He wrenched his eyes away from mine and looked back at the photograph in his hand. I knew that this was it. This was the breakthrough that Drew had been waiting for for fifteen years. The moment was here.
“Michael Whittaker,” I breathed, looking at Drew’s face for some recognition of the name. “He’s thirty three now.” Drew’s face whipped back up. “He would have been eighteen in 1998, the same age as you.”
Drew’s eyes grew larger. “It was him, wasn’t it?” he breathed.
“We don’t know that yet,” I said looking back at the picture; I couldn’t look at Drew’s face anymore. “But it certainly looks like he was pretty angry about something.”
“Angry enough to start a fight?”
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t need to. The sun caught his silver zip and scattered light across the photograph almost blinding me.
He had his answer.
I tried to keep focussed in Art, tried to keep the panic at bay, but I didn’t do a very good job. It twisted like spiny weeds around my heart, threatening to squeeze the life out of me. If I let myself think about it, dwell on what I had promised to do that night I would be sat gasping for breath at my desk, and how would I explain passing out to Mrs. Ashburn, she already thought I was a nutter after the day before.
Drew had asked me, more like demanded me, to find out whether the face in the picture really was Michael Whittaker. I knew that it was going to get dangerous. The deeper we went, the more likely it was that I would get hurt. The pain from my broken heart was guaranteed; Drew would leave me, but now I had the possibility of being hurt by Whittaker, possibly physically hurt, if I pushed him too far, pushed him into revealing what maybe happened that night on the bridge.
A quote from Dante floated into my mind, ’the path to paradise begins in hell.’ How right he had been. Going to see Whittaker, to put myself in harm’s way was like heading into the inferno, but I was doing it for a Drew, to get him on the path to paradise. What better reason could there be for putting yourself in harm’s way?
When I’d told Drew that I knew exactly where I could find Whittaker, that very night, his eyes had tightened, and a strange flicker of emotion had passed over his face that I couldn’t read. He’d looked at me for what seemed like a long time, with his head cocked to the side, as if he was judging my reaction.
I’d swallowed back the bitter taste of heartbreak and thrust the photograph towards him again. As he’d looked back down at the image he couldn’t disguise the glint of excitement that lit up in his eyes. It was like a piercing stab wound straight through my heart. He’d stared intensely at the photograph, as if he was willing some dormant memory to leap to the forefront of his mind so that he could actually remember if it had been Whittaker who had pushed him of the bridge.
As I’d watched him scrutinise the picture, his long fringe falling into his grey eyes, I’d thought back to when he’d told me that he no longer wanted to go to Heaven, because he said he wanted to be with me more. I’d told him that it was ridiculous to say that, ridiculous because he didn’t have a choice. He was going to go to Heaven and I loved him enough to ensure that that happened.
As crazy as going to confront Whittaker was, it was the right thing to do. To prove that he had murdered Drew, to prove that he was a vile bully who taken things too far, taken things beyond repair, would reset the balance. It was like the Buddhism book I’d taken out from the library said ’as you sow, so shall you reap.’ It was time Whittaker paid for snuffing out Drew’s life before he’d had the chance to really live it.
I pulled in a deep breath, gearing myself up for the evening ahead of me as I thought about Drew’s grey eyes. His face, so familiar to me now, was so beautiful it was painful. The beauty of his face was obvious; the pain came from knowing that if I could prove that Whittaker had done it would take Drew away from me.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to force my selfish thoughts out. The right thing now was to get justice for Drew and for his family. The right thing was to prove that Michael Whittaker had murdered him, and then let him go. Let him go on to where he was supposed to be, where he was getting ready for. Didn’t the dazzling, blinding silvers and golds prove that?
I knew that I would have to get Jess on board to help me, but she would be so pleased that I wanted to go out after my weird behaviour over the last week or so that she wouldn’t ask too many questions about my choice of venue. Knowing Jess, she’d only ask what time and what to wear.
“Really? You never want to go to the snooker hall when I want to go,” she pouted. It was lunchtime and Jess had her hands on her hips and her lips pursed in a mock strop at my request.
“I thought it would be a change of scenery,” I ventured, proverbial fingers crossed behind my back.
It was kind of true; the snooker hall wasn’t a place we often went to. We’d been there on a few occasions, usually with a big gang from college to watch the boys, or whichever boy Jess was currently in love with, play snooker. We’d even tried to play the odd game but we were embarrassingly rubbish, so the night would usually pass with me listening to some old-school 90s bands on the juke box and Jess flirting like mad whilst she asked if she could arrange someone’s balls.
“Well, you are in luck, Elizabeth Sutton,” her eyes shined with excitement and she wiggled her eyebrows like a vaudeville villain. “I overhead a certain Patrick Airey saying he played in a certain midweek league in a certain snooker hall so I guess popping in for a few drinks wouldn’t be too much like hard work. So what do you think I should wear?”
It had been that easy.
Jess, who shined with the brightness of the sun, wouldn’t ever see the darkness behind the reason why I wanted to go to the snooker hall; she would be so busy flirting with Patrick, faking innocent surprise over the size of his balls, that she probably wouldn’t notice me slip off to face Drew’s demons.
I met Jess at our usual spot and we walked into town together. She looked amazing, as usual, in skin tight jeans and a snug fitting white vest top under her denim jacket. She’d fastened her long blonde hair up into a scruffy bun with wispy bits falling loose around her face. She looked beautiful. I looked down, pushing my tangle of curls out of my face and frowned at my clothes. I was wearing my jeans with the frayed knees, a black, baggy man’s vest and my leather biker jacket on top. It was a favourite outfit of mine but I had no recollection of selecting it from my wardrobe, and I had no idea of when I’d put it on.
We pushed our way through the snooker hall door, its frosted glass looked sorry for itself, stained orange at the edges with cigarette smoke. The snooker hall itself looked ancient, if I hadn’t seen the photograph of the band playing here when it had been a Working Men’s Club, I would never have believed it had ever looked decent. It had always seemed to me like a rundown building, built looking decrepit, ready to crumble into its foundations and simply disappear.
We held our breath as we strode, quickly, past the toilets and then stepped into the main room. We hesitated, looking around with searching eyes and bated breath, seeking out the guys we had come for. When Jess spotted Patrick she released a contented sigh, raised an eyebrow at me, winked, and then headed for the bar with an exaggerated wiggle in her step. I kept scanning the room until I saw him.
He was playing snooker on the far table with some of his creepy mates; my breath came out in a strangled whimper, the sound a tiny animal might make as it makes foolish plans to creep into its enemy’s den.
Whittaker had a pint in his hand and three more lined up on a table and from the state of his glazed expression I guessed he had been drinking for a while. Three of his mates were stood leaning on cues and there were several pound coins stacked on the edge of the table so I knew they would be there for the majority of the evening. I turned away, swallowing panic, and headed over to the bar just in time to take a drink from Jess’ outstretched arm.
“Vodka and tonic, Miss Sutton?” Jess asked in her best posh butler voice.
“Err, yeah.” I looked quizzically at her as she smirked, how on earth had she managed to get served? “Did you buy them?”
“Nope,” she grinned. Her cheeks were flushed and her voice had turned light and breathy. She nodded her head in the direction of the table where Patrick was leaning over to take a shot at a red which sat square over a pocket. “He did.”
“Unbelievable,” I couldn’t help but laugh at Jess’ smug expression. “How do you do it?”
She shrugged, and her smile stretched further across her face as she took a sip from her drink. Her eyes edged back to Patrick’s back stretched out as he lined up his cue, the hem of his tee shirt had ridden up as he leant forward and a strip of bare flesh was showing above his jeans.
“Yummy,” she said into her glass. I wasn’t sure if she meant the drink or the sight of Patrick bent over the table. I took a big gulp of my own drink, letting the alcohol sear a stinging path down my throat, and flicked my eyes across the room to Whittaker’s table. Not yet, I thought as I watched him slam his empty pint glass on the table, he dragged his sleeve across his mouth as he reached for his next drink.
“Come on, Beth.” Jess tugged on my elbow and I turned to catch Patrick waving us over, he pointed to the booth he and his friends had commandeered, with a confident smile on his face. Jess dragged me over, squeezing my arm to near breaking point in the process, and the boys all scooched up to let us squeeze in.
The conversation flowed easily around me, every now and then the chat would stop so we could clamber out of the booth to let someone out to play a game and then we’d all have to shuffle back in to carry on with whatever we’d been talking about. One of the guys knew about the art project and asked a few polite question, I replied with few words and polite nods, happy to let the conversation on our part be steered by Jess. Jess had both elbows on the table and was leaning in with a look of complete absorption on her face as Patrick told her the rules and regulations of snooker. I leant back in my seat rolling my eyes, Jess had no real interest in playing, but I had a feeling she would still accept Patrick’s offer of a hands on lesson.
I glanced back at Whittaker’s table and sat bolt upright. He had gone. My heart started hammering in my chest. How had I let him disappear? I whipped frantic eyes back and forth looking for some kind of clue to his whereabouts. His gang of cronies had dispersed; a couple were still potting balls while the others were hanging round the juke box leering at girls, shouting crude comments.
Where was he?
My eyes zoned in on his vacated table and thrown amongst the empty pint glasses was an empty, crumpled pack of cigarettes. I narrowed my eyes as my heart started to fly, it felt like it was about to take off, literally rip right through my ribcage and leap out onto my lap. I excused myself from the table, mumbling something about needing the bathroom and headed back to main door.
I stood just inside the open doorway and leant out into the dark. The air felt cool and, apart from the stuttering pools of light from the decrepit lamps hanging on the snooker hall’s wall at varying intervals, and the fire exit sign above me, the night was as black as a crow’s wing. I scanned the car park and saw the tiny red dot of a lit cigarette, suspended in the darkness like a demon’s eye.
I watched the red dot for a few moments as it made its slow and regular journey up and down in the inky black night. At the top of its travels it flared brighter and I could picture Whittaker’s fish-like lips sucking on the cigarette and the image made my skin crawl. I sucked in a few deep breaths myself, letting the cool air fill my chest, pretending that each breath was drawing in a calm and composed energy. Who was I kidding? I was petrified, petrified of putting myself in front of Whittaker and petrified of what I would find out.
“Are you joining me or are you just going to stand there all night staring at me?” Whittaker’s disembodied voice slurred out of the darkness, laced with mockery and alcohol.
“I think I will…join you, that is.” I forced the jitters out of my voice before I answered him and I must have done a decent job of it, because I heard his surprised intake of breath, followed by an expletive as the red dot fell to the ground. I curled my lip into a satisfied smile. I guess he hadn’t been expecting that answer, and now I had him on the back foot, which he had possibly just burnt, wondering what was going on.
I kept my eyes on the spot where the cigarette had been burning as I took slow, measured steps towards him. The car park was split and uneven in places and the last thing I wanted was to fall head first into a pot hall. The closer I got the more the darkness peeled back from around me and I quickened my step. I saw him bend down and retrieve the cigarette from the cracked concrete, saw him lean back with one foot pushed back on the wall behind him, saw the predatory gleam in his eye as I drew even closer. His eyes narrowed as I stretched my hand out for the cigarette and he held it out to me keeping his elbow bent and his hand near his chest, forcing me to take the final few steps towards him.
With courage that I didn’t really feel I dropped the cigarette to the floor and ground it beneath my shoe, pulverising it into shreds.
“On second thoughts,” I hissed, my voice slicing into the space between us like a cold blade. “I don’t want to share anything with a murderer.”
For a split second nothing happened.
Whittaker’s eye’s remained like slits; his tattooed hand still raised in front of his chest, the air between us was hung with the stench of alcohol and smoke. Then, suddenly, his hand shot out and grabbed my wrist. He pushed away from the wall as he yanked me towards him, and just as I was about to slam face first into the wall, he spun me round, pressing his body to mine, pinning me against the cold, damp bricks.
“Now, now,” his voice dropped into a menacing whisper as I struggled against him. “If I was a murderer I’d be interested in cold corpses and I prefer a nice, warm body.”
He held my arms down tight at my sides, his hands, like vices, around my wrists and he pushed his hips into me holding me fast against the wall. I struggled to free myself but he was a heavy mass. I tried to kick out at him but his body was pushed flat up against mine, his hips digging into my stomach. I turned my face to the side, gasping, sucking in the damp air, frantically trying to think how to incapacitate an attacker. I remembered something about punching their nose up into their brain, which would have been all well and good if I could free my arms to get a swing in, but as it was I was immobilised, completely at his submission.
He pushed his nose into my neck and inhaled noisily, breathing me in as I gagged and tried to stretch my neck even further away from his disgusting lips. He slide his nose from the side of my throat, along my jaw and then up to my ear. I struggled against him, but it was fruitless, the more I wriggled the tighter he squeezed.
I stopped fighting him, not giving up, but waiting, tensed, ready for a moment to come when I could do something, anything, to get away. He mistook the cessation of my struggles as acceptance and he laughed into my neck, sensing his victory.
His foul, hot breath made my skin crawl, as if it wasn’t putrid, alcohol laced air leaving his body but a mass of ants pouring from his mouth with needles instead of legs. I breathed in through my mouth, trying not to smell his hot, acrid breath and felt the tendons in my neck screaming as I forced my head away from his, as far as it would go. He released his grip on one of my wrists and pulled my face back round. I pushed my head forward, snapping at him with my teeth, hoping to do something to get him off me, but my efforts only drew a vile laugh from his repulsive lips. He held my cheeks, squeezing them savagely as he leant closer to me, sneering into my face.
“Little girls shouldn’t go around insulting people.” His other hand snaked its way up my body and roughly grabbed at my chest. I still couldn’t get away from him, his body pressed me flat against the wall, his other hand held my face in a vice like grip.
“It’s not an insult,” I wheezed. My voice sounded slurred and hoarse as I struggled to speak and gasp for air at the same time. I had to force the words out through my puckered lips, which were crumpled together from the force of his clasping fingers. “It’s the truth. I know about fifteen years ago on the railway bridge. Ringing any bells?”
The second I said it, I felt his grip falter, his eyes widened and I took my chance knowing it was the only one I’d get. I drove my head forward and upwards, crashing my forehead into his nose. He staggered back with a grunt and folded double in front of me, holding his hands up to his face. I took my chance, shoved at his shoulders with all the power I could raise from my shaking hands, and ran back towards the weak green light that flickered over the snooker hall’s door.
From behind me I heard Whittaker groan and spit. I took a quick glance back and saw him straightening up but he had one hand pressed onto the wall in front of him for support. I was thankful for the amount of beer he’d drunk and knew that there was no way he’d get to me now. As I got to the door the fear that had been flooding through me turned to anger, it shifted from churning waves of terror into solid, rock hard lengths of rage that lined my veins with unbreakable steel.
“You disgust me, Whittaker. You are nothing but scum, murdering scum,” I shouted back into the darkness that stretched out between us, the darkness that was keeping him at bay, the darkness that kept him a safe distance behind me. As I pushed open the door, the solid anger melted and was replaced by relief; it rushed over me as I smelt the damp stench from the toilets and felt the pulse of the music coming from the hall. I stopped just inside the passage and bent double, putting my hands on my shaking knees to pull in a couple of deep, much needed breaths.
“You’ll regret saying that, Elizabeth Sutton.” Once again, Whittaker’s disembodied voice came to me through the darkness, bringing a surge of nausea with it. My body snapped back up straight as his final remark sent an involuntary shudder down the length of my spine. “You’ll regret thinking you’re better than me,” he shouted, his voice filled with threat and venom.
“Beth, are you okay? You look kind of pale.” Jess was tucked under Patrick’s arm and she looked up at me with big round eyes, her concern was genuine.
“I don’t feel too good.” I struggled to keep the bile down, clenching my teeth together against the heave. It roiled in my stomach like I’d swallowed bleach and my throat burned as I fought it back. Jess shrugged Patrick’s arm off her shoulders and started to get up. “No, Jess. Stay. I’ve rung my dad and he’s coming to get me.”
“Then I’ll come wait outside with you.”
“No, it’s okay. Stay and finish your drink. I’m sure…” I looked pointedly at Patrick, letting the rest of my sentence hang in the air until he caught on.
“I’ll walk you home, Jess.” He pulled her back into his side. “Plus,” his voice took on a teasing tone, “you haven’t had your snooker lesson yet.”
“Are you sure, Beth?” Jess made a half-hearted attempt to stand up again.
“Yes, I’m sure.” I pushed her back down. “My dad will be here in five minutes. Just text me when you get home, okay?”
“Okay.” She flashed me a quick grin and I offered her a weak smile as I turned away and headed back out of the hall.
I ducked into the ladies toilet and gripped the counter top with shaking hands, my knuckles shone white through my skin. I couldn’t go back outside, not with Whittaker out there, biding his time until he could get me on my own again. I was a fool to think that he would just admit to Drew’s murder, a fool to think that my confrontation with him would have gone any other way than it had. My knees gave way beneath me and I sank onto the rank, thread bare carpet. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and flicked through my contacts with shaking fingers. Ring the police, you could have been raped the voice of reason in my head shouted at me, but I couldn’t, not yet. The police would have to wait until I could prove Whittaker killed Drew.
“Beth?” The tinny voice in my ear brought me back from my black thoughts.
“Hi Dad, please can you come pick me up? Jess is staying out a bit longer but I don’t feel very well.”
It took a long time to calm my shaking body down. There was something seriously messed up about me, my priorities my and need for self-preservation were all the wrong way round. Any normal seventeen year old girl would be telling her parents and getting straight onto the police if a thirty odd year old man had attacked her, but not me.
Finally, when I had subdued the trembling to only one bone shaking jerk per minute, my eyes began to grow heavy as I went through my plan of attack for one final time. I’d go see Drew tomorrow. I’d tell him what had happened. Tell him that Whittaker had panicked for a split second when I had mentioned fifteen years ago and the railway bridge, but that split second was all I had needed. That split second had given Whittaker away.
The last thing I remembered before I shut my eyes was Whittaker’s sneering face pressed up close to mine and the sound of his voice as he had shouted that I would regret thinking I was better than him. My exhausted mind had tried to grasp at where I had heard someone say that before, but before I could get a proper hold on it my body did one last involuntary shudder before shutting down completely and falling into a deep, but fitful sleep.