The girl sped up, her heels clicking on the wet pavement. She was unsteady in her haste, or perhaps she was staggering because of what had been in her drink. Maybe it was both. Drizzle made her hair unstraighten. He liked it that way. And when she passed under the streetlight, raindrops sparkled in the curls like tiny translucent pearls. He smiled.
Just at the start of the bridge, her right heel caught in a crack and her foot twisted. She cried out, stopped, half turned and looked at him. Her eyes widened. His smile became a grin and he continued his nonchalant approach. The path along the river was just to their right, the scent of wet summer hedgerows drifted from the darkness. Her thin top was nearly soaked through, clinging to her body. He imagined the taste of the water on her skin, the softness under the wet fabric. She would be like a mermaid. It would be wonderful.
The girl started to cry. She pulled at the shoe caught in the pavement and then wrenched at the strap to take it off. He smiled. He only had to walk three strides and he’d have reached her. As long as she didn’t get across the bridge, he could take her down the path and show her what she was missing.
With one more stride he passed the funny little ruin at the start of the bridge. The girl was an arm’s length away now, still struggling with the buckle, tears mingling with rain.
Before he could touch her, something grabbed his arm and the world went black.
His nostrils filled with a stench which made him retch: fungus, sodden straw, smoky, filthy clothes, human waste and body odours so layered in tone and undertone he wondered how mere sweat could create them. He reached out his arms in the darkness and touched, on one side wet stone and on the other softness restrained under slimy cloth. A breast. His wrist was gripped.
‘Oh no you don’t.’
The voice was hoarse, as if the whisper was dragged through smoke and throat-dissolving gin. The words stank of rotten meat.
‘Let me go!’
‘What if I don’t want to?’
‘Let me go you…’
What was she this woman? She was short, that was all he knew. But he couldn’t work out if she was old or young, fat or thin. There was no light whatsoever. She spoke again.
‘What were you gonna to do that girl?’
’N…Nothing. I just wanted a bit of a cuddle.’
‘Didn’t look like she was interested.’
‘She never gave me the chance.’
He squirmed in her grip but the hand, though small, was strong. It tightened round his wrist.
‘Let me go!’
‘And if she’d ask you to let her go? Would you have? The truth now. I’ll know if you’re lying.’
He swallowed. He still couldn’t see, just smell the cold, damp of the room or whatever it was, feel her foul breath, taste the mould on the damp walls, hear the trickle of water somewhere outside. Was it the river? He thought of the river-bank, of holding the girl down in the undergrowth squirming like an eel. The grip on his wrist tightened even more. He pulled at it with his other hand but could not unpeel the woman’s small fingers. He flailed in the darkness for her face, for a door, for a weapon. Failing, he felt his bowels loosen.
‘Where is this?’ he said.
‘What jail? There’s no jail in this town anymore. They moved it to… I don’t know where, but we haven’t got one.’ He snorted. She was just a filthy idiot. He tried to wrench his arm away but her grip tightened evermore.
‘Oh yes there is,’ she said. ‘You were standing right by it.’
He remembered. The funny little ruin at the end of the bridge: there were handcuffs carved into the old stone.
‘Now in my day,’ the woman said calmly, her jagged nails digging into the soft flesh of his wrist, cutting the skin, ‘in my day, this was just for petty criminals to cool them down overnight. Pickpockets, drunks, brawlers. People like me. In my day, they never worried about men like you. “Fair game” they used to say about girls like her, out late, all alone. Times change.’
‘What do you mean “in your day”? Let me go! A girl like that’s still fair game. What’s she to you?’
‘Oh she’s my … let me see… great great great grand-daughter or something. Maybe a few more greats.’
He swallowed, this woman was filthy and mad. And then he was aware of the coldness of her small hand, how hard and tiny the fingers round his wrist, the way her breath was fading, the smells receding into nothing but damp stone. He could hear the river again, a car passing in the rain. He could hear people talking: a panicked girl, someone else comforting her. He could make out the orange glow of street lights through cracks in the old padlocked door.
‘How can you know that girl was your anything?’ he whispered.
A voice, fading and cold, murmured, ‘any girl in trouble is my something.’
The stench told them where he was.
‘Been dead a week I reckon,’ said the pathologist.
‘Beats me how his body got here,’ said the detective. ‘It took us an hour to break in. The lock’s been rusted solid for over fifty years and there’s no other entrance. What killed him?’
‘No obvious cause of death. There’s not a mark on him but some scratches on his wrist which … it’s hard to tell but … they seem to be words…’
The detective held the torch closer, covering his face from the stench and flies.
‘What do they say?’
The pathologist peered closer, twisting the wrist in the beam of light.
‘What do you reckon? To me it looks like “fair game”.’
Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
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