- Published: 3 May 2022
- ISBN: 9781787634916
- Imprint: Bantam Press
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 480
- RRP: $37.00
No Less The Devil
Malcolm ran. One hand curled against his chest, the wrist swollen and aching, the fingers numb and almost black in the sickly yellow streetlight. His other hand clenched around the strap of his tatty old rucksack. Ancient trainers squealing on the slippery cobbles as the rain battered down.
Tears blurring the shuttered shops and parked cars that lined Archers Lane.
Sobbing out the words as he tried to put as much distance as possible between himself and the wolves: ‘Please God. Please God, no. Please, please, please, please, please…’
Behind him, a high-pitched howl echoed through the night.
At the end of the street, he hammered around the corner onto the Chanonry, feet skidding out from underneath him, sending him crashing into the boot of a rust-brown hatchback hard enough to set the car’s alarm screaming. Lights flashing angry orange as he scrambled upright and staggered out into the road. Three o’clock in the morning and the houses on both sides of the road were in darkness: no one peering out their windows to see what all the fuss was about. No one to witness what was happening. No one to save him.
What was the point of bloody car alarms if everyone just ignored them?
He hauled in a breath and bellowed it out again. ‘SOMEBODY HELP ME!’
A curtain twitched on the other side of the road.
Malcolm waved his good arm, the rucksack swinging like a grubby metronome, but whoever it was, they just let the curtains fall shut again.
‘HELP ME, YOU BASTARDS!’
Another howl joined the hatchback’s wails.
Oh God: they were getting closer.
He backed away from the car. ‘Pleasepleasepleaseplease . . .’
There – just ahead – a big Range Rover coming towards him, headlights slashing through the rain. The driver would help. They had to help.
‘STOP!’ Malcolm lurched into the middle of the tarmac. ‘PLEASE! HELP ME!’
The four-by-four didn’t even slow down, just blared its horn.
‘NO!’ Jumping back, out of the way, but not quite quick enough. The windscreen caught his rucksack and sent it spinning from his hand to bounce off the roof of a parked Volvo.
The Range Rover slammed on its brakes, window buzzing down to let too-loud music bmmmmtch-bmmmmtch-bmmmmtch out, followed by a bug-eyed woman’s face. ‘IF YOU’VE SCRATCHED MY CAR, YOU’RE BLOODY FOR IT!’
‘Please, you’ve got to help me! They’re coming!’ Malcolm staggered towards the car, good arm outstretched, dirty fingers reaching. ‘Please, they’re going to kill me!’
‘Eeewww…’ Top lip curled, she shrank away from him. ‘GET AWAY FROM ME, YOU HOMELESS FREAK!’ And the window buzzed back up again.
Malcolm was inches from the door handle when the car shot forwards, accelerating away up the Chanonry in a cloud of choking diesel fumes.
‘THEY’RE GOING TO KILL ME!’
The flashing orange lights went out, and the hatchback’s alarm fell silent.
Now the only sounds were his wheezing lungs, battering heart, and the rain’s never-ending rattlesnake hiss.
A shrill laugh sliced through the night. It was answered by another howl – this time from the other side of the street, behind the Volvo, where Malcolm’s rucksack had disappeared.
They weren’t close any more: they were here.
And now they had his rucksack.
He backed away from everything he owned in the whole world.
Swallowed as the wolves growled from the shadows.
Malcolm staggered towards the end of the street, where the tarmacended in a row of bollards and a lone streetlight stood guard against the murky blackness of Camburn Woods.
He could lose them there.
Miles and miles of twisting paths and abandoned buildings and trees and trees and trees.
His trainers splashed through a puddle that stretched the width of the road. Faster. Passing the bollards and in beneath the thick dark canopy of needles, branches, and leaves, following the tarmac path.
That rattlesnake hiss was muffled by the trees, the air thick with the heavy brown scent of mouldering forest floor.
Behind him: the sound of small feet pounded the track; laughter; snarling.
Malcolm gritted his teeth and ran. Pumping his knees and elbow.
Breath wheezing in and rasping out. Wet trainers slap, slap, slapping against the path. Sweat, clammy between his shoulder blades. Razors slashing through his ruined hand and wrist.
A crossroads appeared up ahead. The signpost pointed left to Castle Hill Infirmary, right to Saxon Halls of Residence, but Malcolm went straight ahead, following the arrow for Rushworth House. For a count of five, four, three, two—
He made a sudden turn, ducking right, leaving the path and crashing into a waist-high sea of nettles. Running and stumbling through the undergrowth as darkness wrapped its arms around him.
Those little feet scuttered to a halt on the path, and a lone howl rang out.
A high voice followed it: ‘YOU CAN’T RUN FOREVER, LITTLE PIGGY!’
And they were after him again.
No idea what the building used to be, but it was little more than a ruined outline now, buried deep within Camburn Woods – half its roof missing, the upper floor bulging out above the doorway, like a drowned man’s stomach. Ready to split.
There wasn’t much of a clearing: barely enough space between the trees to let the rain clatter down on the crumbling slates and whisper in the jagged brambles. Bracken reaching for him with wet green tentacles. That small patch of sky up above glowing a dirty orange-brown, giving off just enough light to make out shapes and outlines.
Off in the distance, something rustled and Malcolm froze – crouching beneath the searching branches of a twisted oak. Might be a badger or a fox? Or it might be the wolves…
The rustling got quieter and quieter, until he was alone again.
Malcolm clutched his knee with his good hand and let the breath whoomph out of him. Tears warm on his cheeks as he shuddered and moaned. Biting his bottom lip to keep the noise to a minimum. Hard to tell what time it was, after crashing through bushes and nettles and brambles and broom for what felt like hours, till the sound of the wolves faded behind him. Then creeping about in the gloom, guarding every breath in case it might give him away. And now he was here. Soaked and exhausted, but still alive.
It was a while before he straightened up, wiped his eyes on the sodden sleeve of his new jacket, then limped across the tiny clearing and into the house. All he needed was a quiet corner, somewhere out of the rain to lie low till morning. Somewhere the wolves wouldn’t find him. Get his arse to Accident and Emergency, soon as it was safe. Maybe leave town with a pocketful of pilfered drugs and a zip-a-dee-doo-dah in his heart. Head south to somewhere warmer, like Dundee, or even Edinburgh. After all, when you were sleeping rough, one shop doorway was pretty much like any other. Oldcastle could go screw itself.
Wooden floorboards creaked beneath his torn, sodden trainers as he scuffed into the dark interior.
Wasn’t like the city had exactly been good to him, was it? Thirty-four years old and what did he have to show for it? A shattered wrist, a crappy sleeping bag from the army surplus store on Weaver Street, and a manky backpack…
No. Didn’t even have that any more.
The wolves had taken it all.
Everything except the half-bottle of Asda own-brand whisky in his coat pocket – which was about to get a serious spanking.
‘Wmmmmphaaaaargh!’ Malcolm’s eyes snapped open in the darkness, face wet, water running into his ears and soaking into his T-shirt.
A little girl loomed over him, features lit from below like she was about to tell a ghost story. Her voice was posh and clipped – polished marble and cut glass. ‘Here we go. Knew you were in there somewhere.’ She couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven, big blue eyes staring at him above her tartan facemask as she waggled an almost empty bottle of water in her gloved hand. ‘Wouldn’t do for you to miss the grand finale, would it?’ She was dressed down in a baseball cap and hoodie – both advertising rival crappy pop bands. Tracksuit bottoms and a pair of mud-smeared Nikes. She’d tucked her hair away out of sight, but the freckles visible above her mask and those pale-orange eyebrows meant she was a redhead in real life. Gloves and a facemask: like the pandemic had never ended.
‘Gah…’ Malcolm scrabbled back against the wall, levering himself up till he was sitting. Wiped the water from his face with his good hand. The whisky’s warmth leaching out of his bones, leaving that old, familiar, thirsty tremor behind. ‘You can’t just come in—’
‘Do shut up.’ She looked over her shoulder. ‘Are you recording?’
A large boy emerged from the gloom. About the size of a vending machine, broad-shouldered, big barrel chest, an iPhone clutched in his blue-nitrile-covered paw. Couldn’t see his mouth, because of the skull-print facemask, but the smile in his eyes was clear enough. He sounded even posher than she did: ‘Indubitably.’ One of those accents that boomed with privilege, private education, and a sheltered upbringing. ‘Worry not, my dear Allegra; Hugo has got it covered.’
The girl, Allegra, glowered at him. ‘Don’t use our names, you utter nimrod!’
‘Oh.’ Hugo’s shoulders rounded, eyes going all puppy dog. ‘But there’s no one else here, and this unfortunate gentleman will be dead soon, so—’
‘You’re recording this! Now our names are on the footage!’
‘Ah. Yes. I see.’ A nod. ‘Quite right. Mea culpa. Stupid Hugo.’ He fiddled with his phone. ‘OK, I’ve definitely deleted that one. Let’s try this again, keep it anonymous, and all that.’
Malcolm stared at the pair of them. ‘Wait, what do you mean, “this unfortunate gentleman will be”—’
It wasn’t the hardest slap he’d ever received, but it came out of nowhere, jerking his head to the side, leaving the edge of his mouth stinging.
A squeak of nitrile as Allegra rubbed at her slapping hand. ‘Did I say you could talk?’
‘You’re bloody children! You don’t scare me!’
‘Oh dear. That’s unfortunate, isn’t it?’
‘Aha! Yes.’ Hugo inched closer. ‘Most unfortunate indeed.’ He reached into the pocket of his hoodie and pulled out a long thin parcel wrapped in newspaper. About eighteen inches long. ‘Still, “The goat will bleat till its throat is slit.” As my dear grandmama always says.’ He unwrapped the newspaper parcel, one-handed, and a kitchen knife’s long curved blade gleamed in the light from his phone.
Malcolm pushed himself further into the wall. ‘You…don’t scare me. I’m a police officer!’
Allegra shook her head, reaching into her own hoodie pocket. ‘Not any more, you’re not: they fired you years ago.’ The hand came out, wrapped around the handle of a claw hammer. The one she’d used to wake Malcolm up two hours ago, when he’d been sleeping in the doorway of McCartney’s Hair and Beauty, minding his own business and not bothering anyone.
Just seeing it made his swollen wrist burn and throb. ‘You can’t do this, it’ s—’
‘Do you think we picked you at random, Malcolm? Because we didn’t.’
‘Fortune favours the prepared, old man.’
‘We’ve been tracking you all day.’ She flexed her gloved fingers around the hammer’s grip. ‘Don’t you want to know how we found you tonight? Here? In the woods so dark and deep? All hidden away like a frightened little mouse?’
‘If…if you go away now, you won’t get into any trouble. I promise.’
Her voice jumped up a bit, taking on a saccharine lisp. ‘Oh, you poor man, you look so cold in that tatty old jacket! Daddy says I can spend my birthday money on anything I like, and I’d like to help you!’
It’s a frigid Monday lunchtime and Malcolm’s in his usual spot, outside the train station, sitting cross-legged on his square of cardboard and his sleeping bag, a battered baseball cap on the pavement in front of him. Huffing a steaming breath into his cupped hands, trying to get some life back in his frozen fingers. Huddling in the threadbare coat he ‘inherited’ when Sparky Steve got taken off with the Covid. The coat with ragged cuffs, holes in the elbows, and a big stain down the back.
So much for the Super Scorching Scottish Summer the tabloids had promised. Since when was August colder than February? And people still said global warming was a load of old—
He looks up and there’s a pretty little red-Haired girl, holding a bag from Primark that’s almost as big as she is. Pigtails. Freckles. Tartan skirt. Blue school blazer with some sort of crest on the pocket, so her parents must be worth a bob or two.
He gives her his best I’ m-so-pitiful smile. ‘Got any spare change?’
‘Oh, you poor man, you look so cold in that tatty old jacket! Daddy says I can spend my birthday money on anything I like, and I’d like to help you!’ She holds the bag out towards him. ‘It’s so you don’t catch your death.’
He pulls his chin in and frowns at her for a moment. Is she taking the piss? Playing ‘Mock the Poor Homeless Bastard’? Is she going to scream ‘Paedo!’ at him if he goes anywhere near?
She places the bag on the pavement in front of him, then digs into her pocket and comes out with a tenner. Drops that in his empty cap. ‘Now you can get something tasty to eat too!’ All perky and helpful.
So Malcolm opens the bag and takes out a nice new padded jacket – one of the dark-red shiny kind that look a bit like a duvet with sleeves. Stares at it. Then at her. Then at the jacket again.
Licks his lips.
Feels actual tears welling up. He chokes the knot out of his voice for long enough to give her a mumbled, ‘Thank you. It’s…Thank you.’
‘Put it on! Put it on!’
And Malcolm wriggles his way out of Sparky Steve’s manky jacket and into the brand-new padded one. Warm and cosy and the nicest thing anyone’s done for him for years. ‘Thank you.’
‘I sewed a GPS tag into the lining. My companion here’s been tracking you on his phone.’
‘Like a veritable bloodhound. Keen of eye and sharp of nose.’ Hugo raised the blade. ‘And knife, of course. Mustn’t forget the knife.’
Malcolm’s back pressed hard against the wall. Voice wobbling. ‘Please, I don’t want to die…’
‘I know.’ Allegra patted him on the shoulder, her voice soft and kind. ‘But sometimes that’s just how life is: some people live happily ever after; some people get stabbed. Or strangled. Or battered with a hammer.’ She patted the claw hammer’s metal head against her gloved palm. ‘Or torn open like a bloody envelope.’
‘Please, you don’t have to do this!’ Tears made the dark little room blur.
‘Or, in your case, an unfortunate mix of the above.’
‘Stiff upper lip, old man.’ Hugo held the phone out for a close- up. ‘Nobody likes a cry baby.’
‘Please! I don’ t—’
Then the hammer slashed down, and the world screamed its very last breath.
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Could a building sweat? If someone were to ask him, Walter O’Brien would say no.
AnnieLee had been standing on the side of the road for an hour, thumbing a ride, when the rain started falling in earnest.
In a cramped hotel room high above the prayer-flag-strewn streets of Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, Nepal, Cecily snapped her laptop shut.
CARTER VON OEHSON MIXED himself a tall gin and tonic from behind the polished mahogany bar of his father’s billiard room, topping it off with a squeeze of lime.
The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.
Matthew Butler cocked his head to one side, considering the big-boned blonde in front of him.
The Pratt & Whitney radial engines rasped and hunted as they struggled to inhale the high-altitude air.