Closer to the blaze, the stench of the fire filled the air and she could see fire tenders at the scene, three of them, as she walked up the road. Uniformed officers were keeping the crowd away from the site. The Old Chapel, she realized, now belching clouds of acrid smoke into the air, the inferno roaring. Hoses were spraying water but bright flames were still visible through the holes in the roof and the windows where the shutters had burned away.
Fire always drew a crowd, a spectacle and free at that. It hadn’t been a chapel for ages. Probably closed back in the seventies and she remembered it was a carpet place for a while then that went bust. Rachel had no idea what it was used for now, if anything. The state of the grounds, neglected and overgrown behind the wire fencing, and the holes in the roof suggested it was derelict. Just begging for some fire-starter to come along and set light to it.
She looked at the crowd. Whole families, mum with a pram and a bunch of kids around. Teenagers, some of them filming with their phones. A few older people too; one man had made it with his Zimmer, determined to be at the party. A lad on a BMX bike, stunt pegs on the rear wheel. Dom had wanted one of them, their dad had played along but they all knew the only way it would happen was if it was robbed. So it never happened. Rachel had found an old racing bike at the tip and dragged it home and Sean had begged new tyres off a cousin and they’d done it up for Dominic. Never had working brakes but Dom was made up.
All we need is an ice cream van, she thought, or toffee apples. A loud cracking sound and the crowd responded, oohing and aahing, as part of the roof collapsed and fell inside the building sending fresh flames and sparks heavenwards. Rachel shivered, damp from her run and not near enough to the heat from the fire.
Rachel was running. Running for her life. Air burning like acid in her chest, feet pounding the tarmac. Everything around her, the shops and passers-by, lampposts and railings, smudged, a blur of shape and colour.
She risked a glance behind, hair whipping in her eyes, almost losing her balance as one ankle buckled, and she saw the car was gaining. He was at the wheel, his face set with intent, eyes gleaming, mouth curved in a half-smile.
Running her down, running her to ground. For a moment, her legs stalled, numb, weak as string, before she took flight again. Arms slicing the air, throat parched, sweat cold across her skin and the thud of her heart ever louder in her ears. Then the roar as he gunned the engine, the screech as the car leapt towards her, close enough for her to smell burning oil and petrol fumes high in her throat. Dizzying.
The thump of impact. Hurling her forward, a bone-cracking crunch and Rachel fell, sprawling along the gutter and into the pavement’s edge, legs twisting the wrong way beneath her, skinning her chin and shoulder and the length of her forearms. Smacking her head against the kerbstone. A jolt that turned the world black and brought vomit scalding her gullet.
The engine cut out and then she heard his footsteps, the smack-smack of best Italian leather on the gritty stone.
She tried to draw away but was pinned, paralysed, and her attempt to shuffle brought scarlet pain licking through her hip. She tried to cry for help but her voice was frozen too and all the people had gone. She was alone with him.
‘Rachel,’ he said sadly, ‘Rachel, Rachel, what will I do with you?’
Rachel Bailey stood, freezing her tits off, on a crime-scene cordon in north Manchester. From her vantage point, at the edge of the recreation ground, she had a view across the rows of rooftops that rippled down the hillside, punctuated here and there by the bulk of a mill rising from the streets built in the same red brick as everything else. One she could see had its name picked out in white brick on the square mill tower: Heron. Rachel had been brought up in streets like this; well, dragged herself up, more like. A couple of miles to the west. Sunny Langley. Manchester didn’t really stop, Rachel thought; there were boundaries of course, but you couldn’t see the join. The city bled into the satellite towns that ringed the plain: Oldham, Rochdale, Ashton and on to even higher ground. The houses gradually changing from these brick mill terraces to stone-built weaver’s cottages, getting smaller and sparser as the developments petered out on the foothills of the Pennines. The place looked tired and mucky this time of year, the brick dull, trees bare, the grass on the field yellow and scrubby.