A DATE WITH DARKNESS Copyright 2011 by Vanessa Knipe, all rights reserved. No portion of this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
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This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental.
Sally stepped on her brake halfway into the parking space. A dead bird lay, wings spread, on the tarmac in front of her bumper. No wonder the van in front of them had slowed then driven on.
'What is it, Mummy?' Timmy leaned forward through the seats to look.
'Nothing.' Sally edged over the carcass. Surely those weren't chalk markings around the bird? Well, this parking space was as close as it got to the entrance today. She had no time to be squeamish; the road works on the A64 had made them late.
'Look at the roller coaster!' Timmy pointed through the windscreen at the rails running high over the entrance block to Toowich Park.
'That's too high for you.' She grabbed her newspaper—needed to identify them to the person they were here to meet. 'There'll have age and height restrictions.' And if there weren't any rules, Sally was going to invent them to keep her five-year-old son off the dangerous rides.
A van circled round. The passenger stared at her, and then hit the driver who also turned to look. Sally glared back: why should she care what they thought about respect for dead birds? The van drove along the rows, and then hovered, as if waiting for another car to move.
Timmy bounced in his booster seat, trying to get his seat belt unfastened.
Sally opened the car door. As her foot touched the tarmac, a loud cawing sounded in the trees on the far side of the car park. A murder of crows burst out of the branches and flew towards York, chased by a squall line of bruise-colored clouds. Momentarily the clouds covered the washed-out October sun and red light flowed across the car park.
Sally watched for a moment longer then climbed out of her car. She reached out to close the door.
A burst of static stung her hand. Reflex jerked it away. She paused, and then prodded the door with her index finger. Nothing, the static had grounded. She rubbed her hand to ease the itching then shut her door.
Timmy banged on his door. 'Let me out.'
Something splattered on the car window. She straightened and a red spot stained her hand. Automatically, she pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her nose. No blood dripped from her nostrils. Another red spot plopped on the car, clashing with the scarlet paint. It slid down the car like red syrup.
She raised the paper to cover her hair and the weird rain made little popping noises. Pollution? Algae? She heard that they had red rain in India, but that sort of thing didn't happened in Yorkshire.
Well, they maybe late, but she wasn't allowing Timmy to get covered in this gloopy red rain. She turned back to the car, when out of nowhere a gust of wind snatched her copy of the newspaper. It fluttered away.
'Hoy!' she shouted, as if the wind could understand. 'I need that edition.' – Even with its misleading report of calm, dry weather.
She abandoned her car to chase the paper, fallen leaves scuttling alongside it. The wind dropped and Sally stamped, catching her paper underfoot. Another squall roared through the trees, forcing her further away from her waiting son. Turning her face to one side, she managed to snatch a breath.
The wind pushed against her as she tried to retreat to the refuge of her car.
'Sally!' shouted a female voice across the car park. 'Mike! Do something!'
Picking her hair out of her eyes and mouth, Sally scanned the car park. Her friend Gail—one person she had wanted to avoid today—stood several rows away, eyes fixed on something above Sally's head.
Sally glanced up.
A lamp cover teetered on top of the matt-gray pole. The wind holding Sally was the only support for the swinging cover. The gust began to fail. She felt dizzy, as if she was falling into the sky. The rushing beat of blood in her ears almost drowned the hammering of running feet.
Hands grabbed her waist, dragging her to the tarmac, knocking the wind out of her.
Pain stung her shoulder and cheek as they scraped on the gravel: the dark smell of oil and dust on the ground near her nose.
She and whoever had grabbed her rolled, until her back slammed against a car: her head and face protected by his shoulder. Something clattered near her ear, then a crash like a hundred golf balls hitting greenhouses.
Peering out, she saw fragments of the smashed globe radiating out from the spot where she had been standing. Sally gulped for air; she would not remember five years ago. She pressed her hands over her eyes, refusing to let the memory of blood be smeared over this lot of shattered glass—like the shattered windscreen five years ago.
She felt her shoulders being shaken and her wrists tugged, as her rescuer tried to pry her hands away.
'Are you hurt?'
His voice sounded familiar—over the sound of glass breaking in her head.
Gail dropped to the ground by the 4X4. Sally wrenched away from the man and burrowed into her friend's comforting hug.
'Sally, it's all right now.' Gail stroked Sally's shoulder-length hair, fingers tangling in the blonde curls.
'Is that really Sally Neville?' the man asked.
'Cartwright. I'm sure I told you that, Mike,' Gail said.
'Mike Rider.' Sally looked up, a smile hovering on her lips. He had come back. For a moment she was eighteen again, sharing their first kiss.
'I forgot,' Mike said. His smile slid away and he watched her with cold eyes.
Her smile died as her memory returned. Humiliation flared. Seducer! He seduced me and ran. Where is your pride woman? He broke his promise.
Grateful for Timmy's interruption, Sally shuffled round to face her car. The boy elbowed Gail aside as he flung his arms around his mother's neck. Sally rubbed her tears on his brown hair.
'Timmy, darling, Mummy's safe. But mind the glass.'
The quiet struck her. She lifted her head from where it lay against Timmy's. Her paper lay as if she had dropped it. Mike squatted to retrieve a hiking stick from under the 4X4. Black Doc Martin boots crunched on the broken glass.
'What happened to the wind?'
'What wind?' Gail said, sitting back on her heels, ready to jump in and comfort her friend if necessary.
'The wind that had me chasing my paper all over the blasted car park.'
Happy shrieks sounded, accompanied by wheels running over a track. Not even a breeze puffed.
With worried eyes, Sally looked at Mike.
Ignoring her, Mike leaned on the hiking stick, frowning at the sky.
Sally looked up to see what he was staring at. The squall line of clouds slunk away, jostling each other like guilty children trying to hide behind each other; they faded into wisps and vanished.
He turned back to Sally.
'There's no wind, you must have imagined it in the shock of the lamp cover falling on you.'
Fresh scuffmarks marred the finish of his black leather trench coat, tugging at her gratitude. That patronizing tone in his voice was new. It acted like weed-killer on her appreciation, destroying it before it took root.
'What's he doing here, anyway?' Sally said, watching Gail get to her feet and brush the dirt from her boot-cut jeans. 'I thought we'd lost him for good in the delights of the Big City.'
Gail sighed. Sally bit back the next cheap shot she had thought out. There was no point in annoying her friend despite her awful brother.
Timmy pulled away from Sally's cuddle; reassured his mother was all right, he looked hopefully at the entrance to Toowich Park.
'There's a whole load of people running from the ticket stands,' he said.
Mike followed Timmy's pointing finger. 'You need to get up,' he said, offering his hand. 'There's a delegation of Toowich Park security jogging over here.'
Feeling a bit weak, Sally grabbed his wrist. Again static flashed. Sally snatched her hand away. Mike stared at her, frowning. His gaze flicked between her and now empty horizon.
Sally grimaced. 'I seem to have an electric personality today.'
She reached for his hand again and let him draw her up. She staggered, but Mike's hands on her shoulders steadied her. She flicked a glance at him and saw his cold eyes examining her. Cold, calculating, he could never have loved her. She felt her sliver of hope slide away like ice. Looking anywhere but his face, she noticed his fingerless leather gloves. No one of thirty should wear that sort of get up.
'Gosh,' Sally said. 'I thought Halloween was next Saturday, not today. What's your Trick or Treat costume? Darth Vader?'
'Not at all, the good guys wear at least one piece of white clothing.'
'Oh, right,' Sally said. She inspected him. 'I'm seeing all midnight here.'
A corner of his mouth twitched in a half-sneer, half-smile. 'I'm wearing white boxers.'
A smile tugged at her cheeks. He always could turn her anger to laughter.
He promised to write to you.
She turned away. No way would she let him see smiles, or tears on her face, again. As a distraction, she pounced on a ticket taker wearing a neon green tee shirt and blue jeans, both emblazoned with the orange Toowich Park logo. The beads hanging from the teenager's cat-ear ponytails clicked as she quivered under Sally's glare.
'If it wasn't Saturday, I'd be on my mobile to my boss,' Sally said, brushing moss and grit from her pink anorak. 'Your unsafe light fitting dropped on a health and safety inspector.'
A manager, his tee shirt logo subdued by a suit jacket, stepped between Sally and the ticket taker. Waving his teenage employee away, he held out a first aid kit. 'Do you need any help?'
Around them a security guard roped off the area with yellow and black hazard tape. Another took the number plates of cars in the closed-off zone.
Sally tucked her shaking arm around Timmy, staring blindly at the mess, suddenly realizing how close that lamp cover had come to landing on her head. He saved me—some of the warm feelings to Mike returned in a guilty thought. But her husband had saved her… and died… that had to mean more.
Gail stepped in and negotiated with the manager. She wangled an invitation to get Sally into the first aid room, until she had recovered.
'But I'll need to get my kids out of my car,' Gail added.
'Did you leave the car unlocked?' Sally turned to Timmy. Looking up, she saw the driver door of her car hanging open where he had climbed through to get out. Sally felt his shrug against her arm.
'Give me your keys,' Mike said. 'I'll lock up for you.'
Sally put her hand in her pocket, then looked at the car. 'I think I left them in the ignition.'
Gail pointed out Sally's red Ford. 'Get Dan and Sophie and meet us inside,' Gail ordered her brother. 'Come on Sally, you need a cuppa.'
'Where's my paper?' Sally said.
'Stop worrying about littering. You nearly died!'
'But…' Sally bit her lip. What could she say without getting Gail suspicious?
'Can you walk or will you wait until Mike gets back to carry you?'
Goaded, Sally set off towards the entrance on legs that shivered like jelly. 'I'd walk a million miles rather than have him carry me.'
Timmy hung on his mother's arm and Gail clumped along beside them; Sally almost had to wrench her neck to look up at her friend's face now that platform shoes were back in fashion.
'Shame, I was sort of hoping you two would make it up,' Gail said. 'He rescues you and you forget the reason you dumped him—you know the deal.'
'You can't dig for gossip from that long ago. Things happened.' Sally's lips thinned, holding back the complaint it wasn't like that, he dumped me. But she had worked hard to present the image of the jilt rather than the victim and for reasons of his own Mike didn't seem to have corrected her story to his sister.
Mike strode back. He pocketed Sally's keys. 'Walking this slowly will take forever,' he said and scooped her up.
'Let me down.' Sally struggled to be free even though the two hundred meters to the entrance, designed by the 1940s Concrete Bunker School of Architecture, stretched out like the Pennine Way to her unsteady legs.
Mike ignored her and kept on walking. 'Gail, go get your brats. I'll look after Sally.'
'Good idea.' Gail held out her hand. 'Timmy, come with Auntie Gail.'
Holding Gail's hand, but dragging his feet and looking to his mother to countermand the instruction, Timmy went.
'If you keep wriggling like that,' Mike said, 'I'm going to drop you.'
Sally lay still. Not that she believed he would drop her, his arms, resting against her back, had plenty of muscle—more than he used to have. She stuffed the memory of the last time he had held her into the black hole of the past.
The manager trotted to keep up with Mike and led them through an unused turnstile, ignoring the queues of people. The crowd craned to see the disaster victim, clearly expecting gore. Sally buried her burning cheeks in Mike's shoulder again.
'In here, please,' the manager said, opening a door labeled with a green cross. 'I'll see about some drinks for you.'
He closed the door, leaving Sally with Mike.
Inside, she struggled to be free.
Mike took two steps across the room and deposited her on the stretcher bed against the far wall. She dropped her legs over the side, sitting up.
'I'm not an invalid.'
He turned away with that half sneer on his lips again. A mirrored cabinet showed his hair falling around his face. He jerked the ponytail band from the nape of his neck.
'What did you do to the wind?' she asked.
He met her eyes in the mirror while he finger-combed his brown hair. 'How would I make wind go away?'
She had no answer to that, but angled for more information. 'There was a wind that pushed me under that lamp, and I saw you send it away.'
'Seeing the wind now, goodness.' He replaced the band. Along with the patronizing voice that ponytail was new. Neither was attractive.
'But there was—'
The door opened again and the manager entered, carrying a tray with an assortment of cups. Timmy pushed past him to reach his mother.
'You will be getting a phone call from my boss on Monday,' Sally said.
'Your report will arrive on his desk with mine,' said the manager. 'I hope you and your party will enjoy our hospitality free today, after your shock.' He set the tray down on a table.
Behind Timmy, Gail entered with Dan and Sophie. Sally couldn't help noticing that even in an emergency Gail's make-up looked just applied.
'Come on,' Gail said, leaning in to whisper, 'you'll do me a favor. I won't have to rely on Mike to pay for the kids and me.'
'I'm sorry, I can't; you know that.' She turned to the manager. 'We will pay, just like anyone else.'
'So proper,' Mike said.
'Oh, shut up,' Gail said. 'Nobody thinks your sarcasm is clever any more. Make yourself useful. Take the kids on the rides. Go on Timmy, with Dan and Sophie.'
Timmy wriggled, but Sally cuddled him closer.
'That's all right. Timmy and I'll be out on the rides soon. You go and enjoy yourselves.'
'Don't be silly,' Gail said, settling onto the only chair and crossing her legs comfortably. 'Why should Timmy be bored while we talk? We have Mike's help.'
'Babysitter general,' Mike said.
He folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe, his steel-gray eyes mocking her reluctance.
Sally glared at him. How could Gail think that Sally would send her only child off with a bastard like Mike?
'If you're sure,' Gail said. 'Mike, go get tickets for us all.'
Dismissed, Mike lounged away, Dan and Sophie at his heels.
Gail picked up two cups, she handed a large one with a straw to Timmy, and the tea to Sally, then got her own.
'Mum says we're going to have a great time this half term,' Timmy said, slurping his drink.
Sophie slammed open the door and dropped three tickets into her mother's lap. 'Uncle Mike used the accident to jump the queue.' She giggled and dashed away.
Sally fumbled through her anorak pockets for her purse. 'Can I give you the ticket money to pass on to Mike?'
Gail shrugged. 'It's not necessary. He's rolling in it.'
'I'm not his family.' Sally opened her purse and counted out the notes.
'Why are you here?' Gail reluctantly accepted the money. 'You said you weren't coming.'
'I'm meeting someone here, or at least I was,' Sally said, hoping a partial explanation would satisfy her friend. 'With this delay, he might think I've stood him up.'
Gail choked on her tea. 'He? You won't even go to the cinema with me!'
'It's no one you know,' Sally said.
'Did you meet him at work?' Gail settled back in her chair, ready for a long gossip.
'I think it's time to go on the rides,' Sally said, firmly closing the conversation.
'Are you sure you're ready to go out yet?'
'I'll be fine,' Sally said. Then seeing the doubt in her friend's eyes she added, 'Really. I'll be better off with something to distract me.'
The most important thing, Sally thought, is to get Gail back to her family.
She needed time to think. Something odd had happened out there and she wanted to know what. How on earth was she to find out? It was a shame that Mike seemed to know, and he was the one person she could never trust again.
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