'I didn't kill him.'
This was the twelfth time Trish had said it that night, lying huddled under an old tartan rug on one of the sofas opposite her empty fireplace. Unlike everything else in the huge, sleek flat, the shabby rug had been part of her childhood. She hadn't used it for years, but tonight she'd hoped the familiar smell and reassuring roughness of the Shetland wool would take her back to a more innocent world.
She'd hardly known she was pregnant long enough for much more than one violent burst of impatience. Not now, for God's sake! I'm busy, she'd thought. But that had been enough. She'd miscarried the next day. The physical pain was over now, but her mind still felt raw.
Experienced advocate that she was, she could find all sorts of arguments in mitigation. The phone call confirming the result she'd already got from her pregnancy-testing kit had come to chambers at a particularly bad moment. All morning she'd been trying to concentrate on a fiendishly complicated piece of mathematical evidence in a fraud case. For years she'd specialised in family law, submerging herself in the agonising detail of brutalised childhoods and unhappy marriages, and now she wanted out. With this new brief she'd have a chance to prove that she could hack it in a wider, much less personal, world.
But the evidence was even more complicated than she'dexpected, and that morning she'd begun to doubt that she would ever get to grips with it. Her head had been aching, her eyes dry and burning hot, and she'd felt sick and stupid. Already there had been six interruptions and each time she'd had to go back to the beginning of the file. Then had come the seventh interruption and the news that she was pregnant. The case was due to start in four weeks' time and was likely to last for months. She'd never be able to cope unless she were on top form throughout. Pregnancy would have screwed everything up completely.
'But I didn't kill him,' she said aloud to the empty spaces all round her.
If only she could pretend the whole miserable episode had been a medical mishap, nothing to do with a real child. But all she could think of now was the person the child might have become.
She and George hadn't been actively trying for a baby, although they'd agreed that she should come off the pill ages ago. In fact, it was so long ago that she'd almost forgotten about it. They were nearly always too tired to make love anyway. But there had been one night, soon after his father had died nine weeks ago, when tiredness hadn't seemed important any more. Trish still had no idea whether George had had some kind of subconscious urge to create a new life to compensate for the old; all she'd been thinking about was how to stop him hurting.
Now he was in San Francisco, unaware of the disaster as he tried to help his mother through her first weeks of loneliness by fulfilling her lifetime's dream of seeing the city. He'd been reluctant to leave London just then, but the trip had been the only thing either he or Trish had been able to think of that might help. His emails had already told her that he wasn't sure he was doing any good. In the last one he had written:
Talking seems very difficult for her and I've got no idea what she's thinking. That may be my fault or it may just be that we don't know each other very well. I realise I've hardly spent any time alone with her since I was eight and went away to school.
Would he have to know about the miscarriage, too, Trish wondered. On top of everything else? Should she tell him about the one, never-to-be-forgotten moment when fury had convulsed her whole body and their child had died? Trying to decide whether to confess adultery must be a bit like this. Only not quite so hard.
The gibbous moon blurred against the black sky outside her windows. There hadn't been a single occasion since she'd met George when she'd been even tempted by the idea of infidelity. Not that they were married. They didn't even live together, although they had each other's keys and the freedom to let themselves in whenever they wanted, but they were absolutely committed to each other.
A shrieking squeal of rubber ripped into Trish's thoughts. Then a bang, shocking as an explosion, forced her to her feet. Showers of broken glass rang against metal and concrete. Running feet squelched in the rain.
'Oh, Christ! No. No!' cried a woman's voice as Trish moved towards the windows. 'Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Oh, help. Please help!'
Trish dragged open one of the five huge windows. Despite her slenderness, she was wirily strong, but now all her joints ached with the effort of holding in her feelings and every movement was laborious.
'Can I do anything?' she called down, only just stopping herself from the silliness of asking if everything was all right. It obviously wasn't.
A woman was beating her fists on the crumpled bonnet of a long white hatchback. Yellow light from the streetlamps caught in the drops of rain falling from herdark hair. She turned to look up towards the sound of Trish's voice.
'There's a child. I didn't see him in time. I couldn't help it. But I think he's dead.'
Oh, God. 'I'll come down. Are you hurt, too?'
'No. But he's under the car. That's why I skidded. I saw him in the headlights. I can't get him to answer. He must be dead. But I wasn't going fast.'
'I'll phone for an ambulance. Hang on.'
Trish punched 999 into the mobile handset of her phone. She tucked it between her ear and shoulder while she grabbed a long coat to pull over the outsize T-shirt she'd put on after her shower, then picked up her keys in case the door blew shut behind her. She didn't want to be locked out on a night like this. Her narrow feet were bare, so she stuffed them into a pair of gumboots and clumped down the iron staircase to the street. Ambulance control answered as she reached the ground. She gave them the bare facts, relieved that she had a human being on the line and not an answering machine.
'We'll be there in about eight minutes,' the voice assured her. 'Don't touch the child.'
'Of course not,' she said, shoving the handset in her pocket with the keys and wading across the road in her loose boots. Her bare skin rubbed against the fabric lining and she kept stubbing her toes as her feet moved faster than the boots.
The driver's face was pale grey and her hair was draggled across her thin cheeks. Her mascara had run and she'd chewed off most of her lipstick. She was shaking.
'You poor thing,' Trish said in the professionally soothing voice she used for frightened clients. 'Are you hurt?'
'No. I told you. It's him. He's bleeding and hasn't moved. He won't answer me.' Retching, she grabbed Trish's arm, but she didn't throw up. 'I couldn't help it. He ran under the wheels. I couldn't help it.'
Trish freed herself to look, quickly straightening up again after one gut-punching glimpse of the small body.
'If he's bleeding that much he's not likely to be dead.'
They hadn't shown her the foetus in hospital, but her imagination had given her plenty of pictures to work on. She tried to think of something else.
'I'm a fool, I should have brought an umbrella. You'll be soaked. You haven't even got a coat.'
'It doesn't matter.' A train rattled over the railway bridge two streets away, and the woman flinched. 'Where's the ambulance? Even if he isn't dead yet, he will be soon if they don't come.'
'They're coming now,' Trish said, shocked to hear her own voice shaking. 'Listen.'
A siren was whooping in the wet air. The faint sound intensified until the familiar boxy white shape of the ambulance itself emerged from the gloom at the end of the road. Two minutes later the paramedics in green overalls jumped down, asking questions even before their feet had hit the ground.
Trish left the driver to answer them, and forced herself to squat down again to see whether there was any movement from the child. The surprisingly sharp edge of the gumboots cut into her bare calves, and her coat trailed in the wet road. She bunched the skirts up around her knees and bent down to peer under the car. There wasn't much light, but she could see that the child was not pinned against the wall; he'd slipped into the road, and one of his legs was bent at an impossible angle. The pool of blood was spreading steadily.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and heard a voice urging her out of the way. Standing up, she swayed. Her hands reached out for something to hold her up and met the slippery, wet metal of the car's roof. Waves of dizziness intensified then gradually sank back. At last she could stand unsupported.
'Were you driving?' asked the second paramedic while the first lay prone on the wet road, shining a torch under the chassis.
'No. I wasn't even in the car.' Trish pointed to the open window at the top of her building. 'I live up there. I heard the crash, phoned you and came out to see what I could do. That's the driver. I think she's badly shocked.'
'Probably. We'll get to her in a minute. How is he, Sean?'
'Alive. Broken leg. Multiple cuts and abrasions,' came a muffled voice from under the car. The paramedic inched back into the street and stood up. 'Can't see what else. We'll have to get this car moved.'
Another siren heralded the arrival of the police. The first paramedic nodded to the two officers who emerged from their small white car. 'I think it's drivable. Shirl, you'd better reverse it. Not far, mind.'
'Hold on a minute,' said one of the uniformed police officers. 'What's going on here?'
A quick explanation had him taking the driver by one arm and moving her to the shelter of Trish's building, while Shirley clambered over the gear lever into the driver's seat of the crumpled car, fiddled with the mirror, then inched the car back from the blank wall opposite.
'Bit further,' called Sean, holding out his right hand, palm down. Then he whipped it up, yelling, 'OK. Stop. Stop!'
'Who are you?'
At the sound of the policeman's voice, Trish looked quickly away from the body, lying in a heap at the foot of the wall. With the car out of the way, there had been plenty of light to show her the astonishingly bright redness of the blood.
'My name's Maguire. I didn't see anything,' she said over her shoulder as she forced herself across the road to make sure no more harm was done to the child.
After a moment, the paramedic fetched a neck collar. He seemed careful - and skilful - as he moved around the boy and fitted the collar, before dealing with the terrifying pumping injury in his leg. Trish relaxed a little as the bleeding turned sluggish and then stopped, but when she saw Sean open his medical kit again, she touched his shoulder.
'Dowting's Hospital is so close,' she said, fighting to keep all judgment out of her tense voice. 'Mightn't it be worth taking him straight there? In all this rain, I mean.'
She'd read about the damage that could be done to trauma victims by invasive treatment at the roadside. The paramedic didn't protest, but she thought he looked reluctant as he clicked down the lid of his rigid box of supplies. He called his colleague, who had been talking to the driver and her attendant police officer. Together they got the child on to a stretcher and into the ambulance.
'Now, I'd just like you to blow into this bag,' said a voice behind Trish. She turned at once, and saw the driver weeping in front of a burly police officer.
'Look,' Trish said, conscious of the driver's sweat and tears and the tremors that kept shaking her body, 'she's in shock and she may well have whiplash injuries. She should be taken to hospital, not interrogated in the road.'
She felt the woman's wet, icy hand gripping her wrist.
'Don't leave me alone with them.'
'What's your connection with each other?' asked the big officer.
'We've never met,' Trish said brusquely. She did not want to get involved. 'But I live here and I heard the crash. I was the only person who even looked out.'
'I'm not surprised, in a neighbourhood like this.'
Trish was outraged. Parts of Southwark might be among the most deprived in the city, but lots of the old disused light-industrial buildings were being turned into lofts like hers or taken over by architects and designers. And justacross Southwark Street, near Tate Modern and the river, there were flats that cost a fortune.
'After what I've seen at the nick every Saturday night, I wouldn't want to be out alone on the streets round here after dark,' he said.
Trish thought of all the evenings when she'd walked back from work over Blackfriars Bridge or picked her way home through the dark streets from the expensive parking space she rented under the furthest of the railway arches. She'd never been molested in all the years she'd lived here, and she'd never been afraid of the area or of anyone else who belonged in it. George didn't like it, of course. He much preferred the cosy, domesticated streets of Fulham, but they made Trish feel like an eagle crammed into a budgie's cage.
The thinner officer was demanding the driver's documents. She looked terrified now, as well as shivering and ill, and hardly seemed to understand what he wanted.
'Oh, come on,' Trish said, impatience adding a rasp to her voice. 'You know perfectly well that hardly anyone carries insurance details, or even a driving licence. The law requires a driver to present her documents to a police station within seven days of being asked to do so. She's got plenty of time. You have breathalysed her and found her clear of alcohol. She can't have been driving anywhere near the speed limit or there would have been a lot more damage to the car as well as the child. You haven't any reason to detain or bully her like this. And she should be in hospital.'
The officer's face looked as though all the life had been washed out of it. Trish knew she'd blown her cover and could have sworn in irritation. She'd been so careful to avoid telling these two that she was a barrister, knowing how much most of them loathed 'briefs' for the way they were assumed to use legal technicalities to protect the guilty.
'I wouldn't dream of trying to bully anyone, Ms ... What's your name?'
'Maguire. I told you that before. Trish Maguire.'
'OK.' He turned back to the driver to give her instructions about taking her documents to the police station, before reminding her that they had her name and address and would be contacting her when a decision had been taken on whether to charge her. He hoped for her sake that the victim survived. Penalties for killing by means of dangerous driving were increasing with every case. Then he and his colleague exchanged glances and moved towards their car.
'Are you just going to leave her here?' Trish demanded, following them.
It appeared they were. They were not going to arrest her at this moment. Her smashed car was not causing an obstruction, and the wall had not been damaged. In due course, after their investigation was finished, she would be able to get the car towed to a garage. She wasn't injured. She wasn't their responsibility.
'But she needs medical care.'
'There's no sign of injury. If you think she should be in hospital, I'm sure you can make the arrangements for her.'
Trish wished she'd kept her mouth shut. This, she was sure, was punishment for her profession and her intervention on the driver's behalf. But she was too worried about the woman's condition to play games now. The rigors were shaking the driver so violently that Trish was afraid she might break her teeth.
The officers drove away. Trish felt panicky and powerless and quite unlike herself. All she could think of was the sight of the bloody, broken body that had been huddled at the foot of the wall. Hearing the sound of deep gulping sobs, she turned. The driver was bent double over the bonnet of her car, howling.
'He's going to die. I know he is.'
'Come on,' Trish said, trying not to join in. 'I'll drive you to hospital. Get you checked over. You'll be all right then. And don't worry too much about the child. He was still alive when they put him in the ambulance.'
Trish was still conscious of her own lack of clothes and the clumsy great boots, but the need to get her protégée into someone else's hands was too urgent to waste time dressing. The T-shirt and coat would have to do. And she could probably drive such a short distance in the ridiculous boots. She helped the driver fetch her handbag from the car and lock the doors before they set off towards the car park that preserved Trish's soft-top Audi from the attentions of the local car thieves and graffiti artists.
She kept thinking about them as she urged the woman on towards the car park. It could have been no more than a reaction to the police officer's prejudice about her neigh-bourhood, but for the first time Trish felt uncomfortably aware of loitering figures at each road junction. Some were black, some white, but they were all youngish men. Most of them looked either shifty or aggressive. She kept her eyes down and walked as quickly as her boots and companion would let her.
Later, driving to the hospital, she thought the grim streets had never looked more desolate; high, flat-fronted buildings with blank windows made them seem like chasms. Under one of the railway bridges, splattered with pigeon shit and strewn with rubbish, she saw the sad lumps of two rough sleepers. They were guarded by a scrawny mongrel, whose eyes flashed as the headlights hit home.
By the time she was helping the driver through the puddles towards the Accident and Emergency entrance to the hospital, Trish could feel a huge blister on her right heel. She delivered her burden to the receptionist, who took the few details the driver could provide, includingher name: Sarah Middlewich. The receptionist told her she'd be seen by the triage nurse as soon as possible. Trish couldn't stop herself asking for news of the boy.
'Are you a relative?'
'Well, I can't tell you anything, but if you'd just wait there, next to your friend, I'll find someone who can.'
Sarah Middlewich clutched Trish's arm as she sat down, gasping that she'd left her mobile in her car.
'That's OK. You're not allowed to use them in hospitals anyway. There are payphones over there. Have you got any change?'
Tears poured out of the woman's eyes again. 'I need to ring Charles. He'll be worrying.'
'Yes. Look at the time. He'll be so worried.'
She looked so out of it that Trish tried to be gentle as she pointed to the bank of public phones about six feet away. When Sarah reached them, Trish let herself slump back in her chair, shutting her eyes.
'This is the lady who was asking about the boy,' said the receptionist, making Trish pay attention. There was yet another angry-looking police officer in front of her.
'I'm Constable Hill,' he said. 'And you are?'
His eyes sparkled and his unsmiling lips stretched into a tight band across his teeth. She couldn't imagine what he was thinking to make him look so accusing, or why he was peering so beadily into her face. She leaned back. 'I think you'd better come along with me,' he told her.
'Just come. You wanted to know about the boy. I'll show you.'
Feeling as though she might be about to wake up in her chair with her mind buzzing after a nightmare, Trish accompanied Constable Hill to a large, dimly lit room fullof machines, people in pale-blue scrubs, and an atmosphere of pumping excitement.
Between the blue backs, Trish saw the boy lying flat. His head was taped down and tubes sprouted from various parts of his body.
'Get her out of here,' said a tall man with a stethoscope around his neck.
'This is Trish Maguire,' said her policeman with an extraordinary mixture of satisfaction and portentousness in his voice.
They all stopped what they were doing for a moment and there was absolute stillness. Then two of them turned to stare at Trish. They had blood down the front of their scrubs and on their gloved hands. She was conscious of a row of gaping faces before everyone went back to work.
'What?' she asked. A hand on her back pushed her towards the bed. Two nurses moved a little way apart to clear her view of the boy's face. She couldn't see anything to justify all this drama, so she glanced at the doctor, then at Constable Hill, then at each of the nurses. All those who caught her eye had the same expectant look on their faces.
'What?' Trish asked again.
'Don't you recognise him?' said the policeman.
Trish peered between the tapes and bandages and tubes. 'No. Who is he?'
'That's what we want you to tell us,' he said, pulling her back, out of the way of the medical team. His gripping hand hurt her.
Patiently Trish explained yet again about her role in the accident's aftermath.
'You're really telling us you've never seen him before in your life? That you don't know who he is?'
'How many more times? Yes, that is what I'm telling you.'
'Even though he was coming to find you? And he looks just like you?'
'Don't be ridiculous. You can hardly see his face with all those scrapes and bruises, let alone the dressings. And what makes you think he was coming to me?'
'Well, he had your name and address sewn into the seam of his fleece, didn't he? What other explanation could there be?'
With the walls closing in on her and the floor bursting up to meet her face, Trish tried to protest. As she was losing consciousness, she heard the voice say:
'I bet you anything he's her son.'
OUT OF THE DARK. Copyright © 2002 by Daphne Wright. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.