Daniel Hood looked at the sleeping child and his heart swelled. The brown hair tumbled on the smooth brow, the long lashes dipped on the rounded cheek, the stubby thumb caught between pursed lips in a defiant last stand against the end of infancy. He thought she was the most perfect thing he'd ever seen.
At five years old she was poised on the cusp of life, all its possibilities opening before her, the magical nowhere she sprang from still close enough behind to clothe her in its wonder. Six years ago she hadn't existed in any shape or form; even the idea of her had not been formulated. Then a chance encounter between two disparate organisms began the sequence of events that led to this child, this Paddy Farrell, this marvellous child lying asleep in his bed at two o'clock on a May morning.
Seeing her like this, the knowledge that she wasn't his - that she didn't belong here and wouldn't be staying - was an ache in him. Daniel liked living alone. It was pleasant and undemanding: he had no one to satisfy but himself, he had never felt the need of another person to make him whole. But if you wanted one of these you needed another person, and now, watching Paddy Farrell sleep in his bed on the night of her fifth birthday, he understood the urge to pair off. It wasn't about sex or companionship; the first was available to anyone with the right number of heads, the second to anyone with a few good friends. But having a family required commitment. At two o'clock this spring morning, Daniel felt the temptation.
He was a sentimental man: he knew if he went on watching the sleeping child his eyes would fill. But he couldn't bring himself to wake her, to trade that fey creature woven of light and potential for the real flesh-and-blood child, grouchywith not enough sleep, complaining of the cold, demanding food, demanding attention, demanding amusement. Maybe he'd be glad enough to hand her back to her mother after breakfast.
He thought he'd get the telescope ready before he woke her. Saturn was coming into a comfortable position for viewing, Jupiter would be easier in half an hour. He'd woken in plenty of time although he didn't own an alarm-clock. After fifteen years of watching the night sky his Circadian rhythms were attuned to the music of the spheres.
Still barefoot and with his clothes pulled over his pyjamas - not from laziness, it was the best way to stay warm outdoors in the coldest part of the night - he padded across the living-room, his sleeping-bag crumpled on the sofa, lifted the telescope from the safety of its corner and carried it out to the little balcony. The iron bit like ice and he hurried back inside for his shoes.
The sound of him moving about had penetrated Paddy's sleep. A mumbled plaint just recognisable as his name reached him from the bedroom. "Daniel?"
"I'm here. I'm just setting up the telescope."
"Is it there?"
"They're all there. I promised you a clear night."
"Is it raining?" This was her birthday treat, she'd been looking forward to it for weeks - now she was looking for excuses to stay cocooned in the warm bed.
"No. But it is cold - you'll need all your warm clothes on. Tracksuit, coat, boots. Do you need a hand?"
"No thank you," she said primly. On the first day of her sixth year she was already conscious of the proprieties.
Outside, Daniel carried the heavy telescope carefully down the iron steps to the shingle shore. His flat over a netting-shed a few metres above high water suited him in every way except this one. He needed to extend the balcony to give him a full field of view, but it would take money he didn't have and didn't expect to have soon. If what he wanted toobserve was north or east he had to carry the telescope to the other side of the building.
Oh yes: and the stool, without which Paddy wouldn't be able to reach the eyepiece. He went back for it and found her waiting. At least, he supposed it was Paddy: it might have been an Eskimo with a poor sense of direction. "Your mum didn't want you getting cold," he guessed.
Paddy nodded. With so many layers on she couldn't bend her arms, she looked like a teddy-bear.
"First rule of astronomy," said Daniel. "You catch your death of cold, you don't get to name a comet."
"Can I see a comet?" asked Paddy, pressing her mittened hand into his.
"Er - no," said Daniel. "Sorry. But I can show you the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn, and some binary stars, and a stellar nursery, and we might see some meteors. Shooting-stars."
"You can wish on those," said Paddy knowledgeably.
"What will you wish for?"
"More meteors," said Daniel. "What will you?"
"To stay at your house again."
Daniel planted her on the stool. He glanced through the finder, made a tiny adjustment and indicated the eyepiece. "Look through there. Don't touch the telescope or it'll slip out of alignment. What can you see?"
The child looked, and blinked, and jerked back and looked up directly at the night sky. "A big white ..." She tailed off, puzzled that it had gone. "Where is it?"
Daniel pointed at the bright dot that was Jupiter, a spot of brilliance among a hundred others. "There. That's what it really looks like from here. The telescope makes it look bigger."
She looked again. "Wow!"
"Can you see four dots lined up with it, two on each side? Those are Jupiter's moons - like our moon. Actually there are fourteen, but these four are the biggest."
"They're a long way away. And Jupiter is much bigger than Earth. It's the biggest planet in the Solar System."
Daniel wasn't sure how much of this she was taking in. He was a teacher by profession, but not of children of this age. He talked to her more or less as he'd talk to an adult with no knowledge of the subject: she'd make it plain when she'd had enough.
"Show me something else."
He quartered the sky with the little finderscope until the curious oval that was Saturn appeared. "Saturn's the one with the rings. Can you see - like ears on either side?"
"Cool!" said Paddy Farrell, peering. "Can I call Mummy and tell her?"
Daniel doubted Brodie would appreciate being woken at two-fifteen a.m. with the news that Saturn had rings. "Maybe after breakfast."
He was never afterwards sure if he heard voices first, or the sound of running feet hollow on the rotten boards of Dimmock's pier.
Either would have been sufficiently unusual at this time of night to attract attention. The pier was supposed to be closed, although no one stopped the children who played on it or the anglers who fished from its end. Occasionally on summer nights lovers availed themselves of the privacy offered by its ruined concert-hall, two hundred metres out over the English Channel. Occasionally in the hour after closing time young men who were too drunk to go home would clump around out there, trading beery dares that ended in a splash.
But it was a Monday morning in May, too late in the night and too early in the year for any of the usual suspects. Still with his hand on Paddy's shoulder Daniel turned towards the pier, brow gathering under the fringe of yellow hair, grey eyes troubled behind the thick glasses. The moon was low, bathing the shore in a flat half-light. He could see two figureson the pier, one behind the other, occulting the westering stars as they ran. At this time of night Dimmock couldn't manage a background of traffic noise, so the thunder of feet on boards and the angry voices carried easily across a hundred metres of shingle shore.
Daniel couldn't make out the words but the tone was unmistakable. Quietly he lifted Paddy down from her stool and took her up to the flat. "Stay inside," he said softly. "I'll be back in a minute."
He wasn't sure what he was witnessing. It might be a police matter, it might not. He wanted to check, and he didn't want the child with him just in case. He walked towards the pier.
The shouting stopped, the feet were still. The figures had vanished in the shadows where the concert-hall canted drunkenly at the end of the pier. Perhaps the drama was over, the differences resolved, the protagonists making up over the dregs of a six-pack where once Madam Astarte had told fortunes and a Laughing Policeman had performed for small denominations of a forgotten currency.
Daniel vented a pent breath and turned for home, glad fate had let him off the hook. He'd no idea what he'd have done if he'd stumbled on real violence. He wasn't built for knocking sense into people. A God with a funny sense of humour had given him Robin Hood's urge to ride to the rescue, and Maid Marion's muscles.
A man screamed.
Daniel froze. The blood in his veins turned to ice and the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
The sound of another human being in that much distress would, and should, have pulled anyone up short. But Daniel Hood knew about pain and terror. The last man he heard screaming like that was himself.
Someone else, mindful of what can happen when decent citizens tackle vicious thugs, might have hurried on up the iron steps, locked the door and told himself it was none ofhis business and he'd call the police if it was still going on in half an hour. But Daniel knew how long half an hour can feel. No one had been close enough to help when he needed it. But he was close enough to help whoever was up there, and he couldn't turn his back on him. It wasn't sensible, it wasn't logical - he could have had the police on the scene in just a few minutes. But he couldn't abandon someone in pain for even a few minutes. He headed for the pier at a slithering, skittering run.
All he had in his pockets were a star-chart and a torch to read it by. It wasn't even a normal torch but a red one: the night-blindness induced by white light takes minutes to clear. So the only weapon he had was his own presence. As he reached the weed-bearded struts of the crumbling pier he raised his voice - and hoped he sounded strong and determined rather than, as he rather suspected, small and afraid. "What's going on up there?"
Perhaps they were too involved in their own drama to hear him. Certainly no one answered. There was the shuffle of movement and when Daniel stood back he could see them, against the end rail, five metres above the incoming tide. He heard grunts of exertion, a panic-stricken sob, and one of them cried out, "Get away from me. Get away from me!"
They were wrestling for some kind of implement. Daniel couldn't make out who was the aggressor and who the victim. Finally one of the two figures broke away with the thing in his hand, raised it above his head and swung it mightily towards the man cowering against the rail.
Daniel gasped. There was a thick choked wail, then silence.
Then the man still on his feet bent and lifted the other against the rail, and bending again lifted his legs and tipped him over. The injured man fell silhouetted by stars and disappeared with a splash where the sea gnawed at the timber piles.
Shocked to the core, Daniel yelled something - he had no idea what - and the man above him, already running back towards the promenade, startled and froze. He seemed to realise for the first time that he'd been observed. He looked down at the same moment as Daniel shone the red torch up. Then he jerked back and hurried on up the pier. The beat of feet diminished, and then there was nothing but Daniel and the sea.
And the man who went into the sea, plainly injured but perhaps not dead. Panting with shock, trying to think, Daniel turned his torch towards the breakers. He could see nothing beyond the foam. But he could see most of the tim-berwork. Only a little past slack tide, much of the pier was still high and dry - a man might wade almost as far as the splash before he was out of his depth.
Having thought that, the rest was inevitable. Daniel wasn't a strong swimmer but he didn't need to be. All he had to do was stay on his feet and grope in the darkness and the foam for an injured man who might still be saved. He threw off his parka, kicked off his shoes and waded into the surf.
The sea was both colder and rougher than expected. He plunged on, drawn by the hope of a miracle that might be had now but not in five minutes' time. He regretted not calling the police when he had the chance. But it was no longer an option: if he turned back now there would be only a corpse to recover.
By the time the water was round his hips it was hard keeping his feet. The thick piles broke the tide into eddies and undertows. Still well short of his goal the sea swept Daniel hard against the timbers and took the legs from under him.
He swallowed brine but somehow found his feet and broke the surface, coughing and gagging and flinging the water out of his hair. He found the corroded iron of a cross-brace and clung to it.
Water broke around him like an avalanche. Chilled to the bone, unable to feel his fingers knotted round the ironwork,he clung to the pier and knew he would risk his own life if he ventured one step further into the Channel.
He sucked in the salt-laden air and raised a voice cracking with despair. "Where are you? Tell me where you are. I can help you. Please ..."
Hard as he listened, no answering cry sounded above the tumult of the waves. The water surged around his chest, the cold of it like razor-blades. It was dark under the pier, he could see nothing but the chiaroscuro breakers, only knew where the shore lay from their direction and the shingle sound. His glasses had gone when the sea swept over him. It hardly mattered. He could have seen nothing from here, and he had neither the strength nor the courage to go further.
The tide was coming in. He had to give way before it. He reached behind him, fumbling with dead hands for the next brace. Tears of disappointment and exhaustion mingled with the rest of the ocean.
Something touched his hip. It could have been anything - a clump of weed, a baulk of drift-wood, a Great White Shark for all Daniel knew. But he so wanted it to be the man who'd been thrown from the pier that he released his grip on the cross-bracing and reached into the water, groping as far as his arms would stretch.
He found it; and it wasn't wood, and it wasn't weed, and it didn't feel like sharkskin so much as denim. He fastened his hands in what he recognised as the belt of someone's jeans and pulled, and a man's body surfaced and bumped flaccidly against his own.
In his own mind he had already accepted defeat. He'd thought the only prize left was his own safety. Now, against all odds, he'd stumbled on what he came for and suddenly time was of the essence again. This man had been in the water for minutes: if he hadn't managed to breathe in that time he was already dying.
All Daniel knew about life-saving he'd picked up from a ten minute lecture at Dimmock swimming pool when he'dbeen covering for a missing sports mistress. He knew there were two ways to save lives, and both worked. One was the proper way - ABC equals airway, breathing and circulation, clear the mouth of obstructions then five compressions of the chest followed by one breath into the lungs.
And the other was the bodger's way, which recognised that if someone was dying in front of you it was impossible to make things worse, just forcing some air down their throat might keep them alive long enough for someone more knowledgeable to reach them. That he could do here and now, clinging to the pier with one hand and the drowning man with the other.
Actually, he had to let go of the pier because he needed both hands to hold the man's head above the water. All Daniel could see of his face was a white blob, but he found the mouth and fastening his own over it exhaled as deeply as his recent exertions would permit.
Heavy in the surging tide, the man's body rolled and dragged at his grasp. Daniel struggled to keep the face out of the water. But the hiss of air and the movement of his chest as the man breathed out kept him trying. He ventilated again, then with the man's chin in the crook of his elbow set off for the shore, his left hand guiding him along the corroded ironwork.
Twice more he lost his footing. The first time he was able to hang onto the bracing until he found it again; the second time he tumbled his length in the breaking surf, lost his companion and for terrible seconds thought the man was going to die for his weakness.
When he found him Daniel hauled his face above the foam, breathed for him once more, then set off determinedly for the beach whose proximity he could hear like a orchestra of tiny flat bells. Again the feet went from under him; this time he sprawled in shallows and a few metres of dogged hauling brought him and his burden clear of the waves.
The tide was coming, but it wasn't coming that fast.Daniel let the man slump on the shingle and dropped beside him, lungs heaving, a cocktail of shock and cold and reaction shaking every muscle.
But there wasn't time to rest. Out of the waves' reach was not the same as safe. Daniel forced his weary body to move again, rolled the man onto his back and pumped and breathed and pumped and pumped and breathed because he didn't know what else to do. The chest expanded when he pushed air into it, contracted when he rocked back on his heels; he thought that meant the man was alive. He couldn't leave him to find help. Between breaths he tried to raise the alarm, but he knew that his gasping cries could never carry up the beach, across the deserted promenade and as far as the nearest house where a light sleeper might be roused. He knew he was on his own. He knew this man would live only if Daniel Hood, unaided, could force him to.
He pumped with the heel of his hand on the man's chest, he breathed for both of them, he yelled for help. No one came. The tide marched closer. Daniel dragged him by the arm until their legs were out of the sea again. Then he pumped some more and breathed some more. He knew time was passing, had no idea how much. The man at the swimming pool had said you keep going until you can't keep going any longer, and that point was coming but it wasn't here yet. Daniel stopped shouting - he needed all his breath. He pumped and breathed, and the sea snapped again at his heels.
Suddenly there was someone else on the shore. Daniel heard the distinctive chime of hurried footsteps in the shingle, and his own name in a woman's voice. A familiar voice, mingling anger and concern as if he'd gone out of his way to frighten her. "Daniel! Answer me, damn it!"
"Over here." He didn't think she'd heard him, tried again. "Brodie. I'm over here."
The frailty of his voice alarmed Brodie Farrell, but it was enough to take her in the right direction. She quartered the shore with the big torch from her car and found him, on hisknees at the water's edge, crouched over what could only be the figure of another human being. "Dear God! What - ?"
There was no time to explain. "Can you take over?" It took him two breaths to get it out. "Can't - any more -"
She had the little Eskimo with her. Before she did anything else Brodie took her back a few metres up the beach and sat her down. "Now, you stay there. You understand? You don't move an inch." Paddy nodded solemnly.
Hurrying back, Brodie dropped to her knees on the other side of the inert form, ran her torch over it. He was barefoot, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. When the beam reached the head Brodie blinked and straightened up. Her voice was quiet. "Daniel. Stop now."
He spared her two seconds for a stare, then lunged again at the man between them. "No! He's breathing! Help me."
Brodie shook her head, the dark hair clouding round her face. "He's dead, Daniel. I think he's been dead for a while."
"How can you say that?" Then he saw what the light of her torch had shown Brodie: that the left side of the skull had been pulped by a mighty blow. The tall man; the implement they fought over; the raised arm and the wail in the dark. It had been over then? He'd done it all for nothing? - risked his life for a dead man?
"No," he choked, applying himself once more to the task. But he had nothing left to work with.
Brodie regarded her friend with compassion. He'd given everything he had, drained himself to the dregs. Now he needed her help, not to continue with the futile exercise but to stop.
She rose and put her arms around him, stilling him. "Daniel. It's time to stop now. Let him go. Give him peace."
He hadn't the strength to struggle. She felt his body go slack in the compass of her arms and he sat back on his heels, head bowed, softly panting. Then he began to cry.
TRUE WITNESS. Copyright © 2002 by Jo Bannister. 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.