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The Late Bus
Claire slipped slim fingers into black leather gloves, passed a pin through her designer hat into her hair and gathered the skirts of her expensive Burberry coat around her. It was always good to be prepared for getting off the bus at this time of night: that way, if anyone was planning to follow her she would get a head start on the walk to her flat.
It was the same every time she had to come back from work this late. At the beginning of the bus journey there would be a selection of fellow-passengers most of whom she would have been perfectly happy to be near in any situation - elderly ladies with baskets of shopping from the late-night market, teenagers absorbed in the music from their iPods - and then as they progressed from stop to stop all these harmless people would disembark to leave behind the one person who made her feel uncomfortable.
Tonight was no exception. Across the aisle from her was a seedy, unhealthy-looking man with greasy hair. She turned her head to look at him. He was staring out of the window but she felt his reflection meet her eyes.
Claire’s was the last stop before the bus returned to the depot so the young man would certainly get off where she did. With her handy organiser slung over her shoulder, she slid from her seat so that she was standing beside the driver as the bus swung into the pull-in.
“Good night,” she said as her gloved hand released the pole and she stepped out into the darkness.
“Good night, darling,” he returned. Bus drivers often used daring endearments like that when they addressed her.
As she set off along the pavement she was aware of someone behind her. She allowed herself a quick glimpse behind and sure enough it was the man from the bus. He seemed to be hurrying towards her. She quickened her pace and heard the footsteps behind her quicken also. On moonlit nights and when she was feeling particularly bold, she took a short cut across the corner of the park thus saving about five minutes, but tonight she would go the long way round so as to stay under the street lights. The man took the same route. At last she could bear it no longer and swung round to look at him. He waved an arm in the air as if brandishing something so, with her heart in her mouth, she turned on her heel and walked on even faster than before. If it hadn’t been for her high heels she would have broken into a run.
The man was still behind her. He seemed to have gained on her slightly and she was sure she could hear him panting. He must have really wanted not to lose her.
On the corner of the park there was a classy little wine bar which she sometimes frequented. A group of drunks was emerging from it, spilling out into the night with their ties and their tongues loosened. She peered at them and recognised among them someone she’d once considered going out with. He’d been rather persistent and she’d been put off, but he still had a bit of a crush on her so she felt confident he would help. Relief surged through her body.
“George,” she said. “Do me a favour. There’s somebody tailing me. Can you sort him out?”
George was drunk but not so drunk that he couldn’t immediately stiffen in response to the challenge.
“Where is he?” he asked. “What does he look like?”
“He’s got greasy black hair and he’s a few yards behind me,” Claire answered. She carried on walking leaving George to stop her follower.
Claire didn’t look back but her ears were strained to make sure that the pursuing footsteps didn’t start again. In fact, having rounded a couple of corners and being in the act of crossing the road opposite her block of flats, she was still listening so hard that she didn’t hear the car coming until it was too late. A tremendous impact. A burst of white light. The feeling of going down into deep velvet blackness.
She came to in hospital. A nurse was peering into her face and behind her was the patient figure of a police officer sitting, waiting.
“What happened?” Claire queried.
“You’re very lucky. You’ve got a few broken ribs and a bit of concussion but other than that you’re as right as rain,” the nurse reassured her.
Claire recalled she’d been struck by a car. “Did they get the driver?” she asked.
“It was a taxi and the driver couldn’t have done anything to avoid you. All his passengers vouched for that. They wished you well. Just said you ought to remember to look left and right before you cross a road.”
What was the policeman doing there, then? It must be to do with the man who was following her. Perhaps he’d grabbed someone else instead. How did they know he’d been after her first?
The policeman stepped forward and spoke, interrupting her musings.
“We believe you can help us with our enquiry into an attack which took place outside a wine bar on the same evening as your accident,” he said. “A group of drunken men set upon a passer-by who had a weak heart. During the onslaught he had a fatal seizure.”
Claire opened her mouth to protest but she was too feeble. They were only supposed to scare him off a bit! But the police officer continued relentlessly.
“You’ve been connected with the incident because the dead man was carrying your Filofax at the time...”
Claire heard no more. She’d slipped back into the welcome embrace of unconsciousness.