I rang him.
‘Uh, hullo?’ I sniped. Sometimes worrying could turn me a mite crabby. ‘You were supposed to text me when you got home. Are you home?’
I heard him sigh heavily and had to stomp down on my aggravation so I didn’t scream at him. ‘Aye, I’m home. And when are you going to start talking to Cam again so you can stop being a total –’
‘Finish that sentence and die.’
Silence governed on the end of the line.
I scowled. ‘Are you still there?’
He grunted in response.
‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ I tugged on the end of my ponytail, wrapping my hair around my fist. ‘You locked the door, right?’
‘Of course.’ He sighed again. ‘Jo, is there something else bothering you?’
‘Nope,’ I answered quickly. ‘Just, you know, I worry, so next time I ask you to text me, text me.’
‘Okay. I’ll see you in the morning.’
With another grunt he hung up.
As I blew out the air between my lips in relief that he was home and safe, I noted the envelope in the top left-hand corner of my phone screen. I clicked on the unopened message. It was from Joss.
The Reign of the Vomit is over! Hope you’re not missing me too much:)
I choked on a weak laugh and texted her back.
Are you telling me you’re well enough to be working but aren’t? Tut tut, Mrs Carmichael, tut tut. x
Two seconds later my phone binged.
I was well until you called me that:\
Better get used to it x
I laughed for real now, shaking my head. She was worse than a bloke. Poor Braden had his work cut out for him with that one.
Feeling somewhat better, I returned to the bar, praying the evening would be over quickly. For the next few hours I couldn’t help but scan the crowds for Murray’s face, but as the night wore on and he didn’t show, I started to feel antsy. Part of me had wanted him to appear so I could get our confrontation over with. The sooner he realized I wasn’t with Malcolm anymore and didn’t have the kind of money he was after, the quicker he’d get the bugger out of Edinburgh.
Last night I’d called a cab to pick me up at the door of the bar, but tonight I was feeling defiant. I was still angry at myself for reacting to Murray like I was ten years old again and defending myself against his fists. I didn’t want him to know I was frightened of him. I didn’t want him to think he had that kind of power over me. I wanted him to think he’d never left a mark on me.
So I (in retrospect, stupidly) took my usual route home – walking to Leith Walk in hopes of grabbing a taxi with its light on once I got there.
I stood on Leith Walk for five minutes, waiting for a taxi to turn down the wide road. The only one that did was mobbed by a small group of guys. As the taxi drove away, I stood there for a minute, listening to two drunken girls across the street shout names at one another.
I was starting to get uneasy standing there alone. It never usually bothered me because Edinburgh was still so alive at this time in this area – people were still out and about, witnesses to halt any nefarious intentions of a creepy stranger. But I had goose bumps and the hair on the nape of my neck prickled. I whipped my head around, scanning back up the road I’d just walked down. I couldn’t see anyone watching me.
With a weary huff, I decided to just walk home. It was a fair wee walk at this time and I didn’t particularly enjoy walking down the very long London Road, but I didn’t want to hang around any more.
I was just about to turn the corner on to Blenheim Place when something made me look back. Call it a sixth sense, a chill down the spine, a warning …
My heart shot up into my throat.
A dark silhouette was a few yards behind me. I recognized the lope. Growing up, we called it the ‘hard man’ lope. The gentle but forced swagger of the shoulders, chest puffed up, steps deliberate. It was usually adopted by men when they were going into some kind of ‘battle’. My dad had walked like that all the time, though. Then again, every second of every day he’d treated life as one big battle and everyone as an enemy.
Murray Walker was following me.
I quickly looked in front of me, and without really even taking the time to think about it, I took the path up the cobbled streets of Royal Terrace instead of London Road. It ran adjacent to London Road on higher ground, but I knew there was a path by the church that would take me into Royal Terrace Gardens. I raced into the entrance, and the climb burned in my muscles, but I pushed on, taking the wide path that veered steeply up along the outskirts of Calton Hill. The precipitous pathway would eventually slope downward and bring me out on to Waterloo Place, and from there I’d go west back on to Princes Street. Then it was north to Dublin Street.
All that really mattered was misdirecting Murray.
He couldn’t know where we lived.
I was so panicked at the thought of him finding the flat that I didn’t think clearly and I didn’t see the error in my plan.
Me. Alone. On a dark, rough, muddy pathway. At night.
The adrenaline was pumping through me as I marched upward. I attempted to listen for the sound of footsteps behind me, but my heart was racing so hard it was pulsing blood in rushing waves into my ears. The palms of my hands and my underarms were damp with cold sweat, and I couldn’t breathe properly, my chest rising and falling in ragged breaths. I felt sick with fear.
When I finally heard the heavy footsteps behind me I glanced back and saw my dad’s face under the wash of moonlight. He was pissed off.
All the determination I’d had earlier to stand and face him and show him he didn’t scare me just disappeared. I couldn’t let go of that little girl who was terrified of him.
And so, like her, I tried to run.
My feet slapped against the steps as I ran upward as hard and fast as I could, wishing I could conjure up people, witnesses. But no one was there.
I was alone.
Except for the pounding of heavy boots behind me.
At the hard, warm grip of his hand around my arm, I made a noise of loud distress that was quickly muffled by his other hand clamping down over my mouth. The smell of sweat and cigarette smoke flooded my nostrils as I fought him, my nails biting into his arm, my legs trying to kick out as I was dragged off the path. I lost my grip on my bag with my pepper spray as I fought him.
I wasn’t strong enough, and now I was unarmed.
Murray slammed me back against the rocky, grass-covered slope of the hillside and pain shot through my skull before shooting all the way down to the tip of my toes. Tears leaked from my eyes as he held me there, his large hand around my throat.
I grunted against the other hand that was still clamped over my mouth.
He tightened his grip on my throat and I stopped squirming.
Despite the fact that his face was mostly cast in darkness, I could still make out the anger that stretched his features taut. ‘Trying to give me the runaround?’ he hissed.
I didn’t answer. I was too busy wondering morbidly what he was going to do to me. My body began to shake hard, and I lost complete control of my breathing. He felt the gulping breaths behind his palm and smirked.
‘I won’t hurt you, Jo. I just want to see my son.’
Knowing it would bring me physical pain, I still shook my head ‘no’.
Murray’s smirk grew into a smug smile, as though he’d won something. ‘I suppose we better come to an arrangement then. I’m going to take my hand off your mouth and you’re not going to scream. If you do, I won’t hesitate to hurt you.’
I nodded, wanting at least one of his disgusting paws off me. As I stared up into his face, I saw not for the first time how there was nothing behind his eyes. I didn’t think I had ever met anyone in my entire life who was as callously selfish as this man. Was he really my father? There had been no connection between us other than that of abuser and victim. To me he’d been the reason for the knot in my stomach when I heard his rattling old banger of a car pull up to the house. The affection I’d felt for Mick, the eagerness to see him, the warm contentment of safety he gave me, was exactly what I should have felt for this man. But a man was all he’d ever been to me. A man with mean eyes and even meaner fists. For the longest time I’d despaired that he didn’t love me as a father should. I’d questioned whether there was something wrong with me. Looking at him now, I wondered how I could ever have questioned myself. I wasn’t the problem. He was. He was the shameful one, not me.
I sucked in a deep breath when he let go of my mouth, but he put more pressure on the hand around my throat as an extra warning to be quiet.
‘Now.’ He leaned into me and I could smell the beer and cigarettes on him. He hadn’t been in Club 39, but he’d obviously been in one of the bars near it, waiting on me. ‘I might just give up my right to see the wee man if your boyfriend made it worth my while. Say a hundred grand?’
I knew it. And straight to the point. He didn’t even care. He was as soulless as he’d ever been. How could someone be that way? Was he born soulless, black to his rotten core? Or did life make you that way? How could you hurt your own children and not feel like a monster? Maybe a monster was too far gone to realize he’d become one …
‘I stopped seeing Malcolm months ago. You’re out of luck.’
He squeezed my throat and panic suffused me. I automatically grabbed his hand, my nails biting into his skin. He didn’t seem to notice. ‘I’m sure you can persuade him somehow.’ He pushed his face into mine, his breath reeking of smoke and stale beer. ‘I had myself a bonnie bairn. She’s f**king useless but bonnie. It’s a commodity, Jo. Use it or I’ll come for Cole.’ He let me go and I sucked in a breath, my fingers brushing my neck to reassure myself that his hand was definitely no longer there. ‘If I wanted to, I could become a right pest in your lives, lass.’
Fury that he could do this to me, to Cole, after so long, after thinking we were free, took over and the fear was burned to hell in a blaze of rage. ‘Commodity’s a pretty big word for you, Murray. Looks like someone finally taught you to read.’ I rebelliously hoped my eyes conveyed my condescension clearly even in the shadows. ‘But reading does not a smart man make. I don’t have money. You’ll need to whore yourself out to an old prison buddy.’
I barely even saw the blur of his fist coming towards my face.
My head flew back, the muscles in my neck screaming with the impact and the burning heat of his fist hitting my mouth spread into my lower cheek and jaw. Tears of pain fell from my eyes as I brought my head slowly back around to face him, my lip feeling a million times bigger than normal. The warm trickle of blood oozed from an already stinging cut in my lower lip where my teeth had snagged the skin.
There was nothing behind his eyes as his other fist flew low and hit me hard in the gut, bowing me over. All control fled me as I panicked, trying to draw in air. I hit the ground knees first and he kicked me in the side, sending unbelievable pain flaring through my ribs as I collapsed on the muddy footpath, loose stones and dirt biting into my skin.