Abby Dawson had chosen this flat because it felt secure. At least, in as much as she was ever going to feel secure anywhere at this moment.
Apart from the fire escape at the back, which could only be opened from inside, and a basement fire exit, there was just one entrance. It was eight floors directly below her, and the windows gave her a clear view up and down the street.
Inside, she had turned the flat into a fortress. Reinforced hinges, steel plating, three sets of deadlocks on the front door and on the fire escape door at the back of the tiny utility room, and a double safety chain. Any burglar trying to break in here was going to go home empty-handed. Unless they were driving a tank, no one was going to get in unless she invited them.
But just in case, as back-up, she had a canister of Mace pepper spray in easy reach, a hunting knife and a baseball bat.
It was ironic, she thought, that the first time in her life she was able to afford a home large and luxurious enough to entertain guests, she had to live here on her own, in secrecy.
And there was so much to enjoy here. The oak flooring, the huge cream sofas with their white and chocolate-brown cushions, the sharp, modern art on the walls, the home-cinema system, the high-tech kitchen, the massive, deliciously comfortable beds, the under-floor heating in the bathroom and the smart guest shower room which she had not yet used – at least not for what it was intended.
It was like living in one of the designer pads she used to covet on the pages of glossy magazines. On fine days, the afternoon sun streamed in, and on blustery days, like today, when she opened a window she could taste the salt on the air and hear the cries of gulls. Just a couple of hundred yards beyond the end of the street, and the junction with Kemp Town’s busy Marine Parade, was the beach. She could walk along it for miles to the west and along under the cliffs to the east, past the Marina.
She liked the neighbourhood too. Small shops close by, safer than going into a large supermarket, because she could always check who was in there first. All it needed was for one person to recognize her.
The only negative was the lift. Extremely claustrophobic at the best of times, and more prone than ever to panic attacks recently, Abby never liked to ride in any lift alone unless she absolutely had to. And the jerky capsule the size of a vertical two-seater coffin that serviced her flat, and had got stuck a couple of times in the last month – fortunately with someone else in it – was one of the worst she had ever experienced.
So normally, up until the past couple of weeks, when workmen renovating the flat below hers had turned the staircase into an obstacle course, she walked up and down. It was good exercise and, if she had some heavy shopping bags – well, that was easy – she would send them up in the lift on their own and climb the stairs. On the very rare occasions she encountered one of her neighbours, then she would ride up shoulder to shoulder with them. But mostly they were so old they never went out much. Some seemed as old as this mansion block itself.
The few younger residents, like Hassan, the smiling Iranian banker who lived two floors below her and sometimes threw all-night parties – the invites to which she always politely declined – seemed to be away, somewhere else, most of the time. And at weekends, unless Hassan was in residence, this whole west wing of the block was so silent it seemed to be inhabited only by ghosts.
In a way, she was a ghost too, she knew. Only leaving the safety of her lair after dark, her once long, blonde hair cropped short and dyed black, sunglasses on her face, jacket collar turned up, a stranger in this city where she had been born and grown up, where she had been a business studies student and had once worked bars, done temporary secretarial jobs, had boyfriends and, before the travel bug hit her, had even fantasized she would raise a family.
Now she was back. In hiding. A stranger in her own life. Desperate not to be recognized by anyone. Turning her face away on the rare occasions when she passed someone she knew. Or saw an old friend in a bar and immediately had to leave. God damn it, she was lonely!
Not even her own mother knew she was back in England.
Just turned twenty-seven three days ago – and that was some birthday party, she thought ironically. Getting smashed up here on her own, with a bottle of Mo"et et Chandon, an erotic movie on Sky and a vibrator with a dead battery.
She used to pride herself on her natural good looks. Brimful of confidence, she could go out to any bar, any disco, any party and have the pick of the crop. She was good at chatting, good at laying on the charm, good at playing vulnerable, which long ago she had understood was what guys liked. But now she was vulnerable for real, and she was really not enjoying that.
Not enjoying being a fugitive.
Even though it would not be for ever.
The shelves, tables and floors of the flat were piled high with books, CDs and DVDs, ordered from Amazon and from Play.com. During the past two months on the run she had read more books, seen more films and watched more television than ever before in her life. She occupied much of the rest of her time by doing an online course in Spanish.
She had come back because she thought she would be safe here. Dave had agreed. That this was the one place he would not dare show his face. The only place on the planet. But she could not be completely sure.
She had another reason for coming to Brighton – a big part of her agenda. Her mother’s condition was getting slowly worse and she needed to find her a well-run private nursing home where she could have some quality of life in the years remaining. Abby did not want to see her end up in one of those terrible National Health Service geriatric wards. She had already identified a beautiful home in the countryside nearby. It was expensive, but she could afford to keep her mother there for years now. All she had to do was lie low for just a little longer.
Her phone pinged suddenly with an incoming text. She looked down at the display and smiled when she saw who it was from. The one thing that helped sustain her was these texts, which she received every few days.
Absence diminishes small loves and increases
great ones, as the wind blows out the candle
and blows up the bonfire.
She thought for some moments. A benefit of having so much time on her hands was that she could surf the net for hours without feeling guilty. She loved collecting quotations, and texted back one she had saved up.
Love is not gazing at each other. Love is staring
together in the same direction.
For the first time in her life she had met a man who stared in the same direction as herself. Right now it was at just a name on a map. Images downloaded from the web. A place she went to in her dreams. But soon they would both be going there for real. She just had to be patient for a little longer. They both needed to be.
She closed The Latest magazine, where she had been browsing dream houses, crushed out her cigarette, drained her glass of Sauvignon and began her pre-exit checks.
First she walked to the window and peered down through the blinds at the wide terrace of Regency houses. The sodium glow of the street lights bled orange into every shadow. It was dark enough, with a howling autumn gale blasting rain as hard as buckshot against the windowpanes. As a child she used to be scared of the dark. Now, ironically, it made her feel safe.
She knew the cars that were regularly parked there on both sides, with their residents’ parking stickers. Ran her eyes over each of them. She didn’t used to be able to tell one make from another, but now she knew them all. The grimy, bird-shit-spattered black Golf GTi. The Ford Galaxy people carrier belonging to a couple in a flat across the street who had grizzly twins and seemed to spend their lives lugging shopping and collapsible strollers up and down the stairs. The odd-looking little Toyota Yaris. An elderly Porsche Boxster belonging to a young man she had decided was a doctor – he probably worked at the nearby Royal Sussex County Hospital. The rusty white Renault van with soggy tyres and a FOR SALE notice written in red ink on a strip of brown cardboard stuck in its passenger-door window. Plus another dozen or so cars whose owners she knew by sight. Nothing new down there, nothing to be concerned about. And no one lurking in the shadows.
A couple were hurrying by, arms linked, with a bloated umbrella threatening to turn inside out at any moment.
Window locks in bedroom, spare bedroom, bathroom, living/dining room. Activate timers on lights, television and radio in each room in turn. Blu-Tack single cotton thread, knee high, across the hallway just inside the front door.
Paranoid? Moi? You’d better believe it!
She tugged her long mackintosh and umbrella from the hooks in the narrow hallway, stepped over the thread and peered through the spyhole. The dull-yellow fish-eye glow of the empty landing greeted her.
She unhooked the safety chains, opened the door cautiously and stepped out, instantly noticing the smell of sawn timber. She pulled the door shut and turned the keys in turn in each of the three deadlocks.
Then she stood listening. Somewhere downstairs, in one of the other flats, a phone was ringing, unanswered. She shivered, pulling her fleece-lined mac around her, still not used to the damp and cold after years of living in the sunshine. Still not used to spending a Friday night alone.
Her plan tonight was to catch a film, Atonement, at the multiplex in the Marina, then grab a bite to eat – maybe some pasta – and, if she had the courage, go to a bar for a couple of glasses of wine. That way at least she could feel the comfort of mingling with other humans.
Dressed discreetly in designer jeans, ankle-length boots and a black, knitted polo neck beneath the mac, wanting to look nice but not to draw attention to herself if she did go to a bar, she opened the fire door to the stairwell, and saw to her dismay that the workmen had left it blocked for the weekend with lengths of plasterboard and a whole stack of timber.
Cursing them, she debated whether to try to stumble her way through, then, thinking better of it, she pressed the button for the lift, staring at the scratched metal door. Seconds later she heard it clanking, jerking and bumping obediently upwards, reaching her floor with a jarring clang before the external door opened with a sound like a shovel smoothing gravel.
She stepped in and the door closed again with the same sound, along with the lift car’s own double doors, enclosing her. She breathed in the smell of someone else’s perfume, and lemon-scented cleaning fluid. The lift jerked upwards a few inches, so sharply she almost fell over.
And now, when it was too late to change her mind and get out, with the metal walls pressing in around her and a small, almost opaque mirror reflecting the dawning look of panic on her mostly invisible face, it lunged sharply downwards.
Abby was about to realize she had just made a bad mistake.