It was dark and it was raining, and a cold wind drove viciously across the car park. Sandra pushed her trolley as quickly as she could through the driving rain, her hands freezing on the handle. There was only one lamp standard working in the car park, and that one was far away on the other side. There were few other cars parked, and they were widely scattered. Sandra’s hair, wet already, blew around her face and stuck to her cheeks.
She had the key ready in her hand, and pressed the remote as she neared her Land Rover. The sidelights blinked twice. The car park had been been almost full when she had arrived, so that she had had to hunt for a space. She had worked later than usual, and it looked as though she was one of the last to finish her shopping. Hurriedly, Sandra heaved the plastic bags into the back seat, hoping that nothing had been ruined by the rain. Too late to worry about that now, she thought. Slamming the door, she pushed the trolley over to the wall against which she had parked, opened the driver’s door and slid behind the wheel, pulling the door closed beside her.
She started the engine and sat for a moment, wiping her hair from her eyes then drying her hands on the legs of her jeans. Already, condensation was forming on the windows of the car, and she switched on the air-conditioner in the hope of clearing the windscreen. The wipers slapped from side to side, having difficulty beating the rain away. Slowly, the air conditioner opened a small, circular area low on each side of the windscreen. She glanced quickly at the mirror, noting that the back window was still opaque despite the de-froster element. The clock on the dash reminded her that she was already late.
She slipped into reverse and backed quickly away from the wall, turning the wheel hard over as she did so. The Land Rover lurched. She slammed the brakes on. What the hell was that? She could see nothing through the mirror, nor through the windows as she swivelled her head. Damn! She put the car in neutral and opened the door once more. Now the rain drove straight at her, and she struggled against it to leave the car. Quickly, she moved to the back of the vehicle, the rear lights weakly illuminating the scene. She could see nothing, nothing that could have caused that lurch. That was both a mystery and a relief. She turned back towards the door. As she did so her foot collided softly with something on the ground, and she stared down at a leg protruding from under the vehicle.
Her hand flew to her mouth. ‘Oh my God,’ she screamed. And crouched beside the leg. It was a woman’s leg, a stiletto shoe lying beside it. Sandra knelt on the wet concrete and tried to see the rest of the woman, but it was too dark. She shook the leg in the hope of reviving the woman, but there was no response. She took hold of the ankle and tried to pull her from under the Land Rover. She could’t move her an inch.
She stood and quickly moved to the front of the car, climbing in and carefully moving into low gear, edging forward in a straight line. When she had driven three metres or so she applied the handbrake and climbed out of the car again, slamming the door behind her. The wind and rain seemed even harder than before.
The woman lay motionless behind the car. She was wearing a trouser suit, dark and conservative. She had no bag. Her long hair was spread around her on the concrete. Everything looked very red in the light from the rear driving lights, even the water pooling everywhere. Sandra knelt beside the woman and took her wrist, feeling for a pulse. She hadn’t done this very often, and had trouble finding it. As she fumbled with the woman’s wrist she felt a sudden movement, and the woman groaned. ‘Don’t try to move,’ Sandra told her. ‘I’m calling an ambulance.’
The woman groaned again, louder this time, and seemed to struggle to roll over. ‘No, lie still,’ Sandra told her.
‘Don’t,’ the woman cried indistinctly.
‘Sorry… don’t what?’
The woman rolled onto her side. ‘Don’t call…’
‘You’re badly hurt. I have to.’
The woman shook her head and gripped Sandra’s arm. ‘No.’
Sandra sat back on her heels. They were both soaking wet and the cold was intense. ‘Okay,’ she decided. ‘Can you get up? We need to get out of the rain.’
It took several minutes to get the woman to her feet. She had kicked off the second shoe and stood beside the car in her stockinged feet, leaning against the roof while Sandra opened the passenger door. Carefully she turned and sat, and Sandra lifted her legs and helped her swivel to the front. She slammed the door and quickly returned to her seat, picking up the two stilettos as she went. Gratefully she climbed in and slammed her door. The Land Rover rocked slightly in the wind.
Sandra turned the heater to maximum and revved the engine a little, warm air pouring into the car. She leaned over and took the woman’s hands and held them in front of the ventilation ducts, rubbing them as she did so. ‘What happened?’
The woman turned and looked at her. ‘I can’t tell you,’ she said, her voice flat and expressionless; quiet, so that Sandra had to strain to hear her over the noise of the ventilation.
‘Can’t? Or won’t?’
The woman sighed. ‘Won’t,’ she agreed. ‘Look, can we move away from here?’
‘You’ve been badly hurt. Why don’t I drive you to the hospital?’
The woman felt the back of her head, then looked at her hand. It was covered with blood. ‘No. Please. Can you take me to your house?’
Sandra stared at her. ‘Of course not. You need help.’
‘I’m in great danger,’ the woman said. ‘I need to find somewhere to hide.’
She lowered her head. ‘I can’t tell you,’ she said quietly.
Sandra stared at her again, then looked forward, put the car in gear and drove slowly out of the car park. Even on the road, though there were street lights every hundred metres or so, it seemed much darker than usual, and the road was deserted. Under the street lights she could see that the rain was falling almost horizontally. Sandra drove carefully and rather more slowly than usual, and in ten minutes pulled into the hospital car park.
‘No,’ the woman said. ‘No.’
‘I’m going in to get help,’ Sandra said, and got out of the car, removing the keys. As she hurried to the door she pressed the ‘lock’ button on her key, and heard the car doors respond behind her.
The Accident and Emergency waiting room was half full, and behind a heavy acrylic shield, three staff were talking to a row of patients leaning on the counter. Sandra couldn’t wait. ‘I’ve got a badly hurt woman in my car outside,’ she called loudly. Everybody turned to her, surprised. ‘Please, I need help.’
A bell rang somewhere and a few seconds later a door opened and a tall black man in a white coat emerged, followed by what Sandra took to be an ambulance man. They looked questioningly at her. ‘Quick,’ she said, and turned back to the door. They followed without saying a thing.
If anything, the wind and rain had increased even further by the time they reached her car. The passenger door was wide open, and the car was empty.
‘She’s gone,’ she said.
‘We can see that,’ the ambulance man said. He held his hand to his face to shield his eyes from the rain, scanning the car park. There was no movement anywhere. After a careful second sweep of the area, the man in the white coat, obviously, now, a doctor, turned to her. ‘How badly was she hurt?’
‘I don’t know. She was unconscious when I found her, and there was blood everywhere. Her head, I think.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘You’re not fooling with us, are you?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘So where is she?’
Sandra moved around the car to the passenger side, and leaned in. ‘Look,’ she said, pointing to the head-rest. The ambulance man looked, and nodded at the doctor. ‘She’s not kidding,’ he said. ‘There’s blood everywhere.’
The doctor looked too, then stood up and looked around the car-park again. ‘Well, no way we’re going to find her out there,’ he said.
Sandra gave a little cry and opened the back door. ‘Bugger,’ she exclaimed, ‘she’s taken my bag.’
Denny was reading the evening paper, a glass of red in his hand. He looked up. He was about to offer her a glass when he realised that she was white and trembling, holding on to the frame of the door, her hair still wet and sticking to her face.
‘What’s up?’ he asked, putting down his glass and going to her side. ‘What the hell’s happened to you?’
Sandra could’t speak for a while, but she held Denny tightly, her face in his shoulder.
‘Hey,’ he told her, stroking her hair, ‘It’s okay. You’re okay now.’
But when she told him, sobbing through her story, he seemed dumbstruck. He held her away from him, searching her face. ‘You’re joking, right?’ he said.
She didn’t answer, simply shook her head.
‘Oh, my God,’ he said as he led to to the big settee at the other end of the room. He tried to picture what had happened. ‘She just took your bag and did a runner?’
Later, after Denny had brought the shopping from her car and heated a stew from the freezer, they sat at the kitchen table and ate. She had three glasses of wine, two more than she would normally have drunk. The stew, which Denny had made a month before, was delicious and warming. The colour slowly returned to her face.
‘What did the police say?’
‘To stop the cards immediately, and not to pick up strangers.’
‘Is that all?’
Denny grimaced. ‘Got your phone as well, I suppose?’
She nodded. ‘How the hell do we cancel cards?’ she asked.
Denny shrugged. ‘Don’t know,’ he admitted.
Denny heard the faint click of the front door opening, and woke immediately. The alarm clock beside him told him it was just after two am. Sandra was still beside him, snoring a little. He lifted the doona and rolled out of bed silently, moved to the door, which was open as usual, and stood in the dark, listening.
At first he thought he must have imagined the click that had woken him, but after perhaps half a minute he saw a glimmer of light from downstairs, shadows moving. He quietly descended, keeping to the side of the stairs where he knew there would be less creaking. He reached the bottom of the stairs in near-silence.
There was a line of light under the kitchen door. Without thinking, he moved towards it and grasped the door-knob. He readied himself, then quickly turned the knob and threw the door open.
She was seated at the table, the light coming from the screen of a mobile phone. Denny flicked the switch of the light. She turned towards him in fright, her mouth forming a wide ‘O’, her hands raised before her as though to fend off an attack.
‘Who the hell are you?’ Denny asked, his voice deep and threatening.
‘Denny?’ came Sandra’s voice, bewildered, from upstairs.
‘It’s okay,’ he called to his wife. ‘We’ve got a visitor.’
Then, to the woman at the table, he said, ‘Don’t tell me… you’re the woman from the car-park, yes?’
He could hear Sandra padding, barefoot, down the stairs behind him. The woman at the table nodded, then slumped forward and put her head on her arms folded before her.
Sandra stood beside Denny. ‘That’s my phone, is it? And my bag?’
‘My name is Ayisha Ghandour. You might have heard of me.’ She looked at them.
Sandra and Denny both shook their heads. They were sitting opposite Ayisha at the kitchen table.
‘What makes you think we might have heard of you?’ Denny said.
‘Well, perhaps my husband? Azizur?’
Sandra looked at Denny, mystified. ‘No,’ Denny said. ‘Should we have?’
Ayisha looked down at her hands. ‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘He is well known. A politician. A developer. The media?’
‘Well,’ Denny said, ‘I’ve never heard of either of you. What are you doing here? Why were you in the car-park? Why wouldn’t you go to the hospital? And how did you get here?’
Sandra reached forward and took her bag from Ayisha. She opened it and rummaged inside. ‘Where’s my wallet?’ she said.
Ayisha reached into her pocket and handed Sandra her wallet. ‘I stole it,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Are you hungry?’ Sandra asked. ‘Are you warm enough now?’
Ayisha nodded. ‘Yes to both things,’ she said.
Sandra went to the refrigerator and brought out the remains of the meal they had eaten earlier. ‘Would you like some stew?’
Ayisha nodded again. ‘Yes. And some coffee, if that is possible.’
‘Hang on,’ Denny said. ‘You were bleeding everywhere when Sandra picked you up. Let me have a look.’
Ayisha lifted a hand to her head. ‘I think it has stopped bleeding,’ she said. She looked at her hand, and put it back on the table.
Denny moved behind her and looked at her head. ‘Christ,’ he said. ‘That’s a bad one. What happened?’
‘Has the bleeding stopped? Surely that needs to be looked at,’ Sandra said anxiously.
‘Needs a couple of stitches, I’d say,’ Denny added.
Ayisha sighed tiredly. ‘It was an accident. I hit my head on something as I fell.’
‘But you were under my car,’ Sandra said.
‘My husband drove off very fast and turned suddenly, and the door wasn’t properly shut. I fell out.’
‘So, still doesn’t tell us how you got under Sandra’s car…’
‘I landed close to it, and rolled under to hide from my husband.’
‘You’re not really making any sense. You were unconscious when I found you.’
Ayisha shrugged. ‘All I know is that you woke me up. Maybe I raised my head suddenly and hit something under your car. I don’t know.’
‘Anway, I reckon you should have it seen to.’ Denny looked at Sandra. ‘Maybe see Max in the morning? He won't ask too many questions.’
‘Our GP. Friend of ours, too.’
Ayisha nodded doubtfully. ‘Maybe,’ she said.
‘But why did your husband do all that?’ Sandra asked. ‘Had you been fighting?’
Ayisha gave that tired sigh once more. ‘It’s complicated.’ She looked at them. ‘Can I lie down somewhere? I’m exhausted.’
Ayisha nodded slowly. ‘We’re always fighting.’
‘Sounds pretty serious to me,’ Denny said. ‘Falling out of a car at high speed, in the dark, in a gale. And crawling under a car to hide?’
‘I know. It is serious. I think he wants to kill me.’
Sandra gasped in surprise. ‘Kill you? Are you joking?’
Ayisha shook her head.
‘Or at at least exaggerating?’ Denny insisted.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Unfortunately, no exaggeration at all. That’s why… oh, everything.’
‘He wouldn’t want to kill you,’ Denny said. ‘I reckon he might want you to think that, if he’s a complete bastard, to make you do what he wants. But killing is a big deal in this country, as you know.’
Ayisha looked at him, one eyebrow cocked as though she couldn’t imagine a grown man being so naïve. ‘So you’ve never heard of honour killings? Do me a favour!’
Denny looked at Sandra in astonishment. ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’ he asked. ‘Isn’t that something only done by ignorant, tribal people? Doesn’t sound to me your husband’s one of those.'
Ayisha sighed. ‘No,’ she said,‘he’s not. But you know, honour killings are often used to disguise ordinary murders, like getting rid of a wife when you’ve found a new lover. Look, I really must lie down.’
Sandra stared at her open-mouthed. ‘Jesus,’ she said. Then: ‘Come with me, upstairs. Of course you’re exhausted.’ She led the way to the spare room, showed her the bathroom and quickly set the bed to rights, which was, fortunately, already made up.‘I’ll just get you another pillow.’
‘No,’ Ayisha said. ‘I don't use pillows.’ She sat on the side of the bed heavily, and after a moment looked up at Sandra. ‘I’m sorry. Sorry about all this... stealing you bag and your phone and everything.’
‘You’ll be safe here,’ Sandra told her. ‘Get a good sleep, and we’ll see you in the morning.’
There was a heavy banging on the front door. It was still dark, and Derry started up. ‘What the hell’s that?’
Sandra said ‘I’ll get it.’
But Derry threw back the doona and was on his way down the stairs before she had made a move. She followed slowly behind him.
Derry left the security chain on and cracked the door open. ‘Yes?’ he said. He could see a uniform. Coppers?
‘Yeah. What’s all this about?’
‘We’re looking for a woman we suspect is here. Can you open the door, please?’
‘Do you have a warrant?’
‘Not a search warrant, no. Do you want to see my warrant card?’
‘Yeah, I think I do, under the circumstances.’
The policewoman unbuttoned a pocket in her tunic, and flapped a card at Denny.
‘Look, mate,’ he protested, ‘I couldn’t see a thing. Let me have a proper look at that.’
She snorted, but held the card, open, for him to see. ‘I’m not your mate,’ she muttered, scowling. ‘I’m Constable Powers, and this is my Probie.’
‘Probational Constable Warren.’
Denny chuckled as he inspected the card, checking the photo against the face. ‘Lighten up,’ he suggested. ‘I’m not being obstructive or anything.’ Then, having checked, he released the safety chain and opened the door, stepping outside. ‘So who is it you’re looking for?’
Sandra looked at the two policewomen standing in the dark of the street and wondered why they were searching for anyone at that time of night. Her watch told her it was a quarter past five.
‘Alicia Jenkins,’ Powers told him.
‘Well, she’s not here,’ he said.
‘Where is she?’
‘I don't know. Never heard of her.’
‘Tall, dark, long black hair, well-dressed?’
Denny paused... they couldn’t mean Ayisha, could they?
‘What’s she supposed to have done?’
Powers and Warren glanced at each other, but Denny couldn’t interpret the look. Powers coughed. ‘We’d better come in and check things out, then…?’
Denny moved aside, and let the two of them in. What if Ayisha’s husband had instigated some sort of Police search for her, with his important pals in high places? ‘Look,’ he said. ‘We do have someone staying with us at the moment, and she does sort of answer that description, but she’s not this Alicia you’re looking for.’
Again that look between the two policewomen. ‘You’d better fetch her, whoever she is.’
Sandra turned and started up the stairs. ‘I’ll get her,’ she said, and called out to her. ‘Ayisha.’
There was no reply. Sandra rapped loudly on the door of the spare bedroom. ‘Ayisha,’ she called, ‘there’s someone here to see you.’
Silence. Sandra rapped on the door again, then turned the knob and pushed the door open. The room was empty, the bedding turned back. Sandra left the room and went to the bathroom, but the door was open, and the bathroom was empty. Beginning to suspect the worst, Sandra opened their bedroom, but that was empty too. She went to the top of the stairs. ‘She’s not here,’ she told the policemen.
‘Again,’ Denny exploded. ‘Christ!’
‘You’d better tell us everything,’ Warren said, and got out her notebook. ‘But first it might be wise to check you still have your wallets, passports, laptops and stuff like that.’
Denny looked at Sandra. ‘Jesus… not a second time!’
‘What do you mean?’ Warren asked.
Sandra said ‘She’s not called Alicia Jenkins. She’s Ayisha… Ayisha Ghandour. But yesterday she stole my bag and my phone.’
‘And then turned up here late at night, and handed them back,’ Denny added, ‘and fed us a great yarn about her being in danger.’
‘So what did you do?’ Warren asked.
‘Fed her and warmed her up, checked the wound in her head, and put her to bed,’ Denny told him. ‘God, we’ve been taken for mugs. Where’s your bag, Sandra?’
‘In the kitchen, I suppose.’
They all moved to the kitchen, but it was clear that Sandra’s bag was not in its usual place on the bench. And her phone was not only no longer on the charger, but the charger itself was missing too.
‘I assume there’s a back entrance to this place?’ the probationer said.
Denny led the way along a short corridor to the back door, which was no longer bolted, as it always was. The garden was dimly lit by a crescent moon low over the roofs beyond, a simple lawn with a table and benches under an elderly apple tree, and a curving path to the back gate. The gate was open. They went through to the lane behind the row, and Sandra gasped. ‘She’s taken the car, too,’ she said.
‘This her?’ Warren asked, handing a photograph to Sandra.
She stared at it. It was hard to be sure. Ayisha had had long dark hair reaching almost half-way down her back, but the photograph showed a younger woman with very short blonde hair and a well-scrubbed face staring straight into the eye of the camera. Ayisha had been extravagantly made up, long eyelashes, darkly accentuated eyes and prominent lips, bright red. But it seemed to Sandra that the photograph really was one of Ayisha, perhaps ten years younger. ‘Can’t be certain, but I’d say it was her. What do you think, Denny?’
He needed only a quick look to be certain. ‘That’s her, okay. A lot older than she was in the photo, but that’s her, okay. Who did you say she is?’
‘Alicia Jenkins. Look, she’s got a string of aliases, but this is the first time using this Ghandour name. As far as we know, anyway. So what was this story she told you?’
Sandra sighed loudly. ‘I thought I had knocked her down in a car park in that storm yesterday evening. I stopped and looked and she was under my car, just about unconscious. She wasn’t faking that, anyway. So I carefully moved the car away from her and got her up and into the car. She was soaking wet and freezing, and covered in blood from a wound to her head. I drove her to the hospital and went in to get help, which she had said not to for some reason, but when a doctor came to the car with me she was gone. She had stolen my bag, too.’
Powers looked as though he had heard this story before. ‘And then?’ he asked.
Denny took over. ‘We rang the police at the local station to report the affair, or at least Sandy did. But they just said to stop the credit cards and not to give lifts to strangers. Then we had dinner and went to bed, planning to try to stop the credit cards first thing in the morning. Good job we didn’t try to do it immediately, because she showed up here in the middle of the night, with the bag and Sandra’s wallet and the house-keys.’
‘She told us her husband was trying to kill her,’ Sandra continued. ‘An honour killing, she said. She said her husband was a politician and a developer, and that we had probably heard of him. Of them both.’
‘So we cleaned her up and checked the wound in her head, which had stopped bleeding but really should have had some attention, and then we all went to bed, intending to report it in the morning, and get her fixed up.’
Powers smiled grimly. ‘Well, you’ve probably guessed that she’s actually Alicia Jenkins, a well-known con artist and thief. She tells a bloody good story, and you’re not the first to be taken in, not in the least. She’s been inside twice for very similar crimes to this one, and I doubt this’ll be the last time, either.’
Warren added, ‘She’s very convincing.’
Powers gave him a stern look, and he looked at the ground.
‘So what do we do now?’ Denny asked.
‘Find out what else she’s taken,’ Powers said. ‘Then come down to the station later and make a proper report, and we’ll see if we can recover anything.
‘Christ,’ Denny said.
‘Quite,’ Sandra added.
It wasn’t until Sandra was re-making the bed in the spare room that she came across a note tucked under the bedside lamp. Denny had gone to work, and she was alone in the house. She read the note quickly, then took it to the kitchen and placed it inside a plastic bag. Then she got her coat and left the house, walking quickly towards the shopping centre which was some distance away, and took her more than an hour. Parked in the same place, more or less, as she had been parked the evening before was her car, and she felt for the keys on top of the tyre on the passenger side, recovered them and got into the car.
On the steering wheel was another note. She read that, then reached behind her seat to find her bag, and inside, both her phone and Denny’s, and their wallets, apparently intact but without any cash. She rang Denny at work.
‘Guess what,’ she said.