They ran with great effort, the thud of boots echoing from the dark streets and their raucous yells were made sinister by the drizzle and the night. One paused to lift an empty bottle and throw it at the quarry and swore loudly when it shattered uselessly against a wall. The leader, she with the cropped blonde hair and the faded black denims, shouted a slogan and the others took it up. ‘Fleet!’ they screamed ‘Dundee Fleet!’
The Old Steeple loomed to their right and the few casual walkers stepped aside to let them past. A squabble among youths was not unusual in any city and if once it had only been young men who enjoyed violence, well, women were equal now. Let them also enjoy the pleasures of pain and terror.
The quarry did not seem to be enjoying anything as she scrambled up a flight of damp concrete steps and glanced desperately behind her. She could see the mob approaching; a dozen of them in boots and denim, with baseball bats or iron bars in their fists. She heard the gasp of her own breath, felt the stabbing pain in her injured left knee and knew that she could not run much further. She had to hide, but there was nowhere, and nobody would help her.
As if in confirmation, a stone flicked past her head to rattle from the hoarding at her back.
‘Overgate Development,’ a sign read. ‘Retail premises and offices for the City of Discovery.’
The girl began to run again, but her knee was weakening and she staggered. The wolf pack behind her whooped with pleasure at the sight and one began to chant their battle cry. ‘Dundee Fleet Girls! DFG DFG!’
Their quarry ran again, limping as she put her weight on the bad knee. She heard her own breath rasping, felt the harsh breath tear through her chest. Perhaps somebody would help her. A glance behind showed that the girl-gang was closing; moving slower now, spreading out, sure of a kill. The chanting was louder, jeering, taunting, the girls enjoying their power. ‘DFG! DFG!’
Something rattled off the boards to her right, rolled along the ground. The quarry whimpered and ducked. That had been a bottle, but it drew her attention to a slight gap in the wood. It was not wide but she was desperate. A fresh outbreak of chanting helped her decide and she leaped at the hoarding, fingers scrabbling frantically until she found enough purchase to hoist herself to the gap. She heard the footsteps quicken as the gang closed, but she was up and over, falling into the unknown black. She had found the sanctuary of a building site; the covering of night; somewhere to hide.
They would follow her, nothing was more certain, so she scrambled among the unseen rubble, the litter of broken wood, and the ankle deep mud. There must be a hole here, or a corner, somewhere to escape from the violence at her back. There was no chanting now but she heard somebody swearing, heard a chilling threat slicing through the night.
Floorboards underfoot, a waist high wall of masonry. The girl threw herself over this small obstacle and landed on something spongy. She recognised the smell and feel of rotten wood from her home. She lived with rising dampness that had rotted her floorboards and spread to infect the plaster above, merging with the green mould of condensation descending from the metal-framed windows. It was a distinctive smell, but the feeling was even more distinctive feeling as the wood collapsed beneath her.
The girl’s scream was involuntary; her clutching hands useless as she fell.
‘We hear you, bitch!’ The taunt carried easily but she hardly heard. She lay on a damp surface under a shower of mud and wood. Something hard and sharp edged was thrusting into her back.
‘We’ll find you. Then we’ll kill you.’
The girl tried to control her panic. Unable to see where she was, she knew that she was no longer capable of running; she could only hide. If they caught her here, there was no possibility of help. They might well kick her to death. The Fleet Girls were notorious for their violence. She cowered into the wall and fought the fear that threatened to make her run, fought to conceal the sound of her breathing. Down here, wherever she was, her hearing seemed more acute; she could hear the Fleet blundering about the building site, hear their curses and threats as they encouraged each other to continue. She could even smell the alcohol on their breath and that sweet sickly smell of whatever else it was they took.
‘She’s legged it.’ That voice was close.
‘Bitch.’ Meaningless abuse. ‘We’ll get her another time.’ The voice rose to a scream, ‘we’ll get you another time. Intensive care time!’ There was a laugh at that and somebody chanted ‘DFG Intensive Care Time!’ The rest took it up and the girl heard their boots crashing over the rubble as they retreated.
She lay there for what seemed like a long time, waiting until it was safe. Only then did she sit up. She tested the pain in her knee, found it bearable if she balanced her weight carefully. The smell of dampness was nearly reassuring in its familiarity and she leaned back to let the unceasing drizzle wash the sweat and mud from her face. There was mud on her black skirt too, and she swore as her attempts to clean it only smeared on more. That was her best designer label skirt. Those Fleet bitches would pay for that.
That hard-edged thing, the stick or whatever, was sharp against her bare thigh and she moved it. Something long and white, something that felt hollow. There was something else, some kind of box; wooden anyway. Struggling to her feet, she lifted it and clambered carefully back to ground level.
Ignoring the raucous singing of a group of revellers, she staggered toward the west, in the opposite direction from that the Fleet Girls had taken. The box might be valuable; she might be able to sell it in the pawnbrokers, make enough to get another skirt.
It was perhaps ten centimetres square and thirty long, thickly coated in mud. The girl examined it, shook it violently to check for contents, swearing when it seemed empty. If it was a box there seemed no lid so after a short struggle the girl gave up trying to open it. ‘Just a bit wood’ she muttered ‘No good to me.’ She had been limping along the Perth Road and now turned down a side street that led towards Magdalene Green. ‘This is where the snobs live’; she said and screamed the slogan of her own posse: ‘Siddey Huns!’ she yelled, high pitched.
‘Siddey Huns!’ That made her feet better and, swearing, she threw the box over a wall and into the front garden of the nearest house. ‘Clean your garden up!’ she yelled again and aimed a kick at a scurrying cat.
It was the howl of the cat that woke up Catriona.