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The devil's reflection by Colin Davy

© Colin Davy

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The Devil’s Reflection

Chapter one

A romantic evening with a beautiful and witty woman, followed by copious amounts of fulfilling sex. Always an event to savour.
He must try it sometime, Gary thought.

After waking suddenly in a strange bedroom, the events of the previous evening returned to him in glorious technicolour. Colourful true, but definitely not glorious. Or any sort of romantic triumph. This was one night to be filed under ‘Learn from and don’t repeat.’

He lay perfectly still, reliving the evening and unwilling to disturb the sleeping woman beside him. Not content with drinking for England, she’d spent the time slagging off her ex. Unwilling and unable to interrupt, he’d let her whinge, concentrating instead on the anticipated sexual banquet.

As always, his optimism had climbed to dizzy heights before crashing back to reality. Now in the light of day, he wondered if there was something wrong with him? Did he always expect miracles? Unreal optimism based on ephemeral sexual attraction?

Glancing at the sleeping woman, he decided lust was nearer the truth. The beautiful girl of last night remained pretty, but in the morning light, he only worried about getting away. Her mouth sagged a little, her breath coming in nasal tones, and the unusually warm July had left sweat coating her naked body. His mouth felt dry but that was his own fault – a symptom of his failed attempt to keep up with her wine-guzzling.

Leaning across, he examined her lower body. The pubic hair pattern needed more work, he decided. Or else she should have left it intact. The ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ inner lips still evoked interest, but a couple of hours post-orgasm - on his part anyway - the anticipation had faded.

Although her dark hair sprawled over the pillow, and her face remained as attractive as ever, it lacked the angelic look he’d seen the night before. Back in those magic moments when expectation held sway. On a more philosophical note, she had a good pair of tits.

He wondered whether to wake her, but the heavy breathing had changed to snores, and she hadn’t been impressed with his performance earlier. He guessed her sighs had been from frustration rather than satisfaction, and she’d worn the grim look of someone having to make the best of a bad job.

Best settle for giving her a goodbye kiss and, assuming she didn’t wake, try to sneak off.

Nah! Forget the kiss, she might wake and produce unconvincing excuses for why this would be the first and last night they’d spend together. Even worse, she might not make excuses.

So much for the experiment of a dating app. “Don’t knock it until you try it,” Scott had advised. Well now he’d tried it. A disappointment and no mistake. A short cut to sex perhaps, but they were an ill-matched couple. He’d waited for her to quickly announce that, but no doubt she’d hoped the sex would compensate. A disappointment there too, so an embarrassed goodbye would help no-one.

At least, his escape was easier than expected. She continued to sleep deeply and her snores must have been genuine, because he was able to dress and disappear without waking her.

Scrambling into the car, he felt a wave of dizziness. Was he over the limit? She’d drunk enough to sink the Titanic but he’d only trailed in her slipstream. And as wine wasn’t his natural tipple, he’d been a long way behind.

Taking a long breath, he started the car. The evening had been a wash-out, and he should put it down to a disappointing experiment. An ‘it’s not me, it’s you.” verdict.

He should, but he suspected the failure lay with him. At heart, he remained a romantic, he supposed, and although Scott meant well, his suggestion had always felt artificial. He should have voiced his worries there and then rather than go along with it. Not only had he wasted his own time, he’d wasted the woman’s too.

With a sigh, he eased the car quietly towards the motorway.

He checked his watch. Not yet five o’clock, and though the Sunday morning sun shone warm and bright, the M62 was almost deserted when he reached it. He didn’t need the dark glasses despite heading for Liverpool and the low sun, but he slowed a little when he spotted movement on the hard shoulder.
The movement seemed to be a young woman, and when he neared, he saw a young woman with her arm out. A woman looking flustered and desperate, with no sign of a nearby car. As he drove past, he definitely saw her wave her thumb.

A hitch-hiker? On a motorway? Crazy. There was far more chance of a patrol car stopping than a driver. Perhaps that’s what she wanted, it’s what she deserved. Yet the brief look of panic he’d seen in her face worried him, and checking the rear-view mirror, he saw her waving frantically.

Shit! Although he slowed automatically, he remained in two minds. The woman last night had wasted his time and he should hurry home to catch up on his sleep. Let someone else deal with her.

No, he decided, the nagging doubt would follow him home if he left her stranded. He’d spare a minute just to check he wasn’t taking his bad temper out on an innocent victim. Braking slowly and pulling onto the hard shoulder, he watched her walk firmly towards him. Tall and slim with medium-length red hair, he put her age around the mid-twenties, a little younger than him. As she neared, he added another five years. She could be in her thirties.

She slowed as she neared, but whether through caution or tiredness was hard to tell. Hesitating at the passenger door, she waited until he opened it before leaning cautiously into the car and thanking him.

He nodded. “You’re welcome. What happened?”

Taking a hurried breath, she stared at him. Her distinctive blue eyes gave him a thorough examination before she finally nodded. Her face was very pale and when she continued to breathe heavily, he felt a spark of alarm. “I need a lift,” she said. “Please, it’s important.”

A strange accent, and he decided she wasn’t British-born. “Why?” he asked.

Ignoring him, she sidled into the passenger seat and began to fiddle with the seatbelt.

"Hey!"

She ignored him. Her clothes were well-cut if old-fashioned. Her green skirt reached to the knee, and she wore a tight green top that looked expensive and covered her small breasts without revealing much cleavage. Sweat beaded a face that wore no make-up, and he decided she was reasonably attractive without being a stunner. “Did you have an accident?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then why are you here …?”

She looked up. “Can I explain while we drive, please?”

He had little choice now she’d virtually imprisoned herself in his car, but he felt annoyed for getting in this position. A scam of some sort? It would serve him right. Yet the area remained deserted except for a large lorry thundering the other way. And her appearance didn’t suggest a prostitute. But who could tell? “Where did you come from?” he asked, letting his irritation show.

“When?”

He tried not to frown, her English might not be great and she sounded apologetic suddenly. “Just now,” he said in a softer tone.
Her smile caught him by surprise. A wide, relieved smile that showed perfect white teeth. Sitting back in the seat, she seemed to relax more. “It’s the where I’m going that interests me.”

An expensive call-girl? He doubted it, unless she specialised in unusual and illegal pick-ups. To be brutal, he thought she looked too ordinary and too respectable to be on the game, even if the exotic accent suggested otherwise. But he gradually relaxed, she looked calmer and no longer so threatening.

This pointless guesswork was going nowhere. Whatever had landed her here seemed destined to be a secret. She was obviously unwilling to explain her reasons for hitch-hiking, and that might be for the best. Yet her willingness to climb into a random car driven by a complete stranger was worrying. “Where to, then?” he asked.

“I’m a Southport girl,” she said.

He doubted that. Not with that accent, whatever it was. More like New England mixed with Dublin and Sydney. And if it was fake, it was well done. “Are you an actress?” he guessed.

She smiled and shook her head. “You’re cold, guess again.”

“A prostitute?”

He expected a reaction, but she took it calmly. “Anything but,” she said. “And you’re very cold now.”

“I give up.”

“Not yet, but you will.”

“Sorry?”

“I said you’ll understand soon.” When she turned to face him, he saw a fierce determination he’d not noticed before. “Please trust me,” she whispered, and for a second her face softened. Dropping a set of keys in his lap, she waited for him to pick them up. “Put them in your pocket,” she said. “I’ve no bag and I’ll only forget them if I put them down in here.”

“What …” He trailed off and squeezed them awkwardly into his left-hand pocket, thinking it was easier to comply than argue. No handbag? Had she been mugged?

“Thanks,” she said. “Thanks for trusting me, the last two drivers just accelerated past.”

After nodding, he began to drive; he was in no hurry, he supposed, but dropping her off would mean a longish detour up the M57. Could he compromise and drop her in Liverpool? Hardly - the trains wouldn’t be running for a while. The buses? He couldn’t remember the timetables. Sod it, he may as well take her to Southport, what could go wrong? She might accuse him of rape or sexual assault? He doubted it; there were much safer ways to earn money and she didn’t look or sound flaky.

But she did look worried, staying silent and curling back into the seat as if for protection. And she looked washed-out, her natural pallor reinforced by fatigue, and her sparse orange eyebrows disappearing into the snowy hinterland of her forehead.

As he neared Junction seven, they passed a tall white statue on the right.

“What’s that?” she gestured, screwing up her eyes and leaning forward.
“It’s a statue.”

She frowned. “It looks a bit … odd.”

“It looks innocuous close up,” he said. “But from a distance … yes, I know what you’re thinking.”

She looked back at him.

“It’s called the ‘Dream’,” he said. “There’s a face on the shaft if you get close enough, but the locals call it the ‘Dick of the North.’” When he checked her reaction, he saw only a tightening of her lips.

As he reached the M57 turnoff, she seemed to relax more and he found he did too. When she began to hum a tune slightly under her breath, he thought he recognised it, but the title wouldn’t come to mind. “We’ll be there in a few minutes,” he said. “Where exactly do you want dropped?”

She smiled. “I’ll tell you when we get nearer.”

“OK.”

This time, her smile reached her eyes. “I’m not taking you far out of your way, am I? Where do you live?”

“Liverpool,” he said. “The Duncan Docks”

“Oh, good, you can come back on the dock road.” Looking sideways, she watched him carefully. “My sister lives in one of those converted flats,” she said. “She moved in a month or so ago.”

“Oh.” Now he was committed for the next few minutes, he didn’t want to encourage too much conversation.

She took the hint, sitting quietly for a few minutes but when they approached the Fazakerley turn-off, she turned to face him. “It’s over-rated,” she said.

“What?” he asked. “Fazakerley?”

“No,” she said. “Sex. It’s over-rated. Not gender, I’m talking about casual sexual intercourse.”

He was startled; as much by the change of subject as by the polite terminology, but both caught him on the hop. He felt his stomach hollow out. What was coming?

She smiled again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to shock you.”

Yes, you did, he thought. That’s exactly what you wanted, and she’d succeeded. Had she smelt last night’s guilt on him somehow? Or had she been a recent victim of a sex attack? That could explain her current predicament. Staring into her eyes, he saw no pain or guile, only curiosity, but she’d made him feel uncomfortable. “Why say it then?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Idle conversation.”

Not that idle, he thought.

She sighed. “Sorry, I suspect I’m getting my words mixed up. I’ve not lived in this country very long.” She looked across at him. “Did it sound rude?”

“Not at all,” he lied. “A little unexpected, that’s all.”

“Sorry,” she repeated. “But it’s true, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“Casual sex is always unsatisfactory.”

He said nothing until he could overtake a couple of lorries who’d decided to hold hands up the slight slope ahead. “I can take it or leave it,” he said and saw her give a nod of confirmation.

“I thought so.” She sounded both confident and accusatory.

That annoyed him. Shallow he may be, but he hoped he wasn’t that easy to read. “I can drop you here if you’d prefer,” he said as they approached Switch Island.

She shook her head. “Southport itself will be grand,” she whispered.

Was she Irish? But that was no Irish accent he’d heard before.

“Tell me about yourself,” she said.

He looked around in surprise. “Not much to tell,” he said.

She gave a short laugh of derision. “I doubt that.”

Taking Dunning’s lane, he headed for the A565. Not much longer to put up with her ramblings, he hoped, she might be harmless but she was a touch barmy. Had she been dropped on the motorway by an irritated driver? “Why are you so interested?” he asked.

She turned to face him again. “If you’re going to be lusting after me for the foreseeable future, I need to know more about you.”

Eh? He was taken aback, but she must be joking, he finally decided. She wasn’t ugly, but then again, she was no calendar model, and he suspected she was a little older than him. When she smiled brightly and her eyes sparkled, he realised she wasn’t serious. But she was distinctly unsettling.

“Don’t be worried,” she said. “I know my limitations.”

Now he felt guilty. Even if he’d made no audible comment, she must have noticed his expression.

“Some people don’t like me,” she continued. “But they don’t tell me why. Is it my looks?”

“I doubt it,” he said quickly.

She stared for a moment before nodding. “Thank you.”

Perhaps he was getting used to her now. But luckily, she became engrossed in her own thoughts until they neared Southport. There, she suddenly stirred. “Excuse me,” she said softly, before leaning gently forward and stretching her hand towards his trouser pocket. Reaching it, she probed inside.

He jerked back a little. “Careful” he called and tried to move away. “I’m driving.”

When she burrowed deeper inside, he instinctively swerved before managing to steady the car. “What are you doing?” he snapped.

She ignored him, gripping her keys and brushing her fingers against his testicles through the cloth. “Got them,” she said, pulling out the keys.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he shouted, feeling his cheeks warm.

“We’re nearly there,” she said quickly. “Slow down at those traffic lights.”

“Oh, I see.” He felt his face warm further and she must have noticed.

“Sorry,” she whispered “Did I touch your todger?”

He turned in surprise, yet she seemed completely untroubled. As if she was his partner and they regularly swapped such talk. And to be anatomically exact, she was wrong, but he decided there was little point correcting her. “I was driving,” he said. “You caught me by surprise. It could have been dangerous.”

“Ah, diddums,” she said.

He felt his face warm again. “Where to now?” It came out as a brusque order, but she only smiled.

“Left at the lights” she said. “Then slow down.”

He followed her orders, stopping finally with relief.

Ducking out the car, she turned back to hold his stare. “That was very kind of you,” she said. “You’re a good man …” She waited patiently.

“Gary.” It was instinctive.

She nodded. “You’re a good man, Gary. My name’s Maria, now give me your phone number because I need to thank you properly.”

“No need,” he said. “I was happy to help.”

“No, give me your number,” she said firmly. “You do have a mobile?” When she opened the door again to lean into the car, he gave her the number without thinking.

When she merely smiled, he guessed it had been for appearance’s sake. Unless she had a very good memory.

“Yes,” she said. “You can see me again if you like.”

“What? I don’t remember asking,” he said, trying to be firm without being insulting. For some reason, he didn’t want to hurt her feelings; her hard shell might conceal a soft centre.

“But you will ask me,” she said firmly.

“Will I?

She only smiled. “Oh, yes,” she said. “So, you may as well ask now, and the answer is yes.”

He pretended to consider it seriously. Was she on the game? A very unusual street girl if so, yet there was something intriguing about her. An actress? She’d denied it, but she probably would if she were acting a part for some reason. “I’m glad I could help,” he said finally. With a quick wave, he pulled away and turned around in the road, trying not to catch her eye. But he couldn’t resist a quick glance in the rear-view mirror as he drove off.

On the pavement, she smiled and waved slowly.


Chapter two

The phone call came when Gary least expected it.

He’d almost forgotten the strange girl until Scott’s wife, Sophie, brought up his weekend adventure. Sitting in the Old Oak Tavern the following Tuesday evening, they waited for Scott to return from the bar. “How did your social media baptism turn out on Saturday night, Gaz,” she asked. “Did your internet Wonder Woman live up to expectations?”

He tried not to appear too dismissive, it had been her husband’s idea, and he liked Sophie Sinclair. At thirty-six, she was six months pregnant with her first child and gloriously cheerful. Slightly chubby and proud of it, she treated him like a younger brother who needed guidance, but she never pressed the advice too firmly. A knack he suspected she’d learned from her job as a teacher at the local secondary school.

“So-so,” he said finally.

Taking the tonic from her husband’s hand when he appeared, she sat back with a frown replacing her usual smile. “That bad then?”

He wondered how honest to be. “I wasn’t in the right mood for romance,” he said. “I felt off-colour the next day too.”

“Hangover?” Scott asked, dropping his heavy frame into the chair and passing a beer across.

Taking a sip, Gary gave an appreciative sigh. “No, I think I caught a twenty-four- hour bug on Saturday night,” he said. “Anyway, I wasn’t at my best.” The bug seemed to have lasted, and it was only today he’d begun to feel better. Work had been a trial, especially with the two-day course on something or other. During one of the monotone talks, he remembered feeling very tired.

‘Statistics show hypertension kills more people …’ He woke abruptly, nearly falling off the chair. It wasn’t something to drop his blood pressure he needed, but something to keep him awake. The weather today hadn’t helped his mood - the warm, oppressive temperatures seemed set into the next millennium.

“So, you couldn’t score in a brothel?” Scott asked. “That must be some sort of record?” Although his friend sat forward eagerly, Gary was in no hurry to explain.

Instead he glanced round and considered his options. He could tell Scott to keep his daft ideas to himself in future, but that was unfair. He hadn’t been forced to go ahead with his suggestion. Even Sophie had advised caution, but he’d ignored her, taking it instead as a challenge. "Consider your options," she said. "Does this one suit you?" Frowning, she'd shaken her head ominously. "Sometimes you should examine them all and do none."

No, he decided, being totally honest now would be far too embarrassing. “I don’t think she fancied me,” he said. “After one look, she lost interest.”

Sophie took another sip from her tonic and shuffled to get comfortable. She looked warm and he wasn’t surprised. Wearing a long dress with what she called ‘wriggle room’ to disguise her baby bump, he wondered why she bothered at all about her appearance. Having been overjoyed by the pregnancy, she now wanted to hide it. He’d never understand women, but her advice generally proved accurate, even if he did ignore a lot of it. “Never mind,” she said. “It happens to us all.”

Despite her fatalism, he doubted it was an experience she encountered too often. She’d struggle to find work as a fashion model, but with intense green eyes to go with bronzed skin, courtesy of a Jamaican grandmother who’d also bequeathed the curvaceous body, she’d never struggle for compliments. Perhaps now she’d put on weight, she’d seen the downsides to pregnancy. “I’ve grown BWs,” she’d confided a week before.

“BWs?” he’d asked.

“Bingo wings,” she’d laughed. “But who cares?”

She didn’t really mind, he decided, and Scott certainly didn’t. Mind you, her husband remained easy-going and scruffy to a fault, committed to wearing a brown tie and white shirt which was always flapping free. Alongside an untrimmed moustache he could have found in a jumble sale, he was no advert for sharp dressing.

“What made you think it was dislike at first sight, Gaz?” Sophie asked.

Oops, here comes the psychoanalysis. “She drank herself into a coma,” he said. “But only after speaking incessantly about her ex-partner.”

“Hmm …” she said. “That’s a clue, but she might have had partner issues anyway.”

Scott laughed lightly. “She probably thought she’d enough demons without adding one more.”

“Shh …” Sophie hissed, before turning to Gary. “Put it behind you and move on,” she said softly. That's as near as she'd ever come to saying 'I told you so.' “There’s always more fish in the sea," she continued. "Not all will be beautiful mermaids.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “But I don’t see a crop of Disney princesses queuing up to meet me.”

“I expect they don’t need glasses,” Scott said. “But Sophie’s right. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

He suppressed a groan. Scott had an annoying habit of slipping in film quotations, although they were usually more cryptic. “Maybe so,” he said. “But I met an even stranger woman the following day.”

“Oh?” Sophie perked up. “How come?”

“I picked up a hitch-hiker,” he said. “On the motorway.”

Scott frowned. “A sex worker?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“It didn’t feel like that, she was just strange.”

Scott sat back and peered at him. “Was it you or she who was odd?”

It sounded like odd phrasing but with Scott being an English teacher, he suspected he’d have it correct. “She was the one hitching a lift from the hard shoulder,” he said.

“Fair enough.” Scott looked across at his wife. “What do you reckon, Sophe?”

“I think-”

The ring of Gary’s mobile cut across her reply, and after picking it up, he saw the number was a new one.

“Is that Gary, please?” the voice asked when he answered. He recognised it instantly, it was the girl from Southport, the one with the international accent.

“Yes,” he said cautiously. After a quick glance at his companions, he rose to his feet. “I won’t be long,” he whispered with his hand over the mobile. Before they could reply, he moved to the window and turned his back.

“Is it convenient to talk?” the girl asked.

She obviously knew he’d recognised her voice. What was her name? Marcia? No, it was Maria. Shit, he should have given her a wrong number, but he hadn’t thought it through. “Well … not that much,” he said. “Is it important?”

In the short pause, he could hear her hurried breathing.

“To me, it is,” she said.

Looking over his shoulder, he saw the Sinclairs making no effort to hide their curiosity. “Look,” he said softly. “It’s a bit awkward at the moment, can I get back to you?” To emphasise the point a group of drinkers entered and the noise levels increased threefold.

“Wait,” she called, as if fearful he might hang up. “I’m seriously worried about something and I need advice urgently. Apart from my sister, there’s no one else I can talk to, and she might be involved. You’re the only one who can help.”

The only one? He was caught in two minds. Although she sounded worried, how stable was she? “What’s it about?” he asked.

“The Church.”

He was confused. “What church is this?”

“The Pentecostal Church of Southport.” Debbie said. “We call it the Pentecoastal Church because of the location, and to distinguish it from others.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” he admitted. “Is it new?”

“Very new,” Maria said. “And based so far on new dwellers.”

“New dwellers?” He waited for her to go on but she didn’t. “Do you mean immigrants?”

She gave an intake of breath. “I prefer the term ‘new dwellers’,” she said. “Mostly Aussies with a few Americans.”

“Are you part of the official Pentecostal Church?” he asked.

“Not officially,” she said. “It’s more of a loose association.”

He frowned. “Loose in the sense that that only you know about it?”

She said nothing.

“Where is your church?” he asked.

“We haven’t constructed an actual building yet,” she said. “We’re collecting alms.”

“As in money?”

“Yes.”

“Surely that will cost millions? You’ll need large cheques, not a collection plate of loose coins.” Did that count as advice? He hoped so.

“We know that,” she said with a hint of annoyance. “For now, we meet in members’ houses, and that’s where Keith’s been so helpful by letting us celebrate at his house. He has great plans for us.”

“Keith?”

“He’s the pastor.”

“Is he the problem?”

“No.” When he didn’t comment, she carried on. “It’s the congregation.”

“The congregation at your church?”

“Of course, I mean our congregation,” she said impatiently. “I’m not an ecclesiastical pub-crawler.”

He had to think about that for a moment.

“I can’t tell you any more over the phone,” she said. “I need to explain the background in detail first. Please help me.”

The last phrase resonated in his mind but he needed time to think. “Maria, I will ring back, I promise, but I can’t do it now. Sit tight and I’ll ring you back in half an hour at the latest.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll wait for your call.”

After she’d rung off, he walked slowly back to the table, deep in thought. He could see only two options - block any more calls from her, or do as he had promised. Well, the female equivalent of Sigmund Freud might be useful here, even if her husband wouldn’t be.
“Sophie,” he said when he’d retaken his seat. “I may have cocked up.”

“Oh?” She sighed. “What have you done?”

“I’m not sure.”

She glanced at her husband before replying. “Is it about that phone call?”

Gary nodded.

“And?”

“It’s from the girl I gave a lift to at the weekend.”

“Ah,” she said. “It wasn’t to give you belated thanks then?”

“No.”

“What did she want?”

“She wants advice,” he said.

When she gave a brief frown, he wondered why. “She claims she has serious problems,” he said. “Apart from a sister who can’t help, because she might be involved, she has no other relatives here. They’re both new to this country.”

“This help,” Scott asked. “Is it financial?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“You’re sure?”

“I think so.”
“And she’s asking you?” His face and tone both betrayed his incredulity. “You? Gary Maddison?”

“Don’t be so disbelieving?” Sophie said. “Beneath that gruff exterior beats a romantic heart, even if it’s well-hidden.” She pretended to peer closely. “He’s handsome in a quirky way,” she continued. “I suppose you could call it a kind face.”

“Kind of ugly,” Scott said. “I expect women like that sort of rugged look. But advice? Gary?”

“He’s right Sophe,” he said, “Why ask me?”

Scott smiled. “Exactly.”

“I hardly know the girl,” Gary said. “A forty-minute drive during which we said very little.”

Sophie sat back and her eyes narrowed. “I think you need to tell me what happened during this short ride.”

“Fine,” he said, but it wasn’t fine. Going over the details of the short car ride, it seemed even more peculiar than it had at the time. “When she got out and asked for my phone number, I gave it without thinking,” he said.

“That was brainless,” Scott said.

“Possibly,” he admitted.

Scott nodded. “At least you didn’t give her your address.”

“Ah,” he said. “I did mention I lived at the Duncan docks, but no more than that.”

“Hmm …” Scott wasn’t impressed.

“She claims her sister lives there.”

Scott’s smile showed his doubts. “So, what about this latest call?” Scott asked. “Did she give any clue as to the nature of this advice?”

“Only briefly,” he said. “She didn’t want to discuss too much over the phone.”

“What did she say?” Sophie asked.

“It was to do with some odd Church,” he said. “Or rather the congregation. She thinks something funny is going on, and I think she wants me to check it out.”

Although Sophie’s eyes narrowed, he could tell she was interested; possibly the Church connection had piqued her curiosity. “What Church is this?” she asked.

He shrugged. “It’s a new one, some sort of cult, I expect.”

She frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Not really,” he admitted.

She shuffled again, moving her hips as if her underwear was too tight. “She wants a complete stranger to help?” she asked. “One who knows nothing about the Church or its people?”

“It’s what she said.”

“Tread carefully, Gaz.”

“Don’t worry, I intend to.”

“Good,” she said. “Did she give you any more clues?”

“No, she said she needed to tell me more, but not over the phone.”

Sophie nodded, as if this made sense. It might do to her, he thought, but not to him. “And she has only the one sister and no friends?” Sophie added.

“That’s what she said.”

Scott made a disbelieving noise in his throat, “It sounds suspicious,” he said and shook his head. “Once you gave her a lift and your telephone number, you became her knight in shining armour. Bad move, she’s got you down as gullible.”

Sophie’s brow wrinkled. “You may have to meet her, Gaz,” she said. “You’re given her your number. If you’re not careful, you might end up with a stalker. Have you thought about that?”

“No,” he said. “But thanks for the good news.”

“Assuming it isn’t a scam,” she continued. “The girl might be very vulnerable. Would you sleep soundly knowing she might do something silly if you refuse to meet her ….” She left the sentence unfinished.

“Of course, he would,” Scott said confidently. “It’s her problem, not Gary’s.” He turned to Gary. “Have nothing to do with her, mate.”

“Shush.” Sophie clearly wasn’t impressed with his analysis. “Gary,” she said, “Consider this carefully. If you meet her, do it on your terms.” When she called him Gary, and not Gaz, he knew she was being deadly serious. “Whatever you do, don’t give her your exact address. Go and see her, but take someone else with you.” She noticed the expression on his face. “No, not me, I’m busy with other things as you can see. And not Scott, he’ll only make matters worse. Take that posh scally mate of yours, the one who claimed he went to Cambridge, he’ll be fine. I don’t like him but he's hard-headed and practical.”

“You mean Raif?”

She nodded. “Whatever he calls himself, he’s the one.”

He nodded “I’ll ring back and see if I can put her off gently.” He sighed. “But why me, I still don’t understand that.”

Scott smiled briefly. “It’s because you’re here, lad, no one but you.”

At his frown, Scott’s smile widened. “You’ve not seen the film?” he asked.
“Not as far as I know.”

“It’s from ‘Zulu’.”

Gary nodded. “I’ve heard of it,” he said. “Nineteen sixty-four or thereabouts?”

“Spot on, Gaz.”

”It’s before my time.”

Scott shook his head. “That’s not allowed.”

Gary rose to his feet and finished his pint. “I’ll get home and ring the girl from the flat. She’ll be fretting until I do.”

“Then ring her now,” Sophie said firmly. “Use the beer garden, it should be quiet.”

Why not? “OK, I’ll ring you later to let you know the result.”

“Make sure you do,” she said, leaning forward and waiting until he kissed her lightly on the cheek.

“Bye, Scott” he called and left, walking quickly towards the beer garden. As Sophie had predicted, it was empty, and after finding a chair, he rang the girl’s number. She answered on the second ring. “Gary?” She sounded breathless.

“Yes,” he said. “Are you alright?”

“I am now you’re returned my call.”

She sounded upset. “I said I would call,” he said. “I’ll try to pop over to Southport when I can, but I can’t promise.”

“Please try,” she said. “I waited as long as possible to call you.” Her sigh echoed down the line. “I know I shouldn’t have bothered you, but this is vital.” He was relieved to hear her more even tones. “I wanted to ring you earlier,” she added.

“Oh?”

“But I thought you might be annoyed with me.”

Probably so, he thought, and he felt guilty suddenly. She might be genuinely in trouble with no one else to turn to. “No,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling well on Sunday, so I might have been abrupt.”

“Oh!” She sounded upset. “Are you feeling better yet?”

“A little.” He did feel much better, but a mystery illness might come in handy if he wanted to cut any visit short.

“You will feel better soon,” she said. “Now you’re embracing your destiny.”

Has he misheard? “Eh? Sorry?”

“You’re embracing your destiny,” she said.

“My destiny?”

“Yes, your fate. Undercurrents and undertows exist, and trying to swim against them is foolish. Once you take heed, you’ll feel an immediate lift.”

He sighed. More likely, it was the ibuprofen he’d taken before he met Scott and Sophie, but he gave what he thought was a reassuring smile even if it was wasted over the phone. He decided to say nothing for now.

“This is such a relief,” she said. “I felt an extreme longing for you,” she continued. “I expect you felt it too.”

Uh-oh. He glanced away in embarrassment. The garden acted like a natural heat trap and he felt the sweat standing out on his forehead. “Erm … well …”

“You did?”

“You’re an attractive girl,” he began, glancing round to see if anyone else was nearby. She’d gone full-on peculiar, and he needed to escape fast. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to be brutal. He’d always been a soft shite at heart, he decided.

“When and where shall we meet?” she said. “I can be in Liverpool tonight.”

“No,” he said. “There’s no need. I’ll drive up …” he considered his options. Thursday? That sounded far enough off. Time enough to fabricate a convenient excuse. By then, she might even get the message.

“Tonight?” she asked.

“I can’t,” he said. “Business.”

“Oh!”

“I can make tomorrow,” he said. “But only if I cancel some things. Can I call you tomorrow to confirm?”

There was a short silence. “Please,” she said. “You don’t know how much this means to me.” It was a heartfelt plea.

That was the problem, he thought, but he didn’t like the sound of her now. Although he’d eliminated the chance of her being a sex-worker, he now considered her seriously flaky. Sorry, Sophie, he thought, this is one girl he’d unload as fast as possible. “I wish I could,” he said. “But tonight’s absolutely impossible, but don’t worry, I’ll confirm a date and tine as soon as I can.” Before she could reply, he cut the connection and turned off the phone.

In the street outside, the air felt a fraction cooler, but there was no let-up in the humidity. Even in a light t-shirt, he felt the sweat run down his back on the five-minute walk to his flat. As he approached his street, he saw, in front of the small archway leading to the flats, two women engaged in animated conversation. Walking nearer, his stomach lurched.

The red-haired woman who had her back turned looked remarkably like the girl he’d given a lift to at the weekend. Was she preying on his mind? She was listening to a dark-haired woman about the same age and height, and even from this distance she looked a real stunner. But it was only when the red-haired girl turned her head, he knew for sure. She was the same girl he’d recently spoken to.
On the phone in the beer garden, and only five minutes before.

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