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Spirit by Ashe Barker – Sample

Chapter One

Leeds, December 2007

Spirit by Ashe BarkerI cough, a deep, racking bark that reaches almost to my stomach. My lungs hurt, actually ache with the relentless onslaught. My throat hurts too, and despite the several blankets, coats and sheets of plastic wrapped around me I’m shivering. I shouldn’t be surprised I suppose. It is only a few degrees above freezing, and even the most sheltered doorways tend to be a little on the draughty side in early December in the north of England.

I can’t stay warm, I can’t get warm. I don’t even have the price of a pack of paracetamol to deaden the throbbing in my tonsils that crucifies me every time I swallow.

I shift, and even that small movement sends a dull pain through my bones. I ache everywhere. My body is discovering new places to hurt. And it’s not even nine o’clock in the evening yet. This night will get a lot colder before dawn.

Homelessness is no joke in the summer. It’s absolute crap in the winter. Add to that a dose of flu or whatever virus it is that’s rampaging through my system, and you have utter misery.

This is why people die on the streets. It’s not alcohol, or drugs, or the unspecified shiftlessness that the safe, warm folks attribute to those of us without anywhere to live. Instead, it’s the constant exposure to nature at her most ungenerous. Shelter, regular meals, a warm, dry place to sleep. Necessities everyone else takes for granted, the basics of a civilised existence.

Not for me, not for a long time now.

There’s a hostel in Chapeltown, where I might find a warm place to spend the night, perhaps scrounge a warm cup of watered down soup even. But it closes up at ten and I doubt I could get there in an hour. Normally I would, but the mile or so I’d need to trudge through the back streets of Leeds is just too much to contemplate right now. I’m right out of stamina, I doubt I could even get myself upright. Better to huddle in this narrow space behind an office block, dragging what comfort I can from the residual heat wafting from the underground car park.

All the office workers are long gone so no one should disturb me until perhaps seven in the morning. A particularly diligent police officer perhaps, they sometimes check the back alleys, but don’t always move us on. The shops open at nine and I might be able to lift a pack of painkillers from Boots. It’s worth a try, even if it does get me nicked. At least the police cells would be heated and they’d probably let me sleep.

Yes. That’s my plan then. Such as it is.

 

“What time is he due in tomorrow?” A female voice, punctuated by the staccato beat of high heels on tarmac. The sounds are muffled, on the other side of a breeze block wall, but still audible.

“Not too early. His plane doesn’t get in until after ten.” Deeper, a man’s tone.

“Will you be here?”

“Yes, I’ll look over these contracts at home, then get some sleep, and be back in by nine. Should have plenty of time to download the final versions and check those figures.”

“Will you need me?”

“No. Tomorrow’s Saturday. Have a day off. Spend some time with that new grandson of yours.”

“I will. Thanks. And don’t you work too hard either.”

I don’t hear his reply over the sound of car doors slamming. No more footsteps so they must have got into the same car. It seems not everyone had left after all.

And now’s my chance. If I can get myself hidden beside the outer shutter when it lifts to let the car out, I should be able to slip inside before it slides down again. The parking garage might be draughty but still offers a much better prospect for the night than the great outdoors.

I groan silently, but I know I have to move. I have to force myself into action if I’m to get some sort of shelter tonight, and Christ knows I could do with it. The dull purr of an expensive engine sounds on the other side of the wall as I haul myself to my feet, leaning against the damp brickwork for support. I shake violently as the cold air hits me, but I can’t hope to make it inside rolled up in my coat and plastic sheeting. I’ll need to be able to move fast, perhaps even roll under the shutter as it drops. The last thing I need is to get trapped under it, though the way I feel right now I could even view that as a merciful end.

I grab my tattered rucksack, but stuff the rest of my kit into the back of the alcove where I had sought shelter. I can only hope no other rough sleeper comes along and takes a fancy to my stuff. Not that I’d be able to do much about it even if I hadn’t left it behind. Not in this state.

I shove my fist in my mouth to try to deaden the harsh crackle of another bout of coughing just as the roller starts to lift. I turn to face the wall, huddled over, and edge as close as I dare to the now yawning opening. The bonnet of a car comes into view, gleaming red, long and low as the vehicle exits the garage and tips its nose upwards to ascend the short ramp leading up to the service road. I catch sight of a middle aged woman in the driving seat, very smart, her still-blonde hair scooped into a neat twirl at the back of her head. She is looking straight ahead, peering into the darkness and doesn’t spot me skulking beside the exit as she sweeps past and out into the night.

Even before the tail lights disappear around the corner I’m crouching and scuttling under the shutter. I make a dash across the empty parking bays to the relative safety of a large wheeled bin, and slip behind it. There could be security cameras in here, and I don’t want some night watchman coming looking for me.

Still, it was worth the risk. There’s no cold wind in here, and the temperature is several degrees warmer than outside. I sit back, my eyes closed as my sudden burst of energy evaporates and I give in to the aching now wracking every limb. This is me settled for the night. I couldn’t move again if the place was on fire.

“What the fuck are you up to?”

The harsh tone echoes around the empty space, but comes from right next to me. I swivel my head around, expecting to see the security guard after all, despite my sprint across the car park. Just my luck, he must have been actually looking at the CCTV monitor when I sneaked inside.

But this man is not in uniform, unless the pristine dark grey business suit counts. And this is the same voice I heard a few moments ago chatting to the colleague with the new grandson. I assumed him to be in the passenger seat and halfway across Leeds by now, but apparently not.

Shit! Shit, shit, shit.

I squint up at the man, back lit by the motion-controlled lighting in here. He’s tall, at least six feet, slim build, but solid. I can’t make out his features as he is silhouetted against the bright light, but he exudes authority. And hostility. His shiny, expensive looking shoe taps against the concrete floor. I suspect he might contemplate kicking me if I don’t shift quickly enough. At the very least, he’s sure to sling me outside again.

Best to go quietly. There’s never any point trying to resist or seek permission to doze on someone’s property. Even if he doesn’t actually own this building, he’ll act as though he does. They always do.

I feel so awful, so absolutely rotten that I’m close to tears as I reach for the handle on the side of the bin, intending to haul myself upright. I can almost taste my disappointment as I face a night outdoors after all.

“I said, what the fuck are you up to? Thinking of stealing a car?”

I shake my head. I can’t even drive.

“Just looking for a place to sleep.” My voice is croaky, partly the virus, and partly from disuse. I seldom have cause to talk to anyone here on the streets. A mumbled ‘thank you’ if a passer by tosses a coin or half a sandwich at me is about as much conversation as I can manage these days. No eye contact, they don’t want to actually look at me, acknowledge me and my humanity. I’m an embarrassment.

This man will be the same. He just wants rid of me. I look past him, back towards the still open shutter. It appears to be much farther away than it was a moment ago, and the edges are blurred. My head is spinning, I feel dizzy, but I’d still rather make it back outside under my own steam than be physically bundled out by this harsh stranger.

“Does this look like a fucking Holiday Inn?”

One back alley looks much the same as another to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever got closer to a hotel than the kitchen entrance where the leftovers sometimes get dumped, but there’s no point debating this. I bend to pick up my spare overcoat, my back creaking with the effort.

“I’ll go. Sorry…” I close my eyes, wait for the dizzy spell to pass before I make to step past him.

“Are you okay?”

Do I look okay? “I’m fine.”

“Wait, where are you going?”

I don’t answer. It’s not as though he gives a shit in any case, as long as I’m nowhere near his nice building or precious car. Or at least not in sight. I continue my long, slow shuffle towards the gaping exit and the chilly December night.

“I said wait.” Two brisk footsteps, then he grabs my arm and pulls me around to face him.

I scream, the pain in my aching limb just too much. I stagger backwards, my balance lost. I expect to hit the hard concrete, but he grabs me again, this time with both hands and holds me upright by my elbows. I might have struggled, even as recently as yesterday I expect I would have tried some sort of protest. Today I’m just too weak. Despite his help my knees are buckling, giving way under the immense strain of carrying my seven stone frame. I would have hit the floor hard but he pulls me closer, his expensively clad arm sliding around me and lowering me to the ground.

“Christ, what’s the matter with you? Are you high on something? Drunk?”

Chance would be a fine thing. I lie on my side, wheezing and coughing, my whole body now shaking.

His fingers are on my face, peeling back the thick woollen cap I keep tugged down over my hair.

“For fuck’s sake, you’re burning up. You need an ambulance.” He lets go of me, I assume to reach for his phone. I offer no comment, it would be quite beyond me to argue in any case. I suppose paramedics might be an improvement on the police. And they will at least have paracetamol.

He doesn’t produce a mobile though. Instead he slips off his suit jacket and wraps it around me. This is odd. Interesting, but odd.

“I don’t suppose you’ve anywhere to go, have you?”

Not so’s you’d notice. I manage to shake my head.

“Well, you can’t stay here. You need a doctor. And a warm bed.”

Tell me about it.

“Come on.” He hauls me to my feet, though not roughly. He half carries me across the car park, but not in the direction of the exit. Instead, he props me against the high bonnet of a black four-wheel drive monster. He opens the passenger door and the next thing I know I’m manoeuvred inside, arranged on the soft, buttery upholstery like a sack of potatoes. He must intend to take me to the hospital himself then. I consider asking him to drop me at the hostel in Chapeltown instead, but I have no idea how long it was since I last checked the time. They might be closed by now. If not closed, they’ll be full.

So I remain silent, my eyes closed, and wait to be deposited at the doors to A and E.

 

“Wake up. We’re here.”

The man’s voice is low and gentle. He doesn’t even sound impatient, which is kind of him I suppose. Through my feverish fog I vaguely recall from the snippet of conversation I overheard that he has other matters to concern him tonight and I must be getting in his way. I expect he wants me gone, someone else’s responsibility.

“Okay, I…” I stop, realising too late that in my confused state back in the garage I completely forgot about my belongings, those I had with me behind the rubbish bin, and the stuff I stowed in the alcove outside. I’ll never be able to get back to the office building and retrieve my things. All I have now is what I stand up in. Or would have, if I could stand.

I need those things. I must get back there, find my stuff before someone else does. “Please, I need to go back. Could you drop me somewhere…?”

“No.” The retort is firm and uncompromising. My desperation mounts.

“You don’t understand…” I might have continued my attempt to explain but I am again racked by a coughing fit. I double up in the seat, hacking and wheezing, as he gets out of the driver’s side. Moments later my door is opened and he reaches in to lift me out.

For a posh guy this man has a strong stomach. It’s weeks since I last showered, and even then there was no soap at the hostel. I must be absolutely rank by now, but he seems undeterred.

I can be pretty resolute myself. As my coughing subsides again I make another attempt.

“My things…”

“Your bag’s in the back. Though I was tempted to leave it behind.”

I’ll bet. It’s easy for him to say that. He doesn’t carry everything he owns in a rucksack and two Asda bags-for-life.

“Thanks. But my other stuff, in the alley…”

“What stuff? A cardboard box to sleep in?” The sneer in his voice is undisguised. I’m used to this reaction by now, but even so his contempt hurts

Don’t knock it, mate. I nod. “And a plastic sheet. I need them back.”

“What you need right now is a warm bed and medical attention.”

“I know, but…” More coughing halts my argument, not that I was likely to win it. My heart sinks at the prospect of scouring the rear yards of Curry’s for more large cardboard sheets. My plastic bubble wrap will be harder still to replace. Shit!

“We’ll find you some more. You don’t need it yet. Come on.” His tone has gentled again and he half carries me across an expanse of paving towards a dimly lit door. Even in my fuddled state I know this is most unhospital-like.

“Where are we?” I try to straighten, to look around me.

“Headingley. My apartment.”

What? My head might be spinning but I sure as hell never agreed to this. I manage to scan my surroundings, a deserted car park. There is no one around to help me, even if they were so inclined. And this stranger seems intent on getting me into his apartment where God only knows what could happen. Christ, what a fool. I walked right into this.

Who would miss me? Would anyone even notice if he cut me into little pieces and put me in the waste disposal?

“No, I’m not going inside. You can’t make me. I’ll scream, and…” I open my mouth, intending to do just that. The sound I manage is a sort of strangled croak before I collapse coughing again.

The man props me against the outer door while he fiddles with the keypad to gain entry. The door beside me pops open and I know this is my last chance. I wanted so desperately to get indoors somewhere, but not like this. Not at any cost. I have to fight, to escape.

I tug my arm from under his hand and give him a shove in the chest. I might as well have tried to push his gas-guzzling Range Rover for all the good I’m doing. Panic starts to grip me, and I’m fighting in earnest, thrashing in his arms as he attempts to control me. He isn’t rough, nor even especially forceful, but I’m so feeble he overpowers me with ease. He lifts me in his arms and carries me over the threshold into the entry lobby of the building. There, he deposits me in a low chair facing the lift and crouches in front of me.

I huddle in the seat, my chest hunched over my knees in a posture both defensive and defeated. Even in better health I am utterly vulnerable, as all homeless girls are. Easy prey to any passing sadist or pimp, or even just some ordinary bloke who thinks I’ll do anything, allow him to do anything, in exchange for a warm drink or a meal.

I shake my head, tears now streaming down my face. I refuse to look up, clinging to the childish delusion that if I can’t actually see my attacker then he isn’t there.

“Hey, it’s alright. You’re safe.” The man is speaking to me, and touching me. His hands are in my hair – where’s my woolly hat? I need that hat. He strokes my shoulder, then uses his fingers to tip my chin up. Still I screw my eyes up, keeping them tight shut. Keeping him out.

“I live here, in this building. I have a spare room, and it’s yours. For tonight, and a few more days too if you need it. One of my neighbours is a doctor and I’m going to get her to look at you. Then you get some sleep, a bath perhaps, and get warmed up. And tomorrow you decide what to do next. Okay?”

A flicker of hope flares. Could it be true? That this man really is harmless, that he just wants to help me? Not possible, no one would do that. Why would they? Why would he?

“I’m not, I mean, I don’t… I can’t pay you.” Despite my fear of what he might have in mind, I’m not turning down the offer of a room. When you’re out of options even the slimmest hope is something to grab on to. Desperation will do that, every time.

“I know that.”

I shake my head. He hasn’t understood. “I don’t mean money. I mean, I don’t have any cash, but I won’t, I won’t… I don’t want to pay you in any other way. I don’t do that.”

“Me neither. The offer’s there though, spare room, no strings.” His tone is low, a seductive murmur. It would be so easy to believe him, so tempting. I take a massive risk and open my eyes.

He is still there, crouching before me, at my eye level. His features are handsome, but I’d already registered that somewhere in my brain. More important, he has a kind expression, more gentle than I imagined at first. It’s something about the eyes. A deep blue, quite stunning. But are they honest? Truthful? Can I trust him?

The truth is, I have no choice. I might be able to stand and make it across the lobby under my own steam, get back outside… I doubt somehow that he would try to prevent me leaving if I was determined on it. But then what?

Where did he say we were? Headingley? That’s the posh part of north Leeds, miles from the city centre where he picked me up. I don’t know this part of the city, wouldn’t have a clue where to head for. And without my missing stuff I’ll freeze. I might anyway.

I drag in a long breath, wincing as I attempt to swallow. My throat feels to be on fire, my head aches, and I really don’t think I could manage another step.

I look at him, hold his gaze this time, though eye contact feels quite unnatural to me, and I nod.

The man smiles, and it lights up his entire face. He is beautiful, and not just because he offers me some hope for making it though this night. He’s gorgeous, in a masculine, angular sort of way.

He stands and offers me his hand.

“I’m Matthew Logan. Matt. Shall we go up?”

I take his hand and manage a brief shake. When I would have let go he holds onto me though and helps me to stand.

“Can you manage or would you like me to carry you?”

The thought of him picking me up again, me in all my filth and grime accumulated over months of unwashed trudging the streets and parks of Leeds, revolts me. I’m embarrassed to be too close to him even if he might manage to suppress his gag reaction. I smell. I’m dirty, my hair is lank and greasy. My clothes are grey, shapeless and threadbare, and have belonged to at least two other owners before I got my hands on them. The prospect of getting up close and personal with this specimen of male perfection is just too much to contemplate.

I dig deep, then deeper still to find the inner resources to get to my feet one last time. Upright again, I shuffle in the direction of the lift.

The man—Matthew Logan—is there ahead of me and presses the call button. The seventh floor.

“Wait there. If the lift comes hold the door till I get back. I’ll just get your bag from my car.” He doesn’t wait for a reply. I hear his footsteps behind me as I peer at the metallic planes of the lift doors six inches from my nose.

There’s a shrill ping and the doors whirr apart. The lift car is small but well lit, mirrored on the back. I catch a glimpse of my reflection, the first time I’ve seen myself clearly for a while, and I’m shocked. I never look any great shakes, but tonight I look quite ghastly. Unkempt, yes, as ever, but it’s more. My skin is sallow, grey almost. My features are sharp, my cheeks sunken. I look so small, insignificant. Was I always so pathetic? I suppose I must have been. That’s how I ended up in this mess.

“Hold it, don’t let it…”

Matt’s voice echoes across the foyer and his footsteps are behind me again. The doors glide shut, the apparition which is me disappears as the lift starts its sedate journey skywards.

“Why didn’t you hold it?” Matt sounds puzzled, maybe even a little exasperated.

I bow my head and stare at the floor. Would he even believe me if I were to say I simply forgot how?

“Not to worry, we’ll get it back again.” He hits the call button again and takes up his position at my side to wait.

“So, will you tell me your name, then?”

My name? What is my name?

“Beth Harte.” There, that’s it. Or very nearly.

“Beth? That’s nice. Suits you. Shall we?” He gestures me to step into the lift in front of him. I’d never even registered that it had returned. I take a step, then stagger as a wave of absolute fatigue hits me. Matt flings my tattered holdall into the lift and wraps his spare arm around my waist. He hauls me in front of him, keeping me upright whilst he presses the button for the seventh floor and the doors close behind us.

“You’re dead on your feet, Beth. How long is it since you last ate?”

I don’t answer, preferring to sag against him. My humiliation seems irrelevant now, I suppose this is what it is to be past caring.

The lift stops, the doors open, and Matt pretty much carries me out. He kicks my bag out onto the landing and lets the lift go.

“This is my place.” He manoeuvres me across the landing and slips a key card into the slot of a door opposite the lift. The mechanism clicks and he opens the door, then helps me inside.

Not for the first time I find myself slumped against a wall in a small entrance while Matt nips back out into the corridor to retrieve my bag. He dumps that just inside his doorway, then makes no more ado but picks me up. He marches through the open plan living and kitchen area and heads for one of several doors leading off it.

“My spare room. Yours for now.” He opens the door with his elbow and carries me inside, finally depositing me on the double bed. “Wait there a moment. Do not move.”

Obedient, I do exactly as he instructed, not even lying down in case I spoil his lovely pale blue duvet cover. Less than a minute later he’s back, and this time he’s carrying a bright white T-shirt.

“Can you get undressed on your own or do you need me to help?”

“I…” It’s been a while since I properly undressed. You don’t tend to when someone is likely to steal your clothes. I start to fumble with the buttons on my grubby overcoat.

“Here, let me.”

I abandon the effort and allow him to unfasten my coat and slip it off. He does the same with the jacket under it, and the sweater under that. Despite my layers I’m still frozen. When he has me down to my own grimy, threadbare T-shirt he starts on my pants. Two pairs of jeans are peeled off and dumped in a pile with the rest of my stuff, as well as my thick socks. I’m particularly fond of those socks, I nicked them from the Rohan shop. Thermal lined, the works.

Matt stops and stands over me. “Do you want to do the rest yourself?”

I nod, and watch him as he crosses the room towards the door. He’s leaving me to it.

I cross my arms under my breasts and try to heave my tatty T-shirt over my head. I can’t manage it. I can’t even lift my arms as far as my shoulders.

There’s a low curse, then Matt is back. He eases the hem of my T-shirt from my fingers and pulls the garment over my head. I have no underwear on. I am naked, shivering with a mix of fever-induced chill and apprehension. Despite all I said downstairs, I have still allowed him to undress me without so much as a protest, and now…

The white cotton of the new, clean T-shirt slips over my head. Matt eases my arms through the sleeves and draws it down to arrange it around my hips.

“There, all clean and dry.” He reaches across me to pull back the duvet. “Get in.”

I do, and he tugs the quilt back up to my chin. I close my eyes, savouring the simple, blessed luxury of it.

“Would you like something to eat? A warm drink?”

I shake my head, but he seems not to want to take that answer. “I’ll get you some tea.”

He stands, and this time he does leave the room. The door clicks shut behind him, and I close my eyes again.

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