A light rain shimmered red, white and blue in the flashing lights of the emergency services, whorling with the smoke and steam rising from the burned-out flat. A small crowd had gathered just beyond the police cordon, attention fixed on the blackened third floor windows, a fine mist settling on their upturned faces.
“They found a body ... young woman,” said one bystander. “Murdered,” said another. “A struggle ... police asking questions.”
A young man hung back from the crowd, tears and rain streaking his face. From the blur of despair, his subconscious heard his name, triggering base instincts of fear and flight. Shoving his hands deep in his pockets, he jerked his anorak hood tight to hide his face, turned and walked away, miles and miles, until he was alone on a dark country lane.
By now, the rain was coming down hard. He took shelter under a railroad trellis. Climbing the steep, gravelly embankment, hands and feet scrabbling for purchase, he found a ledge beneath the Victorian ironwork, hidden, dry, alone. He curled up and gave free rein to his despair, letting it erupt in a deluge of tears, his animal wailing echoing eerily in the pitch black arch.
Hours passed. The rain stopped. With forced effort, he unwound his lanky frame, climbed down from his hiding place and began the long journey home, his feet guiding him blindly until he stood once again outside the soot-streaked windows of his flat.
The emergency services, the crowd, were gone, leaving only a deathly silence. He slipped his key in the lock. The loud click made his heart skip. Inside, he navigated the creaky staircase to the third floor, Flat 3G.
The hallway reeked of damp, charred destruction. The door was still warm to touch. Quietly as he could, he pushed it open and ducked through the police tape. The frame was splintered at the latch but not the deadbolt. He threw it, locking himself in.
He cast the faint beam of his penlight around the flat, felt a spasm of grief as it passed over the chalk outline on the kitchen floor. Michelle ... His throat clenched, choking back the pain, the scream only in his head. Turning away from the ghostly outline, his feet squished on the soot-soaked carpet as he made his way down the hallway to the bedroom. Her closet. He held her sweater to his face, breathed deep, desperate for one last scent, one last living memory of her. But she was gone. Only the acrid taste of death remained.
Flashing lights brought him to his senses. He noticed the holdall in his hand, half full. He edged over and peered out the broken window. Two policemen climbing out of a patrol car, heavy Maglites aimed at the front door, approaching, slowly, carefully. Murder, he remembered. They were looking for him.
He turned, the holdall nearly knocking over a small table. The chess board, the game they had been playing only hours earlier. She had beaten him. Again. No one else could. He picked up her White Queen, swung it gently, knocking down his King. Checkmate.
He pocketed the Queen and ran back to the bedroom, the sound of heavy boots pounding a sense of urgency. His computer was charred, useless, a melted mass of plastic. The metal box of floppy disks looked more hopeful. He stuffed it into his holdall and climbed out the window just as he heard wood cracking, the door being rammed open.
Down the fire escape, he hit the ground running, never stopped, never looked back.