Ghost Virus: Chapter 37


Alice was skinny and pretty and fair and looked just like her mother. Blue eyes, upturned nose.

Jerry drove his six-year-old Ford Focus to collect her from the small terraced house that used to be his, halfway down Lugard Road, in Peckham. Nancy stood in the doorway with her arms folded and her usual sour expression. Jerry always smiled and said, ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ but Nancy rarely spoke to him. If there were any special instructions for Alice – such as her needing to take any cough mixture, or to bring her back early to go to a friend’s birthday party – he would find usually them in a computer-printed note inside one of her Wellington boots.

‘How’s school?’ asked Jerry, as they drove back towards Tooting through Peckham Rye.

‘It’s really good. I got a gold star for my drawing.’

‘That’s brilliant. Well done. What did you do a drawing of?’

‘I drew a dressing-up doll. You know, with lots of different clothes that you could cut out and dress her up in.’

‘That sounds like a good idea.’

‘Well, I made up a different story for each of her dresses. I drew her a wedding dress for getting married and I drew her a ballgown for going dancing. That was when she was happy. Then I drew her a black dress because her husband had died in a car crash and a ragged dress because she went mad.’

‘She went mad? Poor woman. That’s not very nice.’

‘I know but I wanted to show that you can tell what somebody’s like by the clothes they’re wearing. I bet you can tell who’s a nasty person and who isn’t, just by their clothes.’

Jerry didn’t answer that. He didn’t want to think about the connection between clothes and psychotic behaviour, not on his day off. He had been relieved to have received no more calls from Jamila, either about the man who had been dismembered on Streatham Common, or about Mindy. All he wanted to do was have a good time with Alice. She seemed to have grown another inch since he had last seen her, only two weeks before. Her Little Red Riding Hood coat looked too short for her now, and her sleeves no longer covered her skinny wrists and all her friendship bangles.

It was 6:30 p.m. and dark by the time they reached Tooting. Jerry stopped at his flat to switch on the lights and draw the curtains and drop off Alice’s overnight bag, and then they got back in the car and headed to Nando’s for supper.

‘How hungry are you?’ asked Jerry.

‘Starving,’ said Alice. ‘I could eat a baby.’

‘Nando’s don’t serve babies,’ said Jerry. He realised that what she had said was only a coincidence, but she was beginning to give him a disturbing feeling that there was an imp inside her that knew what he was investigating, and was provoking him about it.

What had Laura Miller said? I could eat an orphan. A stillborn baby. Anything.

‘Oh, they don’t serve babies?’ said Alice. ‘I’ll have the bean burger then.’

They were driving past Tooting Bec Common when a group of four or five dark figures came running off the common about a hundred metres up ahead of them. Without stopping to see if any cars were coming, the figures ran right to left across the road, and turned down Franciscan Road opposite.

‘Did you see those twats?’ said Jerry, wishing immediately that he hadn’t used the word ‘twats’.

‘No,’ said Alice, without looking up. She was too involved with playing Star Stable on her iPhone. ‘What twats?’

On impulse, Jerry turned down Franciscan Road after them, and saw them running close together along the pavement. What had caught his attention was that none of them was wearing running-gear, or a high-viz tabard. Although it was difficult for him to see them clearly because of all the parked cars lined along the road, they all looked as if they were wearing black duffle coats, with their hoods turned up.

Jerry overtook them, and then slowed down and adjusted his rear-view mirror so that he could look back at them. Not only were they hooded, they all appeared to be black, or else they were wearing balaclavas, because their faces were so dark. Strangely, though, he couldn’t even see the whites of their eyes. Surely they couldn’t be running with their eyes closed.

He continued to drive slowly so that they could catch up with him. Once they had, he crept along beside them for thirty or forty metres, but they didn’t appear to be aware that he was there and none of them turned to look at him.

Alice looked up from her game and said, ‘Why are we going so slowly? We’re not there yet, are we?’

‘No, sweetheart. I’ve just noticed something peculiar and I want to take a butcher’s at it, that’s all.’

Alice turned around in her seat. ‘What? Do you mean those men?’

‘Yes, but don’t look at them.’

The figures had nearly reached the junction of Franciscan Road and Mantilla Road. They would have to cross over and so Jerry would be able to see them better. As they reached the corner, though, a car was coming up Franciscan Road in the opposite direction, and its driver was indicating that he intended to turn right into Mantilla Road.

The figures didn’t hesitate. They ran across the road right in front of the turning car, so that its driver had to step on his brakes. He blew his horn and put down his window, obviously ready to shout something blasphemous at them, but by then they had carried on running and already they were halfway along the next block, a parade of local shops.

Jerry had come to a sudden stop too, because he felt as if he had been hit in the pit of the stomach. When the figures had crossed the road in front of the car’s headlights, he had seen that they weren’t running at all. They had no legs. They looked as if they were nothing but coats, tumbling along the pavement together as if they were being blown by the wind.

He pulled in by the side of the road and phoned Jamila.

‘Jerry? I’m just about to leave for the day. What’s up?’

He climbed out of the car and closed the door so that Alice couldn’t hear what he was saying.

‘I’m halfway down Franciscan Road. I’ve just seen four, maybe five black duffle coats running on their own.’

‘You’ve seen what? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you very well.’

‘Five duffle coats, running on their own. Well, not running. They don’t have any legs. They look just like that bloody raincoat, skip, although they might have heads. I couldn’t be sure because they all have their hoods turned up.’

‘Can you keep track of them? I’ll ask Sergeant Bristow to send a couple of cars out.’

‘I’ve just lost sight of them, but they can’t have got far. I’ve got Alice with me, but I’ll keep in touch.’

He climbed back behind the wheel, started the engine, and sped off down Franciscan Road. The figures had nearly reached the next corner, Brudenell Road. On the opposite side of the road stood a tall tawny-brick church, All Saints. Without any hesitation, the figures ran diagonally across the junction towards it – ran, or flew, or were blown by some capricious wind that Jerry couldn’t feel.

Jerry swerved after them, but they didn’t continue to run straight down Brudenell Road. There was a low fence surrounding the lawn in front of the church, with a gate in it. They ran through the gate, crossed the lawn, and disappeared into the darkness around the side of the building. They looked like huge black bats flocking back to their cave.

‘What’s happening?’ asked Alice, impatiently. ‘What are you doing? I thought we were going to Nando’s.’

‘We are, sweetheart, but I’ve seen some suspicious-looking people and I don’t want them to get away. If you can wait here for just a moment, I’m going to lock the car doors so that nobody can get in.’

‘You mean those men?’

‘Alice, I promise you, there’s nothing to be frightened about. I’ve called the station for back-up and there’s more officers on the way.’

Jerry took his flashlight out of the glovebox and then he climbed out of the car and walked up to the church. He turned around to Alice as she sat in the car, shining his flashlight up into his face and sticking out his tongue, but he could see that she wasn’t amused. He called Jamila again.

‘Jamila? I’m at All Saints Church on the corner of Brudenell Road. The suspects went around the back of the church and I haven’t seen them come out yet, so I’m guessing that they might have sussed that I’m following them, and they’re hiding.’

‘There’s a car on its way to you now. It was already at Tooting Bec station so it should be with you in only a couple of minutes. But Jerry, be careful. If these coats are anything like the coat that was found on Streatham Common – who knows what they can do. Maybe nothing at all. Maybe they’re just ordinary coats. But then maybe they’re not.’

‘They were running along the road, skip. Ordinary coats don’t run along the road. We both know that. There’s at least five of them, but don’t worry, I’m not going to try to confront them. This time I haven’t got an onion with a wrought-iron gate to come to my rescue.’

Almost as soon as he had said ‘onion’ he wished he hadn’t, especially to Jamila. ‘Onion’ was station slang for ‘sergeant’ – ‘onion bhaji’ rhymed with ‘sargie’. But she made no comment except, ‘Keep this line open, Jerry, and don’t try to do anything heroic. What about Alice?’

‘She’s locked in the car. She’ll be safe enough.’

Jerry switched on his flashlight and walked up to the church’s main door. He rattled the handles but the doors were locked, so the coats couldn’t have gone inside. He made his way around the back of the building. The car park was deserted, so he had to assume that the coats were still hiding themselves somewhere in the shadows behind the buttresses. Very cautiously, shining his flashlight ahead of him, he made his way along the side of the building. His heart was beating so hard that he could hear it, and he was tensed up ready to run if any of the coats came leaping out at him.

After his experience with the raincoat outside Mindy’s parents’ house, he was no longer sceptical about the possibility of these coats being alive – and not only alive, but highly dangerous. Whatever had possessed that raincoat, he had felt its strength as if a real man had been wearing it. If not a man, then some kind of powerful and aggressive spirit.

He saw two yellow eyes reflected in the beam of his flashlight, and he froze. Only seconds later, though, a grey tortoiseshell cat stalked warily out of the darkness and jumped up onto the fence of the house next door. Jerry thought that the cat was lucky that he wasn’t armed, because he probably would have shot it or Tasered it before he realised what it was.

He had almost finished circling the church without seeing any sign of the coats when he heard a loud banging coming from the direction of the road. It went on and on, bang! bang! bang! and then he heard a crunch like a window breaking, followed by a high, penetrating scream.

Oh, Christ, that’s Alice!

He ran around to the front of the church. The five hooded coats were surrounding his car, and they were beating at the roof and the bonnet and the doors with their sleeves. These sleeves didn’t flap, though. They struck the sides of the car as if they were heavy wooden flails, and they had already smashed the rear window and one of the rear side windows.

Alice was cowering inside the car, her hands covering her head, and she was screaming and screaming in absolute terror.

Jerry pelted across the grass and yanked open the gate. He crossed the pavement and seized the shoulders of the coat that was trying to beat open the front passenger door. The coat was coarse and dry, just like an ordinary duffle coat, but he could actually feel that there was somebody or something inside it – something muscular, but muscular like a squid’s tentacle rather than a human arm. He tried to drag the coat away from the side of the car, but it swung itself around and one of its sleeves smacked him hard against his cheekbone and sent him flying backwards. He landed on his left hip and knocked his head against the railings.

He felt as if his head had split open and his hair was wet with blood, but he pulled himself back up onto his feet and seized the coat a second time. He managed to grab the back of its hood, but as he tried to pull the hood down, another coat came round from the back of the car and wrapped one of its sleeves around his upper arm, twice, as quickly as cracking a whip. It was like having his blood pressure taken, only ten times tighter.

‘Get the fuck – off me,’ Jerry panted, but the coat pulled him away from the car and dragged him, stumbling, backwards. The other four coats were still beating at the roof and the bonnet, and Jerry heard another window break. On the opposite side of the street he could see doors opening and curtains being pulled back as people peered out to see what all the noise was about.

The coat dragged him even further back, and as it did so the streetlight shone into its hood, but there was nobody inside it. It was empty, or appeared to be empty, just as it had no visible hands or feet, and all he could see was its tartan lining. Even so, it possessed an extraordinary strength – stronger than any man that he had ever encountered, either in a street scuffle or in the gym when he was kick-boxing. Alice was shrieking in panic, and he felt so angry and helpless that he could have burst into tears.

The coat’s right sleeve wrestled towards his neck. He tried to bat it away, but it was relentless. It forced its way underneath his arm and snaked itself around his wet collar, and then it tightened, hard.

Jesus – it’s going to strangle me.

He punched the coat as hard as he could, but although it was so strong his fists connected with nothing except thick billowing fabric. He tried to kick it, in the same way that he would have kicked a man in the crotch, but his foot thumped into nothing but coat-tails.

Now the sleeve that was wound around his neck was gripping him tighter and tighter – so tight that he had to tilt up his chin, and he felt that it was going to wrench his head clean off his shoulders. He could hardly breathe, and tiny points of light were swimming in front of his eyes.

His vision began to grow dark, and he was on the point of passing out when he heard a loud metallic screeching sound, followed by a loud clatter. The coat’s right sleeve suddenly unwound itself from his neck, and its left sleeve released its hold on his arm. He staggered back, almost losing his balance and falling over again, but he could see why the coat had let him go. Two other coats had torn the passenger door off his car and thrown it across the pavement, and one of them was trying to reach over the top of the front seats. Alice had climbed into the back, and she was pressing herself against the opposite door, so that the coat wouldn’t be able to seize her and pull her out. The other coats were clustering around it, as if they were hungry for their share.

Alice wasn’t screaming now. Her face was deathly white and her mouth was turned down with absolute dread.

Jerry didn’t hesitate. He limped and hopped around the back of the car like Long John Silver, pulling his keys out of his trouser pocket and opening up the driver’s door. He dropped down behind the wheel, jabbed the key into the ignition and started the engine. The coat that was leaning into the car hit him hard on the shoulder and then on the side of the head, and then tried to wrap one of its sleeves around his elbow. He forced the gearstick into first and jammed his foot down on the accelerator pedal, and the car shot forward, its tyres screeching in chorus.

The coat tried to clamber right inside, holding onto the handbrake with one sleeve and the back of the passenger seat with the other. Jerry swerved right and left, trying to make it lose its grip, but it kept clinging on. In the back seat, Alice was sobbing with fear, although Jerry couldn’t see her in his rear-view mirror because she had dropped down onto the floor.

He tried to change gear because the engine was screaming in protest, but the sleeve was now tangled around the gearstick as well as the handbrake, and preventing him from shifting into third. He tugged at the gearstick again and again, without being able to engage it, but then he saw a lamp-post up ahead, on the corner of the next street. He twisted the steering-wheel sharply to the left and drove up onto the pavement, hitting the kerb with a spine-jarring jolt. With a dull thump that sounded just like a human body, the coat collided with the lamp-post and was knocked out of the car, rolling over and over on the pavement and into the road.

Jerry could see it in his mirror, but he didn’t slow down. Instead, he drove at nearly fifty miles an hour until he reached the main Upper Tooting Road, with all its lights and restaurants and shops. It was only then that he pulled into the side of the road and climbed out, although he shaded his eyes and looked back along Brudenell Road to make sure that the coats hadn’t come after them. If they were strong enough to tear a car door off its hinges, God alone knew how fast they could run.

He opened the rear passenger door and lifted Alice out. She clung to him, quaking and crying.

‘You’re not hurt, are you, sweetheart?’ Jerry asked her.

‘I want Mummy! I want to go home!’ Alice wept.

‘That’s all right, I’ll take you back to Mummy. But I can’t take you in this car. I’ll call DS Patel and she’ll send someone to pick us up.’

‘Those weren’t men!’ said Alice. ‘They were only coats! How could coats do that? How could coats smash up your car?’

‘I’m sorry, sweetheart, I don’t know the answer to that any more than you do. But you’re right, yes, they were only coats. I just hope you don’t have any bad dreams about them. Me and DS Patel, we’re going to find out how they can run around like that, scaring people, and we’re going to stop them. So you don’t need to worry about them any more, I promise you.’

Jerry sat her gently down on the back seat of the car and called Jamila, all the while keeping an eye on the far end of Brudenell Road.

‘Skip?’

‘Yes, Jerry, where are you? PC Rollins has just called in from All Saints Church and says there’s nothing there to see except a ripped-off car door. The local residents have told him that your car was attacked by five black men, and then you shot off.’

‘Not black men, skip. Coats. And if you ask me, Alice and me were lucky to get away from there without being killed.’

As succinctly as he could, Jerry told her how the coats had tried to break into his car to get to Alice, and how one of them had nearly choked him.

‘Well, there’s no sign of them now,’ said Jamila. ‘Sergeant Bristow sent out another three cars to box off the area but so far there isn’t any sign of them.’

‘They do know they’re looking for coats, and not for black men?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘“Not exactly”? Either they do or they don’t.’

‘They don’t. But I’m going to have a word with DI Saunders. There’s no way that we can keep this a secret any longer.’

Jerry said, ‘OK.’ He had been about to say something stinging, but he had seen that Alice had found her iPhone on the floor of the car and was calling Nancy.

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘I’m on the corner of Upper Tooting Road and Brudenell Road, and my car’s a write-off. Alice is very upset, as you can imagine, and I need to take her back home to her mother. So if you could send a car for us.’

‘Is she all right? Those coats must have scared her half to death.’

‘She wasn’t hurt, thank God. But, yes, she was crapping herself, not to put too fine a point on it. And I can tell you something for nothing – she wasn’t the only one.’


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