CHAPTER 9

Joanna knew she had to run.

The nurse had just killed Nina. Snapped her neck like a twig. Then whatever Lincoln put inside Nina, it brought her back to life.

As her Fuchs’ eye made her sight blurrier, Joanna kept it closed. She ran across the room, tore open the door and fled along the short corridor.

She knocked at the first door she came to, that of her neighbour, Charlie Cook. When no one answered, she shouted his name and banged her fist against the wood, but when no one replied, she didn’t wait around.

As she ran, her footfalls echoed after her, making it sound as though someone gave chase. With her pursuers coming through the front door, she turned right and headed towards the back door, which she only used when taking rubbish out to the communal wheelie bin.

She snapped the deadbolt across, pulled the door open and ran outside. A chill breeze blew around the confined space, chasing scraps of paper. Apartment blocks surrounded the area, the windows of which sat in darkness; Joanna headed towards the gate leading to the alley.

Her heart thundered in her chest and she felt sick with fear. Screaming would draw attention to her, but it would also alert Lincoln and the others to her whereabouts so she stayed quiet.

She didn’t understand any of this. Jesus. What the fuck was going on? God, Nina, what have they done to you?

Keeping one eye closed and the other open, she scurried along the alley, heading towards the rectangle of light at the end. As soon as she evaded her pursuers, she was going to the police station. Whatever the hell was going on, they could deal with it.

Running made her eye hurt, but she couldn’t stop. No amount of pain would make her stop. Unused to physical exertion, her calves and thighs throbbed and she felt a fire in her lungs that she tried to ignore, her only aim to get away.

At the end of the alley, she came out into the backstreet that ran between buildings, an area littered with discarded furniture that made it appear houses had been turned inside out. An old settee sat against the wall, the foam interior protruding from slashed cushions. Next to this, a stained mattress leaned against the wall. Further along, a broken stool and a kitchen unit lay smashed in the gutter. Old newspapers had turned into mulch on the pavement, part of the contents from torn rubbish bags that lay scattered like gutted visceral organs.

Joanna slowed her pace in case she slipped on the jetsam of humanity. She hated the back of the apartment blocks. It was where gangs of youths gathered at night, the druggies and dispossessed with nowhere else to go. The broken bottles, squashed beer cans and discarded needles bore testament to their presence, but the one time she wanted to see someone loitering around, the alley appeared empty.

Up ahead she saw a mangy dog sniffing the contents of a black bin bag. At the sound of her approach, the dog stopped and stared at her. It looked like a cross breed, part Alsatian, part Doberman, part Irish Wolfhound, something put together by a demented scientist intent on creating a hybrid monster.

She heard a soft growl emanate from the back of the dog’s throat. Hackles up, its teeth materialised and it readjusted its position, ready to pounce.

I don’t need this shit, Joanna thought.

She stopped, crouched down and snatched up a wooden leg from the broken stool, the jagged end of which resembled a stake.

Holding the impromptu weapon made her feel a little more secure. If the dog attacked, at least she could put up a good fight.

She edged forwards, holding the piece of wood like a sword. “Good doggy. Now piss off.”

She swung the chair leg, trying to shoo the dog away, but the canine, which stood as tall as her waist, crouched down, its teeth the tips of icebergs. Drool dripped from its maw as though it salivated at the thought of taking a chunk out of her leg.

Then it took a cautious step forwards, and then another as though stalking her, its eyes dark pits.

As the dog drew closer, she noticed its fur was dirty and a crisscross of battle scars marred its face, adding to the effect of it being like Frankenstein’s monster.

Joanna swung the chair leg, which swished as it swept through the air, but the dog seemed unimpressed.

“Get away,” she said, unable to stop the tremor in her voice.

The dog barked once, a deep, guttural sound that echoed between the buildings.

Joanna jumped at the sound. She’d never liked dogs, always too afraid their predatory, hunting roots would overpower any domesticity that mankind had instilled. The dog before her was living proof of how easily they could revert to what nature intended them to be. Man had turned them into wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Mouth dry and legs shaking, she backed away.

The dog followed. Powerful, sinewy body approaching one slow, measured step at a time.

Joanna swung the chair leg again, trying to ward the beast off, and the dog stopped advancing. It stood up straight, tail disappearing between its legs and ears pressed flat to its skull. By the position of its head, she could tell the dog was no longer looking at her, but beyond her. The low growl turned into a whimper and before she knew it, the beast turned tail and ran.

Joanna spun around and saw Nina approaching along the alley. The dark corona surrounded her body, obviously something to do with what Lincoln had done. Even from a distance, Joanna sensed the malice radiating from her old friend and a shudder ran through her body.

“Nina,” she said. “Is that you?”

Her friend grinned, but the expression lacked any kind of warmth. Instead, it looked savage, inhuman.

Goosebumps erupted along Joanna’s arms. She took a step back, almost stumbled. “What have they done to you?” she asked.

“They’ve released me,” Nina replied, although it no longer sounded like Nina, the timbre of her voice deeper and more menacing.

“I don’t understand.”

“And you never will.” With that, she ran towards Joanna. “She’s here,” she shouted.

Joanna turned and fled. Although her legs and calves still ached, fear gave her the strength to continue. She dodged the discarded furniture and overturned wheelie bins; each excessive movement made her eyeball feel about to explode, but she couldn’t stop. She had to get away.

At her rear, she heard Nina in pursuit, the sound of her footfalls growing closer, increasing the panic coursing through Joanna’s body.

She felt as though trapped in a waking nightmare. Things like this – whatever the hell it was – didn’t happen in real life.

At the end of the backstreet, she saw vehicles driving along the main road. Saw people walking by. No longer necessary to remain quiet, Joanna screamed and shouted.

She burst out onto the main road, sweat coursing down her face. Shoppers traipsing between the rows of shops steered clear, avoiding her gaze, as though not wanting Joanna’s nightmare to invade their reality.

“Help me,” she screamed.

A bald old man sitting at the bus shelter opposite looked up from his newspaper. “Are you alright?” he shouted.

Joanna didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know how to explain something that defied explanation. She opened both eyes, the scene losing any semblance of focus as the vision from both eyes combined.

“There’s someone after me,” she shouted back.

Before the man had a chance to respond, Joanna felt a hand grab her shoulder, sharp nails digging into her flesh, almost burning. She turned, looked straight into Nina’s black eyes.

“It’s okay,” Nina said to the man, holding up her free hand in a placating manner. “We’ve just had a little argument. You know what it’s like.”

The man nodded.

“No, you’ve got to help me,” Joanna screamed. She tried to pull free of Nina, but her friend seemed unnaturally strong, her grip that of an iron shackle. She felt certain that Nina would rupture her shoulder if she squeezed much harder.

“Come with me, now,” Nina hissed in Joanna’s ear.

Acting more out of instinct than sense, Joanna spun around, swinging the chair leg. She heard and felt the wood strike Nina’s head, sending a shaft of pain reverberating along her arm. Although feeling instantly guilty about hitting her friend, Nina didn’t bat an eyelid, the attack as insubstantial as a fly landing on her cheek.

Fear replaced Joanna’s guilt. Nina squeezed harder; started to pull Joanna towards the backstreet.

Unable to combat her friend’s unnatural strength, Joanna twisted and pulled, grimacing, teeth bared, called upon every ounce of muscle, but it was useless. She might as well have been a baby squirming in its mother’s arms for all the good it did.

She gripped the chair leg in both hands, twisted her body, scrambling to use her feet as brakes.

Nina pulled harder, snaked her other arm around Joanna’s neck. Unable to save herself, Joanna lost her balance and fell. Nina fell with her, landing heavily on Joanna’s stomach and forcing the wind from her lungs.

Panting for air, Joanna released the chair leg and rolled Nina aside. She got to her feet, breathing heavily.

Before she had time to regain her composure, she heard someone scream. Above the cacophony, someone else shouted something unintelligible.

Confused and breathless, Joanna put her hands to her sides and leaned over to catch her breath… and saw the chair leg protruding from Nina’s stomach, her body surrounded by a growing pool of blood.

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