It was when he reached the landing below his that he first heard the voices. Whispers in the dark. Foreign tongues that he could barely discern and could not understand. But there was an urgency in the voices that conveyed itself without barrier of language. A tension in them. And he became aware that the men who owned them were on the next landing down, and on their way up.
Panic rose like bile to choke him. It was them! They were coming for him. Now. And there was nowhere he could go. He stopped, standing stock still, mid-flight. The only course open to him was to retreat to his studio, and attempt an escape across the rooftops. But the very thought paralysed him with fear. He had felt safe to always leave his windows open, because no thief in his right mind would clamber over these roofs at night. And, besides, he had absolutely no head for heights.
They were getting closer. He heard his name, and blood turned to ice in his veins. No doubt about it. It was him they had come for. And still he stood rooted to the stairs, held there by a debilitating inertia. His only other course would be to charge down through them, taking them by surprise. But what if they had flashlights, and guns? There were several of them, he could tell. He would be totally exposed.
There was no advance warning. So he was taken wholly by surprise when the world came apart around him. Suddenly, and completely. What had seemed like solid matter supporting him turned to dust, and masonry, and timber, the air filled with the screeching and rending of metal and stone. A roar that rose up out of the very bowels of the earth, the hot, rancid breath of the devil himself exploding into the night. Yves was falling, flying, turning. Interminably. Fifteen seconds that felt like fifteen hours, before something struck him on the head, and the world turned black.
He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. But the first thing that struck him, as awareness returned, was the silence. An extraordinary, deafening silence, all the more striking for the contrast with the roar of destruction still echoing in his memory. Dust was settling all around him like the finest snow, and he choked on it, before looking up to see stars where once had been his apartment. He could make no sense of the confusion of masonry and brick all around him, had no conception at all of where he was. But to his surprise he found he was still clutching his suitcase, battered and scored, but intact.
He was lying at a peculiar angle over a chunk of what appeared to be the staircase, and he manoeuvred himself with difficulty into a sitting position. Miraculously, nothing seemed broken, but he could feel blood trickling down the side of his head. Now he could hear distant voices calling in the night. And someone screaming. Closer to hand, something that sounded like moaning. But in his confusion he was unable to identify which direction it came from. He had no idea what had just happened. An explosion?
He tried to get to his feet and, as he turned, saw an arm protruding from a jagged chunk of masonry, frozen fingers clutching at nothing. He scrambled over the rubble, and with an enormous effort managed to pull the stonework to one side, exposing the hopelessly crushed body of a bald-headed man with with a round face, white now with plaster dust, and streaked crimson with blood. The Citröen driver. There were others here, too. He saw a foot. A hand. A leg. No sound. No movement. His pursuers were dead. All of them. Just three of the sixteen thousand who died that night during fifteen seconds of hell, in what he would soon discover had been the worst earthquake in Moroccan history.
Yet Yves had survived it, and who would know? How many bodies would never be recovered? His included.
Which was the moment he realised that, with his own death, he was being given a second chance at life. No one would be looking for him ever again.
Excerpted from Freeze Frame by Peter May. Copyright © 2010 by Peter May. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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