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Marked for Death

Are you ready for another short story? This week's story was inspired by a walk I took with the Hubby a few months ago. During the walk we passed a muddy bank where I saw a single shoe resting in the mud. Being a writer, and particularly a crime writer, I was instantly inspired and had to jot down the idea before it disappeared. Today I'm sharing the story that emerged from seeing that single shoe on a muddy bank while on a walk in Nottingham. Here's Marked for Death.




Marked for Death



Heather hunched her shoulders and tugged the strings on her coat, tightening the surrounding neckline. Despite her hair being tied back in a high ponytail, it whipped the side of her face as the wind blew about her head. A chill in the air gripped the back of her neck and she shuddered. Following Joe along the stoney path towards the woods, she watched trees dancing in the wind, swaying left and right. The fierce gale snatched browned leaves clinging to scraggly branches from their home.


They walked against the wind towards the muddy footpath that led into the woods. As they stepped from stone to mud Heather’s foot squelched into the viscous ground and then slipped as she tried to step forward. Her arms flung out to balance herself and she tried to exit the mud. Once on firmer ground she looked up at the sky and rolled her eyes. Thick black clouds hung in the air high above them, waiting to unleash a torrent.


Joe glanced back at her. “You okay?”

“Yeh, I got this.” she said.


She was glad she’d remembered to put on her heavy boots, even if they got covered in thick mud, at least her feet weren’t getting wet. Joe led the way, stomping through the mud in his work boots. He never slipped in the mud, and Heather never understood how he did it. She was always slipping. It didn’t matter what shoes she wore, if they walked on wet ground she would lose her footing.


At the bottom of the bank ahead Joe stopped, waiting for her to take his arm. She smiled as she linked her arm in his and together they trudged up the bank. The ground was drier at the top, and Heather let go of Joe’s arm. They walked their usual route through the woods. It took them in a large circular route from the woods onto a village road, over a bridge above a busy road, and alongside paddocks and stables until they got back home.


Heather listened to Joe chatting about work, telling her how so-and-so had done something wrong again, and he’d had to tell them to do it right. The ensuing conversation had got him all riled up.


“It’s just so frustrating - they never listen!” he said. “None of them do. You’d think this was the first cabin they’ve ever built, but it’s not. Oh and don’t get me started on Clarence...”


She walked behind and let him rant, looking around and taking in her surroundings. It was always nice when they got to leave the compound. Wind whipping at her hair and breathing in the fresh air made her smile.


Her brows pinched together. A lone shoe - a brown-leather, heeled loafer with tassels at the toe, caked in mud - was tossed to one side. Why would any woman walk through the woods along a muddy footpath in those shoes? They seemed like a silly choice. Spotting the odd shoe slung into the woods wasn’t unusual though, they often saw them along their walk. Heather had mentioned it at first, but as it became a regular occurrence she stopped.


“Simon wants to see us when we get back.”

“Oh?” Heather said.

Joe lifted his phone, pointing his screen at her. “Yeh, he just text. He’s got another job for us.”

“As if this one isn’t enough.”

“It’ll help. Maybe after this he’ll leave you alone.”

“Don’t count on it.”


Heather sighed and looked up. The clouds loomed overhead, but the rain was holding off. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something swaying in the trees and as they got closer, she could tell it was a handbag. It hung upside down on a low branch of a silver birch, its contents on the bushes below. Heather stopped.


“What’s all this?” she said.

“Don’t know.” He waved his hand, “But let’s not bother with it.”


She was about to walk again when she spotted a phone, face down in the mud.


“Hang on Joe.”


Heather bent down and picked up the phone. The screen was shattered, but she tapped the screen and it lit up.


“It’s someone’s phone, we should take it. It could be our good deed for the day - when they phone we can say we found it in the woods.”

“I guess. But let’s get a move on or Simon’ll be on the phone.”


She looked down at her feet as they started walking again, but she stopped after a few steps. A bright red wallet laid on the ground and she bent to pick it up.


Joe put his hands on his hips. “Are you looking for something?” he said.

“No. But look,” she showed him the wallet. “It’s a wallet, and it’s got money and ID inside. Probably belongs to whoever lost their bag.”

“Okay, now can we go?”


Heather nodded and followed Joe. He picked up the pace, his legs moving faster than she could keep up with, and she ended up almost running. He stormed along the path, not looking back. The gap between them grew and instead of running to catch up Heather slowed again. It may be on the verge of raining but nothing would make her run. Joe stepped over something in the middle of the path and a few seconds later when she reached it she saw the pair of jeans, the blue denim barely visible beneath a thick layer of mud. They’d been stomped into a puddle, but the button and zip made her sure they were jeans. She stepped over them just like Joe had and continued to follow him.


Joe stormed ahead, on a mission, but Heather hung back. She walked along the path, watching her step as the ground became more uneven and wet. She walked around large puddles, having to walk into the undergrowth to get around them. Her foot slipped under her once or twice, but she caught herself before she fell. She couldn’t see how fast Joe was going anymore because she needed to watch her footing. Glancing up for just a second, she saw him waiting a few metres ahead, and she tried to hurry.


“Oh, my gosh, you’re so slow!” he said as she got closer.

“You know I can’t keep up with you when you’re on a mission.”

“I’m not going fast. It’s you and your short legs. Can’t you move any faster?”

Heather laughed. “Seriously?” she said.

“C’mon,” he took her hand and pulled her along, “keep holding on and you’ll keep up.”


She clung to Joe’s hand, and he was right. She moved faster, but she also slipped more often. Every few steps her feet slid on the muddy ground beneath. She was convinced she’d fall in the mud.


A white blanket draped over a leafless bush grabbed Heather’s attention and she eyed it. As they got closer and she made out details, she spotted the short sleeves and a coloured motif pattern in the centre. It was a t-shirt. Heather stopped.


“Joe, wait.”

He turned and frowned at her. “What now?”

“On this walk I’ve seen a shoe, a handbag with the wallet and phone I picked up, muddied jeans, and now a t-shirt. I’m worried about this woman. I mean, do people take off their clothes and throw them like that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she was drunk and having fun with someone.”

Heather raised one eyebrow and looked at him. “Really?”

“Maybe.” he shrugged. “Anyway, what can you do? C’mon, we’ve got to get back.”


He pulled her along, but as they walked away Heather turned her head to look back.


“Do you hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything, ‘cept the wind.”

“No, really. Listen.”


Heather stood still and tried to listen. The wind blew past her head, whistling in her ears, but she could swear something, or someone, was groaning. She took a few steps back to the t-shirt she’d seen, then stopped to listen again. Tree branches cracked and fell into the undergrowth. Evergreens rustled in the wind. And just as she thought she’d been hearing things, the bush in front of her moved.


A bloodied muddy hand reached up from within the bush. Heather screamed.


“Joe!”


He rushed to her side, looked at the hand, and reached down for it. He pulled and a woman, dressed only in bra and pants, her body bloodied and bruised, emerged from the undergrowth. Her dark hair stuck to her face, twigs and leaves sticking out in all directions. She stepped bare-foot onto the muddy path, her legs shaking, and Joe removed his coat and wrapped it around her.


“Are you okay?”


She shied away from him. Heather took her hand.


“What’s your name? What happened?”

“I... They...”


The woman burst into tears and Heather put an arm around her.


“Joe, call the police. We need to get her some help.”


Heather watched as he pulled out his phone, and they turned to walk back the way they’d come. It was the quickest way back to the road. The woman clung to Heather’s hand as she walked along the muddy path bare foot with no clothes, save Joe’s coat, and all Heather wanted to do was get her to safety. Joe spoke into his phone behind them as they hurried to the road. She glanced back, “Are they coming?”


“They’ll be here soon.” he said.


Back past the hanging bag, the muddied jeans, and the single shoe, it didn’t take long to get back to the road. Heather helped the woman down onto the ground, and they sat by the side of the road and waited for the police.


“How long?” she asked Joe.

He looked at his hands, rubbing them together. “Soon.” he said.


Heather’s brows pinched together, but she ignored him and put her arm around the woman. She hugged her. The woman had her knees to her chest, her arms wrapped around her knees, and she stared into the distance, eyes glazed over.


“Can you remember what happened?” Heather asked.

“They... they hurt me.”

“Who hurt you?”

“I don’t know. I was... heading home. Had music on my phone... everything went dark. They put something over my head.” She looked at Heather, tears streaming down her face. “Their hands... they...” her eyes were wide with horror, “they burned me!”


The woman rubbed her back, and Heather lifted Joe’s coat. Her breath caught in her throat. At the small of her back was burned flesh, an emblem of some sort raised and yellow. Skin around it was red and angry. Heather stared at the mark and reached behind her own back. She tugged her t-shirt from inside her jeans and traced the scar on her back with her forefinger while looking at the woman’s mark. She dropped her hands and hung her head. Tears spilled onto Heather’s cheeks.


“I’m so sorry.” she whispered.


A car zoomed towards them, its engine roaring above the whine of the wind. It raced along the road and screeched to a halt by them. The car door opened but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him.


“Thanks Joe.” he said.


Heather listened to him walk around and stand by Joe. They whispered to each other and then he stood by Heather, his thick heavy boots creeping into view.


“Heather?”


She looked up, tears streaming down her face. Simon looked down at her, grinning.


“You belong to Joe.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, “You’ve done well.”


He kissed her forehead, and a shiver that shot down her spine. She stayed on the floor as Simon scooped the woman up in his arms and carried her to the car. She didn’t fight. Why would she? She had no idea what was coming.


But Heather knew.


Simon got into the car, smirking like a serial killer discovering his prey, and drove away. All Heather could do was watch and her heart broke for the woman.

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