Excerpt

The Finisher

Peter Lovesay

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Finisher, by Peter Lovesay. Elementary school teacher Maeve Kelly has signed up to run a half-marathon in quaint Bath, but on the day of the race Detective Peter Diamond, who has been running crowd control, notices someone in the crowd he once arrested for a violent crime.

The city of Bath isn’t all about Roman plumbing and Georgian architecture.

It offers unrivalled facilities for getting rid of unwanted corpses. Beneath the creamy, sun-kissed squares, crescents and terraces is a rat-infested underworld undreamed of by most visitors, a dark, dank warren of cellars, vaults, culverts, sewers and drains. And the surrounding hills are riddled with miles of mines, quarries and tunnels, all but a few disused and some no longer mapped or remembered.

The Finisher got his reputation by completing the job. He had no wish to be investigated, so he left no clues. He preyed on the losers. “Defy me and you’re finished,” he would say. “I’ll finish you myself and you won’t be the first.” He wasn’t bluffing. He’d killed at least once before. His victim simply vanished from the scene. It was a deliberate act of terror and it worked. The select group he informed about the murder said nothing for fear they would be next.

His method of killing was simple and left nothing to chance. After a short moment of violence, life ebbed away in a series of satisfying, calm exhalations, each softer than the last, until they stopped.

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The easy part.

Murder is only the beginning.

Killers throughout history have faced the problem of how to dispose of the body. Landru tried with a large stove, Haigh an acid bath and Christie home decorating; all three were caught. It’s almost impossible to leave no trace. What is more, there isn’t much time for clever stuff. Burial is a favoured method but is hard work. Just to conceal the volume of a body requires shifting large amounts of earth, which is why so many murdered corpses are found in shallow graves. The other drawback is that the disturbance of the ground is obvious. Immersion in deep water involves transport and navigation and the use of weights to keep the body from rising to the surface. Dismemberment is messy and multiplies the task. Dropping the victim into unset concrete is said to have worked, but can be difficult to arrange unless you’re a construction worker. Even then, your mates may well ask questions. For the same reason, feeding body parts to pigs is risky because someone is sure to notice.

Through the blessing of geography, the Finisher didn’t need to use any of the flawed methods listed above. He’d given thought to the problem of disposal. He knew what to do.

He lived in Bath.

In Concorde House, northeast of Bristol, where Bath’s Criminal Investigation Department had been put out to grass for reasons of economy, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, the senior man, walked in with a large roll of laminated paper, unfurled it and pressed it against the wall.

“Help me, will you? Drawing pins, anybody, at least six.”

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“What’s this, guv?” Keith Halliwell, his deputy, asked.

“What does it look like?”

“A wall chart?”

“Top of the class.” Diamond looked over his shoulder. “Someone must have pins.”

“Blu Tack would be better for the wall,” Sergeant Ingeborg Smith said.

“Sod the wall,” Diamond said. “My arms are aching.”

Ingeborg took some Blu Tack from her drawer and went to help. The chart, as wide as Diamond’s reach, was soon in place.

Constable Paul Gilbert stepped up for a closer look and ran a finger down one of the columns. “It looks like a staff planner.”

“You’ll go far,” Diamond said. With undisguised pride, he told the team, “The entire year at a glance.”

No one else looked enthusiastic.

“If you don’t mind me saying, it’s hardly cutting edge,” Ingeborg said. “The software on Office is better than this.”

Diamond was unmoved. “You can’t stick software on the wall where everyone is going to see it. We want the top brass to know how busy we are, don’t we? I’ve started filling it in. Feel free to add significant dates using one of the wet-wipe pens. We’d better agree on a colour coding. I’ve bagged red.”

“This is to impress Georgina?” Halliwell said.

“Or the Chief Constable, the Police and Crime Commissioner or any of the inspectorate passing through. We don’t want them thinking we’re overstaffed.”

“What does the H stand for?” Gilbert asked. “Holidays?”

The letter H was all over the chart.

“Optimist,” Inspector John Leaman said.

“It’s not important,” Diamond said.

This satisfied nobody.

“Is H one of us?” Halliwell asked, turning pink.

“And who might that be?”

Smiles all round.

“Actually,” Diamond said, “it’s for home.”

“Days off?”

He shook his head, chastened at how slow they were for a bunch of detectives. “Home matches. Rugby fixtures when Bath are playing at the rec. Significant dates, I said. Get it?”

“We can put in stuff like that?”

“Birthdays, anniversaries, dental appointments, just as long as it gets filled in. This is smoke and mirrors, understood?”

Finally they got it. Wet-wipe pens were put to good use in the next hour. The planner changed from largely white to an abstract expressionist masterpiece. How disappointing that it wasn’t noticed by the Assistant Chief Constable, Georgina Dallymore, when she looked in.

Blinkered, it seemed, she marched straight past and into Diamond’s office.

He looked up from his coffee.

Georgina was in uniform as always. She must have put on her jacket in a hurry because one of the silver buttons was in the wrong hole. She tightened her black tie. “Peter,” she said in a tone of doom, “you will have seen the latest directive from the Home Office.”

Most directives came from Avon and Somerset headquarters. This had to be serious.

“Where, ma’am?”

“On your computer, forwarded from me two hours ago.”

His PC was in sleep mode. He touched the keyboard and play resumed of a clip of the gunfight from High Noon. He reached for the mouse and tried to access his emails. The music got louder.

“For heaven’s sake,” Georgina said. She reached for the top of the monitor and pressed the off button. “I’ll save you the trouble. The threat level from terrorism has been raised from substantial to critical.”

He sat back in the chair. “Why is that?”

“It’s not for you or me to ask,” she said. “New intelligence, no doubt. To quote from memory, all police forces are instructed to put security measures in place to ensure that there is a heightened presence, overt and covert, at major public events.”

“Overt and covert. Typical Whitehall-speak.”

She ignored that. “Covert means plain clothes. That’s you.”

He made a covert change of emphasis. “We don’t do major public events. We’re more dignified in Bath. Antiques fairs won’t be a target for terrorists.”

“You’ve forgotten something.”

“The Jane Austen Festival?”

“The Bath Half.”

A half was a measure of beer to Diamond. He frowned.

“Don’t be obtuse,” Georgina said. “The long-distance race. You know perfectly well what I’m talking about.”

He did now. The Bath Half Marathon, known affectionately as the Barf Arf, was undeniably major, one of the most popular road races in the country, through the city streets over a flat, fast course favoured by runners wanting to achieve fast times. More than twelve thousand took part and three times as many cheered them on. If you hadn’t signed up six months ahead, you could expect to go on a waiting list.

“That counts as major, I guess,” he conceded.

“It’s huge,” she said.

“But it’s on a Sunday.”

“Immaterial. You must bring in everyone for this.”

“I’d love to,” he said, “but don’t count on it. I’ll need to check the planner. When is it—March? Heavy month.”

“The planner? Since when have you planned anything?”

He ushered Georgina out of his office and into the CID room where the wet-wipe ink was barely dry on the new chart.

Her face was a study in disbelief. “What on earth . . . ?”

He ran a finger down one of the columns. “March, we said. Generally the third Sunday, is it not?” He touched the little square too heavily and smudged the letters into a blood-red fingerprint. “Oh fiddlesticks, can’t read it now. Good thing we’re colour-coded. Wouldn’t you know it? Red is me. What was I down for on the third Sunday?”

“Whatever it was, it’s got to be cancelled.” Georgina moved closer and peered at what remained. “It looks like the letter H.”

“That’ll be the Saturday.”

“It overlaps two squares.”

“My clumsy lettering—or the whole weekend is spoken for.”

“Not anymore,” she said. “There are red H’s all over the thing. What do they stand for?”

“Headquarters,” he answered without pause or guilt.

Georgina’s cheeks turned the colour of the smudged square. She had always treated police headquarters as if it were the holy of holies, but lately, knowing that the position of Deputy Chief Constable was vacant and needed to be filled soon, she scarcely dared speak its name. “Is there something you haven’t told me?”

He nodded. “This puts me in a delicate position.”

“I can’t think why.”

“I’m not authorised to confide in anyone else.”

“Oh?”

“Nothing personal, ma’am. One of those need-to-know situations.” He let that sink in before adding cheerfully, “But don’t worry. I can tell headquarters this date is out, cancelled on your orders.”

“Don’t do that,” she said in alarm. “Headquarters has priority here. We can manage without you, even if I have to wear plain clothes myself.”

He picked up one of the pens. “I’ll write it in again, then.”

Simple as that. So simple that he felt a stab of conscience. Did he really want to excuse himself from duty on the day? He’d feel a right shit when everyone else gave up their Sunday. Why had he done this? Mainly out of mischief. His superior always sounded so superior that she brought out the rebel in him. Now he’d need to find a way of telling her.

But Georgina hadn’t finished. She was still studying the planner. Nothing was said for some time. She took a step back with arms folded before leaning forward and staring at an empty square. “I see that Sunday April nineteenth isn’t marked.”

He checked. “Correct.”

“So you’re available. That’s the date of the Other Half.”

Caught.

The Other Half had been thought up a few years ago by some people who applied too late for the Bath Half. They’d had the good idea of organising a little brother to the main race on a different Sunday over a more challenging route mainly along towpaths, footpaths and disused railway tunnels. The modest numbers of the first year had grown to over five thousand starters.

A major public event, undeniably.

“Give me your pen,” Georgina said. “I’ll put a large O, for Other.”

*

At a sensitive time in her youth, Maeve Kelly was told by her mother, “There are sporty girls and there are curvy girls, my darling, and you were born curvy. You’ll never be much of an athlete but in the game of life you’ll come out the winner.”

So what in the name of sanity was this curvy girl doing running along Great Pulteney Street in Bath kitted out in expensive sports gear?

Fate had fixed it. Fixed Maeve as well. Overnight she’d become a plaything of the gods, as deserving of our pity as any hapless heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel.

First, her favourite aunt had collapsed from a sudden cardiac arrest while on a Mediterranean cruise. The steward who had saved the old lady’s life using CPR had learned with a British Heart Foundation kit. A fully recovered Aunt Jayne was so grateful that she made a large donation to the BHF and sent each of her family and friends a present of a CPR kit and a bright red baseball cap with the BHF logo.

Maeve never wore hats of any sort and gave her baseball cap to Trevor, who worked with her as a teacher at Longford Road Primary School and wore a cap indoors and out because he hadn’t much hair. Trevor didn’t seem particularly grateful. He didn’t even try the thing on. Possibly he felt the colour didn’t suit him. Or perhaps he felt Maeve was mocking his baldness. Anyway, he arrived next day with a bag that he left on her desk. She guessed he felt a return gift would excuse his behaviour.

The bag contained a Toby jug. She stared at it in disbelief. What would a fun-loving modern woman, 32, want with a sodding beer mug in the form a seated old man wearing a three-cornered hat? It was more of an insult than a peace offering. The thing was obviously second-hand and Maeve suspected Trevor was glad to offload it. She knew some people collected Toby jugs in the characters of well-known figures, but this thing wasn’t recognisable as anyone famous. It was the plain old Toby.

When asked, Trevor said the jug had belonged to his grandfather and had become a bit of a joke in the family, an unwanted gift handed from one person to another, and he’d decided the joke had gone far enough and he was giving Toby to her and if she wanted she could donate it to the BHF.

Thanks a bunch, Maeve thought. You don’t have houseroom for the thing anymore and you can’t be bothered to take it to a charity shop yourself, so you dump it on me. Now I’m lumbered with the job of finding the nearest BHF shop and handing it over.

She wasn’t one to hang about and mope. Sooner begun, sooner done was her philosophy, so she checked the location of the shop and went there after school. On the way to Green Street on her bike, with the bag dangling from her handlebars, she braked sharply when a car came too close. The bag banged against the bike frame and split and the jug fell on the road and smashed. Toby was just a bad memory now, emphatically beyond repair.

Cursing the motorist and Trevor at the same time, she got off and started removing bits of china from the road. People helped her pick up the biggest pieces and put them in her backpack. And then her conscience got to work. She decided she’d better continue her trip and make a donation to the charity.

In the shop, she told the assistant what had happened and asked if she had any idea what a Toby jug was worth, common old Toby with a black three-cornered hat and gripping a small jug himself. The woman took her responsibility seriously. She found a website that was a valuation guide on her phone.

If the figure had been in bold colours, it could have been antique and Victorian Royal Doulton.

Gulp.

Much relieved, Maeve showed the woman a large shard that was definitely not in bold colours but more of a dull biscuit shade. Then, horror of horrors, the same article went on to say that biscuit-coloured jugs were mostly pre-Victorian and could be Staffordshire pottery of high value. There were other checks you could make.

Horrified, she took what was left of the jug from her backpack and spread the pieces on the counter.

“If the moulding is thin,” the woman read from her phone, “the piece is likely to be pre-Victorian.”

Thin it most certainly was. Hollow legs were another sign of age. Maeve picked up an unbroken fragment of leg that you could see through. The clincher was the maker’s name. She fitted two shards together and made the name R Wood. The website informed them that there had been three generations of eighteenth-century potters called Ralph Wood. The first was believed to have made the original Toby jug. If hers had been made by him it would have been worth a fortune. Even later Ralph Wood jugs had fetched four-figure sums in auctions.

“Oh my God!” Maeve said.

Her negligence had robbed the charity of a heap of money. She’d been expecting to empty some loose change from her purse into the collection box on the counter. Now it seemed paltry.

The woman in the shop was sympathetic. “It was your property at the time, dear, not ours. If you’d knocked it off the shelf here in the shop and broken it, that would be another matter.”

“But it wasn’t mine. It belonged to someone else. I was bringing it here. I’m sick to the stomach. I don’t know what to do.”

“Don’t take it to heart. Accidents happen.”

“If I’d known it was worth all that money, I’d have wrapped it up properly.”

“Go home and forget about it, my dear. As far as I’m concerned, it never happened.”

But Maeve couldn’t dismiss it. She lay awake that night wrestling with her conscience. Morally she should do something in reparation, but she already owed money to the bank and needed every penny to pay her rent and basic living expenses.

She couldn’t ignore the whole incident as the woman had suggested. She imagined Aunt Jayne shaking her head at that and saying, “I wouldn’t be alive without the Heart Foundation. You must do something, my dear.”

She also felt she ought to tell Trevor how much his donation had been worth, and how she had smashed it to bits.

Trevor never did learn the truth.

After a week in her private hell, Maeve thought of a way out. Charities get their income mainly from shops, legacies and fundraising. She would become a fundraiser. She would collect a thousand pounds for the BHF. But how? Rattling a tin wouldn’t be much use. She’d find some personal challenge and ask people to sponsor her for this good cause.

And that was how she took up running. She’d watched several Bath Halfs and been moved by the interaction between the cheering crowd and the runners of all shapes and sizes, so happy to achieve their goals. Thanks largely to that well-meant and oft-repeated advice from her mother, she’d grown up thinking the only sport open to her was strutting her stuff in clubs and parties. She could dance the night away, so why shouldn’t she take up running? She went online, discovered she was already too late to enter, so signed up instead for the race called the Other Half, stumped up the registration fee of twenty pounds and became a BHF runner without needing to tell anyone her real reason for doing this.

Then reality kicked in. A BHF runner. She hadn’t run anywhere in years. She didn’t even walk much. A stroll to the corner shop was the extent of her daily exercise.

Late that evening she made a start. Couldn’t call it training. She tried jogging along the canal path in soft boots, leggings and a loose top with the hood up, like a teenager up to no good.

After fifty steps she stopped and thought about walking. Wasn’t there something called race-walking? She could be a BHF walker. Come on, she told herself. This can only get better. You’re not decrepit, even if your body tells you otherwise.

That night she didn’t lie awake thinking about the Toby jug. Exhausted, muscles aching, she slept at once and deeply, cancelling the backlog of restless nights, and woke up at seven as stiff as a frozen fish. But she forced herself to go out again. She had to get into the habit of moving those protesting legs.

Each outing was a struggle. She dreaded meeting someone she knew, so she would only ever venture out soon after dawn or at dusk. Her movements amounted to little more than a shuffle and her breathing was so noisy that the bird life along the canal took flight with terrified squeaks. The pain of shifting her unfit body for pathetically modest distances was far worse than she had expected. Hidden nerves and sinews announced themselves with alarming cricks and cramps. And as each fresh day dawned, she felt like a felled tree.

One morning she saw a man walking towards her along the towpath with a dog off the lead. Scary. Some dogs will attack a runner or cause a trip just by being playful. She glanced left and right for an escape route. Left was a patch of stinging nettles. Right was the canal. Compelled to keep going, she eyed the dog and the dog eyed her. She couldn’t tell what breed it was, just that it was short-haired, medium-sized, brown with black smudges and frisky. It trotted towards her and hesitated, as if weighing her up as a challenge, barked and ran past. She was thanking her lucky stars until she heard snarling and felt the touch of teeth on her heels. The dog had chosen to attack from the rear. She squealed in alarm, made a swerve and almost lost balance. The dog’s owner shouted and the dog ran to him, and he knelt and grabbed it by the collar.

All her attention had been on self-preservation, but when the man looked up and said, “Sorry,” and their eyes met, she realised she knew him.

The deputy head, Mr. Seagrove.

Mortifying. And he was plainly as mortified as she was. Too breathless to say anything in response, Maeve raised a heavy hand and hobbled past.

That wasn’t the end of it. At school later in the day Mr. Seagrove came to her in the staffroom practically wringing his hands and apologised profusely. He asked if she was in training for something and when she owned up to the Other Half, he offered to sponsor her.

Her first backer—but how embarrassing.

He insisted on signing up for twenty-six pounds, two for each mile, and from this moment there was no escape. On hearing of that handsome endorsement, Mrs. Haliburton, the head, couldn’t offer less, and soon the word passed around the staffroom and someone suggested pinning a sponsorship form to the noticeboard. The pledges mounted steadily through the week. Even Trevor’s name appeared, giving Maeve another stab of guilt. She hadn’t told him the real reason for her conversion to athletics.

The pressure was on with a vengeance. She’d been trying not to think about the prospect of running thirteen miles, but the people at work kept asking how far a half marathon was and those who already knew would say something like, “Rather you than me. That’s a hell of a long way.”

Worse still, she hadn’t yet managed as much as half a mile without stopping to walk some of the way. She was measuring her progress by counting the strides she made. The number was too pathetic to think about.

She persevered and life got busier. As well as putting time aside for what she laughingly called her training, then recovering and showering afterwards and washing sweaty garments, she needed to get organised about the fundraising. Someone told her to get social media working for her. She joined one of the biggest websites that make this possible and spent most of a weekend creating her own page and personalising it with photos, text and links, being as honest as possible without mentioning the Toby jug.

Having gone public, she couldn’t avoid telling her family. Her brother Dave thought the idea of his sister running anywhere so hilarious that he signed up for fifty pounds and threatened to put it on film, but her overprotective mother was strongly against it. Older brother Jim stumped up ten pounds but Ma refused to encourage what she called a lunatic act. By contrast, Aunt Jayne, who had started all this, phoned to say how overjoyed she was. “I’m so proud of you, my dear. Little did I think when I sent you that silly red cap that it would come to this.”

Tell me about it, Maeve was tempted to say.

“I’d be joining you if only my cardiologist would allow it,” Aunt Jayne went on. “How much have you raised so far?”

“Just over two hundred.”

“I’ll double it. Send me a form and I’ll make sure my book group chip in as well. They’re not short of a few pounds. They all had BHS caps from me and I know for a fact that two at least have been seen wearing them. My medical emergency was a wake-up call to them all.”

Each new pledge sealed her fate more firmly. One of the kids in her class asked if it was true that she was going to run a marathon and some of the others wanted to know what a marathon was. A good teacher never misses an invitation to explain something, so she found herself relating the legend of the messenger Pheidippides bringing the news to Athens after the battle of Marathon, saying, “Rejoice, we conquer,” and then expiring. Seeing the children’s troubled faces, Maeve realised she’d got carried away with the story. She should have left out the last bit. “I’ll be all right. Mine will only be a half marathon,” she was quick to add, as if it was as easy as getting on a bus.

The next morning, three different parents phoned and offered to sponsor her. Two were under the impression she would be running from Marathon to Athens, but they still agreed to back her when she put them right. This thing was taking off without much effort on her part. Well, the fundraising was. The foot-slogging was another matter. She dreaded any of her sponsors seeing her dismal progress along the canal path. She was running in short bursts interspersed with walking, and there wasn’t much difference between the walking and the running.

She admitted in the staffroom that she hadn’t improved much since starting and she was beginning to think she was physiologically incapable of running more than a few yards at a time. Amid the sympathetic voices only one had any practical suggestions and that was Trevor, the Toby jug man. Allegedly a maths specialist, he’d ended up teaching most of the PE in the school because with his solemn delivery he wasn’t much good as a classroom teacher. Typically of him, he’d mugged up on methods of exercise. He asked about her training runs and said it sounded as if she was hitting her lactic threshold. Those short bursts of running flooded the body with lactic acid, which resulted in the fatigue and stinging sensations in her legs. With practice, her system would compensate and allow her to move with less discomfort into a different gear that regular runners take for granted. There would always be a lactic threshold if she pushed too hard; she had that in common with every Olympic athlete who sprinted at the end of a race. “Don’t give up,” he said. “Your body will understand what you’re asking it to do and will adapt. Keep a diary and you’ll be encouraged by the improvement. Make a note of how you feel and what you achieved. Weigh yourself regularly, too, and keep a record of the pounds you shed and how much less you’re carrying.”

“What do you mean—the pounds I shed?” she told him. “I’m a size twelve. That’s not obese. It’s not even big.”

Typical bloody man, analysing it all and talking down to her like one of the kids in the reception class, but he hadn’t meant to sound as pompous as he did and he may have had a point. The science was a comfort.

Buoyed up by the thought that nothing was seriously wrong, she went for an evening run that didn’t go any better, but she consoled herself thinking of all the Olympic athletes battling with the same lactic threshold she was. “We’re all in this together, kiddos, and you’d better watch out. I’m on a learning curve.”

One day in the staffroom, Trevor asked how the training was going.

“Can’t complain,” she said. “No, that’s a lie. I can complain and I do, every step of the way, but I haven’t given up yet.”

“Would it help if I followed you on my bike?” he said. “I could look at your action and maybe give you some tips on style.”

The thought of it! “I’m not ready for that, Trevor. If I ever get to the point of worrying about style, I’ll let you know.”

As her daily stint got more ambitious, kit became an issue, and not just because she could scarcely move around her tiny house for soggy, washed garments hanging from chairbacks and door handles. She was starting to suffer discomforts that would only be remedied by proper running shoes and a sports bra. Secretly she wondered how liberating it would be to run in shorts and a top. The sensation of fresh air against her limbs would be too good to miss—when she felt brave enough.

A visit to a shop called Runners Need was a revelation. Buying trainers isn’t a matter of deciding which colour you like and trying them on. She was filmed running on a treadmill and had her foot plant, stride and running pattern analysed by the young assistant dressed in sports kit and cap. Predictably she was a special class of runner requiring special shoes—and the bra wasn’t cheap either. The hell with the overdraft.

There were hidden costs as well. Against all expectation, her appetite had increased. She was packing pasta at an alarming rate and raiding the fridge for snacks. The food bills went up and so did her use of electricity and water for showers and laundry.

On a sunny morning five weeks into her practice runs she had a surprising experience when instead of forcing herself forward she began to move freely. The effect didn’t last more than a hundred yards, but for Maeve it was a boost, a glimpse of what might be possible. Trevor would say her metabolism had started to adjust to the demands she was putting on it. Her own reaction was less clinical. There’s an old saying: it’s dogged as does it.

She had just over six months to become a runner. Because the race was in April, her serious training would have to be through the winter. Getting out in freezing weather would need true dedication.

Early in November her mother phoned. “Are you still planning to do that dreadful marathon, dear?”

“It’s a half marathon, Ma.”

“Whatever it’s called, it’s a lot of running.”

The thought crossed Maeve’s mind that her obstinate parent had softened her heart and was planning after all to sponsor her.

Not so.

“I’ve been thinking about Christmas.”

“Already?”

“You know how difficult it is buying presents for people. When the time comes, I can never think what to get. How would you like one of those trays with a cushion attached that sits on your lap when you have a meal in front of the television?”

Mother, you slay me. “I don’t get much time for TV these days. When I’m not preparing lessons, I’m out on a training run.”

“Now the evenings are drawing in, you won’t be able to run.”

Try and stop me. “What I’d really like is a nice warm top and leggings and I’ll be ready for anything.”

Smart thinking, an invitation to her mother to show that she cared while sticking to her principles. A date was made for a shopping expedition to London and she was taken for lunch at Selfridges, lectured on the perils of heart strain and taken to the in-store Sweaty Betty, where she ran her fingertips over a mind-boggling array of tops and finally chose some powder blue thermal tights and a matching hoodie. Mother couldn’t understand why the tights had reflective panels; she still believed nice girls weren’t ever on the streets after dark.

Maeve didn’t like to look at the price labels, guessing the gear must have cost as much as ten padded trays. Then her mother had to be persuaded not to visit the stationery department and buy Christmas wrapping paper. When the need was explained, she handed the gift over for immediate use, but not without saying, “If you come to your senses and give up the whole idea of running before Christmas, you can still wear it to go shopping. People do. I’ve seen them.”

Maeve was starting to believe in herself as a runner. When another jogger approached, she would raise her hand in recognition. And with the more professional image came the acceptance that she must demand more from herself. The diary confirmed it. Instead of “I managed a full two minutes of running” she was writing: “Half a mile twice over. Quicker recovery.”

When Trevor next enquired how the training was going she surprised him by saying she had improved her high-intensity endurance performance. He was speechless.

“But it’s not pretty. I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to see me,” she added in case he once again brought up the suggestion of following her on his bike.

Katie, who had the classroom next to hers, later said, “What is it with you and Trevor? He tries so hard and you give him the frost each time.”

“I don’t want him hanging around me, that’s all.”

“I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”

“Yes, and it makes me squirm. If you want to make a play for him, Katie, feel free. You’ll be doing me a good turn.”

Half miles grew into miles. The training changed in character when she knew she could keep going for a respectable distance. As a change from the towpath run, she started touring the streets, smartphone in hand, using an app called MapMyRun. Bath’s streets aren’t level like the canal path, so this was a fresh challenge. Going downhill, she discovered, wasn’t the treat she expected. Her already sore shins and toes took more punishment than they did on the climbs.

One late November evening cool enough for gloves, she decided she needed a boost and she knew a way of getting one that didn’t involve caffeine, chocolate or alcohol. Using her app, she planned a two-mile training run that would take her along Great Pulteney Street, where the Other Half was going to start and finish that third Sunday in April. Pounding the roads can get you down unless you find ways of stimulating the brain. Many runners carry smartphones with a punchy playlist and she’d found this helped—except when the cable got entangled with her clothes. Fortunately she had a fertile imagination. She would have no difficulty picturing the finish line at the climax of her run, thirteen miles behind her and just the final yards to cover.

This was a treat she’d saved up. Never mind that she had run little more than a mile. All along the approach roads she was telling herself to stay strong. She pictured the noisy spectators urging her on as she braced herself for the last strides to the finish, powered more by adrenalin than any vestige of stamina. “Come on, Maeve, you can do it,” she gasped. “Go, go, go.”

She made the last turn. In reality, she was running on the pavement, but on the day she would be in the middle of the road and in her mind’s eye she could see the finish, the red towers with other half emblazoned across the gantry. The fantasy knew no limit. She had found undreamed-of reserves of energy and worked her way through to the elite group and outrun them all in the last mile, men and women, and was about to break the tape, the fun-runner turned champion.

“Help!”

A voice had penetrated her daydream, a voice demanding to be heard, more of a scream than a request.

For God’s sake. I’m about to make history.

“Please, please, please!”

Give me a break, will you?

__________________________________

From The Finisher by Peter Lovesay. Used with the permission of the publisher, Soho Press. Copyright © 2020 by Peter Lovesay.




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