Authors: Jessie Keane
With all my love
Ruby Darke found out the hard way that when you are about to die, your past life really does flash by in front of your eyes. She was working late in her office at her flagship store near Marble Arch in London. Her assistant Jane, who had been with her since almost the beginning of the Darkes department store phenomenon, had gone off at five with a cheery ‘See you tomorrow’. Not realizing, of course, that she wouldn’t be seeing Ruby tomorrow at all.
All afternoon, with total concentration, Ruby had been mapping out her ideas for the expansion of the childrenswear departments throughout the chain. She wanted to include more daywear. A fuller range of gorgeous party frocks. To call in a new designer for some fresh ideas to zap up the baby range, where sales were flat. And schoolwear. Why had Darkes never thought to do schoolwear?
Now it was getting late. Finally, Ruby stretched, stood up, locked her papers away. She gathered up her black cashmere coat and stepped outside. Rob looked up expectantly from his chair. Rob was her minder. Courtesy of Michael Ward, who was her lover and – not to put too fine a point on it – a big-time crook. She liked Rob, and found the young man’s big, solid presence reassuring – but she hated the necessity of having him with her. Rob was in his mid-thirties. He had the muscled bulk of a rugby centre forward. Treacle-blond crew-cut hair. Watchful khaki-green eyes. And a minimal line in chat.
‘Ready then?’ she asked, forcing a smile. It wasn’t
fault she’d been threatened, after all.
He nodded and stood up, and together they went down in the lift and through the long corridor to the staff exit at the back of the store. They passed the night security guard, just coming on duty. Rob swung open the heavy fire door, and Ruby stepped outside ahead of him while he paused for a word with the guard. Slowly, the door swung closed and she was standing outside alone.
Ruby inhaled deeply, glancing around, blinking, trying to acclimatize her vision as she’d come from strip lighting to almost total darkness. The night was frosty, the air bitingly cold.
There was a motor running somewhere out here in the back alley; her car, with her chauffeur at the wheel.
It wasn’t glamorous out here. Front of Darkes department store was immaculate, chic, polished and brightly enticing. She often paused outside the frontage of one or another of her stores to cast a fiercely proprietorial eye over the window displays to make sure that they were perfect. The staff quivered with nerves whenever she did this, or when she stalked in unannounced, as she liked to do. Service and quality had to be just so. She wasn’t called the Ice Queen of Retail for nothing.
But here was the belly, the bowels of the store. Packing crates. Bins. Not much lighting. Big sliding warehouse doors for goods inwards and out.
Ruby shivered a little. The motor she could hear had been idling, but now – suddenly – it roared. Ruby glanced around, trying to locate the car she could hear. Ben, her driver, never drove like that. Her car was a sleek purring Mercedes, and Ben was old. Too old for boy-racer stunts.
‘What the . . . ?’ she wondered aloud, and then a set of headlights blazed on, blinding her with their glare.
The engine screamed.
The car was coming straight at her.
The noise was deafening, a high, shrieking whine. For a moment she stood there, frozen in place, disbelieving. When the car was nearly on top of her, she got her legs to move. She threw herself to one side. Felt herself being jolted and scraped as she hit the cobbles and rolled. She connected painfully, full-speed, with the back wall of the store, knocking all the breath from her body.
She crawled to her knees, dazed, disbelieving, and stared after the car that had – Jesus, so nearly! – mown her down. Its red tailgate lights were lit up like the eyes of a demon. It screeched to a halt twenty yards away.
Then white lights came on.
She saw a faint shadowy figure behind the wheel move, look back.
Heard the hurried crunch of gears.
The car shot back towards her, its exhaust steaming in the cold night air.
She was rigid with fear, unable to get to her feet. Her eyes were glued to the car that was going to crush the life out of her. And as she stared at it, the past unravelled in her head – a blurring kaleidoscope of love and loss, hope and death.
Rob wasn’t there.
It had all been for nothing. She was never going to find the answers to it all.
She was going to die.
Ruby Darke was eighteen the first time her dad’s belt drew blood. It was a Sunday and as usual Ted Darke was maudlin and moody after a heavy Saturday night’s boozing. Also as usual, he had been to church, clutching a tatty little bouquet of wild flowers to lay upon his wife’s grave in the church cemetery.
Since his wife’s death, all Ted wanted to do was pray to God and drink himself into a stupor. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the benefits of one might cancel out the other. Ruby’s eldest brother Charlie had gone to church with him, as always. They were mates together, Dad and Charlie, although Charlie wasn’t really much interested in any sort of gospel – except the gospel according to Charlie Darke.