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Noir Candy

 

 

NOIR CANDY

A Richard Godwin Sampler

 

Richard Godwin

 

 

 

 

Compilation Copyright © 2017 by Richard Godwin

 

All rights reserved. No part of the book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

 

Down & Out Books

3959 Van Dyke Rd, Ste. 265

Lutz, FL 33558

DownAndOutBooks.com

 

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

 

Cover design by Lance Wright

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author/these authors.

 

 

 

Special thanks to Richard Godwin’s publishers for providing samples from his other books. See this page on the Down & Out Books website for purchase information.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Noir Candy

A Richard Godwin Sampler

 

Introduction

Vincent Zandri

 

Wrong Crowd

Apostle Rising

Savage Highway

Disembodied

One Lost Summer

Ersatz World

Locked in Cages

Meaningful Conversations

Paranoia and the Destiny Programme

Confessions of a Hit Man

Noir City

Mr. Glamour

The Pure and the Hated

Buffalo and Sour Mash

 

About the Author

Also by the Author

 

Other Titles from Down & Out Books and its Imprints

 

 

 

 

For Mayfair and the Erotic Muse;

for nothing is free in this world of charlatans,

herein lie the hors d’oeuvres wait for the meat.

 

 

Introduction

 

He is an enigma.

A tall, wiry man who is as comfortable surrounded by the surviving members of the Sex Pistols as he is London’s most gifted literati. He no doubt dominates the conversation when engaged with both groups respectively, or any other group or gathering for that matter. He’s that smart, that gifted, that interested.

He’s also prolific and versatile, having written…well I’m not sure how many novels Richard Godwin has written in his fifty-two years, but I’m sure it’s a lot. His style and themes are as diverse as our big blue marble of a planet. There’s the dystopian, Paranoia and the Destiny Programme, the horrific, Mr. Glamour, the violently raw, Apostle Rising, and even the sexy, One Lost Summer.

His short work has appeared in more anthologies and journals than one can shake a pen at (twenty-nine according to his official bio), and he’s a regular at popular underground noir and hard-boiled magazines like Pulp Metal Magazine and Crime Factory. His work might not be readily visible on the New York Times bestseller list, at least not yet, but I’m not sure that’s what he’s going for. Richard Godwin doesn’t just write stories because he hopes to make a buck. He is instead painting a picture not necessarily of an event as it happens, but rather, as it could happen. What he’s interested in is the violent, horrific, and at the same time, erotic human experience. He’s a writer, but he’s also a philosopher, a descendant as much from John D. MacDonald as he is Albert Camus. It would be interesting to open up his head to see how his mind works, how the gears spin, what kind of instrumentation God provided him with. But then, I’m not sure I want to go there. I might be too frightened by what I see.

And of course, Godwin doesn’t just limit himself to novels and short stories. He also writes poetry and plays. Having never read the former, or experienced the latter, I can’t tell you precisely what to make of them, but if his fiction is any indication, my guess is that the participant will be exposed to a raw and thoroughly brave presentation that will leave him or her sweating bullets. But then, I risk making all this sound like a love letter.

Despite the flashy title, Mr. Glamour, Richard is a decidedly private man. At least, that’s my assessment anyway. He bears a little more anxiety than the average writer, meaning he doesn’t trust publishers, big or small, as far as he can toss them. We share this sentiment, perhaps because we’ve both reached middle age in an occupation better known for its casualties than successes, or maybe because we’re just two stubborn coots who don’t know when to come in out of the rain. Those rainy days, by sheer luck or Providence, are fewer and fewer these days, thanks to income streams that exist in direct proportion to prolific output than they are anything else. But hey, we’ll take it.

Richard Godwin, for all his distaste of the unsavory business aspects of being a writer, is not without his joie de vivre. He travels so much, speaking about writing and about the writing life, there should be a special Godwin Noir Space devoted to him at every major international airport. And the funny thing is, I’ve found myself within a very reasonable proximity of him (say within twenty miles) on several occasions, and yet I’ve never met him in person. But that doesn’t mean I feel like I don’t know him. We email, talk on the phone, text, commiserate, strategize, share advice, gossip, or just plain laugh together. I haven’t been properly introduced to the man, yet I know him like a brother from another mother. Or maybe I don’t.

So now we have a Richard Godwin “reader” in the works from Down & Out Books. It only makes sense for a publisher to figure out the benefits of offering noir readers the chance to sample some of the best hard-boiled prose being banged out with two fingers on both sides of the Atlantic. Back when I was a young writing student at Vermont College during the mid-1990s, any author who boasted their own “reader” was an author who had not only made it, but was revered by their peers. I certainly revere Richard Godwin. Not that I know him as much as I pretend to. Because, like I said, I’ve never actually met him in the flesh. I guess it’s more accurate to say, I know the work, and the work is, well, killer. But as for the man, who knows. Like I said, he’s an enigma.

 

Vincent Zandri

January 5, 2017

Florence, Italy

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WRONG CROWD

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2015

Published by Down & Out Books

 

 

1.

 

Claude was knee-deep in the blue water of the Caribbean Sea when he first saw Maxine. Drops of sea water were running off her brown shoulders and she seemed to stop time with an appeal that was infinite. That day beneath an intense indigo sky he made eye contact with her as she got out of the water and walked over to the bar. He would later look back on it as a defining moment, one of those rare events in a person’s life when they are offered something they’ve secretly desired but never believed they’re capable of having. There were few things in life that Claude really wanted, but she was one of them. And he knew it instantly. He often wondered, after it all happened, if he hadn’t been drunk on pina coladas, whether he would have made the first move and she would have vanished from his life like so many chances he’d let slip.

As it was, he stood up, walked over to her and, holding up his glass, said, ‘Can I get you one?’

Maxine didn’t say anything for a few seconds, just held him in her steady gaze that gave nothing away, and Claude begin to shrink inside his own skin, about to walk away.

‘Sure,’ she said, a sparkle in her deep brown eyes.

She was looking at him over the rims of her shades, and Claude found it sexy, the way she was taking him in.

He came back from the bar with two chilled coladas which they sat sipping beneath a parasol that advertised boating trips. And he felt someone had pierced his heart with a small fish hook.

He looked at her, at her inviting skin, the curve of her body in her swim suit, and said, ‘Are you here alone?’

‘My friend went into town.’

He nodded.

‘Friend.’

That night he took her out.

Her friend, Doris, was an overweight blonde who laughed nervously when she spoke. Claude met her briefly, maybe for two minutes at the Montehabana hotel where Maxine was staying. Doris offered Claude her cheek and he smelt vodka on her breath. They left her nursing a hangover and went out to eat at Dune’s.

‘I heard this is the most cutting edge place to eat round here,’ Claude said, watching Maxine raise a forkful of swordfish to her moist mouth.

‘This is good, oh, yeah,’ she said.

He liked the way she lingered over her words, speaking them slowly, as if she was tasting them. He liked the look of her manicured nails on the starched white tablecloth. He liked her perfume, and her Gucci shades, her sensuous hands, and the way her hair touched her shoulders. She seemed immersed in an endless sensual experience he wanted to be part of, as inviting as the blue water outside the restaurant window. He didn’t ask her if she had a man, he didn’t want the dream to end. They had lime sorbet and cognacs and they sat beneath a sky strewn with stars that Claude felt were placed there especially for them.

‘Are you from London?’ he said.

‘I am.’

‘Whereabouts?’

‘Hammersmith. And you?’

‘Fulham.’

‘Just up the road.’

‘It feels so far away.’

‘Out here, yes.’

They stood by the sea drinking in the salt air, and he was high on the illusion of night. She looked immaculate in an off the shoulder dress, all white, figure hugging, and she made him feel important and wealthy. She was the kind of brunette he used to crave in his marriage, dark hair that shone, dark eyes, a full mouth and figure.

The mood was broken momentarily when she said, ‘What do you do?’

He looked away, towards the blurred shore around the bay. A yacht was making its way over the smooth blue water, and music floated through the dark air. It could have been in the middle of the ocean. The horizon of the land was fading in the night.

‘I sell boats.’

She took his arm and they walked along the edge of the water. When he kissed her she smelled of peaches and honey.

Claude wanted her, he wanted her like he’d wanted nothing in his life.

‘Do you think Doris will mind if you don’t go back tonight?’

‘She’s probably taken a sleeping pill. Where are you staying?’

‘The Raquel Boutique.’

And for one night in the tropical heat Claude forgot who he was. Back at his hotel room, with iced wine on the side, he peeled away Maxine’s skin tight dress and ran his hand down her arm to her waist.

‘You look like a model.’

She wrapped her long arms around his shoulders and stepped out of her stilettos.

‘You like me, Claude?’

‘I do, baby, oh I do.’

‘You like high maintenance women?’

He didn’t listen to the question because he didn’t care anymore after she touched him. She stepped out of the dress and stood there with nothing on.

‘You see I came prepared,’ she said.

‘You sure did, what a body.’

She was the greatest high he’d ever known. They slept in his bed as the fevered percussion of crickets filled the erotic night with their incessant rhythm.

 

 

2.

 

But when he awoke the next morning he was himself again.

Claude stood in front of the mirror in the hotel he could no longer afford, and turned away. He looked at his heels on the floor next to Maxine’s and saw they were almost as long. He looked at his face, and told himself he wasn’t bad-looking. With his blue eyes and smile he could charm women, but it was his height that always got in the way for him, and in the past he overcompensated by acting tough. He’d dropped that a while back.

He measured himself against the clean bathroom tiles, pushing out his chest and standing tall, telling himself he was nothing more than a short-arsed loser whose wife left him. He’d got home to a note that read, ‘Had enough.’ Yvonne had left her keys and wedding ring on the table in the hall. He’d pawned it for beer, which he proceeded to drink over the following week while he ignored all the reasons his marriage had failed. And he knew that he’d always wanted more than what Yvonne offered him. He didn’t feel guilty, just acutely aware of the passage of time. He became afraid that one day he’d wake up too old to dream. And so he booked the holiday in Cuba, thinking maybe he’d never return.

Now he stood there in the bathroom thinking how he hated his name. His mother had been a French model whose love of romance had unsettled the working class family he’d been born into. She talked of bohemian artists and lovers, of seductions in exotic settings, wearing revealing clothes that confused Claude and his brother. His father retreated into angry silences and alcohol. It was his mother who had named him. Claude later discovered she had a lover years ago called Claude. When she took her own life his father followed soon after, a morose man Claude watched shrink into liver cancer and amnesia. He’d often wondered if he felt betrayed by his mother’s deeds. But he could never determine if his name was a compliment or a test.

He peered out of the bathroom at Maxine. She was sleeping on her stomach, the sheets thrown back. The sight of her naked back and buttocks took his breath away. He wondered if she would put in a bill for the pleasure she’d given him, send him home with a memory and a dose of embarrassment, the experience locked inside him like a dirty secret he couldn’t share with friends. He’d had hookers before, but none like her, she didn’t act like one. He considered paying for the room and leaving when Maxine awoke. And he reprimanded himself for his inherent cynicism. But when he went into the room she reached out a hand and pulled him back into bed and he thought of more lies, hearing the sound of calypso music outside, wondering what it cost to set up a company that sold boats.

‘I can look after you,’ he whispered in her ear as she wrapped her thighs round him.

He traced her body into his mind and told himself she wouldn’t fade. He watched her shut her eyes and he said, ‘I’m done with memories and snapshots.’

They slept late that morning and Claude dreamt he was riding a surfboard on an endless wave. When he awoke he looked out of the window at the sea and the horizon as Maxine showered. He could see her through the open bathroom door. She had the kind of body that belonged in the realm of fantasy, with her full breasts, and endless curves. And he wondered how her body would look in his house. She loved the hotel. She made Claude feel rich.

She went to see how Doris was and met him for lunch at Rio Mar down by the beach.

She wore a blue sarong and drank a mojito while Claude read the list of cocktails.

‘There’s one here that’s called a panty dropper,’ he said.

It was as she laughed that he decided what he was going to do. He looked at her perfect white teeth and listened to the soft hiss of waves. They reminded him of the way Maxine sighed when he made love to her. They ate surf ’n turf. Claude watched her throat flex and relax as she swallowed.

‘I have to go back tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’d like to continue this when you return.’

‘I’d like that,’ she said.

And he felt hungry and alone and high on her. He wanted to be able to afford her, and as he sat there he began to like his name. He realised his mother had given him a test, a signal from a romantic of what life could be. And it all became clear to him beneath the unreal Caribbean sky, as he looked at Maxine, the living fantasy who’d emerged from the waves with all his dreams alive in her hands. She couldn’t drop them now. As he craved her, Claude suddenly felt as fragile as a shard that was missing from a stained glass window.

 

 

3.

 

Claude returned to his house on the edge of Fulham, where crumbling Victorian facades bled into the less salubrious quarters of Earl’s Court, with its lines of Aussie pubs and tourists stepping out of the underground casting looks over their shoulders and at maps. His was a sleazy neighbourhood seeking an identity among the wealthy. It made him feel cheep and lonely and too old for Maxine, who lingered for a day or two on his collar like a spray of perfume. She was fading from his mind as he relived his night with her. And he wandered the dark hallway of the home he’d shared with his vanished wife and thought of ways of keeping the dream alive.

One morning when he felt Maxine was becoming a fantasy he stared at himself for an hour in the mirror in his bathroom, looking at how middle-aged he’d become without even noticing. And he decided he would try to reclaim Maxine like an ornament from a dive.

He didn’t expect the call. He was sitting in his boxer shorts drinking Heineken one weekend when his mobile rang.

‘Remember me?’ she said, blasting sunlight into his head, as he stared out of the window at the rainswept street, seeing the beach and her body.

‘Maxine?’

He ran a hand through his uncombed hair.

‘The very same. I’m back in London.’

‘That’s great. Shall we meet?’

‘Hm. I’ll have to check my diary.’

He could hear laughter in her voice.

‘Well, when you have a moment,’ he said.

‘I’m teasing, silly.’

 

 

He met her at Chez Patrick in Kensington, and she looked every bit as desirable as when he’d left her. And Claude wondered why she’d chosen him, with his heels and his middle age.

Afterwards they went to her flat and he took in the sense of her life, a collage of femininity and style. There were no signs of a man or a flat mate. The living room was filled with designer brochures and soft furnishings that came straight from a lifestyle magazine.

He was sipping a Bacardi when she unbuttoned the tie he’d bought at Moss Bros. He’d studied it for hours against the shirt he’d picked for their date. And it all seemed too real and far from the Bahamas and the lies he’d bought her with. Her hand felt smooth on his chest as he unhooked her bra and entered the moonlight again where they strolled on a beach beneath a foreign sun.

They were lying in her bed when he said it.

‘So there’s no man in your life?’

‘Only you.’

It sounded like a song the way she said it and he stared at the Modigliani print she had on the wall opposite the tangled bedclothes and their entwined bodies reflecting in the glass.

‘You’re a stunning woman, there must be loads of men interested in you.’

She leant on an elbow and looked at him.

‘There are. But I’m interested in you.’

He wanted to ask why, but he didn’t. Instead he made love to her again, hungrily, desperately, hoping it would never end. As she opened her mouth and moaned he knew that danger tasted better than safety.

He wondered what she would think of his place, and over the ensuing weeks he thought of ways of avoiding taking her there. He hired a team of builders to redecorate and made excuses, until one weekend he couldn’t get through to her.

 

 

4.

 

There was another man and his man was Bertrand. He was tall, lean, dark and handsome. The kind of guy Claude thought could pull just about any woman he set his mind to. He had this air of sophistication about him that made Claude feel small and cheap. It was in his movements, the way he used his hands as he talked, and Claude hated him on sight. He followed Maxine, watched her walk arm in arm with him to a French restaurant.

‘So why didn’t you tell me?’ he said when he went to her flat a few days later.

‘Were you following me?’

‘I drove past, I saw you.’

‘Bertrand wasn’t part of my life any more when I met you.’

‘And now?’

‘You kept me away from your house, Claude, I’m not stupid.’

‘It’s not what you think.’

‘You’re married.’

‘No, I’m not married.’

‘So why won’t you let me go and see where you live?’

‘I have a relative. I didn’t want you to think I’m encumbered.’

‘A relative? Who?’

‘My brother. I have to help him out, he was staying with me, he’s not now, I felt my lifestyle would put you off.’

‘That wouldn’t put me off.’

‘Then come to my place.’

She poured them both a pina colada.

‘Remember these?’

‘How could I forget?’

‘Claude, I’m not interested in playing around.’

‘What about Bertrand? I saw you with him.’

‘He belongs in the past.’

‘What about me?’

‘You belong in the future.’

‘I want you, Maxine, I don’t want other men around.’

‘There are no other men,’ she said. ‘You really weren’t following me?’

‘No.’

‘I didn’t think you had a car.’

‘Why did you think that?’

‘We always go everywhere in taxis.’

‘That’s because it’s impossible parking in London. I got a car.’

‘What is it? Let me guess.’

‘A Merc,’ he said, before she could put him in a corner.

All through dinner he thought she was lying. They made love back at her flat and he searched her body for physical deception. She looked so beautiful when she came. He put his ear next to her mouth as she did and tasted the sound of her pleasure. He watched her sleeping and wondered what her dreams were. He wanted Bertrand removed. The old Claude would have walked away, the old Claude would never have pulled her. The Claude he found in Cuba thought of guns and violence now, aroused at her naked body as she slept, the sheets thrown back, the light from the streetlamp shining on her full breasts. He touched Maxine in her sleep, running his hand along the contour of her spine, feeling the softness of her body. She could come and live with him where he could watch her all the time. When he was with her he didn’t feel like Claude. He wanted to realise the extravagant promise he’d found beneath the Caribbean sun.

 

 

5.

 

Bertrand’s eyes sparkled when he spoke. He wore long coats that gave him a mysterious air. His aftershave lingered in the air when he walked down the street. The smell nauseated Claude as he followed him. When Maxine agreed to move in she made a request.

‘I want to meet your brother, I don’t want you hiding anything from me and I won’t hide anything from you, okay?’

‘Yes,’ he said, watching as she slipped out of her clothes, threw her bra on the chair, slid down her G-string and walked about her flat getting changed to go out for supper. Her breasts were as firm as a twenty-year-old’s. Maxine was thirty and she’d told Claude her insecurities about her age. And now he wondered what her body would look like in his house. It was as if her attractiveness was framed by circumstance, and Claude feared he would show up the things she was hiding, as if there was another Maxine.

‘I know in a few years men will be looking at younger women, I want to settle down with you,’ she said.

He wanted to believe her but couldn’t. Not with Bertrand around.

As he watched her get dressed, his arousal at her nudity was soiled by the dirty thought of another man inside her. She must have slept with Bertrand that weekend he couldn’t get hold of her. He would ensure Bertrand was nothing more than a memory to her.

He followed him for days, watching the places he went to eat, the women he met. He measured the danger he presented. He knew he wasn’t seeing Maxine, but he was there in the background like a bad odour. Bertrand was the kind of man Claude hated, confident with women, at ease. He made them laugh. He knew things Claude didn’t, female things. Claude wondered what he knew about Maxine. He thought about hiring a detective to follow him, but he didn’t want anyone else knowing.

One day he passed Bertrand in the street. His head came to Bertrand’s shoulders and Claude felt like hitting him. Instead he went home and called Spike.

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

APOSTLE RISING

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2011

Published by Black Jackal Books

 

 

1.

 

The woods are cast deep in folded meadow shade, hues of blackness tinged with the heavy odours of autumn, rotting to nothing in the scattered leaves where insects scurry and blind slugs creep and grope their way to mulch.

The trees are perfectly silent now. The light is like some vermilion bleed.

An unbridled moon hangs overhead, a watchful eye casting the frozen promise of winter across the hushed landscape. The deer nose their way deeper into the soft warm fur of their sleep, feeling the hot pulse of their heartbeat regular as a jackhammer.

A path stretches and tilts into the woods, lost in thick shadows.

The sound of tearing.

A flash of steel. A figure lands heavily on the dense carpet of leaves. They rise and fall like spent currency as small nocturnal animals scurry away. A shadow leans over him now arcing the blade.

The leaves, russet in the autumn chill are flecked with red. Deep drops like wax. He struggles, thrashing his arms into the darkness. The other figure is faster and stronger and leans his will into him. Soon the body lies there hacked like butcher’s meat. Then he tends to his work assisted by the watchful eye of the moon.

He alters the body and positions it precisely below a tree which by moonlight casts the shadow of a cross. Soon the woods are empty again, filled only by the heavy smell of rotting and nature’s turning, and this still and butchered Christ.

 

 

2.

 

Frank Castle tried to avoid waking, the stinging morning light an abrasion of his soul.

The scars he bore from the encounter told him it was finished, and he fingered their dead skin lovingly.

The case was buried and it wouldn’t rest.

He lay in the dark and felt it move inside him kicking like a foetus, the images flooding his mind. He reminded himself that the file was closed, a tangible object untouched by time.

But it was not the tangible world he walked in. And it was time that ruined him.

It returned as he knew it would and it unwrapped his better efforts like rotting stitches on an infected wound.

 

 

3.

 

‘Cold cases remain unsolved because some detail needed by the police is missing, we reopen them to insert new DNA evidence or new information in the hope that it will shed light into areas previously inaccessible to us.’

The voice was like gravel.

Castle paused to take a sip of water wishing it was whisky.

He looked down at the sea of faces, wondering how many of them would make it through the long bloody corridor of homicide.

He held them in his stare, his eyes like gunmetal, his face like warped granite. The lights and the audience were getting on his nerves, as was the endless speculation. Yet beneath his hardness lay some wound, a flickering at the edge of his face which held a key to him.

He glanced at his watch and one young clean-cut Rookie in the front row caught his eye and saw something bleed beneath the reinforced steel.

Castle had wanted answers on this one for years and decided to ad lib.

He pushed his notes aside and looked intently at the new recruits.

‘The Woodland Killings, as they became known, were the work of one man in my opinion, and they remain unsolved because the techniques for detection we have today were not available then and we cannot now get enough information to find out who was guilty of them.’

He could feel the officer in the front row watching him and now his hand went up.

‘Chief Inspector Castle, the arrest of Samuel Walsh led to a dead end, despite much evidence that he could have been responsible. Do you think he was the killer?’

‘No I don’t. He was the best we had at the time, but there were other parties who may well have been responsible for those killings.’

‘Ten killings, Chief Inspector, that makes whoever committed them a major serial killer.’

Castle looked down at the young officer and saw himself many years before.

‘Inspector?’

‘Excuse me. Mike Nash.’

‘OK, Inspector Nash, you’re right. This was the work of a major serial killer, and he’s still out there. We didn’t get him. He was very smart and very sophisticated in the way he treated the police and his victims, and there was a level of taunting which gave the investigation an edge which on retrospect I might even say undermined our ability to do our jobs properly. Nowadays we wouldn’t rise to some of those baits. We have far more of an arsenal at our disposal in the form of DNA and psychological profiling, but we never caught him. We haven’t got any further on this case.’

‘You said other parties may have committed the crimes?’

‘Yes.’

‘Who?’

‘Unfortunately, we do not have the time to discuss that here.’

‘The killings, the manner in which they were committed, there is still a major psychopath on the loose.’

‘Gentlemen, we’re out of time.’

He switched off the power point and collected his papers.

Nash waited by the door. He knew of Castle’s reputation as an obsessive, a great detective who’d been involved in one of the biggest manhunts England had ever seen.

His fellow officers respected him and also saw him as a warning of what can happen when you get too bogged down in a case. They admired him and pitied him. Nash looked over at him and could feel the pull of the man, there was something old world and solid about him, as if he was made of some material that was no longer used.

‘That was great, Chief Inspector Castle, really interesting, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do as a police officer, get involved in.’

‘Then you’re in the right place.’

Castle patted him on the back and headed to his car.

Fumbling for his keys he dropped them and as he leant down to pick them up saw a pair of police regulation shoes appear.

He rose slowly, taking in the slim legs realising he was not about to get jumped.

‘Inspector Stone.’

‘I owe you a drink.’

‘That’s a song I love to hear.’

‘Hard day at the office?’

‘Just reliving the Woodland Killings in one of my cold case talks, nothing a whisky wouldn’t fix.’

‘Or two.’

‘Now, you wouldn’t be encouraging me would you?’

‘As a police officer or a drinker?’

‘Both.’

She laughed and they walked round to the Crooked Key, where they sat in their usual corner.

She brought him over a double and watched as he knocked it back and went in search of another.

Jacki Stone had just finished taking her kickboxing class.

She was proud of her black belt and found it hard to get adequate combat partners, having humiliated just about every male peer in the area. No one wanted to fight her.

Still, she persisted and kept herself so fit the other officers watched her with a secret lust that was kept well enclosed beneath a politically correct veneer.

In a dress, she was a knockout.

As many men found out to their embarrassment.

Her martial prowess did not undercut her feminine allure, although she would pack a punch as readily in a ball gown as in a pair of combat fatigues.

The first officer who’d tried it on with her received such a hard slap he didn’t speak to her for a week, while the second found himself on his arse before he could finish his sentence.

She stood about five eight in her police regulation shoes. Her legs were rarely seen outside uniform and could deliver a lethal kick.

She opted for a professional austerity, wearing her hair scraped back. At home she would untie it, allowing her husband the sight of its hazel lustre. At work she kept her sparkling brown eyes on the job.

Castle sat down, nursing the single malt.

‘So, Frank? What’s up?’

‘A young inspector was asking a few questions about the old case, good questions, got me thinking.’

‘The last time we spoke you said you’d never catch him.’

‘I know.’

‘So, why can’t you let go of it? There are plenty of other murders out there waiting to be solved.’

‘The killer played a game with us, and won.’

‘And you still think it’s the same man?’

‘Can I get you another one?’

‘I’m OK.’

‘Keeping fit.’

‘Frank, you didn’t answer.’

‘I didn’t realise I was being interviewed.’

‘I’ve watched this case eat you up.’

‘It was before your time, Jacki.’

‘It’s still here. It’s here when we go out on a new investigation. I can touch it.’

‘Yeah, I still think it’s him.’

‘Why?’

‘Karl Black had all the ability to do those killings.’

‘But there was no evidence.’

‘No.’

‘And what was his motive?’

Castle swigged his malt and looked at his partner a long time before answering.

‘What motivates any psycho?’

‘There’s no link between him and the victims that gives a motive.’

‘Yeah, he’s brilliant.’

‘Why are you so convinced that it’s Black? Apart from the fact that he pissed you off?’

‘Call it a hunch.’

Stone didn’t say anything.

She’d seen Castle solve many a case on a hunch alone.

 

 

4.

 

Traffic passing through Bushy Park had been stopped, and outside the gates a queue of red lights shone into the night time like haloed eyes. The scene was a grim wound in the heart of the pleasant landscape. The first officers at the crime scene stood in the rain, water splashing off the tent and cascading down their waterproofs as they looked for evidence and the pathologist began his examination.

It wasn’t long before Castle and Stone arrived and when they did she noticed her partner stop by the tree.

He looked haunted.

Inside the tent the body was falling apart into strips.

The flesh was ribboned, the cuts ritualistic.

‘What’ve we got?’, Castle said.

Alan Marker stood up and Castle looked into the tired eyes of this reassuringly consistent actor in the drama of his career.

‘Hi Frank, multiple stab wounds, lacerating the carotid artery first and then a pattern of wounds to the upper body.’

‘Unusual pattern.’

‘Yes. I’m looking at it.’

‘The flesh looks furrowed.’

‘The killer’s deliberately inflicted a shape on the victim, although what, I don’t know – are you all right, Frank? You look jaded.’

‘It’s nothing.’

‘This can’t be affecting the detective who’s seen more bloodshed than a film critic.’

Marker glanced across at Stone.

‘Was this a frenzied attack, Alan?’, she said.

‘I see why you ask that, but, no. The wounds are very controlled and very precise, which is why I’d say the killer had a clear idea of what he was going to do before he did it. Multiple wounds don’t always indicate frenzy.’

‘You’re saying he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do before he attacked the victim?’

‘I am. Wounds leave very little information about the weapon, but there’s something unusual here. And there’s great deliberation in the way he’s been placed.’

‘By this tree, whatever it is’, Stone said.

‘Fraxinus. It’s an ash tree.’

‘Frank?’

Stone cast a worried look at her partner, who was standing there staring down at the body like a rookie on a murder scene.

‘And this is Ash Walk. I know this place.’

He stared at the vista of trees, his face harrowed, wandering.

‘I’ll send you the report back from the lab.’

Stone followed Castle back to the car in the rain, the smell of damp and rotting leaves heavy in the air.

He switched on the ignition and turned his eyes to her, but they were looking at something else.

‘Seen it before. Twenty-eight years ago. Same position, same tree, same woods, same wounds. And you ask me why I can’t let go of the case?’

 

 

Alan Marker’s report revealed little, just as Castle expected.

There was no DNA, and beyond the general detail of the wounds and approximate time of death, it said nothing that could help with the investigation.

The only thing it did pick up on was the ribboned effect of the wounding.

Stone remembered it.

‘According to Alan’, Castle said, ‘the weapon has an unusual cutting edge, the killer’s dragging downward with it, trying to lodge furrows in the flesh.’

‘Any idea why?’

He shook his head.

‘It’s the old case again’, he said as he thumped a copy of the file down on Stone’s desk. ‘Get reading.’

And as she did, she saw why the Woodland Killings had obsessed her partner all these years. It was the work of an accomplished killer, and the similarities to the present case summoned disturbing echoes from the past.

As with the previous killings, the body had been placed beneath an ash tree.

This was a copy cat killing, but by the same man? And the wounding was the work of someone who took pride in the lacerations, as if each rending of the flesh was some aesthetic statement. Page after page showed deliberation in the act of killing, some method that went beyond mere organisation, as if some specific, aberrational belief system was driving the killer. Stone lost herself in the pages, unaware of time.

She looked up to see Castle standing there.

‘There’s design in the wounding. Do you know what I’m saying?’

‘I do.’

‘Where is Karl Black now?’, she said.

‘The last I knew he’d gone into a monastery.’

‘This murder is identical to the first one.’

‘Yes.’

‘I mean it’s a replica.’

‘Do we know who the victim is?’

‘Terence Smythe, junior minister for justice.’

‘Why doesn’t that surprise me?’

‘Frank, you’re one step ahead of everyone on this, doesn’t that mean something to you after all these years?’

‘Only if I get to catch him this time.’

‘And what if it isn’t the same man?’

‘Could kill two birds with one stone.’

‘That’s why I’m here.’

‘Very funny.’

‘But why politicians?’

‘I don’t know. Black never gave any clues at all as to what motivated him. He worked on some other level, some impenetrable level we just couldn’t reach. He wasn’t motivated by anything we as police officers could recognise or fathom.’

‘Things have moved on Frank. Offender profiling, our training in crime investigation.’

‘Training’s one thing, and then there’s a whole other thing. The thing you start to see and taste if you stay in this job long enough, the shadow that falls between you and

the real extreme criminals, the darkest side of crime. Stick around and you’ll see what I’m talking about.’

‘Black, like everyone else, can be subjected to analysis.’

‘He’s not like everyone else.’

‘He’s not beyond crime detection.’

‘You’ve read some of that file, keep reading.’

‘I can see he played games with you.’

‘Not just me.’

‘The police. But he wouldn’t get away with a lot of that today. Like anyone else he can be drawn out.’

‘Wait till you meet him.’

‘One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t want to be one right now.’

‘What?’

‘A politician.’

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAVAGE HIGHWAY

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2016

Published by Wildblue Press

 

 

1.

 

Midnight.

Beyond the stained window the hissing scar of the highway was deserted. Patty was aching with hunger. The diner was empty apart from the guy in the corner. He’d been eyeing her all night.

‘I don’t suppose you have a light?’ he said, walking over.

‘Sure,’ Patty said, flicking her Zippo, then snuffing out the brief flame. ‘Spare a smoke?’

‘Oh yeah.’

The waitress bristled past, all swish of starched uniform and the click of over-chewed gum. She looked at them out of the corner of her eye, a slight curl of her lip.

‘They call me Jim,’ he said. ‘You coming?’

Patty followed him outside into the mix of ice cold and diesel fumes. After the initial silence, they started the smokers’ chat. Weather, journeys, directions, bitching about this and that, and then he said it. Just like that. No interlude, no buildup. As if he was ordering a burger.

‘Last night I killed a man.’ He took a deep drag and blew it skywards then turned and looking her right in the eyes. ‘A guy got smart. He was nobody, really. I shot him. Twice.’

‘That right?’

Silence. And just two burning cigarette ends in the cold and the smog. A truck whizzed by.

‘Why you telling me this?’ she said.

‘Cause there’s one thing I always feel like doing after I kill someone.’

‘No shit?’

‘You look good to me with your dark brown eyes and your long hair. Got a good figure on you. Good ass, too. You’re a real brunette bombshell.’

‘I ain’t gonna sleep with you.’

‘I ain’t asking you to sleep with me, honey. How old are you anyway?’

‘Twenty-six.’

‘That right? There’s a bad dude out there, in case you ain’t heard. He’s been chopping women up. Much badder’n old Jim. I don’t kill ladies, just fuck ’em.’

‘I can look after myself.’

‘Heard one woman got her throat opened up. Out here, alone, just her thumb in the air and only her poontang to pay. They call him the maniac trucker, although I hear this guy drives a pickup.’

‘Thanks for the smoke,’ she said, walking back in.

Inside, the waitress stared at her from behind the counter, hands on her hips. Just another anonymous small-town judge. Patty watched as she went out back. She felt weak as Jim walked in, laughing, almost dancing across the diner to where she sat.

‘Come on, we can do it in the john,’ he said.

‘What makes you think you can buy me?’

‘I know desperation when I see it.’

The smell of pizza drifted across the air.

‘How much you got?’

‘I knew you were a pickup. I reckon you’re worth a hundred.’

‘Hundred and fifty.’

‘Done.’

He peeled a stack of tens out of his wallet and laid them in her palm.

‘I’ll see you in the john,’ she said, taking her worn canvas bag from the seat next to her.

After a few minutes Jim made his way there.

She was standing at the back, past the urinals, outside the only clean cubicle. The place stank of urine. Patty stared at the piss on the floor as Jim walked in and put a broom against the door.

‘Well, hallelujah baby,’ he said, rubbing his hands together.

‘Come on,’ she said, walking into the cubicle, pulling down her jeans.

‘You’re as sweet as cherry pie, ain’t you?’

‘Put this on,’ she said, pulling a condom out of her faded denim jacket.

‘That’s like playing the piano with gloves on.’

‘Well, Beethoven, it’s either that or no pussy.’

‘You really want me to put that thing on?’

She crossed her arms and waited for him to do it.

‘Give me a little help here,’ Jim said, unzipping his fly.

She touched him and thought of food, a bed for the night as Jim tore the packet open with his teeth and pulled the condom out.

‘Happy now?’ he said.

She leaned back against the wall and saw endless miles of road as his skin made contact. He shoved his right hand inside her blouse and groped her breasts. His skin was callused and felt like sandpaper on her nipples. She thought she heard someone trying the door as he entered her.

‘You’re safe with me, but you sure picked a bad place to stop,’ he said. ‘If I was you I’d get out of here, this place will eat you alive.’

She looked over Jim’s shoulder at a fly crawling across the graffiti. Someone had scrawled ‘Animals’ on the chipped and tarnished paint. She looked into his eyes and watched them empty of desire. She felt the cold wall against her buttocks as he stopped.

He winked and ran his finger across her cheek.

‘Told you I ain’t the maniac trucker.’

After he left she heard a pickup drive off as she readjusted her clothes and checked herself in the mirror.

Then the door swung open and the waitress walked in.

‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘I saw him leave, I’m calling the po-lice.’

‘Why you such a bitch?’

‘You just made a big mistake, you hooker.’

‘You don’t get to call me no hooker. You’re just a fucking waitress.’

‘You don’t belong here.’

‘Belong where? This is nowhere.’

‘We have regular customers who like things a certain way. You don’t muscle in on territory that ain’t yours. I’m giving you two minutes to git.’

The diner was filling up when Patty went back outside. The waitress was smiling at a trucker in faded Wranglers and blue suede cowboy boots who was leaning on the counter.

‘What can I get you Pete?’ the waitress said to him.

‘Oh, just a coffee.’

Patty headed outside and stood among the women who were gathering to trade sex. They wore hot pants and halter tops, some of them sheer blouses. She looked at her clothes. Her blouse was missing a button, and her bra showed through the gap.

‘Hey, how about it?’ a large man with a thick matted beard said.

‘I don’t think so.’

Patty wandered off as she heard the women talk among themselves.

A black Chevrolet drove past her and pulled into the truck stop. A tall lean man in a red coat got out and walked over to the women. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, said something to a small dark prostitute in a black skirt, nodded, and then entered the diner. He waved at the waitress.

‘Evenin’ Theodore,’ she said. ‘We have some fresh pizza.’

‘Sounds good, I’ll just use your restroom.’

The waitress continued chatting to Pete. She didn’t pay any attention to the prostitute in the black skirt who wandered in, the waitress merely glanced at her, then touched up her lipstick using a makeup mirror that she pulled from her purse. The woman went to join Theodore in the cubicle Patty had recently vacated. She was in her early twenties but had the used look of a life that held no pleasure except the diminishing high she got each night as she shot up.

Theodore didn’t look at her but waited as she pulled up her skirt, slipped down her G-string, and fumbled with his fly. He lifted her halter top. His small black eyes gazed at her breasts. She leaned against the door and Theodore entered her. She didn’t look at his face as he penetrated her. Theodore began to sweat as he increased his rhythm, and the smell of grease broke from his pores. When he stopped he ran his hand through his thick black hair and stared up at the ceiling, then pulled out and zipped up. He counted out the cash and waited until she left.

He was washing his hands at the cracked sink thinking about the meat loaf the diner served when the door opened. Then someone reached over his shoulder and ran a straight razor across his neck. Theodore never got to see his killer. He was holding his hands to the wound as the door closed. He staggered across the room and collapsed by the urinals. As he lay there drowning in his own blood, it looked like his red coat was melting into the urine.

 

 

2.

 

1:00 a.m.

Patty didn’t see the ambulance arrive at the diner. She’d caught a ride from a driver who smelt of beer and onions.

‘I figured you were looking to trade,’ he said after they’d travelled in silence for a few miles.

‘Trade what?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I’m just trying to get somewhere.’

‘We’re all trying to get somewhere.’

He winked at her and put a CD into the dashboard player, yanking the volume up and pulling a can of Coors from a cooler that sat by Patty’s legs. His hand brushed her thigh as Aerosmith’s ‘Flesh’ started to pound the inside of the cab. He tilted his head back and swigged from the can. Patty glanced at him, taking in his thick neck and broad shoulders. His heavy hands rested on the wheel as if it was a toy. He turned and stared at her with cold green eyes that looked like marbles in his suntanned skin.

‘Look, I just need a ride,’ she said.

‘Where to? All you told me when you climbed in is you’re heading the way I’m going.’

‘Next town along here.’

‘You’re going nowhere, ain’t you sweetheart?’

‘Excuse me, but I ain’t your sweetheart.’

‘And whose might you be?’

Patty leaned forward and turned the music off.

‘Hey, I thought we were going to have a party,’ the driver said.

‘I hate parties.’

‘Aw come on, we got the night.’

‘Can you let me out?’

‘You only just got in.’

‘I know.’

‘Look, I was just messing with you. Forgive me. It gets boring on the road all day, and sometimes I lose perspective. My name’s Red.’

He reached out his hand, and Patty took it briefly and sat back against the door.

She stared out at the black highway. There were no cars, no trucks, no houses visible.

‘I didn’t catch your name,’ Red said.

‘Call me Patty.’

‘Well, Patty, there’s cold beer if you want one.’

She opened a can and sipped from it. She could see some sandwiches in a torn plastic bag next to the box.

‘Hungry?’ Red said.

‘Not really.’

‘When was the last time you ate?’

‘I had something at the diner.’

‘Strange place.’

‘You could say that.’

‘Come on Patty, have a bite,’ Red said, picking up a sandwich, opening it, and offering half to her. ‘Cheese, won’t hurt you any. And besides, next town’s a ways.’

‘I thought it was a few miles.’

‘Now I don’t know where you think you are, but there’s nothing out here. I mean nothing, just a few snakes and me.’

Patty took the sandwich from him. The bread felt hard and stale.

‘So deserted. What is it with Arizona?’

‘Arizona? You ain’t in Arizona.’

‘Well where am I?’

‘You’re in a wilderness run by animals, sweetheart.’

‘I told you not to call me that.’

‘OK, OK,’ he said, turning towards her, holding both hands up before him. You sound like my ex.’

‘Would you keep your hands on the wheel?’

‘There’s nowhere else I can put them unless I play with myself.’

‘What’s the next town called?’

‘Nothing, really. It’s just a place where a few people live out their bitter lives.’

She looked at the landscape. She saw shapes move and blur like deformed nocturnal sculptures.

‘Why bitter?’

‘Most people you’re going to meet here are ruined in some way, they need to be.’

‘You’re messing with me again.’

‘I’m not. I tell you this is one weird place.’

‘You’re not from around here.’

He nodded.

‘Massachusetts. I got into trucking to escape.’

‘Escape from what?’

‘You really want to know?’

‘Since you bring it up.’

‘Something I saw.’

‘You mean a crime?’

‘You could call it that, although I’m not on the run. What I saw wasn’t some shooting by a gang or Mafia heist or a robbery. I’m not afraid someone’s gonna come and get me, pop me, ’cause I’m a witness. No, what I saw etched itself into my mind, and the only way I can remove it is to use the constant backdrop of the highway.’

‘Etched? You have a fancy way with words for a trucker.’

‘I like words. I like women more. I ain’t your average trucker.’

‘So what was it? This thing you saw that messed you up.’

‘I’m a big fella, as you can see. I used to be a psychiatric nurse. I could hold down the crazies, and I tell you they got the strength of a tiger when it’s in them. I seen that thing enter the minds of men who were half my size, and they could throw a man like me across the room.’

‘What thing?’

‘I don’t know what to call it. It’s like some light or an absence of light, and I’ll never figure out which, but they become absorbed by something, an entity if you will. Light and darkness are strange phenomena. I look out the window of my cab so often at night and see a light hover on the landscape, and in some of the brightest lit places I go to, the people seem empty. Maybe this won’t make any sense to you, but I saw something. The light I’m talking about doesn’t come from the sun, but somewhere else.’

‘What did you see when you were a nurse?’

‘The man I’m talking about wasn’t normal by any standards, none of the people in that place were, but he was extreme. You don’t want to look into his eyes. One day he assaulted a nurse, broke the guy’s jaw like he was popping a bubble. Then he abducted a female nurse. I found him in his room, straddling her. She’d lost her shoes in the scuffle, and she was kicking out beneath him. All I could see was his back and her legs. Then I walked around and saw what he was doing to her.’

‘What was he doing to her?’

‘He was eating her face.’

‘Jesus.’

‘It took four of us to pull him off her. Her jawbone was showing through the ragged flesh. It’s an image that I’ll never forget, no matter how many miles I drive, or how much beer I drink. He stood there with her skin all over his mouth, like he was wearing the mask of a ghoul. He looked straight at me and said, “I feed off the road. I live on the savage highway.” Then he spat a piece of the nurse’s chin at me.’

‘What did they do to him?’

‘Drugged him. He was so far beyond the criminal that he made no sense in terms of the law. He was going to stay there for life. He’d been sent there for setting fire to a cop. But afterwards, a few days before I left the job, we found out the other things he’d done.’

‘And what were they?’

‘He’d been collecting heads. I’m told the cellar of his house was packed floor to ceiling with the bleached skulls of unknown men and women.’

‘Is this for real?’

‘Unfortunately, yes.’

‘Pretty creepy stuff.’

‘Creepy? No. Creepy is a guy feeling your thigh at a bus stop. This goes far beyond creepy.’

‘Well, he’ll never get out.’

Red stared out at the highway. Patty noticed he’d slowed his speed.

‘Some months later, after I left, they moved him to a new facility for the criminally insane. He escaped in transit.’

‘How?’

‘We’ll never know, but the two guards were both found decapitated.’

‘He’s still on the loose.’

‘The police all over Massachusetts looked for him, but he was never found.’

‘How long ago was this?’

‘A few years.’

‘Sooner or later the law will catch up with him. What was his name?’

Red pulled a pack of Marlboros from his pocket and lit a cigarette.

‘Donald Lake.’

In the light of the Zippo his face looked as though it was burning, and Patty noticed a long scar on his cheek and neck that faded at the collar of his chequered lumberjack shirt. His hand bore the tattoo of a woman in chains and some kind of animal.

‘What’s the tattoo?’ Patty said.

‘What’s it look like to you?’

‘A chick. What’s the animal?’

‘The animal is whatever you want it to be.’

‘Is it a wolf?’

‘Looks like a wolf, don’t it?’

On closer inspection the animal appeared to have a man’s body.

‘How much further to the town?’ Patty said.

‘Why are you in a hurry?’

‘I want to get some sleep.’

‘You can sleep right here.’

‘I never can, moving.’

‘Do you think I’m going to touch you? That ain’t my way. I like them live and kicking.’

‘Kicking?’

‘Just an expression.’

‘You want some tail, all you need to do is turn this truck around and head back to the diner.’

‘You mean the hookers? Now they’re a sight for sore eyes.’

‘You approve of exploitation?’

‘Exploitation? I think it’s the other way around, the money they charge. Have you seen some of them?’

‘They’re addicted.’

‘Addicted to selling their pussies. You never sold it for a little cash?’

‘Those women have no choice.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I just do.’

‘You sure are talkative all of a sudden when sex is mentioned. Maybe I ought to take you out back and slide it inside you and see how you squeal out here in the dark.’

‘That ain’t funny.’

‘Patty how about shedding them clothes and showing me your hot little thing?’

‘Is that how I pay for the ride?’

‘A lot of women like it rough and hard. That’s what my wife never understood.’

‘What?’

‘I only did it the one time, to show her how much pleasure a girl can get. Held her down with a pillow over her face while I lifted up her skirt.’

‘Let me out.’

‘You picked the wrong truck darling.’ He looked at her, dropping his eyes to the hint of bra that showed through the missing button. ‘I’ve screwed all the hookers at that diner. I ain’t never seen you, and I want a little action. Is that so hard to understand?’

‘No.’

‘I’ll pull over, and we can go in the back of the truck. I got a bed back there, real nice, subdued lighting. You’re lucky you picked Red. You probably heard the stories about women getting into trucks and never being seen again. I know a few truckers who are into that kind of thing. They fuck ’em and beat ’em up. All I want is to stick it in your snatch.’

‘That’s all?’

He pulled the truck over at the side of the highway.

‘That’s all.’

Patty picked up her bag and climbed out. She could see some lights in the distance.

‘I need to pee,’ she said.

‘Don’t be shy,’ Red said, walking around to her side of the truck.

Patty walked a few feet to a bank that ran down to some bushes. She began to clamber down.

‘Not too far, do it there,’ Red said.

He stepped towards her. She turned her back, lowered her jeans, and squatted. She figured it would take him a few seconds to reach her. When she finished, she pulled her jeans back up, grabbed her bag, and dived down the bank, cutting herself on brambles. She could hear Red coming after her, branches breaking beneath his weight, and she went straight into the bushes, tangling her clothes, tearing her skin, running until she emerged on the other side in a field beneath a pale moon. Then she stopped and listened to the silence. In the distance was a small town, and Patty walked towards it as dawn began to leak pink light into the trees.

Red was a few miles away as she approached the town. He was talking into his cell phone.

‘She went through the field, she’s heading your way,’ he said.

His truck cut through the dawn like a juggernaut as he set his cold eyes on the highway.

 

 

3.

 

9:00 a.m.

Johnny Sullivan pulled his Jeep into the small town of Purity. He got out, stretched, and looked around at the neat row of shops and the white houses bearing American flags, feeling as though he’d stepped straight into a picture postcard of an ideal America. The landscape looked hilly in the distance, a green and undulating enclave as incongruous as an oasis. He was a tall man with a lean, well-muscled physique. He had pale blue eyes and a boxer’s nose. He wandered down Main Street in search of somewhere to eat. There was no one about, and the pristine front windows of the houses looked like mirrors, reflective and as unyielding as camera lenses. The town reminded Johnny of a film set, and the street held the unreality of a neatly constructed facade which hid something ruinous.

That morning there was not a single car parked on the gentle drives that led in easy gradients from road to home. There were no leaves on the immaculate manicured lawns that looked both unnatural and abandoned. But what fascinated Johnny the most was the absence of litter. There was no breeze, and the air seemed static beneath a blinding sun.

The anomaly of Porter’s Café lay at the end of the wide deserted street, exuding the smell of freshly baked bread and home cooking. A woman with bobbed brown hair was standing at the open door as he approached. She went behind the counter and began to wipe a large plate, looking at Johnny with quiet curiosity as he walked in.

‘I was hoping I could get some breakfast,’ he said.

‘I can do you some bacon, bread, waffles, grits,’ she said.

‘Do you have any fresh coffee while I wait?’

‘I’ll bring one over.’

Johnny stood there for a few moments looking at her. She was an attractive woman, in her mid-thirties he guessed. She wore a white uniform that had a yellow stain on the bosom. It fitted her full, voluptuous figure snugly.

Johnny went and sat by the window. The owner seemed intrigued by him, taking in every detail of his dress as she made his breakfast, moving between kitchen and counter, a silent and watchful presence. Johnny wore some Levis and trainers that held dried mud on their soles. He had one foot up against the chair, his leg bouncing up and down. He had a dark blue windbreaker on and beneath it a dull washed out T-shirt.

As she set his coffee down on the table she met his clear blue eyes with a steady gaze.

‘Now that smells good,’ he said.

‘Passing through?’

‘I’m not entirely sure.’

‘We don’t get many strangers here.’

‘Am I that strange?’

‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘I was just trying to engage you in conversation, the habit of a lonely man.’

‘I know about loneliness. Purity is pretty cut off.’

She went into the kitchen. Johnny felt drowsy and began to nod off. The frying oil sounded like rain falling outside and he began to dream of his house in Ontario set amid fields that acted as a blanket to the outside world.

He felt disoriented as she woke him by setting his plate down. He stared up into her dark eyes, momentarily unaware of where he was.

‘I’ve been driving all night,’ he said.

‘The coffee ought to wake you up.’

‘Join me,’ he said, pulling out the chair opposite him.

She hesitated.

‘If I get customers I’ll have to go back.’

‘Johnny Sullivan,’ he said, extending his hand.

Her palm felt warm and soft in his.

‘Natasha Porter,’ she said, sitting down.

‘As on the door.’

She nodded.

He cut into the bacon and put a piece in his mouth.

‘This is really good,’ he said.

‘So what brings you here, Johnny?’

‘A few weeks ago, my life changed.’

‘Oh?’

‘I lost my job. Then my wife walked out on me.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

He looked at her, noticing her full, erotic mouth as she touched the tip of her tongue to her lips.

‘I decided to take to the road in search of a story.’

‘A story?’

‘I was a sports journalist, quite a good one, I’m told. I covered many big games, and the reason I lost my job is because I was dumb.’

‘You don’t strike me as stupid.’

‘Do you think exposing corruption is worthwhile?’

‘That’s a hard question to answer. Mind if I smoke?’

‘Not at all. Hasn’t the ban reached Arizona?’

Natasha frowned and tapped a Chesterfield loose from its pack.

‘I don’t care about any ban, this is my place.’

‘Well said.’

‘Besides, this area does as it pleases.’

She tore a match loose from a bright blue book that displayed the silhouette of a woman in a cocktail dress and the name ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ in shiny gold letters. She struck it and held the flaming match to the cigarette, took a deep drag, pursed her lips, then blew a plume of smoke towards the door.

‘So, what’s with you and corruption, Johnny?’

‘I uncovered something, bribes passing backwards and forwards, match-fixing. I believe that sort of thing ruins sport, everyone suffers, the game, the fans most of all. I exposed it, wrote an article. And then I was called into the editor’s office one rainy Monday morning. An hour later I was clearing my desk.’

‘Yeah, doing the right thing gets you punished, especially in a world where crime is rewarded.’

‘I started as an investigative reporter. I was trained to uncover lies. You try telling a bloodhound not to follow the scent of deer.’

‘So what happened to your wife?’

‘I’d been working long hours. We’d hardly spoken for years. We’d meet at weekends and do the things married couples do, those empty acts that take a little of the time you don’t want to spend with the person you’re meant to be spending it with. I told her I’d been fired. She went shopping. She came back with bags of dresses, paid for with my credit card. Then she sat down in front of me, about the same distance as you’re sitting from me. She said, “Johnny, I’m having an affair. I’ve been having an affair for two years now, and I’m leaving you.” The next day she was gone. She packed all her things and left. I spent two weeks drinking hard. Then I headed out onto the open road.’

‘Do you miss her?’

‘Not really.’

‘I can understand that, empty marriages and all.’

‘And you, Natasha, are you married?’

‘Unfortunately.’

‘It’s like that, is it?’

‘Worse.’

‘Why don’t you leave him?’

‘Some men won’t be left.’

‘You don’t look like a prisoner to me.’

‘Purity belongs in an Edward Hopper painting, Johnny. Sometimes I feel I’m in one of his depictions of the vacuum at the heart of America.’

‘So what keeps you here?’

‘Fear, guilt, disease, hatred, I don’t know. Look around at the town that’s a living lie, purity doesn’t exist here.’

‘Sounds like I stumbled into the right place.’

‘Yeah? Well stumble right out again, get onto the highway and drive away, keep driving because you don’t want to stay here.’

‘Is there anywhere to stay?’

She stubbed out her cigarette in a plastic ashtray on the end of the table.

‘We got a four-room hotel with faded wallpaper bearing nail marks, not from a moment of passion, no, those marks you’ll see are from all the people who know despair like a constant toothache. Go to sleep on the soiled sheets of Purity’s only hotel, spend a few nights here, and you’ll begin to scream with claustrophobia. And you can laugh your heart out at its name. Welcome to the Morality Inn.’

‘You’ll never make it as a tourist adviser.’

‘I’m not joking. Where is it you come from Johnny?’

‘Ontario, New York.’

‘Go back.’

‘All that you’ve said has left me wondering.’

‘Wondering what?’

‘About this place.’

‘It’ll make you wonder all right. So what’s the story you’re searching for, Johnny?’

He took a sip from his coffee and placed the mug on the table.

‘A lot of women have gone missing in this part of Arizona.’

‘Lucky them.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘What do you think happened to them beyond running off with some man who might be a bit more stimulating than their creep husbands?’

‘That’s what I want to find out.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ll tell you you’re wasting your time.’

‘Have you noticed what happens at the truck stops?’

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

DISEMBODIED

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2015

Published by Ekstasis Editions

 

 

1.

 

Samuel Verso raised himself out of bed and looked down at his wife’s emaciated body beneath sheets that looked as though she had covered them in powder overnight. He wondered what the substance was that he found every morning adhering to the cotton they slept beneath, as if some fallout had occurred during the night and attempted to embalm them as relics of a redundant age. He thought briefly about what she might have used, recalling her many strange unaccountable habits, feeling like a relic, understanding in a distant way her anxious state of self-antagonism. He left the stagnant bedroom and went downstairs to make some coffee, eyeing the newspaper with disinterest until he saw the article about the latest publishing giant to have crashed. And as he held his copy of The Times in his sweating hands the print came away on his palms, as if it too belonged to an ephemeral world that was engulfing him like polluted tidal waters, making its presence known to him in an irrefutable way.

‘Hatchet files bankruptcy amid publishing turmoil,’ the headline read.

He scanned the article, seeing ruins crumble, entire edifices of the world he once felt was secure becoming powder, like the dust that settled each night on his marital bed. He felt historicised, as if a resident Zeitgeist were fracturing his being, splintering his identity like a piece of bone. The familiar taste of nausea flooded his mouth as he sipped his coffee, and he wondered if he lived in a state of permanent apprehension, as if some part of him knew what was about to occur. And as he stared at his reflection in the kitchen window he wondered what it was he feared, what denouement in his waning drama would be the act that shook him to his core, feeling as though some watchful conspiracy were about to embroil him in its agenda. The world was becoming unfathomable to him.

Samuel Verso showered in a daze in the bathroom, immaterial, ghostly beyond the rising steam that seduced his own body from him as he tried to scrub the distasteful news away. The pleasant sensation of the water on his skin allowed his fears to ebb. But their abatement was only momentary, because he knew that outside his hollow home a world of sabotage existed like a knife beneath the mattress he slept on every night. He dried himself, patting the water droplets from his skin as he thought of his wife, labouring in dreams he would never know, out of touch, beyond comprehension. She was becoming immaterial, losing herself each day to dreams he deemed psychotic, a woman immersed in a personal derangement that she expressed in a manner he considered sexual, an erotic discharge of female obsession with things that end in mutilation.

He left the house and stepped out onto the neat path that dissected the small front garden. He stood on the pavement outside number 24 Plate Road in Sheen wondering what his wife would do today while he was gone, and what he would return to. Then he got in his car and started the engine. The drive to work in Kensington was the same as it had been for weeks. Buildings and people passed by his white Volvo S80 as if on a reel of film that replayed itself over and over on a daily basis and from time to time Samuel wondered if any of it was real, as if London itself had been caught in some mirror that merely fed simulations of the city’s life to its inhabitants. He got out and stared at his car, and his reflection in its metal. And he wondered why he drove such a machine.

He buffed the gold name plate on the door to his office, running his tailored sleeve across the words Verso & Perk with satisfaction, feeling relief spread its way across his body as he entered the building. Belinda was already at her desk, The Times in front of her neatly folded, smelling of the printing press.

‘You’ve read it I take it?’ Samuel said.

‘I have,’ she said.

Her voice sounded as though it were coming through an intercom. Samuel waited for Belinda to say something else, to test his initial impression that her tone was altered, mechanised in some way that presented yet another threat, but she merely stared up at him with a look of innocence that had to be a subterfuge as the phone rang.

‘Belinda Perk,’ she said, picking it up and eyeing her fingernails.

Samuel momentarily disappeared into their intense red gloss, seeing a distorted reflection of the room, like an incongruous Christmas setting moving on her hands.

‘No, I do not know where he is, and if I did it is not information I would disclose, thank you.’

She hung up.

‘Another call about Fontana Rate?’ Samuel said.

‘Of course.’

‘We have one outstanding author left on our books and he goes missing, why at a time like this?’

‘I imagine the issue is sexual.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘He told me he needed to retreat from the public eye. Have you read his latest manuscript?’

‘I have.’

‘And?’

‘It’s brilliant. It may just save us.’

‘So, we track him down and publish.’

‘I’m struggling to keep us afloat, you know what the latest sales figures were. The rise of digital publishing has crippled us, and now another house has gone bust, where does that leave us Belinda?’

‘It leaves us here,’ she said, standing up and walking towards him. ‘We publish, we make profit, we have to adapt to the times.’

Samuel looked at Belinda standing there, her full figure in a body hugging white blouse and tight mauve skirt. She was a brunette who seemed to harbour erotic tendencies Samuel suspected may endanger the men she dated. She had sexually invasive green eyes that alternated in expression between a businesslike calculation and a sensual reverie. Her lips were full, always coated in bright red lipstick. Samuel estimated her to be in her early forties, although he had never asked her age and curiously her resume had gone missing in the office. She’d always struck him as too good looking to be an agent and publisher. There was something too carnal about her. Yes, she was predatory and right now that was what he needed for the company.

‘In the meantime we have a missing author,’ he said.

‘I’ll find him, you carry on here.’

‘Watching the publishing industry crumble?’

‘Publish our back list as e-books.’

‘What?’

‘It’s the only way we’ll survive.’

‘And what about Rate’s novel?’

‘Bring that out as a hardback.’

‘I need him to edit it, there are parts that are odd. I know it’s the one title we have that will sell.’

‘Odd how?’

‘I’m not sure, I do know it is a work of genius but there seems to be some latent subversiveness there, which he needs to translate into a language the reader can understand.’

‘Since when did the reader understand anything?’

‘That’s a dangerous stance Belinda.’

‘Each year they trot one out, the novel they don’t get but they all buy because they want to be seen with it in their hands.’

‘I want to talk to Rate.’

‘Leave that to me.’

‘And what do we do in the meantime?’

‘Hatchet refused to lower their prices, that’s why they’ve gone bust. Bring out the old titles digitally.’

‘I suppose you’re right.’

Belinda sat down as Samuel went over to his desk and read his emails. The latest sales statistics were less than encouraging and he glanced at his back list, thinking how much could be made out of them if he sold them all as e-books. And he knew that they would not yield enough money.

He glanced over at Belinda and she seemed hazy, her body less flesh than vapour. He felt himself dispersing in the clouded room. He looked at the hardbacks that lined his shelves, a physical reality that was threatened by the code that generated books read on screens. His career and life seemed redundant now and he existed in a time he had no comprehension of.

He went into the tiny bathroom and poured cold water into his cupped hands, splashing his face with it. He adjusted his bright yellow tie, and looked in the mirror at his tanned face, unlined for a man of 52. He was still handsome, appealing in a professional way, he had a friendly full face that inspired confidence in others, or at least it used to. His greying hair gave him a patriarchal look Samuel considered comforting. And his deep set blue eyes were youthful in their own way, an anomaly in the weary expression he wore. As he looked at his own reflection he wondered why he had lost confidence in himself, and then it seemed to him as if all reflective surfaces had been occupied by simulacra, that an alteration had occurred to the realm of what was knowable. He walked back into the office, picking his glasses off his chest where they perched, dangling from a chain.

He put them on, and peering at Belinda over their rims, he said, ‘You find him, I’ll publish.’

‘Of course you will,’ she said.

Her comment sounded like an order, she was vying for position, but to Samuel the order was redundant. He saw a rotting wooden ladder without rungs sinking into the mud.

‘You know when I look at those,’ he said, glancing at the shelves lined with the books he’d published, ‘that is what I see as publishing. An electronic book doesn’t seem to exist for me. There is no physical materiality to it, it is a reduction of literature and words. It’s as if we are all turning into code.’

He removed his glasses as Belinda stood up aggressively.

‘It’s your generation that’s all. E-books are here and they’re here to stay, and unless you capitalise on them you will sink, and Samuel I am not going to sink. Look at me, I want to dress like this,’ she said, running her hands down her skirt, ‘and enjoy a certain lifestyle, you know that. So, as my partner I’m telling you to go ahead and bring those old titles out, put them on Amazon.’

‘Amazon,’ Samuel said, almost choking.

Belinda arched an eyebrow.

‘Don’t make yourself impotent, I don’t like impotent men.’

‘You like younger men.’

‘This is not about sex.’

‘What happened to the bookstore?’

‘Give them to the highest bidder, make them available to as many readers as you can.’

‘Whore my titles.’

‘If that’s how you see it.’

‘There’s no satisfaction in reading an e-book.’

Belinda reached a paperback off the shelf and opening it, held it up to Samuel’s face. He tried to see what novel it was, but it was too close and he fumbled for his glasses.

‘What is it about this that is so special?’ she said.

‘It’s print.’

‘And an e-book is electronically printed.’

‘No it is not.’ Samuel felt momentarily comforted by the smell of the print as Belinda held the book there in the air. ‘A physical book is a sensual experience. I know. I have published many great names, don’t forget that I was seen as the leading publisher in my day, discovering new talent and bringing it to the public.’

‘I know,’ Belinda said, putting the book back on the shelf. ‘You’re an outstanding publisher. That’s why I work with you. I could have carried on just being an agent but I wanted more. I wanted to work with a man who had the ability to bring out new names and sell them. You can go on being successful but you can’t ignore e-books.’

Samuel sat down wearily.

‘I feel technological progress is eroding all I have achieved.’

‘You have been looking stressed and unlike yourself for weeks.’

‘I think I’m being followed.’

‘Samuel.’

The admonishing note in her tone made him look up at her. She was putting on her gloves, gently nudging them between her fingertips and in that moment Samuel felt an overwhelming desire to unburden himself. He got up and walked over to her. He could just make out the hint of her white lace bra between the buttons of her tight blouse as he said, ‘a black car has been following me for days.’

‘What kind of car?’

‘I’m not sure, it’s unmarked.’

 

 

2.

 

After Belinda had left, Samuel sat down at his desk. She had been in the habit of going out around this time, to get a sandwich, she said, so she could work through the afternoon without interruption when she was at her busiest. He considered it an odd time to do so and wondered why it always took her so long. She was becoming an object of mystery to him, part of the alien world of reading devices and gadgets. He was surrounded by the disintegration of man, the streets peopled with simulations. And now his colleague seemed part of it, the unknowability of others, the endless disengagement from the real. Samuel analysed the history of her habits, as if they held a clue to her motives in backing the rise of the digital revolution, the thing he felt had placed his career in this position of threat that was both financial and cultural. For Samuel had always felt that the printed page was a basic historical artefact, and each time he published a new novel he was entering history. But the books would fade, as indeed the e-books would. Yet the physical books had a better chance of survival. And it was this, he realised, as he sat there brooding over Belinda, that was his main preoccupation, how to survive in an alien world. He resisted the code that informed daily life, the lives hooked on computer screens. It was as if humanity was being eroded by devices. The narrative structures of the great literary novels seemed altered by the shift of medium, from print to digital.

He dreaded this time of the morning. It was when the emails began to flood in, like a stream of insanity filling his inbox. He looked at his there on his computer screen. It seemed to him an empty space full of invasions. Then they began, one every few minutes. The subject line of the first read, ‘Bomb the body starve.’

Samuel considered ignoring it, but concern got the better of him and he opened the email.

‘The body is not real, I disintegrate and you exist nowhere. Remove parts, legs and arms.’

They flooded in for an hour, one after another. One in particular alarmed him. With the subject line, ‘I Am Rendered Insubstantial,’ the email read, ‘What do they do with the parts when they remove them? We do not need our bodies. I have knives and will excise. I will not be physical when you return I will be disincorporate for I am not part of the organisation.’

Samuel stared at his office, seeking the certainties of a physical world. He looked at the desks and computers and felt he inhabited a disembodied space, a place where electronic communications rendered business unreal. He got up and ran his hand across the wooden arms of chairs, feeling reassured. He thought about Belinda, wondering where she was. And he wondered what she did alone. It seemed to him equally logical and absurd as a question, for, if she were not to be trusted because of her publishing views, then what she did in private was of the utmost concern, and equally, if he was being unreasonable then he was also being absurd. He walked over to the window and stared down into the street.

People walked by talking on mobile phones. They seemed part of something so profoundly alien to Samuel they looked like appendages.

Then he saw the black car below. It was parked opposite his office and he could just make out two figures sitting in it. It was a car that might be seen on any London street and Samuel tried to identify the model, but from the side he could not make out a badge. The men seemed to be staring straight ahead of them, motionless and unreal.

Samuel wondered how long they had been following him. The reason for their being there was as mysterious to him as computer code. Perhaps they weren’t real, but part of an advertisement, perhaps the world of simulations had reached a point of such verisimilitude he didn’t know the difference. He considered going down into the street and kicking the driver’s door, of pushing them to a confrontation that would force them to expose their motives for being there.

He sat down at his desk as Belinda came in and took her coat off. She was clutching a sandwich in a white bag and one of the buttons in the middle of her blouse was undone. She looked at him with a glance that seemed to Samuel immersed in a conspiracy. But it was neither sexual nor conscious, as if she were programmed to a series of seductive actions. And it seemed to Samuel that she was trying to seduce him.

Belinda tracked his gaze as it rested on her bra. Her expression was empty of personal response, neither embarrassed nor aroused, as if she expected this from him. Yet there had never been any kind of erotic innuendo passed between them. Samuel allowed his eyes to linger there, as if he wanted to provoke her into an admission whose nature he did not know. Belinda began to finger the button immediately below, her eyes on his, her pose that of the seductress. Suddenly she was another woman, about to strip for him, bringing with her a private peep show into a world whose distractions might trick him from awareness. And he thought of the car outside and the men waiting for him. Belinda put her hand inside her blouse, then did the open button up and promptly sat down at her desk.

As she began to eat her sandwich she looked like a secretary awaiting orders, her face expectant, a look of deceit in her eyes, as if she had found out what it was that was ailing Samuel, as if she was part of the surveillance the men outside his fragile window had placed him under. With her hands neatly folded around the paper white bread she seemed to be adopting a pose, to be exercising a form of bodily control that taunted him, as if the precision of her movements was a deliberate antithesis to his sense of disintegration, as if she wanted to see him stand and stagger across the room, unable to contain his fear, a man lost in a world of reinventions. There was an invitation in her eyes as she looked across the room at him. He expected her to rise and cross the carpet, hips swaying, part of a film whose erotic nature was designed to lure him into further uncertainty, as if she’d been poached by digital forces and now would offer her body as an exciting coastal shelf off which he would step into the world of code. He expected her to reach across and touch his face with idle hands and utter words whose meaning would be both obscene and an affront to their relationship. This was the moment of subversion he’d been dreading, the signal that his publishing career was shredded like a redundant bill between sharp teeth that whirred in offices where the paranoia of information leaks dwelt like microbes in the walls. She would tactically prompt a seduction whose purpose was to turn Samuel into a hieroglyph. She would use her body to entice him to a sexual code that would hook him on the digital. And Samuel readied himself for her sexual advance. He thought of obscenities he would utter to offend her, and realised that while he had often wondered about her sex life he had never considered her as a partner. Belinda was evidently a sexual woman, but their relationship had never allowed sexual interest in. He looked at her and waited for her to rise and finger her buttons. Instead, Belinda put her sandwich down, her palms facing the top of her desk.

‘Samuel, what is it?’ she said.

‘Your trips.’

‘I haven’t made any. We’re cutting back remember?’

‘No, outside.’

‘I’m not sure I follow.’

‘You’ve changed your habits.’

‘Samuel you have been sitting there staring at me.’

‘You go out for sandwiches but return with more than food.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘What do you do when you are out?’

‘I buy some lunch as you can see.’

‘No, there’s something else.’

‘What?’

‘Your button was undone.’

‘And?’

‘Was it a deliberate act?’

‘I’m going to finish my lunch then I’m going to make some phone calls.’

 

 

3.

 

But she didn’t make any calls, or none that Samuel heard. He did hear her say something as he was in the small toilet they shared with the precarious sense of hygiene a man and woman share about these things, an unspoken agreement that liquids remain invisible to each user. Samuel stopped as he heard her speak. He stared at the bottles of detergent and sprays that packed a small corner next to the toilet. Belinda bought them all. He felt the command to spray the surfaces of the toilet and sink and remove all bacteria before he returned to the office, as sterile as a scalpel, clean and willing to receive her verbal incisions into his beliefs about publishing.

‘Did you say something?’ Samuel said, walking back into the room.

‘I snagged my tights.’

‘I thought you were on the phone. You said you had calls to make.’

‘They can wait, I need to change these.’

‘You were speaking to yourself.’

‘I said oh bugger, it’s a huge hole.’

‘It sounded longer, like a conversation.’

‘No, it’s no good, I’ll have to take them off.’

She hadn’t even looked at him as they spoke, her head bent, as she stared at the hole in her tights. Now she stood up, began to unzip her skirt and went into the toilet.

When she returned she appeared to have changed into another pair of tights, although Samuel didn’t dare to look at her legs, concerned it would be interpreted as sexual interest. He wondered what else she kept in the toilet, imagining an entire wardrobe tucked away in there. But there was only a small cupboard under the sink. And from what he remembered it was full of cleaning products.

All afternoon he had the distinct notion that there was something different about Belinda. It was as if this woman who had returned from the shops was not the same as the agent and fellow publisher he’d worked with for years. He studied her hair, the way she tapped the keys of her keyboard, and that day Samuel concluded that Belinda had been fundamentally altered in some way and was now an ersatz version of herself. Her movements had changed, she had betrayed herself to technology.

She saw him eyeing her and he looked away, concerned his interest might be mistaken for sexual desire. He thought about how frequently she made it clear she enjoyed men and wore occasionally revealing but always tasteful clothes that flattered her figure. She seemed too dominant, and her eyes sparkled with sexual intent.

As she glanced at him he began writing an email to his distributor explaining his concerns about the latest changes to their practice. It seemed preposterous to him that they should undersell themselves when all that was needed was a return to the old manner of publishing. Surely, he thought, people would get sick of reading devices and want to clutch a good strong smelling paperback again. Women liked to soak in a bath with a novel perched on their breasts as they escaped the tedium of their evenings.

‘My concerns are twofold,’ Samuel began, feeling that even this email was part of some watchful conspiracy against him and what he stood for, that the letters he typed were being converted in cyber space to a set of codes at once meaningless to him and supportive of the sudden change in the world he now felt apart from. He continued typing, his gaze averted from Belinda who sat staring at the sweat on his forehead.

‘To offer out titles at the prices you suggest would leave us with no profit margin and the likes of Amazon would win. We would be out of business and no doubt all of your clients would follow. What is it about this amorphous abstract thing that everyone wants to download with an instantaneousness that is at once childish and cheap? Should we not club together and insist on raising the standard?’

Samuel felt that he was typing into a TV monitor and that his face was being recorded. He got up and walked over to the window. The car began to move away, crawling to the end of the road where it stopped, indicating a right turn for a suspiciously long time. He patted his forehead dry as Belinda said, ‘What is wrong Samuel?’

He waved an arm at the line of books on the shelves.

‘This. All of this that I have worked for threatened by a gadget, it is inconceivable to me that people should be so stupid.’

‘Get with the times.’

‘What if all the days are one?

‘I am concerned about you, we need to survive.’

‘I think the e-reader is destroying books.’

Belinda stood up and Samuel saw she wasn’t wearing any tights.

‘Is something else bothering you? You can tell me, I’m open minded you know.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Is it your marriage?’

‘My wife is insane.’

 

 

4.

 

Phyllis Verso spent two hours in the bathroom that morning as Samuel and Belinda discussed the future of their business. She studied her wasted body in the mirror and saw fat hiding beneath the creases of her skin. She looked at her face and saw air hiss out of her ears as she pulled out one of the needles she kept beneath the cotton wool buds at the back of the bathroom cabinet. And she began the daily desecration of her body that she considered was the only way to reach reality. The mirror lied to her, she told herself, in a low moan that sounded almost sexual. She lived in the age of distortions and the physical had to be constantly proved, like some mathematical equation whose variables kept changing.

She bled herself until the room span, then stooped and mopped the blood from the tiles. She weighed herself and set about eating some toilet paper, gagging herself and staring at her face in the mirror before running a bath and soaking in it. She dressed and read of the operations available, the removal of limbs, of breasts and skin, the excision of the physical being by surgeons both licensed and illegal, the thing she needed above all and which Samuel refused to pay for. His denial of her need angered her and she thought of why he was so cruel as to prevent her from achieving a sense of reality, when after all, her body was not real.

Her collection of medical literature was enormous, a monument to an obsession that was rooted in an erotic disease that often compelled her to expose herself to strangers at bus stops, raising the hem of her skirts and offering a glimpse of emaciated thigh, or sometimes baring a shrunken breast. Her physical revelations were less an attempt at seduction than a plea for charity, a summons for money to pay for the operations that had been denied to her by sane doctors, while Phyllis sought the insane surgeon of her dreams, a man obsessed with scalpels and female flesh. She’d even begun to write to prisoners, doctors who’d been struck off for malpractices whose nature corresponded to her feverish desire for excision. Their pictures stared at her from the screen of her laptop, a collection of would-be husbands for her second self, the one who was more beautiful than the pitiful thing who mocked her in the mirror with a superfluity of limbs. If the history of art had defined beauty as the Venus de Milo then Phyllis knew what was needed for her to be desirable in the eyes of man. She was convinced that Samuel led a double life, and often pondered his relationship with Belinda, whose physicality swelled beneath her clothes like a sexual muscle and who was intent on bedding every man she met, or so Phyllis thought as she went downstairs. What was it Belinda had she wondered, and tried to picture her naked, seeing a woman with such a complete sexual appeal, and a ravenous appetite it left her feeling even more diminished and flattened by a masculine aesthetic of the female body. Belinda had the curves, and she knew it, Phyllis thought. But she was operated by a system that denied the truly feminine, by men like Samuel who demanded a precise erotic arrangement of the body.

She placed some food on a plate, a simple cucumber diced into tiny pieces, an act she laboured over, some whipped cream and chocolate next to uncooked rice. She took pictures of these and uploaded them into her computer. Then she measured her legs. She stood in the kitchen watched by a neighbour who sat by his window with a telescope, as Phyllis’s dressing gown hung open, and she dangled a tape measure from her crotch to her feet, bending and writing down the details of her body as the man opposite watched this naked shrinking form perform an act that made his own voyeurism feel normal. She existed to him on a screen, an act that would have confirmed to Phyllis her own beliefs about herself, since she believed her reality was diminished and she would become alive once operated on and made into who she really was. To Samuel that was a mutation so vile he could hardly touch her. And his refusal to allow her what she considered health confirmed her suspicions that he and Belinda were carrying on.

As she fastened her gown her neighbour turned to his computer screen in search of the naked figures that peopled his days, distant undemanding shadows in a world of visual stimuli. He lived between the screen of electronic signals and the pane of glass that offered him a peep show into Phyllis’s fading life, and he sometimes took pictures of her when she was engaged in her more bizarre acts, some of which included tying herself up so that she seemed to have no limbs. To her watcher she was an amusement, yet another freak set on display for his personal satisfaction.

As the day faded into darkness Phyllis ate nothing, sipping from time to time from a bowl of dirty water she set before herself on the kitchen table as she read her book of surgical practices. They froze the hours for her. They showed her that her future could be one where she existed again beyond the body and all its attendant lies.

A woman walked past the window pushing a buggy and she shuddered. The idea of childbirth was abhorrent to her.

Yet she sometimes thought there was something inside her that was trying to emerge into day, but it was not through her womb. It lived dormant somewhere else, some place in her body she could only find when the cutting began and she returned and removed the bandages. Then Samuel could enter her again and fill her with the semen she could not bear to touch.

As the time approached when Samuel would return she dressed. She coated her body with talcum powder. She administered it so heavily the bedroom filled with a cloud and her face looked unnaturally white as she went downstairs wearing a silk ball gown. Its swishing sound reminded her of a knife cutting the flesh of a chicken prior to roasting it.

She waited. She thought of ways she could convince Samuel to take her abroad and be operated on, she even considered offering him sex as a way to restore his confidence in her judgement, but the idea was too distasteful. She saw his car pull up as the oven pinged and she got the dinner out and set it on the table.

Samuel entered the house with his head full of his conversation with Belinda. He felt frustrated by her refusal to see his point of view and glanced towards the kitchen nervously, wondering what state he would find his wife in. The hallway was full of prosthetic limbs, Samuel was always putting them in the cupboard by the living room, but Phyllis would get them out when he left for work. He eyed them with distaste and walked into the kitchen.

‘It’s fish,’ Phyllis said.

‘I see you’re dressed tonight.’

‘What would you have me, naked? Is that what you want, so you can stare at my deformities?’

Samuel set his attaché case down on the table heavily.

You are not deformed.’

‘You can’t see because all you know is how to print.’

‘The deformity would be to operate on a healthy woman.’

‘I have no body. I am immaterial, touch me.’

She took his hand and placed it on her arm.

‘See?’ she said. ‘I don’t exist, I am an image in search of physical reality, you have no idea, this thing I am attached to needs to be hacked away.’

‘I suppose we ought to eat.’

‘I don’t defecate, you know. I am merely something you have imagined, you live alone here with a woman in search of a being.’

‘You are extremely unwell and I am extremely tired.’

‘You try not being for a day.’

She left him to eat alone and he scraped his fork idly across the plate of tasteless food, the fish like shredded paper, the watery sauce, and he thought of e-books and the endless scrolling lines of words on a screen leading to a future he saw no part of. He stared at his plate when he had finished and contemplated what it was his wife cooked for him each night that left him craving meat at midnight and forced his from his bed to visit the fridge in search of food, finding only petri dishes in precise lines containing fluids he could not identify. Phyllis never seemed to eat. The house felt like a place of starvation, of Phyllis’s physical wasting, and the wasting of their marriage as his career was plundered by code. Upstairs Phyllis stared at herself in the bedroom mirror and held her arms behind her back, imagining limblessness as if it were a state of Nirvana. She felt like a convert to a violent religion which offered a sudden release from all uncertainty.

After he ate Samuel went upstairs and found her standing beneath a bare light bulb. The shade sat on a chair. He stood there watching her, saying nothing. Eventually Phyllis said, ‘You see I don’t exist.’

‘You don’t believe that body is yours.’

‘It isn’t. Once certain parts of it are removed you will see me.’

‘No surgeon is going to agree to what you want.’

‘That bastard. Norman Flount shouldn’t be practising as a surgeon.’

‘He is doing his job, Phyllis.’

‘Is that what you call it?’

‘Why would he operate on your body when there is nothing wrong with it?’

‘What would your Nanny have done?’

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

ONE LOST SUMMER

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2013

Published by Black Jackal Books

 

 

Everything I knew ended then as she put the Dunhill to her lips. I can still see her slender fingers holding the cigarette just before the sniper blew away her hand.

Her burning Diva Zippo fell to the ground. Then came the second shot, and I watched my reflection die in the fading light of her eyes. One lost summer that slow motion moment replayed itself forever in my mind. A key was turning in a lock. Over and over again.

 

 

NEW BEGINNINGS.

 

 

1.

 

I was sipping a highball as I watched the removal men load the Pickfords lorry with the last of my boxes. Leaning against the doorway I followed their movements in the haze outside. The driver waved at me.

I raised my glass as they turned at the end of the road. I lingered on the threshold of my immaculate Richmond home. Then I passed along the empty corridors, and stood in the vacant rooms.

I left my glass in the kitchen sink and removed my wallet from my pocket. I stared at the name on my credit card. Then I walked out into the burning street.

London was hitting the high 80’s the day I moved, and that summer the temperature kept climbing. Pavements buckled, tarmac split. We were being given a glimpse through the cracks. I saw people break apart, tempers flare. It was like living beneath a magnifying glass. The city is never prepared for that kind of heat.

From what I recall, statistically, there were more assaults than previously recorded. But statistics do not concern me, nor do these incidental events. They were lost to me then. And while I may be interested in records, it is a different kind of memory I sought in those blazing months, when someone set a match to what I knew and who I was. I was left with only blindness and yearning.

I drove out of Richmond, away from the past. I stopped only once on the way to the new house, at a small pub where I drank a Glenfiddich. The men were getting out of the lorry as I pulled my Mercedes onto the neat gravel drive.

I’d arrived at my new life in Shepperton.

 

 

After they left I unpacked the box marked “Important Stuff.” I removed my supply of whisky and wine, placing the 12 bottles of 1978 Montrachet in the fridge. The house was perfect, from the quartz worktops, to the oak floors. It was all new, and some distant, suffocated part of my being began to breathe. I admired the suede wallpaper in the living room, looked out at the tree-lined avenue, and passed through the French doors to the landscaped garden, and down the springy grass to the fountain at its end.

The water played out of Hermes’ mouth like a liquid reel of film. Its noise troubled me, and the landscape turned to sepia for an instant, as all the colour went out of the world. I turned away and went inside to inhale the odour of newness again. I was high on the tabula rasa feel.

I scaled the stairs to the master bedroom. There was no history there. I entered the en suite bathroom, and found myself illuminated before the mirror, as the sensor lights came on.

I considered my even, expressionless face, the full head of silver streaked hair, and my watchful blue eyes hiding beneath the steel rimmed glasses. I stood back and looked at my physique, slim, toned, for someone approaching fifty. I had the appearance of a man who played tennis. I wondered what green courts I passed my hours in, and with whom. I seemed an empty proposition, plundered and lost. And I thought about tomorrow, feeling the sweat crawl down my back like a hungry spider. I saw a shape move on the tiles as I left my reflection there and found myself in the hallway. It seemed to lead nowhere and so I went downstairs, away from the shadow in the bathroom.

The estate agents had left a welcome basket in the kitchen, and a cheap bottle of champagne in the fridge. I opened it, since the Montrachet was not cold enough, and I thought how quickly the bubbles burst in the neck of the bottle and of the fragile nature of time. I tried to recall the feeling of hunger as I nibbled on a pear and some cheese, a basic cheddar from a supermarket, sweating in its plastic wrapper.

By now it was growing dark and the windows were full of the trees’ shadows. They seemed unknowable, beyond my reach, and so I drew the curtains. A car was passing by with its windows down. I could hear the insistent opening notes of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, and Stevie Nicks singing “Damn your love, damn your lies.”

The Zippo was falling again, its flame scorching me. I stood in the hollow room, my breathing laboured and exaggerated, as a nerve twitched in my right arm. Then I remembered the whisky I’d packed in my case.

Nestled beneath my clothes was the 64 year old Macallan. I caressed the lost-wax casting and opened it, inhaling its violent oxygen.

 

 

2.

 

It was 90 degrees the next day. I showered and dressed, then left the house.

I was opening the door to my car when I heard my name called.

“Mr Allen?”

I turned and froze.

She was standing on the edge of my drive in a floral print skirt and matching blouse, and she raised her sunglasses and looked at me with the purest translucent green eyes I’d ever seen. She seemed to have walked straight off a film set, and I looked around for the crew, seeing only the empty avenue.

“I believe you’ve just bought The Telescope,” she said. “I’m your neighbour.”

I walked over to her and extended a hand.

“I just got here last night, slept like a log, and still half asleep, forgive my slowness.”

“Welcome to Broadlands Avenue. I thought I’d introduce myself, Mr Allen, and ask your indulgence.”

“Please, call me Rex.”

She lowered her voice to almost a whisper.

“Rex, we’re having a party tonight, it won’t be noisy, but we don’t want to disturb you. I’m sure you’re busy unpacking, but I thought it would be a nice opportunity for you to meet the neighbours.”

“What time?”

“Drinks around six?”

“Can I bring anything?”

“Just yourself.”

She looked over my shoulder.

“It’s a fantastic house, I’ve seen the work they did on it, although…”

“Something I don’t know?”

“It’s the only one round here with no swimming pool. I’d feel a bit cheated.”

“I don’t particularly like them.”

“How odd.”

“And the garden is fantastic.”

“That’s true.”

“I wonder how it got its name.”

“One of the previous owners was obsessed by astronomy, he had telescopes everywhere.”

“That must have been a bit discomforting.”

“Oh, I don’t know, it depends if you’ve got something to hide. I like the SLK,” she said, patting my Mercedes, “good body. See you about six then, and if you want to, bring your swimming trunks.”

She was walking away when I said, “I didn’t catch your name.”

“How stupid of me, it’s Evangeline. Evangeline Glass.”

 

 

I did some grocery shopping, and spent the day unpacking boxes, stopping to eat a lunch of smoked salmon and to imbibe a bottle of the Montrachet. It was almost five when I stepped into the shower.

The house next door was secluded behind Beech hedges. I stood on the pavement and looked around. It was a long and silent avenue, punctuated only by the noise coming from the party. I heard female laughter as I rang the bell.

Evangeline answered the door and led me through to the kitchen. She was wearing a light blue sarong, wrapped tightly around her body.

“I brought you a couple of bottles,” I said.

“Krug, how generous Rex. I think I’m going to like you.”

She kissed me on the cheek and I watched her bend and place them in the fridge. I estimated she was in her early thirties, but her body was younger, full, and toned. I could smell melon rising from her tanned skin.

“Come and meet the neighbours,” she said.

I put on my sunglasses and stepped outside into the glare.

By the pool a fat man in a beige jacket was talking loudly to a smaller guy in white shorts and a Miami shirt. Two women in bikinis were lying on loungers set against the back wall, while a swarthy man in a pair of faded jeans stood putting sausages on the barbecue with a pair of tongs. He was wearing an apron that looked covered in blood.

“Rex, meet my husband, Harry,” Evangeline said.

He came over and shook my hand.

“You’re the new neighbour.”

“I am.”

“Excuse the blood stained butcher’s apron, one of my wife’s jokes. I buy her expensive dresses and she buys me this.”

“I think it suits him,” Evangeline said, handing me a glass of champagne.

I heard a splash as someone got into the pool. Its water was an intense blue, and I looked away from it into Evangeline’s emerald eyes. There was mischief and knowledge in her face. I watched the sun on her dark hair, that day of the first of her many summer parties.

“How you settling in?” Harry said, picking up his tongs.

“Not bad. Unpacking’s always a chore.”

“I hear you’re living there alone.”

“Just a quiet neighbour,” I said.

“No kids?”

I shook my head.

He was looking over my shoulder and I followed his line of vision as it tracked Evangeline around the pool. She was laughing with the man in the shorts and at one point she put her hand on his chest, to avoid spilling her drink.

“Something’s funny,” I said.

“Looks like it.”

Harry went to put more steaks on the barbecue and I found myself shaking hands with the fat man.

“Kevin,” he said, pumping my hand, “Kevin Fancy.”

“Rex.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you at one of the Glass parties before. They’re quite a hoot, especially when the women get drunk and plunge in.”

He sniggered like a school boy.

“I just moved in next door.”

“Oh, you’re the new neighbour. I don’t live in Broadlands Avenue, but I’m a Shepperton boy, have been for years. This is my wife, Brenda.”

As we were talking, I’d seen one of the lounging women get up, slip into a skirt, and walk over with a glass in her hand. She was in her late thirties, dark skinned, and looked like she’d peroxided her hair until most of the nutrients had been stripped out of it. But she was attractive in a brash way. She had full lips and dissatisfaction written into the lines on her face. Her hand was cool and she left it in mine just a little longer than was necessary.

“Rex,” I said.

“Oh, that Rex, Evangeline mentioned you. You bought the end house.”

“Clever chap,” Kevin said, “it means he only has one neighbour. And, with one as charming as Evangeline, who needs more? Another G & T, Brenda?”

She nodded and he wandered off.

“How do you like The Telescope?” she said.

“It’s perfect for what I want.”

“And what’s that?”

“Privacy.”

“Are you a bachelor?”

“You could say that.”

Her eyes wandered to Evangeline, who was talking to Kevin. As Brenda stood there in a purple bikini top, polka dots dancing across her large breasts, she seemed to be weighing her hostess up. I felt the crackle of hostility hover in the air around azure blue, ever cool, Evangeline.

The party began to fill out. Couples arrived every few minutes until there was almost no room to manoeuvre the edge of the pool. Harry watched his wife with possessive scrutiny.

The balding guy in the shorts talked to me about property and how he was about to pull off a major deal.

“Retirement cash,” he said, in a whisper.

“Is it a secret?”

“It is from my wife, if she finds out she’ll go on another shopping spree.”

He punched me on the shoulder and let out a laugh that sounded like a pistol shot.

“Did I hear my name mentioned?” the other lounging woman said.

She’d fallen asleep by the pool and now stood there looking hazy eyed.

“This is the Glass’s new neighbour,” he said.

“Oh, Brad, you simply are dreadful with names.”

He put his hand to his mouth.

“Rex,” I said.

His wife shook my hand.

“Alberta.”

She was pink-faced from the sun and her fair eyelashes made her small eyes look empty of expression.

“These parties have something of a reputation,” Brad said.

Alberta put her hand on my arm.

“Oh yes, all sorts of naughty things happen, haven’t you heard about the Shepperton orgies?”

I mustered a laugh as Evangeline joined us.

“Are you gossiping about me?” she said.

Alberta attempted a sly smile that made her look feckless. It didn’t suit her flat face.

“Of course,” she said.

Evangeline took me by the arm.

“Now, Rex, I want you to meet everyone, I can’t have the Smythes hogging you.”

I spoke to most of them, the tired wives and loud husbands, and thought about my new house, empty of the pretensions that were beginning to grate on me. They were not Evangeline’s, but those of her strange collection of guests, all uncomfortable, all trying just a little too hard. But then everyone looked awkward in Evangeline’s presence.

I found Harry annoying and aggressive, and wondered briefly what I was doing there that Saturday as the sky held the promise of a hotter day. And I saw the answer as she stood by the pool and removed her sarong. It was a simple, sensual gesture that almost stopped my heart. She arched her wrist and pulled on the tie, letting the azure silk slide down her legs. She stepped into the water in an indigo bikini. She was perfectly toned, with a model’s figure, and I was aware of Harry standing next to me watching as she swam while night fell and the sky filled with stars.

Evangeline was an exotic misfit among the mundane. Brenda joined her, and a few of the other wives splashed about. They looked ungainly and awkward, like women learning to swim in middle age, while Evangeline moved as if she was in her own element and water was made for her. As she climbed the steps and dried herself with a towel, there was a moment when she caught my eye with a knowingness that chilled me. I sensed conspiracy amid the drunken chatter.

I was watching her when Harry slapped me on the back.

“I made my money from scrap metal,” he said, “worked my way up, now I own half of London. You could say I’m a diamond in the rough, not good enough for a lot of the people around here. What do I care? Look at what I’ve got. A gem, isn’t she? Imagine how good looking our kids would be if we had them, but Evangeline doesn’t want to mess up her figure. Who can blame her?”

We looked at her in mutual admiration, and I was aware of the warning as he squeezed my shoulder.

“Coming for a swim?” he said, removing his apron.

His chest was covered in a large tattoo of a snake and his right arm sported the letter E.

“No thanks.”

He paused on the pool steps, unbuckling his belt and throwing his jeans onto a chair.

“What is it you do, Rex?”

“I’m retired.”

He began to swim, his head floating in the spotlight, a black helmet of menace covering his submerged body.

I was putting my glass down on a poolside table when Brenda came up to me and said, “You mustn’t take any notice of Harry, he’s jealous, that’s all.”

“No need to be where I’m concerned.”

“Still, I can’t blame him. Evangeline’s a friend, but sometimes…”

I waited for her to finish.

“Sometimes?” I said.

“She pushes things too far.”

 

 

3.

 

She rang the bell a week later. I’d got most of the things I wanted out of the boxes and placed them where I felt they belonged. It was a precarious exercise, since many of them didn’t seem to fit anywhere in the new house. I spent one frustrating afternoon moving some vases from room to room, eventually deciding to give them to a charity shop. Vases without flowers always brought to mind images of sterility, vast metal corridors empty of people.

I’d only packed two pictures. I put them in the living room, side by side on the recessed shelf next to the French doors.

I’d just finished lunch when I opened the door to see Evangeline standing there in a satin red pencil skirt and matching sequin halter top. She lifted her Chanel sunglasses and tucked them into her brunette hair.

“Are you unpacked, Rex?”

“More or less.”

“I thought I’d see if you needed a hand.”

“You any good with a corkscrew?”

She put her palm out and I led her into the cool hall.

“It really is a beautiful house,” she said. “If I didn’t love mine so much I’d buy it off you. Now what I want to know is why a bachelor needs all these rooms.”

“You can never have too many,” I said, passing her the last of the 1978 Montrachet.

“Very nice,” she said, as she pulled the cork.

I poured us a glass each and we wandered through The Telescope. Evangeline stopped every so often to take in a detail.

In the living room she picked up one of the pictures.

“She’s pretty, Rex, such pale skin, and beautiful eyes.” She put it down. “I’m sorry, how nosy of me.”

We sat outside and looked at the garden as we finished our wine.

“I enjoyed the party,” I said.

“Good, because there will be more of them and a sure way to keep the new neighbour friendly is to invite him to them. And next time I want you to swim. Everyone’s asking about you.”

“I can’t see why I’m of such interest.”

“Rex, you’re a single man living alone in this huge place.”

“I see, they think I have a story. They’ll be disappointed when they find out how uninteresting I am.”

“Everyone has a story, Rex. This place was seen by several families with children before you stole it from them with a full cash offer. The agent’s a friend of ours. People wonder why you need such a big place. They’re not being nosy, it’s just the way they are round here. Harry hated it when we arrived. I told him we should throw parties. You see, it’s the fact you have no kids that makes them curious.”

“I did.”

“Did?”

“You saw her, in the living room.”

She put her hand on my arm.

“I’m so sorry. I feel awful.”

“I can’t talk about it.”

“I understand, Rex. We can’t have kids.”

I thought for a moment she was talking about us, then, as she stood up to leave, I remembered she was married.

I watched through the window as she walked down the drive. The pane of glass reminded me of a lens.

A bubble of pain was swelling inside me. All afternoon I heard the repetitive sound of camera shutters.

 

 

4.

 

I was missing the Montrachet and ordered several more cases of it as well as some Premier Cru Meursault from Berry Bros in London. They arrived the next day as I noted the Macallan was running out. I set them twelve at a time on the quartz counter and looked at the liquid behind the glass, clear, unmarked, reassuring it its captive purity.

I was placing them in the fridge when I heard Evangeline’s voice coming from next door, and I walked into the garden to listen. She was talking on her mobile.

“I know I said two but I can’t make it, something’s come up, you know how it is with Harry, how he gets. No, he hasn’t done anything to me, but I can’t call you on this phone, he’s been looking at the bills. … OK I’ll see you then.”

She was on the other side of the high fence, barely a few feet from me, and I could smell her perfume. The vanilla and musk hovered in the hot air. Unmistakeable. She was wearing Shalini. My garden suddenly felt erotic as I stood in its green, well-tended enclosure listening to her.

I heard the clack of her heels on the stone patio and the sliding of doors. Her odour left me itching for a drop of whisky.

I waited until lunch, when I had some crab and salad and two shots of my diminishing solace, liquid gold in the glass.

I hadn’t showered and I went upstairs, where the running water made me crave more drink.

I can say now I hadn’t planned the things I did that summer. But that day the sound started again. It was as familiar as an itch. It wouldn’t stop. It was like a million cameras on a photo shoot. It was incessant, nagging, and I knew it wouldn’t let up until I’d made the purchase and stood one step away from the world.

That afternoon I ordered the Red One Mysterium X cinema camera. It shot at 4k resolution and would provide the kind of quality I needed.

 

 

They had another party that evening. Evangeline rang the doorbell but I ignored her. I sat at the back of The Telescope and finished the Macallan. I listened to the laughter rising in the summer air. The sky was an intense blue as the moon came up and I heard the sound of splashing from the swimming pool.

Then I went inside and made sure every tap in my house was shut tight. I lay in the dark hearing their voices.

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

ERSATZ WORLD

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2016

Published by #13 Press

 

 

#1

 

Samuel Verso raised himself out of bed and looked down at his wife’s emaciated body beneath sheets that looked as though she had covered them in powder overnight. He wondered what the substance was that he found every morning adhering to the cotton they slept beneath, as if some fallout had occurred during the night and attempted to embalm them as relics of a redundant age. He thought briefly about what she might have used, recalling her many strange unaccountable habits, feeling like a relic, understanding in a distant way her anxious state of self-antagonism. He left the stagnant bedroom and went downstairs to make some coffee, eyeing the newspaper with disinterest until he saw the article about the latest publishing giant to have crashed. And as he held his copy of The Times in his sweating hands the print came away on his palms, as if it too belonged to an ephemeral world that engulfed him like polluted tidal waters, making its presence known to him in an irrefutable way.

‘Hachette files bankruptcy amid publishing turmoil,’ the headline read.

He scanned the article, seeing ruins crumble, entire edifices of the world he once felt was secure becoming powder, like the dust that settled each night on his marital bed. He felt historicised, as if a resident zeitgeist were fracturing his being, splintering his identity like a piece of bone. The familiar taste of nausea flooded his mouth as he sipped his coffee, and he wondered if he lived in a state of permanent apprehension, as if some part of him knew what was about to occur. And as he stared at his reflection in the kitchen window he wondered what it was he feared, what denouement in his waning drama would be the act that shook him to his core, feeling as though some watchful conspiracy were about to embroil him in its agenda. The world was becoming unfathomable to him.

Samuel Verso showered in a daze, immaterial, ghostly beyond the rising steam that seduced his own body from him as he tried to scrub the distasteful news away. The pleasant sensation of the water on his skin allowed his fears to ebb. But their abatement was only momentary, because he knew that outside his hollow home a world of sabotage existed like a knife beneath the mattress he slept on every night. He dried himself, patting the water droplets from his skin as he thought of his wife, labouring in dreams he would never know, out of touch, beyond comprehension. She was becoming immaterial, losing herself each day to fantasies he deemed psychotic, a woman immersed in a personal derangement that she expressed in a manner he considered sexual, an erotic discharge of female obsession with things that end in mutilation.

He left the house and stepped out onto the neat path that dissected the small front garden. He stood on the pavement outside number 24 Plate Road in Sheen wondering what his wife would do today while he was gone, and what he would return to. Then he got in his car and started the engine. The drive to work in Kensington was the same as it had been for weeks. Buildings and people passed by his white Volvo S80 as if on a reel of film that replayed itself over and over on a daily basis and from time to time Samuel wondered if any of it was real, as if London itself had been caught in some mirror that merely fed simulations of the city’s life to its inhabitants. He got out and stared at his car, and his reflection in its metal. And he wondered why he drove such a machine.

He buffed the gold name plate on the door to his office, running his tailored sleeve across the words Verso & Perk with satisfaction, feeling relief spread its way across his body as he entered the building. Belinda was already at her desk, The Times in front of her neatly folded, smelling of the printing press.

‘You’ve read it I take it?’ Samuel said.

‘I have,’ she said.

Her voice sounded as though it were coming through an intercom. Samuel waited for Belinda to say something else, to test his initial impression that her tone was altered, mechanised in some way that presented yet another threat, but she merely stared up at him with a look of innocence that had to be a subterfuge as the phone rang.

‘Belinda Perk,’ she said, picking it up and eyeing her fingernails.

Samuel momentarily disappeared into their intense red gloss, seeing a distorted reflection of the room, like an incongruous Christmas setting moving on her hands.

‘No I do not know where he is, and if I did it is not information I would disclose, thank you.’

She hung up.

‘Another call about Fontana Rate?’ Samuel said.

‘Of course.’

‘We have one outstanding author left on our books and he goes missing. Why at a time like this?’

‘I imagine the issue is sexual.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘He told me he needed to retreat from the public eye. Have you read his latest manuscript?’

‘I have.’

‘And?’

‘It’s brilliant. It may just save us.’

‘So, we track him down and publish.’

‘I’m struggling to keep us afloat. You know what the latest sales figures were. The rise of digital publishing has crippled us, and now another house has gone bust. Where does that leave us, Belinda?’

‘It leaves us here,’ she said, standing up and walking towards him. ‘We publish, we make profit, we have to adapt to the times.’

Belinda stood defiantly before him, her full figure in a body hugging white blouse and tight mauve skirt. She was a brunette who seemed to harbour erotic tendencies that Samuel suspected may endanger the men she dated. She had sexually invasive green eyes that alternated in expression between a businesslike calculation and a sensual reverie. Her lips were full, always coated in bright red lipstick. Samuel estimated her to be in her early forties, although he had never asked her age and curiously her resumé had gone missing in the office. She’d always struck him as too good looking to be an agent and publisher. There was something too carnal about her. Yes, she was predatory and right now that was what he needed for the company.

‘In the meantime we have a missing author,’ he said.

‘I’ll find him, you carry on here.’

‘Watching the publishing industry crumble?’

‘Publish our back list as e-books.’

‘What?’

‘It’s the only way we’ll survive.’

‘And what about Rate’s novel?’

‘Bring that out as a hardback.’

‘I need him to edit it, there are parts that are odd. I know it’s the one title we have that will sell.’

‘Odd how?’

‘I’m not sure. I do know it is a work of genius but there seems to be some latent subversiveness there, which he needs to translate into a language the reader can understand.’

‘Since when did the reader understand anything?’

‘That’s a dangerous stance, Belinda.’

‘Each year they trot one out, the novel they don’t get but they all buy because they want to be seen with it in their hands.’

‘I want to talk to Rate.’

‘Leave that to me.’

‘And what do we do in the meantime?’

‘Hachette refused to lower their prices, that’s why they’ve gone bust. Bring out the old titles digitally.’

‘I suppose you’re right.’

Belinda sat down as Samuel went over to his desk and read his emails. The latest sales statistics were less than encouraging and he glanced at his back list, thinking how much could be made out of them if he sold them all as e-books. And he knew that they would not yield enough money.

He glanced over at Belinda and she seemed hazy, her body less flesh than vapour. He felt himself dispersing in the clouded room. He looked at the hardbacks that lined his shelves, a physical reality that was threatened by the code that generated books read on screens. His career and life seemed redundant now and he existed in a time he had no comprehension of.

He went into the tiny bathroom and poured cold water into his cupped hands, splashing his face with it. He adjusted his bright yellow tie and looked in the mirror at his tanned face, unlined for a man of 52. He was still handsome, appealing in a professional way. He had a friendly full face that inspired confidence in others, or at least it used to. His greying hair gave him a patriarchal look Samuel considered comforting. And his deep set blue eyes were youthful in their own way, an anomaly in the weary expression he wore. As he looked at his own reflection he wondered why he had lost confidence in himself, and then it seemed to him as if all reflective surfaces had been occupied by simulacra, that an alteration had occurred to the realm of what was knowable. He walked back into the office, picking his glasses off his chest where they perched, dangling from a chain.

He put them on and, peering at Belinda over their rims, said, ‘You find him, I’ll publish.’

‘Of course you will,’ she said.

Her comment sounded like an order, she was vying for position, but to Samuel the order was redundant. He saw a rotting wooden ladder without rungs sinking into the mud.

‘You know, when I look at those,’ he said, glancing at the shelves lined with the books he’d published, ‘that is what I see as publishing. An electronic book doesn’t seem to exist for me. There is no physical materiality to it, it is a reduction of literature and words. It’s as if we are all turning into code.’

He removed his glasses as Belinda stood up aggressively.

‘It’s your generation, that’s all. E-books are here and they’re here to stay. Unless you capitalise on them you will sink, and Samuel I am not going to sink. Look at me, I want to dress like this,’ she said, running her hands down her skirt, ‘and enjoy a certain lifestyle, you know that. So, as your partner I’m telling you to go ahead and bring those old titles out, put them on Amazon.’

‘Amazon,’ Samuel said, almost choking.

Belinda arched an eyebrow.

‘Don’t make yourself impotent. I don’t like impotent men.’

‘You like younger men.’

‘This is not about sex.’

‘What happened to the bookstore?’

‘Give them to the highest bidder, make them available to as many readers as you can.’

‘Whore my titles.’

‘If that’s how you see it.’

‘There’s no satisfaction in reading an e-book.’

Belinda reached a paperback off the shelf and, opening it, held it up to Samuel’s face. He tried to see what novel it was, but it was too close and he fumbled for his glasses.

‘What is it about this that is so special?’ she said.

‘It’s print.’

‘And an e-book is electronically printed.’

‘No it is not.’ Samuel felt momentarily comforted by the smell of the print as Belinda held the book there in the air. ‘A physical book is a sensual experience. I know. I have published many great names. Don’t forget that I was seen as the leading publisher in my day, discovering new talent and bringing it to the public.’

‘I know,’ Belinda said, putting the book back on the shelf. ‘You’re an outstanding publisher. That’s why I work with you. I could have carried on just being an agent but I wanted more. I wanted to work with a man who had the ability to bring out new names and sell them. You can go on being successful but you can’t ignore e-books.’

Samuel sat down wearily.

‘I feel technological progress is eroding all I have achieved.’

‘You’ve been looking stressed and unlike yourself for weeks.’

‘I think I’m being followed.’

‘Samuel.’

The admonishing note in her tone made him look up at her. She was putting on her gloves, gently nudging them between her fingertips and in that moment Samuel felt an overwhelming desire to unburden himself. He got up and walked over to her. He could just make out the hint of her white lace bra between the buttons of her tight blouse as he said, ‘A black car has been following me for days.’

‘What kind of car?’

‘I’m not sure, it’s unmarked.’

 

 

#2

 

After Belinda had left, Samuel sat down at his desk. She had been in the habit of going out around this time to get a sandwich, she said, so she could work through the afternoon without interruption when she was at her busiest. He considered it an odd time to do so and wondered why it always took her so long. She was becoming an object of mystery to him, part of the alien world of reading devices and gadgets. He was surrounded by the disintegration of man, the streets peopled with simulations. And now his colleague seemed part of it, the unknowability of others, the endless disengagement from the real. Samuel analysed the history of her habits, as if they held a clue to her motives in backing the rise of the digital revolution, the thing he felt had placed his career in this position of threat that was both financial and cultural. For Samuel had always felt that the printed page was a basic historical artefact, and each time he published a new novel he was entering history. But the books would fade, as indeed the e-books would. Yet the physical books had a better chance of survival. And it was this, he realised, as he sat there brooding over Belinda, that was his main preoccupation, how to survive in an alien world. He resisted the code that informed daily life, the lives hooked on computer screens. It was as if humanity was being eroded by devices. The narrative structures of the great literary novels seemed altered by the shift of medium, from print to digital.

He dreaded this time of the morning. It was when the emails began to flood in, like a stream of insanity filling his inbox. He looked at his computer screen. It seemed to him an empty space full of invasions. Then they began, one every few minutes. The subject line of the first read, ‘Bomb the body starve.’

Samuel considered ignoring it, but concern got the better of him and he opened the email.

‘The body is not real, I disintegrate and you exist nowhere. Remove parts, legs and arms.’

They flooded in for an hour, one after another. One in particular – with the subject line ‘I Am Rendered Insubstantial’ – alarmed him. The email read, ‘What do they do with the parts when they remove them? We do not need our bodies. I have knives and will excise. I will not be physical when you return. I will be disincorporate for I am not part of the organisation.’

Samuel stared at his office, seeking the certainties of a physical world. He looked at the desks and computers and felt he inhabited a disembodied space, a place where electronic communications rendered business unreal. He got up and ran his hand across the wooden arms of chairs, feeling reassured. He thought about Belinda, wondering where she was. And he wondered what she did alone. It seemed to him equally logical and absurd as a question, for, if she were not to be trusted because of her publishing views, then what she did in private was of the utmost concern, and equally, if he was being unreasonable then he was also being absurd. He walked over to the window and stared down into the street.

People walked by talking on mobile phones. They were part of something so profoundly alien to Samuel they looked like appendages.

Then he saw the black car below. It was parked opposite his office and he could just make out two figures sitting in it. It was a car that might be seen on any London street and Samuel tried to identify the model, but from the side he could not make out a badge. The men seemed to be staring straight ahead of them, motionless and unreal.

Samuel wondered how long they had been following him. The reason for their being there was as mysterious to him as computer code. Perhaps they weren’t real, but part of an advertisement. Perhaps the world of simulations had reached a point of such verisimilitude he didn’t know the difference. He considered going down into the street and kicking the driver’s door, of pushing them to a confrontation that would force them to expose their motives for being there.

He sat down at his desk as Belinda came in and took her coat off. She was clutching a sandwich in a white bag and one of the buttons in the middle of her blouse was undone. She looked at him with a glance that seemed to Samuel immersed in a conspiracy. But it was neither sexual nor conscious, as if she were programmed to a series of seductive actions. And it seemed to Samuel that she was trying to seduce him.

Belinda tracked his gaze as it rested on her bra. Her expression was empty of personal response, neither embarrassed nor aroused, as if she expected this from him. Yet there had never been any kind of erotic innuendo passed between them. Samuel allowed his eyes to linger there, as if he wanted to provoke her into an admission whose nature he did not know. Belinda began to finger the button immediately below, her eyes on his, her pose that of the seductress. Suddenly she was another woman, about to strip for him, bringing with her a private peep show into a world whose distractions might trick him from awareness. And he thought of the car outside and the men waiting for him. Belinda put her hand inside her blouse, then did the open button up and promptly sat down at her desk.

As she began to eat her sandwich she looked like a secretary awaiting orders, her face expectant, a look of deceit in her eyes, as if she had found out what it was that was ailing Samuel, as if she was part of the surveillance the men outside his fragile window had placed him under. With her hands neatly folded around the paper white bread she seemed to be adopting a pose, to be exercising a form of bodily control that taunted him, as if the precision of her movements was a deliberate antithesis to his sense of disintegration, as if she wanted to see him stand and stagger across the room, unable to contain his fear, a man lost in a world of reinventions. There was an invitation in her eyes as she looked across the room at him. He expected her to rise and cross the carpet, hips swaying, part of a film whose erotic nature was designed to lure him into further uncertainty, as if she’d been poached by digital forces and now would offer her body as an exciting coastal shelf off which he would step into the world of code. He expected her to reach across and touch his face with idle hands and utter words whose meaning would be both obscene and an affront to their relationship. This was the moment of subversion he’d been dreading, the signal that his publishing career was shredded like a redundant bill between sharp teeth that whirred in offices where the paranoia of information leaks dwelt like microbes in the walls. She would tactically prompt a seduction whose purpose was to turn Samuel into a hieroglyph. She would use her body to entice him to a sexual code that would hook him on the digital. And Samuel readied himself for her sexual advance. He thought of obscenities he would utter to offend her, and realised that while he had often wondered about her sex life he had never considered her as a partner. Belinda was evidently a sexual woman, but their relationship had never allowed sexual interest. He looked at her and waited for her to rise and finger her buttons. Instead, Belinda put her sandwich down, her palms facing the top of her desk.

‘Samuel, what is it?’ she said.

‘Your trips.’

‘I haven’t made any. We’re cutting back remember?’

‘No, outside.’

‘I’m not sure I follow.’

‘You’ve changed your habits.’

‘Samuel you have been sitting there staring at me.’

‘You go out for sandwiches but return with more than food.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘What do you do when you are out?’

‘I buy some lunch as you can see.’

‘No, there’s something else.’

‘What?’

‘Your button was undone.’

‘And?’

‘Was it a deliberate act?’

‘I’m going to finish my lunch. Then I’m going to make some phone calls.’

 

 

#3

 

But she didn’t make any calls, or none that Samuel heard. He did hear her say something as he was in the small toilet they shared with the precarious sense of hygiene a man and woman share about these things, an unspoken agreement that liquids remain invisible to each user. Samuel stopped as he heard her speak. He stared at the bottles of detergent and sprays that packed small corner next to the toilet. Belinda bought them all. He felt the command to spray the surfaces of the toilet and sink and remove all bacteria before he returned to the office, as sterile as a scalpel, clean and willing to receive her verbal incisions into his beliefs about publishing.

‘Did you say something?’ Samuel said, walking back into the room.

‘I snagged my tight.’

‘I thought you were on the phone. You said you had calls to make.’

‘They can wait, I need to change these.’

‘You were speaking to yourself.’

‘I said “Oh bugger, it’s a huge hole.”’

‘It sounded longer, like a conversation.’

‘No, it’s no good, I’ll have to take them off.’

She hadn’t even looked at him as they spoke, her head bent, as she stared at the hole in her tights. Now she stood up, began to unzip her skirt and went into the toilet.

When she returned she appeared to have changed into another pair of tights, although Samuel didn’t dare to look at her legs, concerned it would be interpreted as sexual interest. He wondered what else she kept in the toilet, imagining an entire wardrobe tucked away in there. But there was only a small cupboard under the sink. And from what he remembered it was full of cleaning products.

All afternoon he had the distinct notion that there was something different about Belinda. It was as if this woman who had returned from the shops was not the same as the agent and fellow publisher he’d worked with for years. He studied her hair, the way she tapped the keys of her keyboard, and that day Samuel concluded that Belinda had been fundamentally altered in some way and was now an ersatz version of herself. Her movements had changed, she had betrayed herself to technology.

She saw him eyeing her and he looked away, concerned his interest might be mistaken for sexual desire. He thought about how frequently she made it clear she enjoyed men and wore occasionally revealing but always tasteful clothes that flattered her figure. She seemed too dominant, and her eyes sparkled with sexual intent.

As she glanced at him he began writing an email to his distributor explaining his concerns about the latest changes to their practice. It seemed preposterous to him that they should undersell themselves when all that was needed was a return to the old manner of publishing. Surely, he thought, people would get sick of reading devices and want to clutch a good, strong smelling paperback again. Women liked to soak in a bath with a novel perched on their breasts as they escaped the tedium of their evenings.

‘My concerns are twofold,’ Samuel began, feeling that even this email was part of some watchful conspiracy against him and what he stood for, that the letters he typed were being converted in cyberspace to a set of codes at once meaningless to him and yet supportive of the sudden change in the world he now felt apart from. He continued typing, his gaze averted from Belinda who sat staring at the sweat on his forehead.

‘To offer our titles at the prices you suggest would leave us with no profit margin and the likes of Amazon would win. We would be out of business and no doubt all of your clients would follow. What is it about this amorphous abstract thing that everyone wants to download with an instantaneousness that is at once childish and cheap? Should we not club together and insist on raising the standard?’

Samuel felt that he was typing into a TV monitor and that his face was being recorded. He got up and walked over to the window. The car began to move away, crawling to the end of the road where it stopped, indicating a right turn for a suspiciously long time. He patted his forehead dry as Belinda said, ‘What is wrong Samuel?’

He waved an arm at the line of books on the shelves.

‘This. All of this that I have worked for threatened by a gadget, it is inconceivable to me that people should be so stupid.’

‘Get with the times.’

‘What if all the days are one?

‘I’m concerned about you. We need to survive.’

‘I think the e-reader is destroying books.’

Belinda stood up and Samuel saw she wasn’t wearing any tights.

‘Is something else bothering you? You can tell me, I’m open minded you know.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Is it your marriage?’

‘My wife is insane.’

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

LOCKED IN CAGES

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2016

Published by Black Opal Books

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

It was Samantha Villa who hired Earl Blake, much to her husband Julian’s annoyance.

“You’re really going to entrust our son’s welfare to that man?” he said.

“I know you don’t like me seeing my exes, but he’s the best.”

“The best at what?”

“Finding people.”

“Or is it an excuse to see him? Mr. Rugged?”

“Guilty talk, Julian, your tic has returned.”

Julian Villa stood glaring at her in his Armani suit, clutching a glass of whiskey, as the doorbell rang. He put the glass down, smoothed his eyebrows with his thumbs, and ran his hand through his thick black hair. He was a handsome man with a tanned face—a picture of health, whose manners seemed to hide a feral instinct. He adjusted his gold tie, nudging it farther into his sheer white collar.

“That must be him,” Julian said, “your private investigator, although why you chose him when I have a list of the best in the business leads me to some interesting questions.”

“He is the best in the business. Are you going to let him in?”

“I hope he wipes his feet on the mat of our beautiful home.”

“A house is not a home, Julian.”

Samantha went downstairs as Julian composed himself in the living room of their Kensington house. She fussed with her hair in the mirror in the marble tiled hall. It was blonde and lustrous and caressed her shoulders. Samantha was in her early forties and had a face that all men looked at twice. It was both beautiful and reserved in a way that gave her instant mystique, and her skin was as supple as that of a woman in her twenties. She had unearthly blue eyes, as clear as polished lapis. They took you in and gently drifted from your face, as if she were lost in some inner sadness. Her hands were shaking as she opened the door.

Earl was standing there with his motorcycle helmet in one hand, that same sparkle in his deep green eyes that made her high all those years ago. She looked away from him and at his bike, parked neatly before their immaculate lawn. And she realised the despair she’d felt for days was fading. She wanted to reach out and touch Earl’s face, she wanted to think forbidden things. But Julian was upstairs and the burden of her marriage weighed on her, as if he was standing behind her, laying a heavy hand on her shoulder.

“New bike?” she said, annoyed at herself for the trite question.

He nodded.

“Looks fast. You always did like fast bikes, Earl.”

“Kawasaki Ninja.”

“Come in.”

The brevity of his responses unnerved her, and she wondered if it was a mistake calling him over the abduction. But Earl had kept his intelligent, masculine gaze on her from the moment she opened the door, and Samantha felt scrutinised in a way that was not unpleasant. He stepped into the hall and looked at the large staircase and the oak panels on the first landing.

“Nice place, it’s been a few years, Sam, but you haven’t changed.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, offering him her cheek and feeling like a teenager again.

“You said you need me to find someone.”

“Our son’s been abducted. You better come upstairs and meet Julian.”

She wondered if she’d overdressed for a meeting that was meant to be business-like and dignified with pain, and although she was in pain, she glanced at her pearl earrings in the mirror over the sofa as she walked into the living room and recalled an argument long ago with Earl about her taste in jewellery. He’d accused her of being lavish in the days before the money came along, and she wondered now what he felt about her. She looked over at Julian. He had his back to them and was looking out of the window. He turned and gave Earl his best smile, the perfect fake that Samantha knew so well.

“Earl, so nice to see you after all these years,” he said, striding across the parquet floor and shaking Earl’s hand warmly. “I’m sorry our reunion has been brought about by such sad news. I’m sure my wife has told you the reason for her contacting you. I also hear you’re adept at finding missing people.”

“I’ve worked on a few cases.”

“It’s our son, Michael, you see.”

“Samantha tells me he’s been abducted.”

“Indeed.”

“Have you had communication from his kidnapper?”

“We have, and it’s of a most unpleasant and disturbing kind.”

“We got a film in the post yesterday, that’s when I couldn’t take it anymore,” Samantha said.

“Can I see it?”

“Of course. Forgive me, I haven’t offered you a drink,” Julian said.

“Thank you, I’ll have a club soda.”

Julian went over to the bar, took a can out of the fridge, and poured it into a glass, adding a slice of lemon with a pair of silver tongs. “Let’s go next door,” he said, handing Earl the glass.

Earl followed him and Samantha into a room that overlooked the back gardens and a large fountain. The room was ornately decorated with rich blue and red velvets. A huge plasma screen occupied an entire wall. Julian went over to a mahogany cabinet and opened it. Inside was a large collection of DVDs. He removed one and put it into the player.

“This is shocking,” Samantha said.

They all stood as the film played.

The first shot was of two glass cages in a bare room without windows. Earl estimated the cages were about eight foot cubed. Inside one was a young man who was pacing the enclosure. In the other a young woman sat on the floor with her knees up against her chest and her head pressed against them, hiding her face. The cages each contained a section at the rear that was boarded off with what looked like plywood. It was impossible to see behind it. The cages faced each other. The camera zoomed in on each cage, pausing at the man’s face, then the woman’s as she looked up and began to cry. Then the film stopped.

Julian hit the remote control, sending the screen into darkness.

“That was Michael in the cage?” Earl said.

Samantha dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “Yes, and the young woman is Abby Sheen.”

“You know her?”

“She and Michael have known each other for years.”

“She’s the daughter of friends of ours, Greg and Felicity,” Julian said.

“When did they go missing?”

Julian fiddled with his right cuff link, his eyes on the Persian rug. “Two days ago.”

“And that’s all you’ve received?”

“I had a phone call the day before the film arrived.”

“Saying what?”

“It was a man’s voice, one I don’t recognise. He said, ‘I have your son and his little friend. I’m taking them to the glass house where they will remain until you pay me two million pounds. If you involve the police I will kill them both, you will never find their remains. Do not throw any stones, or you will shatter everything you hold dear.’”

“Did you trace the call?”

“I tried to, it came through on my mobile, but it was made using Skype.”

“So, it’s Thursday today, you received the call on Tuesday?”

“Yes.”

“You got the film yesterday?”

“Right.”

“Have you contacted the police?”

“No. I want to see my son alive again.”

“Who did you use to try to trace the call?”

“I have people I use for security. They’re better than British Telecom.”

“Can either of you think of anyone who would want to harm Michael or Abby?”

“No. This is about money, right?”

“It is. But I think it’s more than that.” Earl sipped his soda and glanced at Samantha. She looked diminished, her beauty paler than a few moments before, as if a worm had slipped inside her and was eating at her heart.

“More how?” Julian said.

“What is the glass house?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is a very specific way of keeping people prisoner. He could have locked them in separate rooms. He’s got them under observation. Have you thought of paying him?”

“Isn’t that a mistake? I read that was a sure way to lose your child.”

“It depends whether they’ve seen his face. Many kidnappers do let their hostages go once they’ve been paid, but they make sure they can’t be identified.”

“But if we pay him what then?” Samantha said.

“It depends what his terms of payment are. If he wants cash, we could arrange for him to bring Michael and Abby with him when I drop the money off.”

“But then we’d see him.”

“He’d hide his face.”

“And what if he wants a bank wire?” Julian said.

“That’s harder, but more unlikely because he could be traced.”

Samantha put her hand on Earl’s. “I just want Michael out of there, please help us.”

Earl could feel Julian’s eyes burning his skin. “I’ll do everything I can.”

“He’s a vulnerable young man, he’s had troubles, you know,” she said.

“Can you tell me a bit about that?”

“He found it hard to adapt. He hasn’t really had a job, but he tried working for his father. He had therapy for his problems.”

“What were they?”

“Nightmares, terrible nightmares since he was a boy. He was always tired because he’d be awake all night. I used to hear him screaming.”

“What were the nightmares?”

“Always the same. Spiders, Michael used to dream tarantulas were crawling all over him. He’d wake up and check every inch of his room at night with a torch. He hated them. He couldn’t touch a spider, even a tiny one. He bought a lizard for a pet. He told me he thought a spider had crawled inside his ear at night and was eating his brain. That’s when he went into therapy.”

“Did it help?”

“No, it made it worse,” Julian said. “If you ask me, these therapists are a bunch of nutters.”

“You think?”

“Self-serving charlatans with a theory to peddle which they do at others’ expense. They care nothing for others’ welfare. No, what did help was hiring a hypnotherapist. He got rid of the phobia. In fact, Michael had begun to be a normal young man again, enjoying the kinds of things young men should.”

“And now this happens,” Samantha said.

“The more information I get the better. I need to get a picture of Michael and Abby.”

“How is this connected to his abduction?” Julian said.

“It gives me an insight into your son’s character. The kidnapper either knows him or Abby or one of you or Abby’s parents in some way, even if he’s read about you in the paper. But if this was a straightforward case of you being targeted because of your wealth, your son wouldn’t be locked in a glass cage.”

“So you think this is more personal.”

“I do.”

Julian looked at his watch. “How much do you charge?”

“Four hundred a day, plus expenses.”

“Do you need me to sign an agreement?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Julian turned his back and stared out of the window.

“Thank you, Earl,” Samantha said.

“How old is Michael?”

“Twenty-four.”

“And Abby?”

“Twenty-two,” Samantha said.

“I need to talk to her parents.”

“I’ll call them. They’re quite desperate as we are. I spoke to them last night and mentioned you. Julian and I thought it would be best if we met you on our own, in case you didn’t take it on.”

“Has the kidnapper contacted either of them?”

“They’ve received the film,” Julian said, turning round. “Greg got a call on his mobile. It was the same message applied to Abby.”

“He’s asking for another two million?”

“That’s right. I tried tracing the call, but came up with the same result.”

“Is there anyone you may have offended in your business dealings?”

“No, what I do is above board.”

“Offenses can sometimes be caused by things we wouldn’t ever consider.”

“I can’t imagine this has anything to do with business.”

“You’re a wealthy man, Julian, you’re described as a real estate magnate.”

“You said if this was just about money, my son, wouldn’t be held in a glass cage.”

“This kidnapper wants money. He’s also trying to convey a specific point.”

“What?”

“That I don’t know yet.”

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Earl left at one p.m. The row began immediately, but he didn’t hear it. The noise of his Ninja drowned it out as he rode away. Julian and Samantha were yelling as Earl meandered through the lunchtime traffic to his newly appointed apartment in Hammersmith. He lived just behind the stretch of Thames that drifted past The Blue Anchor, all the way to The Dove, his favorite drinking spot on quiet weekends, when the local families had gone away on their summer holidays, and that corner of London reminded him of how it used to be when he rowed nearby.

Earl took the stairs to his apartment on the top floor of the building, removed his leathers, and made some lunch. As Earl watched the Thames curl like a snake into the distance, Julian was pouring himself another whisky while Samantha tried to forget the image of her son locked in a glass cage.

Julian had started shouting at her when he found her gazing after Earl through the living room window as he got on his bike. She was looking at his athletic physique, recalling how he used to make love to her all those years ago—and all the things she gave to him when she was young and had them to give—wondering if it was his memory that had been the pain in her heart all these years.

“If you’re going to have an affair, make it less obvious,” Julian said.

Samantha turned round as she heard the Kawasaki’s engine rev outside. Her heart was racing, and she couldn’t tell whether it was excitement or anxiety she was feeling. “Don’t you take the moral high ground, Julian,” she said. “You’re the adulterer in this marriage.”

“It was eighteen years ago.”

“So you say. But someone forgot to tell me.”

“Oh, why don’t you drop it? I’ve given you everything, you ungrateful bitch.”

“You really believe that?”

“Look at this, you live in an eight-bedroom, six-bathroom house in Kensington, you have cleaners every day, you don’t have to do anything.” A red vein throbbed at the corner of his face. His tic twitched at his right eye as he followed Samantha around the room. “I fly you in private Lear jets on holidays when I work—stop walking away from me.”

“You jet me away so you can fuck one of your mistresses. Do you bring them here?”

“I don’t have mistresses.”

“Do you pay the maids to clean up your stains? You’re good at that, paying people to do your dirty deeds.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“What do you think it means? Julian Villa always looks so respectable, but his wife knows the real man.”

The laugh he produced looked like a scar breaking across his face. There was no mirth in it, his eyes were cold, and behind the smile, his intensely white teeth looked like chiseled stones against his lips.

“You’re lucky,” he said, sipping from his cut glass.

“Am I? Do explain that, Julian. Perhaps I’m a bit dumb. I must be to be married to you.”

“Look at what you have,” he said and gestured at the room with his right hand.

“It’s a nice house, it’s a shame about the company.”

“Would you really want to live in a flat in Hammersmith?”

“How do you know where Earl lives? You checked him out?”

“There’s a lot I know that you don’t.”

“Yes, so I discovered not so long ago.”

“Samantha, I knew your price when I married you. A man like Earl may be good as a private dick but he’s no husband.”

“Interesting choice of words. It’s almost as if you’re tempting me to do it.”

“You made your choices when you married me.”

“If I did it, it would be in private. You know all about keeping things secret, Julian.”

“We were happily married until a few months ago.”

“Yes, but I didn’t know you’d been fucking my friend.”

Julian put his glass down on a Regency table. The gesture was deliberate and self-conscious, as if he was reining in his anger. “It happened once, a long time ago. It was a drunken mistake, which I regret, and it’s been blown out of all proportion by those bloody therapists.”

“So you keep saying.”

“Why don’t we concentrate on getting our son back?” he said. “I hope he’s up to that.”

“There’s a lot he’s up to.”

“And what does that mean?”

“You can see how fit he is, always was. He was in the army. He knows how to fight, but he’s also gentle.”

“Spare me the details of your sexual past.”

“You mean like you did with me, Julian?”

“It was an isolated incident in our marriage. I had no relationship with her, unlike you and Earl.”

“I said I’d call the Sheens so Earl can meet them. I’ll do that now.”

“You’ll feel differently when Michael’s back.”

“Julian, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing I want more right now than to know that Michael is safe. But it won’t change what I feel about you after your infidelity.”

“Give it time.”

“You mean eighteen years?”

“You better make that call.”

“Julian, who has our son?”

“I’ve no idea, but let’s hope Mr. Rugged lives up to his reputation and finds him fast.”

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

At four p.m. that afternoon Earl parked the Ninja outside the Sheen’s seven-bedroom Georgian Villa that gazed out at Richmond Green. The shine on the front door was so clear he could see his own refection in it as he rang the bell. An extremely beautiful woman opened it. Earl’s mind was torn between two things about her in the few seconds as he waited for her to speak. Her facial structure and thick dark hair were breath taking, but there was a deep unhappiness in her eyes, and her clothes were chosen without effort—colorless slacks with creases, an old cardigan with holes in the sleeves that looked as though moths had eaten into the wool. She seemed in conflict with her appeal.

“You’re Earl,” she said, with no emphasis, as if she was telling him rather than asking.

“Mrs. Sheen?”

“Please call me Felicity.”

She held out her hand. Her fingers were cold and the bones beneath her skin felt as light bird’s feathers.

“I’m sure this is a hard time for you and your husband,” Earl said, as she stepped aside and he walked into the hall.

She touched the shoulder of his leather jacket.

“If you only knew.”

He could smell wine on her breath. She stood there, looking up at him with her mouth slightly open, then she turned and he followed her along the hall to a study.

“This is my husband,” she said.

Greg Sheen was putting the phone down as they walked in. He rose from his chair, came round the desk, and shook Earl’s hand warmly. “I am so pleased you’re taking this on. Samantha speaks highly of you, Mr. Blake.”

“Please, Earl is fine.”

“Can I offer you a drink?”

“Just a coffee.”

“Milk? Sugar?”

“Black.”

“Felicity.”

“I’d just made some,” she said, leaving the room.

Greg Sheen was a tall, well-built man, who looked like a country squire with his ruddy complexion.

“Please, do sit down,” he said, motioning to a sofa in the corner of the room.

“The Villas don’t have any idea what the kidnapping is about. Do you?”

“None whatsoever. I’m baffled and worried sick. Felicity is ill with anxiety. She has fragile nerves you know. I haven’t slept for two nights.”

“That’s understandable.”

“I fear for my daughter. I hope this man’s not a pervert.”

“Most kidnappings are about money.”

“Of course.”

“But not all,” Felicity said, as she came in with a tray on which sat a cafetiere and a white porcelain cup and saucer.

“No, not all,” Earl said.

She nodded and lifted the cafetiere, filling the room with the smell of coffee that had a note of dark chocolate as she poured into his cup.

“You’ve seen the horrendous film?” she said.

“I have.”

“We were sent one, too.”

“Is it identical?”

“Well, I don’t know. We haven’t compared them.”

“Do you mind if I look?” Earl said.

Greg opened a cabinet at the far side of the room. Inside it was a TV monitor and a DVD player. He opened a drawer, removed a DVD, and put it in. Greg watched, standing, with his arms folded.

Earl noticed Felicity’s eyes were on the faded carpet as it ended. She’d knitted her fingers together and her knuckles were white.

“Both films are identical,” Earl said.

“What does this man want?” Felicity said. “Why is my child being held in glass?”

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

Leonard Wells dusted fluff off the arm of the tattered sofa in the darkened living room. He could hear a train thundering by at the station. A picture shook on the wall. He got up, straightened it, and stared fondly at the image of his father in his dustman’s outfit, smoking a Players—a relic of a past that Leonard felt no longer existed.

Then he left the grimy flat in Kew, passing the Let board that stood outside. He walked two blocks and got on the 485 bus to the hospital. Leonard was unaware of the other passengers until a man in a pin-striped suit got on after a few stops. There were no seats left and he stood reading the Financial Times, occasionally bumping Leonard’s knee with his leg when the bus turned a corner. Leonard looked up at him, but the man neither acknowledged the intrusion on his personal space nor offered any apology.

Leonard got off and walked to Kingston Hospital. He went into the shop, bought a bunch of flowers, then took the lift to his mother’s ward.

Mary Wells was lying propped up in bed reading a copy of the Daily Express. She folded it neatly when she saw her son enter. He laid the flowers on the night table and drew up a chair.

“Those for me, Len?”

“Course.”

She gazed at the roses. “You’re a good lad.”

“So how’s it all feeling?”

“Doctor said I should be fit to go home tomorrow.”

“That’s good.”

“How’s the sale going?”

“I’ve rented out the flat. I went there today. I haven’t slept there for weeks. I’ll go back one more time and get a few things, all your stuff’s packed up.”

“I want to see your new house, Len.”

“You will. I’m doing some work on it.”

“I think it’s amazing you made all that money. After you got out of the army, I thought you wouldn’t work again.”

“You know me. I ain’t a shirker, Mum.”

“Whoever said you were? You were one of the brightest lads in your year, got top grades in class, remember?”

“Course I remember.”

“What’s the matter, Len?”

“Nothing.”

“Still think about it, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I dreamed about Kenny last night. It was awful, Mum. There are things I’ve never spoken about. He was my best mate, and they let us down. All those posh officers don’t want to fight, not like us. They cover things up and lie about it. I’ll never forget the look in Kenny’s eyes. His guts were hanging out. They looked like bleeding eels.”

“Please, Len, not in here. Can I have some water?”

An old woman at the next bed tutted and looked away, past the mother and son, out through the grimy window to the polluted gray sky and the hint of a crane in the distance, poised above a building, readying itself for demolition, the only images of an outside world in the sterilized ward.

Mary Wells was in her seventies, with gray hair that looked like steel, sharp blue eyes that sparkled from her small face as she spoke. She had a bird-like body, with little hands that seemed to peck at things rather than clutch them. Leonard loomed down over her as he stood and poured her some water. He was six foot two, and well built. He’d served in Afghanistan, and his years in the army had left him with one habit he refused to shed in a lifestyle he recognized less and less as his own. Leonard kept himself extremely physically fit, working out with weights for several hours a day and running eight miles each morning in the deserted streets, seen only by insomniacs and night workers. Sleep had become a stranger about whom he fantasised in the way some men dreamed of women. He would lie awake, think of how fragmented his life had become, and rise to test his body. He’d once led an ordered military existence. His physical regime was the only constant now. Leonard felt his life was fading from him.

His face was neither handsome nor ugly, but existed somewhere in between. He had intense deep-set eyes, dull brown hair, a curved nose, and a scar on his chin from where a fellow soldier had hit him with a beer bottle in a fight over a girl, before Leonard broke both his arms.

“I was thinking about Dad,” he said.

“It doesn’t do to dwell on what happened, Len,” Mary said, setting the glass down on the night table and glancing at a nurse who had wandered into the ward.

“He worked hard all his life doing a job the snobs in this country turn down their noses at, and look at how he died.”

“I don’t want to think about it.”

“Yeah, well I can’t help it. She the one?” he said, glancing in the direction of the nurse.

Mary nodded.

She was a young nurse, in her twenties. She was full-figured and had a pretty face with cold eyes and a downturned mouth that gave her a sour expression, as if she disdained the work. Her blonde hair was scraped back on her scalp. Leonard noticed her strong calves as she bent to check the notes on the next bed.

“I’m gonna have a word,” he said.

“Len.”

He stood up and went over to the nurse, who put the notes down and walked away, ignoring him.

“Excuse me,” he said.

She stopped and turned.

“I’m not happy about something that took place here a few days ago,” Leonard said.

“Can it wait? I’m busy.”

“You’re busy? How about making sure my mother doesn’t die of thirst in here?”

“Is that your mother?”

“Yes.”

“She looks all right to me.”

“She is now, but you made her wait for hours for a glass of water.”

“We’re understaffed.”

“How about dignity?”

“What?”

“Dignity.”

“There’s water on her table.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Leonard said, raising his voice.

“I don’t like the way you’re talking to me.”

“I don’t know why you chose nursing, Pam,” Leonard said, glancing at her badge, “but it’s clear that you’re not fit to be working in a hospital.”

“I’m calling a doctor.”

“Go ahead, I’ll complain to him. You don’t care about the elderly.”

Pam Smythe went into the corridor as Leonard said, “stuck up tart,” and sat down. Dr. Francis Truman was standing by the desk chatting to an attractive young Indian nurse, who was laughing as Pam approached.

“She don’t care,” Leonard said to his mother. “You’ll be out of here soon.”

“Don’t make a fuss, son.”

“Someone has to speak up, or they’ll walk all over you.”

“Here’s the doctor.”

Francis Truman walked into the ward, placing a pen in his pocket. Pam Smythe followed him.

“Mr. Wells?” Dr. Truman said.

“Yes?”

“I believe you have a complaint.”

“I do, as it happens,” Leonard said, standing up and walking toward the doctor, who took a step back.

“One of the nurses says you were being aggressive toward her.”

“One of the nurses? Pam you mean?”

“There is a sign that states we do not accept abusive behavior of any kind.”

“Abusive behavior? What are you talking about?”

“She says you swore at her.”

“Well, she’s lying then.”

Leonard inched toward Dr. Truman. His physical presence began to unnerve the doctor.

“I will have to ask you to refrain from harassing my nurses.”

“Yeah, only you can do that.”

“What did you say?”

“I seen you, met many like you, and you’re all the same. Seen you chatting them up, fancy yourself, don’t you? Look down on people like us. Got a wife have you? She know?”

Truman blushed. “I beg your pardon?”

“She know about how you carry on?”

“I am going to ask you to leave.”

“How come no one has explained why my mother nearly died of thirst in here?”

“You’re going too far.”

“She had to wait for hours for a drink.”

“It’s the first I’ve heard of this.”

“Shows how much interest you pay, don’t it?”

“Mr. Wells, please leave, I have patients to attend to.”

“Or what?”

“I’ll call security.”

Leonard moved close enough to breathe the fried egg he’d had for breakfast into the doctor’s face. “Do you know what I’d do to your security guys? Any idea?”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Len, don’t make trouble, best go now, come again tomorrow, bring me some more flowers,” Mary said.

Leonard’s gaze was locked on the doctor’s face, and it broke as he heard his mother’s voice. He turned round, went over to her bed, bent, and kissed her tenderly on the forehead, then walked toward the door. As he passed Pam Smythe, he noticed a smirk on her face. He stopped and looked at her.

“If you do visit your mother tomorrow, you will have to respect our staff,” Truman said.

Leonard held out both arms, his palms facing the doctor, who looked at Leonard’s empty hands.

“Me? I’m good as gold.”

Then he left and went to the toilet in the corridor. A few minutes later he walked up to the desk where Pam Smythe was writing on a clipboard.

“I’ll wipe that off your face,” he whispered in her ear.

“I’ll make sure you don’t visit again.”

“And I’ll make sure of something more. I can imagine you at it with him.”

“I’m calling security.”

Leonard had left the building by the time they reached his mother’s ward. He was walking toward the bus stop, checking his mobile phone. Mary Wells was trying to explain her son to Pam, whose disinterest in her account was unapparent to Mary.

“He’s a good lad,” Mary said, laying her right hand on Pam’s arm as she readjusted her bed. “He was in the army, saw some terrible things, bit of a war hero.”

Mary winked at Pam, who looked away.

“Do you have enough water?” she said.

“Oh, yes.”

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

They were having drinks in the Villas’ living room. Julian stood behind Samantha’s chair with his right hand on the back as she sipped wine and talked to Greg, who was hunched forward on the sofa. Felicity hovered near a window in a cream satin dress, set apart from the company, as ephemeral as a whisper in the mist. Earl had arrived at seven p.m. and sat on the sofa next to Greg.

“We’ve got you some photographs of Michael,” Julian said, pointing at the coffee table.

There were several pictures of him on its immaculately polished surface. As Earl studied them, he noticed how serious and worried Michael looked.

“We’ve brought some of Abby,” Greg said, handing him four shots of a pretty woman with a strained smile.

Earl sipped his Courvoisier.

“What have you found out?” Julian said.

“The packages the films were sent in were mailed from a post office in Acton. I went there today and, unfortunately, there are no cameras outside that might have taken a picture of the kidnapper, or whoever posted them. There is a camera in the shop, but I can’t get access to its contents.”

“So where does that leave us?” Samantha said.

“The police could view the film. We have the time of posting.”

“No,” Julian said, “I don’t want my son killed.”

Felicity came forward, clutching her glass of red wine. “Does this man have us under surveillance?”

“That’s unlikely,” Earl said.

She finished her drink, the drops of wine, like beads of blood, dripping down the inner bell of the glass. One of them hung on her lip.

“Then what do we have to find our children?” she said.

“Money, that’s what we have,” Julian said.

Samantha stood up and straightened her dress. “Earl, what should we do?”

“He hasn’t given you instructions as to how to pay him yet. He’ll be in touch.”

“But if we pay him he may kill them both,” she said.

“I’m not suggesting you do pay him, but to see if we can find him when he gives his instructions. He’ll probably ask for the cash to be dropped off somewhere.”

“So you watch him as he picks the money up?” Julian said.

“If possible. If he chooses a drop-off point, I can follow him.”

“Why hasn’t he asked for the money yet?”

“There could be many reasons,” Earl said. “I think he’s trying to scare you, get you ready to pay.”

“Well, he’s succeeding in that,” Samantha said. “I keep thinking of the glass house and what it means.”

Felicity laid her hand on Earl’s arm. She crouched down on her knees and gazed into his face.

“Find Abby, please find her. She’s a delicate young woman, easily afraid. God knows what this is doing to her.”

“And they’d both done so well with therapy,” Samantha said, going over to the bar and pouring herself another glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “Refill, anyone?”

“My glass is empty, like my heart,” Felicity said. She ran her right hand through her hair and laughed. “I’m sorry, this business is making me a little crazy.”

“A little?” Greg said.

“My husband is a saint, that’s why I married him. Greg has always been so patient with me. I’m highly strung, I have strange habits, you know.”

She sipped her wine and went over to her husband, who stood and put both hands on her shoulders.

“Earl will find them,” he said.

“I need to be weighed down or I’ll float away, tie me to the wall and ignore me, please.”

Earl looked at them, Julian standing behind Samantha, Greg touching Felicity’s shoulders, and they seemed couples set in a tableau that both mystified and unnerved him. There was a bitterness to their mannerisms, and the conversation they were conducting seemed like a fragile veneer beneath which an entirely different dialogue lay.

“You mentioned that Abby had been seeing a therapist,” he said.

Felicity’s eyes weren’t focused. She was lost in a memory or thought that had no place among the gathering. Earl noticed Samantha looking at her in irritation as Julian tapped his index finger on the chair. Greg sat down again, slung his right leg over his left, and began to inspect the laces of his brogues.

Earl had seen it before, the stress on parents when their children were kidnapped. But this crowd seemed to be coming unglued by the minute. Samantha looked angry. Only Julian maintained the same demeanor, as if it was beneath him to show what was going on inside him.

Then Felicity did the strangest thing. She put her glass down, took each of her wrists in the other hand, and, gripping them, tilted her head back. Her breathing was rapid, and she was shaking beneath her satin dress. Her breasts shook beneath the material, and a blue vein ran across her neck, raised from the surface of her skin like the root of a tree that had burst through the soil. Earl thought she was hyperventilating and was about to go over to her. Then she picked up her drink, came over, and sat next to him on the sofa, squeezing in between him and Greg, her thigh touching Earl’s.

Samantha glared at her. Felicity leaned forward, her face inches from Earl’s. There was a transparency to her skin and her wrists were red from where she’d gripped them.

“The therapy, yes,” she said. “Two years of therapy to be exact.”

“What was it for?” Earl said.

“Abby had problems. We discovered she snorted.”

“Coke?”

Felicity nodded. “She also had a phobia. Most people don’t know what a phobia is. They think it’s a neurosis or fear, but it’s crippling. She had a disability. My girl was so terrified sometimes she couldn’t get out of bed or leave the house. She’d become suicidal, irrational.”

“What was her phobia?”

“Snakes, Earl, snakes. She saw them everywhere. Shapes assumed serpentine forms to Abby, sober or not. She heard them hiss at night and dreamed they were crawling inside her.”

“Both our children were phobic,” Samantha said. “Do you think it’s significant, Earl?”

“I think it’s unusual.”

“You must think we’re all nuts,” Greg said.

“No, I don’t think you’re all nuts. Kidnapping places people under unbearable pressure.”

“Well, while we’re all talking about snakes,” Julian said, “both our children are in the hands of a man who may be dangerous. We’re still no nearer to knowing how to rescue them.”

“I can put the post office from where the parcels were sent under surveillance. It’s unlikely he’ll use it twice, but it’s worth a shot. In the meantime, we need to wait for his instructions. The more I know about Abby and Michael, the better. I need to speak to their friends.”

“How will that help?”

“If there is a personal reason the kidnapper has chosen them, then I may get a clue as to why. Their friends may have seen someone hanging around. Did Abby have a boyfriend?”

“There’s her ex,” Felicity said.

“Okay, I’ll start with him. Michael?”

“He was seeing a girl, Susy, very sweet. I don’t think they’re still seeing each other,” Samantha said.

“Can I have the names of their therapists?”

“I’ll get them for you,” Julian said, leaving the room.

“Were either of them studying?”

“Abby was trying,” Greg said. “She’d begun an arts course at Richmond University, but she kept skipping lectures.”

“And Michael?”

“Julian kept pushing him to,” Samantha said, “and the more he pushed, the worse it got. He’d started a course a few months ago.”

“Where was that?”

“Kensington College of Business. He didn’t go far, hated it. It was Julian’s idea, he wanted his son modeled in his own image.”

“I suppose you’re telling him what a lousy father I am,” Julian said, coming into the room with a piece of paper, which he handed to Earl.

“I’m just describing the kind of relationship you had with Michael,” Samantha said.

“Are you?”

Earl looked at the paper on which Julian had written two names and phone numbers in turquoise ink.

“Which therapist was Michael’s?”

“Dave Ruby, highly recommended,” Julian said.

“Although you think you wasted your money?”

“It’s a load of claptrap.”

“But it helped your son?”

“That’s arguable.”

“And Marion Wakefield was Abby’s.”

“That’s right,” Greg said.

“Do you think she was good?”

“Hard to say. It’s not something I know much about.”

“Did Abby seem to benefit from it?”

“Either that or the hypnosis.”

“Who were the hypnotists?”

“It was just one,” Julia said, “Stuart Parkes. Here, I’ll write his name and number down.”

He picked his iPhone up from a small table next to him then took the piece of paper Earl had set down on the coffee table and wrote Parkes’s number on it.

“I’ll get you Susy’s number,” Samantha said.

“Felicity, perhaps I can speak with Abby’s ex?”

“Miguel? I’m sure I can find his number somewhere, but he’s at the university, if not.”

“In the meantime, let me know if you get another film.”

Felicity wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “You mean he’ll send more?”

Earl stood up. “It’s likely.”

“I’ll get you that number,” Samantha said, coming out into the hall with him.

He waited as she went to the end of the corridor and turned right. Through the open door, he could see the others in the living room.

Felicity was looking out of the window, and Greg had turned his back to Julian, who was at the bar pouring another whiskey. As he dropped two cubes of ice into his glass, they sounded like they were splintering. His eyes locked on Earl’s.

“Here it is,” Samantha said.

She’d written Susy’s number on a small piece of scented paper. The perfume was familiar.

“If there’s anyone else you think of, friends, anyone who may have known if Michael was in trouble, let me know.”

“I will.”

She followed him downstairs. As he opened the door, she said, “Find him.”

Earl nodded and walked away from her and the brightly lit house.

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

MEANINGFUL CONVERSATIONS

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2014

Published by Noir Nation

 

 

1

 

I don my Speedo goggles. I’m sporting Fast Skins today, and they are as blue as ice. My wife, Anna, is sleeping, hung over, dreaming of small dogs that look like fleas. She is a girl of the neighbourhood. She pictures smooth tongues lapping her hand. She enjoys tamed animals. I put on my light brown suede shoes in the hallway. They are custom made by Lorenzo Oache. I can see his small hands holding the fabric. Cobblers should not make mistakes. I wonder if Einstein had been one whether he would have made good shoes.

Dawn’s pink leak is spreading confusion across the sky as I get into my Hummer. Its black paint is immaculate. It is a statement of certainty, the antithesis of the uncertainty that troubles the minds of the men and women who climb disoriented from their beds. I drive the few miles that take me out of town to the circling highway that leads nowhere except to the small fractured lives I visit and tend to. They dwell in the apocalyptic age, half a dream away from the unreal century that is ours, a hundred years built by dictators and cultural icons whose totalitarian motives are dressed in the empty language of culture. They fear nudity as much as they fear meaning. I think of the concert I will perform in, of the nuance of the cello, of my music teacher’s legs gripping her instrument, a religious look of deep suffering on her face. I wonder if she still enjoys the same diet. This is the age of the ideologue. Reality is nothing more than a series of mechanised simulations, pleasure has been replaced by conformity.

I stop at Tesco. I can see them milling around inside, the consumables. I watch the movie of their lives through my window. Then I see one. She steps right out of a magazine, carting around all the apathy and misinformation that is the daily fare. I can hear her yakking on her mobile phone, and the whine in her voice. It sounds like the painful notes a violin makes in the hands of an amateur.

She is small, and has aged well. She is attractive. Her tiny eyes flicker in her face as she gets into her Volkswagen Beetle. Hitler’s car. I imagine she has children who do not want her. I can smell the food in her shopping bags, it has no nutritional value. I am the saviour of these people. I bring hope into their lives. Jesus hovers at my windshield, a blind, redundant prophet. He will build me doors with his simple nails and a hammer I will make for him from the gold fillings of his sheep.

I can smell my meal through the membrane of glass, my aperture, my entry. She drives out of the car park and I follow. I am monstrously conspicuous and chuckle into my fur collar. Ever the courtier on my outings. I play some Mantovani, I hate his music so much it always brings out the cad in me. For I am such a gentleman at times it is hard to bear.

My wife screamed at me to slap her when I discovered her cheap and tawdry affair. I refused to hurt her any more than she already was, I consider merely being her is punishment enough. She looks quite absurd when she sobs, a rehearsed act by a poor performer. Instead I bought her a new pair of shoes that made her look ridiculous. She tried dancing in them at one of our parties, and twisted her ankle. Anna is ever so adept at the unfortunate incident, she wears embarrassment like a tarnished chain. She’s the blonde with the indigo eyes, tethered to an eternal craving. She exists silently somewhere beyond our marriage, acquiring the wardrobe of a Nazi’s mistress, a solemn pledge locked upon her lips to offer rich and decadent pleasures in return for thrills. Within our marriage she manufactures a certain sick decorum. And all the while she hungers for her mouth to be filled with sugar, such is the bitterness she tastes.

I wonder what the woman in the yellow Beetle is wearing on her feet as she stops at a crossroads and I take my moment. I accelerate and get in front of her, and on a deserted bend I slam on my brakes. She hits my Hummer. I get out and approach slowly as she rolls down her window.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ she says.

Her prominent lips are twitching and I think of Donald Duck. Disney is such a comfort to me. But she has something I need. And it is more than the body will allow.

‘Making shoes,’ I say, just like Donald speaks, ‘a gift for Anna.’

I have his accent perfectly. I rehearsed it in front of the bathroom mirror in my wet suit. I hear the distant buzzing of a motorbike on the road below us. I estimate it to be a small bike, probably 125 cc as it fades.

‘Are you mad driving like that?’

‘Don’t you think all propositions are open to interpretation?’

She is getting out her mobile phone when I pull it from my pocket.

‘Meet Kelin,’ I say.

She stares at my phone and I stun her with it, locking it into the small blue vein that is throbbing on her neck. I watch her body go limp and slump behind the steering wheel of her Beetle. My stun gun phone gets them every time. I touch her neck. I finger her skin. I can feel the blood beneath. I can feel her steady throbbing body under the dress she has on, some repro lacking both taste and erotic appeal. I will teach her how to dress, and she won’t need clothes.

She is light and I lug her with her shopping to the Hummer. I drive her to the Farm, as the day becomes warm. There is the smell of burnt porridge in the air and as people breakfast I think of how she will look when I am finished with her. You can never tell.

She stirs as the garage door closes on us and I lean across the seat and dip my hand into her bag.

She has some pink brandy Max Factor lipstick and I rub it across her mouth until she looks like a clown.

‘Pretty,’ I say, ‘come inside.’

 

 

ANALYSIS OF THE PATIENT BY OTTO WALL:

 

‘The therapy will consist in getting the patient to see the real world. His addiction to cartoons had to be treated by immersion in real social situations at Avenue Clinic. My initial attempts to find out if his claims are fantasies resulted in his slipping further into his own terminology. I am still unclear of some of his meaning.’

Should eat more sugar.

 

 

2

 

We’re dining at Otto’s. He is the therapist for all the adjusted people seeking integration. His clients are the fractured, rejected, hopeless, wealthy deviants he listens to and sighs at, occasionally adjusting his shoe laces. Otto collects shoe laces. They could form a long cord that I would like to stretch all the way from London to New York. Musicians could strum them like an iktar, that one-stringed instrument of the wandering minstrel. Perhaps we will engage in some kirtan chanting tonight. I wonder which god I will be. Sometimes I think Otto is going to hang one of his clients with a shoe lace. I’ve seen the box he keeps them in. He also collects minds. He sees them as elastic, latex that needs to be filled. Otto sees himself as an inseminator of unfulfilled fertility.

The name Wall hangs over his office door. Those tired with simply feeding off celebrities aspire to visit the Wall office, where his leather furniture accepts their tired bodies as they sit and stare at his range of Modiglianis.

‘Such simple agony in Modigliani,’ Otto says, as he hands me a cocktail.

‘A new concoction?’ I say, looking at the lime green fluid and thinking of frogs.

Otto leans towards me in a conspiratorial manner, his small brown eyes perched like birds’ eggs above his Gucci glasses.

‘It’s a Freud.’

His silver hair looks like combed wire. He is the owl who feeds on the psyche.

I sip my Freud and listen to Anna chatter about how many times she’s been called at inconvenient times by a certain company.

‘They keep pestering me as I’m getting into the shower,’ she says to Julia, Otto’s overburdened wife. She places her emphasis carefully. Anna implies desire. She infers the company has a sexual motive in calling her at that particular time. She stands naked by the phone, irritation dripping from her breasts. Her body is toned and desperate, she is needful of erotic stimulation.

Julia lumbers about the room, her reading glasses hanging by a chain around her neck, resting sightlessly on her large matronly bosom. She is bovine and desirable, a perverted aunt who might offer a man certain physical comforts, perhaps to rest his head on her ample breasts as he satisfies her evident urges towards extreme sexual acts. I can tell what she is thinking, the wife of the great therapist tired of his boast, alone, soft, heartbroken by life.

She passes me a bowl of nuts. Foods served at parties contain faecal matter. Waiters flush toilets and fail to wash their hands, men splash their fingers with urine as they shake their penises dry, and dip their hands hungrily into the bowl. I gracefully decline, and watch her wobble her way towards Anna who is sitting cross-legged displaying a tiny snag in her tights. No matter how Anna tries to present a polished image she is incapable of hiding her flaws. She is so severely cracked at times I wonder if she will rise the next day. She always does, like some burnt out sun offering a vacuum in place of light.

Otto is talking on the TV.

‘The problem with the patient is he has rearranged reality to suit his urges,’ he says.

Otto picks up the remote control and turns the TV off. He locks the cupboard that houses it.

‘I find it meaningless listening to myself,’ he says.

‘We live in unreal times,’ I say.

The doorbell rings and Otto leaves us locked in the decaying dialogue and familiar gestures. He is ever the entropic host, gone to admit more parasites to his home.

Two guests enter the room a minute later, a small man in a white jacket and red cord trousers clutching a bottle of wine, and a tall, angular woman who is wearing a long black dress, bare at the shoulders. I can just make out the hint of a white bra strap beneath the material.

‘Bertrand Mavers,’ Otto says, holding out a hand in my direction, ‘the sanest man I know.’

I am momentarily disconcerted by the mention of my name, but I know the part I will play. Tonight I am a decadent god, dipped in chocolate and placed in the lap of a nubile whore.

I stand and shake their hands.

‘Harry Trout,’ the small man says.

‘Sally,’ his wife says.

‘Are you a Trout too?’

She giggles and drops her eyes.

Otto hands out the cocktails.

‘I’ve heard a lot about you, Bertrand,’ Harry says, sitting down next to me and spilling some of the green slime on the faded Persian rug that Julia is so fond of.

‘Otto is a brilliant therapist, brilliant,’ Sally says. ‘He,’ she pauses and takes a deep breath, ‘cured me.’

I smell anchovies as she says this. I see rows of cured meat in steel fridges at The Farm.

‘What did you see him for?’ I say.

‘I used to think Harry was a bat.’

I look at Harry and see how this is possible. He flaps his arms and I imagine him hanging upside down lost in radar madness.

‘And now?’ I say.

‘Now all is well with me and the world,’ she says and lets out a chuckle. It is an insane laugh that sounds like a hiccup, and is full of something so obscene that I think the woman should be committed immediately to the nearest asylum and deprived of food.

I think of my Kelin K95 in my pocket. I think of pressing the phone into her neck and filling her soft body with voltage. I think of her in her long black dress at The Farm. The way they move is always different. The last one, Pretty, danced. It looked like a boogie. As I stunned her she got up on the dance floor. She exerted her wiles to try to seduce me from doing what I brought her there to do. She was in a night club surrounded by admirers. She didn’t realise sweat was running down her body and her legs were soaking wet. All skins are different. It all depends what the animal’s been fed.

I hear Sally chatter and I think of stunnings and the uses of the captive bolt. She is a parrot, she is eavesdropping, repeating what Anna says, displacing the accents Anna uses at the far end of the room. She pauses between sentences, honing in on Anna who prattles to Julia, and Sally echoes her as Otto swings from stalactites in his limestone cave. He is not among us, our host, he is watching us all.

Anna always focuses on the money or the latest example of style. That is because she has none. Sally smiles. She has small pearly teeth and I think of handcuffs and hooks, steel chains and the large freezer I keep at The Farm.

‘He freed me from fear,’ she says, looking up at Otto. Otto the love god, every client’s dream man. Useless, deluded Otto, the unfulfilled fantasy on Sally’s tongue. I wonder what it would take for him to bed a client. I imagine he would do it in some anonymous hotel fitted with grey sheets as late afternoon sets in with the rattle of traffic filling London.

I imagine he would look at their naked prone bodies like a set of symptoms his lovemaking could cure. Therapy, the endless hole, the sterile orgasm leading to normality, robbed of delirium. That is why he comes to me. I have more than petrol in my hand.

‘We all need a freezer,’ I say.

Sally pauses, places her left talon on my arm and says, ‘Oh yes.’ She throws her head back. ‘Oh yes.’

The emphasis is utterly meaningless. I imagine her in the throes of passion, a frail exclamation mark in a dirty sentence.

It’s not just women, you know. I have a separate department at The Farm for the men. I am filling both sections. Free housing in a benevolent society. One day I will put them together. The day it is ready.

Harry nods at me as Sally laughs.

‘I believe Otto is the only man who can allow the patient to see themselves and choose, I mean choose who,’ he punches the air, ‘they,’ and again, ‘want to be.’

‘I’ll put this to you,’ I say, ‘Is it possible identity does not exist at all?’

Harry nods sagaciously, he looks like a rabid dog too small to bite.

‘Are you a Buddhist?’ Sally says.

‘Only when all else fails.’

She screams. I think someone has shot her and turn to look at the open window, but there is no one there, only the long dirty curtain that flutters in the light evening breeze. Her laughter fills the room like a contagion, alarming Anna, who rises and walks over to me, lays a hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Drink Berty?’

She holds out her glass, her arm fully extended, her shoulders back, displaying her cleavage proudly to the room.

‘Of course, my dear, of course,’ I say, rising.

‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?’

‘Harry and Sally, this is my beautiful wife, Anna. She knows all about cosmetics and trauma.’

‘Do sit down,’ Sally says, patting the cushion I have vacated.

I can hear Anna barking as I fetch her a glass of wine. It is a cheap Australian wine that smells of urine, hardly fit for Bacchus, but there are other fluids in the room.

‘Cave dweller,’ I say to Otto.

He beats his chest and laughs.

As I hand it to her, Anna gives me the look. I know what is coming, what is expected when we return. Meanwhile she composes herself and talks to our new friends as Harry spreads his webbed wings. I wonder if he is a fish-eating bat and whether he pollinates the gentle flower of his wife or lets other men steal inside her.

I can almost hear Anna’s bones give way as she stands and we walk through to the lavish dinner Julia has laid out in the next room. I sit next to her throughout the stale meal. She moos from time to time, her udders pressed against the table, her hands stroking the cutlery as she salivates. The food tastes of washing. Everything swims in a pointless sauce.

Otto puts some music on and chatters about health. But all I can hear is the miniature beating of a child’s heart. It is the threnody of the amniotic prison. It is the pulse beyond the room. We dwell in decay, static guests in Otto’s cave, lost in his endless waiting room, shuffling papers, stuttering our words as if through broken lungs. The sac is opening, like a pair of lips. It mumbles at me as the dinner guests talk on, their thin faces filled with food. I wonder if all pleasure has been perpetually lost to the lawful.

My wife brushes my leg beneath the table with one of the cheap shoes she’s wearing. I stole them from the woman at Tesco, before I made her Pretty. It’s surprising how well they fit. I found them in their box in the back of her car. She didn’t need them for her dance, she was barefoot by that time, beyond derangement. I try to summon a response. I know what Anna would like me to say, but all I can think of doing is laughing as she looks at me, fork poised in mid-air, a lump of grey flesh dangling from it. There is a small vein in the meat. It is empty of blood now, cooked by Otto, served by Julia. I wonder if her hands are clear of faecal matter, or whether she is carrying some bovine disease that may signal the end of the planet. She has set candles in the centre of the table. Anna looks deranged in their light, like some disinherited debutante stricken by loss. I put on my party hat. I will lead her to the dance floor, uxorial, satisfied with her feet, perpetually pleased at the covert motion beneath the table and her overt footwork as she exhibits just what her body can do.

The string of the iktar is as tight as a tourniquet. It begins its frantic rhythm, fetching the feverish gaggle of Eros to our door. Anna puts her hands beneath the table. Someone is praying outside in the street as she chews, her lips stretched obscenely as the meat moves in her mouth. It is a mumbling that becomes frenetic, obscene, as we turn our heads in unison towards the door at the end of the hall.

Julia touches me and says something. Her hands smell of carbolic soap and nutmeg, she even looks like a waitress now in her starched white hat. I consider we are all waiters. I stare at their uniforms, the party dresses and suits, the small calculated efforts at importance that fail on their bodies. We are consumed by our stubborn undignified roles. We serve the parasitic host, feeding, we are fed upon.

‘Is everything to your satisfaction?’ Julia says.

I feel like taking her upstairs to Otto’s bed and parting her thighs beneath Freud’s plotting eyes. He looms over their mattress, eternal patriarch, voyeur of the tribe, his distant eyes aroused beneath his tortoise shell glasses. I wonder how Julia manages to undress with him in the room, as if she is watched by her father each night.

‘You know,’ I say, ‘you are untouchable.’

She squeezes my arm and whispers in my ear.

‘My favourite guest.’

I rest upon her tongue, caressed, tumescent, untroubled now as my aunt comforts me. She is the permitted taboo, the unlikely source of pleasure in a world of compromised beauty.

‘I am favoured by you in many ways, Julia,’ I say, feeling Anna’s watchful eyes upon my burning skin.

‘She is lucky to have you, after what happened.’

The voice outside is screaming now and Otto turns up the music to drown it out. Our faces are turned towards the door as if in a painting, a tableau of watchers expecting the sudden entry of a wandered violator. We dwell within the enclosure. I think of chastity belts closing around flesh, of spikes in skin. I hear locks snapping shut. I see that we are spectators in a gallery, cloned to see only what is on display but not the things that are happening beyond the polished corridors we inhabit.

‘Someone has escaped,’ Otto says. ‘There are limits to the freedoms I allow, he must purge himself of his senseless monologue.’

I reach beneath the table and snap Anna’s garter strap on her full thigh. I will tie a bone to it and whistle for dogs at midnight. I know she hungers for canine teeth. She likes it sweet.

I think of the pictures in my locked drawer at home and chuckle. There is an endless fascination in keys. I hear the satisfying clicking sound of keys turning in locks, spiralling like lipsticks into puckered mouths. I realise the noise is coming from Harry who is spitting small bones onto his plate. I never question the meat I’m served. I am a Farmer, after all.

‘Most men would not have remained with her, and I like Anna, but,’ Julia lays her knife down and leans towards me, her bosoms pressing into my arm, ‘what was she thinking?’

A blast of pink light illuminates the room.

Otto is flambéing. He juggles his skillet and the bottle of Calvados, the game show host who deals in sanity. Anna emits a small gasp, distracted now. Her eyes are fixed on the prize, but Otto’s dish smells charred.

I remember the electrode burns I first saw on a pig. I look at the flaccid hamburger on my wife’s plate. I think of barbecues and summer parties, of half-naked women eating meat. I can see the flesh in their erotic mouths. I can see them wear their sheepskin liberty bodices. Summer is now aroused, reaching the heat that breeds altered behaviour. I think of the barbecues I will cook and of my guests. I will wait on them, for they have waited long enough.

‘The only way to stop them praying is flambé,’ Otto says. ‘You should read my book, Religious Insanity.’

He says it to the burning alcohol. We rise dutifully from our pews.

After dinner and coffee I watch Otto place Anna’s coat on her shoulders. It is such a delicate gesture. Otto is convinced that he can tidy wives away. Anna takes my hand and wobbles to the door.

Harry and Sally are standing outside with Julia. She smells of peaches and honey as I kiss her.

‘Bertrand, we must come and see you perform,’ Sally says.

‘I’m playing some Bach next week.’

‘Well, get the tickets, Berty,’ Anna says.

‘Ah, the cello,’ Sally says.

She turns and I watch her back retreat down the drive as Harry waves at us. The top of her vertebrae protrude beneath her bobbed and coiffured hair, C1 and C2 bursting from her white skin in the midnight air, Atlas and Axis beckoning me to see how Sally likes to wear her lipstick. I picture Harry unzipping her dress, revealing her back as they fumble in the dark at home. I consider the spinal column a thing of rare beauty, an architectural statement superior by far to churches. I want to run my hand down Sally’s back to the top of her buttocks. I hadn’t noticed it until now, it is the thing she hides from the world in modest pleasure.

I drive Anna home. We enter the darkened hallway and she presses her mouth to mine.

‘Take me,’ she says.

She has a certain sense of drama.

Upstairs I look at her naked body. I wipe the lipstick from her mouth with my finger and taste her. She looks cheap and used as I enter her, and she gasps. I cater to her needs and she makes meaningful statements with her body, her hands resting on my loins afterwards as she says, ‘You understand me, you know what I need, Berty.’

Downstairs, as she showers, I unlock the drawer and stare at the pictures of her and the barber, Rocco. I think of how I introduced them, knowing what would follow. Anna wears suspenders in one shot, the pose provocative, the tawdry efforts of a desperate woman. I scan it into my computer and play with it. I augment the lines on her face. I think I will make it into a Christmas card and hand it out at Otto’s later in the year when the snow falls on London and silences its farmyard animals. I look at the others, the pictures of her dressed up for Rocco, in Nazi uniform, my wife in Fascist lingerie aroused by the dictator. She derives intense satisfaction from being a sexual prisoner.

I lock them away again and return to Anna, who has washed the sense of sin from her body. As I lie down to sleep I see earthquakes erupt across the world, the ground opening, cavernous, and uterine. I can hear walls falling outside. The entire physical structure of the earth is being fragmented as I sleep and see the painted faces of celebrities stare at me from magazines.

 

 

3

 

Marianne is running this morning. I watch her jog from her front door to the end of the avenue, wiggle and turn. She always does this stylised wiggle before she jogs back and glances up at my window. She is a well-rehearsed act. But then she needs to be. I rarely watch her these days. I lost interest in and taste for her particular charm after she told me about Gary and his obsessions. Still, she is toned for her age, that precipice between youthful beauty and the beginning of lines. She has good calves and there is a certain satisfaction in the clenched muscularity of her flesh. But the signs are there. She reminds me of the falling walls.

Gary needs help. If there is anyone who should see Otto it is him. I fear for her safety, married to a man like that. Marianne catches my eye, holds it, then carries on, picking up speed. I watch her disappear, her back wet with sweat. She is expert with liquids.

I look at the lines on the houses in the avenue. They are spreading too, tireless reminders of the discontinuity of matter.

When Marianne returns she will wash the sweat from her body and do that thing she does in the shower. I wonder if it will help keep Gary locked up. Sometimes I can hear him pounding the walls with a hammer at night. It is not made of gold. It is a common tool. She is his prison, as he is hers. She enjoys the labyrinth. It is her glamorous enclosure.

I gaze out at the avenue. It is fecund, observed, a slice of green, a place where diseases breed. We are all living in the factory. My defence against the conveyor belt is The Farm.

Anna is sleeping as I leave the house. I drive through the park and watch the local exercise group bend and stretch, they are trying to belong to North Korea. They look like small purple ants lined up in their violent lycras, squatting, leaning inanely towards a tree, obscenely exposed and deaf to the public joke. Some of them crouch. They blindly follow political imperatives. They are absurd, defecatory objects leaning on beliefs that stem from newspapers struggling to survive.

On the way to work I stop and shop for lipsticks. I believe I have the full collection by Rimmel now. I picture them lined up on the shelf at The Farm. They will all be used. Lipsticks and goggles, from mouth to eye. I travel the hidden curve.

‘Lucky wife,’ the cashier says as I pay.

I look at her, she has the insouciant eyes of a cow.

‘Oh, mine, you mean?’

‘Yes, I wish my boyfriend would buy me lipstick like that, and so many,’ she says, running her finger across one.

Her varnished nail is an erotic maroon mirror on which I sail into the evident conspiracy behind her idle words.

‘What you need,’ I say, dipping my eyes modestly to her right breast, where her name lies like a small burnt offering, ‘Angela, is a sugar daddy.’

She laughs. It is a crude sound that makes me want to touch her neck.

I can see the blood pulse there, her odours rise from beneath her clothes. She adopts position 1: embarrassment.

‘I’m hung over, sorry,’ she says.

‘What is there to be sorry for? A girl needs to make up her mouth, right?’

‘Yes.’

‘And you have beautiful lips, if you don’t mind me saying so.’

She feigns a blush. The store is overheated and she is already flushed.

‘Thank you.’

‘Here’s my card. I may be able to help you.’

I remove my black leather gloves and lay one down on the glass counter. I place the card in her moist palm, and allow my index finger to touch it, settle, and then trace a line across her skin. She adopts position 2: innocence. By 4 I will have her.

She stares down at it. The words BUSINESS DEVELOPER dance in the bright lights.

I consider the title suitably vague.

‘You’re an investor?’

‘I could set you up in business.’

I look at her parted lips. I will run a Rimmel Indulgence across their provocative shape.

She slips into position 3: naïve curiosity.

‘I could do with something different,’ she says, fingering the edge of my card with her long nails, and looking across the shop floor, which is crawling with ants.

I touch her shoulder. She steps into position 4: the price of meat.

‘I know you could.’

It is a well-known dance. But I will teach her further steps alone in her flat that tastes of heartache and small desires. Angela’s appeal lies in her ready acquiescence, the speed with which she drops all pretence at modesty. I love the taste of animals.

I pick up my glove.

‘Are you in debt?’ I say.

‘Just a bit.’

‘From college?’

‘I don’t know how I’ll get out of it.’

‘I do.’

‘You know a friend of mine did it, got herself a sugar daddy.’

‘And?’

‘She hasn’t got any debts. But she’s a bombshell.’

‘You don’t understand the nature of your appeal.’

‘What sort of business do you have in mind?’

‘I’m going to finance your personal lipstick outlet, how does Angela’s Mouth sound to you?’

Her lips part as she yields. The ants march in a military line up the counter and across her tongue. I watch them vanish down her throat.

 

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PARANOIA AND THE

DESTINY PROGRAMME

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2015

Published by Black Jackal Books

 

 

1.

 

My name, I believe, is Dale Helix. Everyone thinks I’m a liar or insane. Would you think I’m lying if I say that everything I’m about to tell you is the truth? Or am I consigned to speaking only to people who know there is no truth any more?

I’m in the confessional. You inhabit the frozen space with me, where statements are chilled to meaninglessness. You listen. You may hear me, you may try to understand. You’re a priest of sorts, a religious reader intent on defining the veracity of the narrative. I live next to you. I am beside. I am beyond. They have made me what I am, or taken it away from me.

 

 

I live in the capital, in municipality 1. I inhabit normality like a refugee. It is the era of new definitions. All things will be saved from the illusion of choice. I perform the rites of the everyday man. I use the words of the manifesto, the one that is denied and never spoken of, I am paper white and burning with desire.

My sex life consists of a series of inscriptions. Unidentified women masquerade as lovers and penetrate me with code. My masculinity is faeces, I am the thing they want to eradicate. The seminal has been reduced. It is denied by the New Order.

I’m married. My wife is Dr. Kathleen Ward, a doctor, so they tell me. She uses her maiden name. She’s a woman whose looks adhere to the collective notions of attraction. She’s female, unambiguous in that aspect of her gender and has a face that men enjoy looking at although she never allows desire to interrupt her identity. My perceptions tell me her genitals are flesh. I don’t trust my senses any more.

We have two daughters, Beth and Melanie Helix, aged sixteen and eighteen, according to the new numeracy. If they are older than me, then I am less wise than the years the state has ascribed to my body. I’m bones and hunger, I dwell in the threshold. Beth has her mother’s looks, veiled by some intense self-denial, as if she doesn’t want to acknowledge the manner of her being here. Existence is a burden to her. Melanie has the wandering eyes of a sensual rebel, she is aware of dangers she doesn’t speak of, except at night when she hisses in bed.

I work in a bank. I’m trusted with sums of money in an economic system that needs no cash at all. But I work for them, unwillingly. I’m an unwilling accomplice to the lies that are never told. I ride the rail to work and back, a silent shadow in the rain. There are things I must say. My words are crimes. My desire is raping me. Take part in my criminal act. Watch me, my accomplice.

Still, I conform, a liar among many whose solitude is borne of his knowledge. Among the unconscious so much sickness. I taste bile.

I live in an apartment with my family. It is a tidy affair within a large complex that inhabits a row of neat buildings, grey facades that thread a residential scar to the end of the road where the rail takes men and women to the work stations where time is spent. They return with less. They dwell within their allotted spaces.

Every day my wife leaves me to work as a doctor in a place I don’t know. She never talks of work except to say she’s saved someone from a disease that may be pandemic. I wear a mask in bed at night. Beneath its swollen plastic her face looks tiny, a small smear of Kathleen inside some prism I inhabit. The nature of reality is bent, a curved piece of light neither solid nor credible. She doesn’t look like my wife at night. We occupy a schizoid lifestyle without question.

I’m meticulous at the bank, watchful of money. I check finance in unreal markets that remain steady. Our society is economically sound. All transactions result in an increase in wealth and we’re guaranteed a lifestyle without struggle. But in a world of guarantees there is no certainty any more.

My days are watchful. I’m watched all the time. My movements are monitored. I think the spies are internal.

I’m a pianist, I’ve played for concert halls. But they’ve given me an impulse that I fight on a daily basis. They, the shadows I struggle to identify.

I open my piano and set my shaking hands on the keys, searching for music. Then the headache begins, splitting me in two, sending me in one direction.

 

 

2.

 

Sometimes I think they will blind me, remove my brain and feed me to the world I abhor. They have already tampered with my eyesight. They’ve poisoned Kathleen’s fingers. I count the times she’s lain back naked on our bed, parted her full thighs, and ushered me inside her climate, then touched my eyes and drawn me further into the darkness. I watch it, the small conformist dream, an illusion made for the profit of politicians. I enter my wife, her solitary body lost among the fertile needs she’s substituted for sexual desire. There is no desire any more. It is not allowed.

I go the bank. The capsule shoots through the blackened tunnels that smell of rusting iron. The riders stare vacantly ahead at the blank space of the wall, their hard bodies break my bones beneath my dripping coat. As they jostle me, a smell like corroding metal rises into the polluted space we occupy and I see them there briefly beneath the luminescent lights. They aren’t breathing any more. Are they part of the film? I reach out and touch the face of the woman standing before me. She looks as though she is made of metal. She withdraws in horror, placing a small bruised hand to her cheek.

Some of the other riders stare at me with disbelief. I’m alive now, an object that doesn’t fit the lies. I see no butterfly wings in the Rorschach test, but a mountain of bones. They try to hide Golgotha, but they can’t blind me any more. The others stare ahead out of the black window as the capsule speeds its way towards their destination. We all get off at one place, the work station at the edge of municipality 1. There is no other destination.

I walk the grey street to the bank. I greet my colleagues and enter my glass office, watched.

I’m monitored by my staff who send reports to people I may never meet. I study fiscal charts, numbers spiral like winged insects in a jar of honey.

Every hour on the hour a woman in a brown skirt rises from her chair, smoothes the material on her thigh and glances over at me. Then she walks to the corridor off which there are a series of other offices that house reams of papers and files. I’ve studied them. Their numbers are meaningless, a testament to the propaganda that money still exists.

No one ever eats at the bank. I never see a single worker rise from their station and obtain food. I eat alone, locked in the toilet. I break off the sandwich my wife has made me and stare at its contents. The colour of the meat changes each day. I can’t identify the tastes any more. I consume it out of hunger to still the other appetites inside me. They want me to be their animal, since I refuse to be their machine. I insist on excretion. It’s proof I exist. That is why I eat. To prove to myself their violation is not complete, and I haven’t been subsumed by the code that runs the Destiny Programme.

There’s a humming noise beneath my desk. It sounds like insects swarming below. I can feel the vibration rising through my steel chair and shaking my desk. I report it but reports are futile now. The engineer they send stares at me, then begins to explain there is no noise at all. He suggests replacement ears and a new system for me. I decline.

 

 

3.

 

Since they wish me to decline myself, I’m declining their attempts to alter my perceptual reality. Reality exists in the senses and I dwell among the senseless. They want me altered, fashioned to their manifesto, the thing that doesn’t exist. Or so they say. I tell my wife about it. She dwells in utopia, with no reflection at all.

What appetites have they given me? It is abhorrent, inhuman. I’m a pianist. I long for concert halls, even empty ones with long rows of polished chairs. I can smell the skin that once adhered to the seats when bodies, sticky with musical ecstasy glowed within their own atmosphere. I long to hammer the notes out loud and clear within an auditorium. But there are no auditoria any more, only the humming banks and empty apartments with the living locked away in endless unreality.

I have fought it. I’ve locked myself away and starved myself until I’m paper thin. That’s what they want. So they can inscribe me. They want me as pliant as a piece of paper. They want to turn me into a pale white orifice. They wear masks, they cackle at the parties. But there is only one party and no one knows its name. It has programmed me. It has raped me countless times before the eyes of the policemen who sneer at all justice now.

My wife may be a surgeon but who really lives beneath her skin? I see her put her scalpels away at night, a tenderness in her gestures she never displays to things of flesh. I watch her through the open doorway of our bedroom. She fingers the blade of a scalpel, her pink tongue protruding from between her lips. She vomits embryos onto our sheets, she touches her tongue with secret fingers and arches her back.

After she’s gone to bed I switch off all electrical appliances. I listen to the plugs and hear the hissing noise. It is their code. They are speaking of the things they observe in all the silent apartments at night as we lie there waiting for the day. All buildings are decorated with paint taken from the disused railways, for no one is going anywhere any more.

 

 

4.

 

They want me to do unutterable things. I fight the headaches. I prod a man in the nose at the local shop. He stares at me with watering eyes. I once stole a fish from a small child and ate it raw at the end of the street. I proved there is no poisoning left except that of the mind.

The political programme wants dehumanisation. I wonder if humanity still exists and is not another piece of propaganda produced by this vast machine I inhabit, lost, fragmented, a bruise on the shoulder of time. I try to talk to Kathleen as we eat supper.

‘I believe we’re being watched,’ I say.

‘Pass the potatoes, Dale.’

‘Why won’t you believe me when I tell you there’s a group carrying out these things?’

‘I have work to do.’

I rise and walk across to her and kiss her face. She stares at me coldly, then cuts into her meat. She uses her knife like a scalpel. Everything is an operation to her.

Beth and Melanie begin to argue. Beth is wearing a dark uniform that covers her legs and neck, she stares angrily at Melanie who sits there in a white blouse and skirt with flowers.

‘You need to adhere,’ Beth says.

‘Adhere to what, your ideas of what is right?’

‘You are sexualised and impure.’

‘You are conditioned and fearful.’

Kathleen rises and pats both their heads then takes their temperatures. They stare at me with bulging eyes above the erect thermometer in their tight mouths. Kathleen inspects each reading, shakes the thermometer, sterilises it, and returns it to her doctor’s bag. Then she begins washing dishes.

I go up behind her and touch her waist.

‘I want to talk about the Assembly,’ I say.

‘This is the disassembled era, we are free of old politics.’

‘That is not the case.’

‘I am to perform the great work.’

‘What is that?’

‘Will you dry these?’

She hands me a towel and leaves.

I want to tell her about the Assembly and what they have made me do, the thing they have made me into, a walking nightmare, an insult to myself. But I’m not alone any more. I have the impulse they’ve put inside me. I tear the skins from men and women. I wander into the other parts of municipality 1, the parts the newspapers say don’t exist.

I enter houses and remove them. I am the programme’s assassin, I am hired, unknown, a bank manager who is a pianist. I see the faces of dictators staring at me out of the white walls of my apartment. Beth spies on me. I hear Melanie gurgle. I’m reducing the population. I’m reducing that part of it they want me to remove.

 

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CONFESSIONS OF A HIT MAN

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2014

Published by Meme Noir

 

 

1.

 

My first hit was a politician. Major league.

I was 21, and felt a hundred. I remember blowing his face off. Not the cleanest job. Nearly cost me another contract.

But I learned. Always was a fast learner. Cleaned up my act for the next one. Used the money to clear my debts, and enjoyed myself a little.

My story travels. It has mileage. It exposes a lot of lies at the top of the tree. Lies that affect you and me. Lies that the people who govern us tell us, while they save their skins and burn our money.

You don’t get that close to the real players without finding out their secrets and I got close enough to blow their breath away. I’ll tell you how it all happened, and it led me right to the heart of the government.

Who am I? Ex-army, trained marksman and explosives expert. Served with the Royal Marines as a Commando in reconnaissance and sabotage. Good at gathering information. And hiding it.

I am faceless. Assumed names are all I need. I don’t know if anyone’s still alive who would know my real one.

It all started with a simple job. And then snowballed into something big, and really sinister. I was chasing a monster and it turned.

I’d travelled a lot and made some contacts. They felt they owned me and I owed them. And, as I said, the money.

 

I’d been wasting my life in casinos and on a bunch of whores, and was about to find myself out on the street. Again.

I’d been there before and didn’t enjoy it. I’d seen enough luxury to want some, and was sick of being on the outside of it.

One bleak November morning when I wanted to rip the London skies apart, two envelopes landed on my mat.

The brown one contained a final warning on my rent arrears, the white one this:

‘Call me regarding previous discussions. The job is yours.’

I recognised the number. I knew one day the contact would come.

 

 

Luca Martoni was in London on business.

I met him at his suite at the Lowndes, suitably known as London’s best kept secret.

He was as I remembered him. Immaculately tailored, polished and tanned, blending in with the discreet luxury of the place.

‘Good to see you, Jack.’

He squeezed my hand and flashed his white smile at me.

‘Drink? Whisky, right?’

‘Are we alone?’

‘Of course.’

He’d already drawn the curtains.

He sat in a chair and swung one of his Gucci shoes over his other leg.

‘You recall our conversation last year at my villa?’

‘How could I forget?’

‘You will remember, then, how we spoke of certain matters that I felt at the time you could help us with.’

‘I remember.’

I swigged the deep golden malt.

‘We need your help. I have a job, and I believe you are the man to do it.’

I thought for a moment of what I was getting into. It’s only the first time you do that. Like stepping off a precipice. Checking the rope. After the first one, you concentrate on the detail. The pay-off.

I thought about what other options I still had, and the bailiffs.

‘So,’ he said, standing up, ‘five now, and ten on completion.’

‘I don’t know what the job is.’

‘It’s a fair price, Jack, unless of course you mess it up.’

‘In which case?’

He flashed his teeth at me.

‘Another whisky?’

He handed me back my glass and then opened his attaché case. ‘This will answer any questions you have.’

He passed me a large manila envelope.

It contained photographs, maps, press cuttings, a schedule of the man’s movements. And five thousand pounds in cash.

‘So?’

I hesitated. I recognised the face. It had been splattered across every tabloid for weeks.

‘Why?’

Leaning forward, he said, ‘He has defaulted on loans. Mr Stone is someone we have invested heavily in. We believed he would give good return.’

‘On?’

‘Oh, imports, information, free publicity, that sort of thing. But he has, shall we say, been less than honourable, so there is a little score to settle.’

‘Information?’

‘Jack, we live in a world where information is the new gold. At the same time, the old rules of the street still apply.’

‘You just want him taken out.’

‘Yes. And…’

He looked at me, weighing me up.

‘And?’

‘If you can locate and retrieve some data, there is a bonus.’

‘What data?’

‘A file. It’s all there,’ he said, pointing at the envelope.

‘Just run it past me anyway.’

‘It’s clearly marked, Jack. One file. Easy to find. In it you will locate bank details including passwords. Mr Stone has been careful not to leave what we want on computer, so he’s kept a manual record.’

‘I see.’

‘We feel confident that with your background you’re right for this.’

I knocked back the whisky.

‘And the bonus?’

‘Another ten. If you need anything else, let me know.’

‘And if I only carry out the first part of the job?’

He laid a hand on my shoulder.

‘Jack, we have every confidence in you.’

That day I left his hotel room with the money and the weapon, a Glock. Good gun, light trigger. It would do the job.

I made sure I was not being followed and returned to my shabby studio where I spent the evening reading through the package.

The next day I paid my arrears, much to the surprise of the letting agency.

Then I got everything I needed for the job.

I studied the target.

 

 

2.

 

Stone had been ripping off his constituency for years, cheating on business deals, his wife, abusing his kids.

I already knew about him from the papers, which were having a field day with the fact that he’d been charged with fraud.

I carried out some preliminary stalking. His movements were exactly as the schedule gave them to be: a creature of habit, the easiest target.

He had a mistress he visited in a flat in Sheperd’s Bush, probably paid for by the tax payer.

I saw him come and go with a mixture of swagger and caution. His sexual proclivities made him sloppy, an easy target to watch.

I thought about Martoni’s brief, knowing the information was as important as the hit.

Posing as a courier I visited his office.

A bored receptionist sat chewing gum, reading an article until I cleared my throat. She’d seen me enter, but couldn’t be bothered.

As she looked up I heard the door swing behind me. She stopped chewing, looked past me and smiled.

‘Good morning.’

A man in a pin-striped suit brushed past me.

‘Sheila, lovely day, is he up there?’

‘I’ll buzz him.’

I clocked the floor number he pressed.

‘Can I help?’ she finally said, chewing loudly.

‘Parcel for Mr,’ I paused, looking down, ‘Str-ack-ville,’ I said, sounding as stupid as I could.

‘No one here by that name.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘You’ve got the wrong address.’

‘Sorry.’

The phone rang.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, swivelling her chair, turning her back on me.

I walked to the end of the corridor and found the staircase.

The back door had a weak lock, so it would be easy to make it look like a break-in if I did the job there.

 

 

One evening I got a call from Martoni.

‘How near are we to completion?’ he said.

‘Sounds like you’re talking about a house.’

‘What’s the difference? It’s all business.’

‘I didn’t know there was a deadline.’

‘I leave town next week.’

‘I’ll do my best, I’m just putting the finishing touches on-’.

‘Stick to the remit, Jack. Do what you’re paid to do.’

‘Some keys to Stone’s office would be useful.’

‘I’ll arrange for you to have them.’

The line went dead.

I looked out of the dirty window down to the street below. Cars hissed by on the tarmac, washed clean by the rain that had been falling since the morning. Pedestrians hopped around the puddles, umbrellas up, scurrying home from work. I realised I hadn’t been outside all day. The whole thing started to bother me. I felt dirty by association, and thought my only two options were completion or escape. But where would I flee to?

I decided to go out for some groceries and booze.

As I opened the door to the street two burly blokes pushed their way past me into the corridor.

‘Rent collection,’ one of them said.

The other fished some crumpled papers out of his pocket.

‘Says here you owe over a thousand pounds.’

‘I paid it.’

‘When?’

‘Two days ago.’

‘We don’t know anything about that, and besides, there’s interest.’

‘I went into the agency and gave them the money. Call them.’

The larger guy did, hanging up after a few seconds.

‘Office’s shut.’

‘We need the money,’ the other one said.

‘Or what?’

‘We take what you’ve got.’

‘Well, that’s not much.’

‘If you don’t mind, we’ll go and have a look.’

They were starting up the stairs, when I thought of the Glock in my flat.

‘Look, how much interest are you saying I owe?’

‘Two hundred.’

‘What?’

‘It’s all in the paperwork,’ the big guy said, scratching his arse.

‘I can give it to you, and then tomorrow you can ring the agents and clear all this up.’

He shook his head.

‘Nothing to do with us. We need it all now. You’ll ’ave to get a refund off the agent.’

‘That’s crap, I’ve paid them.’

‘How do we know that?’ They were almost upstairs now. ‘Are you going to let us in?’

‘OK, come with me. I’ll get you the money now.’

‘Where?’

‘The cashpoint.’

‘You’ve got it all?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’ll ’ave to sign this,’ he said, handing me the paper, ‘and you better not be messing us around.’

I doodled all over it and passed it back to him.

‘Is that really the best they can do? Send two heavies round when I’ve paid my rent.’

‘They said you could be trouble. And how do we know you’ve paid?’

‘The bank’s round the corner.’

‘How far?’

‘Five minutes.’

‘We’ll drive.’

‘You won’t be able to park. It’s a red route and it’s quicker on foot.’

They’d done me a favour. I wasn’t going to live like this any more.

Once I’d got them out on the street, it was easy. I took them into a back alley saying it was a short cut and swinging round, floored the big one first. He was overweight and quickly dropped to his knees clutching his groin while I took care of his colleague.

He was slow and missed me. It was an easy duck. As I came up I hit him with a right hook that took him straight out.

By now the other guy was coming up for air, so I kicked him hard until he stopped moving.

I went back, stuck everything I had in a couple of bags and left the flat. The bus was pulling away when I saw the two guys lumbering back down the road.

I booked into a hotel two streets away from Stone’s offices and started my new life that night. I never saw the bailiffs again.

I gave Martoni my new address, and the keys dutifully arrived. Alone and totally outside the lives of everyone I’d ever known, I watched my prey.

I sat in cafes planning the hit, while couples and workers came and went in another world.

I was looking at life through a telescopic lens, squaring the heart of the cross with the target.

I was planning the final stages. Making sure it would be just me and him when I did it. I knew his life. I could almost predict what he would do next. At night I searched his office.

I went through every drawer, and realised the file I needed was not kept there.

Blowing him away gave me access to what Martoni wanted, but Stone was holding the information. He was a hands-on guy: he’d already dipped his fingers in the public till, and I figured he’d keep what he valued close to him.

I’d seen him coming and going and he always carried the same attaché case with him. My guess was he kept his most confidential papers in there.

I was motivating myself to do it. To take him out.

Effective killing is about a trained mind. Your hand might hold the gun, but the mind pulls the trigger. I was moving into a zone I’d been conditioned in, closing in like a shadow silently crossing Stone’s path. I was zeroing in on him. Taking aim. Royal Marine training.

Still a stranger he was becoming familiar, becoming a reality. A reality my remit was to end.

 

 

One afternoon, I went into the square at the back of Stone’s offices. I watched his movements from there.

A boy ran across the grass.

He was crying and his face was stained with tears.

I guessed he was about five.

A man on the other side of the square was calling him.

‘Adam come here!’

The boy dutifully turned and ran towards him. Stone.

He stood by the gates, hands in overcoat pockets, waiting for his son.

‘Shut up you little crybaby. Look at you! How could you be my son? God knows who that whore of a mother of yours was screwing when you were born.’

‘Daddy you said I could have a balloon on my birthday.’

He grabbed the boy by the arm and started walking him towards his car. I could see his face clearly through the railings as they passed. It was knotted with fury and disdain.

‘Birthday! Grow up! Now get in the car, I told you I have a meeting to attend to.’

With that he threw him into the back and drove off.

I looked at my watch: 6 o’clock. He saw his mistress at half-past.

I got there before him and watched him walk in with his swagger and the usual bunch of roses. He was sticking to the routine I knew now. It was strange, sharing his movements, as if I was willing him towards his end.

He left two hours later smoking his cigar and headed into town to eat.

Through the restaurant window I saw a man dripping with charm joke his way through several bottles of vintage champagne. With his large hands he gestured and dominated the conversation.

On one side of the glass he looked contented and full.

On the other side I had all I needed.

 

 

3.

 

I planned to do it the next night.

His wife would be out and he would get home after screwing his mistress. That gave me a window of two hours in which to end his life and make it look like a break-in.

I decided this was the best disguise for the hit, since the offices would draw too much attention to his death.

That was the plan, anyway.

I checked out of my hotel and into another way across town. I collected what I needed and went over the plan again. The next day I hot-wired and hid a car. Then I waited.

The morning dragged poisonously into the afternoon and finally I watched darkness settle. When the birds stopped singing I felt a strange sort of calm, almost serenity. As if I only had one option now, and that gave my fractured life some sort of cohesion. Like when a plane takes off, there’s no going back to check if you’ve left the gas on.

I parked around the block and made my way into his garden. And waited.

The kitchen window was open and provided easy access.

He was late.

I had reckoned nine, but it was ten before I heard the car pull up.

I crouched beneath a tree waiting for a sighting, and then saw his wife walk into the kitchen.

She threw her coat onto the floor and fixed herself a drink.

My head span.

Then another car crunched the gravel at the front.

The sound of heavy footsteps.

I saw Stone enter the kitchen. He put his attaché case on the table.

They started arguing, and I could hear every word.

‘It’s not what you think.’

‘You fucker!’

‘It’s just sex!’

‘I’ve heard that before.’

‘I’ll ditch her, you’re the woman I love.’

‘You bastard.’

‘Oh come on, Sam.’

‘Don’t Sam me.’

‘I’ll ring her now and tell her it’s off.’

‘I mean for Christ’s sake, you can’t even make it to your son’s birthday. He was crying his eyes out. Don’t you care about anyone?’

‘I know, I know, I’ll make it up to him, I had a meeting. What can I do?’

‘Make an effort you shit.’ She poured herself another drink. ‘I mean it’s not enough you go and rip off the taxpayer and have us hassled by paparazzi, you have to go and fuck every two bit tart in sight. What is it, can’t you think with your brain instead of your prick?’

She was getting wilder with the drink, and Stone started to pace the kitchen.

‘I work every hour under the sun to provide you with the lifestyle you need, and all you have to do is entertain once in a while.’

‘You said you’d never do that to me again.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘You fucker.’

She threw her drink in his face and poured another one.

Stone walked over to the sink, feet from where I watched.

I could see his jowly face and he was angry. The veins on his temple were standing out, and his hands shook as he wiped the vodka away.

‘Don’t do that again,’ he said, turning his back to the window.

‘Or what?’

‘I’m warning you.’

‘What are you going to do? Beat me up?’

‘Let’s just forget the whole thing.’

‘No! How would you like it if I was unfaithful?’

‘You’re not though.’

‘Aren’t I?’

‘You’re not the type.’

‘Oh really?’

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

‘Let me inform you, Mr fucking Stone, because that’s what you are, a fucking stone, a heartless piece of shit, that I have been having an affair of my own.’

‘You’re drunk.’

‘I have been fucking, or been fucked by a beautiful young man, and guess what, he makes me come. I don’t have to fake orgasm with him.’

‘I’ve had enough of this.’

He was moving toward the kitchen door.

‘He can satisfy a woman. He doesn’t have to pay her, like you do your tart.’

‘I said enough!’

He spun round and hit her.

It was a hard backhand slap that knocked her against the counter.

She steadied herself and poured another drink.

‘I could get you arrested,’ she said, suddenly calm now.

‘Look, I could be going down, you fucking little bitch.’

She walked right up to him.

‘You don’t like it, do you? Another man with your wife, his prick inside me, and I loved it, I ate him up.’

They were standing inches from each other.

‘You’ve had enough to drink,’ he said, grabbing her glass.

‘No I haven’t.’

She wrestled with him and finally it fell, shattering on the flagstone floor.

She walked over to the cabinet and got another one.

‘You know, it’s interesting, the more vodka I drink, the more truthful I become.’

‘You have a problem.’

‘Yes, you. And another thing, I’m leaving you.’

‘Oh no, you’re not.’

‘You can get some other fucker to do your bloody dinner parties.’

‘I’ve given you everything you wanted.’

‘You never gave me children.’

A moment’s silence stretched like a tightrope.

‘What?’

‘They’re not yours. You’ve been bringing up another man’s kids, and, you know what, you deserve it, you fucking loser.’

Stone walked over to the kitchen table. He picked up his gloves and put them on.

‘Running away?’

‘Oh no,’ he said.

He made a fist, turned round slowly, and hit her.

It was a hard blow and she knocked her head against the wall with a loud crack.

He hit her again. And again. In the face, the wall breaking the momentum of her head.

Her body slumped downwards, leaving a thick smear of blood on the magnolia wallpaper.

He leaned over to check her pulse.

Then he left the room.

I waited for an eternity until he returned, wishing I’d picked his office.

He’d changed his clothes and was carrying a holdall.

He came out into the garden and locking the back door from the outside, kicked it in. Then he started to mess up the house.

I waited until he was in the living room when I seized my moment.

Two people could use the cover of a break-in.

Treading carefully to avoid the pool of blood I sidestepped his wife’s body.

He was emptying drawers onto the floor. I was almost upon him when he caught my reflection in the mirror.

‘What the-?’ he said, and swung at me.

I ducked and coming up I pressed the muffler against his face.

I had never intended to get so close, but this was spinning out of control and I just had to end it.

‘Who are you? What do you want?’

I squeezed the Glock and blew his face away. Literally.

His cheek and nose shot across the room, adding to the décor, sticking like lumps of meat to the flock wallpaper, and he fell heavily onto the thick carpet with a peephole to his brains in his face. There were fragments of his skin and vein everywhere, and I had to clean myself up.

Afterwards I went into the kitchen.

His case was still on the table.

It lay open, and all I needed to do was reach inside and pull the file out.

I didn’t have to make any more mess, he’d done that for me.

 

 

4.

 

When I handed Martoni the file the white smile broke across his face like a scar.

‘I always said we have every confidence in you, Jack.’

I sat in the same chair as on the first meeting.

‘This is for you,’ he said, passing me an envelope.

I didn’t even bother checking its contents.

After a whisky I left.

‘We will be in touch, and, well done,’ he said.

In the elevator down I glanced inside: 25k in readies.

 

 

I wanted the money and out. I thought I would travel and get my head together, maybe start up my own business. Put a deposit down on a place and pick up my life again.

There’s a difference between an order and a brief. The difference of choice, or the choices people think they’re making. Sometimes that might just mean letting other people call the shots. Deferring to authority. Copping out.

The horizon had shifted and the sky looked bloodshot. All it took was the blink of an eye in which I blew Stone’s breath away.

The Royal Marine I once was had left Stone’s with a passenger.

I wanted to clear the experience out of my throat. But when I looked in the mirror there was someone else staring back at me. Someone through whose eyes life took on the grainy separate quality of a slow-motion film. Moving on ice.

And with each hit I assimilated the passenger, until he became me.

If I thought my first job was complicated I was in for a ride on a well-greased helter skelter. My hands were about to get a whole lot dirtier.

 

 

A few nights later the phone went. It was Martoni.

‘Jack, a few questions.’

‘Yes?’

‘Why the mess?’

‘Unavoidable.’

‘His face was all over the gun.’

‘It got complicated.’

‘Please. Explain.’

‘The office was never going to be the place, it had to be at his house.’

‘And his wife dies too?’

‘I had it planned. She turns up, wise to his affair and they start a domestic.’

‘Did you kill her?’

‘Stone did.’

‘OK.’

‘I made it look like a break-in. Unfortunately, he was quicker than I expected and I had to pop him from close range.’

There was a long pause. I could hear him breathing.

‘It’s your first hit. We’ll be in touch.’

 

 

5.

 

Travelling around Europe when I left the Royal Marines had brought me many experiences.

Having no family contacts, I was unconstrained by the usual ties.

I drifted around the Greek islands, picking up casual bar work as I went, and eventually decided to explore Italy.

It seemed logical to drift south, and one day I landed in Sicily.

Straying away from the big towns like Palermo and craving solitude I ventured into the interior of the island. I’d resolved to get my head together and then head back to London in pursuit of employment, preferably not with the army.

I rented a room over a crumbling hotel with only a handful of rooms in a tiny place called Pietraperzia. What bustle of activity that occurred beneath the blistering sun soon settled into a habitual quiet, giving me time to think. By day the local youths revved their motorbikes outside my window, while night time brought the parade of locals, and then a deathly silence.

I sat and drank too much, or explored the neighbouring countryside.

One evening, as I went out to eat, a fight broke out.

I was passing a back alley which overflowed with rubbish and heard a man crying out.

Two guys were knocking the shit out of him.

I walked into the alley and as I got close one of them swiped at me.

I dodged, spotting the duster, and managed to drop him.

The other one pulled out a gun.

He came right up to me and held it inches away.

I started to back off and caught him in the groin with a kick. He crumpled, winded, while I beat him unconscious, flinging his piece into the garbage.

I quickly got the injured man out of there and understood enough Italian to make out he had a car nearby. Then I drove him into the countryside, following his directions which consisted of pointing and banging the dashboard.

It was a new Mercedes, unusual in that area, which was fairly poor.

Finally, we pulled up outside a large, gated villa.

He buzzed me in and that is how I made my introduction to Luca Martoni.

After tending to his younger brother and offering me a glass of wine, he shook my hand and thanked me.

‘You have saved his life, Jack, and I will remember you for it.’

‘Army training, I guess.’

‘So, army? Which regiment?’

‘Royal Marines.’

‘Oh. Good.’

‘How do I get back to my hotel from here?’

He shook his head.

‘You do not understand.’

‘Understand what?’

‘The men you fought earlier will be looking for you. You stay here now, you are our guest. In the morning I will send some people to fetch your things.’

‘It’s OK, I can handle myself.’

‘Look, Jack, they will have to kill you. You are in a foreign land without anyone to help you, apart from my family. Don’t be foolish.’

‘What have I got involved with?’

‘I will explain. But another time. Now it is late, let me show you to your room.’

He led me up a flight of stairs to a large well appointed bedroom with an ensuite. The trappings of wealth were everywhere. It certainly beat any other accommodation round there.

For the rest of my time in Sicily, I stayed at his villa in Camitrice, a tiny settlement of houses between two towns. It is not even on many maps.

I learned about Martoni and the business he conducted, and he made it clear that as much as he was grateful to me for saving his brother’s life, I was being inducted.

He wanted to know about my military training. He introduced me to some of his people, killers and hustlers, businessmen and heavies.

I spent lazy days around his pool, taking in the timeless landscape, lost among the olive groves. And then one day I decided to leave.

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOIR CITY

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2014

 

 

SEDUCTIVE GARLANDS.

 

‘They all must feel that they are the only one,’ he used to say.

He came to them with flowers and garlands, a promise of more. And if the flowers were real there was more reality to his love that the flesh of the women he satiated. He gave exquisite pleasure to them all, reading and knowing their desires. He dwelt in the shadows of their lives, he resurrected them with his hands. He gave them deep ecstasies, a man who seemed to render fantasy flesh, mystery lover, dangerous seducer, body of female desire, the one they all craved with such deep longing that his lovemaking became an addiction to them, as they lay back on the clean sheets of hotels and apartments across Europe. A perfect symmetry of pain existed in his heart as he allowed them to dwell in their silent desires. He would cover their skins with petals, releasing the gentle aromas into their bodies as their still and dreaming desires were sated by his subtle hands. He caressed the surface of their flesh with the sepals of exotic flowers, which aroused them as they lay waiting for him, yielding in their minds to him before their bodies opened.

Paris Tongue existed on the edge of female desire like a hidden fantasy in the hearts of the women whose lives he touched. And one hot and torrid summer when London seemed on fire with sidewalks cracking in an unreal heat, he met Viola Reger. She was starving in her lonely, pointless marriage and Paris tended to her appetite like a master chef. He knew just how to satisfy a hungry appetite.

Paris conducted affairs with the wealthy wives of husbands too distracted to notice, and women were drawn to him like moths to a candle. He knew the exact amount of attention to pay each of his women, and he kept them apart and visited them only in the Secret Hour. This was the time when he made love to them on Egyptian sheets in antique rooms sprinkled with the finest perfumes, in anonymous hotels on long and lustful afternoons, in the lavish apartments of wealthy friends, and occasionally in places of his mistresses’ own choosing. They breathed his name at night, when alone, they looked at their sleeping husbands and they wanted Paris inside them. And he worked his way into them like a silkworm and watched them yield the coin of pleasure, uncaring of the dangers their marriages may present. He was the lover they had always desired. Evasive Paris, the only man to them, dwelling in the twilit shadowland between reality and fantasy.

To look at, it was obvious what chars he held. Paris was tanned and athletic and gentle and dangerous. He had that blond fire about him that warmed without burning, and his blue eyes shone with endless sexual ambiguity. Tanned and golden with the physique of model, he dressed exquisitely well and adapted his style to suit the woman at hand. But it was not just his looks that counted for so much in the romances he conducted, one-sided as they were. It was his acute ability to read a woman’s mind and mood. He knew them all, all the different kinds of woman. He also gave them what they needed, reading each fluctuation of their mood. He was a great listener and something of street psychologist, a man who had learned young how to hustle and lie fast.

He could read a woman’s sexual needs as quickly as he used to pick pocket the tourists who frequented Piccadilly with cameras on their shoulders and maps in their eager hands, seeking out the culture of the old decaying city beneath which the filthy trains rumbled underground.

He was the bastard child of a killer, and he had survived by trading on his looks and sexual knowing. He’d inherited money from a wealthy uncle at an early age when his exotic fragile mother had fled with an Arab prince to settle in Dubai where after several miscarriages she bled to death one day on an ottoman.

Paris had been schooled at the best boarding establishments across the country, passed a cosmopolitan upbringing, and been looked after on holidays by Flamen Grotto, a disinterested guardian who ran a porn empire. He lost his virginity to an actress who’d starred in Flamen’s films, sultry full figured Maria Revel. She seduced Paris one day shortly before he left school as he got out of the shower in his room at Flamen’s home. Maria was sitting on the bed and gently pulled the towel from him and took him in her mouth. Then she took him inside her.

Afterwards she said to him, ‘Paris am I your first woman?’

He looked at her with his intense blue eyes and no sign of embarrassment.

‘You are,’ he said.

‘You’ve been wasted in those schools.’

‘I’ve decided to leave early.’

She touched his penis.

‘With a gift like that you must be generous.’

She climbed on top of him, noticing his ready tumescence.

As she rode him again, she bit her lip and said, ‘You were born for this, you know just how to touch me, in ways few men have been able to.’

‘It is easy to give and experience pleasure.’

‘For you perhaps, do you think I am a whore?’

‘What is a whore, a whore can be a man also.’

‘We cast aside our morality.’

‘They is much hypocrisy and cant surrounding sex, especially where marriage is concerned.’

‘Keep pushing, that’s it, deep inside bury it in me Paris, so that I may be reborn in ecstasy.’

These were the early lessons that formed a pictorial tableau in his memory later when he would look back at his early days. They existed in lurid technicolour in his mind.

Paris learned from Maria Revel. She taught him how to use his tongue and how to arouse a woman quickly by touch. She brought her niece Sarah to him, a shy virgin whom Paris fucked one night beneath a blue moon. Her pale breasts were filled with moonlight and the veins beneath her alabaster skin stood up as she came, her hips arching and her cries echoing into the stillness of the sleeping gardens that yawned like a lake beyond Flamen’s wealthy mansion. There was nothing virginal about her in that moment, because she had wanted this for years and now fantasy became reality.

‘You have helped her, her confidence is now sky high,’ Maria said, claiming him afterwards and drawing him to bed, where she pulled him deep inside her as he saw jealousy flicker in her eyes.

He made mental notes of these moments of emotional vulnerability in the women he proceeded to bed with great style. He never felt jealousy himself and knew what that represented to the women he encountered. Paris only stayed one more term at the exclusive school. He progressed from Maria to the mothers of school friends whom he seduced with aplomb on afternoons when they were alone. He began with one women he had his eye on for some time, a clearly sexual being who he estimated needed a certain form of excitement.

Karen Flame was a brunette beauty who turned heads every time she visited the school that existed like an artefact on the edge of England, a throwback to a rural past. Paris brought her some flowers and put his hand in her blouse as she made him tea. He heard her gasp before she set her mouth on his and reaching into his trousers took him in her hand.

He undressed her slowly, first unhooking her lace bra and feeling her full breasts with their saucer like nipples. Then he removed her panties and ran his finger inside her waxed cunt and listed to the erotic song of her gasp. His tongue was in her mouth as he aroused her with his finger, and as he looked into her eyes he saw the lust he knew was there. He’d known it when he used to watch her come to the school. Some women sought eternal youth in sex, it was the fountain of Eros. They came to bathe and to be penetrated by sin, and he gave them what they wanted. Karen was not old by any means. Still voluptuous and carnal, still alive and young enough to stir many men’s loins, she knew that age was coming. Paris was a doctor. He was a sexual priest who administered youth through sex and he gave her orgasms she had never known before.

She wrapped her toned legs around his neck and pulled his hair as he licked her, issuing a fine spray of come from her perfect, wet, sliced peach.

He licked his lips and looked into her emerald eyes. He could see the million ways that she desired and at the core if it all was the need to be desired. He conjured the illusion of that need and gave it flesh. Actor, lover, erotic habit, pleasure. He was all of these and a man who penetrated to the core of the female mind, because seduction and pleasure were all in the mind first, that us where they originated, in thoughts that need tending, watering with the exotic until the women were ready to experience what they had always desired in secret.

And so he took them to the secret hour and left them tingling with an ecstasy that was as deep as a dream. Paris was as additive as heroin and he filled his women with a craving. It was a craving so intense it hurt. That in itself was an erotic necessity because he knew well the fine, fragile, sensuous, quivering line between pleasure and pain. He worked it like magic.

They called him lover, they called him sex god, they thought of him as a living fantasy, a song, a need, an addiction. They loved him and desired him more and more. His evasiveness tortured and tormented them all. They knew he could never be theirs. But still they persisted in their attentions to snare him to their lives, the one thing that would result in his losing his appeal. They called him slut and brujo, they called him romance, dream, fantasy, ecstasy, pleasure and woman. At times it seemed he was a female in a man’s body, but no, he was note of that he was all male, but he knew women through and through. Knew them from their lies to their skins. As he fucked Karen he knew what his calling was in life. He could see it in her eyes.

‘You taste like champagne, Mrs Flame.’

‘Bring me your hard cock,’ she demanded and spread her legs.

Afterwards he looked at her full figure, her smooth skin. He considered her a country, and he thought of Empires, all of them sexual, and the many worlds of pleasure he knew.

‘You have a perfect sliced peach,’ he said.

‘I feel like I’m still coming,’ she said.

They lay in the erotic stillness of the house. He ran his hand along the contour of her thigh. He thought of her husband. He would never reach Karen at her erotic core the way he had just now, so easily. That is when it came to him just what he was doing. It was a moral necessity to liberate the sleeping female from the marital shackles and the hypocrisy. That is how marriage seemed to him that afternoon. It was a social chain, and a sexual prison. He decided there and then he would use his inheritance on a life of erotic adventure. He would give women pleasure, seducing them in lavish settings. Each encounter would be different and more extreme in ecstasy. That is what he would do. He would find the sexual core of each city across Europe. Reflected in a city’s underbelly, it occurred to Paris, lay the repressed desires of the married. It was not just the married, it was all the morally conditioned women lost in cities locked in heartache. He would free the women with pleasure. It all came to him that day as he fucked Karen deep into the erotic night.

She had her hand on his cock as she said, ‘What time is it?’

‘It is the Secret Hour.’

And so the time was born. It was a time when Paris would enfold his women with satiation, and a time when events would unfurl at a dramatic pace one boiling London day years later.

For Paris discovered he was a born seducer and he made his way through the world trading in female desire. This scene was but a prelude to a series of dramatic events that resulted from a particular sexual encounter that brought danger to the door and to the doors of his many women, danger that necessary bedfellow of arousal, the needful sense of menace lurking at the threshold of pleasure, its ally and its brother.

His days at Flamen’s mansion didn’t last long after he left school. The house was filled with semi clad women rehearsing for parts in Flamen’s films and Paris would watch them and calculate how many he could have. He enjoyed the full breasted, the lithe and the lean, the olive skinned models, and the young nymphs who bathed in the large bathtub adorned with statues of gods who watched idly as Paris discover his private orgies. He washed them with exotic soaps, noticing the differences between their bodies, and discovering new untold pleasures in the pathways of their available flesh.

He travelled with his inheritance and learned new ways in foreign countries. And he returned to London as a young man with a knowledge of women that set him apart. He knew that most marriages left wives unsatisfied and he decided to be the one to satiate their inner hidden longings.

Paris would visit his mistresses in the Secret Hour. It was a time when they would leave the pain of their lives and disappear into sexual adventure and the gratification of their senses.

He let them become other women in the rooms and apartments he used to seduce them. He would watch them shake off the roles they played as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and display passions and needs they didn’t know existed within them. And he knew how dangerous his gift was, since what he unleashed in his women were all the things the contracts of their marriages held at bay.

He found it particularly interesting to see their own conflict with their bodies after they had exhausted themselves in the enactment of fantasies they’d kept well hidden from themselves. He always let them breathe deep of the perfumes he used to create the atmosphere they needed. The luxuriant flowers, the aroma of sin, the soft music and dimmed lights.

He took them away from their lives and the homes that hurt them and he made them all feel beautiful and exotic. Knowing he catered to fantasy he sometimes wondered if they felt it.

‘For woman fantasy is the key part of sex,’ he said.

He found the women in every venue and situation. He sought them out in shops and restaurants, in the tired back alleys of small sleepy villages where he could see the loss of hope in their demeanours, in bars where they sat drinking with the look of desperation in their eyes.

He would visit them in different parts of London, a city he felt had many natures like women. London, the erotic city that never slept. London, that seemed to conspire with him in seduction. London, the city that hid his penetrations of his women’s bodies with its traffic and noise. Paris thought how as he visited them each seemed to have acquired a flavour of the area where they dwelt, existing on the edge of passion like lips forever parting in the rain.

None of them ever smelled the other women on his skin. He would return to his apartment where they never visited him and shower with oils and apply quantities of a light cologne he used before visiting the next one. He had a scent he wore for each of them, and was an astute judge of the type of aroma they desired to inhale when they were penetrated. He never entertained visitors at his apartment, where he retreated on a daily basis into a solitude that was essentially and erotically replenishing for him dwelling in his Gigolo reality. He chose the scents he wore with care and insight, and they always lingered when he left the women, immersing them in memory and carving.

Paris chose to ignore their other lives, the ones they led in marriages stale with rehearsal. And it was this that led him to a series of events that summer that changed things dramatically and ushered in the danger he knew existed like a shadow at the hem of his liaisons, like a violator’s hand raising the hem of his lover’s dress, ready with a knife.

Unknown to Paris, Viola’s husband, Max Reger, was a gangster. He’d started as a killer and had got away with murders as young man when he enjoyed breaking people’s bones in cellars stained with blood. He’d progressed to dealing in arms and ran a tight outfit called The Club. Its members included Knuckles Jim, whose fists were as large as a man’s head, Tiger Chains, so named because he liked breaking people’s legs with shipping chains, Al the Wire, a feral man with no fat at all on his body, and with muscles that felt like concrete, and Bobby Hatchet, who removed a policeman’s legs with his favoured weapon. Of all of them Max was the most dangerous. Together they traded in guns, selling them to London gangs and interested visitors to the city. Max prided himself on selling quality goods.

‘I don’t want that crap out there that blows a guy’s arm off when he fires it, I want my guns on the streets and anyone who fucks with me will find out just how good my bullets are,’ he said to Knuckles, who laughed, his shoulders shaking. ‘Viola knows I don’t fire blanks.’

Max was proud of his beautiful desirable wife, whom he flaunted at parties and watched with scrutiny in case another man made a move on her.

They had two children and he always wondered how she’d kept her figure.

‘Not a stretch mark on her,’ he told Chains.

 

 

PICCCADILLY.

 

Viola was a woman with a beauty that made her proud and indignant towards the attentions of men she felt were inferior to her.

Paris saw her one day in Swallow Street. The light caught her hair as she wore a floral skirt that showed off the fullness of her figure. Paris approached her with a confidence she had never encountered. And it was this confidence that swayed her to him. He knew how to approach each and every woman he decided to take to his hour. Viola lacked arousal in her life, she had no pleasure in Max, who used her as an object, and as she looked at Paris she knew he could give her what she wanted in bed.

She had long toned legs and full breasts. She had eyes that sparkled and a full, voluptuous mouth.

He caressed her with romance, arousing her hidden desires with his deep insight into the lonely female heart. He bought her a coffee and spoke of his adventures. He listened to her and she left feeling alive in a way she hadn’t in years. She met him a week later and he spent a long lazy lunch with her at The Ivy, a respectable place for the seduction of a married woman, and she drank too much wine and fell into his snare. With Paris the world about her vanished. He took her to an apartment he had nearby in a Piccadilly echoing with activity and she let him remove her clothes, reassured he knew nothing about her and thinking this was happening separate to her life, a sort of erotic dream near the statue of Eros.

She was surprised at her own shyness, since she’d long wanted a lover, and had seen no way of meeting anyone under her husband’s watchful eye. Her reserve wore off as Paris touched her and she let her passion mount. His hands on her skin felt like silk and she entered a deep sensual ecstasy that day when the chains of her marriage began to loosen. And she felt afraid, thinking of Max and what he may do. Paris felt no fear, enjoying her, showing her erotic ecstasy, taking her to where she let it all go, savouring the theft of another man’s wife.

He enjoyed that, the sense that he was stealing into a marriage like a burglar and taking away the wives of disinterested husbands who didn’t have time for their pleasure. He was the one who gave that to them and he did it well. It was a theft, since the wives never belonged to their husbands again after an encounter, even one, with Paris. He stole their hearts as he entered their bodies on the dreaming sheets.

Viola began to despise Max for his cheap impertinent entrances into her body. She craved meat. She would cook steaks, barely touching their red surface to the pan so that as she cut the meat her plate was running with blood. She felt alone and bitter at the isolation the Secret Hour caused within her day to day life. And she slipped fast and without knowing it into the addiction to Paris Tongue that would change her life.

Max would stare at her with incomprehension, seeing the disfiguring of his wife as she wiped the blood from her mouth. He felt the victim of some theft and he searched his house for the ruins of the woman he knew. He scoured her address book in vain for the names of lovers and found nothing, leaving only with a vague sense of guilt and a certainty she was deceiving him. For she never wrote any details down about her encounters with Paris, their sexual exchanges were not documented. But her flesh held a record of them, and her face did, and she was watched and not alone. The idea that she was sleeping around unhinged Max and drove him into violent thoughts. Viola was his and he had never thought this would happen, despite his possessive watchfulness of a woman he considered his property. He had ways of hurting people. He thought of them all each time he suspected Viola of a betrayal that was incalculable to him, an event conjuring dark emotions in his criminal heart. For the first time in his life Max began to feel like an extra in his marriage. He wanted revenge against an unknown target.

Max found Viola with her back turned to him at night beneath sheets he fumbled with to enter her clumsily and leave her staring out of the window searching for Paris’s face. For it was the night time that Paris brought to his seductions, filling his women with sexual passion and making them crave the cover of dark for the fulfilment of their secret selves. He knew all too well the price they paid for marriage. Suppression of their identity was what it cost, and he allowed them to be who they really, secretly were. Paris realised all too well that men caused the problem. They needed to tame their wives and when their wives played a role they felt secure. They needed to define their sexuality to allay any sense of threat. The women went along with it for security. But the price was independence. Sexual independence. But deep down these women wanted something else, another life, one filled with appreciation and pleasure. That is what Paris gave to them. He opened them up indie. Sex was a key. It was their hearts he was unlocking in the Secret Hour.

Paris explained to Viola that marriage traded passion for a lie and that sexual freedom existed only in the fleeting encounters they exchanged away from their lives. But Viola was not free in her life, and Max Reger, with his hungry eyes, found out about Paris. Not wishing to involve his gang for fear of ridicule, he hired a man known as Floyd the Lens, who had the ability to find out any sort of information he was commissioned to.

Viola left one morning to meet Paris, travelling by taxi from her house to the hotel where he’d booked a room for their afternoon’s love making. And Floyd tailed her in his white van, grinning to himself all the way, knowing how much money Max would pay him for the evidence of his wife’s deception. Sometime Floyd would take pictures of wives in sexual encounters, good shots of them naked and alone with lovers who ended up dead. He put the shots in what he considered was his professional portfolio, and showed them to clients.

He watched as Viola got out of the taxi. Paris was waiting for her and together they went into the hotel while Floyd’s camera shutter whirred in the stillness of his van. He timed the liaison and watched her leave an hour later. He took the pictures to Max, who sat with his leather sole tapping the ground in his night club office.

‘Who is he Floyd?’ Max said.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Find out.’

‘OK.’

Max slid an envelope across the desk. Floyd counted it outside, a few grand for the pictures.

Max called through one of his waitresses, gave her some money, and watched as she slid out of her skirt. He put his hand on the back of her neck, bent her over, unzipped his fly and entered her from behind, seeing Viola’s face grinning at him from her back. He emptied himself inside her, and zipped himself up. But he could not empty himself of his rage. Later that day he used his knuckledusters to beak four bones in the face of a man who owed him some money. As Chains picked the man up from the ground Max still felt rage whipping inside him like the tail of a snake, and he smashed his fist into the man’s face. He knew who he wanted to hurt.

All night as he drank vodka at his club he saw the face of the man who was fucking his property.

‘You’re in a funny mood,’ Chains said. ‘You normally leave the violence for us these days.’

‘Yeah, well, gotta keep your hand in don’t you?’ Max said, standing up and emptying the bottle of Smirnoff into his glass. ‘Or you might end up going soft.’

He thought he would kill his wife’s lover and make Viola watch.

Over the next few days Floyd tailed Paris. He found out his address and took it to Max. He also took evidence of Paris’s relationships with other women, good pictures of him meeting with them that pleased Max immensely. He stared at the shots feeling he was wining. He looked at Floyd.

‘I bet they all got husbands,’ Max said.

Floyd nodded.

 

 

MAYFAIR.

 

The day Max followed them Paris met Viola on the edge of Mayfair while London ticked like a clock in the rain. There was a curious tension she felt that day of pleasure and heartache. The sense tht time was passing her by. She wanted to shop for perfume and Paris accompanied her as they sheltered from the downpour which was washing off the canopies in a curtain that left deep puddles on the ancient paving stones. As she bent her head to smell a scent the shopkeeper had sprayed onto a piece of card Paris thought how beautiful her face was, and how even more beautiful she was when she came. That was the portal to her heart, the opening to the woman who now craved him more and more.

‘My friend has a house near here, a place where we can be alone,’ she said.

They lunched at a small bistro, while Max sat in his car, his sweating hand gripping the Glock in his pocket. Viola consumed the better part of a bottle of Dom Perignon. They dined on salmon and cheese and she thought of lying on soft white sheets as Paris entered her beneath London’s dreaming skyline. He had made the world real again. And the idea of not having him seemed unreal to her, and more threatening than violence. When she was with Paris her other life did not exist. Each moment with him was entire in itself.

They walked from St Martin in the Fields to Duke Street, followed by Max. Paris touched her in Albemarle Street, and kissed her in Dover Street. They passed the seventeenth century buildings with their dreaming facades, then walked along the areas owned by the Rothschild family and the Crown estates, slices of wealth in the heart of the capital, two lovers lost in an eroticism that placed them beyond the cares of workers in offices in the commercial district. Beyond the hedge funds where millions were made each minute, the real estate businesses where the best competed for a higher rung on the ladder, Paris and Viola filled their day with pleasure.

They shopped at Burlington Arcade, ordered there by Lord George Cavendish, on what had been the side garden of his house, reputedly to stop passers by throwing oyster shells over his wall. Paris bought Viola a cashmere cape from Ana Konder and later that bleeding day ran it across her pert nipples when at twilight he fucked her by an open window in her friend’s watched house. She leaned across its sill and stared down at the peopled street below, Paris’s cock deep inside her, his balls slapping her tight buttocks, as Max Reger stared in blind fury at the pleasure on her face.

They walked along Berwick Street, pausing to look through the windows of its record shops and fabric shops. Viola was wearing a floral skirt and shapely blouse, a little open at the top and from time to time Paris could see her full cleavage rise and fall with her breath as she spoke to him. They passed the small street market, and walked through the noise and commotion of rapid trading, onto Carnaby Street where they contemplated the nature of fashion and spoke in hushed syllables of what clothes suited women best.

They wandered past Dean Street and the Soho Theatre and stopped at the French House pub to drink more wine. And as they left Paris touched her waist. She thought of his hands wandering across her naked body. Then they walked along Denmark Street and entered Golden Square where Viola turned and said, ‘She is away, we can take our time.’

‘I always take my time with you.’

‘I am a passionate woman, do you know what you have done to me?’

‘Made love to you.’

She looked at him and narrowed her eyes and Paris saw something he’d felt in her body when she came alive during sex.

‘You have penetrated me to the core,’ she said.

She showed him into a large Victorian house, well kept and romantically adorned. Upstairs, he walked across the room and touched her face and she fell into his arms. And he undid her blouse, button by button and took her full breasts in his hands and his mouth, his tongue lapping around the edge of her hard nipples.

She pulled off his shirt and ran her hands across his chest as he slid her skirt down and removed her panties. She took him into the bedroom. Paris watched as she took his cock in her hand. She ran her delicate fingers around the knob as he played with her cunt. She turned and stared at the image in the mirror of Paris naked, erect, touching her breasts and sliding his finger inside her pussy. She ran her slender finger along the shaft and bent and took him deep into her mouth feeling it throb there beneath her wet and salivating tongue.

She lay back and said, ‘Enter me.’

And Paris fucked her all that dreaming afternoon until she dissolved and lay there panting, emitting small gasps on the silk sheets next to him as twilight fell beyond the Hornbeam trees on Golden Square.

 

 

TWILIGHT ON GOLDEN SQUARE.

 

Outside Max Reger sat smiling in his car and made a call on his mobile.

‘It worked, they think they’re safe in there.’

He’d paid the husband of Viola’s friend to let her have the house and watched the lovers walk into his trap. He’d waited there so he could catch them in the act.

Now he got out of his Mercedes and wandered across the square with the key to the house in his hand.

Viola was in the shower, reluctantly washing Paris’s scent from her body when Max ascended the stairs. Paris heard the noise of footsteps and quickly went into the room off the bedroom where he’d just finished penetrating the gangster’s wife. Max stood looking around the room, as Viola came out with a towel around her and screamed. Max advanced on her rapidly.

‘Shut up,’ Max said, and clamped his hand across her mouth.

Viola lashed out wildly, kicking him in the crutch. Max dropped the gun and doubled to his knees groaning. Viola grabbed the gun from the floor. She pressed it to his head.

‘You think you can own me?’ she said.

Just then Paris entered the room. He looked at Viola and the husband.

‘Viola, please be careful,’ he said.

‘Be careful? I hate him, I want you my lover.’

‘Don’t.’

But the shot rang out and Viola sprayed the room with Max’s brains.

She ran to Paris and held him in her arms.

‘We can be alone together now, make love to me here as he lies there.’

He shook his head.

‘I am the man you love during the Secret Hour,’ he said.

‘Are you rejecting me?’

‘I am your fantasy, I can never be part of your reality.’

‘I have just killed my husband.’

‘Then you are free to pursue your sexual interests.’

‘My sexual interests? I want you Paris.’

He held her then and looked at her.

‘This will never be. I am something apart, a man who wanders into female dreams.’

‘The way you make love to me, we can marry, I am wealthy.’

‘You’re still wet from your shower,’ he said, touching her shoulder.

It was as she was dressing that Paris stole away, and vanished like the long shadows that thinned at the edge of Golden Square in the deep London twilight.

To Viola it was incomprehensible that he was not hers and she sat there looking at the dead body of her husband. Some papers were sticking out of his jacket and she went through them and saw the pictures of Paris with other women.

It was almost dark when a second shot rang out, as Viola placed Max’s gun inside her mouth, thinking of Paris’s cock there, and blew her life away.

Paris returned to his life of seductions. He sought out more women on the edge of their lives and raised the hems of their dresses, alert to the shadows of their husbands.

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

MR. GLAMOUR

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2013

Published by Black Jackal Books

 

 

1.

 

She has the eyes of a pit viper and the mouth of an angel.

She parts her lips slowly,

Holding you in her cold green camera shutter eyes

Whose irises are segmented, like fine sections of a fruit.

She runs a manicured hand across the hard surface

Of her Vivienne Westwood snakeskin bag.

Her flesh is so soft,

It will split like a peach skin,

You know the fine spray that shoots out from the fruit

On a hot summer’s day

As you run the paring knife along the contour

Of the curved peel,

All those fine hairs standing to attention,

And the others, their wounds cloaked in Versace,

They think they’re playing the game.

Welcome to my world,

Only I know the rules.

 

 

2.

 

He worked with blood, but the mirror was clean. His hand was still as it held the image. The camera zoomed in on the open window and captured her as she stood in violent twilight. Alone, exposed. He could smell her. The perfume of money rose from her skin. The shutter whirred in the still black garden.

There was not even the rustle of leaves as he captured her. The camera panned in closer as she shed her Damaris lingerie, a show for him. She was only a shadow in her world. Yet he would fetch from her the thing he craved, he would redesign her. He had her on film, her flesh could wait.

The Maserati gleamed in the parking lot, a boastful flash of burnished metal.

Leaving his office after a good day, Larry Fornalski opened the door to his glistening car and checked if he was being watched. You could say watching was a big part of his life. He was usually the one in the spectator’s seat, but he liked to be seen with his Quattroporte S, his pride and joy.

The Maserati’s looks aroused him with their assertive poise and the hint of potential beneath the bonnet. He paused to admire his reflection in the polished Blu Nettuno metal. Feeling like a star in his own firmament, he ran his hand across his smooth bronzed jaw, lost in the mirror of his car.

In the lustre of the Blue Lacque wood trimming Larry caught a shadow moving at speed in the deserted lot. There was a noise like a shard of glass cracking beneath a leather sole on stone. He thought it was the night porter and looked around for him. But he had no point of reference for what he saw. It evoked a strange grimace, a final look in conflict on an unlined perfectly assured face. His expression was almost a pure piece of pantomime, as his death entered him. Hand on the roof of his redundant car, Larry fetched a choked scream from his throat.

The CCTV caught everything except the killer’s face. A metre of blood shot outward from Larry’s severed throat. He turned his head, his neck ejaculating onto the wall, and he toppled forward, his fingers streaming with blood.

The following morning Chief Inspector Jackson Flare and Inspector Mandy Steele examined the quarantined scene. Even behind his protective mask Flare’s face looked weathered, as if

life had corroded his skin. He held the right side of it away from Steele when he spoke to her. It was a habit he’d adopted for so long it gave him a surreptitious look.

‘The killer escaped the camera’, he said.

‘He got in and out without being filmed, so he might work here’, Steele said.

Flare looked at her out of the corner of his ice blue eyes. She never pitied him for his deformity. Whenever he caught a whiff of that his most vicious side surfaced like a criminal inside him.

‘He knew what area the CCTV covers and how to avoid it’, he said. ‘All we can see is a tall figure in baggy clothes, he’s wearing a hood of some description, and he’s got his back to us.’

Steele stood several heads below Flare and as she looked up at him her dark eyes met his with fire and defiance. A strand of blonde hair peeped out of her head covering, irritating her. She liked it pulled back against her scalp, so that it stretched her skin.

‘Could be a woman’, she said.

‘So we’ve got the victim at the extreme edge of the camera’s range, the killer standing outside it. That’s incredibly precise. It shows a technical mind. No car entering or leaving.’

‘He was probably parked outside, there’s a back lane he could have used which would have escaped detection.’

‘We need some forensics.’

‘Where’s Maurice Ray when you want him?’

‘Crime scene examiners hold things up. What is it with you and Maurice anyway?’, Flare said.

‘Me and Maurice?’

‘You don’t like gays or something?’

‘He doesn’t interest me’, Steele said.

Just then the officer standing guard let Maurice Ray through.

‘Morning Chief Inspector Flare’, he said, and set about his job.

Steele stared at his back for a few minutes before walking over to him.

‘Can you ID him?’, she said.

‘You in a hurry to leave?’

She folded her arms and waited as he lifted a wallet out of the victim’s coat.

‘His name’s Larry Fornalski.’

‘It seems Mr. Fornalski had enemies’, Flare said. ‘I know the name, he was in the papers the other day, a successful businessman. They always piss someone off on their way to the top. He’s left the papers a gift, another piece of meat the press can sink their fangs into. We need to find out as much as we can about him.’

‘I’ll start digging back at the office’, Steele said.

‘Make the spade good and sharp.’

Steele looked down at the mutilated corpse and saw pornographic images. The faces of men she hated raced through her mind in a private reel of film. She turned her attention to Flare, who stood with his hands deep in his pockets looking at the severed neck with no trace of feeling.

‘That’s some weapon he used’, he said, ‘his head’s almost hanging off.’

He left the scene and removed his mask, then walked to the black unmarked Volvo V70. He took off his shoe covers and lit a Players, and sat there smoking with his foot astride the half-open door, his patent leather shoes a tawdry glow in the streetlight that failed to recognise day. The burning end of his cigarette moved like a ghostly wand in their polished surface.

Steele remained standing over Ray until he snapped off his gloves in irritation and walked outside. She followed him to the Volvo.

‘I think I’ll join you Chief Inspector Flare’, Ray said, removing his mask.

Steele watched as he lit a More menthol. He was an extremely handsome man, with even features, clear tanned skin and an athletic build. He dragged deeply and moved the cigarette dramatically as he held it to his side, his wrist arched. He looked at Steele, then lowered his eyes and smoked in silence.

Steele kept her eyes on him, waiting for Flare to finish, trying to clear the stench of nicotine from her lungs, bracing herself for another day. She thought how suited Maurice Ray was to Mores, a woman’s smoke, as if he had to make a statement about his sexuality. She tensed her muscles in the silence. She wanted to go back to the station, to dig into Larry Fornalski’s past, to find out what secrets lay buried behind his murder. As she ran her eyes down Ray’s body he looked up. Then he trod on the burning stub and said ‘I’ll go and finish off’.

Flare stood and crushed the butt end of his cigarette on the side of a bin before flicking it in as Steele took off her mask and shoe coverings. She was an attractive woman with hard lines

around her eyes.

Flare got in and started the engine. As Steele sat down she stole a glance at the other side of his face, its ravaged flesh, thinking it was like a foul disguise he was inviting her to remove.

Her skin crawled every time his hand brushed her knee when he changed gears.

She felt beyond his wound there lay some other world he was tempting her to enter.

 

 

3.

 

In her drab pebble dashed house in Ealing Gertrude Miller donned her pristine white gloves. She pushed them deep between her fingers, so there was no spare material, then smoothed out the cotton and held them up to the 100 watt bulb.

Gertrude was a tall woman with a full figure. She had a full sensuous mouth that was at odds with her austere face. It made her look as if she’d stolen someone else’s lips. She wore no makeup and had a stern matronly look.

She walked over to the mantelpiece and ran her index finger along its edge, holding it up to the light when she’d finished. She did the same to the tops of the wardrobes, the kitchen appliances, the bookcases and the backs of the chairs, proceeding through the house room by room in an orderly manner, aware only of the slow ticking of the grandfather clock in the darkened hallway. When she’d finished she inspected her gloves. There was the tiniest residue of dust on one finger. Gertrude pulled them off and placed them in the washing machine, putting it on a boil wash. She watched them spin around in the soapy water on their own for a while before fetching the bees wax and polishing the clock. She looked at the time. Her children would be home any minute and she hadn’t put the things out for their tea yet. They arrived just as she put the hot water in the pot.

‘Mary, take off your shoes’, she said.

Her daughter, thin and white as talcum powder, removed them standing on one foot before she left the mat, fully aware of the wrath her mother could unleash if she got any dirt on the carpet.

 

 

Maxwell, small and anxious, waited at the door while his sister preformed this ritual and then did the same, saying nothing and remaining silent throughout tea. When they were finished they went upstairs to do their homework. They never had to be told.

In the next room Gertrude tidied her hair, making sure no loose strands hung down. She always wore it scraped back, hiding its fullness beneath a harsh regime. As she moved away from the mirror she spotted a grey hair. It was hiding at the side and she neatly plucked it. There was the faint smell of meths in the austere bedroom, the product of her favoured method of cleaning mirrors.

She went downstairs to prepare supper. Ben would be back soon and hungry. She plumped the cushions in the living room and checked the street for any signs of him.

Behind the bubbling vegetables the frozen family portrait stared out at the vacant hallway.

Martha Fornalski sat in her rambling Holland Park house surrounded by Chihuahuas and clutching a tissue, a habit Flare found particularly disconcerting. She’d rolled it into a ball and he kept eyeing the mascara stain that edged its white circumference. From time to time she dabbed her swollen eyes.

Steele knew Versace and La Croix when she saw them and she stopped her brain’s quick reckoning of how much money Martha was wearing. She was an attractive woman and Steele estimated she must have her share of interested men. Her dark hair lay gleaming on her shoulders and her full figure made itself known beneath her expensive clothes.

‘What a day’, Martha said, looking outside as the rain hammered the windows. ‘I saw you walking around out there in all that mud before you rang.’

‘Can you tell us about Mr. Fornalski?’, Flare said.

 

 

‘Larry was such a perfect husband. I mean, perfect. Worked hard, loved his kids. They’re devastated. Who would do this?’

She laid her hands on her lap and looked at them both, her burgundy nails catching the overhead lights.

Flare avoided eye contact.

‘We’re trying to find that out, Mrs. Fornalski.’

The quiet ticking of the Ormolu clock was disturbed as the maid came in with a tray of tea and set it down on the table. Flare eyed the fussy porcelain with discomfort. He turned the disfigured side of his face away from Martha Fornalski as Steele poured two cups and passed him one. He took a sip and broke off a piece of short bread. Several large crumbs fell on the immaculate Persian rug and Flare ran the edge of his muddy shoe into it.

‘I know it’s hard for you to talk right now, Madam’, Steele said, ‘but are you aware of your husband having any enemies?’

‘Larry? No.’

‘I mean, someone at work or in business who may have felt slighted by him, however small, you just don’t know.’

‘No one!’

‘Did Larry ever mention any one?’

‘Everyone loved him. Work colleagues, friends. Larry never made enemies. He was one of the nicest easy going guys in the world. One in a million.’

Flare put his cup down, clattering the saucer. One of the Chihuahuas yapped at him and he stared at it in irritation.

 

 

Martha Fornalski looked over at Flare and allowed her gaze to drift, taking in the mark, her eyes watering, thinking of wounds, wanting to know how injured her husband was, not daring to ask.

‘Do you think your husband told you everything?’, Flare said.

‘What sort of question is that?’

‘Successful men have all sorts of nasty habits.’

‘Nasty?’

‘Did he have a mistress?’

‘Now hold on a minute.’

Steele shot a glance at Flare.

‘We’re only trying to do our job, Madam’, she said.

‘Well, let us know if you think of anything’, Flare said, standing up. ‘You never know. Sometimes families remember things after a while. Don’t worry if it seems trivial, just ring. It might help us catch this man.’

He placed his card on the table.

As they followed Martha to the door the buckle of Flare’s raincoat hit one of the Chihuahuas in the eye, prompting a howl.

They stepped out into the curtain of rain and sat in the car for a few minutes. Flare looked up at the immaculate Queen Anne brickwork, the ornate garden.

‘How much do you think it’s worth?’, he said.

‘Ten.’

‘Ever think you’re in the wrong job?’

‘Never.’

‘Buy the stuff about the nicest guy in the world?’

‘She’s his wife.’

‘Nobody disliked him?’

‘Someone did.’

‘Steele people are scum.’

As they drove away, Ben Miller walked past the parade of dull houses marooned in their quiet suburban misery, put his key in the door, entered the hallway, and took off his shoes, balancing on one foot until he’d cleared the mat. He stood at six foot four and towered over his wife, who reached a cheek up into the air for him to kiss. When he’d done so, he moved his featureless face away from her.

‘Good day, dear?’, she said.

‘Just fine.’

His voice was low and expressionless, as if he was speaking in the aftermath of some spent trauma.

‘We’ve hotpot for supper, would you like a drink?’

‘Please.’

Gertrude poured him a gin and tonic and held the glass to her ear, listening to the pleasant fizz, then fetched a clean tea towel and wiped the fine drops of water from her ear. She took Ben’s slippers through to him in the living room, knelt and put them on him, then left him to read The Guardian while she called Mary and Maxwell for supper. Ben sat there raising the glass periodically to his thin lips, his white and shapeless hands turning the pages of the newspaper.

 

 

Gertrude seated the children, served the hotpot, and called him. The kitchen seemed too small for him as he entered, and he sat with difficulty on the chair, which looked like a child’s seat beneath his frame. From time to time Gertrude glanced at him as he ate.

‘Good, dear?’

‘Very’, he said, chewing slowly, with mechanical precision and without sound before swallowing, his massive Adam’s apple rising and falling in the thick flesh of his neck like a buoy on water.

Afterwards Mary and Maxwell went upstairs and Gertrude and Ben sat in the living room. The folded newspaper lay at his side, the earmarked page with an article about abortions staring up at him. He watched the news, from time to time turning up the volume to drown out the incessant clicking of Gertrude’s knitting needles. Their evening scrolled by like a meaningless script.

As they retired to bed in their quiet orderly manner Brian Samson left work. He’d set up his own hedge fund a few years ago and it was thriving. He’d made two mill on the markets that day and felt that deep warm glow of profit spreading across him like a hot bath. A Chateau D’Yquem seemed in order, but he needed something else since he’d been tasting blood all day, and he drove to see one of his favourite prostitutes in St James’s on the way back to his Mayfair house where his wife Mirabelle was waiting. She’d drunk her way through two bottles of Montrachet and was now talking to Samantha DeLonge on the phone.

‘Late again, what can I do? He was meant to be taking me out to dinner’, she said, checking her manicure.

‘He’s always been a hard worker’, Samantha said.

‘Yes but this is ridiculous, who works this late?’

 

 

‘A lot of guys. I know you didn’t come from that background, but a lot of them do it, they expect their wives to tag along. Enjoy it. You got the lifestyle you wanted, why not take a lover?’

‘That’s the problem.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what I think Brian’s doing.’

‘Brian screwing around? Why do you say that?’

‘Something about the way he is with me.’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know, like he doesn’t want me anymore.’

‘You know honey, when you’re married you need to spice it up a little.’

‘You mean kinky?’

‘I mean lingerie, I mean make him want you, I mean don’t always wait for him.’

‘Make him want me’, she said, her voice fading with indecision as the wine took hold.

‘Honey, one night Paul got in from work, I was going through what you are and he found me in the kitchen making his dinner. I was all dressed up.’

‘I cook for Brian all the time.’

‘You know what I was wearing? Suspenders.’

‘I wore suspenders two nights in a row and Brian never even made a pass.’

‘No. I was wearing suspenders.’

‘And nothing else?’

‘You got it. So Paul walks in, smells dinner, then comes through to the kitchen, looks down at my arse and grabs me right there and then.’

‘I’d have to be drunk.’

‘So drink. I tell you, dinner got ruined, but something else got cooked all right.’

From the outside, the house looked like another wealthy home, or even an office in St James’s. But upstairs behind the window, Brian Samson was getting dressed. A tanned blonde with the figure of a model and a top range boob job was wriggling her naked hips into a Gucci python skirt. Brian Samson cast an admiring glance in her direction as she slipped on her sheer tiger print blouse.

‘I like that’, he said.

‘The outfit?’

‘The fact you never wear a bra.’

‘Modesty doesn’t become me.’

‘Good night Simone’, he said.

‘See you soon.’

She showed him to the door and put the money away.

In the deserted streets below, Brian Samson drove home to a darkened house.

 

 

4.

 

So simple, really

Run the knife across their well-fed throats,

Watch the crimson blood bead there, lustrous in the light.

Surprising how much blood the bloodless have.

I favour the Vespula for its chromium stainless steel blade,

It’s tempered to Rockwell C58, hollow ground and mirror polished

So you can watch their little faces fill with fear.

The handle is black Australian Nephrite Jade gemstone,

Reflective as polished chrome.

It has deep finger grooves and canted quillons,

It is perfect slashing equipoise

With razor-keen single bevel cutting edges.

I see it as a key for they close their doors on us.

I am the unlocker.

You can hide in corners, small cracks in the walls you inhabit forever and a day

Well, I’ve got a thing or two to show them.

 

The following morning as Flare and Steele made their way to the station, Gertrude Miller hurried her children along, watchful that Ben was attended to.

‘Mary, make sure you take everything, Maxwell, have you finished your breakfast without spilling any?’

Her questions were met with perfunctory grunts and soon they’d left.

Ben was standing in his underpants when Gertrude went upstairs to see if he needed anything.

‘Benjamin? Oh, apologies.’

‘It’s all right’, he said, ‘come in. I think I’ll just change these.’

She turned her back.

‘Do you think I’ve put on weight?’

‘I can’t see from here.’

‘Well, turn around.’

He was an imposing figure and he dwarfed the room as Gertrude kept her eyes fixed firmly on the far wall. In the mirror his naked form watched her. He turned and got dressed.

‘That’s better’, she said.

‘Why don’t you want me?’

‘Want you?’

‘Yes. Sexually.’

‘Why Benjamin, what’s got into you? We have two beautiful children.’

‘I know we have two children, how do you think they got here?’

‘My, where does all this dust come from?’, she said.

She was downstairs scouring saucepans when she heard the front door slam.

It seemed Larry Fornalski’s wife was telling the truth.

‘He was a genuinely popular guy who got on with just about everyone’, Steele said. ‘Colleagues described him as helpful and easy going and his friends are distressed at the news. There’s no motive in his immediate circle. ’

‘Then we’ve got a problem’, Flare said.

‘Sure we’ve got a problem, a man’s been killed and we’ve got no leads.’

Flare scraped the stubble on his chin with his nicotine stained fingernails.

‘It could be a hit. Find out if he owed money, if behind the facade of a happily married man, Larry Fornalski was into gambling.’

Steele went outside to fetch a coffee before the long drudge through the data that she felt would eventually lead nowhere. In the corridor she ran into DI Vic Jones.

‘Heard you got a new case Mandy.’

‘Yes Vic, a pretty gruesome killing.’

‘How’s the old bastard taking it?’

She turned her face upwards, measuring him, her olive skin pale with stress.

‘Oh, you know.’

She pressed for a black and watched the steam rise. Vic leaned against the machine, his wiry muscled frame casting a shadow that stretched past her along the corridor.

‘That means he’s making your life hell, the offer still stands.’

‘I appreciate that, and I’m tempted, but.’

‘Sticking with him?’

‘Yes.’

‘You serious?’

She looked into his cold eyes and held his gaze.

‘He’s a good detective.’

‘He catches them, but his methods.’

‘Vic, I’ve got to get on.’

‘The only way you’ll get on in the modern Met is to change your career path, get away from Flare, he’ll bring you down, he belongs in the dark ages.’

‘Right now, he’s my partner.’

‘He doesn’t like anyone.’

‘I didn’t join the Met for a popularity contest.’

‘I respect your determination.’

‘I’ll think about it Vic.’

‘And all that shit with his face. You know how it happened? He was working someone over, I mean the governor said Flare could have been up for torture.’

‘I’m not interested.’

‘Harlan White is a real crim, probably deserved it, but that’s not what we do.’

‘Not anymore.’

He leaned into her, measuring her response.

‘You do know, don’t you?’

She raised a hand.

‘Vic-’.

‘He had a flame gun, he was burning his genitals. White turned it on Flare.’

She looked over his shoulder and he caught the flicker in her eye.

‘Press white for me’, Flare said. ‘Oh and Vic, I think you’ve got genitals on the brain,

leave my partner alone, there are plenty of whores out there for you to screw with.’

‘Good morning to you too.’

‘Is it, what’s good about it? Like I said, give my compliments to your wife.’

Flare reached across him, took the coffee and walked away, followed by Steele.

A burnished sun burned bright in the sick London skyline as they toiled in darkness.

It sent shadows dancing across the Westway as Razor edged his white Lamborghini Gallardo past the hundred mark. The drivers he passed in a blur could just make out the flowing blonde hair in the passenger seat.

Anne Lacey watched the roads flash by.

‘This is fucking great!’, she said, unheard over the engine’s dark noise.

Razor was never seen with anyone other than a model. His friends joked about Razor’s Catwalk Pussy Parade. He’d made a fortune on the LA music scene and as he took Anne back to his house in Marylebone, he stopped at some lights.

The guys in the next car eyed her as she applied her lipstick in the mirror. They rolled down their window to get a better look and from their radio Razor could hear one of his hits. He ran his hand through his golden mane.

‘The system’s a bitch’ played loud and clear down Marylebone high street as he got ready for a quick session before the recording studio.

The digging was not as dull as Steele had expected. Larry Fornalski’s bank statements were a dream.

Steele couldn’t believe her eyes and resentfully pushed away the thought of her own financial position as an Inspector. She recalled the days when the title alone would have meant the world to her and now as she scrolled through the fiscal clout of this other world, she felt small and used, as if she’d sold herself some cheap con.

There were no anomalies in Fornalski’s recent financial transactions. She went further back. There wasn’t even the indication of the casual use of an expensive hooker.

He spent as a man in his position would, but it was all accounted for and nothing indicated he owed money to anybody.

‘One thing’s for sure’, she said to Flare, ‘Fornalski wasn’t into gambling.’

 

 

That evening Martin Gould took the shortcut through the passageway at the rear of his offices. It was a hot day and the heat lingered in the London air. He loosened his collar. He was a tall man who moved with that caution of added weight. He’d had a profitable afternoon and all he wanted was to get home, shower and take his wife out to dinner.

As he entered the relative darkness of the alley he thought about the deals he’d pulled off.

There was a lot of money heading his way. A lot.

The alley curved at the middle, losing light. The tall buildings towered overhead and he thought about traffic, picking the quickest route home. He kicked a can, which rolled

noisily away from him. He slowed down, adjusting to the lack of light, and heard a noise behind him.

As he turned he felt something wet on his face, then a sharp pain. The taste of blood in his mouth. He could feel something entering him and warmth dripping from his body. He was amazed at the noise his own blood made.

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PURE AND THE HATED

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2016

Published by Wildblue Press

 

 

1.

 

Marigold and Joyce lived in the house by the red barn that passing tourists used to photograph. They came to that part of Vermont for the skiing. They’d hit the slopes, fill the restaurants, and leave with their memories. I envy them now. I wish I could exchange my memories for those of another man. I have no vacations left inside me.

The drive I took from Stowe to visit my nieces once made my heart ache with its beauty, but in the end that gentle road leading into the mountains felt like a scar. I used to help Marigold and Joyce with their reading when they were little. My sister, Holly, did so much for them. Their father, Dwight Fisher, had run off years ago, no one knew where, leaving her alone. That was before they were born. He returned off and on; he had a knack for doing that. He spent a few years with my sister, watched her get pregnant and neglected her. Then he vanished for good one summer’s day, leaving her to bring her daughters up on her own. She never spoke of him, but reverted to the family name of Butler.

Having lost my own son, Felton, to a hunting accident, I came to feel Marigold and Joyce were like two daughters to me. My wife, Mary, never recovered from Felton’s death. She said the loss of a child ended something inside her. Her maternal care seemed to wither. The kitchen was full of dead flowers for many months after his loss. She liked Marigold and Joyce but rarely visited them. And it seemed to me that I was pouring all my paternal instincts into the two girls, wanting to protect them when I had been unable to save my own son’s life. The fool is protected by his folly. I never envisaged the cruelty that life held in its card-dealing hands. I never saw what was to come. Perhaps that is why I became the man I am, a barely recognisable sum of memories that have altered my image and bruised my heart. I wish I could erase them, but they feed on me. The deepest bruise of all dwells like a swollen rose inside me, reminding me of that time with its thorns, that wounding time that violated us all.

Everything changed in those years, apart from the landscape. Its beauty in the fall still stops my breath; the green mountains of Vermont and shades of shifting colour overwhelm me. The vistas of clear brooks and streams. The hills flowing into mountains tell me that the earth is wiser than us.

My sister and nieces lived outside Stowe, beneath Mount Mansfield that always seemed to be sleeping, waiting for snow. I sometimes think it watched the events as they unfolded. The countryside there has a purity to it that is endlessly consoling. And to a certain kind of man that purity may aggravate his own sense of corruption, engendering thoughts of defilement.

The tourists came and went, brought money and took away stories and snapshots. They faded like invisible ink. But there was one man who passed through and left something ineradicable behind in those violated years. He passed through all right. He did so like a scythe that cut all certainty from my life and left me with thoughts that were alien to my soul. Temple Jones. There was no way of knowing him or predicting what he would do.

I remember something Mary said to me about him, ‘Shepherd Butler, sometimes you just can’t know a man; some men keep things too well hidden.’

And what Temple Jones did to Mary was nothing compared to what he went on to do. He stole my understanding of the world and handed me back a reality that lacks all consolation. I crave the solace of purity and find only hatred. And I know that innocence is an affront to some men.

Even the well outside the window seems corrupted by the memory of him sitting there, his face reflected in the window pane. But I have other memories. I try to reach back to a time when I didn’t know him and the world seemed good. I remember the sandstone well many years ago one sunlit morning in the early years of my marriage. It glowed like honeycomb and beneath me Mary’s face was full of a fertile joy I have never known another woman to have. She tasted of mountain streams as I kissed her mouth, and I lived in a world of certainty as she took me inside her on the wet grass.

I am sure that was the day Felton was conceived, there beneath the well in the quiet privacy of our Vermont garden. My fingers smelt of wild columbine and sweetgrass, and Mary was mine, as was the future in all its broken knowledge. My wife had the purest skin, there was not a scar on her body, and as I touched her I was conscious my hands had been rooting in the soil, as if I was unfit for her body and all it would allow. But she yielded to me and gave me things I would never have dared ask from her. There was no restraint or inhibition in her touch, which gave permission to my desire. The marks she carries now can’t be seen. Her sapphire blue eyes that once would search my face have faded, and while I inhabit the same house as her I have to reach into the past to feel her reality.

Her alabaster skin, her mouth, her erotic lips parted as I entered her on the pure earth, her full breasts and strong thighs, exist in a moment that has been removed from me, as she has been stolen from herself. I feel the ache of an amputated limb and want to dwell inside her again, but robbers have invaded our home and carried us away.

I am unmanned by events beyond my control and seek the feminine to prove myself again. I have become the castrated father of the tribe, my children are butchered, my possessions looted. That is the purpose that hatred serves. But I will not yield to that poisoned Bible. There was a time before corruption. I seek to separate the past from the wounds he inflicted. His deeds invaded us like a virus, replicating their own hatred inside us, taking away the things we once believed in. And while I can still see myself making love to Mary that day, I can also smell the fresh grass and see the columbine’s spurs and feel the ones that Temple Jones wore cutting into my sides, as if he was on my back without my knowing, all along, even then.

 

 

2.

 

Late fall. Vermont a swathe of colour, scarlet and gold shimmering in the hills, banks of red leaves bleeding at the edges. Unearthly light. I was standing in the kitchen with Mary, finishing a cup of coffee and about to leave to visit Holly and the girls. Mary was dressed in a white blouse buttoned to the top. It complimented the beauty of her slender neck with its well-defined muscles. I see myself kiss the vein that runs across it. I feel it throb against my lips when we make love.

‘Fall used to be my favourite season, Shepherd,’ she said. ‘But now all it does is remind me of Felton’s death.’

‘Do you want to come with me today?’

‘I’m best on my own.’

‘They’d love to see you.’

‘Would they?’

I looked into her sky blue eyes, but they were wandering away from me. She gazed into the distance, at the mountains. Her hazelnut hair shone with light. I wanted to touch it.

‘He knew you were proud of him,’ I said.

‘Did I tell him enough? Did I hold back my love in the name of duty as a parent?’

‘You’ve never held anything back.’

‘The beauty outside my window is too hard to bear. I don’t want to see how unchanged it all is, how it keeps to its own aesthetic.’

I didn’t understand what she meant, but I was to find out. My words fell like fake money from my mouth.

‘Mary, I wanted the world to stop when he was shot. I felt as though tomorrow was a lie. We train ourselves to think of the future of our offspring, most of what we do as parents is a way of investing in that, and we never expect them to be taken from us. Part of the future goes with them. I know you didn’t like him to hunt, but nothing would have persuaded him it was wrong.’

‘I see them bringing back the deer on their cars, and it all seems so trivial to me now, my principles about killing animals. I wonder whether it was something else I was feeling when I tried to stop him from doing it, as if behind my views lay an unease, a sense he might come to harm out there.’

‘You had the same principles at college.’

‘Go on your own, Shepherd, send them my love. I’m not good company. I’m locked inside that fall two years ago. Do you remember us walking up Mount Mansfield, your hand in mine and Felton walking before us? I look at myself now, and I’m someone else.’

That ravaged morning I wanted to make love to my wife. As I kissed her good-bye I felt her desolation. Felton’s death was lodged like a fish hook inside us.

I drove to Holly’s, out of Stowe and its neat line of houses, and up the mountain road into the dying leaves and my shallow dreams of family life. As I pulled up I glanced at my face in the rearview mirror. I thought I could see someone else lurking behind my eyes, laughing at me. I stepped out of my pickup into the cold and felt like someone had punched a block of ice into my lungs.

Holly saw me walking up and opened the door.

‘I got some fresh coffee on,’ she said.

‘Then I better help you drink it.’

Her house smelled of freshly baked bread. Holly kept it immaculate. It instilled a sense of ambiguity in me. It was a home, something I once knew, and inasmuch as that comforted me, it also tormented me with my loss.

Marigold and Joyce were sitting in the living room. They got up when they saw me walk in.

Marigold offered me her cheek.

‘Hello, Uncle Shepherd.’

‘We going out today?’ Joyce said, standing on tiptoe so I could reach hers.

‘If you want to.’

‘Mom wants to go shopping,’ Marigold said.

‘Well let’s talk to her about it. Now where’s this coffee?’

Holly poured me a cup as my nieces chattered to each other. Marigold was nineteen and Joyce seventeen, and they both had a freshness to their looks that made them seem out of place it the modern world. They’d inherited Holly’s beauty, but Marigold had darker eyes than her mother and Joyce a rosiness to her complexion that made me think of apples at harvest time. My sister was a dark blonde with deep brown eyes. Both Marigold and Joyce resembled her, having her small and delicate nose. But Marigold had black hair, while Joyce was a brunette with blue eyes she’d inherited from her father, who was a handsome man. I’d always suspected that Dwight Fisher had run off with another woman. Rumours had circulated about his behaviour when he disappeared, and I tried to keep them from my sister’s ears. I’m not sure how much she heard, but I think gossip is harmful.

My own resemblance to Holly was a comfort to me. I looked at her and thought how we had the same colour eyes. Since Felton’s death I felt as though I’d lost my family. Mary’s isolation added to that. My grief was briefly lifted on those visits to Holly. But I wasn’t the man I used to be, and I felt like an outsider. The tragedy had turned me grey, and I’d often look at my face in the bathroom mirror on rising as if I was staring at a stranger and think my beard was the colour of ash. I seemed without colour, grizzled, as if some part of me had been erased. And I took solace in the hues of the countryside and in my nieces.

For a while at times with the death of my son I felt my world had turned to ash. I took warmth from my nieces and stepped outside the black and white film I lived in at home when I visited them. They allowed me to think of the future.

As I looked at them I thought how these young women would have families and children in a few years, and I felt my loss tug at my heart. I dislodged the pain with a preoccupation I’d developed in the past year. I’d begun to feel responsible for my nieces, and I wondered how they would be employed when they were older.

I owned a hardware store in Stowe, and although I worked fewer hours in those days, and let my staff make decisions a few years ago I wouldn’t have felt comfortable delegating, I worked as much as my grief would allow. Marigold had got good grades at school and was studying biology at the University of Vermont. She wanted to become a vet. Joyce had done less well and was looking for work. I’d just lost a member of staff at the shop, and I thought about offering Joyce the vacancy.

‘How’s the job search going?’ I said.

Holly grinned.

‘You mean you haven’t told him, Joyce?’ she said.

‘Mom.’

‘She’s got a job.’

‘Working in the Peoples’ Bank, thanks to my math grades,’ Joyce said. ‘At least I was good at one subject at school.

‘That’s not true, Jo, you were good at science,’ Marigold said.

‘Not as good as you.’

‘Will you two stop it?’ Holly said. ‘I’m just delighted she’s got work, and at a bank, don’t you think, Shepherd?’

‘That’s great news, Joyce.’

That afternoon we went into Stowe, and I helped Holly shop at Shaw’s. We bought fresh lobster and chicken, and she stocked up on cans of vegetables and pasta.

‘My car will be out of the shop in two days,’ she said as we loaded my pickup with the bags.

‘In the meantime if you need me to run you anywhere.’

‘Thanks, Shepherd. How about coming back and sharing some of the chicken with us?’

‘Sounds too good to resist.’

Back at her house, Holly chopped the chicken up and cooked it in a tomato sauce as I talked to the girls. We had it steaming hot with winter squash. As I ate I felt redundant as an uncle in a way I couldn’t define.

I left after lunch and stopped on my way home to walk in Mount Mansfield State Forest. My visit had left me feeling unsettled, and I wanted to find out why. I began to wonder whether I secretly resented Holly the children she still had. And I thought of Mary alone, at home. I walked without looking where I was going. The woods felt like a womb.

As I entered a clearing I saw a man in threadbare clothes sitting on a log. He looked like some forest dweller who lives on berries and plants and is wild.

I’d wandered quite far in before I spotted him and was overcome by a sense of intrusion. He seemed to be hiding. Beside him was a fire and the burnt out remains of food. I could smell recently cooked meat.

I was about to turn away to leave him to his solitude when he raised a hand in greeting. I walked towards him.

There was a moment before I spoke when I felt this young man had some wisdom that I sought, as if my trip into the forest had a purpose beyond my desire to dispel my troubled thoughts. He had unkempt hair and fair features, a handsome face beneath the beard, but there was something about his looks that echoed in me in a sympathetic way and made me feel my walk into the forest had found its purpose in another human being.

‘I didn’t mean to intrude on you,’ I said.

 

Back to TOC

 

 

 

 

 

 

BUFFALO AND SOUR MASH

Richard Godwin

Copyright © 2016

Published by Down & Out Books

 

 

1.

 

It was those wild eyes that did it to them every time. Every look as intense as a cobra stare, as if he was looking through the spider webbed surface of a broken window. And in many ways his was a view through the shattered glass of transgression, a surveillance of the moral world by a man who knew no morality or had tethered it to an abandoned building a long time ago. As if in his past lay the broken pieces. But right now he was going to make the insanity happen. Piece by frenzied piece. He lived on the edge of erotic mayhem. He was less a Pied Piper than an assassin with a lover’s heart. Murphy Stubbs brought the rodeo in. He brought a lot more.

 

 

Sunset. Broken clouds inked with the colour of bleeding plums. On the flat horizon they seemed to drift like snowflakes towards some other event. But all eyes were on the show, and that’s all that mattered that day of dust and heat, of denims torn or tight as clay on a sculptor’s hands.

It started in the afternoon and went on into the evening. The drinking contest pulled in a big crowd, as Murphy Stubbs knew it would. He’d barbecues set up across the field and ordered a thousand bottles of Jack Daniel’s, his favourite sour mash, his favourite number. It was tattooed to the taut brown shoulders of the first hooker he’d entered with sweating palms and all the swollen anxieties a teenager can let loose in only one way. And he’d got the locals round to watch the buffalos. It was good to see the women bring their kids and stand and stare at the large animals while their men went in search of booze. The smell of charred meat and whisky hung in the hot summer air. Murphy watched as a man collapsed from too many Budweisers. He shook his head and put another chunk of buffalo meat on the barbecue he was tending to, a regular host with an unusual interest in livestock, whisky, rodeos and female riders, especially ones who knew how to ride a buffalo. Or ride it a certain way. Murphy stood at six-foot-two, well-built with platinum hair cropped close to his skull. It looked like ice as the sun caught it. He had dark eyebrows and heavy black stubble on his face that gave his skin the look of sandpaper. And he had those wild eyes, butane blue, needing only the match to turn pitch black and as unreadable as a lost civilisation’s hieroglyphic scrawl. But Murphy didn’t aspire to the walls of a primal cave, no, he wanted fast cars with deep leather seats and a mansion in Spain. And women. As he took in the scene his expression was neutral. His face had in many ways regular features that some might have considered handsome, but there was harshness there. He wore a pearl white Jack Daniel’s shirt that he’d had made especially so the lettering looked like a cattle brand. He let it hang open at the top, almost to the nipple, so that it exposed the curly thick grey hair that sprouted like fuse wire from his pale skin. He wore Wrangler jeans and black cowboy boots, always with needle points. They looked sharpened, as if he’d filed them down so hard they could take the eye out of dog, or other animal. He was all cowboy that day, his demeanour slick and polished. As he spoke his face became suffused with an intent look.

‘Nothing like a bit of buffalo and sour mash,’ he said to a man in a bright pink T-shirt.

‘Whatever you say, Murphy, can’t say I’d argue with you. Say are we gonna get paid?’

‘Now hold on there, Hudson. You know how things are, you do another concert for me.’

The young man shrugged. His angular body looked like it was made of coat hangers in loose pink cotton. He seemed an epicene presence beside Murphy’s bullish masculinity.

‘You seen Karaline around, she seems to have disappeared?’ Hudson said, wandering off, and putting his shades on to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun.

Murphy shook his head, poured a double shot of Jack Daniel’s into a glass tumbler that was decorated with the bright blue silhouette of a naked female tango dancer and knocked it back. He glanced at the frozen female on the tumbler’s edge, her body locked in movement, her hands seeking a partner, as a single drop of whisky rolled down her thigh like a post coital reminder that pleasure needs tidying up after the moment is spent. Murphy liked to tidy things up after he’d had some pleasure. He viewed time as bullets, each second a gun shot, and every hour idle when he wasn’t holding a gun in his hand or enjoying a woman, testing her out for the rodeo show. The show was the movie for him. His weeks slid by like ammunition being racked into the chamber of a gun and he smelt cordite rising like perfume from a woman’s skin.

He raised those eyes to his field of endeavour. He took in the scene. Men were staggering around, drunk and dehydrated from the heat, two women argued by a tent, their nails catching the light like tiny painted stilettos in a scene that could be fetched from any representation of all the things that never change. Murphy cooked four more burgers, the meat rising into the whisky sour air like charred flesh, like summer’s turning and all fecund smells of growth once green smouldering on autumn’s fire. Then Murphy left it cooking and went into his office. It was air-conditioned, and Murphy looked out at the field in Surrey where he owned a thousand buffalo. The wood glowed like honeycomb and gave the office the look of a waiting room for a porn show. Cowboy hats hung from rusting nails, and a large deer’s head took up a prominent position on the wall opposite Murphy’s deep long desk that had papers and bullets, hollow points mostly, scattered across its stained mahogany. The stains were dark, obscene, and Murphy put his long hard forefinger to one and touched his tongue with it, his expression unreadable, deranged.

Murphy was a wealthy man with an obsession, or rather a few of them. In addition to buffalos and sour mash he wanted to bring America to England and he had a thing, as he called it, for female performer rodeos. He gazed out of the window and watched as Hudson Armada wandered around in search of his girlfriend. Hudson was thin, his T-shirt looked absurd to Murphy, and his faded jeans looked as though they might slide off his backside at any moment. His black hair looked unnatural, as if he’d stolen a wig; in the sunlight it looked almost blue, like a rook’s head. But Hudson was no rook and Murphy knew it. He was the lead singer of the rock band Pure White, and Murphy managed them. His girlfriend was coming out of the bathroom in the office pulling up the zipper on her faded Levi’s, as he wandered off towards a tent whose open flap showed a man urinating into a glass vase. Karaline Oats was a blonde groupie with sparkling blue eyes, pale skin and the kind of figure that made Murphy drool. She was hitched tight, legs rising like the ripples of waves on a sea, good solid tits, and a gap between her thighs Murphy reckoned her could put his fist into without getting his knuckles wet. It made him think of wiping blood from his hands when he knocked the front teeth out of a school friend who owed him a dollar—or was it two. The memory was irrelevant. He shrugged his shoulders and watched her move. Karaline was wearing a bright red peasant blouse and Murphy glanced though the gap where a button was undone at the curve of her full breasts.

‘You never wear a bra do you, honey?’ he said.

‘No need.’

‘Not when you’re built like that.’

‘Like what?’

‘Turn round.’

‘I don’t want to turn round.’

‘Do it for Uncle Murph.’

She did, giving it a little twirl as Murphy came up behind her and slapped her arse.

‘Ow, that hurt.’

‘That’s why, Karaline, you sure are oats.’

‘And what does that mean?’

‘You’re a good Southern girl.’

‘Did you say you had some cash?’

‘Hard cash, hard as it comes.’

He nodded as he took out his wallet and handed her a hundred pounds. He watched her step outside into the heat and the smell of whisky, glancing at the outline of her buttocks in her denims, as he took a Magnum .45 out of his desk drawer, opened the chamber and loaded it with hollow point bullets. Then he went to the back of the office and opened a door that led into a warehouse that was stacked with bottles of Jack Daniel’s. In the middle of this, like a captive spectator waiting for a show, was a man seated on a chair, his hands tied behind his back with fuse wire, duct tape over his mouth. His fingers were slick with blood from where the fuse wire had severed his skin. He stared up at Murphy with tired incredulous eyes as Murphy placed the muzzle of the Magnum against his temple. Then Murphy tore the tape from his mouth with his other hand.

The man in the chair was Al Bangle, a local businessman who owned a lot of land in that part of Surrey, not far from London but with enough of the illusion of the countryside. Enough for Murphy that is, with his plans to set up several rodeo arenas there. And illusion was all that Murphy wanted, that boy who grew up in Oklahoma in the soiled hand-me down boiler suits of his older retarded incontinent brother who fell into a ravine one day while taking a walk with Murphy. Murphy liked certain things about Oklahoma; he played Merle Haggard every day, at some point, and always thought he should have run for president, but there were other things about the state that raised and scarred Murphy. Things he deplored and chose to forget. After he impregnated the daughter of a local preacher, stuck one of her sister’s knitting needles inside her to skewer the kicking foetus and lead it into the darkness he craved, he fled the USA and came to Surrey. He lived in a series of flashbacks like this, as if his days were an incessant acid trip. Now he blinked, his sharp eyelids like the staccato jump of a camera shutter, and repositioned himself in the constantly unfamiliar territory of the present. Al had been refusing to sell Murphy some land. Al was a heavyset man with pale skin and sandy hair that stuck to his head like glue. Murphy took him in, another stranger on his ranch.

‘You think you can move in on what I own out here?’ Murphy said.

‘The land is mine,’ Al said.

‘Sweet young thing ain’t she? She gives good head.’

‘You think by setting me up with some scrubber you can buy it?’

‘You want me to give the pictures to the papers?’

‘You’re all mouth, now let me out of here.’

Murphy nodded, but his eyes didn’t.

‘I’m all mouth, you say.’

‘I’ve got heavies, I can get you hurt.’

Murphy pulled two photographs out of his back pocket. He held the first one in front of Al’s face. It showed him with Karaline’s face pressed against his crotch, his head tilted back and his mouth open, twisted, as if in pain, or denying his pleasure. The second one showed him holding her face with both hands as she clearly finished the job.

‘Do you know how many friends I have at the papers?’ Al said.

‘That right?’

‘Go ahead. Show them, they’ll never print them, I might just go back for seconds with her when I get out of here.’

‘There you go again, moving in on what’s mine.’

‘She ain’t yours, she’s going out with that singer Hudson. Does he know what you and her get up to?’

‘Karaline does what I say.’

‘Oh yeah? And why is that?’

‘Do you know about women?’

‘I know a whore when I see one.’

‘I’m talking about moral ambiguity. Most women will stray, given the chance, you just have to know how to pull their wires.’

‘Their wires.’

Murphy nodded for real this time.

‘Women in a relationship, married women, like adventure and thrill, but they are in a state of conflict. They feel bad about what they want to do.’

‘You talk a load of crap, Murphy.’

‘It all goes back to the Wild West. It all goes back to hunting. I know how to make them feel real good. I relieve them of their moral conflict and they do things for me. That’s why Karaline does what I tell her to do.’

‘She needs the money.’

‘I’m going to shoot you unless you let me buy the land. I’m offering you a fair price.’

‘You’d never use that thing, it’s probably not even loaded.’

Murphy opened the chamber, showing him the bullets, his eyes lighting like fireflies.

‘You’re all show, all of this, all of what you’re doing. My wife won’t even come to one of your events.’

‘Tracy with the roving eye, shows good cleavage when she bends and pours me a drink, she has moral ambiguity.’

‘When I get up I’m going to smack you in the mouth for that.’

‘After I shoot you I might just make a move on her, I bet she whines like a stray dog in the sack.’

‘Say what you have to say and let me go.’

‘Does she dye her hair? I mean is she blonde all over?’

‘You’re never gonna find out.’

‘I reckon she does dye it, I’ll see when I raise her dress and make her moan.’

‘Fuck you.’

‘No, I’m going to fuck her, maybe I’ll shoot you first then jam the barrel in her snatch. I reckon she’d dig that, being fucked with the well-oiled barrel of a loaded Magnum.’

‘You’re a sexual sadist.’

‘What other kind is there?’

‘I’m telling you you’re insane.’

‘Yeah but the women love me, so what does that say about you?’

‘What does that say about me? I’ll tell you, Mr. Rodeo, it says I’m going to walk out of here and you’re going down.’

‘Down on Tracy, bet she tastes like fish oils and breeze blocks.’

Al tugged on his wires, running blood across his nicotine-stained fingernails. He was desperate for a cigarette, and Murphy knew it. He could see it beneath the fear in his recessed eyes. Murphy had always wondered how he’d got like that, concluding someone must have kicked Al’s head when he was a boy.

Murphy pulled a pack of Marlboros from Al’s breast pocket, took a Zippo lighter with the stars and stripes on it from his jeans, whipped it alight and took a long deep drag on it as he stared into Al’s eyes. Then he touched the tip of it to Al’s lips, enough to coat them with his own saliva and turned the cigarette round so that its burning red end was two millimetres from Al’s left eye. And Murphy watched it blink. And blink. He dropped to his knees and let it singe Al’s eyeball, thinking burning candyfloss on a spring morning, thinking, no, that’s a sexual smell, before he flicked the Marlboro to the floor and shredded it with the heel of his cowboy boot.

‘The land is not for sale, can’t you get that through your thick head?’ Al said, his voice thick and tangled in his throat.

‘It’s you who’s got the thick head.’

‘I’m going to make a call, I’ll have the police crawling all over you.’

‘And how are you going to do that?’

‘How the fuck do you think I’m going to do that?’

‘I mean your hands are tied.’

‘This is Surrey, Murphy, you don’t do the things you do here.’

It took two seconds. Murphy put the gun to his head and shot him twice. Al’s face caved in, blood whipped out of his cheek and sprayed two boxes of whisky and he slumped forwards in the chair.

‘This is fucking America, asshole, and don’t you forget it,’ Murphy said, putting the barrel of the gun to his nose and sniffing the cordite the way some men smell the perfume rising from a naked woman’s skin.

He stared at his rival, at the blood that dripped from his ruined face, and he pulled a pack of Rodeo cigarettes from his pocket. His lit one with his Zippo lighter and got a knife from a drawer in a desk that stood at the far end of the warehouse. Beyond it was an inner office and at the back of that an incinerator that the previous owner of the land, a farmer, used to burn sick pigs. In reality none of his pigs were sick; he had terminal syphilis and was addicted to thoughts of bacon. It was not bacon that Murphy thought of as he dragged on his Rodeo flame, his eyes wandered, impervious to the known world, reality banished like an anonymous salesman. He cut the ropes on Al’s hands, then took some plastic sheeting from a stack behind the boxes of whisky. He rolled Al into the sheet and lugged him to the incinerator, which he’d turned on earlier that day before the drinking contest began. He dumped Al in. Then he went back to his office, where he used the shower. He changed his clothes, putting on a pair of Wrangler jeans, a Western shirt and cowboy hat, then a pale blue pair of needlepoint cowboy boots.

He stepped outside to witness a fight between two drunk men. He tipped his hat to them and wandered away from the crowd. He could see Hudson and Karaline. They were sitting at a table with a couple of Budweisers and Karaline was nodding at something Hudson was saying. She saw Murphy and looked away.

Murphy carried on walking to the rodeo arena that stood at the other side of his property. The show had started and there was one cowgirl in particular he wanted to see, Rhonda Jones. He’d seen her on film, but never in the flesh. And now he had his chance. He turned up just at the right time, as Rhonda came out in stonewashed denims, a doll with an attitude. She rode the horse like she’d known it all her life and the crowd went crazy. Murphy dug her style, and he dug her arse when she got off and laid her sexual eyes on his.

Murphy strode over to her.

‘Rhonda, that was some performance. Murphy Stubbs,’ he said, holding out his hand.

‘Thank you for inviting me along,’ Rhonda said, taking his palm, her expression hesitant.

Murphy gazed into her deep hazelnut eyes and her full lips, glancing briefly at the curve of her breasts inside her denim shirt, and her long legs. She was a brunette, his favourite kind of cowgirl, just made for a buffalo.

‘Rhonda, I have a business proposition for you. Would you join me at my office?’

‘I could use a drink.’

‘I got some beers there. And whisky of course.’

‘A beer would go down fine right now.’

They walked there in the setting sun, and her hair caught the sunlight as Murphy told her about his plans for an all-female rodeo show.

‘You see I want to set up the best rodeo here,’ he said in his office as he got two bottles of Beck’s out of the fridge.

‘It’s unusual to see any rodeos at all in England.’

‘That’s what I want to change. There should be more rodeos in this country.’

‘Today’s the first time I’ve ridden since I came here.’

‘How would you like regular rides and good pay, Rhonda?’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Do you miss America?’

‘I come from a small town in Alabama. I miss that but not everything.’

‘I want to bring America to England.’

‘You’re certainly doing a good job out there. Where do you come from anyway?’

‘Oklahoma. Originally. But I’m not big on origins or time. I live in my own show. So the real answer to your question is right here in Surrey.’

‘Well you sound American.’

‘I know, because I am American.’

‘How can you bring America to England?’

‘Because it’s already here.’

‘I thought you came from the Midwest.’

‘I grew up on Westerns.’

Rhonda nodded, sipped her beer; Murphy watched her wet mouth.

‘Tell me what you have in mind,’ she said.

‘I want you to lead an all-female rodeo, you’ll be the star.’

‘And where is it going to take place?’

‘Right here for the moment but I’m going to build more arenas.’

‘What are you paying?’

‘For you, a thousand a show.’

‘Woah, that’s a lot of money.’

‘You in?’

‘Yes, Murphy, I’m in.’

‘I want you to put together a team of female cowgirls.’

‘I don’t think there are any here.’

‘Train them.’

‘You really think it will take on with the British public?’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s not their thing.’

‘I’ll make it their thing.’

‘You enjoy my ride?’

‘Every bit of it,’ Murphy said, glancing at her arse as she got up and put the bottle on his desk.

‘Let me show you something,’ he said, going over to her and lifting a calendar out of a stack of papers.

He handed it to her and Rhonda flipped through the images of naked women on horseback and on buffalos.

‘Doesn’t leave much to the imagination,’ she said, putting it down on the desk.

‘They look good though don’t they?’

‘All they’re wearing is a cowboy hat. You don’t ride like that.’

‘You ever try it?’

‘No.’

‘I want you in a calendar.’

‘Un huh, I ain’t doing it.’

‘I’m sure I can get you to change your mind.’

‘I’ve told you, I ain’t riding naked.’

‘Your boyfriend, he’s a boxer ain’t he?’

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Gary Slate, I seen him in action, lethal right hook.’

‘Well if you have seen him in the ring then you wouldn’t be asking me to take my clothes off. Gary has a temper, Murphy, he don’t like other men sniffing around me.’

‘Sniffing around? Rhonda take a look at yourself.’

He placed one hand delicately on her shoulder and guided her towards the bathroom.

‘What are you doing?’ she said.

‘I want to show you something, something that will make you a lot of money.’

They were by the door when he reached across her and opened it. Rhonda walked in and Murphy came in behind her and pointed at the mirror.

‘What am I meant to be looking at?’ Rhonda said.

‘Look at your face, look at your body, you’re made to be the greatest female rodeo star the world has ever seen.’

‘I know I can ride. I also know I can attract men, but where does the money come in?’

‘Murphy Stubbs doesn’t just do rodeos and whisky, I am a manager and I can make you wealthy.’

‘And how is that?’

‘I have ten grand sitting in my drawer out there, you can leave with half. Set up an all-female rodeo show for me, train them.’

‘Five now and the rest on completion?’

‘You got it, Rhonda.’

‘You got yourself a show, I’ll put on a real good one, Murphy.’

‘Do it nude for me and the money doubles.’

‘I told you, I ain’t doing no nude rodeo show.’

‘A private show, just for me.’

‘You think I’m going to shed my clothes for you if you offer me cash?’

‘Why not?’

‘Why not? Because I ain’t no hooker.’

‘No, you’re a star and horses are made to be ridden bareback. Imagine it, Rhonda the rodeo girl does it naked for Murphy Stubbs, you get to wear a hat.’

‘Why don’t you throw in nipple tassels too?’

‘That could be arranged, although why cover up what nature gave you. And I bet they’re beautiful.’

‘No, I said no, Murphy, and I mean it.’

She marched out of the bathroom with Murphy following her and was about to leave the office when he picked an envelope up from his desk and took the cash out.

‘This is yours,’ he said.

Rhonda glanced at it.

‘No nude stuff, Murphy. I’ll ride for you and train the girls.’

‘Make sure they’re pretty.’

‘You want me to find cowgirls in England that are nice looking?’

‘Of course, it ain’t hard, look around, this is America, it’s packed with nice looking broads, but not many as nice looking as you.’

‘America? What are you talking about?’

‘I’m going to turn this place into the United States. I need you to be part of it.’

‘I think you’re a little touched in the head.’

‘We’re gonna put on a show together. Take the money and get started, and tell Gary I can help him with his career.’

‘How are you going to do that?’

‘I am a boxing promoter.’

‘Boxing too?’

‘You sound surprised, Rhonda, don’t be.’

‘You’re serious.’

‘About you? You bet.’

‘I mean about Gary.’

‘Tell Gary to come and see me. Tell him I’ll set him up with series of fights that will make his career, he’ll be on television, I’ll fly him out to Vegas.’

‘What is it with all this? Buffalos in the Surrey countryside, men drunk as skunks on free booze, female rodeos, and now boxing matchs.’

‘I’m going to make an impact, I’m going to show you what kind of million dollar star you are, and maybe I’ll even get you to do it naked.’

‘No, I’m keeping my clothes on.’

‘Okay, start today, find the girls and start the show.’

‘And Gary?’

‘Send him to me. Tell him to come to my office first thing tomorrow morning.’

‘Okay.’

‘Like a shot before you go?’

‘Just the one then.’

He put two tumblers on the desk and poured a shot of Jack Daniel’s into each of them, then handed Rhonda a glass.

‘Do you have a favourite horse?’ Murphy said.

‘I don’t have one right now.’

‘We’ll go and buy you one. You need one that will show off that fine ass of yours.’

‘Now watch your language.’

‘Rump.’

‘Same thing.’

‘But that’s what makes you a great rider. Same thing in the sack.’

‘Keep it clean with me, Murphy.’

‘Rhonda, it’s what you got between your legs commands a horse and man when you mount them, they both respond to it. Only one thing tastes better and I’m sipping it.’

‘Yeah, well that’s the only thing you’re going to be tasting if I work for you.’

‘Tell Gary.’

He knocked the rest of his whisky back and waited as Rhonda drank hers, then he watched her leave and walk through the diminishing crowd outside, a piece of Western glory fetched straight from Alabama and placed in Surrey, moving like she was on heat, all denims and curves. Murphy glanced through the gap between her toned thighs as the sunlight fell across the earth and felt as though he was looking through an erotic keyhole into ecstasy.

 

 

2.

 

Evening set like a burnt rose across that part of Surrey that Murphy was christening as a new state of America.

Rhonda told Gary that night, Gary leaning against the wall in the kitchen next to a poster of a Pirelli model, her tits like ripe fruit on the glossy paper, an invitation to sin locked on her lips. Gary was standing there in a pair of red shorts swigging from a bottle of Heineken. He had the boxer’s look: a flat broad chest and boilerplate stomach, rock hard legs and forearms that looked carved in stone. His dark hair was cut short, a military-look he enjoyed. He was a handsome man, with brown eyes and a boxer’s nose, a mixture of rough and good-looking that Rhonda liked.

‘Want some pasta, or have you already eaten?’ she said.

‘No, I ain’t eaten.’

He spoke with a cockney accent and his voice had that sandpaper edge to it. He jerked his shoulder blades, pushing himself away from the wall and swaggered over to the kitchen table, pulling a chair out and scraping the cheap linoleum.

‘Where have you been?’ Rhonda said.

‘Just out, thinking about things.’

‘That right?’

‘It’s been a hot day.’

Rhonda pulled a Heineken from the fridge, flipped off the cap and swigged from the bottle, looking down at him over the rim as he flicked open the local paper and leafed through it without reading it.

‘It sure has, you try riding a rodeo horse in this heat,’ she said.

‘How did it go?’ he said, looking up, his hard eyes like metal studs.

‘Good, much better than I expected. I have some cash and an offer.’

‘He wants you to do it again? That’s good.’

‘He wants me to start an all-female show.’

‘Now all I need is to get my career back on track. ’

‘He wants to help you with that.’

‘How can he help?’

‘He says he’s a boxing promoter, told me to tell you to go and see him and he’d set you up in some fights, says he’s seen you and likes what you do in the ring.’

‘Murphy Stubbs?’ Gary said, tipping the rest of his beer down his throat, standing up and taking the cool green bottle out of Rhonda’s hand and sipping from it.

‘Go and see him, Gary.’

He pressed his hips onto hers and kissed her, tasting beer. After they ate they went into the bedroom. It was a small room that looked down onto the high street, and it contained a double bed, a cracked white chair, a small chest of drawers, and a table Rhonda used to put on makeup, on which sat a boxing medal. The curtains were drawn over the open window and a light breeze lifted them, shedding some the streetlight in pale golden ribbons as Rhonda took her clothes off slowly, and Gary lay down on the bed, his arms locked behind his head, watching. From time to time the fluttering curtains afforded glimpses of the suburban high street below, snapshots of furniture stores, and supermarkets peopled by mums with squealing kids. Its intrinsic dullness was in stark contrast to what was happening in the bedroom, a needful semi-private homage to Eros.

Rhonda did it slowly, imagining doing it for Murphy, asking herself if she could, thinking no. She stood there in a white bra and a pair of pink panties and wondered what a horse’s body would feel like against her skin. She imagined its fur against her thighs. From the street a curious passerby would catch glimpses of her body. She unhooked her bra and slid down the panties then went over to Gary.

‘So what you got for Rhonda?’ she said.

‘Saddle me up and put on your stirrups.’

‘I’ll dig them in real hard. You know, when I get there.’

‘I can take it, ain’t no cowgirl gonna put me on the canvas.’

She leaned slowly, her hazelnut eyes wandering over his loins in a visual caress that was always a signal that Rhonda was in a certain kind of sexual mood. Then she pulled down his red shorts and his blue jockeys and got on top of him, Gary ready. And she rode him, picturing herself naked on a steed. From time to time the colour of the steed would change, an equine kaleidoscope of shifting hues that rippled across Rhonda’s mind like an echo of her fluid sexual desires. For she did desire other things, private things she barely recognised and kept locked away in a metal box labelled taboo. Rhonda only ever caught half glimpses of these sought-after pleasures, and they existed beneath the disciplined threshold of her conscious mind. For what Rhonda told herself was a personal script she occasionally feared was a series of comforting lies. As she moved arousal let it fade, that corner of doubt she loved to wash away. Rhonda put her hands on Gary’s tight chest, felt his muscles flex beneath her fingertips and she arched her back. Her hair shone like silk as the light glanced across it, and she looked at the ceiling and felt it all flood through her, a long burning release from the hot day and the sexual conflict in Murphy’s office when she asked herself questions she still had not answered. And she dug her heels into Gary, wanting to feel the steel of stirrups on her ankles, wanting to press them into his flanks, needing the reins, needing the ride.

Afterwards she lay down next to him and felt the sweat crawl down her sides like a nest of hunger spiders. Then she rolled over onto her side and looked at Gary.

‘All this horse riding makes you horny don’t it?’ he said.

‘It’s all about excitement.’

‘I know about that. I feel it in the ring.’

‘I want to do a bank job.’

‘That’s taking it a bit far, Rhonda.’

‘I want to rob a bank.’

‘You’re serious.’

‘And I know just who I want to do it with.’

Gary sat up and stared at her.

‘Rhonda, you can get hooked,’ he said.

‘I am.’

‘I mean, the adrenaline rush, violence, highs, booze, sex, it’s all the same.’

‘Picture me with two guns on my hips, you like that.’

‘No, you ain’t doing it.’

‘I want to do it with Johnny Flynn.’

‘Johnny’s retired.’

‘Then he’s coming out of retirement, one last job with Rhonda the female cowgirl.’

‘I done time and it ain’t pretty, it ain’t glamorous. You want to go to jail? You won’t like it. And they’ll use your body like a trashcan.’

‘I won’t go to jail because I won’t get caught.’

‘Why do you want to do this?’

‘I want us to have a better life. I got money today from Murphy and it tasted good.’

‘How much?’

‘Enough.’

‘You’re not going to tell me.’

‘I’ll give you some when you go and see him.’

‘I’m not going to start gambling again, don’t worry, you don’t have to hide it.’

‘Gary, one job, I’ll plan it out. I read all about him, how he does it, he’s the best.’

‘I know about Johnny, he’s well known inside. And every criminal thinks he won’t get caught and you know what, you ain’t a crim.’

‘One job, no one gets shot.’

‘And where are you going to get a gun?’

‘Murphy.’

‘Oh yeah? Did you do anything more than ride for him today?’

‘No, what is that supposed to mean?’

‘He has a reputation for liking arse.’

‘Well he can like mine all he wants, he ain’t getting any tush off me.’

‘I don’t think Johnny will oblige.’

‘I am sure I can persuade him.’

‘That’s what I’m worried about.’

‘What?’

‘How you’re going to persuade him.’

‘I’ll think of a way.’

‘You mean you’ll show him some skin.’

‘No, Gary, I do not mean that.’

Gary traced his finger along the edge of a scar on her shoulder. It looked like a pale white line on her flesh in the twilit room, an absence of colour on her brown body that seemed at times to Gary like a moral deficiency. She was looking away, out of the window at the deep blue sky outside. The light from the streetlamp made her face look bronzed, her expression was meditative, moulded by the past from which she escaped with the high of the rodeo. Gary wondered what it took to penetrate that place inside to which Rhonda retreated. He wondered what pleasures she sought in private.

Every so often Rhonda became evasive. He wanted to know about her past and what scared Rhonda the brave rodeo.

‘You never did tell me how you got it,’ he said.

‘I will one day.’

‘Someone hurt you, Rhonda?’

‘Someone did.’

‘He cut you didn’t he?’

‘Gary, I don’t like to think about the past.’

 

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Richard Godwin is the critically acclaimed author of Apostle Rising, Mr. Glamour, One Lost Summer, Noir City, Meaningful Conversations, Confessions of a Hit Man, Paranoia and the Destiny Programme, Wrong Crowd, Savage Highway, Ersatz World, The Pure and the Hated, Disembodied, Buffalo and Sour Mash and Locked in Cages. His stories have been published in numerous paying magazines and over thirty-four anthologies, among them an anthology of his stories, Piquant: Tales Of The Mustard Man, and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime and The Mammoth Book of Best British Mystery, alongside Lee Child. He was born in London and lectured in English and American literature at the University of London. He also teaches creative writing at University and workshops. You can find out more about him at his website RichardGodwin.net, where you can read a full list of his works, and where you can also read his Chin Wags at the Slaughterhouse, his highly popular and unusual interviews with other authors.

 

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ALSO BY RICHARD GODWIN

 

Apostle Rising

Mr. Glamour

One Lost Summer

Noir City

Meaningful Conversations

Confessions of a Hit Man

Paranoia and the Destiny Programme

Wrong Crowd

Savage Highway

Ersatz World

Disembodied

The Pure and the Hated

Buffalo and Sour Mash

Locked in Cages

Crystal on Electric Acetate (short story collection)

 

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OTHER TITLES FROM DOWN & OUT BOOKS

AND ITS IMPRINTS

See DownAndOutBooks.com for a complete list

 

By J.L. Abramo

Catching Water in a Net

Clutching at Straws

Counting to Infinity

Gravesend

Chasing Charlie Chan

Circling the Runway

Brooklyn Justice

Coney Island Avenue

 

By Anonymous-9

Hard Bite

Bite Harder

 

By Jonathan Ashley

South of Cincinnati

 

By Trey R. Barker

2,000 Miles to Open Road

Road Gig: A Novella

Exit Blood

Death is Not Forever

No Harder Prison

 

By Richard Barre

The Innocents

Bearing Secrets

Christmas Stories

The Ghosts of Morning

Blackheart Highway

Burning Moon

Echo Bay

Lost

 

By Eric Beetner (editor)

Unloaded

 

By G. J. Brown

Falling

 

By Rob Brunet

Stinking Rich

 

By Milton T. Burton

Texas Noir

 

By Dana Cameron, editor

Murder at the Beach: Bouchercon Anthology 2014

 

By Eric Campbell, editor

Down, Out and Dead

 

By Stacey Cochran

Eddie & Sunny (TP only)

 

By Mark Coggins

No Hard Feelings

 

By Angel Luis Colón

No Happy Endings

 

By Jen Conley

Cannibals and Other Stories

 

By Shawn Corridan and Gary Waid

Gitmo

 

By Matt Coyle, Mary Marks and Patricia Smiley, editors

LAst Resort

 

By Tom Crowley

Viper’s Tail

Murder in the Slaughterhouse

 

By Frank De Blase

Pine Box for a Pin-Up

Busted Valentines and Other Dark Delights

A Cougar’s Kiss

 

By Les Edgerton

The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping

Lagniappe

 

By Nora Gaskin Esthimer, editor

Carolina Crimes: 21 Tales of Need, Greed and Dirty Deeds (*)

 

By A.C. Frieden

Tranquility Denied

The Serpent’s Game

The Pyongyang Option (*)

 

By Danny Gardner

A Negro and an Ofay

 

By Jack Getze

Big Numbers

Big Money

Big Mojo

Big Shoes

The Black Kachina (*)

 

By Keith Gilman

Bad Habits

 

By Richard Godwin

Wrong Crowd

Buffalo and Sour Mash

Crystal on Electric Acetate

 

By William Hastings, editor

Stray Dogs: Writing from the Other America

 

By Jeffery Hess

Beachhead

Cold War Canoe Club

 

By Matt Hilton

No Going Back

Rules of Honor

The Lawless Kind

The Devil’s Anvil

No Safe Place

 

By Naomi Hirahara, Kate Thornton and Jeri Westerson, editors

LAdies’ Night

 

By Terry Holland

An Ice Cold Paradise

Chicago Shiver

 

By Darrel James, Linda O. Johnston and Tammy Kaehler, editors

Last Exit to Murder

 

By David Housewright and Renée Valois

The Devil and the Diva

 

By David Housewright

Finders Keepers

Full House

 

By Beau Johnson

A Better Kind of Hate (*)

 

By Jon Jordan

Interrogations

 

By Jon and Ruth Jordan, editors

Murder and Mayhem in Muskego

Cooking with Crimespree

 

By Lawrence Kelter

Back to Brooklyn

 

By Lawrence Kelter and Frank Zafiro

The Last Collar

 

By Jerry Kennealy

Screen Test

Polo’s Long Shot

 

By Dana King

Worst Enemies

Grind Joint

Resurrection Mall

 

By Ross Klavan, Tim O’Mara and Charles Salzberg

Triple Shot

 

By JB Kohl and Eric Beetner

Over Their Heads

 

By S.W. Lauden

Crosswise

Crossed Bones

 

By Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, editors

Coast to Coast

Coast to Coast 2

 

By Terrence McCauley

The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood

The Bank Heist, editor (*)

 

By Daniel M. Mendoza, editor

Stray Dogs: Interviews with Working-Class Writers

 

By Bill Moody

Czechmate: The Spy Who Played Jazz

The Man in Red Square

Solo Hand

The Death of a Tenor Man

The Sound of the Trumpet

Bird Lives!

Mood Swings (TP only)

 

By Gerald M. O’Connor

The Origins of Benjamin Hackett

 

By Gary Phillips

The Perpetrators

Scoundrels: Tales of Greed, Murder and Financial Crimes (editor)

Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers

3 the Hard Way

 

By Gary Phillips, Tony Chavira, Manoel Magalhaes

Beat L.A. (Graphic Novel)

 

By Tom Pitts

Hustle

American Static

 

By Thomas Pluck

Bad Boy Boogie

 

By Robert J. Randisi

Upon My Soul

Souls of the Dead

Envy the Dead

 

By Rob Riley

Thin Blue Line

 

By Charles Salzberg

Devil in the Hole

Swann’s Last Song

Swann Dives In

Swann’s Lake of Despair

Swann’s Way Out

 

By Scott Loring Sanders

Shooting Creek and Other Stories

 

By Linda Sands

3 Women Walk Into a Bar (TP only)

Grand Theft Cargo

 

By Ryan Sayles

The Subtle Art of Brutality

Warpath

Let Me Put My Stories In You

 

By John Shepphird

The Shill

Kill the Shill

Beware the Shill

 

By Anthony Neil Smith

Worm (TP only)

All the Young Warriors TP only)

Once a Warrior (TP only)

Holy Death (TP only)

 

By Liam Sweeny

Welcome Back, Jack

 

By Art Taylor, editor

Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015

 

By Ian Truman

Grand Trunk and Shearer

 

By James Ray Tuck, editor

Mama Tried 1

Mama Tried 2 (*)

 

By Nathan Walpow

The Logan Triad

 

By Lono Waiwaiole

Wiley’s Lament

Wiley’s Shuffle

Wiley’s Refrain

Dark Paradise

Leon’s Legacy

 

By George Williams

Inferno and Other Stories

Zoë

 

By Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner

The Backlist

The Short List

 

 

Published by ABC Group Documentation, an imprint of Down & Out Books

 

By Alec Cizak

Down on the Street

 

By Grant Jerkins

Abnormal Man

 

By Robert Leland Taylor

Through the Ant Farm

 

 

Published by Shotgun Honey, an imprint of Down & Out Books

 

By Hector Acosta

Hardway

 

By Angel Luis Colón

Blacky Jaguar Against the Cool Clux Cult

 

By DeLeon DiMicoli

Les Cannibales (*)

 

By Nick Kolakowski

A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps

 

By Albert Tucher

The Place of Refuge

 

(*) Coming soon

 

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Noir Candy

Noir Candy is a genre-shifting candy shop of noir, the hybrid form as Richard Godwin says it is. International novelist Richard Godwin is an author who likes to experiment and deal different genre cards to his satisfied readers. These samples of his writing from numerous novels give you a taste and a teaser of his ever versatile styles and his sheer range of writing as an author. So dip in for some tasty morsels, since this is a reader offering delectation to the discerning reader and pleasure to the educated literary palate or to put it simply, to those with an eye for the new, read on.

  • ISBN: 9781370232802
  • Author: Down & Out Books
  • Published: 2017-07-08 19:05:27
  • Words: 65323
Noir Candy Noir Candy