Copyright 2013 R.B. Banfield
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.
Special thanks for all the help and assistance from those nice, if somewhat unsuspecting, people of Gendry.
“This isn’t writer’s block.”
Sophie stretched her arms, yawned and then stood up from the small wooden chair. She walked away from the desk that once looked inspiring with its roller-top and cute drawers that always stuck when they opened. It felt both good to get away for a break, and yet also regretful that so little had been done. For almost an hour she had sat there, thinking, dreaming, then singing to herself. The pristine white sheet of paper that she had aligned with care into the typewriter went untouched. At first it felt like an empty canvass waiting for her artwork. Now it felt like a solid, cold concrete wall blocking her way to her dreams. All she had to do was write something and the words and ideas would start to flow. Something. Anything. After an hour it was nothing.
She went to the window and placed her hands on the sill that was wide enough to comfortably sit back and relax on. The view outside was not as interesting as had it appeared an hour before. In just that short time the thought of looking out over the wonders of the small town of Gendry had become familiar, far from providing her with inspiration.
“I’m just not in the right mood.”
Her grandmother was not a rich woman. She had done well for herself to the point where the way that she lived might seem lavish to an outsider. She had never had an official bonafide job. The farmland that surrounded her house had been left unused for the entire time she had lived there, reinforcing the opinion of people who thought she was eccentric and not entirely trustworthy.
The farmland itself was a mess. A discarded tractor from a bygone generation was almost entirely hidden by bleak tall grass. Something that might have once been a plough now sat like rusted artwork entertaining a host of weeds. Various patches of nasty dead land were here and there, where chemicals had once been dumped and nothing else wanted to grow. Only three ancient fruit trees remained on the land; none of them able to give up anything edible. They had been there so long that no one was sure what kind of fruit they produced.
The house itself was one-hundred-and-twenty-years old, but not all three storeys were the same age. Each level was of a different design, the product of three different builders. It started off with brick, and then became something resembling Tudor, but not really. The top story was added some fifty years later by a man who claimed to be a builder but was more a failed cabinet maker. Subsequent owners either liked the strange effect of a three-designed house, or just didn’t really care that much. Sophie’s grandmother was always more concerned with what happened inside her house rather than without.
Susan Tyle’s ample money came from the inheritance of her second husband, who was from a well-to-do family with little regard for her. Susan herself came from the wrong side of the tracks, as her in-laws described it. It did not help that controversy seemed to follow her everywhere she went. Wealthy Rupert Lomasney was murdered and the killer was never found, and almost everyone suspected it was his wife Susan. Killed him for the money, they said. Told her friends that was what she would do to him one day, they said. Made plans to leave the country, they said. She was arrested with minuscule evidence against her, and none of her rumoured utterances proved true. The trial and all the media attention that went with it lasted six months. Susan was found innocent but the Lomasney family never accepted the verdict and she found life easier after she left the big city and started again in a small country town like Gendry. Residents there were somewhat backward, and they knew that and did not mind. They enjoyed their gossip and held no grudges, and everyone would give everyone else a friendly wave in the street whether they knew them or not. Susan was treated the same, and she became respected as one of the town’s leading citizens.
There she met Sam Tyle, husband number three. He was an unsuspecting and honest repairman who never charged any of his customers as much as he should have. Together they had three children and lived in the strange three-toned house. Sam died naturally one night at Sal’s bar while on his favourite stool, with an empty beer glass in his hand and a smile on his face. They buried his stool with him as a tribute to his many years as a patron. That was why there was a space at the bar, four stools down on the right.
Sophie’s mother Jenny was the product of Susan’s first marriage, to Ken Trent, a man who also happened to die in unusual circumstances. No one close to Sophie remembered her father, and Susan agreed that perhaps it was best that they kept it that way. The Trent’s were a family of car thieves, untrustworthy bookies, con artists and general hoodwinkers, and Sophie did not resemble any of them.
Sophie herself cared little for the family problems and controversy. She loved her grandmother and thought of her as her only real family. Sophie herself had her own problems to deal with. A truck owned by the firm We Are Your Moving Men didn’t see her boyfriend Leo’s speeding motorbike one foggy October morning, and didn’t stop until it was trapped underneath, dragging him along for a few terrifying seconds. Sophie, who had been the helpless passenger, got away with only shock and nausea; no broken bits and only a few scratches. But poor Leo came desperately close to having his skull crushed. He nearly lost his right ear but doctors were able to save it after the truck’s driver found it stuck to one of the back wheels.
It was one thing to go through such a traumatic event, but another to wait through an agonising three week period for Leo to regain his senses and start making noises that were near enough to talking, to prove that he was in his right mind. Doctors already determined he did not have brain damage, but that wasn’t the same as hearing him speak normally. The first thing he said to her horrified her to the core. She knew that when he looked at her and must have noticed the lingering bruises on her face. But all he could say to her, his first words, was to ask how his bike was. While it was well known to all their friends that he considered his bike his most prized possession, with most of his money going into keeping it spruced, it was still just a motorcycle. And there he was asking her about it even before asking how she was. That said it all for her, and she walked out and never saw him again. That was three weeks ago.
Her doctor advised her to take a break, assuring her that the constant spots that clouded her vision and spells of dizziness would soon pass, as long as she took it easy. The best place she could think to go was to Gendry and her grandmother’s house. It had been two years since her last visit and she had planned to return soon anyway. Another reason for such a break was to fulfil her ambition to write her first novel. She could get away from her job, her memory of Leo and his beloved bike, and get to the work that she secretly desired to do.
There was no way she could have tried to write a novel in her small and constantly untidy apartment, with her attention-seeking and dribble-prone cat wanting to sit on her no matter what she was doing. Not after her long working hours and waiting through endless stop-start traffic, only to sit down with an out-of-date laptop that kept insisting that its battery was about to die. Not when her workday was dull computer-feeding trapped inside a small-walled terminal, listening to a “Golden Oldies” radio station that her workmates insisted on hearing. No matter how many funny toy animals she glued to the top of the faded beige monitor, or adorable tiny fish to populate her little aquarium, the hours were always tedious. The facts and notes that needed to be entered always seemed like they made no shred of difference to the life of any member of the human race, and at times she thought her computer must be bored of them too.
Her grandmother Susan had an old-fashioned typewriter and when Sophie was a girl she loved to play around with it. She tried copying pages from old books, pretending them to be her own work, dreaming that she was an author of renown. Of all the fun things she had done in Gendry during her childhood, she remembered that as the best. Her plan was to clean the typewriter up and use it to create her own original prose. She would do it in the style of the old writers, the ones who didn’t have to worry about battery warnings, upgrade updates and flickering screens, or the pull of internet entertainment and email alerts.
Each page would need to be carefully lined up, and time taken to turn the roller bar and make sure the ribbon was still okay. Each letter would make a satisfying clunk on the paper, and now and again the dainty little arms would collide and need to be pried apart without getting her fingers dirty. It gave her the feeling of actually doing something creative and not just seeing the unreal affect of some impersonal LCD-generated image. This was hands-on writing, the way to make her feel like she was actually making something herself, and not having some fancy machine do it for her.
The only problem was that Sophie didn’t actually have anything to write about. She had hoped to think of something during the train ride from the city up to Gendry, and then find further inspiration in the people she would meet in the town. If all else failed, she could always go ahead and write the life of her grandmother and her family. Names and faces would need to be altered, of course, but even then she worried that it might be too close to home to put into print. Some old wounds she did not want to reopen.
She looked back at the page next to the typewriter and the two sentences she typed yesterday. When she saw them today she realised that they made no sense. It suddenly seemed like the hardest thing in the world, to type anything else. The more she tried to think of something the more blank her mind seemed to get. Eventually she started to talk to herself, trying to think of anything to kick-start her book.
“The river was wide and deep but not deep enough to hide the body …”
“The tree was so tall that it overshadowed the entire town …”
“The car had been long ago abandoned and covered in grass.”
She looked out to that buried tractor and decided that maybe she could write something about that. Maybe the main character drove it, back when it was used on the land. Perhaps he died there, after a hot day in the seat, after ignoring the warning from his doctor to never drive it again? Then she realised she could not have a main character die in the first line. Unless it was all told in flashback? She laughed to herself, thinking that she hated stories like that, that start with a dead guy and then try to entertain the reader with guessing when the big event happens. Then she thought that maybe she could get a feel for the tractor if she went out and sat on the rusting seat and surveyed the land. Anything to get her into the writing mood.
Or maybe she could just write about life in the city.
Kerry Tyle was so identical to his brother Jerry that no one except for their mother could tell them apart, and they knew it. Their older sister Rebecca, who had just turned fourteen but acted more like thirty, claimed that she could tell them apart but most of the time she was guessing. She knew she had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. Sophie had a strategy for when they were together: once the other said the other one’s name she would keep her eye on that one. The trouble with that plan was that the twins liked to confuse people by calling the other by the wrong name. They only did that when their mother was not around, since she never thought of them as doing anything sneaky. The reality was, at the age of ten, they were now at the peak of their troublemaking ways, and they knew it.
Old Man Hudson had grown so tired of the twins and not knowing who is who that he would threaten to grab one and with an erasable black marker pen put a dirty big “K” on the forehead of one of them. He had a fifty-fifty chance of being right. He lived next door and kept to himself; a hermit who used every space of his property, and several rooms of his house, to grow vegetables and then complain about them. Although Susan had warned him that she would call Sheriff Handisides if he made any further threatening noises against the twins, he was only echoing the general thought of the town towards them.
Sophie saw them busy in conversation under the impressive veranda that decorated the front of the house. It had four comfortable seats, each one with a different design. Another veranda sat on the other side of the house, but it was only half the size and nobody really liked to sit there since it was always in the shade and caught the wind when it was cold.
The boy’s clothes were dirty and their hands were dark with soil, and the last person they wanted to see while in such a state was their mother. They were pleased to see it was Sophie and not Susan.
“Hi, guys,” she greeted. What are you two up to now?”
“We’re making Walks,” either Kerry or Jerry answered.
“Don’t tell me,” Sophie said with a knowing laugh. “You’re ripping the wings off flies? No one thinks you’re funny, doing that, you know. It’s just cruel. If you were a fly, how would you feel if some giant boy came along and took your wings off? Not so good? It’s not like they grow back. I don’t think they do, anyway. It would be like someone ripping your legs off, and then laughing at your agony.”
“We’re inventing tracks through the forest for tourists to follow,” said the other one.
“Nature walks,” said the first.
“For the scenery too,” said the other.
“Not flies?” she asked, feeling ridiculous.
“Why would people want to look at flies?” asked the first.
“We could tell them they’re special flies, to get more people,” said the other.
“I’ll tell your mother how funny you are,” said Sophie. “Couple of comedians in the family, I see?”
“No, we’re serious,” said Kerry or Jerry. “Gendry needs more tourists, if we’re to develop as a community.”
“Keep up with the times,” said the other one.
“Gendry has done all right without hordes of tourists dropping in,” said Sophie.
“But if we’re to avoid falling victim to the economic climate, we need to be reactive—“
“Proactive,” corrected the other.
“Proactive, to thwart becoming a ghost town.”
“To keep with the times.”
“Although some would argue the rot had already set in.”
“And once it sets in, that’s it for the town.”
“Are you guys serious?” she asked.
“But would you think of it if it was a real ghost town,” Kerry or Jerry said to his brother with delight.
“With real ghosts,” the other agreed.
“How cool would that be?” said the first, his mind running at the thought of being chased by scary things, and how much fun that would be.
Sophie relaxed a little, seeing that they were indeed still children. “Hey, I think I see some ghosts over there,” she said as she pointed at a nest of trees.
They jumped off the veranda and charged away to the trees, yelling for the ghosts to stop so they can grab one, and shrieked with voices so high-pitched that any real ghost would be scared off. Sophie thought that when she was a child she would have run the opposite direction.
The car was on the right side of the road, then it was on the left, then it didn’t know where it wanted to be. So quick it changed lanes that had there been any other traffic in either direction no one would have been able to avoid a collision. A certain letterbox that always sat too close to the road was struck hard and bounced off the front of the car. It landed against a tree three houses away. If the driver had known what he caused then he would have laughed hysterically and probably tired to hit more. Everything was funny to him at that moment. It was late and dark and there was nobody around, so what difference did it make if he bumped off a few things? What would it matter if a few people woke to find tread marks through their manicured front lawn? Or a mangled carcass of one of those pesky stray cats that haunted the town? The streets were straight and wide and no one was ever out this late. He could take both hands off the wheel, or shut his eyes, or take another mouthful of that whiskey, or all three at once, and it wouldn’t matter. Or go as fast as he could, and no one would notice. They would all hear him, and do nothing more than turn up their televisions, or roll over in their beds and push their pillow over their ears. No one liked to complain much in Gendry.
He completed a circuit of the town and decided that the only way it could be better was if he did it all again faster. After the second lap he knew he could take a good minute off his time if he really tried. The third time around didn’t go so well, with a couple of corners misjudged, so he tried to go even faster the next time. Then he came across another car, right in his way, maybe not even noticing him. From the looks of it a local, since it was going slow, obeying the local speed rules, in no hurry at all. He tooted, then nearly rammed it, then went around it, still tooting his displeasure. He glimpsed the frightened faces of two elderly people, terrified at even the thought of being harassed, and it made him roar with laughter. It was a good night he was having.
In his younger days they called him Maximum Velocity. The way Max Marshall could bang out a finished article faster than anyone in the newsroom could believe, made him a legend. He never made errors. No typos or spelling mistakes. His facts always faultless. As he approached middle age he slowed just a fraction and the only addition to his style was a weary cynicism. He assumed that he would work until he chose the day to retire, but his departure from city’s number three newspaper came without warning. When he was included in a group who were no longer required to work at the paper, his name disappeared from the public arena. His legend became a myth suitable only for idle discussion at the coffee machine, and with it went his desire to write. He could still drop a sentence and form a paragraph without blinking, or summon a fact without really thinking too long about it, but the passion was gone.
They told him he was good and they hated to lose him. They told him how they had no choice, that the money just wasn’t there anymore, that losing him was like losing a member of the family. They could only keep one and five had to pay the price. They wished there was some way around it and they had looked long and hard at all the possibilities, but in the end they thought it just wasn’t fair to keep people stringing along. So, it was goodbye and hope you do well in the future in your new home, wherever that will be, and it sure isn’t here.
They told him all the kinds of nice stuff meant to encourage him, that meant nothing when they also told him that he can no longer work for them. He had heard of others who barely got a farewell handshake, or learnt about it by email. Nobody came wishing them good luck for the future, so he should count himself lucky. He could not help but wonder that if he was that good then why throw him away? If he was that good then are they not worried he’d get snapped up by the competition? Perhaps he wasn’t that good at all. That was his conclusion. As the weeks turned to months without work it was all he could think about.
He tried the other papers, of course, but they were not immune from the cost cutting and they weren’t thinking of hiring. If they were hiring, of course, it was doubtful they’d consider a reject from the third-best paper in town. No one said that to him but he knew they were thinking it. The only work Max could find was in editing internet articles; work he could do in his sleep, and it was almost an insult to even consider it. But he lowered himself, swallowed his dignity, and took the job, and tried to suck it up. Even then, amongst the lower standards, he found himself rewriting more than reading, amazed over the lack of professionalism. When he challenged the authors, asking them to use better English, he always got the same response: It was just the internet. If it was “just” the internet, he thought, then why was he working on it?
The frustration caused him to start his own website, www.maxmarshall.com, where he could put up anything he wanted, free from newspaper restrictions. When he first started he chuckled at the thought of it becoming a flagship for well written articles, but it did not take long to realise that people were interested in content over style. That was when he realised that internet writing was a whole other ballgame from print media; not really better or worse, just different. If he wanted his site to be successful then he needed to be relevant and spontaneous. He also needed to have other people helping him, since if it wasn’t updated then it looked dead, and if it looked dead then no one would ever come back to for a second visit.
He wasn’t exactly sure of the identity of all twelve of his contributors, except they were young, continually irritable, had massive chips on their shoulders, and they liked to vent their disapproval of the government no matter what the government did. The result was his site received good traffic. The controversial articles that were not necessarily the opinions of the webmaster Max Marshall, as he made sure he let everyone know. He made a hundred dollars a week from the advertising kickbacks, and that was better than most other amateurs. He had his groove back.
It also proved useful in letting the public see his first three novels. His first effort, which was his personal favourite, Anger Angel, was a strange supernatural hodgepodge of chance-meetings between over-worldly beings and everyone who read it hated it. The next effort, Grovel Grove, a throwback story involving life in a small town, based on his own childhood, was deliberately written in a sleepy style, to appeal to the kind of reader who liked that kind of thing. He received good reviews from the odd visitor to his website, and that gave him hope to continue to promote it. Until he realised the reviews were all coming from his wife Jill who was just trying to encourage him. She didn’t understand his annoyed reaction to her help, since she had expected some kind of thanks for at least trying.
Max’s third book, The Liberation of Cats, hit the jackpot, when he felt confident enough to post links on various free online book sites, leading to a book contract from an actual real-life publisher. A seemingly simple tale of a handicapped but ambitious young man named Albert Fangus who set about trying to find his birth-mother, leading to him meeting a series of complex yet likeably wacky individuals who all had a key to his secret past, that he was really a government experiment gone wrong. The fact that Max could not figure out an ending and so didn’t bother to include one, didn’t affect the overall story, or its popularity. It was fast-paced and ludicrous, and had a good chance of being developed into a movie. Everyone was happy, especially Jill. He was given a deal to produce three more books, all based on the same concept and, if he wanted, the same characters. He was free to call it “The Liberation” of any kind of animal he wanted. The Marshall household had never been happier.
Doing a repeat story, or trying to continue with the character of Albert Fangus, wasn’t one bit appealing to Max. He considered himself an author of originality, not repetition, and he wanted his next book to be entirely different. This drive to be different and original caused him to be not able to produce a single new word in over three months of trying. What made this dry spell worse was news from his publisher that his book wasn’t selling. Everyone liked his book, except people who showed up to the stores. The publisher wanted him to promote it more on his website, which they thought needed jazzing up so they recommended a few specialists, at a small fee. Max refused their offer, seeing it as interference into his creativity, and took his website down in protest. His twelve irritable and well-read contributors then set up their own site and Max didn’t make any more money.
At first Jill said nothing, knowing that he worked better if she didn’t try to help. But as the days of non-writing drifted into months she struggled to hide her frustration. She wanted him to either write something that sells or get a real job. They had been married fifteen years and were happy to have no children. Jill had a strong dislike of anyone under the age of twenty and the thought of kids running around in her house was repulsive, like screaming lizards or something equally alien. Her own school days were a bit trying as she wanted to befriend the teachers and not her classmates. Her favourite joke was to tell her friends that Max was the only child she could put up with, and they agreed with her. He knew that her friends despised him, more than they let her know. When she gave them a copy of his book about Albert Fangus they spent hours laughing over what they disliked about it, all without Jill’s knowledge.
Max considered some of Jill’s friends to be the worst example of human life ever known, and he was happy to tell her that. When Jill claimed the same for Max’s few friends, people he visited only once in a blue moon, he agreed with her. They were all old drinking buddies, and at least two of them he hadn’t heard from for about a year, and he suspected that one had died of alcohol poisoning or some such related illness. Max himself had kept away from the booze for nearly two years, not because he had a problem, but more that he wanted show that giving it up was no hard thing. Perhaps that was why they didn’t want to talk to him lately. He shrugged off any thought of being snubbed, since he assumed that being a famous writer would eventually cause him to be surrounded by new friends.
“I’ve finished the first chapter,” he announced from the apartment’s small spare bedroom that he used for his writing room. It was full of stacks of papers and one needed to watch their step. It was the first words he had uttered in two hours.
“What?” Jill asked from the laundry where she had been loading the dryer for the last hour. She had been taking her time since she was also talking on the phone; with a stylish and light headset. Five minutes later she finished her call and went to see what he wanted.
“I think I’ve finished the first chapter,” he said again.
“You mean you’ve finally started it? What’s this again? An article?”
“The novel I’ve been telling you about.”
“The one about the chimpanzees?”
“I was never writing anything about chimpanzees.”
“Perhaps you should?”
“Don’t you remember, I told you?”
“A young woman goes to stay with her grandmother for a week or so. She wants to write a novel, get away from the big city, meet some interesting members of town. Of course, they’re wacky, small-town types who don’t get out much and get enough sun.”
“What town’s this?”
“Gendry? Why that boring place? What if there aren’t any interesting people in Gendry for her to meet?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Just saying. There must be some towns around with no interesting people in them. They can’t always be wacky. It’s such a cliché. Your readers will expect them to be wacky, so unless you make them like virtual aliens, they’re just going to be let down.”
“I have been to Gendry, for your information, and I happen to have met some of the locals and they’re interesting enough for me to want to put them into my book, I will have you know. I have a whole bunch of them.”
“You’re telling me you’re putting real people into your book? Can you do that? Don’t they need to sign a waiver or something?”
“I can easily change their names. Although I do like their real names. One guy called Elbow …”
“Who’s your main character?”
“The young woman, Sophie.”
“You’re writing a novel with a girl in lead? Can you do that?”
“Why can’t I?”
“No reason,” she said as she gave a dismissive laugh. “I have no idea what kind of a clue you’d have about what goes on in the mind of a young woman, that’s all.”
“A writer should be able to write everyone in a realistic manner.”
“What happens to her in Gendry? Could anything interesting ever happen to anyone who lives in Gendry?”
“That’s why I want it there. It’s a small out-of-the-way town, where everyone knows everyone else, seemingly harmless. Seemingly safe.”
“But not really harmless or safe? Tell me again, what happens to this girl? What was her name again?”
“Sophie. She’s there for relaxation. A holiday, away from the big city.”
“What motivation does she have for her relaxation? Does she have a believable back story? Can the reader relate to her? You know the reader must be able to relate to the main character or they aren’t going to read any further than the first page or so. Maybe if the reader is feeling sorry for the writer going to all the trouble of writing this story, they might give it a few chapters, depending on their generosity.”
“What’s this I’m hearing? Suddenly you’re an expert in writing?”
“What happens to her in Gendry?”
“I haven’t got to that part yet.”
“You haven’t written it, you mean? Or you don’t know yourself? Don’t tell me you’re just making it up as you go? That’s the worst kind of book. You’re not, are you? Did you want anyone to pay for it, or will it be one of those free things sitting in the bins in shadowy parts of bookstores, underneath books so bad they don’t even stack up next to the usual trash? The kind of books you see and have no idea why it was published in the first place.”
“There’s nothing wrong with doing that, writing as you go. You never know what might happen, so it’s like real life. Set up the characters, see where they go. It’s just like what happens in real life; unpredictable, and surprising, and realistic.”
“That’s how the worst books are written. No, really, they are. You can tell the author is making it all up as they go. You must have some kind of plan, surely, on what your story’s about?”
“I have a plan.”
Jill looked at him expecting him to tell her. “Well?” she asked when he didn’t.
“You’ll just have to wait until it’s done.”
“Can hardly wait for that,” she said sarcastically. She then went back to the laundry and thought she’d call up another of her friends.
Max sat back in his chair and grimaced. He had not expected a harsh reaction. He had managed to start writing again and then she just about finished off any hope of continuing. She had changed so much from when they were first married, and it seemed to be getting worse. She had once been supportive of his writing, and encouraged him to take time off to write his first book. She disliked what the first book became, but she told him so gently, and helped him through the struggles with his second. When the third book was actually published she was hopeful of making money. The more it looked like that wasn’t going to happen, the more reserved she became, and her words sarcastic and cutting. Her faith in him seemed to die.
“Entrée!” Simona announced with her high-pitched warble.
The family’s elderly maid had been paid the same wage for the last twenty years and that was still more than she should have been getting. She pushed a wobbly cart into the large dining room and got one of the wheels stuck on a rug, as she seemed to do at least once a week. No one was allowed to help her free the wheel and sometimes she became so flustered that she would start swearing at it, with obscure phrases that made little sense. She said she was from Romania but never gave a straight answer when asked exactly what part.
The first course of the evening was a light milky soup that Simona liked to call Crab Surprise, mostly no one had ever been able to detect any kind of fish in it. Sophie remembered that it was far better than the Oyster Surprise, where the oysters were actually dumplings drowned in Soya sauce, and Simona would fight anyone who questioned it.
“Splendid,” said Susan in her typically regal manner, sitting at her customary place at the head of the table. She liked to talk in a formal way, but only when guests were present for the family dinner, and she expected all the dinner guests to display equally perfect manners. “And well timed, Simona.”
“Sophie, we have a friend,” said Kerry or Jerry. “Taylor is his name, and it’s his birthday.”
“Tomorrow, he means,” added the other twin.
“How nice for him,” Sophie said to them, wondering why they were telling her about their friend. She did not know what was worse, that they were telling her about a boy their age for no reason, or that he was her age and they wanted to hook her up.
“Kerry, be polite and wait for Simona to finish serving,” Susan instructed and they all watched in silence as the maid placed a small bowl in front of them, filled to the brim, with her weak and shaky hands, each time letting some of it spill out.
“We’re planning a surprise party for him,” Kerry or Jerry continued when Simona finished and began to wheel the cart back to the kitchen.
“We need as many people as we can get,” said the other.
“We were wondering if you would like to attend,” said the first.
“I take it you will also be inviting your sister, Jerry?” Susan asked.
Sophie detected a sigh from Rebecca that she guessed was more that they could now identify which twin was which.
“We have already invited Rebecca,” said Jerry.
“Did you accept?” Susan asked her daughter.
“I have accepted, mother,” she answered.
“The new boarder will be there too,” said Kerry.
“Are you sure?” Sophie asked him, surprised that they would ask a grown man to attend a child’s birthday party.
“He has known about it for weeks,” he said.
“Has he been here for weeks?” Sophie asked Susan. “I thought he was a recent tenant.”
“Yes, I thought he was still a newbie too,” Susan admitted. “Days can so easily turn into weeks, and before you know it months have gone by. I’m not sure when he arrived. I will have to check the signing-in book. Which I shall not be doing during the course of the family meal.”
“Is he a friend of your friend Taylor?” Sophie asked Jerry.
“He has never met Taylor, as far as we know,” he said. “It would be weird if he has.”
“He’s there because we told him the whole town will be there,” said Kerry.
“And he’d look out of place not being there,” said Jerry. “That’s what we told him.”
“He sounds an intriguing person, from what I’ve heard of him,” said Sophie.
“And you would be right, dear,” said Susan.
“Don’t listen to them, Sophie,” Rebecca said as she rolled her eyes. “You aren’t missing a thing. He’s dull as.”
“Oh, no, Rebecca,” said Susan, now slightly losing her formality, “I think Sophie will find him a very interesting character. And Jerry, you did exaggerate too much in saying the entire town will be present at your friend’s party. I for one will not be in attendance, and I know others who have not the slightest inclination of any party being staged in our midst.”
“What my brother means,” Jerry explained to Sophie, “is it’ll seem like the whole town is there. Not that the whole town will be there. Just seem it is.”
“And Kerry is wrong about why our boarder’s going,” added Rebecca.
“We’re not wrong,” Jerry said in defence of his brother.
“It’s because you will be there, Sophie,” Rebecca said like she was defying a secret truce by announcing it. “Mother has talked to him about you non-stop, before you got here. Told him all about you.”
Sophie looked at her grandmother horrified that she could do such a thing.
“I might have mentioned you once or twice,” Susan said like it wasn’t anything important. “Nothing to be concerned over, dear. You know how a grandmother likes to talk up her children. I only told him about your writing. And he was very interested, actually, so it may not be such a big waste of time after all.”
“No dumb hobby?” Kerry asked with a glance at his brother.
“No unreachable dream?” added Jerry, gaining an approving glance from Kerry.
“Boys, don’t be rude like that to your niece,” Susan chided. “We’re polite here to one another during the family meal. Always remember that.”
Sophie tried to hide that she was perturbed at openly being called their niece. “I thought we weren’t going to say that word,” she said.
“Our niece!” reacted Kerry, gaining a glare from Susan.
“You can’t deny that, Sophie,” Rebecca said with a grin.
“I don’t wish to discuss it,” she replied.
“Enough of this subject,” Susan announced. “Kerry, tell us about your new school project, please.”
Sophie felt her checks burn as she realised that she had overreacted to what was nothing more than playfulness. Like the three children, she did not have a father, but unlike them, she had never known who he was. To make it worse, Susan seemed to have decided that she would never know.
There was one part of town where the street became so narrow that it should have been one lane but it wasn’t. Any experienced driver knew to be careful and courteous, and not go too fast, as any normal driver would have. But the speeding car went down there as fast as the driver could get it. He had been doing laps for a good hour, faster and faster, seeing no one except a car with two old people. They were given a good scare and he had a good laugh. The driver still laughed at that memory and went to have another shot of whiskey. He was nearly finished with the bottle and he needed to kick his head right back to get a good mouthful. Then he dropped the bottle onto his lap. In reaching for it too fast he bumped it further down, to his feet. Cursing, he fumbled a hand around under his legs, now and then touching it with his fingers but losing it again, like it was playing a game with him. With each turn of the wheel the bottle slid more, first under his seat and then up against the pedals. When he finally managed to grab it, he was leaning so much that he couldn’t see the road. There was a massive crunching noise that made the car shudder so violently that he left his seat and bumped his head on the roof.
He continued driving for a few seconds, partly through letting his booze-soaked brain have time to comprehend what just happened, and partly in denial that anything had happened at all. His main focus was that he now had his bottle back in his hands and nothing else really mattered that much. It was more curiosity that made him he stop and spend some time trying to find reverse. When he found it he went too fast backwards. The car went over something so hard that he again bounced up out of his seat. He stopped the car and sat there for a full five minutes, laughing at the humour of it all. When he did stop with laughing he found the silence funny and so he took a while laughing at that too. Then he thought that maybe he should get out to see what he had hit. He hoped it was another letterbox. He dreaded that it was a deer and that his car might be covered in blood.
Paul and Sarah Evans had an unusual relationship with Max and Jill Marshall. Sarah had been Jill’s best friend since high school, but when Jill started seeing Max, Sarah decided she wanted him for herself and seduced him. Max didn’t know how to tell Jill, but then Sarah became interested in Paul, so it was all over between her and Max. For Max’s part, he tried to tell himself that he was no longer interested in Sarah, and that it was a meaningless fling, that he was in love with Jill. He told himself that every time they prepared to meet with the Evans. When he laid eyes on Sarah he realised how little regard she now held for him. The last thing he was going to do was let her know how much Sarah had hurt him, and if it was not for Jill, he would never want to be in the same room with her again.
To make matters worse, Paul had once been Jill’s boyfriend, way back when they were in their early teens. They were voted the most handsome couple in their school yearbook. Max always wondered if there might still be something there between them, especially when they would look at each other and smile for no obvious reason. Paul himself was someone Max would never want to befriend. He was a man blissfully unaware of how obnoxious he could be. If that wasn’t bad enough, Paul was also slightly abusive to everyone; just enough for it to never become a matter of discussion but it was always there under the surface. The only reason Max engaged in social meetings with the Evans was to keep Jill happy, and that, in turn, stopped her from picking at him.
Over the previous week Jill had been acting unusual. Max suspected it was because she was unhappy with his latest book. The more she asked him about how it was coming, the more defensive he became. He hoped that meeting with her friend Sarah would take her mind off him and his work. All he had to do was pretend he was interested in whatever Paul said, and laugh in all the right places, and he would be okay. He would get through the evening and they would go home happy, and he would remind Jill every day for the following month or so.
Sarah opened the front door and welcomed them in with her usual showy greeting. Jill went first, as she always did, allowing Max to take his time. Sarah made a point of admiring Jill’s lovely new dress, while lingering to hold the door open for Max to limp in. He put his crutch in the corner next to the door, as was his habit, not knowing if it was a good place for it or not. He saw pity in Sarah’s eyes and he appreciated that. He also liked that she knew not to ask him how his ankle was feeling. It had now been ten years since he had broken it, falling down twenty steps one stormy winter’s night. It had never healed properly and would flare up whenever the temperature turned cold. He still took painkillers and at times they did not help at all. Jill told people behind his back that the pain was psychological and he was only seeking sympathy and attention.
Paul welcomed them as he usually did, by giving Max an overly strong handshake and pretending that he wasn’t limping. The main subject he preferred to discuss with Max was the latest sport results, no matter what the sport was. He never thought to ask Max if he liked, or followed, the particular sport he was centering on, but just went ahead and assumed he followed them all. Max was happy to pretend that he knew what Paul was talking about. Over time he had learned to deftly ask generic questions that sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
“Really? How does that affect their next game? Interesting, I didn’t notice that. What was that other game they played when that happened, couple of years ago? Really, that long ago? Didn’t that player have that same injury before? Thought so. Must be injury prone. That new player looks good; what was his name again? That young guy. That’s right, that’s the one. But that old player needs to retire, or do you think he still has another season in him?”
In reality, Max found most professional sport to be boring and time wasting. His passion was music, and he owned a collection of a wide range of styles, from opera to progressive rock. It was his own unique opinion that the middle ground between both were exemplified in the music of Elvis Presley. In Max’s younger days, long before his accident, he was something of a successful Elvis impersonator. Because of his weight problem he could only become Old Las Vegas Elvis. Under the moniker ‘Elivs’, dressed in the full white suit with slick black dyed hair and the full exaggerated arm swinging, he held more than a few weddings and business functions enthralled. The main problem was that his voice, while starting out quite well, could only last for about ten minutes—fifteen tops—until he started to warble and whine instead of rockin’ and rollin’. Some days he felt good enough with his impersonation to go into work, on the bus and train, dressed as his hero, ignoring the jeers and celebrating the cheers. Looking back on those days now, he laughed at himself, wondering where he found the confidence to do such things. His singing lately was left to the shower, when he not so much Elivs but actually Elvis himself, in his prime.
Their meal was going well; tasty spiral pasta dish with tuna and mushrooms, with spring onions and mushroom soup, topped with grilled tomato and breadcrumbs. Max thought of it as something intriguing at the start, turning to okay through the middle stages, until becoming a bit sickly towards the end. The wine helped.
Paul was talking about the failings of some basketball team that only he was interested in, and Sarah was busy in relaying the latest gossip from the office where she worked—Max had forgotten where. And then Jill had to go and ruin the evening by asking Max a question.
“Why don’t you tell everyone about your new story, Max?” she suggested.
He heard the bitterness in her voice, just enough for him to notice and the others not. He had hoped to sit back with his glass of now room-temperature Pinot Gris and let Paul drone on and the girls titter. Now not only did he have to partake of the conversation, but he was forced to wonder if Jill was about to make a scene of it.
“Yes, do tell us,” said Paul. “After the success of your last one, I’d imagine any kind of follow-up would seem like the hardest thing in the world. Don’t know how you do it, except for the money, of course. That I can understand. I’d write one myself, if I could ever find the time.”
“His last book was five years ago now,” said Jill, which wasn’t exactly accurate.
“Really?” asked Sarah as she went to sip some wine of her own. “It’s been that long? Where’s the time gone?”
“It’s not much to talk about, really,” said Max, hoping that would be the end of it. “I start to worry that any mention of it, at this early stage, might jinx it.”
“Come on, Max,” said Paul, “don’t go all humble on us. We’re your fan base.”
“I, for one, would be very interested to hear what you’re working on next,” said Sarah.
Max wondered if they were being serious, that they really were interested in his work, and if that was true then he owed it to them to be polite about it. Knowing that there was a slight chance that they actually did want to know, his ego got the better of him and he decided to actually discuss it with them. It was something he had only dreamed of doing, holding a dinner party enthralled by discussion about his latest book, and what his plans were for sequels and spinoffs.
“I’m not about to give away any of the plot,” he said, “not at this stage, when I’ve just started it. But I can say this: It’s about a young woman who goes to live with her grandmother, out in the country town Gendry—you might have heard of it.”
“Good trout there,” said Paul. “Some of the guys at work rave about the place. Not much of a trout man myself, but the guys who love it say it’s one of the best places you can go.”
“So,” Max continued, knowing that the conversation could easily go off in the direction of Paul’s workmates, or trout, or the guys at his work, “this girl thinks it’s the perfect place, the right peaceful atmosphere and slow way of life. Everything goes fine until—“
“Until she finds out she’s really a vampire?” interrupted Sarah. “You can’t go wrong with that angle.”
“There are no vampires in this story,” said Max. “It’s a real life thing.”
“Go on, Max,” Sarah apologised, “and I’ll not butt-in again.”
“Yeah, anyway, in this house of her grandmothers, it’s a boarding house, a bed and breakfast place, and these strange people are there; her family and this other guy, whom she is yet to meet. They’re all a little odd.”
“But she will meet this other guy at the right time?” asked Paul.
“I’m just up to that part, actually. I’m not sure exactly how it’ll turn out, but she’s been invited to a party, and he’ll be there too. As I said, everything is going along fine for her with her holiday with her family, until she meets this mysterious guy.”
“Dull, right?” Jill said to the others. “That’s all he’s got. No story, no ending, just all that dull stuff.”
“You think it’s dull?” Max asked her, hurt that she would say that to them.
“It’s not exactly sounding much like a page turner,” she added, not looking at him.
“Jill’s right,” said Paul. “Sorry, Max, but you need more punch to it, more to get it noticed, to give the great masses a reason to read it, to go nuts over it. Like your last book did.”
“The public didn’t go nuts over my last book …” Max started.
“Tell you what you want to put in it,” said Paul, looking enthused. “A car crash, or a really nasty accident. Lots of detail about blood and guts. Go all CSI.”
“I was reading a book like that recently,” said Sarah, “and you know what was in it? One of the main characters died; didn’t see it coming at all, and it was such a shock I had to take a minute to get my breath back. Isn’t that funny? I know the person’s not real, and yet I was genuinely sad when this character died. It was like I knew him. Guess that’s what happens when a book is really well written. You start to think of them as real people.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea, Max,” said Paul. “Kill off a couple of characters. The car accident, that’ll do. Kill off the girl—what was her name, your lead?”
“Sophie, wasn’t it?” asked Jill.
“The main character’s named Sophie,” said Max, knowing that Jill was enjoying their taunting, even if Paul and Sarah didn’t realise what was going on.
“What better way to shock the audience?” asked Paul. “Kill her and make it quick and nasty, and violent. Give them a big shock, that’s the way to do it.”
“Who says I want to shock my audience?” asked Max, losing interest and sitting back in his chair to study his wine.
“Today’s audience likes to be shocked,” said Sarah.
“You’ve got to think of your audience,” said Paul.
“I think of my audience when I need to,” said Max. “And I’ll have a few shocks in there. But it’s not my main storyline.”
“What kind of shocks?” asked Sarah.
“You will have to wait until you read it yourself,” he said.
Paul couldn’t disguise a laugh as he said, “I’m still getting through your last one. The one about cats.”
“You didn’t finish it?” Sarah asked him.
“I think I got to the halfway mark,” he said. “I think I did, anyway. I remember thinking how well I had done by getting there. I wasn’t going to let it beat me. I was going to get to at least halfway before I gave up. Where is the book, Sarah, do you know?”
“I haven’t seen it for a while,” she said. “I think it was in the bathroom, last time I saw it.”
“I can get you another one,” said Max, knowing he’d decline.
“That’s ok; it’ll turn up,” said Paul.
“What did you think of the ending, Sarah?” Jill asked her, watching for Max’s reaction.
“I didn’t get to the end,” Sarah admitted. “I was hoping Paul would, so he could tell me what happened.”
“Don’t worry; it’s not much,” said Jill. “The main thing is how much money it puts into our bank account.”
They laughed at what they thought was a joke and Max finished off the rest of his wine.
Since there was never anything to do in Gendry besides trout fishing, Sophie went to the party with the twins and Rebecca. Her other option was to sit around and gossip, or watch the wind move the trees, or see the birds doing whatever it is that birds do, or try some more writing of her novel. She might have gone to Sal’s, the only eatery in town, geared mainly for some random trucker, but that would leave her with nowhere to go tomorrow. Or the next day. The same people would be at Sal’s every day, and they never really had any intention of going anywhere else.
The Maxwell house itself was small, and son Taylor an only-child. His parents lived in a torrid relationship and he spent half of his life with them living apart, yet all still within the Gendry town limits. He was a big boy for his age and had a slight learning disorder, but he was a kind soul who went out of his way with his generosity to anyone he met. For his thirteenth birthday, his first in five years in which both his parents would be in attendance, all his friends, young and old, wanted to give him a special birthday to remember.
A tall girl of about fourteen, her mouth a shocking display of braces, frantically waved her hands to gain attention. “Quick, you who are still standing,” she said while fighting to keep her voice hushed, “find somewhere to hide. Taylor’s on his way here right now. He still suspects nothing, so keep as quiet as you can, okay? Let’s try to make it a good one and give him a big fright, like the time when grandpa Watkins died.”
Then she turned the lights out and issued a further warning to keep quiet. Sophie had been one of the last to arrive and she could only guess at how many people were hiding in the main living area. On one side of the front door was a dining table. The other was a sofa, two old chairs and small television. Most people were crouching behind the furniture, and for one horrible moment it crossed Sophie’s mind that she had nowhere to go.
“Over here,” came a calming male voice behind her, and then she felt a warm hand on her arm, guiding her towards a closet.
“Thanks,” she said. It surprised her how quickly she got into the fun of the event, despite not knowing most of them. She felt like she was a young teenager again. The presence of the mysterious man near her made her feel a type of nervousness she might have had when she was twelve.
“He’s coming up the drive now!” someone else announced.
An eerie quiet filled the room.
“You’re Sophie, aren’t you?” the man asked her as they struggled to both fit into the closet, since there were at least two others in there with them, both children.
“Do I know you?” she asked, trying to keep her voice mature. Then she noticed in the dull light from the street that a child of about six years was standing between them, looking at them like they did not belong there. He glared at them and stabbed at his lips with his fingers.
“My name’s Craigfield,” the man said, his low voice barely audible to her. “I’m staying at your Grandmother’s place. Pleased to finally meet you. I’ve heard much about you.”
“Sorry about that. My grandmother can go on. I hope she didn’t embarrass you.”
“Not at all. It’s nice to make new friends.”
The six-year-old then told them to hush with an angry and blunt bark. They did so, both trying not to laugh at how seriously the child was reacting. Then Sophie realised that Taylor was not exactly rushing to get to the door and all their haste was needless.
“What brings you to Gendry?” she asked him, risking the wrath of the child.
“That’s a little personal,” he replied, his voice suddenly devoid of any charm.
“Oh, no mind,” she said, offended that he gave her that kind of reply when she was only trying to make conversation.
The door opened and it was Taylor, with his parents purposely lingering back. The braces-girl flipped on the lights and everyone cheered. Taylor raised his arms and started jumping around the room, as everyone sang for him. Sophie made sure she made her way to the other side of the room from Craigfield, regretting that the conversation turned cold and she lacked any confidence to try restarting it. She tried to talk to the other adults there, all four of them, but she always felt herself glancing around the room for him, not willing to accept that he had already left.
Max turned off the television and threw the remote in its general direction, not really trying to hit it since it was only two years old and he didn’t want to go out to buy a new one. If he could change the quality of programming by hitting it then he would have thrown it earlier and more often. The remote glanced off a glass coffee table, covered in heavy scratches, and rattled against the wall. Its two batteries flew out and one bounced under a bookcase. Jill rushed into the room from the kitchen, worried that the crash was something serious. She had been trying to rescue what was the result of a recipe that she found in a woman’s magazine that must have contained a misprint. It was not a tablespoon of salt, but a teaspoon. A tablespoon of salt made it very, very nasty. She thought that washing the meat under a cold tap might help. It didn’t.
“It’s not working,” he said without looking at her. “I admit it. It’s just not there. Perhaps it never was.”
“Your book? Why, what’s wrong with it?”
“Ever since you told Paul and Sarah, it hasn’t felt right. I mean, I liked the first chapter, when she arrived at Gendry. Now she’s met this new character, it doesn’t work anymore. Boy meets girl, it’s just so obvious. First she likes him, then she doesn’t, then she does again, then she finds there’s something wrong with him. I can’t see where it’s going other than the obvious, and I don’t want to do the obvious. I want my book to be unusual, standing out from all the others. Something to take notice.”
Jill sat on the edge of the couch and wiped her hands on her apron, thinking how trivial that sounded compared to what she was doing to the night’s food. “You don’t think the problem might be your style, not the story? You never use a lot of description, you know. The reader likes to know all the gritty details. I know you don’t like doing research, but for something like this, when you’re dealing with a real town, you need to know details about the place.”
“I know a lot about Gendry,” he said as he got up to retrieve the remote. “More than most people, really.”
“For instance,” she continued, not really listening to him, “don’t say it was a tractor. Say it was a D-80 Norganwood, or something like that. The readers like precise specificity.”
“Precise …?” Max gave up trying to repeat it.
“You can’t insult them with blandness. Not when they can look Gendry up on the internet. You can’t have more about Gendry on some tourist website than what’s in your book.”
Kneeling, he found the battery under the bookcase, blew off the dust, and then put his hands on his hips as he looked at her. “You just made that name up. You don’t know anything about tractors. What was it you said, a Norganwood? Is that even a real make? Is that even a real name? You just made that up, didn’t you?”
“You said you don’t like the new character? Just get rid of him, or her. If they’re not working, replace them with someone else. Can you do that or is it too late? Will it mess with your story?”
“Yes, it’s a guy. All this build-up to meeting him and you want me to get rid of him?”
“What character are we talking about?”
“Craigfield.” Then he looked at her.
She was momentarily stunned and tried to hide it. “Kind of a strange name to choose, isn’t it? Not something you hear every day, I mean.”
“Why, have you not heard of that name before?”
Jill gave him an icy stare. “You know I have. And what you think you’re doing, I don’t like it.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked innocently.
“I think you know.” She went back to the kitchen with a look on her face that told him she would not be talking to him for a while. She scooped together what she had been cooking and threw it into the garbage.
Max snapped the batteries back into remote and turned the television back on. He increased the volume of some random soap opera he had never seen before and pretended to be interested in it. Then his thoughts went to his own TV show. Back when he was a successful newspaper man he had a great idea for a new show for kids. A cute animated show set in the jungle, where animals drawn in the Disney style would sing “jungle jingles” together. He wanted one of the characters, perhaps a panda bear, to look like Elvis, and he would add an “Uh-huh” into every song. At the end of each show one of the weaker ones would be hunted, killed and gorged by the carnivorous ones. It would be great suspense, Max told everyone, for the kiddies to find out if one of their favourites were eaten that week. It would give them, he said, an education not only into the reality of jungle life, but also real life. He still, to this day, did not know why the show was rejected.
With the car lights illuminating the baffling mound on the side of the road, the driver made his way to it. He stopped every few steps to take search for another taste of his whiskey. These were no longer sips for fun. Now he was trying to calm himself. The mound was a body, a man, not young but also not one of the town’s elderly population. For some reason it would have saddened the driver more to know that he hit one of the elderly folk. Face down, the driver could not see exactly who it was, but by the way he was lying and not making any movement or sound, he knew that he must be dead.
Sudden panic gave him energy to look around, up and down the street for other cars, and to the nearby houses, for any signs that he had been seen. He knew that just standing there was the worst thing he could do. Either he called for help and then hid behind his drinking problem to help him avoid jail time, or he did nothing and escape unseen and hope to never be caught. Then he realised that if he was going to truly get away with this crime he either had to leave town or quickly hide the body. The thought of someone seeing him trying to run away appalled him, so he was left with no other alternative.
The lifeless body made the most grotesque sound as it was dragged by the feet away from the road and into the fringes of a nearby forest. The effort made him feel dizzy and ill, and he almost threw up. In the move he had set his bottle on the ground, and now he forgot exactly where it was. After searching around in the dark, that didn’t accomplish anything other than make him feel more dizzy, he staggered back to his car and slowly drove to the spot from where the body had been dragged. Then he saw his bottle, glowing under the headlights. As he looked at it from behind the wheel he felt so overwhelmed by sadness that he started to sob. It took him at least ten minutes to go and retrieve the bottle. He held it up and waved it high, in the direction of the body, as he offered a toast, saying how sorry he was to whoever it was. The next sip was the best of his life.
Sally Wunder had owned the only restaurant in town for fourteen years and over that time the food had remained exactly the same. While there was a good variety of dishes, nothing had ever been added or removed. Now and then someone might try to suggest a new cake or main, and maybe one might have a spin to an old favourite, but never would it stay for an entire week. Sal was similar to Gendry; anything new had to be just another version of what they already had or it was not accepted. It was not that people had a suspicion or fear of anything new, they just didn’t see it as better than what was already there.
One old date fruitcake, however, remained untouched. Originally it was a gift from a rival eatery, that had since gone out of business, given to honour the passing of Sal’s father. Although it was never intended to be an insult, Sal took it as one. It was well known throughout town that their cakes were their worst product, and Sal almost threw it back at them. Such displays of violence were not her style, and she acted like she would be happy to add it to her menu. The cake sat in the same position with no one daring to order a slice. To everyone’s amazement, for all those years, it never seemed to change in colour or shape, and more than a few people wondered if it would outlive Sal herself.
Sophie was delighted to find that her favourite desert, a chocolate mousse so strong that it was almost black, was still on the menu. It wasn’t that she feared it might have vanished, it was just that she missed eating it, and the sight of it on the menu was enough to bring back fond memories. Even the thought of it reminded her of her childhood. To actually be served a bowlful would bring tears to her eyes. She had searched through all of the eateries in the city that she could find, sampling so many chocolate desserts, and it was a wonder she was not three times her size. Nothing had come close to Sal’s. The worst one was the one she tried to make herself, after getting Susan to do her best to guess Sal’s recipe. Sophie did not want to admit it, but Sal’s mousse may have been her real reason for wanting to spend her holiday in Gendry.
It was one o’clock in the afternoon, with a hot sun shining in a cloudless sky, when she pushed through those old wooden swing-doors, into her favourite place in town. When she was a girl those doors seemed daunting to get through, but now they opened with a slight push. The darkness of the room caused her to not be able to see the people sitting at the bar when she first entered. They saw her without any problem and it made them forget their present conversations. All of them were pleased to see her.
Sammy Hendersen was known as Two-Tooth and he still fancied himself a ladies-man. He sported a thin moustache that he liked to think made him look suave but since it was grey no one could see it. The name was given to him way back when he still had any teeth left at all. Never once in his life did he ever have a full mouth of teeth, and for about ten years of his life he only had two. That was thirty years ago. He called out Sophie’s name and raised his arm to give a small wave.
Next to him, Mortie George, or ‘Elbow’, grinned and nodded his approval. He was somehow related to Susan but no one had gone to the trouble of figuring out exactly how. Details were never really important in Gendry. No one even knew for certain why he was called Elbow, including Elbow himself. Speculation agreed that when Mortie was a boy he would like get to the front of a crowd by elbowing his way through, and since he was a skinny lad he had very sharp elbows. Elbow himself laughed off that theory, since he claimed to be raised to be too polite to ever do such a thing. That only reinforced the opinion, since he was well known to be a little pushy when he needed to be, and probably did not realise that he was.
Eatery owner Sal gave Sophie the best greeting of all by placing a plate with a bowl of mousse, without any invitation to do so. The added bonus was that it was on the house. As Sophie dug in, Sal proceeded to ask her as many questions as she could think, about what had happened in town since her last visit. Sophie knew it was a small price.
“Oh, hi, Sophie.”
Sophie turned to see who was talking. His voice sounded familiar but she had no idea who it was. She assumed that it was an old friend, so she smiled before she looked. When she saw it was Craigfield her first thought was on making sure there was no mousse on her face.
“How rude of me,” he continued. “Didn’t see you were eating. I didn’t recognise you at first.”
“I look different than I did last night. And it’s bright and sunny today. And I have my hair up.”
“Yes, but I would have walked right past you. That’s me, I guess. Day-dreaming again. So few people here and I miss one.”
“Are you having lunch?”
“Yeah, I just finished. Nice little place, this.”
“Everyone loves Sal’s.”
“Is Sal a real guy? I haven’t seen him in here.”
“That’s Sal over there,” Sophie pointed to the woman now engaged in conversation with Two-Tooth and Elbow. “She owns the place. Try the mousse.”
Another cake caught Craigfield’s eye, sitting by itself under a glass lid behind the counter. He waved for Sal’s attention and while she saw him she didn’t stop her conversation.
“You’re pointing at the date fruitcake?” Sophie asked him, not believing what she was seeing. She was about to tell him to choose something else but she was cut off by his enthusiasm for it.
“Is it a fresh one?” he asked as he caught Sal’s eye again. “I can’t see any slices missing. Must have just been baked, right? Still warm? I love cakes with an afterglow.”
“No, it’s old and cold,” Sophie said. “Very old. You don’t want that.”
“How old is very old?”
“What are you after, son?” Sal asked as she slowly made her way down.
“A date fruitcake, I believe it is,” he said to her with a smile that was not returned. “How long have you had it?”
“That little wonder’s been here as long as I have. Good preservatives in it, by the looks of it. Got it from Peterson’s store. They closed down years back; don’t remember how many, and have no reason to care.”
“I remember the Peterson’s when I was a girl,” said Sophie.
“If no one wants the cake then why keep it there?” asked Craigfield.
“Never got around to lifting it,” said Sal, amongst an almost horrified silence. “Since it kind of matches the walls, don’t see why it should go. Didn’t do anybody any wrong, so it wasn’t its fault nobody liked it. Have some apple crumble slice. I believe that’s a tad fresher. Wednesday, I think.”
“That’s a classic,” said Sophie.
Sal was going to give him the slice whether he wanted it or not. What made it famous was that the crumble was what it would do when it hit the serving plate, when it would fall away into a flat mess. Tasty, but flat.
“That’s a slice?” asked Craigfield.
“It’s trying to be, if you’ll let it,” Sal said with a tone that told the others she didn’t like him. “Be kind, now. Remember, it’s not for looking, but for eating.”
Sophie encouraged him that it would be the best crumbling thing he would eat. Still unconvinced, he took it back to his table and she joined him with a coffee. As he discovered that their description was true they both relaxed and chatted about the food. Sophie was amazed to hear that his opinion of the crumble, although good, was not as enthusiastic as she expected. He claimed he knew a place in the city that sold a better one. She wrote down the name and told him she would check it out, and maybe burn the place down on behalf of Sal.
Then they started talking about the people in the town, and Sophie told him about Elbow and Two-Tooth. There was also the old ex-mayor Gene Best who had been trying to get re-elected for the past twenty years and still remained hopeful of his chances, even though his doctor thought he should have died at least ten years back. The doctor told him his heart was weak, but everybody who ever knew him swore that the doctor was wrong because he was all heart.
Craigfield smiled at what she said but didn’t offer any comments of his own. He then wiped his mouth with a napkin and stood up to leave.
“You’re going?” Sophie asked, a bit startled at his abruptness.
“I feel the need for a walk,” he said absently. Then he realised he was being rude and he changed his tone. “Haven’t stretched my legs for a few days. That’s the main reason I’m here in town, to get away from the city and take in all the nature you have up here. Time for a walk.”
“If you want, I can walk with you?” she suggested, wondering if it was a good idea or not. She had not planned on befriending someone who wasn’t even from the town, but from the same city she lived in. Then there was the problem that she needed to spend more time locked in her room facing that typewriter. It was very difficult to write with it when she was nowhere near it.
“What about your lunch?” he asked.
“I’m all finished. And if I stay here too long I’ll only eat more.”
It was a nice day for a stroll and they went at a slow pace, befitting the fact that there was no traffic. The only people to be seen were off in the distance, and they were too far away to think about on such a nice day. Down the road there was a large open area were various plans for development had come and gone over the years, and it now merely served as a nice place for a lone flagpole. If someone ever brought a flag, the picture would be complete. They came to a burnt-out building, all boarded up, and the blackened roof was only half intact.
“What did that place use to be?” he asked.
“From memory, it was the liquor store. If I remember rightly, Old Man Thrower leaned against that wall over there, most days. Either leaning there or sleeping there. He must have been very sad to see the store burn down. I think he died not long after. Rumour was, his wife burnt it, since she claimed he was more in love with the store than her. And he let everyone know he agreed with her.”
“That ‘closed for business’ sign looks kind of old,” Craigfield said about another building. “Wonder how long they’ve been closed?”
“I don’t know who owns it,” said Sophie, mildly annoyed that he made no comment about her story. She hoped it was not because she mentioned the word starting with L. “Might be having insurance trouble.”
“That a common thing here?”
“Insurance trouble? Can be.”
“Oh really? No, I meant fire closing down businesses. That happen much?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Yeah, the reason I ask, I know of this other town, a long way from here, that entertained this firebug arsonist-type. Turned out he was just a local shopkeeper who devised this devious scheme in ridding himself of his competition. By burning them out of business. Worked good for him too, until he accidentally burnt down his own place. Not a good idea to drink and set fire to things.”
“We don’t have anything as interesting as that here, I’m afraid.”
“The man did have a plan. I guess he should take some credit for that. Took a long time to catch him, too, as he was also the local fire chief.”
“Huh!” she said with surprise.
“You didn’t hear about that story? I thought a town like this would be alerted to stories about small-town crooks. It seems the sleepier the town is, the more likely something’s amiss.”
“No, I wouldn’t know; I’ve been living in the city, last few years. The only news I get to hear about is national controversy and slash, or international politics.”
“‘Slash’? What’s that?”
“Hate crimes. Serial murders, that kind of thing.”
“What do you do?”
“Currently I’m doing data entry, but I’m actually a journalist.” She noticed that he hid a laugh. “You’re laughing?”
“No, no. Just a little, sorry. You really missed the firebug story?”
“I can understand your mockery. It may sound like I’ve lost touch with my roots. If there was a story concerning Gendry in the news, my ears would have pricked up. But it never is. Gendry’s never produced anyone famous, or been the centre of the nation’s attention. I wish it would gain some attention, believe me, but only as long as it was about something nice.”
“It’s a good old fashioned quiet town,” he said after they had walked for a while without feeling the need to talk.
Both soon wondered why the other was still there.
“I’d like to ask what brings you here, but I’m afraid you might be offended,” she said.
“Not at all. I’m a little embarrassed by the reason, and I didn’t want to go announcing it at the party.”
“What is it?” she asked with a sympathetic smile.
“I need the peaceful laid-back climate, that’s all.”
“Are you shy?” she asked playfully. “Or is there some other reason for keeping your big secret?”
“All right. I’m trying to write my first novel, that’s all.”
“Really?” she responded, taken by surprise. “You know, so am I!”
“Not at all. I’ve been planning this for a full year. Have all these notes I don’t know what to do with, but I know they have to fit in somehow. I have a room in the top floor of Grandmother’s, the old attic. You haven’t heard me hitting that old typewriter? Loud thing, it is.”
“You … you use a typewriter?” he asked with disgust. If she said that she used the entrails of a dead cat to do her writing he would have had the same reaction.
“Uh-huh,” she said, not knowing what his problem was.
“Haven’t heard a thing sounding like a typewriter. I don’t think I’d know what one sounded like anyway. It’s a laptop for me. Couldn’t use anything else.”
“Guess that’s why I haven’t heard you, way down in the basement. Laptop keystrokes don’t echo and carry on out the window.”
“That and the fact I haven’t actually written anything yet.”
“You haven’t? Are you having trouble starting?”
“Yes and no. It doesn’t help when you keep getting called back to the office every few days. Hey, I just realised something …”
“Sal. That’s short for Sally.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” she said with a laugh. “What did you think it was short for?”
“I don’t know,” he said, also amused at himself. “What else could it be short for?”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“And you call yourself a writer?”
“I told you I was struggling. What’s your story about?”
“Why, so you can steal it?”
“It’s about the break-up of a marriage.”
“What’s it, a comedy?”
“What a dark sense of humour you have. No, it’s a sad story. Like real life.”
“Based on your own experiences? If you don’t mind my asking?”
“No, it’s not. I’ve known some people to get divorced, but it’s not about them. I guess, if you really wanted to pin a label on it, it’d be the meaning of life. Like, why we’re here, what if we’re spending our lives with the wrong person, things like that.”
“I take it you’re not married?”
“You’d be right.”
“I never see the point of it, myself. Why be tied to one person when the world is full of so many interesting people?”
Sophie was sad to hear that. “Is that your life philosophy?”
“Marriage is for fools, if you ask me,” he said, not noticing how appalled she was. “Of course, you thinking the same, since you’re writing about its failings.”
“Not marriage’s failings. People fail at marriage but that doesn’t mean the concept of marriage is at fault, more the people not reacting to it the way they should. I think if you can find the right person, it’s the greatest thing in the world, to be with your soul mate and not thinking of anyone else.”
Craigfield laughed at her. “Are you serious? Is that what you expect marriage to be? Good luck with that. And good luck with finding a guy who agrees with any of that. ‘Soul mate’? What’s that mean?”
Sophie found that she no longer felt comfortable with him so she made an excuse to leave. “I have to get back to my room now. I’m expected. See you around. Hard not to, I guess, in a place this small.”
“It’s been fun, Sophie.”
Sophie nodded and then grimaced when she turned and walked away. No, it had not been fun. His last comments changed her entire opinion of him, and how she regretted wasting all that time with him. Instead of being angry at herself for wasting time, and at him for being so dismissive, she used her emotion to produce four good pages of writing. They were filled with misspelling and typos, but that didn’t matter so much. The fact that she was writing something, and hearing the typewriter run fast like a machine, made her feel better. She almost considered thanking Craigfield for helping her to get started.
Safe in his garage, the sorrowful driver fought off his crushing hangover to clean his car. He had been sleeping for the past three hours only because he had passed out from the stress and the new bottle he started. When he arrived home he went into a panic and started rushing around, looking for detergents and rags. But then he saw a new bottle and thought that it couldn’t hurt to start in on it. Now he was three hours late in getting rid of the evidence. And there was a lot of it.
The worst damage was on the front grill, which was bent. The side also had a large dent, probably from a letterbox or fence he might have brushed, but it had to be fixed too. Exactly how he would fix it, without anyone knowing, he had no idea. He started to plan on deliberately hitting something in the broad daylight, so people would see it and he would have a reason for it other than he had killed a guy.
The hardest part of the car to clean was the back wheel. Minute traces of blood splatter was hidden amongst the mud. He knew enough about crime labs to know a simple spray down with the hose wasn’t going to be enough. He covered his entire car with soap suds, and then carefully wiped it down, and then scraped out all the little tractions in the wheels; each one in detail. Blood still remained on the front grill, dried on, and it took a lot of scrubbing to get it to budge. He realised that there was probably more blood too small for his weak eyes to see, and that meant he would need to scrub down the entire car several times until he was happy.
It occurred to him that perhaps it would be easier to get rid of the car and claim it as stolen. Perhaps he could even claim that it was stolen before the time he started his mad driving. But as he continued to think about that his head began to hurt and he decided he had been doing too much thinking and not enough drinking.
After a few hours under the tin roof of the garage collecting heat from the mid-day sun, when he dared not open a window or door for fear of someone seeing him, he began to get sleepy again. He started talking to himself, saying that he could not afford to sleep until the car was clean. If he did it right, he said, no know would ever know what happened. He knew there would eventually be snoopers coming around, and questions asked, and perhaps even a few witnesses might pop up. He also knew that his best option was to play it simple and assume that he would get away with it and life would continue as normal. That was what usually happened in Gendry. It had sidestepped many scandals over the years, and here was another one. His confidence would be encouraged, however, if he only knew who it was he had killed.
As Sophie walked back to her grandmother’s house she told herself that she would not allow any more distractions to interfere with her writing time. She hated the thought of seeing a day go by without being able to add anything to her work. It had been a nice day for a walk, and that was what brought her out in the first place. Most of the time with Craigfield had been nice, except when she realised that she didn’t like him. But that experience was for the better too, since it stopped her thinking about him. And the mousse was as delicious as she hoped, and she could never regret that. But she would not be satisfied with the day if she did not complete at least a few pages. It did not matter if those pages would be thrown out at a later date, when she had a stack to sought through and choose from. All that mattered was that she produced something with her time.
Once she started typing she found that she started to flow with ideas and completed three pages before sitting back and admiring it. It suddenly seemed easy and she did not know why she thought it would be difficult. Then she remembered Craigfield’s appalling attitude towards married people and before she knew it she finished another page. Four pages of interesting story, completed in less than an hour.
She was so happy with her achievement that she left the room to find someone to tell. When she got to the lounge she saw the twins outside the window, more excited than normal. When they saw Sophie they tried to suppress their laughter, which they couldn’t do very well since one made the other break.
“What are you boys laughing about?” she asked them when she walked out onto the veranda.
“It’s better you don’t know,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“You have to tell me now you’ve said that. What is it?”
“You’d just say it’s nasty,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“You’d spoil it,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“Saying it was nasty would ruin it,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“We’ve only just found it,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“We’re not ready to share it,” said Kerry or Jerry.
Sophie smiled, knowing it was just another of their games and it was best to play along. “Secret spies, or something, are you? Jimmy Bond needs to watch out, does he? I always wanted to be Jane Bond, myself; and I don’t mean one of his floozies either. Perhaps his younger sister? His dangerous and yet glamorous younger sister who kicks the bad guys with a great dress and perfect hair.”
“This isn’t a movie,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“This is real life,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“What did you find?” she asked. “A dead animal? Or was it money? It was money, wasn’t it? I can see it in your faces, you’ve found a stack of money. You know if you’ve found a lot of money like that, you’d need to hand it in to Handisides. If no one claims it, you will get it back, so it’s worth it. How much is it? Is it a lot?”
“It’s not money,” said Kerry or Jerry, and he was convincing enough for her to believe him.
“We’d be off spending it, if it was money,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“Split it fifty-fifty,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“And you’d probably both buy exactly the same thing,” Sophie said and then wondered why they didn’t think she was funny.
“We know what you’d buy,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“You do? And what’s that?”
“Something for your boyfriend.”
“We saw you in town, walking around with him,” added Jerry or Kerry.
“I think you both need to mind your own business,” Sophie said as she started to go inside the house, not expecting that and surprised at herself for being offended.
“If you want, we can follow him?” suggested Kerry or Jerry.
“Why on Earth would I want you to follow him?”
“Duh! So we can find out stuff about him.”
“Secret stuff,” added Jerry or Kerry. “Stuff to help Jane Bond.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “If there’s anything I want to know about him, I will just ask him. That’s what adults do. We don’t go following them around, spying on them.”
“But we’re not adults,” said Kerry or Jerry with a raised voice.
“And we’re really good at spying,” said Jerry or Kerry, also raised.
“If you want to know if he’s telling you the truth or not, just ask us,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“We’ll follow him and find out for you,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“How devious,” she said as she stopped in the doorway and reconsidered their offer, thinking that they might just get away with it. “You know what? I think I like it. But only if you promise to not get caught. I would never be able to live that down.”
The expected happy reaction did not come from the boys. Instead they just went quiet and looked at each other. It was like they were communicating with only their eyes in a secret language.
“You don’t look too happy now I’ve agreed to your plan,” she pointed out. “Or have I called your bluff? Not really keen on risking life and limb after all? No little Jimmy Bonds here?”
“We could spy on him and be very good at it,” admitted Kerry or Jerry.
“If we hadn’t found this thing of ours first,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“Don’t worry,” said Sophie. “I don’t really want you to go harassing one of your mother’s guests. That sort of thing can be bad for business. So, where is this mysterious thing of yours? Where did you find it? Or is that a secret too?”
“We were deep in the woods,” started Kerry or Jerry.
“Making one of our walks,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“The tourist thing?” she asked. “I thought you were joking about that.”
“We never joke when it comes to money,” Kerry or Jerry said like it was an obvious fact.
“So you did find money out there?” Sophie asked, thinking she had discovered the truth.
“No, he means all the money we will make from the tourists coming here to go on our walk,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“It will be very successful,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“Does your mother know about this little venture of yours?” she asked, impressed with them.
“Of course she does,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“She will get her share,” said Jerry or Kerry. “All the people going on the walk will get to stay at her house. That way she makes money too.”
“I see you’ve thought this through,” she said.
“Please. Have you not met us before?”
“We’re not going to waste our time,” said his brother, “with anything that isn’t going to pay off in the long run. If not, we’d be concentrating our efforts elsewhere.”
“I have no doubt,” she said.
“All this work on the Walk, and it’s just the first of many we have planned, will go toward starting our first business.”
“And what business is that?” Sophie asked.
“And all the criminals of the world,” Sophie said in all seriousness, “will shake with terror when they see you coming, I’m sure.”
“There’s a criminal in town already.”
“What are you talking about now?” she asked. “There aren’t any criminals in Gendry.”
“How could there not be a criminal if there’s a dead man?”
“If there’s a what?” she asked.
“Why’d you say that?” Kerry or Jerry asked his brother, and then gave him an irritated shove.
“To prove her wrong,” he said, shoving back.
“Guys, you shouldn’t joke about something like that,” said Sophie. “Are you telling me someone in town has died?”
“Hit by a car, by the looks of it.”
“You have wild imaginations,” she said as she began to walk inside.
“Yes, we do. But then, we don’t think of ourselves as Jane Bond.”
“Handisides wasn’t like that, though. He commended us.”
Sophie stopped. “You’ve told the police sheriff this story?”
“We had to show him the body.”
“Otherwise, he may suspect us.”
“You can’t be too careful these days.”
Sophie watched in stunned silence as they both decided to run out to the woods again, racing to get there first. She didn’t know whether to believe their story or be shocked at how cheeky they had become.
It had taken three days for Jill to accept that Max had named one of his character’s Craigfield. She first assumed that he was named after her new friend as some sort of dig at her, but now she realised that she had overreacted. Her quiet apology was accepted by Max and she hoped nothing more would be said about it. As far as she could tell, the Craigfield in Max’s story was nothing like the Craigfield she knew, and she hoped that Max would either change the name or drop the character from his story. She started reading his first draft to look for a way to convince him of doing that.
From what she read, she could see potential in the story but it would need work, and probably only had a limited audience. It started out as a predictable piece of ‘chick-lit’, and yet had unwelcome dark shades. The shaky attempts at duplicating Gendry’s local quirky humour were also a concern, as was the way he depicted the children; at times too childish and at other times too smart. She gave thought to the problems, trying to figure out who the target audience could possibly be who would want to read it, before deciding to confront Max over it.
“What’s going on with the girl?” she asked him without much of a warning. “I thought she falls for Craigfield?”
Max was sitting in his writing room with his feet up on a stack of boxes that might or might not be full of old and discarded drafts. He did not know exactly what they were, since it had been a few months since he was brave enough to look. Such drafts were never a good read. Sometimes he would use them as a distraction for whenever he felt stuck and wanted to dream that he could turn one into a motion picture full of amazing visual effects. Such dreams usually continued to trying to cast his stories with the latest movie stars, which would make him feel bad because he could never find anyone who was exactly right for any of his characters.
He looked up from a music magazine that happened to be covering the recent decline worldwide of Elvis impersonators. It was just a short article, a side piece, but it was the reason it had caught his eye in the bookshop. The other articles looked interesting too, and he was contemplating looking for their online site and maybe subscribing.
“And what’s with all that other stuff in there, that murder stuff?” she continued, becoming too emotional for something so trivial. “Isn’t it meant to be a love story? I’m not getting it, Max. I’m not getting it at all. We need to talk about it.”
“That’s the story, yes,” he replied calmly, wondering why she was going off at him. “I’m just taking me time with it. I don’t have to rush it. Other things need to happen, or you haven’t got much of a story to tell. You can’t tell the whole story in the first part of the book. That’s what the rest of it is for.”
“Your love story looks like every other story I’ve ever read.”
“It’s only just begun. I have to set scenes and introduce characters. You can’t rush these things.”
“But a love story? Can’t you write something different? Something original? What you’ve done with the twins is also a concern, but obviously they’re not the main characters. I really doubt kids would act like that; certainly not backward ones somewhere like Gendry. And I really don’t know why you’ve made the main character a girl. You don’t seriously think you can think like her, do you? And okay, you’ve added this thing about a dead body, or whatever. Okay, so this girl’s met this guy, but she doesn’t know anything about him except he’s writing some book and she can’t stand him. What if he’s a fugitive? That would be good. Someone on the run from debt collectors, maybe? Or from the murder? Perhaps he should have been killed but it was mistaken identity? Or what about making him the murderer? He’s on the run, and this poor girl gets dragged along by him. Then the twins can follow him and stop him. Perhaps you should make the twins older, so they can fight him? How old should they be to be able to realistically handle a gun? How old are they meant to be, anyway? I don’t remember reading that anywhere.”
“Handle a gun? Sounds to me, you’d rather be writing it.”
“And what’s with having no chapters? Some kind of modern thing, is it? I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“It’s my book and I’ll write it how I want to, if you don’t mind.” Now he was feeling insulted. “Or did you want to do it for me?”
Jill went to leave the room, insulted that he was not paying attention to her ideas. She had expected him to take notes, not just look at her like she was interrupting his magazine.
“Why would I waste my time doing that?” she asked tersely. “Oh, and by the way, the real Craigfield is a nice guy. I’m sure I must have mentioned him to you. How else would you have stolen his name?” She continued talking as she went into the next room. “You must have, since you can’t think of anything original yourself.”
Max tossed his magazine to the floor and followed her. He stepped too hard on his bad foot and pain shot through his leg, causing him to take a second to lean against the doorway. He didn’t see that Jill was looking at him not with pity, but with disgust.
“What do you mean, the real Craigfield?” he asked her. “Who’s that?”
“Are you serious? I’ve told you about Craigfield. I know you know who he is. I just hope he never finds out you’re using his name like this.”
“Remind you about Craigfield? My gym instructor? Don’t I talk about him every time I come back from the gym? Or do I talk about him without using his name? Then let’s clear it up right now. Max: I’ll have you know, I have a gym instructor. He’s cute, he’s dreamy, he’s buffed, he’s a great teacher, and his name is Craigfield. I’m allowed to have a schoolgirl crush on him if I want to. Why don’t you put that in your story too? Especially the bit about him being buffed.”
Max was speechless as he eyed his wife. She ignored him as she checked through her purse in the way she always did before going out. The old house-jeans and casual blouse would have to do, since there was no time to try on one of the nice new tops that she had in her closet. Max was too angry with her to want to question where she was going. He enjoyed the sound of the door closing since it meant that she was no longer in the house.
Sophie found her grandmother in the kitchen. She was busy working on the guest menu for the next month and it was work that needed her full attention and everyone except Sophie knew not to talk to her. The menu itself would seldom change, which was more for Simona’s benefit than any guests that they might have with them, but it still needed to be approved.
“I have met your guest,” said Sophie.
Susan looked up and instead of giving an annoyed sigh, which would have been her response under normal circumstances, she smiled, expecting to hear happy details.
“He was at Sal’s,” Sophie continued, beginning to worry that Susan might not agree with her opinion, “when I happened to be there too, so we said hi.”
“More than that,” Susan said with a twinkle in her eye. “You two went on a romantic walk. That’s what I heard, anyway, and I see you’re not denying it. No one is safe from eyes in this town.”
“So, I shouldn’t bother to ask who told you that? Well, I guess it was a nice walk, I’ll admit that much. What he said, he wasn’t so easy on the ears as he was the eye. You never know until you get around to talking to someone, see they’re not on the same playing field as you.”
“Easy on the eyes, he certainly is. How I wish I was your age, my girl. I wouldn’t be wasting any time just talking with him, like you were.”
“Grandmother! I was just getting to know him. After all, he is living in this house too. I need to do my bit for the family, make him feel welcome and all. That and his writing, we had some things to talk about. And I’m not saying I won’t talk to him again, if that chance came along. He had just better impress me next time, if we did get to talking.” Sophie realised she was letting Susan’s opinion get the better of her, and she wondered if she had been too harsh with him.
“Good for you,” said Susan. “Pity, then, about his wife.”
“His wife, dear. He’s married. Not seen her here. Don’t think she likes the country life. Prefers the city, apparently.”
“Didn’t he tell you about her? Perhaps he didn’t have the chance.”
“No, he didn’t tell me about her. In fact, he gave me no reason to think he was married. In fact, he said he didn’t think much of married life. He’s married?”
“Sounds like you should watch that one,” Susan said with a wise smirk. “Might be a player. I met plenty of them when I was your age.”
“I’ll be watching him all right, so he doesn’t get too close again.”
“Perhaps the reason he’s by himself is because he’s not with his wife at the moment. He seems to be about the right age to be starting his second go-round.”
“That’s an awful thing to say. You don’t know anything about him, do you?”
“I can see a glint in his eyes. I know men well enough.”
Sophie was about to point out that since she had been alone for a while and since she wasn’t in the same age group, that she wouldn’t really know what a man like Craigfield was like. She also stopped herself saying that it was better to be single at her age rather than at Susan’s age.
“I saw the twins outside,” said Sophie, wanting to change the subject before saying something she might regret. “They were excited about something they’d found in the woods. They were real secretive about it. Did you hear what it was?”
“Some kind of dead body, I think they said,” Susan said like it wasn’t important.
“Kind of a shock, isn’t it,” Sophie said after she let it sink in. Gendry wouldn’t get too many victims of crime lying around in the streets?”
“People do die, dear. It does happen. We may not be as spectacular as the way you do it in the big city, but we have been known to keep up. A lot of the older people I’ve always known in town are no longer with us. One or two who recently passed, I remember being old when I was a girl, so they were old a very long time. Come to think of it, they’ve been gone a good ten years now. Shows you how time can fly like the birds.”
“But we’re actually talking about a dead person they found? Someone found in the woods? Do you know who it is? You’d probably know them.”
“Haven’t a clue who it is. It’s all hush-hush. I’m sure Andy will have it sorted for us soon. I think they have some city investigator in town to look around. At least, that’s what the boys said Andy told them they were doing. In all likelihood, it was one of our elderly folk out walking one nice sunny morning, when Father Time caught up with him and dropped him dead on the spot. If you ask me, that is not such a bad way to leave this world, with the birds and the trees. Literally going back to nature, I suppose.”
“You think that’s a good thing, to die alone like that?’
“There’s worse ways to go, dear.”
“I don’t know why you’re acting all calm about this. The twins seemed to think someone else was involved. They think it was a murder, and a violent one too.”
“They’re just boys being boys, and boys with particularly rampant minds. Let’s just wait to see what Andy and this city person has to say. They need to wait, apparently, for the family to be notified, before us public find out. I’m just pleased all my family is present and accounted for, so I don’t need to worry about that. Same with all my friends; I made sure I checked in on them when I heard. Whoever it is, he must have been a loner.”
Sophie looked at her grandmother and almost completed her thought, in that the deceased person was probably not married. She then feared that Susan might put the two thoughts together, and Sophie might again have to hear the assurance that dying in alone the woods was actually a good way to go. Sophie also realised why Susan was talking up Craigfield and people dying in the woods. She wanted her to find a partner before she became old and unattractive, otherwise she too might one day be found in the woods by two boys eager to run around town bragging about it.
Dale Gant swore with a short and violent shout when he found that his coffee was both cold and terrible to taste. He opened his car door to throw the cup out before the car came to a stop. The top came loose and it made more of a mess on the road than he was expecting. A group of people were watching him and he eyed them back, daring them to make a complaint about his littering. They all looked away as he stepped out of the car and straightened his clothes, and he kept watching them until he was sure they were not about to confront him.
Seeing how many people were gathered around the crime scene made him swear again. It was so loud and so viscous that that rest of the crowd looked at him and then away to avoid his gaze. He stomped his way through the long weeds and yelled out, demanding that Andy Handisides show himself. The town sheriff responded with a shout of his own, but his was polite and optimistic. To Dale’s disgust Andy then walked over to him by passing right next to the body. Dale demanded he know why there was no tent set up around the body and the immediate area cordoned off. When he heard that Gendry didn’t have a tent big enough he swore again. Quite a few of the onlookers decided that they had seen enough for today and began to move on.
Dale had met Handisides twice before, so he knew what to expect. It wasn’t his large girth that was his most memorable feature, but his smile. His large teeth could be off-putting to the most hardened criminal. Dale had seen a lot of bad things, and bad people doing those bad things, but nothing could compare with being confronted by someone who appeared happy and yet also appeared threatening at the same time. His teeth were not grotesque, or broken, or contained gaps. They were just too big. His large smile made them appear even larger, not helped by his perpetually languid attitude. Such an attitude was exactly why Dale hated visiting Gendry. That and the fact that the local insect community loved to visit his skin. He expected to resolve the crime as quickly as he could, so he could go home and nurse his bites and enjoy telling his friends how dumb these Gendry people still were.
At least Dale was happy to see that the body had been covered. Missy, the sheriff’s assistant, further helped him by saying that she had taken a lot of pictures, from every angle she could. Dale told Handisides to question every single one of the onlookers who remained, and to start with those who were looking to leave. He also needed to find a rope to keep them away from the body. When Andy mentioned that he suspected that the body had been moved from the road and hidden there in the undergrowth, Dale asked how he could have sustained such fatal wounds otherwise.
“Or did he run real fast into a couple of these trees?” Dale asked him.
“They’re not the most dangerous trees I’ve ever seen,” said Andy, hoping for a smile from the police detective.
Dale reacted like he had said nothing. “You know how much I enjoy coming all the way up here for this sort of treatment? There’s too many bugs in this place. I hate bugs, you know that? Make me swell up all funny when they bite me. And they always bite me. Why don’t they bite any of you? Or are they just sick of the way you taste? Two kids found him, that right?”
“Yes, sir. Kerry and Jerry Tyle.”
“You pay close attention to this, okay? I need to know how close they got to the body, and if they moved anything, or took anything. You find them and you get them to see me.”
“We’ve already questioned them.”
“You’ve already done a lot of things. Like let half the town trample all over my crime scene. Just get those kids for me.”
“They didn’t mean any harm, Dale.”
Dale sighed like he was going to swear again. Instead he looked up to the road and the group of people who were still foolish enough to be hanging around after hearing what kind of a mood he was in. “And somebody up there get me some decent coffee!” he shouted at them.
They all flinched at the same time, but even that was not enough to get them to budge. Gendry never had a murder before and they were not about to miss any of it.
Andy Handisides didn’t care that he was twenty minutes late to a meeting that he himself had arranged. He pulled his car up close to the steps of Sal’s and took his time getting out. His vast stomach was becoming increasingly larger with each passing year, and he had no concern over it, or that it made it difficult to reach for low doorknobs that were common in Gendry. He liked Sal’s place very much anyway, and the easy-to-push doors didn’t hurt. He was pleased to see that it was packed with most of townsfolk, including that nice young woman Sophie, down from the city and staying with that nice Susan Tyle. Any further interest he might have had in thinking about her vanished when he noticed that Sal had provided a big helping of carrot cake for him to devour.
Dale Gant slowly walked up to him, looking disinterested in everything around him. Andy had no say in letting this expert from the big city assist with the homicide investigation. If he was asked then he would have declined, which was probably why he was never consulted. Both men viewed each other as an annoyance, and they seldom said anything that did not involve the case. Dale liked to dress well, exercise a lot, eat healthy and loudly curse anything he didn’t like, which was a long way from both Andy and the town he lived in. He also had an unhealthy appetite for coffee and Andy knew that if he kept him supplied then he had a much nicer work associate to deal with.
When the twins Kerry and Jerry saw that Handisides had arrived they made their way over to Sophie, eager to tell her the news they had been keeping to themselves.
“It’s official now,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“We can break our silence,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“It’s the postman!”
“The postman?” Sophie repeated.
“Yeah, our postman,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“Are you saying the postman is dead? You saw his body?”
“If he wasn’t dead, he wasn’t feeling very well,” said Kerry or Jerry, gaining a laugh from the other.
“Do you know anything about him; who he was?” she asked.
“We asked him once, what his name was,” said Kerry or Jerry
“And he told you? What was it?”
“Bill Bearer,” said Jerry or Kerry.
Andy finished three mouthfuls of cake and then thought he should start to address the people, especially since they were all looking at him and waiting for him to do exactly that.
“For those who don’t know me, or this is our first meeting,” he said to the hushed room before swallowing the last of the cake, “my name is Sheriff Andrew Handisides. I know most of you all, and have been looking after this town for as long as most of you can remember, I’m sure. You may have heard there has been an unfortunate death in our community, of Allan Longbottom. My condolences to those who knew him; friends, family and such. Mind you, he had no family in town, and I’m not sure he had any friends neither. Many of you would have never seen him wearing anything but his mail uniform, or talked to him much beyond the letters and the weather. Far as I remember, my own conversations never went much beyond those things. Not that they were uninteresting points, seeing the weather dictates our lives more than we know, and I don’t need to mention the importance of that mail needing to get to its rightful recipients.
“Sadly, Allan’s death was the result of vehicle collision, and that makes it a murder case. With us now is Dale Gant, who has come up from the city to ask some of you a few questions regarding the investigation. Now, let me assure you, this meeting is all completely informal and it’s just to let the city boy know what life’s like here and how well we get on with each other. You all know as well as I do, we enjoy the quiet and slow here, and whoever did this crime must have been travelling through at too fast a rate, as they typically do.”
“Always in a fast hurry to get back to their miserable fast city!” added Two-Tooth Hendersen, gaining light titters from a few people near to him.
“We have yet to determine that,” said Dale, not at all interested in the humour of the Gendry locals. He viewed the meeting as an opportunity to find quick information, to help in his leaving the town. “The assault vehicle in question has not been found, and until that happens we need to continue with our inquiry and study of your town.”
“And you are quite welcome,” Andy said to him kindly, but neglected to look at him, by design.
“Fact is,” Dale said, “Andy and I are leaning to the possibility it was an out-of-towner.”
“No one living here ever needs to get anywhere fast,” added Andy.
“Given the high number of speeding vehicles, particularly at night,” said Dale, “it’s a surprise more of you are not endangered. I’ve noticed how some of you take no notice of traffic when crossing roads, even the main road outside this building. However, we still need to ask our questions, and what better place to do that than this fine diner?”
“What if it’s someone who’s from the city but is currently living here?” asked Sophie, drawing surprise from the two men.
“That’s what we will to determine through are inquiries,” said Dale. “If you don’t mind, I would prefer asking brief questions.”
“We would like to have a word with each one of you while you’re all here,” added Andy. “You can go on your way if you want, but I know most of you would like to get this out of the way here and now.”
Dale turned to the nearest person, a tall elderly man with a dull expression. “Can I have your name, sir?”
“And what is your occupation?” Dale asked as he filled in his small notebook.
“Town undertaker. Thirty seven years since I took over from my daddy. That’s Marvin Giblett, who was a tall and bold man and proud to serve as Gendry undertaker for sixty years, and I am equally proud to stand in his place at this time. My first role as official town undertaker was to bury my dear departed daddy. It was just the way he wanted it, too. He primed me for the role for many years, since I was nothing but a small and shaky youngster. Had me practising until I was so good at it, he knew he was leaving the business in sound hands. Sound enough to bury him with.”
“Well, it’s good to know Gendry is served so well,” Dale said, not wanting to know most of what he had just heard.
“Given your answer, Kenny,” Andy said, “I think Dale here might hesitate in asking you any further in-depth questions.”
“Well, that’s his job, son,” Ken replied studiously.
“I’m just bantering with you,” said Andy, “pay my humour no mind. The wife doesn’t.”
“Now, tell me,” Dale said to Ken, trying to ignore Andy, “did you see or hear anything of the unusual type on the eighteenth?”
“No, sir, and I’m certain of that fact. Cross my heart, hope to die and be buried somewhere as nice as Gendry. Once my own son realises his place and is fit to honour his father in that way.”
“I see,” Dale said as he looked for someone else. “That’s good. Thank you for your time. We may speak to you again, so if I can take some details?”
“Except that van nearly hitting me,” Ken continued.
“What’s this?” Dale asked, looking at him twice before it registered.
“Speeding, nearly knocked me off my bike. I go biking every day, you see. I’ve never seen anything like it; not in Gendry.”
“Yes, he does,” added Sal, “He goes riding, does our Ken. He’s quite a sight for sore eyes, all decked in his bright yellow bicycle costume. Got that from the city, did you, Ken?”
“Helmet and professional cyclist clothes,” said Ken. “They cut down the wind-resistance, you see. Got it from the city by special delivery. Cost a fortune, too.”
“Then how come,” asked Sal, “you don’t go any faster than young Daisy Waterdown pushing her baby around town?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Dale said to Sal, “but I would kindly request you don’t interrupt this gentlemen. You can have your say when I get to you, but until then, please hold your peace.”
Two-Tooth took his chance to say a word. “I’m just waiting for you to announce one of us here in this room is the murderer, and you know who it is! Isn’t that the way these gatherings go, detective? One of us may be the murderer, which is why you brought us all here!”
They all laughed and Dale raised a hand to stop them. “I would like to remind you all, despite the informality, this is still a police investigation. None of you are required to be here, and are free to leave. But I will require an interview with each and every one of you, and I know you agree it is easier for us all to have them completed here today, especially given the distances away some of you live.”
“Sorry there, chief,” Two-Tooth said with a quick salute.
“Now, Mr. Giblett,” Dale resumed as he looked at his notes, “you were saying about your being hit by a van?”
“I wasn’t hit by it. I never said I was hit by it. Don’t twist my words, now.”
“Then what did happen, if you can remember?”
“This van came speeding at me from behind, so close I nearly fell off.”
“Seen the van before, have you?”
“Never at all. Not even once.”
“Get the number plate?”
“Nope. I was too busy fighting the bike. Nearly lost control.”
“What about the make and colour? Any identifying marks?”
“It was white, that’s all I remember.”
“Where did this happen?”
“Kenny, that’s a one-lane bridge,” Sal said with amusement. “You weren’t fighting that van for the right to go over first, were you? Sorry sir, but he does that. You ask him why, you go on!”
“Now, Mr Giblett,” said Dale, ignoring Sal, “I need to ask you to tell the whole story here. What actually happened to you regarding this white van?”
“This van came speeding,” said Ken, “as I came to the bridge. Now, I was there first; I’m sorry Sal, but I was, and I have my right as a road user to go over first. Now, they tried to overtake me, went way out onto the grassy part by the roadside there. But you can’t do that, there’s lots of big rocks back there, left over from when they built the bridge. So then he gets all mad and starts shouting at me.”
“You heard the driver’s voice?” asked Dale, his mouth feeling dry and needing coffee. “Did you see him?”
“I heard him but I didn’t want to hear him, if you know what I mean.”
“Did you see him enough to identify him?”
“Not really. These youngsters all seem the same to me.”
“It was a man, then? A white male? He was young?”
“Yeah, that’s right, and real young.”
“Okay, that’s good. Go on, please.”
“Well, when I saw he was in a right state of agitation I tried to wave him away, but he paid no heed.”
“You should have let him go past, Kenny,” Sal interrupted again. “He sounds dangerous to me. Just pull over and let him go on through.”
“I can’t let anyone go past me like that,” Ken said to her. “You know what sort of bad luck it is?”
“Bad luck?” asked Dale.
“It’s never wise to overtake an undertaker.”
“Yes, and you’ve never let anyone go past you in your life!” said Sal.
“Please, madam!” Dale snapped at her.
“Well, so I went over the bridge first,” said Ken, “as I was entitled, and when it was their turn to cross it, they came at me so close and fast they nearly caused me to crash. It was like they were trying to get me.”
“This is very interesting. Was the van leaving town?”
“Yes sir, it was on the direction out of town, and good riddance to it.”
“Has anyone here heard of this speeding white van?” Andy asked the room.
“Can see you’ve found your murderer, right there,” Two-Tooth announced.
“Lock him up and throw away them keys,” agreed Elbow. “We don’t need those city-types speeding through here, abusing our respected and trusted.”
“Didn’t think it’d be that simple, did you, Dale?” Andy asked him.
“Can’t say I did, no,” Dale said with a sigh, and then felt a very strong urge for coffee. “Sal, I think I’ll take that drink now.”
“That’s my boy,” said Andy. “The body won’t get any colder, but the beer might get warmer.”
Dale sat on a stool to the bar and became transfixed by a fresh cup of coffee provided by Sal.
“Guess that does it,” Andy said to the room. “Mystery solved. Thank you for coming.”
“You’re not serious?” asked Sophie, who was standing near to him. She had heard about how Dale had bossed everyone around at the murder scene, and yelled at people for no reason. She knew that such manners might influence people of Gendry, but not anyone from the city.
“What was your name?” Dale asked her.
“Sophie. I’m the granddaughter of Susan Tyle.”
“She’s staying at the boarder place,” Andy said to Dale. “She’s from the city.”
“You’re not in the habit of speeding, are you Sophie?” Dale asked her before he took a heart-warming sip of his coffee. “How fast you like to go? Like to push that pedal down, do you?”
“I’m not answering that,” Sophie said, indignant at their attitude.
“She doesn’t even have a car to drive,” Andy said with a dismissive laugh. “Let alone a white van.”
“But I’m sure, if she did,” said Sal, “she would drive carefully. A nice girl is our Sophie. Susan never stops talking about her, and always good news.”
“I’m satisfied with Mr Giblett’s testimony,” Dale said to Sophie, now a great deal calmer.
“These city drivers,” agreed Andy, “always on the run, think of our town just as some nuisance, some blot on the landscape where they need to drop their speed, and even that’s not a good enough reason to be here. We need tougher measures to slow them down.”
“Surprises me that you don’t already,” said Dale.
“I’ll get onto that when I can,” said Andy. “Talk to the mayor about soon as he gets back from his holiday.”
Dale laughed at that, feeling more relaxed. “Where does someone from Gendry go for their holidays? You wouldn’t like the city. Do you go visit other towns similar?”
Gene Best walked up to them, as if signalled to do so by the conversation mentioning the town mayor. The ex-mayor with still a lot of popularity, he commanded a strong presence wherever he went, and people still respectfully moved out of his way.
“Don’t you go building any more street signs, Handisides,” Gene said with a croaky yet strong voice. “The place is full of those eyesores already. We need to get rid of half of them, which I will do as soon as I’m re-elected.”
“Cool down, Gene,” said Sal. “You’ve had your chance as mayor, and I didn’t see you tearing down any signs back then. Let Andy and Dale sort out this latest fracas.”
“But you are going to check all the cars in town for any evidence, right?” Sophie asked, not sure if they were actually being serious about finishing their work. She had assumed that they were going to talk to everyone there, like they said they would, but from what she could see now, they had changed their minds.
“Soon as I finish one of Sal’s famous custard creams,” Dale said. “Andy’s been talking about them ever since I arrived. Make it a small one, would you, Sal? Trying to watch my figure.”
Those around him laughed, except for Sophie.
“But you’ve only talked to one person,” she protested. “And you say you’re closing the investigation?”
“Sophie, the people aren’t going anywhere,” chided Andy. “This is Gendry, remember? Where else would they go? It was a hit and run by someone travelling through, and a marvel he didn’t clip anyone else by the sound of it.”
“And if he did, he wouldn’t get far,” agreed Dale and he ate the custard cream and knew it would not be his last that day.
Sophie watched them with amazement and decided to leave and go back to her room. She consoled herself that perhaps she could add into her story someone like Dale Gant, a person who did not really seem to care about anything except himself and his own opinion, and was rude to anyone who might not see things his way. Then she realised that she already met one of those and his name was Craigfield, and he was about the only living person in Gendry not at the meeting.
Night and day. At times their relationship was normal, when they could chat freely and laugh at each other’s jokes. Then they would not talk at all, for days on end, and be content to let the other be out of the house for long periods and not ask where they went. Max went from enjoying her company to wondering why they were together at all, sometimes within the time of a conversation. There would be no warning to the mood swings of either one, but they seemed to be synchronised, and know when to not bother even trying to make small talk. During her good moods Jill would encourage Max’s writing, and be happy to read through some pages for him, and give useful advice. They both knew there was no point in her going anywhere near his work when she was in a down mood, when she was almost anxious to find something to criticise. If she didn’t find something wrong then she would manage to pick up from where she left off in their last argument. Max had no idea how she did that.
Jill’s job had recently lost its interest. It was unusual for her to stay at the same retail place for more than a year. Her latest was an up-market woman’s fashion store down at the local mall. The good part about it was that most of the stock was a style she liked. She preferred to see herself as a model for each dress, and the manager never noticed that every other day she was sampling one. The trick was in removing the tag, or hiding it, without anyone getting wise. But then they changed some of the designers and she just didn’t like much about the newer stock. As a protest she refused to steal anything else and began to look for a better place to work. It didn’t matter how far away a new job was, so long as it sold dresses that looked good on her.
“There’s another mistake, right there,” she said as she walked into his writing room without knocking. He took off his headphones and asked her to repeat herself. He welcomed the fact that she was willing to discuss it, even if he knew she was probably going to have him make changes. The fact that she wanted to talk at all was a welcome change.
“If the police are interviewing people about a murder,” she said as she showed him the text on the page she was holding, like he could not remember without seeing it, “they would do it in a private room someplace. Not out in the open. Not at the local eatery. What’s that, a town gathering?”
“What if that was the way it really happened?” he asked knowingly. “It’s a small town and they like doing things in a communal way. Everyone knows everyone else, like a big family.”
“What is this, something from the Fifties?” she replied bluntly.
“Did you think that maybe it was, before you decided to start trying to shred it to ribbons?”
“Have you not seen how they show criminal investigations on TV shows?”
“TV shows? That’s exactly my point. Those shows aren’t based on reality. Do you think they’re based on reality? They’re TV shows!”
“And you know about reality, do you?”
“I know more about reality than you’d think.”
Max looked away, saddened at how quickly they had started fighting, but not wanting her to see his reaction. It occurred to him that she may not be able to read much more of his book, and that may be a good thing.
“Meaning what, Max?” she asked again.
Max was reluctant to say it, but knew that he had to. “Craigfield.”
“What about Craigfield? What do you know about Craigfield? There’s nothing to know anyway. What are you talking about?”
“You’ve been acting strange lately, you know that? Craigfield’s my gym instructor; you know he is. For me and five thousand other people.”
“Forget it, I said.”
“I think you need to change this scene. And while you’re at it, change the name Craigfield. Call him Bob or Steve, or something boring like that, but not Craigfield.”
“He has a name and I’m not changing it.”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Craigfield’s a nice guy. He happens to be my friend and he’s helping me with my fitness program. But if you’re trying to cause a riot over him then you’re by yourself. Well? Are you going to do it?”
“Am I going to do what?”
“Take his name out of there?”
“Why is it such a problem? Does his name being there bother you that much that you’re all in my face over it?”
“Suit yourself, then. The way it’s going, no one’s going to read it anyway.”
The typewriter sat untouched. When she arrived in Gendry she thought she almost had the entire story already written in her mind. She could see every chapter and paragraph, and all she had to do was put it on paper. Distractions were making it impossible. Part of the point of coming out to Gendry was for the relaxing air of laziness that the town was famous for, and in the peaceful atmosphere she could write. Not only had she wasted time by talking to a man she didn’t even like and who wasn’t even a local, but she had let herself become caught up in a bit of drama that had never happened in the town before but was common in the city. At first the news of the violent murder had made her feel sad, in the realisation that the Gendry she had known as a child had disappeared, replaced by more of the real world she was familiar with. The more she thought about that the more she realised that it was impossible to keep such things away from the town forever, and they were very lucky that this was only the first such incident in their history.
Another point of the town that was of interest to her, and was equally difficult to accept, was that when she saw the people gathered in Sal’s she realised that the great old characters were still around. People like Elbow and Two-Tooth, and Sal too. The younger generation had little to offer in replacing them. Young people, like Sophie herself, had been leaving Gendry for a while now, and they were replaced by older people from the city looking for a peaceful town to retire in. Dull people, who drove slow not because they liked to but because they thought they had to. Elbow and Two-Tooth went out of their way to push whatever opinion popped into their head, just more for the fun of making a scene than for anything else. But the new people never thought to challenge the status quo, and did not know that there really wasn’t any. They were people who did not want to cause dispute, to present an opinion that might be a bit different, to maybe upset someone by talking out of turn. Gendry was quickly becoming little more than a large retirement village. Soon there would need to be a good hospital and nursing care, if the trend was to continue. And they would all be driving slow.
The twins noticed that she was looking sad, and for once they didn’t think of asking for their own fun but rather wanted to know what was wrong. She was sitting on the large chair in the shadowy back porch, doing nothing but staring into the distance. Kerry had a thought and he grabbed his brother’s arm, telling him that she must be upset over Craigfield.
“Why are you acting that way, Sophie?” Jerry asked her.
“It’s not like Craigfield’s gone back home,” added Kerry.
“He might as well,” she said, quietly amused at their concern but not letting them know. “He’s married.”
“There’s no one else with him,” said Kerry. “He’s by himself.”
“Ask mother,” said Jerry, “he checked in alone and no one else has been in his room.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean he’s not married,” she said. “She’s back in the city. Probably glad he’s here, too.”
“What’s the problem, then?” asked Kerry.
“She’s not here,” said Jerry, knowing perfectly well what he was suggesting.
“It’s like he’s not married at all, being here by himself,” said Kerry, agreeing with his brother.
“I’ll pretend you never said that,” said Sophie. “You boys don’t understand, you’re too young,” she added as she hoped that was true.
“We don’t understand that he may be wanting to replace his wife?” asked Kerry.
“Maybe that’s why he told you he wasn’t married?” suggested Jerry.
“There’s more to it than that,” she said, wondering if she should admit to them that she was upset that he didn’t tell her about his wife, and if there was a reason for that other than he just happened to forget.
Rebecca joined them, looking at her brothers accusingly. “Quite a find,” she said, referring to the dead body. “How did you manage that? Probably because you both had something to do with it?”
“Rebecca, you’re just in time,” said Sophie. “I was just telling your brothers about Craigfield, and how some men cannot be trusted. And to think I told him I was writing a book about marriage and he said nothing to me when he had the chance, but pretended he wasn’t married.”
“He already knew you were a writer,” said Rebecca.
“How do you know that?” asked Sophie.
“I heard mother telling him,” she said. “She never stopped talking about you. I was so embarrassed!”
“She told Craigfield about my book?”
“Yes, all about your novel.”
“Keep away from him, please, Rebecca. There’s something not right about him.”
“Are you saying what we think you’re saying?” asked Kerry.
“I have no idea what you two think I’m saying,” said Sophie. “I don’t think anyone possibly can know what goes on in your heads. What I’m saying is Craigfield can’t be trusted. As far as I can tell, no one knows what he’s doing in Gendry. You should all keep your distance.”
“I thought I heard him saying he was looking for someone,” said Rebecca. “Someone in town.”
“Are you sure?” asked Sophie.
“That’s all I heard,” she said.
“He was looking for Bill Bearer!” Kerry announced with excitement.
“And he found him!” added Jerry.
“Killed him and left him in the woods!”
“For the birds and bugs!”
Sophie knew that she should calm them down before they became unstoppable with their new idea, but the more she thought about it the more she realised that they may be right. As far as Sophie could tell, this man had come from the city and had told lies to everyone, including her, for no good reason. Not long after, a local man is brutally run down and left for dead in the undergrowth away from the road, perhaps to be left unfound for years to come.
Sophie felt scared that she had spent time walking alone with him. He was little more than a perfect stranger, but there she was, eating lunch with him, talking about herself, walking with him, without knowing anything about who he was, and accepting that his stories are true. It was something she would never have done had they met in the city. The peacefulness of the town had seen her drop her defences. She wondered how she could convince Susan to ask him to leave her house.
His faded black cap was pulled down tight, just allowing him enough room to peer out from under the shaggy brim. Light drizzle started to fill the air as the nearby rush-hour traffic began to thin. It was getting darker now and Max expected that he would need to stay where he was standing for another hour. It was a good spot, over the street from the popular McNabb gym, known as Mac’s. He knew Jill was not there but Craigfield was. In the top floor he could see people jumping up and down, raising their arms and moving side to side, all with more energy than Max could ever summon. Another figure, that he guessed was Craigfield but was too far away to be sure, was walking around in front of them like a drill sergeant.
For the life of him, Max could not understand why people would want to waste their time in such a place. Working there was another matter, as you got to order people about, people who paid you, and you got to look over the ladies under the guise of helping them better themselves. That kind of a job Max would have killed to have in his younger days when his body was more athletic and he could get away with pretending to be fit. The pain from his foot was a timely reminder that he would never be able to do anything like that. He preferred to think of himself as fit in mind and soul, since he read widely and wrote as much as he could, but his body was beyond help.
When Craigfield came out of the gym Max felt like someone had kicked him. With increasing jealousy he watched the tall and handsome young man jump into the striking sporty red Audi convertible that was parked in front of the door. The same car that Max had found hard to take his eyes off as he waited for nearly two damp hours. He had imagined driving it along some winding mountain pass, and wondered if it belonged to an attractive young woman who had a thing for older washed-up journalists with bad ankles. Was there nothing this man could not take away from him, even his dreams?
He hurried to his own car, a second-hand blue Suzuki hatchback he had suffered for ten years and still did not know what some of the buttons did. It was difficult to stop his crutch from slipping on the wet tarmac as he got to his car. He hastily drove to catch up. The engine strained since it liked the cold about as much as he did.
The drive to Craigfield’s house was not far, just three or four streets, but the Audi moved aggressively and it was hard to see in the light rain. The house was fashionable but small in a street where they all looked the same. Each one had a steep shingled roof and a small garage to the side. Craigfield quickly drove into his own garage, barely waiting for the auto door to open. Max took note of the house number as he drove past. The closest place to park was in the next street and when he hobbled back to the house there was a bright light in the front room. Max tried to lean under a thin tree that was not strong enough to support him. There was nothing he could do except stand on his own. He hoped that the drizzle wasn’t starting to turn into rain.
“Find yourself another woman,” he said to Craigfield, imagining himself in that front room and keeping him spellbound by his lecturing. “This is my wife. She’s my wife, not yours. Think you can take my wife? Funny, I don’t recall seeing you at the wedding. That was me, not you, marrying her. That was me, not you, suffering through all the dirty jokes and sniggering from her father and creepy-as-all-heck brothers. Why would you want her anyway? She’s only going to go looking for another man when she gets sick of you and starts to criticise and ruin your dreams. And they’ll be other gym instructors, just to make you suffer.”
“Sorry, but are you talking to me?” asked a slight man. He was standing behind an iron fence and looking at him over misty glasses. Craigfield’s neighbour, he was around sixty and had thick wire-rimmed glasses. He did not appear to be concerned that he was wearing only a light shirt and baggy shorts in the damp evening. Max was stunned to also notice that he had bare feet and was standing on wet grass.
“No, just to myself,” said Max. “Sorry, didn’t see you there.”
“Well, it was very interesting listening, all the same.”
“Again, not meant for you.”
“I understand that, sir. Thing is, reason why I find what you said interesting was it was about Craigfield. Am I right?”
“Do you know him?”
“By reputation, sure. He has a different woman visit each night. Can’t help but notice, since our houses are so close. We don’t want to be nosy, but this one’s too good to miss.”
“You think there’s one in there now? Another woman, I mean?”
“Don’t think it. I know it. She arrived before he did, and was busy yelling for him to let her in, and started kicking the door. I had to come out and tell her she can go in the back door, since he always leaves it unlocked.”
“Have you seen her here before?”
“Wednesdays. Like clockwork. We call her Miss Wednesday. Although I guess now that should be Mrs Wednesday. Your wife, am I right? Here to catch her, are you?”
Max started back to his car, feeling too upset to tell him that he was sure that Jill wasn’t there. But then, he couldn’t be entirely sure. Perhaps he could ask the man for a description, or see it that back door was still open, or even just knock on the door.
“If it matters any, I’m sorry for you,” the man said and Max appreciated that. Then he added, “And just so you know, there’s nothing wrong with talking to yourself.”
“Okay, then,” Max said with a wave.
“It’s when you argue, that can be a problem.”
Max stopped and looked back and saw the man returning to his home, amused at himself.
It was ten in the evening at Sal’s and the night’s patrons had gone, leaving only the regulars to do what they always did. Elbow, Two-Tooth and former mayor Gene Best sat together at one end of the bar, oblivious to the time and watching the door in case any of the town’s visitors came back in and gave them something else to talk about.
“I was saying to Elbow,” Two-Tooth explained to Gene, “the girl can’t expect city here. City ways not Gendry and we like it that way.”
Elbow was tired and prone to lapse into off-topic memory trips. The night’s crowd had been bigger than normal, and whenever that happened it gave him a feeling of being trapped and he hated being trapped. Now the room was quieter his problem was that it was too quiet, like he had been suddenly deserted. Elbow had many little phobias, including both being trapped in crowds and being left alone. “Gendry knows nothing of city ways,” he said in agreement with Two-Tooth. “Nor want to.”
“Nor want to,” Two-Tooth agreed.
Gene felt a bit lost in the conversation. Usually it was him who needed to explain things to the two of them, and the change made him feel uncomfortable. At least ten years older, he naturally wanted to take charge, as he wished he could do with the entire town. He may have given the impression that his hope of reclaiming the mayoral office was a joke, but he was serious. He took note of everyone who tried to tell him to forget it, like they were an enemy needing to be subdued. Such a military outlook suited his personality, but he had never fought in any war, more out of chance than protest. It was no secret that he liked to think of himself as a general, and at one point in his life he asked people to call him that. His car was a giant pickup truck and it gave him the feeling that it was a tank. Too big enough to fit in his garage, he parked it on the grass in front of his house and it gave him the feeling that it was protecting him.
“Girl you meaning is Susan’s girl?” Gene asked them. “Sophie, was it?”
“From her first marriage, I’m guessing,” said Two-Tooth.
“Granddaughter,” said Elbow.
“Sophie’s her granddaughter?” asked Two-Tooth. “Must have been young when she popped her out.”
“Something like ten, is the rumour,” said Elbow, trying to remember if that story was about Susan or some other woman.
“Now, she wasn’t ten,” said Gene. “I remember Susan was married and everything when she had her first, and that would have been Sophie. Not long out of school she was, but still old enough for it to be legal. What’s Sophie been saying, Two?”
“Sophie who?” asked Two-Tooth.
“Girl you’ve been talking about, isn’t it?” asked Gene. “Susan’s granddaughter. What’s she been saying around town? She’s been creating a stir? She was impolite to the city detective, which reflected on us all. No need for that.”
“Saying Andy Hand wasn’t doing his work,” said Two-Tooth.
“That’s just not right,” Gene responded indignantly, as a knee-jerk reaction to defend his town and the people in it, regardless of the accusation.
“Saying Andy Hand wasn’t doing his work?” agreed Two-Tooth. “Got no one to put the crime on not his fault.”
“Not his fault, no sir,” said Elbow.
“How can he go arrest when he got no one to arrest?” asked Two-Tooth.
“Can’t be his fault,” said Elbow. “No can do put that on him.”
“Gets that city copper in,” said Two-Tooth. “Don’t know what for. We all know what happened. Van nearly hit Kenny Coffins. Just find the van.”
“Not hard to figure,” said Elbow. “Not for the city girl, though.”
“Tell me, Two,” said Gene, “for argument’s sake, if not the speeding city van that nearly got Kenny Coffins, who do you put up as the killer?”
“I knew Al Longbottom,” said Two-Tooth. “Knew his family since way back. His uncle was Bob, and a fine man. He died slow of a long illness but never complained. Didn’t care for Bob’s two sons. They were no good from the womb, those pair. Plain evil.”
“Both dead, I hear,” said Elbow, and then questioned himself if it was some other people he was thinking of. Over the years there had been a few families around with two bad sons. It was something of a Gendry trait. Not many of the older generation held much hope for Susan’s twins turning out normal and respectable, although no one would ever say anything like that to her face. That they were twins and already showing signs of trouble only fuelled such thoughts.
“If you mean Bob Bartner, both the son’s are dead now, that’s right,” said Two-Tooth. “Some luck for that family. But then, some families are like that; cursed from the start and lucky to get as far as they do.”
“Know who I should think the finger should be pointed at?” asked Gene. “They call him Craig Field, I believe. Staying at Susan’s, apparently. One of her boarders, I’d say.”
“Susan has boarders?” asked Two-Tooth.
“She gets some in the springtime,” said Elbow. “And when the trout come up.”
“Did Andy Hand,” asked Gene, “or that other city copper talk to him, this city fellow?”
“I wouldn’t think he’d miss him, being another one from the city,” said Two-Tooth. “Hardly looks anything like Gendry folk.”
“Got to say,” said Gene, “I don’t think much of him, that Craig Field fellow, from what I’ve seen. Even if Andy Hand gave him the third degree, I’d not be surprised to hear he’d worm his way out of it and come up smelling of roses.”
“How do you come to that idea of him as the murderer, Gene?” asked Elbow.
“When have we ever had a murder in Gendry?” asked Gene. “Hardly never. This man turns up from the city, we never seen him before, doesn’t socialise, doesn’t say more than a few words here and there, or try to fit in with perfectly reasonable conversation, and next thing we know we’ve got a murder happening.”
“From the city,” agreed Elbow, like that was the only evidence that he needed.
“He’s doing lot of talking, too, last I saw him,” Two-Tooth said like he was only just realising it. “Talking to that Sophie girl. Those two went walking through town, almost kissing, they were so close. That can’t be right.”
“Kissing?” Gene asked as he leaned back from the bar and nodded with satisfaction. “Well, then, they can go finish their fancy conversation and whatever else they want to do, back in that city of theirs.”
“As I was saying to Elbow here,” said Two-Tooth. “City ways not needed in Gendry.”
“This is Gendry,” agreed Gene, “not the city. Gendry ways should stay Gendry ways, and I’ll fight to my dying days to protect it.”
They drank to that. A couple of times.
Craigfield’s room was left unlocked, the door a little ajar. When Sophie saw it she realised that if she took a little look inside then she would know, one way or the other, if she was right to be suspicious of him. No one else was there, on the entire top floor, but she double-checked anyway. Both her heart and mind raced as she hurried into the room and she found it exciting. She knew that she needed to add such emotion into her writing.
It came as a huge disappointment that his room was so tidy that it looked like no one was staying there. So much for her opinion that all men were untidy by nature. It confirmed for her the idea that something was not right with the guy. No man is that tidy, especially a married man all alone in a small town.
The more she looked the more she began to suspect she had the wrong room. Not helping the idea was the fact that two remaining guest rooms besides were just as sparse. The only trace that anyone had been in there at all was a few shirts hanging in the wardrobe. There was no trace of any laptop or papers to indicate that he had been writing. Then she noticed a small ball of paper behind the door. Feeling she was doing no more than tidying, she picked it up and unravelled it. An A4 with a few lines of blue writing, it had probably been roughly tossed away. At first she worried about looking at it, but then knew that she couldn’t resist. Her heart raced as she looked and saw it was upside down. As she turned the paper around the reality came like a slap to the face. It was her own writing, a few notes on where she wanted her story to go. The paper must have come from her room. She crunched it up even smaller and thrust it into a pocket, feeling stupid and embarrassed.
Exiting the room with nothing to help her, Sophie hit upon a better plan. The twins were already geared up by the police murder investigation, so a little subtle nudge in the right direction should not be too hard.
“I have come across a suspicious man,” she told the twins with an exaggerated serious manner that few ten-year-old boys could resist. “He may or may not match identities with a number of people being watched by Interpol, and yet he is here in our quiet town. I need to send out some spies to check him out. Do you know where I can find any?”
“We’ll do it,” Kerry or Jerry said without hesitation.
“You know we’ll do it,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“I’m not sure,” she hedged. “These spies need to be good. I don’t want just any spies. These ones have to be at the top of their game.”
“You know we’re good at spying,” said Kerry or Jerry. “There wouldn’t be anyone better in Gendry.”
“Or the city,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“That’s a big statement, young man,” she said. “The city is very big, very dangerous, and I’m sure has many spies in it, waiting for an assignment as special as this one.”
“Because it’s a true statement, it’s true,” said Kerry or Jerry.
“Who’re we spying on?” asked Jerry or Kerry. “What’s the assignment, ma’am?”
“Craigfield,” she said. “Find all you can on him. And-Don’t-Get-Caught. Seriously, guys, don’t let him see you, or know you’ve been there. And if by any chance you get captured, we never had this conversation.”
“You sound like you’re in a movie, Sophie,” laughed Kerry or Jerry.
“I have to talk like this,” she said. “It’s important to me. I want to know what he’s doing in town. What’s his job in the city? Is he really married, or is that not true either? And see if he has a car, and if it has any damage.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jerry or Kerry, “he won’t know we’ve been there. We’re that good.”
“And we know you have it for him,” said Jerry or Kerry.
She just about screamed at them for being so cheeky.
“Any dirt, we’ll get it,” said Kerry or Jerry, not realising what his brother said.
“And you’ll be pleased with your decision to use us,” said Jerry or Kerry.
“Never had an unsatisfied customer, ma’am,” said Kerry or Jerry.
She shook their hands in a formal manner and they ran away outside. It was only then that she realised that maybe she should not have done that, and made them party to her curiosity. Then she consoled herself in the knowledge that if Craigfield were harmless then nothing would come of it. And if he was a threat then they would have caught him before anything else happened.
She looked at the discarded page again, and laughed at the thought of him reading it. She would not have laughed had it been an actual page of her writing, since he would have seen a character with more than a few similarities to himself.
Max didn’t go back to his car, but kept waiting under the tree and watching Craigfield’s house. As the rain alternated from ever-present drizzle to the occasional hard drop, the evening turned to night and Max felt colder and colder. After two more hours he knew he had to do something; either go home or go do some confrontation. He gave himself a countdown, from ten to one, without knowing what he would do when he got to one but that it would be something. When he got to one he started walking to the house, amazing himself but not feeling scared. He opened the little gate and went through, then carefully up the little steps. The silly little knocker was lifted and tapped six even times, nice and assertive. He then heard the sound of someone moving toward the door. When it opened Max didn’t feel ready, but was instead drained of any of his confidence.
The tall figure of Craigfield seemed much taller to Max since he was standing a step below. He was slowly chewing a mouthful of his dinner and when he saw Max he was puzzled.
“Hi?” he asked as he picked something out of his teeth, “You’re Max Marshall, aren’t you?”
“You know me, do you?” Max asked, more forthright than someone would normally do after knocking on someone’s door.
“I know your wife,” he said like Max would be pleased to hear that. He then looked out to the street like he was expecting her to be there.
“I know you do. Very well, it turns out.”
Craigfield realised that Max was not being courteous. “What are you doing here, Max? Is there something you want?”
“You can’t see my wife anymore.”
Craigfield was now finished his mouthful. He rubbed his chin and looked Max up and down, seeing that he was way out of shape and no kind of threat. Then he took note of his crutch and didn’t try to disguise his disdain. “That’s really not up to you, I’d say.”
“Is she here?” Max asked as he went to move inside the house.
“That is none of your business, I’m afraid,” Craigfield said nonchalantly. He did not bother to look at him as he backed up and went to close the door.
Max took a breath and then started to recite some of what he wanted to say that moment. But he was too shaky and it came out wrong, with his voice getting too high pitched.
“My wife is not another woman of yours. Think you can take her? You weren’t at my wedding. I didn’t see you getting married, that was me. You think I put up with all that, and her, for all those years, for you to waltz in and play your games?”
“That’s good,” Craigfield said as he started closing the door. “You’re going to have to leave now, okay? Shut the gate on your way, would you?”
“Is she in there?”
“She’s not, so you can leave.”
“Jill?” Max shouted into the house. “I know you’re there. He’s no good for you. This creep’s no good. You can’t do this to me, do you hear?”
Craigfield re-opened the door and this time it was his turn to be aggressive. “Wait on,” he said with a stronger voice and a finger pointing at him. “If your wife wanted to leave you and come here, that’s up to her. You can’t go talking about me like that, especially in my house, right in front of me. All my neighbours can hear you. Who do you think you are?”
“You can’t have my wife, all right?”
“I will if she wants—not that I’m saying she’s here, but if she does, that’s that way it is, that’s the way everything is. Now get off my property before I hurt you.”
Max tried to use his crutch to stop the door closing. Craigfield reacted by smacking him in the face with a fist that felt like bronze. It came too fast for Max to even brace for it, getting him on his left cheek, brushing his nose. Max felt like his brain had been put into a blender. After the initial pain his nose started hurting more than his cheek, and that made his eyes water. But the shock of it was almost as bad as the pain; the realisation that this man had attacked him totally destroyed his confidence. He stumbled back from the door, dropped his crutch and gripped at a fence handrail to stop himself falling. As Craigfield’s door slammed shut followed by the click of the lock, Max felt foolish and humiliated.
“If I see you here again,” Craigfield called from somewhere inside with a very angry voice, “I’ll hit you so hard you’ll think that was just a love kiss.”
Max’s hands were shaking so much that he struggled to close the gate behind him. Then he gave it a kick, venting his frustration, and it swung away and then back to the fence, to make a loud click on the latch. Max fearfully looked back to the house, imagining Craigfield racing out and attacking him again. There was only the quiet rain. When Max was back in his car, safely out of anyone’s view, he couldn’t help crying.
As Sophie walked down the quiet street her footsteps echoed around the sleepy neighbourhood. She enjoyed the sound of it, since it was the only noise around. It was so different from where she lived in the city, where it felt that anything she did caused no noise at all. She wondered if her steps could be heard from the woods behind the houses, and as soon as she thought that she became scared. It was not far from where the body was found and the more she tried to put it out of her mind the more her fear grew.
There was no pathway in this part of town, only a dirt track bordered by the road and high weeds. It was only half after ten at night and yet most people were already asleep. Hardly any of the houses she passed had their lights on, and the ones that did only had one room lit. She knew people were nearby, and they would come to help should she call, but she still found the quietness unnerving.
She stopped and told herself to stop being silly. This was Gendry, the town where the worst crime one could do was not eat at Sal’s. No one should ever be scared in Gendry. She walked faster, happier with that thought. It was not a warm night but she found the cool air refreshing, free of the usual smog of the city. Free from crime, pollution, obnoxious people and traffic. Why would anyone leave?
A horrible screeching noise was coming from up the road, followed by the sound of a rushing engine. Sophie stopped walking before she realised she had. As yet nothing could be seen but Sophie still decided to move off the road and onto the dirt area. This time she could not control her fear. Then bright lights appeared, quickly silhouetting trees and houses. The roar of the pumping engine became louder, as did the squeal of tires. Sophie considered moving further away from the road, through thigh-high weeds and into the trees. Then a horrible thought came to her, that if she was hit and left in such weeds her body might not be found for days. Just like that other one.
Then the car started coming at her, changing direction without warning. Its bright lights flooded around her and she reached her hands out to stop the glare. The further she moved back the more the car seemed to be bearing down. She froze and bellowed out the first genuine scream of her life. At that moment the car violently swerved and threw up dust, blasting past her with contempt. The dust prevented her from seeing the driver or what type of car it was, or the plate, or anything at all. Then she started coughing from both the dust and exhaust fumes.
The car was going faster than ever as it disappeared around the next bend, with more screeching of the tires. Sophie continued on her way back to Susan’s and she couldn’t stop shaking. At least she held back her tears until she was safely inside the house. She couldn’t sleep at all that night. At two in the morning she wrote some notes for her novel in longhand, feeling inspired, and it was the best writing she had ever done.
There were two people Max expected to see at his door when the doorbell rang. One was Craigfield, come to finish him off with a display of senseless rage. The other was Jill. He had not seen or heard from his wife in two days and none of her family or friends had returned his phone calls. He was now at the point of not minding seeing either one, since he would know for certain where he stood. It was the silence that was difficult to take, as he waited for news that was probably unwelcome. He wondered if anything would return to normal, or if that was what he wanted anyway.
He was confused to see that it was Paul Evans, dressed in a business suit and looking hurried. It was like he had dropped in from work and was late in getting home. Paul gave him a look that he wanted to make it a quick visit and say as little as he could. He flinched his arm like he was resisting looking at his watch. When Max fully opened the door for him his expression became noticeably pained. He handed Max a letter without making eye contact, and then took two steps back.
“Max, I’m sorry I have to do this,” Paul said as he looked at the floor, “but Jill asked me to give you this. It wasn’t my idea, but I guess she didn’t want any confrontation. So just take it, read it, and see where you want to go from there. Again, sorry about it all. That’s all I’ve got, sorry.”
Max said nothing as he opened the letter. Paul shifted from foot to foot as he waited for him to read it, taking note of his reaction. Max guessed that it would all be reported back to Jill.
“I know you followed me to find out what was going on,” it read in Jill’s familiar messy handwriting, “and I’ll give you credit for that. But did you really think shouting like a child in the street was going to solve anything? What were you going to do when you caught up to him? Not think of that, did you? Not realise he’s younger and stronger than you? Perhaps now you’ll learn to know your limitations. You have many limitations but you probably already know that. I certainly do. From now on what you need to do is leave me alone to do my own thing. I need my space right now and you need to understand that and respect that. When I want you to know what’s going on I’ll tell you. And I will tell you when I’m good and ready to tell you. Until then I don’t want to see or hear anything from you. No visits to his house or yelling in the street or anything else that will embarrass me. Think you can do that? Stop causing trouble and we can get through this with at least some of our dignity intact.”
Parts of it were crossed out, which were from Jill changing her mind either about the sentence or spelling. Max finished reading and looked at Paul and expected him to explain it to him.
“She staying with you, is she?” Max asked.
“I can’t say,” he said defensively and was genuinely regretful to break that news. “I know it doesn’t say much; the letter. She thought it best if I came over to see you, give it to you, let you know what’s happening. She says you can keep living here in the apartment until you find somewhere else, but she may want it back in a couple of months.”
“Why’s she doing this to me? She tell you that?”
“That’s not in the letter?”
“If it is, I missed it. But you’d know that, since you’ve read it.”
“You know no man can get inside the mind of a woman,” Paul said with an uneasy smile. He was trying to be his buddy now. “I have a hard enough time trying to understand Sarah. What kind of a world would that be to live in, if we could know, anyway? Everyone understanding each other? Truth is, I don’t want my one knowing half of what I think. And then they go and say we can’t think of two things at once? Keep them thinking that, I say, if only to keep them from prying into what we really think.” He laughed, expecting Max to follow.
“What are you talking about?” Max asked with a small shake of his head and a few blinks.
“How’s your nose, anyway?” Paul asked, changing the subject, clearly worried about getting Max upset. “I heard he gave you a good tap. Blindsided you, did he?”
“Do you really care, Paul?”
Paul seemed shocked by that and didn’t respond. Then he went to leave, but then stopped to look back. “No, not really,” he admitted, more relaxed, more himself. “You’re right. I’m Jill’s friend, not yours. And I only get on with her because Sarah goes back a way with her. You know how it is, got to keep your wife happy, and do whatever stupid thing they demand of you. Oh, I guess you don’t do that. But now you do see why you keep them happy and follow every command, or this sort of thing happens. Tough luck, Max. See you around, then, I guess.”
He walked away but then stopped and thought he might be able to cheer Max up a bit with another comment.
“These things work themselves out,” he said, ignoring Max’s glare. “Just hang in there, okay? Ask yourself, what would Elvis do?”
Paul looked like he expected Max to laugh at his joke and when he saw that he was angry he turned and quickly walked away, fishing out his cell phone and acting like there was an important message for him.
Craigfield did not see his two trackers follow him all the way to the train station. Kerry wore a faded blue Animal Matters cap, which was his birthday present and named for his favourite TV show. Jerry had a green and white knitted hat with long earflaps. They both had hooded pullovers with the hood down, and white shoes. There was nothing to notice about them and even other children had no reason to single them out. They knew how to hide in the open, with the general public, like the best of spies could do.
A mixture of hiding and blending with other passengers meant that they succeeded in following Craigfield all the way up to the ticket counter, enough to overhear what his destination was. Jerry thought that they should go back home while they were still unseen, but Kerry had a different idea.
“We can get tickets too,” he said.
“Do you really think we should?”
“All in the job. We can’t let our customer down. Or did you want to apologise to our customer and tell her we couldn’t complete the case because you didn’t think we should get tickets for the train? You know that would mean she would be our first dissatisfied customer?”
“She’s the only customer we’ve ever had, Kerry. It’s just Sophie. This isn’t real. Craigfield may be taking that train all the way to the city. We’d be in big trouble if we go there and get stuck. You know we can’t get lost in the city. What will we do if that happens?”
“If he’s going all the way to the city then we go all the way to the city too. Are you a spy or not? Am I the only spy in the family?”
“You know we can’t go into the city. You know we can’t do that. Let’s go home.”
“And you know we can’t let Sophie down. If we go home now, we’ll be empty handed. She’s the only one who understands us. We can’t let her down.”
“She doesn’t understand us. You don’t think she understands us? No one understands us and that’s just the way we want it.”
“She understands us better than anyone else, is what I mean. We need to do this for her. Come on, Jerry. Because she’s family we have to go out of our way for her. And anyway, the target might not be going into the city. The train doesn’t just go there, you know. There’s other stops before that. He may only be going to the next station.”
“He might be going to his secret hideout,” Kerry said with renewed enthusiasm.
“And we’ll catch him there.”
Jerry went to the ticket counter to order for two minors for the next train into the city. Kerry was still uncertain and would have protested the idea further but he didn’t want to draw attention. There were already too many people around and any one of them might know who their mother was. When Jerry returned to his brother he held up the tickets in triumph, with a big grin. Kerry returned the grin but couldn’t help but think what their mother would do if she ever found out. He removed his cap and touched the Animal Matters logo, to give him confidence.
The apartment felt empty and cold no matter how high he set the thermostat. Despite the fact that Jill usually went out for hours at a time and Max was left alone to work on his writing, this felt different. He could not help thinking that he could do nothing to bring her back. He was powerless to be able to see her that day and probably tomorrow. Each time he tried to think about something else, his thoughts would always return to her.
And his thoughts changed from sorrow to revenge.
After spending a few hours in thought, when he hardly moved from his easy chair, Max decided on a revenge plan. He would make a legal change to his will. In would go the requirement that, under the pretence that it was his favourite song, Hey Jude was to be played at his funeral. The long version. He never liked it or understood why anyone else did, and hoped that there really was an even longer version. It amused him to think of all the people at his funeral whom he didn’t really like that much, being subjected to the song during such solemn circumstances. Those few people he did consider to be his true friends would be in on the joke, if he remembered to warn them first. Then his mind ran away and he considered other music he hated, like the “Pina Collada” song Escape, or the uncertain ramblings of I’ve Never Been To Me, or even, in a twisted tribute to his wife, the horribly dated Afternoon Delight. Yes, they were his favourite songs. It said so in his will. His only regret was that Elvis had never recorded them. Making him laugh out loud was a few attempts at singing them with his best Elvis voice.
Then he considered insisting that his funeral be a Science Fiction theme. Everyone should be required to wear a sparkly futuristic outfit and then made to listen to Zegar and Evans’ weird piece of musical vandalism, In the Year 2525. The people would then be told that Elvis was not dead, but merely returned to his home planet, somewhere south of Orion’s nebulae. That was based on an Elvis fan he met one time during one of his shows, who actually believed that was what had happened to his hero. Max became a little uncertain about his audience after that encounter.
Such thoughts amused him long enough to forget his sorrow. But after a few more hours his thoughts became darker. Jill hated Elvis. Craigfield probably did too. He went into the kitchen and looked through the utensils for the sharpest knife he could find.
After a sleepless night Susan took one look at the red sky of morning and went outside. With short but quick steps she walked three houses down the street, past Old Man Hudson’s place, past the Mongomery’s, to the home of Andy Handisides. She hammered at the front door and was answered by his wife Pat. She took one look at Susan and knew why she was there. The two women understood the agony of losing a child, and together they confronted Andy. At the small kitchen table, concentrating in eating his porridge and trying to wake up, he almost choked when he saw Susan.
He had been out driving until well after midnight, going all over town in search of the missing twins. With each passing hour he felt the need to take a drink to calm his nerves. He ended up passing out in his car sometime around one o’clock. Not even Pat knew about that. He managed to wake and get back home before four with the wife being none the wiser. After no more than two hours of sleep, his head felt heavy and his eyes hurt every time he moved them. He was in no mood to be confronted.
“You should know every inch of this town, Andy,” Susan started on him with a loud voice. Pat stood behind her with her arms folded, giving her all the support she needed. “How can anyone go missing here? In Gendry? It’s hardly big enough to lose a thought! Two exuberant boys running amuck? Who are you kidding? The whole world could see them coming. But you? Under your watch they’re nowhere to be seen. That’s under your watch, Andy. I’m holding you responsible. Anything happens to them, I’ll have your badge! Yes, I will. I’ll make a better sheriff than your fat old hide.”
She leaned closer. “Have you been drinking?”
Andy rubbed his eyes as he slowly looked up to her. “No offence intended, Susan,” he said with a croaky voice, “but I should point out, they are your boys and their safety and guardianship is your responsibility primarily.”
“Trying to put this on me now?” she asked with a louder voice. “So I’m the Gendry sheriff, am I? Since when did that happen? Big surprise to me, thanks for sharing! When do I get my pay slip? Can’t be much, since I don’t actually do anything! Except drink!”
“Susan,” Andy said with his hands raised, “the fact is, since you are their mother, it is up to you to look after their wellbeing. I’m here to keep the peace and lock up law breakers. I’m not here to round up every unruly child.”
He stood up from the table and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, still keeping his hands raised to show that he had not finished. “Now, I won’t have you talking to me like the way you were just then. You do know we are doing all we can to find the boys, and when we do I will let you know first thing. Just let us do our job, and find them. The best you can do is wait at home for them to come back. Wouldn’t be surprised, they just turn up. You know what they’re like, being boys.”
He added his trademark big smile and she grimaced at the sight of those large teeth of his.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” she countered, “there’s a murderer running around loose this town. And you think I’m just going to sit back and wait—“
“Yes, I do expect that,” he said more sternly. “I expect you to wait for them to turn up, or until we have word on where they are. Your girl Sophie tells me they’ve been playing out in the forest lately, working on another one of their secret projects or something. They may have just got lost. But I know them, better than you might think. I know they’re smart boys. I’m sure they’re able to find their way back into town.”
“I’ll go right now and search the whole forest myself. Since you can’t.”
“We have people doing that, and they’re good people too. I don’t want you going in there and getting yourself lost, and then we’ll have three missing townfolk to find. Just help me out by letting us do our job. That’s all I ask. Can you do that please, Susan?”
She took a big gasp of air, ready to let him have it, her opinion of exactly how well he was doing his job, when she realised it would be wasted on him. She said nothing else, turned and marched out of his house. Pat remained staring at Andy, her arms folded, just daring him to protest. He rubbed his face some more and went back to his porridge. Gendry life had become too busy lately, and it coincided with Andy beginning to feel his age and wish he could spend his days out fishing, far away from women like Susan. And Pat too, for that matter. And their crazy ideas of some murderer running around.
“It was a hit-and-run,” he said to his wife. “There’s no murderer running around. City driver did it; that’s what the city police man said. Could have happened before, could happen again. Got to watch out, us small town people. Don’t know who’s going to run us down these days.”
“You’re drinking on the job again?” Pat asked.
He didn’t answer, which was usual when she asked that question.
There was a small gap between Craigfield’s house and his neighbour’s and Max found that he could stand in it and not be seen from the glare of the streetlight or passing cars. His crutch was left in his car and a sharp kitchen knife replaced it. Since he had been punched his foot had felt a lot better. His face didn’t feel any better, however, and neither did his memory.
The house was empty and it was getting late but Max never lost his anger nor let the knife loosen in his hand. He did not remember the last time he had slept for more than an hour. Every night seemed to be one of those toss-and-turn endurances that made him feel worse than not sleeping at all. But he remained alert and the sound of each approaching car made his heart race. After seeing it was not Craigfield he felt a rush of fear, before his anger returned.
He had never considered himself to be a violent man. All through his school days he was small and defenceless and suffered bullying. That was when he learned to mimic people, and such humour made him popular with the kids who used to hit him. From there he moved on to mimicking Elvis. Whenever he belted out songs like Blue Suede Shoes he always remembered his miserable school days. No matter how many times he tried to move on, his Elvis act always gave him a little bit of sadness. That was a story he had never told any other living soul.
People thought he was a happy man; people who didn’t know him. And most people didn’t know that he was one of those deep-down tender-hearted people who didn’t even like the thought of killing a common household spider—the type that you can hardly see, or a small fly that never wants to go away and just flirts with your ears and eyes. He would open a window and hope the fly finds its freedom, or chase it around the house until it does. He would ignore the spider and hope it doesn’t turn up again, and if it does then repeat the same until it either goes away or grows too big for its own good. Jill was the one who could mercilessly destroy bugs like a born assassin. He didn’t even want to know when she got one, since the thought of it would upset him.
But now things had changed for Max. He was no longer that frightened child or timid pacifist, or emotional bug-freer. He had been driven too far, pushed to his limit, and he wanted this wife-stealer to suffer. There was no plan, and if there were then he would think about it too much and start to fret. If he didn’t get him today then he would come back tomorrow. Simple as that. After he got him, he would just leave. He didn’t care if he got blood on his clothes, or walked in it and got it on his shoes and in his car, or if Craigfield didn’t go down easily and Max was wounded in return. He didn’t care if he also had to suffer in order to make this man suffer. He didn’t care if he was caught and tried for murder, and convicted and sentenced to life in prison in a small cell with a lonely cell jockey named Bubba or Wendy. He just wanted revenge and the knowledge that this man was no longer able to seduce the Jills of this world.
During his time as a journalist he had written about crimes of passion and he had tried to imagine what drove people to such acts. His imagination could not conceive of what it took and he had assumed it was the result of madness. Now he realised how wrong he was. One in such a position never takes time to sit back and muse about how to get away with it, to organise the perfect crime, analyse the pros and cons and put it into play with perfection. This was nothing like stealing a painting with no one seeing, or planning extortion so he could get away with the money. The payoff was the act itself, not in whatever happens after that. All that needed to be planned was in how to get the man alone and with what to kill him with.
When the front door opened it startled Max. Someone came out and walked the short distance to the gate. He tried to get out of his mind the realisation that the house had been occupied the entire time he was there. The fact that he had not been spotted made him feel confident enough to carry on.
He carefully peered around the side of the house and his heart raced when he saw that it was Craigfield. All he was wearing was briefs, despite the coolness in the air. He was leaning against the front gate, still as a statue. Max thought he might be looking for an intruder and he fought back his fear. Then he noticed that Craigfield was more interested in the night sky than anything out on the street, or in dark gaps near his house. He wondered if he was doing nothing more unusual than getting some fresh air. Max looked at his knife and the sharpness of the edge and it made him feel powerful.
Craigfield moved back a step from the gate again and made a loud noise like a cough, or a snort. He then turned to face Max, who froze with sudden fear before he realised that Craigfield had not seem him. Then Craigfield turned back to the gate and his hands tried to open the latch but fumbled. It took about a minute for him to open the latch, but all he did then was open and shut the gate again and then turn back to the house. He walked to his front steps but then stopped, looking down at the ground.
Max readied his knife, even though it had been ready for a while. He now realised that his target was sleepwalking and he knew that he would have no trouble in getting to him and quickly finishing him. Craigfield had even made it easy for him in not wearing a shirt. Max had a choice of a large, muscular torso to stab and he had no excuse for not doing it. He moved closer and raised the knife. The deep sleeping Craigfield was trying to negotiate the front steps; a foot went up and tapped the step before going down and then the other had a try. He might as well have a target painted on his back. There was no one around; not even a car in sight.
Max knew that he would never again be presented with a better opportunity. But he backed off and just watched the sight of his nemesis acting so vulnerable and weak, and allowed him to go. Craigfield eventually walked up the steps and returned inside his house, even locking the door behind him. Max stared at the door and tried to comprehend what just happened. He knew that he didn’t have it. Whatever it was that made men kill, he didn’t have it. What he did have were tears and they filled his eyes. His foot began to hurt and he had difficulty getting back to his car without his crutch, and he almost accidentally cut himself with the knife.
Kerry and Jerry had no idea that it would be just before nightfall when the train arrived in the city. They began to panic at the thought of being lost there. It did not help that everyone around them looked unfriendly. The other commuters sat in silence and minded their own business, all making an effort to not make eye contact with anyone else. With each stop more people joined them, and aside from short glares, the twins were ignored. They did not belong and everyone knew it. To make it worse, they only had the window to look at and their view was dull. They had nothing to read or listen to, unlike everyone else. With either a paper or a computer device to read, the other passengers were away in their own world. Every second person wore small headsets or earpieces and the twins could not help but stare when someone flipped at their flashy controls. When they arrived at the final stop the carriage was full of such people.
Between the two of them they could not conclude that their best option would be to wait for the next train to take them back home. To do that they would not have to leave the station and they would probably be ignored. Clouding such thoughts was their youthful keenness to keep following Craigfield, to keep to their plan, to not let Sophie down. Nothing would be worse than letting Sophie down. No matter where Craigfield was going, he was the only person they knew in the city, and with him was their sense of safety. They knew they must not let him out of their sight, but when the train stopped and everyone stood up to leave, they realised they had a problem.
“Where did he go?” Jerry asked his brother as they made their way off the train, to the platform filled with a mass of people doing the same. Their height made it impossible to see where he was.
“He’s with the crowds, so we follow the crowds,” Kerry reasoned.
“You don’t know where they’re going. We can’t go too far into the city.”
“As long as we’re following our target, we’ll be okay.”
“Only if he stays with the crowds. We can’t see if he will. We can’t get lost in the city, Jerry. We need to get back to Gendry tonight. It isn’t safe here. What do you think mother’s going to do to us for this?”
“If anything happens, we know where Sophie lives. We can go there, stay with her.”
“Dummy, she’s in Gendry!”
Kerry looked at his brother with growing fear. “Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
“And we don’t even know where she lives!”
“Sure we do. I remember it from last time we visited. It’s not that far from here. We’ll just break into her house if we have to. That’s what spies do, when it gets difficult and dangerous. They go by their senses, and skills, and instinct.”
“You do know we’re not really spies, don’t you?”
“Since when did you become a girl?”
“Since I think we might be lost. And you’re the girl.”
“We’re not lost. I told you, we keep following the target, and we’ll be okay. I think he went this way. Come on.”
They stopped walking when the crowds thinned, leaving a space for them to look around, There was no sign of Craigfield.
“Let’s go back home right now,” pleaded Jerry.
“I’m following the target. I don’t know what you want to do. You can go home if you want to. What did you think we were doing when we got on that train? We must be committed to this.”
Jerry answered by giving his brother a shove, to which Kerry shoved back with equal strength. No one knew they regularly fought when they were in private, and there had not once been an outright victor between them. Their mother would have been shocked to see them now; not only in the city alone, but fighting. Then Jerry started hitting his brother with his little fists, and the blows were returned without hesitation. They roughly grabbed at each other’s clothing and came close to falling over. In their anger they barged into several people. A small group of travellers then formed to watch them as they battled away, edging towards the train tracks. A few people told them to stop, drowned out by those who were laughing and cheering them on. People came rushing to see what was happening.
Then they each felt a strong hand taking hold of an arm, pulling them apart with such surprising force that their anger vanished. They both looked up at the same time, to see the concerned and yet familiar face of Craigfield. But he was furious with them, and his wild eyes made them both feel weak with fear.
When Max heard the key unlocking the door he did not know what to think. He had been sitting in the quiet apartment just waiting for the day to end. Morning turned to noon to afternoon, the evening to night. At times the clock seemed to stop and remain unchanged, and at other times the hours passed quickly. However the clock was moving, he could remain in the same position without feeling any reason to do anything else.
It had come as a surprise to him that after two days of such living he began to feel the motivation to continue with his writing. It was understandable that his story became darker and uncertain. Since returning from Craigfield’s house, in the middle of the previous night, he felt like a weight had been lifted. He now accepted where he was and who he was. Just some guy who thought he could write, and who thought he could act a bit like Elvis, and who had a failed marriage with nothing to show for it.
His writing was all he had left. His three books seemed frivolous now. He knew he would never want to sit down and read any of them. They were experiments, to see how far he could go, to see if he could complete a story and be proud of it. What he wanted to produce was a book he would enjoy to give to people, and one that he would also enjoy. He knew, deep inside, that he could do better. Everything in his life was either distraction or an obstacle to realise his ambition. Such as the person about to enter his apartment.
Jill came inside, carrying two heavy suitcases that she dumped down as soon as she could. Her face was flush and her eyes were red. She only gave Max a quick glance as she dragged one of the bags to the bedroom. Max watched her in silence.
“Don’t say it,” she said, her voice broken.
“Hello?” he asked without emotion, not understanding what she was doing. “Did you not want me to greet you?”
Jill stopped and looked like she didn’t know what to do. Then she turned for Max and rushed to him, saying that she was sorry, over and over.
“What happened?” Max asked her, still without emotion as he returned her embrace with a fraction of her effort.
“It’s over, that’s all. We don’t need to think about it, or say anything.”
“You’re back? To stay?”
“If you want me.”
He stood back from her, unconvinced. “You’ll need to tell me what happened. You can’t just go and walk out and then come back without telling me what’s going on.”
She tried to wipe back tears. “You don’t have to put me through that, do you? Is it not enough that I’m back now?”
Max thought about that and was not happy with it. He wanted more. “No, it’s not enough. What happened? You need to talk to me here, Jill.”
“He threw me out, ok?” she said angrily. Then couldn’t stop the tears and the two tissues she had at hand did little to help. “You’re happy now? Said I was too much trouble for him to deal with. Said he wanted to be alone.”
Max let her go into the bedroom with her bag. He did not help and she opened the drawers. He said nothing as she went to get the other bag. She acted like she thought he was going to do it but he made no move. What interested him more, as he saw her wanting to live with him again, was the realisation that not only was he prepared to offer no help, neither was Craigfield. He walked away and she responded by closing herself in the bedroom, clearly unhappy with his reaction.
She was home, and that must be a good thing, he tried to tell himself. As far as he could tell, except for being sorry and crying, she was just the same as when she left. It wasn’t that she wanted to come back to him. She just had no other choice. He wondered if she saw him as someone to live with when she couldn’t find a Craigfield. He wondered if she found another Craigfield then she would be gone again. This Craigfield rejected her, so she was back. When was the next Craigfield going to come along and take her away? Tomorrow? Next week? Should he help her find one, just to get it over with, to save themselves the long wait when they would have to pretend everything was normal? They could get it over with so they can admit there was no real love between them and maybe there never was. Such admissions were easier when you actually had someone else to be with, someone waiting in the wings. Not so much when there was nowhere else to go.
He went to the bedroom door and called through it, his voice devoid of emotion. “My novel’s going well, in case you were wondering. I should be getting it finished soon. The twins are lost and scared in the big city. I never meant to hurt them. They were the victims, caught up in other people’s misguided urges. But it’s going to be okay for them. Everything’s going to be okay now. For everyone. It’s funny how things can change once we’re honest with ourselves.”
Susan was pacing back and forth at Sal’s, ignoring the free coffee that was provided for her, ignoring everyone telling her it would be all right. Sal herself had spent the last hour trying to calm Susan by reminding her of all the times the twins had caused concern with their games. Susan told her that this was not the same, that they had never been gone for such a long time. Sophie knew she couldn’t leave her side, and she had already been through four cups of coffee of her own.
“I should have known this town isn’t safe anymore,” Susan said to anyone who cared to listen, knowing she was repeating herself but not caring. Elbow and Two-Tooth were seated as far from her as they could get, but she still looked at them when she spoke. “That poor Longbottom man, being killed by some crazed driver. Then we went and let that detective from the city leave. Did he find the killer? I don’t think so. Decided it was some accident and left us to it, to live with a murderer. This town isn’t safe for anyone, let alone children. What is Handisides doing, besides eating and drinking?”
“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Sophie. “There are many nice people here. Sheriff Handisides was sure the driver was from out of town. The same for the city detective who came up here. Didn’t everyone agree that the speeding drivers were a nuisance and someone would be hit sooner or later?”
She had told no one about her close call a few nights back, but she was tempted to, just to reassure her grandmother. The same thought nagged at her, however, that the driver and car were not from out of town, or a city driver in a hurry. The car seemed to be trying to hit her, to scare and intimidate her.
“That doesn’t change anything about my boys,” said Susan. “No, it’s not safe here, I’m sure of that, regardless of what two fat cops have to offer. What evidence did they have, anyway? The word of Kenny Coffins?”
“I’m sure it wasn’t anyone in town,” said Sophie.
“You’re always so nice, my dear, trying to see the nice side of people, and every situation.”
“I’m not as nice as you might think,” she confessed. “The fact is, I’m afraid I might have contributed to the boys’ disappearance. I encouraged them to follow Craigfield.”
Susan was horrified. “Why didn’t you say so earlier? Craigfield’s gone back into the city for a day or two, I think he said.”
“I hardly think they’d follow him to the city …”
“No, that’s all right, you don’t need to say that,” Susan said with a sense of relief. “I can see now, he must have taken them with him, to do some sightseeing. I wouldn’t be surprised if they talked him into it. Such a nice young man, that Craigfield, how could he have not wanted to help them? Sophie, you should have told me earlier.”
“I wouldn’t say he was that nice …” Sophie started, not wanting to say what she wanted about him, since her grandmother was beginning to smile again.
“Of course he is. There are bad people in this world but he would not be one of them. Yes, I can see what’s happened. He’s taken the boys on a sightseeing trip. Those two probably told him how they’ve never been to the big city, and that I told them they could go. They make for very convincing liars, those two.”
“I don’t trust him and I don’t think you should either.”
“Why do you say that? He’s a nice man.”
“No, he isn’t.”
“What do you know, you’re not telling me?”
Loud tooting of a car horn made them look outside. Andy Handisides’ police car was cruising slowly down the street, trying to attract onlookers. The back window was down and two pairs of arms were waving. The car stopped in front of Sal’s and Craigfield was the first to get out, from the front passenger’s side. He quickly opened up a back door and the twins sprang out, both with big smiles. Susan stumbled out of Sal’s and put her hand to her mouth in disbelief. Andy took his time getting out, and when he did he rolled his eyes at the scene.
“Look what I found!” announced Craigfield.
“Kerry and Jerry!” Susan gushed.
“They wondered a bit far from home,” he explained to the small group that was gathering around.
“You took them to the city?” Susan asked him and she hugged them both at the same time.
“It’s not for me to go telling tales,” Craigfield said with a sly grin. “I best leave that to your boys.”
“I don’t want to hear a story about how sorry you are,” she told them with a stern voice. “You wouldn’t scare your mother by going to the city alone, I know. Do you know how worried we’ve been? We’ve been searching for you, turning Gendry inside out. Sheriff Handisides himself was handling the investigation.”
“Handisides? Wow!” the twins said together.
Craigfield smiled at Sophie as she stood in the doorway, and then walked up to her like he thought she should be impressed with him
“Exactly how did you find them?” Sophie asked him, not hiding her accusing tone.
“It’s not hard to miss two fighting boys in the middle of the train station. Made quite a spectacle of themselves. I thought they looked familiar, and I was right. You should have seen the looks on their faces when I pulled them apart. Very strong for their size, they are too. They had the strangest story to tell. Apparently someone had given them a top-secret assignment to follow after me and report anything illegal I may be doing. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“Why would I?” she asked defensively, not able to retain eye contact.
“I think you do,” he smiled, still expecting a thanks. “I brought them back safe, doesn’t that count for anything?”
“I just don’t trust you, sorry.”
“What is there not to trust?”
“Exactly. What is it about you I don’t like?”
Craigfield started laughing. “I’m not understanding you. Just ask, anything you want to know about me, I’ll tell you. Whatever you were trying to find out, just ask.”
“You know,” he said as he realised she wasn’t going to talk to him, “I didn’t have to bring them back.”
“Sure you did. You want us all to like you, don’t you?”
Craigfield glanced around to the people who were congratulating Susan and the Sherriff. “I think they all do. All except for one.”
After a day of trying to recover from the stress, while listening to the twins repeatedly tell everyone what happened, and how Craigfield had helped them, both Susan and Sophie felt drained. Craigfield himself was nowhere to be seen. Sophie hoped that his absence was a sign that he was actually planning to leave town for good. The twins were left watching television, with Rebecca under strict orders to watch them and not let them out of her sight. Susan needed a break and she sat in her kitchen with a small glass of brandy, which she left untouched. Sophie sat with her, wondering if her dream of spending time writing was nothing more than a dream, since nothing had been written for the last two days. She felt like more had happened in the town during this visit than had happened the entire time she grew up there.
“You need to think of finding a good man and settling down,” Susan said to her sombrely after a few minutes of silence. It was without warning that she was going to change the subject so dramatically. Her voice was deep, a sign that she was serious and was putting thought into her words
“You didn’t just say that to me?” Sophie responded, and began to feel humiliated.
“This world is too harsh to go it alone. Men like Craigfield are rare. Men like Handisides are all too common. Men such as the one who killed Longbottom are common. Men like Longbottom are common too; they’re the victims of the other men. Find yourself a Craigfield, not a Handisides or a Longbottom.”
Sophie didn’t want to hear any more and she walked out of the kitchen without a word. She began to think that it would be a good idea to pack her bags and go home. On the dark stairs up to her room she thought she saw a figure sitting there. When she saw it was Craigfield it was too late to avoid him. She chose to walk around him like he was just some annoyance she didn’t need to bother with, and hopefully he wouldn’t ruin the moment by speaking.
“I know it was you who sent them,” he said with a low voice.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said dismissively as she climbed up the stairs behind him. The stairs creaked under their combined weight.
“The twins, they talk a lot, don’t they? Say some funny things.”
That made her stop and look back. He remained facing the other way like he was expecting her to stop.
“What’s this to do with me?” she asked.
“They told me everything,” he said without looking her way. “Just feed them whatever they want and they will talk until they can talk no more. Tell them you love their favourite TV show, that’s all it takes and you’ve got a trusted friend. And I’ve never heard of Animal Matters. They don’t know that, but it didn’t matter.”
“Know how to take advantage of children, do you? That’s interesting.”
“You think I’m a bad guy, do you? You think I’m the murderer? That’s why you had them follow me, right? If I wasn’t so offended I’d laugh it off. Just tell me why. That’s all I want to know. Did I do something wrong? Did I say something wrong? Do you not like the way I dress? The way I walk? What is it? What is it that makes you do such a thing? You endangered members of your own family. What’s with that?”
“Guess what, Craigfield: You’re not the only man in the world. Now, leave me alone,” she said as she resumed climbing the stairs.
“Your grandmother likes me,” he called.
“Then marry her. Oh, you can’t, since you’re already married.”
“I’m not married.”
“Grandmother thinks otherwise.”
“Truth is, I told her that to get her to back off. Not that it worked.”
“Now you’re really going too far, if you expect me to believe that.”
“Why would I be married? You know my opinion of marriage.”
“I know your opinion and I don’t care for it. You’re the type who likes to go through girlfriends, aren’t you. Have you ever had a long term relationship?”
“That would be telling.”
“No, on second thought, don’t tell me; I don’t want to know.”
“You know the boys told me about your book.”
Again she stopped and this time she was angry. “They told you what? For your information, they know nothing about my writing.”
“Because they wouldn’t sneak into your room and read it? They wouldn’t do that, right? Not those two. It’s not like they ever play at being spies, sneak into every part of this town, especially where they’re not allowed. Such well-behaved young men, are they?”
Sophie realised that they could have done exactly that. They could have read everything she wrote about him and reported it all back to him. Then she thought about the page she found in his room, and it was probably the two boys who put it there. She felt so embarrassed that she had nothing to say.
Now he stood up and turned to her.
“Interesting character you’ve made me into,” he said with a hint of distaste. “A wife stealer, am I? Is that what you think of me? I said I didn’t think much of marriage, and you go and do that to me? You’re trying to destroy my reputation? And you were doing this book without telling me? For that matter, I don’t remember asking your permission to use my name.”
“I didn’t realise your name came with a copyright,” she replied tersely as she walked up the remaining stairs and went into her room, making a show of shutting and locking her door.
“Nice to know you think I’m handsome,” he called.
“Dramatic license!” she called back.
Craigfield descended the stairs laughing to himself.
Max slept on the couch for the first night of Jill’s return. There didn’t need to be any words between them to decide that. Since Jill had returned she had seldom come out of the bedroom, and when she did she hardly looked at him. The next morning Max found it hard to get off the couch, with his neck and upper back aching. He had slept okay, but his body protested being in the same hunched position for so long. His ankle had started hurting a lot recently anyway, and he again accidentally put too much pressure on it when he got to his feet off the couch.
Then he almost walked into her. She had been standing near the couch unable to stop rubbing at her swollen eyes while she watched him sleep. Her face was like that of a little girl who had been rebuked, all sad and innocent, wanting someone to tell her everything will be all right.
“He kicked me out,” she said as she started to sob. She hugged him and he felt her body convulsing as she cried.
He didn’t hug her back.
“He told me he never loved me,” she continued as she gripped him tight, making his back hurt. “He said it was all for fun and that’s all. I have nowhere to go, nowhere I want to go, but here, with you. Is it all right I stay? Do you want me to stay, Max? Do you? Tell me it is, Max, please.”
She realised he was not hugging her and she stepped away more hurt than before.
“I never said you couldn’t stay,” he said, not hiding the coldness in his voice.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Of course I’m mad. Madder at Craigfield.”
“Please, don’t say his name. Not anymore. I never want to hear that stupid name again.”
“That won’t be a problem.”
“He’s not still in your story, is he? You did change it, didn’t you?”
“He’s not in the story. Not really. Just a minor character, in the long run. One of those types of characters you don’t need to explain too much. His name is the best thing about him. Can’t let something like that get away.”
“No, just get rid of the name, would you? I never want to hear it again. Do it for me, please. Take it out of your book. Can you?”
“I don’t know,” he hedged. “I kind of like it.”
“You won’t do that for me? Take his name out and use someone else’s? That’s easy, isn’t it? Make up another funny name; you’re good at that. You have to take it out. I can’t bear the thought of seeing it again.”
“Why would I do that?”
Jill looked at him like she thought he was trying to hurt her more.
“If it makes any difference,” he explained, not letting her affect his controlled and contemplative mood, “he’s no good guy. Just like in our own story. No, I won’t be changing his name. I think it’s a good reminder to what just happened between us. So it stays there.”
“What about my feelings?”
“What about them? You’re here because you can’t be there. We both know that’s the reason you came back, because he didn’t want you. That’s all right; I can’t blame you for any of it, I suppose. I’m not the best man to get along with; I know that. It also so happens, you’re no angel to live with either. But, the good news is, you won’t have to put up with me here for the next couple of days.”
“Why, where are you going?”
“I have a trip planned. And no, you’re not invited. And no, you’re not going even if you want to.”
“You don’t have to be like this.”
“I did a lot of thinking while you were gone, since I had the time and the motive to wonder about my life, and yours. I have made some dumb decisions, made some good ones; but mostly dumb ones. This is one of the good ones.”
“You’ve changed,” she said quietly.
“Was I going to do anything else? Did you come back expecting to find the old Max? Was I going to act like nothing’s happened? How could I possibly remain the same?”
“Old or new, I don’t care. I just want you, Max.”
She thought she saw him give a small nod, but she wasn’t sure.
“Do you still want me?” she asked hesitantly.
“Apparently more than Craigfield,” he said as he walked to the bathroom and closed the door.
She was happy with his answer until she realised that it wasn’t one.
Sophie looked at the stack of pages and worried about how small it was. What worried her more was the thought that she had added Craigfield into it. Seeming like a great idea at the time, an unusual guy with an odd name, the perfect addition to a story that had started well but then kind of stalled when the plot became convoluted and began to turn in on itself. Her only option was to go through each page and cross out his name and replace it with something like ‘Rob”, or “Steve”, or something else dull enough to not remind her of him. But that didn’t solve the problem of his personality still being there. The only solace she had was that she made him the bad guy, but that, regrettably, made him the character most important to the plot. She knew that she was just going to have to start again and remove any trace of him. It was a big risk, since she didn’t have much of a story without him.
Rebecca knocked on her door and called out that she was needed downstairs. When Sophie opened the door her niece had already gone. Sensing something important, she rushed down to the main living room. Susan was there waiting, looking at her expectedly. Rebecca was standing in the far doorway looking guilty. Sophie walked further into the room not knowing what was going on, but then she realised what it was with an abrupt feeling of betrayal.
“I’m leaving now,” Craigfield said from behind her with a voice that was trying to sound casual. He was standing with one foot on his fashionable suitcase, with wheels and an extended handle. He was leaning on it with an arm propped on his knee, and he had a slight smile. Sophie nearly laughed at the sight, since it reminded her of an advertisement for aftershave, or cigarettes, or ratfink men.
“Enjoy your journey,” Sophie said coldly.
Rebecca saw all she wanted and as she left she gave an audible sigh.
“Your family thinks I should stay,” Craigfield said with a more natural voice. He took his foot of his bag and started to idly kick at it, stalling for time. He looked to Susan for support but there wasn’t any coming from her.
“I can’t imagine why,” Sophie said as she went to leave.
“Best you two work it out,” Susan said as she quickly made her way back to the kitchen, realising that the whole meeting was not such a great idea.
“What are we working out?” Sophie asked her but she didn’t reply. “Why would you think there’s anything to work out?”
“Come on, Sophie,” he said. “Don’t be like that. I remember our walk through town and what a good time we had. If there’s something I did wrong, just tell me. I know I haven’t been here, since I kept getting called back home. My boss says he can’t cope. I told him, I’m having a break, leave me alone, let me have my time off in peace. And if it’s because you were worried about the twins, I already explained that I found them following me, and I made sure they got home safely. And I don’t need to mention why they were in the city. Or that you think you know me well enough to add me to your story.”
“You’re right, I don’t know you. And I don’t want to.”
“You’re not being fair. Your grandmother’s been saying all kinds of stuff about you, so I know you’re not normally like this. Don’t you want to know what she said?” He picked up his bag and hooked the strap over a shoulder, and then put one hand in a pocket, again like he was a model posing for a magazine shoot. And there was that slight smile.
“Not at all. My grandmother can say what she likes, doesn’t change anything as far as I’m concerned.”
“She’s been saying what a great couple we’d make. She also said how when you were a girl you hoped to be swept away by some tall handsome stranger. From the big city.” He started swinging the bag, and then it came off his shoulder and almost made him fall over, and he lost some of his coolness. Not acting like he cared, he dragged it beside him as he walked to the door.
“That’s true. But I’m not a girl anymore.”
“But then, perhaps one day we’ll see each other in the city. It’s not so big a place, I guess.” He got to the door and pushed it open with the bag.
“Don’t believe it. I’ve lived there most of my life, and I never laid eyes on you until now. Far as I’m concerned, you’re as real as a figment of my imagination. When I go back home, it’ll just be like it always was: you won’t exist.”
“How can you say that? We could bump into each other on the street, at a mall, buying coffee, anywhere. And you think we’ve never passed each other on the street? What if we did and we both thought, ‘Who’s that cool person,’ but we were not about to go asking anything personal since we’re both just walking down the street and minding our own business. I know if I was passing you by, I’d give you more than a passing glance. If I’m not wrong, you’d have done the same for me. But now we know each other, it’d be like, ‘There’s that cool person I met in Gendry.’ I should say hello and chat a while.”
He then stood in the doorway smiling and waving the bag in and out, like he wasn’t sure if he should be going just yet.
“Listen to me, man,” she said as she shoved his bag out and went to close the door. “You won’t see me again, okay? There are thousands of guys like you, and they’re probably as equally delusional as you.”
She watched him walk away and was pleased that he didn’t look back. For just a second she remembered how nice he was on that walk through town.
The only bad thing about the train ride was that the sun was in Max’s eyes most of the way. He thought about changing seats but each time he did the light changed, but then changed back into his eyes not long after. He just laughed to himself and decided to not worry about it and think about his destination, and be grateful that there was any sunshine at all. Once they left the city they also left the bleak weather that had been hanging around for a couple of weeks, and that put Max in a good mood.
Not having his wife around him didn’t hurt either.
Gendry was the fifth stop and Max counted them down with increasing anticipation. When he finally walked out into the Gendry station he recalled memories from his last visit. The air was noticeably sweeter than it was in the city and the sun didn’t feel as bright or hot. Gone was the bustle of his normal life: no hurry, no crowds, no traffic, no worries, no stress, no wife. It was just Gendry; do what you want when you want to and say hello to whomever you pass in the street, maybe stop to have a chat or maybe not. It didn’t really matter, since you could talk tomorrow or the next day, or the day after that.
If he was a cat he would have been purring as he walked out to the main street. The first thing he noticed was the age of the people. They not only made him feel young, but he did not feel out of place in using a crutch to walk. He took note of the more important buildings, to give him a point of reference. There was the church, the library, the courthouse, the police station, and the best of them all, Sal’s, the only food house in town and the only one that anyone really needed. He was surprised to see that some of the old shops were empty, and one was boarded up. A couple of elderly people politely greeted him but didn’t stop to chat. They were moving so slow that he probably could have taken time to ask them a few questions, but he let them go. That same old Gendry was still here, he thought, even if some of it was trying its best to disappear.
He was happy to see that the boarding house was still going. Susan Tyle was still the owner but it came as a small letdown that she didn’t recognise him. It was too much to hope that she would remember him and was excited to catch him up on family details. They were friendly in Gendry, but not that friendly. She had probably had other guests over the years. He knew that he could remind her that five years ago he stayed there for two days and he still remembered it even if she didn’t, but there was no point. Together with the fact that Max usually didn’t want to talk about his family, meant it was best she didn’t pry.
“And a warm welcome to Gendry,” Susan said with a big smile. She tapped uncertainly at a small laptop that sat on the counter in the room that served as the foyer. He realised that she wasn’t too adept at using it, but he also knew that it would be rude to try to help her.
“How long are you looking to stay with us, sir?”
“A week at the most,” Max said. “Although, you never know, I might find some reason to stay on. I’m not on any kind of timetable here. Since it’s a small place I don’t think I’d take much more than a week to get through, but I’m always hopeful of finding something unexpected.”
“What kind of work are you in?”
“I’m a writer. You might have heard of me: Max Marshall.”
“Can’t say I have.”
Max took that on the chin. She must have had hundreds, if not thousands of guests since he was last there. “My next novel’s actually set here, in Gendry. I’ve already started it, but it helps to be here, get a feel for the place. I’m hoping to talk to as many people as I can, get the local flavour, so to speak.”
“Flavour? You mean the trout? Depends how you cook it.”
“No, I mean flavour as an expression. The atmosphere of the place is what I meant. I don’t fish, and I certainly don’t cook. You wouldn’t know the best place to visit? Is there a common meeting-ground, a popular bar or something, in town?”
“Most people go to Sal’s when they’re not here with me.”
He knew she would say that, but it didn’t hurt in asking. Max glanced down the hall and into the neighbouring dining room, seeing that they were alone. “Must all be at Sal’s,” he suggested, intending her to think he was funny.
“I guess they must be,” she answered, mildly insulted. She had a slight edge to her voice when she said, “Well, you’re lucky, sir, I have my best room for you. My granddaughter was the last one to use it, so you know I’m not lying when I say it’s my best room. If it was good enough for Sophie, you know it must be good enough for anyone.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why did she leave the room? Is she in another one?”
“No, she lives in the city. She’s just gone back there. I’m always sad when she leaves, but I know she doesn’t belong here in town, not anymore. She was born here and loves the place as much as she can, but it’s the city that has her heart now. I shock myself admitting that, but it’s best we deal with that reality, that she’s her own person and she can make her own decisions for her life.”
There was a moment of awkward silence, as Max was not expecting such words from this woman he did not know, even if it was right in the heart of Gendry. Susan then showed him to his room, making no further conversation.
Taking the train back to the city was never as enjoyable as going the other way. Now it made Sophie feel sad, and it was more than leaving her family and the quiet town. She was making the same journey without any of the excitement. The hopes of being able to relax with family and create an interesting piece of fiction, was now just as much fiction as her intended story. Having had time to reflect on what went wrong, she knew it wasn’t really Craigfield’s fault and she was too harsh with him. It was more that her writing had not come together. There were other factors too, such as the murder, and the twins going missing. A folder of twenty-odd pages was all she had to show for herself, and it all needed reworking. She wasn’t sure if she should just go and dump it in the nearest train station trash bin. If anyone found it and sat down to read it they would probably have a good laugh over how bad it was, and wonder why the name Craigfield was crossed out with heavy strokes.
The city was cold and rainy, and it made Sophie notice that the people seemed exactly the same; cold, beaten-down, dreary, unwelcoming. There were so many people but she couldn’t talk to any of them, or even make eye contact, or trust anyone. Not like Gendry. Everyone was a stranger, but in Gendry everyone was a friend. But then, there were signs that one day Gendry would be the same. Just a matter of time before both became the same place, the same story.
Her five-year-old cat Ginger reacted like he barely knew she was gone. An easygoing furry Maine Coon with a fixation with playing in water, the guy could sleep anywhere, befriend anyone, and even not mind being woken up from a deep sleep for a pat. She greeted him as she always did and felt calmed by his strong purr. He looked overweight, which was normal, but it told her that he was being regularly fed by her neighbour, as was promised.
“Thank you so much for looking after my cat,” Sophie said to Miss Hudson later that day when she had a chance. Her elderly neighbour had lived alone in the world since she was only a girl of twelve, and she enjoyed telling anyone she met that it was the best way to live. Sophie did not know her first name and it never felt polite to ask.
“He made himself at home without a fuss,” said Miss Hudson. “Looked like he owned the place, so much that I almost gave him my power bill to pay.”
“But he was no trouble?”
“He tore some of my nets,” she replied in a manner that made it difficult for Sophie to tell if she was angry or content, “and all day wanted to go outside. Made such a racket, meowing all the time. He’s a meower, that one. But I didn’t let him get the better of me, and I told him you would be back from your holiday soon.”
“I’m sorry to hear that he was a pain like that. He can be a naughty boy when he doesn’t get what he wants. I’ll pay you for the damage.”
“No need, dear. They were old nets and I was going to get new ones anyway. It was just that he was such a pest when he didn’t get his way; nothing at all like he is when he comes over to visit when you’re at work. Shows you cats can be different when you own them.”
“He can be like that, but he’s normally a nice boy. He just missed me, I think. He acts up when he misses me.”
“Men can be like that. Exactly like that, actually. A mixture of animal-brain and child-brain. Men, I mean, not your Ginger.”
Sophie was about to point out that because he was a male cat that didn’t mean he was like a male human. Then she thought it wasn’t a good time to start disagreeing with her since she had been so much help.
“They don’t get to see you when they want,” Miss Hudson continued, “or they don’t get what they want from you when they want it, they go a little nuts. I never had any need for them, and if I had it my way, more young women would do the same, and let them all go.”
“Do you mean cats or men?”
“Men, dear. Oh, wouldn’t the world be so much better if men were like cats? Feed them, let them sleep where they want, and go out and catch mice when they need to. On second thoughts, that’s about all men do anyway.”
“Gendry was very nice, as it always is,” Sophie said, trying to change the subject. She was unsure if she was now talking about men or cats, but knew that it was most likely to be men since it was her favourite subject.
“Tell me all about it. Did you have a good time? Did you finish writing your book as you wanted?”
“I didn’t get it finished, and I admit, I’m not really sure about it. I think I need to redo the whole thing. I have some new ideas I want to try.”
“That’s good. New ideas are good.”
“I met a man I thought I could trust,” Sophie said and then wished she hadn’t have blurted that out. Not to Miss Hudson, anyway. She would be better off telling Ginger.
“Trust?” she returned like a raw nerve had been struck. “You can’t trust any of them. You should know that. I hope you told him to go take a hike. You tell him that, my girl. Don’t be taken in or flattered. They’re all the same.”
“I did. I did exactly that, Miss Hudson. I told him I wasn’t interested. And Gendry has some good hikes for him to go on, too,” she added with a laugh.
“I’m so happy you see it the same as me. You ask me, we just don’t have need of any men ruining our lives.”
Miss Hudson was pleased with her and while it meant that the two would continue to be friends, and Ginger will be watched again in the future, Sophie wondered if she might be looking into a mirror of herself in fifty years time. If she continued to have the same idea then she might end up being exactly the same, alone and old, and hating all men on account of meeting one or two bad ones. Then she wondered again if she was far too hard on Craigfield and she should have taken the chance with him. Perhaps the only real fault to him was that she didn’t know much about him, since what she did know was probably invented.
When the boards under his feet groaned with each step Max knew that he was in a genuine small town. Sal’s had a big veranda next to the door and each and every single board creaked when he walked on it. Two small wooden doors, both dented and worn, formed the main entrance. They swung open with just a light touch. The dim light inside contrasted against the bright sun so much that at first Max could hardly see a thing. He stood there in the doorway, expecting that everyone in there was looking him over to see if he was a friend or foe, a local or a tourist. Once he could see enough to walk further in, he went over to the long counter. There were three old men sitting at the far end. They had been talking with a large woman behind the counter but now all four were staring at him.
“Hello,” he greeted them as he sat on one of the nearest bar stools and placed his crutch across two vacant seats. “My name is Max Marshall. You might have heard of me. I’m a writer. I’m visiting Gendry, doing some research. Looking to get a feel for the place, hear what the people are thinking, that kind of thing.”
Sal slowly walked down to him, never in a hurry. “What do you want to do that for?” she asked with a puzzled expression.
“For my book. I want to set the story here, in Gendry.”
“Why, have you run out of better places?” called one of the three old guys, to the amusement of the others.
“Ease up on him, Elbow,” Sal rebuked. “If he wants to put Gendry on his map then I say we don’t interfere.”
“No, leave it off his map, or any map,” said Elbow. “I like it the way it is, good and unknown. How do you think we can have a peaceful town if people start knowing about it? First thing that goes is the peace, and it’s going on a journey where it’s never coming back.”
Max had no idea if they were joking or being serious. Whatever it was, no one was laughing. “How did you get the name Elbow?” he asked politely.
“You’d like to know,” Elbow replied bluntly as he made his way slowly off the stool and then walked outside with very quick strides. He seemed to be making a show of it.
“I would, actually,” Max said to him with a smile, but it didn’t stop Elbow from leaving.
“He’s not normally about that,” said the older of the two remaining. He had a smooth voice and might have been trying to apologise for his friend, but Max couldn’t tell. “Leave him be. For my part, I’d be honoured to feature in your story. I take it you want it to be accurate; otherwise why come all the way up here? My name’s Gene Best, and this is Sam Hendersen, but we know him as Two-Tooth. I have the honour of the title of retired mayor of Gendry. Although I still consider myself to have another term left in me. But honestly, I’d be more convinced about that if I was just a little bit younger. Tell me, are you planning on moving up here? Been a lot of city people move here, last few years. If you do, I’d like you to consider my favour come election time.”
“I’m just here for research, I’m sorry. How old are you, Gene, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Eighty-one in two weeks,” he said, proud to admit it.
“Forget it, you’re too old,” Two-Tooth said to him as he gave Max a hard stare. He sounded to Max like he was the gruffest of the three. “Elbow’s right, we don’t want news of our town spreading. Bring in too many more city people. No offence to you, son, but we’ve already lost a good man to city people, and far as I can see, that won’t be the last. Chose for yourself another town, if you don’t mind.”
“You can’t blame what happened on all the city folk,” Gene said to Two-Tooth. “Sophie’s from the city, remember?”
Elbow then came back in, and walked with the same quick strides back to his stool. “Too hot out there,” he told his friends as he reached for his half-filled beer glass.
“Who’s Sophie?” asked Max.
“Susan’s granddaughter,” said Gene, “and a fine looking girl she is.”
“She’s a writer too,” said Sal. “Gone back to the city now. You might know her, Max, since you’re a writer. Didn’t you say you’re a writer?”
“Yes, and actually,” said Max, “I think I’m staying in her room.”
“Look at that,” said Two-Tooth, “one leaves and one takes his place. Can’t win.”
“Better than that other one who was housed there,” said Elbow, “that murderer.”
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘murderer’?” asked Max.
“Gendry’s very own genuine murderer,” Elbow said like he was proud of it. “Fellow from the city, he was, and friendly with young Sophie too. Girl was lucky, if you ask me, that she didn’t get too close and cosy with him.”
“Did he kill someone here?” asked Max. “A local?”
“No one knows for sure and no one can prove he killed anyone,” Gene said, trying to calm everyone down. “These are just wild rumours. Forget about it. No, just forget about it. Nothing’s been proven, but leave it to old has-beens at Sal’s to speculate. Worst thing you can do, son, is to listen to us.”
Sal leaned close to Max. “That’s the only true thing I’ve ever heard him say all day,” she whispered before she then went back to the cash register.
Max looked at her and then them, not knowing what to think. Then Sal started laughing and the three old guys followed, and offered Max a free drink on the house. He realised that he was now accepted in the town. Not only did he have the blessing of Gene and possibly his two old friends, but also of Sal. He ordered the next round of drinks for them too, and that helped him find answers to as many questions as he could think of.
After two hours of hearty socialising, Two-Tooth abruptly changed his tone. He looked at Max without speaking for a good two minutes before Max noticed.
“City folks,” Two-Tooth said when everyone quietened for him, “should stick with city folks. Just my opinion, but Gendry folks aren’t city folks and never will be. You and others like you come from the city trying to live with us, but you never fit in. You say you’re just here to write a story about us. Okay, write your story for the city folks to read. Gendry folks won’t read it, since they know you’re not from Gendry. Only someone from Gendry can write about Gendry.”
“Are you suggesting that I should only write about the city, since that’s where I’m from?” asked Max.
“All I’m saying,” Two-Tooth said as he focused on his almost-empty glass, “is you can never understand us and there’s no point in trying.”
“I don’t understand city folks either,” said Max. “Where does that leave me?”
They all agreed, including Two-Tooth, and made some jokes at Max’s expense. Max was not pleased, however, to think that this man was right. Some old and probably alcoholic small-town waste of space, who saw more of his glass than anything else in his life, could take one look at Max and see everything he needed to. Max had nothing to offer back to him, and for the first time in his life he realised that he didn’t have to. He didn’t have to prove himself to anyone. Yes, he agreed that he didn’t understand people as well as maybe he should, and that his life was incredibly uninteresting, and he had nothing to offer. But in the long run none of that really mattered. He didn’t know how he got to where he was, or why nothing had turned out very well for him, and why no one seemed to take him seriously. All he knew is that he just wanted to write, and that was what he loved more than anything else.
Having been back in the city for two weeks, Sophie needed nothing less than another holiday. Perhaps this time somewhere peaceful. Or perhaps the Gendry she knew as a child. Right from the first hour of the first day back at her job she started dreaming that she was still in the old Gendry. The birds were singing, the trout biting, children running amuck, the town was whispering about bad people from the city, and Susan was trying to find men for her to marry. It saddened her to realise that those things would still be going on without her there.
While it was true that her own bed and pillow were the two best things in her world, and her friends continued to give her more than enough gossip, and watching her soap opera television shows were so much better when she was alone in her pyjamas with a bowl of popcorn and too much butter, nothing could replace the easy-going and friendly world of Gendry. What was worse was in thinking how out-of-place she felt there. It was her home town and yet it wasn’t. She had outgrown it.
During one lunch break, on another cold and overcast day, when the city’s smog seemed to always be at its worst, when she went to see if she could find some new clothes at one of the sales, she saw a familiar face in the crowd. At first the face only registered as someone she knew, before she had a name to go with it. When she realised who it was she could not help but say his name.
He had seen her before she saw him and he was standing still on the other side of the road, waiting for her to see him. He was dressed in a long black leather jacket and he had a briefcase tucked against his chest. His expression was impassive, and he was not moving, just standing near to the street and forcing people to walk around him.
Sophie decided to keep walking but then looked back and saw that he was still there, but now he wasn’t looking at her. Shrugging off her own instincts, or fear, she crossed the road and approached him.
“So you are stalking me?” she asked, feeling safe on the street with the lunchtime crowds.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said evenly, not showing her any emotion. “I’m just passing you by on the street when I saw you, or can’t I do that either? I do happen to live in the city too, you know. You’ve probably walked past me on other occasions, but since you didn’t know me you took no notice. And what about all these other people, also passing you by in the street, are you accusing them too? No you’re not, since you don’t know any of them.”
“If it means anything to you,” she said with growing nervousness, not really wanting to apologise but knowing that she should, “I was a little hasty in thinking you were lying, when you were in Gendry, the last time we spoke. I did send the twins out to follow you; that’s true. But I never thought they would leave town and go into the city. And thank you for bringing them back; I don’t think I managed to tell you that. It was very nice of you. So, thank you.”
“What’s this?” he asked with the slightest of sneers. “You’re being nice to me now?”
She started to back off. “I can understand if you just want to go on your way, and go wherever you’re going, and not stay and talk some more. I wasn’t very nice to you back in Gendry, and that wasn’t fair. I know that now. If it means anything to you, I’m sorry.”
He seemed to relax at that and Sophie noticed sadness in his eyes. She then saw that he looked different; calmer and more natural. That was the way he was when she met him at Sal’s, and why she was willing to walk and talk with him.
She shuffled from foot to foot, and gingerly asked, “So, are you married or not? I don’t remember what you said about that.”
“Not,” he said with a natural smile getting warmer.
“So,” Sophie asked awkwardly, “did you want to start over?”
He took a breath and then couldn’t stop breaking out a big smile. “Can’t see why not. Perhaps if we could forget everything that happened back in Gendry.”
“Would make it easier,” Sophie agreed. “Not like this place has anything to remind us of that place.”
He was about to say, “Only you,” but thought it best not to.
His first day had been productive and he achieved much more than expected. Given his tiredness from the train and the fact that he didn’t arrive until after noon, he assumed his first day would be slow. But Max had managed to chat with the old bar guys for a good four hours, and Gene had given his endorsement to write anything he wanted about the town. In turn, Max promised to write Gene up as a viable candidate in the next elections, and the more Sal protested the more he felt determined to do it.
He planned to start out early tomorrow and go door to door to ask each resident nicely if he could have an interview. That way he might gain a family story about some interesting relative, and even allow him to put that person into his book. There was one resident he wanted for his book more than any other, but their first meeting had not gone well. Since he would be spending most of his time at Susan’s house, that was the place where most of his story needed to take place, and for that to happen he needed her endorsement. He knew that he could just go ahead and invent a new character, but Max wanted to keep the authenticity going.
“I’ve been hearing some interesting talk in town,” Max said to Susan after he asked to see the menu for the night’s meal. He knew about Simona’s cooking and he would be happy with anything she served. “Seems there was a murder here not long back. Unusual for the town.”
“Yes, Allan Longbottom,” said Susan. She had been looking though a furniture catalogue, thinking of changing the curtains, a project that had been in her mind for the last year. Some decisions just couldn’t be rushed.
Max waited for her to go on.
“Poor unfortunate man was Allan,” she said. “I never knew much about him, but then, some people prefer to live like that, out of the public eye. Funny how you can see someone every day and yet know nothing about them, and never discuss anything other than the weather. How could he not be a stranger when he never wants to have a conversation?”
“And it was one of your boarders who did it? Is that right?”
“Oh no, you have your facts entirely wrong there, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have anyone like that staying around me and my children. No one who’s a murderer is allowed into my house. I’m sorry, but I do have my limits.”
Max swallowed nervously, thinking that she would view him differently if she knew what he had wanted to do to Craigfield that fateful night when he caught him sleepwalking. But that was a dark time for him and he was over it all now.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” he asked carefully, “how can you tell what a murderer looks like? How do you know I’m not a murderer?”
“Because I can see it in your eyes. Even if you get that angry, enough to swing with intent, you wouldn’t be able to do it. I can tell with people. And it was the same with the man they’re talking about, I knew he was a fine young man. Some ghastly rumours around town about him, too. Some people are just not nice. They really should watch what they say before they start in on people they don’t know.”
Max hid his relief. “I guess you’re right.”
“No, the man who visited with us was most charming and polite. My niece was staying here too at the time, from the city, and they are an item now, the two of them. Isn’t it funny, they were living so long together in the same place without ever meeting, and it takes them both to come here, for entirely different reasons, for them to meet. For them to have a conversation, so they were no longer strangers.”
“I guess you never know where love’s going to take you.”
Susan raised her hand in mock surrender. “Oh, you’re not going to get me into any conversation like that. I’ve long since thinking of all the trouble men have given me. And that’s one story I certainly won’t be telling someone calling themselves a writer.”
“We’re not always to blame, you must admit? Us men, I mean?”
“Of course, you’re right. The way men act around women, it’s entirely our fault for driving them crazy enough to do stupid things.”
Max nodded, happy to see that he had gained her confidence.
“Enjoy your stay here in Gendry, Mr Marshall,” she said with a smile. “But do go find for yourself better, nicer stories than murderers and strangers from the city. Gendry’s a better place than that, as I’m sure you’ll find.”
Dan Ironwright’s wife Sam had been in a testy mood that morning. She had berated him for drinking his coffee in the shower again, saying something about the water not being clean, which to him was nonsense. If it wasn’t clean then why was he using it to clean himself? None of it got into his coffee anyway; at least not enough to worry about. If he felt like pushing her, as he sometimes did, then he’d claim that it added to the flavour. He said nothing this time since he didn’t feel like enduring a lecture on soap grime. Not that early in the morning. Not with a full week of work ahead of him.
When he roughly dried himself and put on his shirt he found it was too tight. He didn’t want to mention it to anyone, especially Sam. It didn’t make any difference to him that she had a range of shirts of various sizes, all bought in advance and ready for him to wear. He just didn’t want to admit that she was right, that he was still gaining weight. The shirt was going to fit and the buttons will not break, and his work colleagues would have no reason to find amusement.
He knew that if he had done the same for her, and provided a wide range of pants depending upon her varying weight, a world war would break out. There was a time, and with a different wife, when he would have deliberately started a fight. He no longer did such things, since he was in his second marriage, apparently his “happy” marriage, the one you have after the “starter” marriage. Towards the end of his first, when they both sensed it wasn’t working, he practised a dangerous and yet awesome game known as Urban Matador. He would actively work to wind up his wife, particularly when she was extra grumpy on a Sunday morning, to see how far she would go.
The crowd cheers as he sidesteps each charge of accusation. They applaud as he taunts while she paws the ground, snorting. She eyes how she will gorge him, throw him in the air and trample him with examples of his inherent masculine stupidity. But each time, with deft sidesteps of subject change, and a few flourishes of sarcasm, he emerges victorious. And divorced.
For this marriage he hung up his matador cape, retired from the arena of wife baiting, but there were times he thought of coming out of retirement. Only a week ago he responded to her question from the bedroom with, “Yes, you always do.” She then rushed at him with a horrified look.
“I always look fat?”
“What?” he asked, with no idea why she was asking that. “You always look fabulous, I said.”
“I asked you,” she said like she was the professional investigator and not him, “if I looked fat in this.”
Knowing that he had misheard her, he knew that the last thing he should do next was to start laughing. The absurdity of the situation made it nearly impossible to hold back. “I thought you said,” he said with his voice quivering as he held back giggles, “you said you look fabulous.”
The matador was well and truly retired.
She studied him, checking for any signs that he was mocking her, and then came to her conclusion. “You think I’m fat.”
“Fabulous,” he said with a stronger voice, not appreciating the accusation. “I think you look fabulous.” Now his tone suggested that he no longer thought she was “fabulous”.
“Don’t lie. You think I’m fat,” she said as she went to find something else to wear. That was the end of the conversation and he was relieved for it. He could have gone on and told her that it wasn’t the pants that made her look fat. She looked fat in everything, because she was fat. But so was he, and he was okay with that. All women, he had found, were not interested in logic when it came to their weight. Men who were fat knew they were fat, and while they didn’t like it very much, they knew that that was how they looked and different clothes weren’t going to change it. A few, Dan noticed, liked to wear their shirts untucked to hide their bulky bellies, and then claim it was the fashion to wear it that way.
Dan liked to have his shirt tucked in and didn’t care at all who noticed. There was only one person he feared to hear a comment from, and that was his doctor. A German woman whom he liked to call “The General”, she would look upon his large belly as a non human entity. Perhaps to her it was some sort of alien life form that has landed on him and was seeking someone to introduce to their leader. Her eyes would become glued to his belly and her lip would turn up, and Dan would fight back his jokes that perhaps he was hiding a troop of alien clowns. She was not someone to bait with such comments. The last time he had seen her she prescribed a very detailed diet after a lecture that lasted so long that Dan lost track of time.
He was the one who should be cranky, not Sam. Not only was food his favourite pastime, anything else came in a distant second place. The General was not someone to say no to, and he was seriously considering looking for a new doctor, but he had given her his promise that he would try to lose some weight and he felt obligated to that. He would give it three months which, with good behaviour, might become six weeks.
Now down to four slices of toast for breakfast, he helped them down with grilled tomatoes and a dab of cream cheese and only half as much salt and pepper as he wanted. Keeping the promise to cut down on his coffee was more of a problem to solve, and by “solve” he meant not letting either doctor or wife know exactly how many cups he was having. He also had several strawberry rolls concealed under the driver’s seat of his car, for emergencies. Then he remembered that he finished them off last night when he snuck out to the garage. He realised that he would have to take that familiar detour to the bakery on his way in to work.
A pleasant woman on the radio told him that the dreary rainy weather had finally passed and the forecast for the next month was for warm weather and light winds. That was the day’s first good news but it wasn’t enough to change Dan’s mood. He didn’t care for sunny weather since it meant being stuck in traffic with the sun on him making him sweat so much that it would soak through his clothes and drain into his shoes.
Dan would sweat a lot in his job and he knew how to use it to his advantage. He would lean in close when interrogating suspects, letting them get a good whiff of his armpit, and even feel a few drops courtesy of his forehead. Some tried to complain about police brutality, which would only be answered with an innocent shrug and a comment along the lines of he can’t help his glands. He could always take his shirt off, he would suggest, but then they would complain about his flabby chest and stomach, and no one wanted to see that.
He thought that he deserved to be in a good mood, since his last case went to court and looked a sure-thing. His last three before that had all resulted in convictions and Dan knew that he was on a roll. At the back of his mind he knew that various factions within the office were working on undermining his streak, but he tried to ignore those thoughts. When his boss Dun Moore casually told him to take another look at Dale Gant’s Gendry case, Dan fought to keep thinking those good thoughts. Dale was on leave, he was told, and it’s a case with no motives or suspects. Oh yeah, the boss added like it wasn’t too important, and there’s evidence. And it’s up in Gendry too, where the local police hardly did anything to help with the investigation. Try that one, Dan.
“Got someone coming in with a new angle on it,” the boss said.
“A new angle that’s going to convict?” Dan asked, but his boss just walked away. If Dan didn’t know better, he thought he heard sniggering.
Paul Evans had no known connection to the Gendry case, and what he was saying didn’t make an awful amount of sense. Dan was meant to sit him down in a quiet room to see what his problem was. When Dan looked over the few basic notes taken by a disinterested desk-worker, probably over the phone, he suspected that this might be some kind of elaborate set-up to kill his streak. Such things had been done before.
He left Paul seated at his desk and then walked casually into Dun’s small office and asked, in a roundabout way, if this guy was for real. Not only was he real, Dun assured him, he had connections to some important police chiefs and had been causing them headaches for the past few weeks. Dan nodded and went to find some more coffee, knowing that this one was just a matter of going through the motions to keep everyone happy. Police work was like that most the time.
“Ok, so you think there’s been a murder?” Dan asked Paul as he ushered him into one of their interrogation rooms. He explained that Paul was not meant to read anything into the fact that this was the room where they hammered away at suspects for hours on end. It was more the fact that it was private, so he could relax and speak his mind. It was all confidential, he was told, and Dan was not someone who liked to go around telling people anything at all. A quiet and reserved man, he was.
“I even hate saying hello to people in the morning,” he added.
Paul was more than happy to be given his chance to say what he knew, and it didn’t matter where it was. He was more disgruntled over the fact that the two cups of coffee that Dan carried were both meant for Dan and weren’t shared.
“I don’t care who you tell,” said Paul. “Or that I told you.”
“Go on,” said Dan, not liking the sound of any of that since it was exactly how crazy people talk. They can’t wait to tell the world their private revelations. People who have the truth tend to be a little more careful with it.
“It took a while to put the pieces together.”
“Pieces?” Dan asked, trying to appear interested, while he was more focused on his coffee and how fast he can get rid of this guy. He did go to the trouble of placing his notebook on the table and holding his pen like he was ready to write something down. That tended to help people say what they wanted to say and leave out the small talk.
“I know a guy, Max Marshall, and he’s writing something, a novel or something, whatever. Don’t really care about it, and don’t care about him that much. My wife’s friends of his wife, and I get dragged into talking to him. You know how that goes. What are you going to do, ignore him while the women get locked into conversation? You have to say something, right? I’m the one who always has to get the conversation going, every time, and I always try to talk about sport and whatever, what most people are interested in, to pass the time. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a real, genuine conversation with the man.”
“And the pieces?” Dan asked, not minding that he sounded impatient.
“There was a murder, up in Gendry, some postal worker, and no one knew who did it. It took me a while to put it together. But now I think about it, it should have been obvious.”
Dan tapped his pen on the table, waiting for more.
“So, this guy I know,” continued Paul, “Max Marshall, he’s talking about this book he’s doing. We were all laughing at him, telling him how to write it, giving him a hurry-up, in a friendly manner, but he went all defensive over it, like our criticism was some sort of personal attack on him. What about that? It wasn’t like any of us actually cared what he was writing. We all knew none of us would ever read it, and probably no one else either. He hardly wanted to say anything about it to us, so how was he meant to share it with the world?”
Dan stopped tapping and leaned back in his chair. “The pieces fitting together,” he said, not really asking now.
Dan tried to be patient. “You said the pieces came together for you. Wish to share?”
“The murder, I mean. He was writing about the murder.”
“Saw it in the news.”
“This was weeks before the murder.”
Dan leaned forward and he felt his shirt tighten. “He told you about the murder weeks before it happened?”
“Not exactly,” Dan repeated.
“He wrote about Gendry. The people and all that.”
“Then he didn’t tell you about the murder weeks before it happened?”
“That’s the thing. When we told him his story lacked interest, to us, to anyone as far as we could tell, he said something that stuck with me. He said he should add in a murder.”
“Was he specific about this murder?”
Dan was doing his best to remain patient, but now he just started thinking about how he could take an early lunch. “What, if anything, was he specific about?”
“Gendry, the people there, that sort of thing.”
“The victim, Longbottom, was he specific about him? Did he write his name or talk about him? Did he say anything about him at all?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t think so.”
“Thanks for coming in.”
“No, you need to check him out. Read what he wrote. Something’s not right with him. I know it, from talking to him. You get a feeling for people, you know?”
Dan placed a friendly hand on Paul’s back and walked him out from the interrogation room and to the main door, being polite and agreeable.
“Do you have any other leads?” Paul asked as he was guided through the main door. “I heard the case wasn’t solved.”
Dan smiled and firmly shook his hand. “Thanks for coming in.”
Duncan Moore was a good boss, one of the guys, and as long as they kept producing good results he continued to be their best buddy. He would slap everyone on the back and continue where they had left off with their last conversation, no matter how long ago it was. His memory was uncanny and he never forgot the name of any of his worker’s relations and significant anniversary dates. He was the sort of boss he wasn’t really a boss. Unless he got a little bit angry. No one liked to see his bad side, the raging Irish monster he could become at the drop of a hat. He disliked his first name and preferred “Dun”, but that made him hate his nickname even more. As with any nickname, the more it’s protested the more people will enjoy using it. They knew not to call him “Could’ve” to his face while on the job. At the local bar it was a different story, and once he was loosened up with two or sixteen beers, everyone enjoyed giving it to him, from the lowest street cop to his own bosses. He would dissolve into a mass of laughter and the next day feel like he should be angry and not remember why. That was the only time his memory would let him down.
“This is nothing,” Dan said after he invited himself into Dun’s office. He moved a few old newspapers off the chair by the desk so he could sit. “Guy thinks he heard something suspicious in the midst of jovial dinner conversation. Public finds out we’re open for discussion on that, we’d be swamped. The facts stand; Dale Gant didn’t find anything suspicious, but you already knew that. Anyway, Gendry’s not part of our jurisdiction.”
“Check it out,” said Dun, not looking up from his computer screen. He was busy typing an email and he hated both things equally. After years of practice he averaged ten words a minute with his rigid two-finger technique and he was proud of it. After he kept knocking his fruit juice on the keyboard, the G and H were particularly sticky and sometimes filled the whole screen up with the one letter. Whenever that happened Dun knew of no other solution to stop it other than turning the computer off at the wall.
“There’s nothing to this one,” Dan protested. “What do you want from me, rabbits springing from hats? There was no new lead. Just misguided gossip. Dale did all that could be done up there. It’s a no-brainer.”
“Just to do your job.”
“How is this my job? Dale’s had this case and there’s nothing there.”
“Dale’s not here right now, is he. But you are. See how luck works? What was his name, Paul Evans? He knows someone who knows someone else. And both of them aren’t trying to make my life easier.”
“So you’re putting that on me?”
“That’s right. Look, Dan, just check it out, get quotes, something in writing, you’re good at that, and it’ll all go away.”
“And I get to personally go up to Gendry for this? You’ll owe me,” was Dan’s way of agreeing.
“Think of it as an expenses-paid holiday.”
“But all that way? For that?”
“If you want to do your job and make your boss a happy man, you will.”
“You’re sending me all the way to Gendry for what now, I’ve forgotten?”
Dun sat back in his chair, a brief look of relief that he was taking a break from that horrible machine. He gave Dan a short glare that said that the Irish monster was lurking at the door. “To see what Dale missed, what their excuse-for-police missed. To see if Paul Evans—was it? To see if Paul Evans had anything. And most important, to make me happy. Can you do that for me, pretty please? For your bossy-wossy? Can you?”
Dan knew that was a sign he should leave. “Now you put it that way …” he said sarcastically, wondering if there was anything else he could do to get off the case.
It took him a good two hours before accepting that he would give it a go. He thought of a way of getting out of the travel by proving that Paul Evans had no reason to be suspicious. When he made that decision he had a good laugh and then needed to buy a muesli bar from the office food dispenser.
Dan’s devious plan was to contact this suspicious author and get an explanation that would make everyone happy and so he would not need to go near any place named Gendry or anything like it. The author was Max Marshall, and Paul Evans had claimed that he was well known. Everyone Dan asked had never heard of the man, and he asked all the people in the office building who liked to read. Even an internet search revealed nothing but dead links. Unless this author was Max Marshall the famous Jamaican golfer who had fallen off the pace some years back, or Max Marshall the television soap actor who was now in his nineties. Maxine Marshall was moderately successful in writing poetry and liked to live in the jungles of South America, but Dan guessed it wasn’t her.
The Max Marshall he wanted lived in a scruffy apartment block that had an elevator that didn’t much care for Dan’s body size. When Dan knocked on his door he hoped to be offered a cup of coffee, and if not, he would be making some obvious suggestions that he should be. The door opened with a loud clack of a heavy chain that stopped it from opening more than enough for one eye to look out. When Dan said who he was and showed his identification, the man relaxed. But Dan noticed that he didn’t relax as much as he should have, which alerted his radar.
“No, that’s ok, come on in,” said Max. “What did you say you were looking for again, sorry?”
“Just following up on an incident down at Gendry,” Dan said as he made a careful sweep of the apartment without being obvious about it. He noted three bookcases all overflowing with books and papers.
“Gendry? How does that concern me? I don’t understand. What would that have to do with me?”
Dan noticed how his nervousness increased with the name of the town. He would not admit it, but he loved seeing such signs in people as he talked to them. Signs of guilt, most likely. “Have you been there recently, sir?”
“I don’t remember the last time I was at Gendry.”
Dan registered the non-answer. “You’ve been there a few times?”
“Yes, well, not really. Doesn’t everyone go there at some time? Good trout, right? That’s what they say, don’t they?”
“You go there for the fishing?”
“No, I don’t fish.”
“Then why do you go there?”
“I didn’t say I’ve ever been there. Can I ask what this is about?”
Dan almost smiled; this guy was making it easy for him. “Certainly you can ask,” he said as he invited himself to sit at the dining table and throw down his notepad. He knew that doing an elaborate search through his pockets for a pen would make any nervous liar more nervous. It was the breaks in conversation that made them sweat the most, and sometimes they would blurt out the strangest things. The mind would race, trying to think of answers to questions not even asked, and that was how Dan would catch them in a lie. Max sat at one of the other table seats and tried to act nonchalant.
“There was an incident at Gendry,” Dan explained, drawing it out, watching for more signs that Max was getting rattled, “and your name came up. Seeing they’re a bit behind the times up there, the local police I mean, they never followed up on it, and so it’s been left to me to do the tidying. What am I, a maid, that I’m called in to tidy up after their mess? But that’s the hand I’ve been dealt, and it’s up to me to play it best as I can. You know, I’ve been on this job for nearly twenty-two years, but do I get respect deserving someone who’s been at the job for that long—and with very good results too, I might add—of course not. Old Dan gets to be the maid on this one. With a hand of deuces and clubs no less.”
He paused as he found a pen and then spent a few seconds staring at it, hoping that Max would be confused by his last comment.
“Where was I?” Dan asked as he looked up. “Sorry, I’ve lost my train of thought. Been happening a lot lately. I don’t want to get paranoid about these things but you never know what it could be. To forget basic things, I mean. I don’t know if it’s my mind going or that I’m just bored. Could be both, of course. They’ve got pills for that, don’t they? They have pills for everything these days. More drugs are legal than on the streets, you know. Should I ask my doctor about it, you think?”
“Your doctor?” Max asked, struggling to follow him. “Depends, I suppose.”
“Depends on what?”
“On how often your memory is giving out.”
Dan almost laughed. “My memory’s not giving out. Why do you say that?” His tone was just harsh enough to be intimidating.
“But you said—“
“You know anyone in Gendry?” Dan interrupted.
“I don’t know anyone there.”
“Allan Longbottom. Heard of him? Hard to forget anyone with that name, right? Poor man, almost makes you think he’d be better off now he’s dead. Know him?”
“I’ve never heard of the man. Who is he?”
“He’d be the dead guy. The victim.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with, officer?”
Dan looked at him without emotion and then pleasantly said, “Doesn’t seem to be.” He slowly folded up his notebook. “Thank you for your time. What is it you do for a job, anyway, sir? If you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Really? Anything I know?”
Max went to one of the full bookcases and handed him a book. It was a hardcover named Anger Angel and the cover depicted ghastly ghosts hovering over an old church. Dan flipped through it and took far more time than was needed to get an idea of what it was about.
“Not my style,” he said as he handed it back. “I prefer—what is it, non-fiction?—to something made up. Real life is always more interesting.”
“Then I guess I can’t help you at all.”
Dan made another big thing of searching through his pockets before finding a card. “Here’s my card. You think of anything, give me a call. And if I think of anything, I’ll be back in touch. Just a funny murder, you know? No motive at all. And the leads? Nothing to speak of. That’s why I’m doing this follow-up stuff. Have to chase down all the leads, no matter how way-off they are. Thank you for your time.”
Dan waited until he was inside his car before he let out his frustration with a loud shout.
“He knows something,” he said to himself. “I can smell it all over him. Lie to me, will you?”
He belted the armrest on his door which caused a loud crack. It let off a bit of his frustration as he knew that he now had no way out of travelling all the way to Gendry.
Dan hated anything to do with trains so he had no problem in driving the entire five-hours to Gendry. He figured that if he made it there around lunch then he could have a quick conversation with what passed as the local law enforcement, and then get back in time for whatever his wife was cooking for his dinner. Being on official police business meant that he could punch up the speed, and that was the excuse he would give if he was ever caught.
Gendry was the kind of place that Dan would ignore when passing on his way somewhere more interesting. He didn’t know why people liked to talk about Gendry and not neighbouring towns like Hillyer or Lake Tarrant, both of which boasted stunning views. Gendry, as far as Dan knew, had no view of anything stunning, except maybe the gullibility of the population who had hardly made it into the twentieth century when the twenty-first arrived.
When he rolled into the centre of town at the fantastic time of eleven-fifty-five he spent a few minutes looking longingly at Sal’s. It was the only place he had seen in town to eat, and from the looks of it even Dan knew that there didn’t need to be anywhere else. A place like that, he’s only going to start up a conversation, and before he’ll know it, the day will be gone and he’d have to look for a place to spend the night. If was a tough decision for Dan, and the only reason that he didn’t go to the food place was the hope that the police station had some free coffee for him, and maybe snacks too. Perhaps, if he was lucky, the snacks might have come from Sal’s.
A plump and highly unattractive little woman sat behind the first desk in the tiny building that passed as the police station. She was shaped very much like that of a cone, and was decorated with so much makeup that it made her look like a bad cake. Her attitude was too dismissive for Dan’s liking, when he inquired where the sheriff might be. Without bothering to look up from reading a magazine, she told him that he was either out on patrol or in the station’s garage. His daily run, she added in a tired fashion, was far and wide and he could be gone all day.
“But he’s probably doing whatever it is men do in garages,” she finished slowly, like she was describing some form of subhuman life.
Dan was polite in his exit, although he had every right not to be, especially since he saw no trace of a coffee machine, let alone snacks from Sal’s.
Sheriff Andrew Handisides was wearing stained overalls without a shirt. Dan first assumed that he was the local mechanic. More than the outfit, it was his large girth and slow way of moving that gave that impression. They introduced themselves pleasantly and Dan realised his mistake without letting on. Nor did he show that he was a bit shocked at the sheriff’s large toothy smile.
“You have any coffee out here?” asked Dan.
“Sal’s for that,” said Andy, resuming his study of a blackened old engine that was sitting alone from any kind of vehicle, or even any other parts.
“Are you wondering why the visit?”
“I’m guessing you’re going to tell me. If not, you could help me with this.”
“Why, what is it?”
“Engine,” Andy said with surprise that Dan didn’t know.
Dan was surprised at the coldness but then guessed it was for the best since he really did need to return to the city as soon as he could. “You handled the Longbottom case?”
Andy looked at him with a small smile. “Careful how you say that, won’t you.”
“That was a hit and run. Some lout speeding through our quiet paradise. What do you do with that? Go looking for a speeder? Who knows how far away he’d be by the time anyone knew anything’s happened, rate he must have been going? He could have been bumping people all over the place, through all kinds of small towns like ours, for all we know. And we were lucky to find the body. Aside from the antics of two of our local residents, two boys who are destined either for greatness or prison, old Mr Longbottom would be rotting away in his weedy grave to this day.”
Dan was amazed at his flippancy. “You talked to everybody in town?”
Andy tossed down an old screwdriver and looked at Dan like he was preventing his important work. Dan knew that kind of screwdriver wouldn’t do much to that old engine, aside from scrape away some of the caked grease.
“Always talk to them,” said Andy, “so it wasn’t really much of a challenge.” His sarcasm was noticeably hostile.
“And no one saw anything?”
Andy squinted, insulted at the questioning. “You know, I’ve already told you, there wasn’t anything to it. What do you want from me? Speeders rip through here all the time. Bound to hit one of our citizens. Just a matter of time. More chance of that than winning the lottery.”
“What did you know about Longbottom? What kind of a man was he? Did he have enemies?”
“How should I know?”
“But you talked to …”
“The victim was a loner. Guess anyone who didn’t like him was whoever took offence at getting bills, since he was a mailman. There you go: find someone who’s bought a whole lot of expensive goods recently and can’t pay off that fancy widescreen TV just yet. Looking for someone to blame, who better than the poor fool who brought in the bills.”
Dan nodded and began to casually look around the garage, now that his eyes were fully adjusted to the light. He saw that Andy was nothing of a workman. Everything was so dirty it was all nearly black. The floor was thick with dirt and dried grease, and littered with the odd nut and bolt, and other tools of uncertain origin. There were all kinds of motorbikes, all in different stages of decomposition, older than the both of them.
“Ever heard of a Max Marshall?” Dan asked.
“Who?” Andy asked and gave a pained expression.
Dan could see that he obviously had not heard of him. “How about any recent visitors from the city?”
“Don’t know if we’ve had any lately. Only young Sophie.”
“What do you know about her?”
“Why? What’s Sophie done wrong?”
“You know her?”
“Susan Tyle’s granddaughter. What she done wrong?”
“Was she here recently? In town?”
“She was staying with Susan. That’s what visitors do, since there’s nowhere else to stay. What she done wrong?”
“Nothing that I know of.”
“Then why bring her up?”
“I see you like your bikes,” Dan said as he kicked at one, hoping that a change of subject would change Andy’s demeanour.
“What about my bikes?” he asked like he was offended.
“I’m just throwing around ideas, that’s all,” Dan said with a shrug.
“I’ve had most these bikes a long time. They’re in no hurry to go anywhere. What is it you want, exactly, Ironwright? I don’t need city police coming here questioning the way I work. This is a small town and by and large it’s a happy town, and a downright nice place to live, you ask me. I’m the one who keeps it that way. I do a good job here and everybody knows that. Go ask anyone out there, ask them what they think of Sheriff Andy and I tell you right now, it’ll be a good report. Nobody’s going to say anything bad about Handisides and the work he does because there’s no reason to. Get that? Write that down for your little report, ok?”
Now it was Dan’s turn to be hostile.
“That’s just a beautiful speech, little man,” he said, his voice rising with each word. Now Dan had his attention he continued, “What I want to know is everyone you talked to for this case and what they said. I want all your notes, all your doodling, all your little scratches, any little dirt marks, grease marks, whatever marks; anything at all pertaining to this case. That’s exactly what I want. Got that?”
“Since when do you care about the case?” Andy asked with a change of approach, now softer and more chatty. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s never going to get solved. Hit-and-run, out-of-towner. That much we know.”
Dan considered that and calmed a little. “At what point did you decide it was an accident?”
Andy glared at him and without a word quickly walked out of the garage and to the station house. Dan followed him but by the time he got to the door Andy was already coming back out.
“Don’t worry about him, Gail,” Andy was saying to the plump woman, and didn’t see Dan coming toward him.
Dan gave him a relaxed smile and thought the hostility had ended. Andy seemed to take great insult that Dan had not stayed in the garage. He threw a brown folder onto the dirt ground. A good half-dozen of loose pages fell out. Dan looked at Andy for an explanation. When he saw he wasn’t going to get one he started to kick at a few of the loose pages that were lying at his feet.
“Do yourself a favour,” Andy said with a soft tone that was the most threatening out of anything that Dan had heard from him. “Leave them there. Longbottom was in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one knew the man well enough to generate any hatred over him so there was nothing sinister to it. There’s no case. Just an accident. You came up here for no reason. Have a nice journey back to your city.”
Dan was dreading being called into Dun’s office and all through the morning he kept himself busy in checking through a few old case files, and helping out with any odd jobs in the office. Someone always needed to have a call returned, or some background check done, or even to take the next big case to come in. Dun called him at ten minutes before the lunch break, when Dan’s tummy had already been growling for the last half-hour. To make it worse, this was to be no private conference in his office, where Dan could work his manipulative magic. Any subtle hints and suggestions on Dan’s part tended to be severely nullified when accompanied by chortles from his peers. Dun was walking out of his office and heading in a direct line to Dan’s desk. He had no escape.
“How’d your visit to Gendry go?” Dun asked as he leaned with both hands on Dan’s desk.
“It’s so pretty this time of year.”
Dun smiled only because he understood that such an answer meant that Dan was avoiding his question, and that meant he didn’t want to talk about it, and that meant he was reluctant to let it go. “You have something, don’t you,” he asked with a somewhat evil grin.
“The scenery was the only reason to go there, really it was.”
“I know when you’re lying to me. Your left eye twitches. You really shouldn’t bother trying that with me. What you got? I know you’ve got the file, so what did you find? Dale missed something?”
Dan knew that Dun was trying to wind him up. He knew that was what he was up to, so it shouldn’t have any effect on him. But it did. “What do you want me to say? There’s a reason people still live in hick places like that. They can’t survive in a big city. Probably don’t even realise the big city exists, some of them. Ask them what year it is, they would probably ask you why you wanted to know that for. I’m not kidding, the main attraction of the place is the local food house and they only have one of them.”
“You talked to Gendry’s sheriff, right?”
“And he’s the chief clown of the whole circus.”
Dun looked at him evenly, devoid of any humour now. “You think they’ve botched that case, Dan?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But your left eye—“
“They probably did, yeah, all right? Are you happy? They wouldn’t know what shoe to put on what foot, or care if they got it wrong. A murder? Forget it. They probably thought a rock happened to fall from the sky, like they used to back in peasant days, and hit the guy when he was out for a stroll. In this case it was some unknown driver going way over the speed limit. Hit, kill, drive off, never seen again. How convenient.”
“But you don’t think that,” Dun said, knowing that his man, his best detective, had something. “You think there’s more to it.”
“You want to reopen the case, then send some rookie chasing after it. I’ve got actual police work to do.”
“No you don’t. And you’re the best rookie I have.”
Dun enjoyed his joke and laughed as he walked away to his lunch destination. Then he stopped and instructed, “Leave no stone uncovered, Ironwright. It’ll be all your fault if anything gets missed.”
Benny Taylor was sitting at the next desk and he had listened carefully to every word without understanding most of it. A five-year veteran, he still had trouble coming to grips with his job. He waited for Dun to leave before he leaned over to Dan. “Your eye twitches, Dan?” he asked in all seriousness, and then wondered why Dan ignored him.
“This was Dale’s,” said Dan.
“What’s that?” asked Benny. “You think Dale missed something?”
Dan sat quietly for a few moments and then abruptly stood up from his desk and went in search of his lunch. “The body was moved,” he said to Benny as he walked past him.
“Dale knew that?” Benny asked but Dan didn’t stop.
It was in the evening when Dan called in on the Evans. He had put aside his wife’s very nice pineapple desert; a simple concoction of bread chunks, milk and a dab of vanilla essence that when baked became something astounding. That was no mean feat, to walk away from his desert, but he knew he needed to get the visit out of the way. If he started in on all that rich pineapple loveliness he would not want to move out of his monstrous lounge chair, and it would have coincided with the sports segment on the TV news. Sam promised it would be easy to reheat when he got back home, but all he could think about was that it was currently a long way away from his mouth, and he didn’t like anything about that thought. He found that he passed an attractive corner store on his way to the Evans and a quick stop there saw him collect some cut-price cream rolls, ones that actually had real cream in them. He made a note in his notebook of the address. His notebook was full of such addresses, and he had more of them than for anything work related.
“Sorry to be a pain,” he said as Sarah opened the door for him, “but I need to go over what I talked about with your husband a few days back.”
She welcomed him in, and she was quickly joined by Paul. He shook their hands and regretted that they were still a little sticky from the buns. Both looked excited at his presence and were happy to provide all the high-class coffee he wanted, as well as a very tasty selection of fruit slice. Dan knew that he was not being polite in eating down the first one in about three or four bites. What was worse was when they noticed that he tried to put another in his pocket. It was an old habit that he had from childhood, when he saw a lot of food he would try to take as much as he could at once. He had tried to stop the habit but then realised how much food he missed out on.
Both Paul and Sarah didn’t seem to notice as they gave him all kinds of questions and then answers, none of which interested him. He waited for them to stop talking before he took out his notebook and pen.
“This is over Max Marshall?” asked Sarah. “Have you arrested him?”
Dan grimaced, thinking that she might be a problem. He knew that having two excitable witnesses together was about ten times as worse as than one calm one, since they fed off each other and drove up their stress level.
“There is no reason to arrest Max Marshall,” he said in a relaxed manner.
“Of course there is,” she replied like he was a child.
He realised that he had been too relaxed and given them the impression that he was soft.
“He knew about the murder in Gendry,” she continued. “It’s in his book. Paul told you about that, didn’t he?”
That interested Dan. “What book is this?”
“I don’t know what it’s called,” she said. “I don’t think he told us. He’s very secretive like that.”
“I was under the impression he was writing it,” said Dan, “not finished it. You say it’s in an actual book?”
“It’s not published yet, no,” Paul explained. “It’s just some story he was writing. But he’s detailed the murder, all about it. No one’s going to get that right without knowing a thing or too.”
“Can we put the handbrake on here for a second, folks?” Dan asked with a polite smile. “Allan Longbottom was killed in a hit and run accident, most likely unprovoked. By the looks of Gendry, speeding vehicles are a bit of a plague, and this was bound to happen at some point. If what you say is correct, that Max Marshall had prior knowledge, then he would have had to have known Longbottom and had a reason for the crime.”
“And wrote it down,” said Sarah, appearing even more enthused now that she had heard some details of the case from someone who was in authority.
“But not only that,” said Paul. “When he told us about it, you should have seen the look on his face.”
“Why, what was his face looking like?” asked Dan.
“Satisfaction,” said Paul, himself satisfied to say that.
“He was bragging, is what he was,” said Sarah. “Yes, he was bragging all right.”
“What association does Max have with Gendry?” asked Dan. “Does he travel there much? How many people does he know there?”
Paul looked at Sarah and admitted, “We have no idea.”
“We’re friends of his wife, more than him,” said Sarah, which was no surprise to Dan. “She’s Jill. She’s nice.”
“Max keeps to himself, I’d say,” said Paul. “I couldn’t tell you anything about how he spends his time or who his friends are. I don’t even know if he has any friends.”
“How about yourselves?” asked Dan, moving his pen closer to the notebook, which he knew would throw them off their smugness. “Do you know anyone in Gendry?”
“Us?” Paul asked, not expecting that question. “No.”
“Been there much?”
“I went there once when I was a girl,” said Sarah. “With my dad, who was a keen fisherman. I don’t remember much about it, other than discovering my dad was not really any good at being a fisherman. He gave it up not long after that. We never did go back, but I have wondered about what it looks like now. One day we might stop in if we’re driving up there, on our way somewhere more important.”
Dan made sure she knew that he wrote all of that down. “There’s one thing I’m not clear about,” he said like he was having trouble remembering. If they knew him then they would know how deep his memory went and any time he feigned forgetfulness was just a ruse. The scribble in the notebook was more for show, to give him something to do when he wanted to draw out the conversation. It wasn’t even his real notebook, since he did not want to mess that up with worthless fluff like he was getting from these two. “When you say he told you that he had killed Longbottom, and this was in something he was writing, did you see this document? Did he have any pages with him at the time?”
“We didn’t see any,” said Paul.
“We all heard him saying it,” said Sarah. “Us and his wife Jill. We’ll swear that in court.”
“Let’s not jump the guns on this,” said Dan. “If he has something in writing, then we may be able to put together some charges. It’s probably something innocent, I wouldn’t be surprised. Just a misunderstanding. Thank you for your time.”
“Let us know when you arrest him,” said Sarah. “Are you allowed to do that?”
“If that happens I’ll be sure to do that,” said Dan and then stopped himself from asking her if there was anyone else she would like to know is arrested. He took another fruit slice with him and thanked them for the very nice coffee, but all he could think about was the reheated desert waiting for him to come home to.
Dan started off driving home but took a different corner and headed for the Marshall’s apartment building. More than what the Evans’ said was the memory of his first visit and knowing that something was being hidden. That something, whatever it was, bugged him. He knew from experience that what was hidden may not be incriminating, and more often than not it was innocent and nothing to do with the case. But the very fact that there was something there made Dan want to find it. He wanted it enough to put off, just for a short time, eating his desert, and that made him grumpy.
Max was so startled to see Dan at his door that he was speechless. Dan noticed the fear in his eyes and that made him smile. Sometimes his job could be easy. Here was someone trying to hide something from him. Like a trained sniffer-dog, Dan went straight to work on finding it. His stomach demanded he hurry.
“Detective Ironwright, is there something else I can help you with?” Max asked.
“If you don’t mind,” Dan said in an easygoing manner, “I have a couple of follow-ups regarding the Gendry case. If you don’t mind?”
Max let him in. “I didn’t know you guys worked this late. Crime never sleeps, huh?”
“It doesn’t, but I do. To tell the truth, I have a nice pineapple pie waiting for me when I get home, so this won’t take long.”
“I have already said I know no one in Gendry, or anything about that murder up there. I really don’t know how I could be part of your case, but I think I already told you that.”
“And I have your statement about that. But since then it has come to my attention that you have been writing stories about the Longbottom case.”
They only went as far as the dining room table, where Max offered him a chair. In the middle of the table sat a large and square crystal bowl full of very lifelike imitation grapes. Dan was about to help himself before he saw that they were plastic. The mood he was in, he probably would have eaten one anyway.
“It’s a free country,” said Max.
“Then it’s true, you have been writing about it? May I see what you have done, please?”
“Mr Ironwright, I didn’t know you were a fan.”
Dan was about to say it was only for the case but then decided it would be best to humour him.
“My latest book is set there, in Gendry,” said Max. “Let me burn you a disk of what I’ve done so far, and you can read it to your heart’s content. Remember, it’s only a draft, and I don’t usually let people see drafts. Seeing as this is a special circumstance, and you’re not some kind of snotty critic, I don’t see how it could hurt. You’re not a snotty critic are you? Don’t worry, I was only kidding.”
Dan was not expecting Max to cooperate so readily and for once he was speechless. Max went to make a copy and it only took a minute. When he returned with a silver disk already in a plastic case, Dan was amazed at his efficiency.
“How did you know about the Gendry case?” Dan asked as he inspected the disk and saw that it was just a computer disk like any other and he felt dumb for looking at it like that.
“Since it hasn’t been a secret it would be unusual if I had no knowledge of it. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Why write about it?”
“Why write anything? Because it’s there. Because it wants to be written. Because it’s easier to write it than not write it. Because it’s on people’s minds. Because in a month or two nobody will remember it, even the residents of Gendry, so I’m keeping it in the public eye. If I didn’t write anything, no one would remember. That’s just the way the sad world is. One moment we’re in awe over some tragedy, the next we’re laughing at some pointless reality show. Tragedies are everywhere, and if you ask me, there is no difference between reality shows and the news channels; both revel in human suffering and make money from it. Someone gets run down in a small town; shocking. Someone gets voted off an island; more shocking. But the ‘shocking’ part is why we’re tuning in in the first place. I suppose, if I was honest with myself, my book is trying to take advantage of that, the same as any other kind of media. I suppose I’m glad Gendry was rattled by that murder. And if you push me, I guess I’m pleased the man died, if it means I can sell my book about it. That’s just the way this sad world is.”
Dan was about to tell him he could be incriminating himself by talking like this, but he decided that he won’t since he just didn’t like him.
“Can you tell me when you wrote it?” he asked.
“Last couple of months,” said Max. “I can’t say for certain. I write a lot of different things. And I need to warn you again, it’s just a draft, so excuse the typos. I just can’t spell to save myself. Never could. The trick is making people think you can. Truth is, not many people can spell, and no one can spell every word, except one of those strange little kids you see on TV now and then. You can keep that copy there. But please, whatever you do, don’t let anyone else see it. Anyone can copy it and put their name to it and publish it on the net. It’s copyrighted to me and to me only.”
“Makes me feel like it’s top secret,” Dan said, only half joking.
“Guess it’s just my natural writer’s fear of seeing his work leave his house in the hands of a stranger. Unfinished work especially, makes me ten times more worried. Like one of your children leaving home when they’re too young to see the world. Would you let one of your children leave home with some man off the street? That’s how I feel about my draft you have there. I don’t expect you to understand, and I’m not saying it has any logic. At least I’m not asking to go with you and stand over your shoulder when you read it. But it has crossed my mind.”
“Your work is safe with me, sir,” Dan said as he got up and head to the door. “Thank you and good night.”
As he walked to his car he had two uneasy feelings. The first was a result of too much rushing around after his dinner, which was not helped by the addition of cream rolls and fruit slices. The other was that he was starting to suspect that this entire case was a pointless wild goose hunt and whatever was on the disk was nothing but a big waste of his time.
Dun Moore noticed that Dan had been staring at his computer screen for a good hour. This was unusual. It wasn’t like Dan to spend much time on a computer and he hardly ever saw him on the internet. But there he was staring at it and hardly moving. Every now and then he reached for the mouse, and aside from the constant sipping of his coffee, that was his only movement. Dun considered having someone walk past to sneak a look and then report back to him, but then he thought that he should have his staff be doing something more important.
Then Dan got up and headed to the kitchen, probably for more food, and Dun nodded. There was the old Dan, still with them. Dun returned to his own desk where he was trying to write a report for his boss which was not going well. But after looking at the computer screen he knew that he couldn’t relax without knowing what Dan was up to. He went to Dan’s desk which was still free, and looked at the screen. Words filled it up and at first Dun thought it was a letter. As he looked at it he saw that it was fiction, with a few glaring typos. Was Dan reading a book?
Dan came up behind Dun and ignored him as he placed a small box of pastries on the desk, and then went to get more coffee. Dun helped himself to a pastry and followed him.
“How’s the Longbottom case coming along?” Dun asked him in the kitchen.
“It’s not,” Dan replied as he filled his cup, sounding like he wasn’t feeling too chatty.
“Paul Evans and his wife Sarah, they’re chasing ghosts. All it’s about is this Max Marshall and his little story about Gendry.”
“Story? What story’s this?”
“You were looking at it just a second back. Some odd thing about some girl who goes to live with her grandmother. It seems to be set in Gendry, but it’s not really like Gendry if you ask me. More like one of those quaint versions of Gendry you’d see on TV. Think that’s just the way the guy writes; not really my style. I prefer action; exploding helicopters, that sort of thing. Those Bruce Willis action ones from the eighties, they’re my favourites.”
“Max Marshall wrote a story, you’re saying? About the murder?”
“Yeah, and he gave me a copy,” Dan said as he went back to his desk. “I’m sitting here reading through it, like I should, and I find that it’s true, that he talks about Longbottom being found dead. He’s got the reaction of the locals and how the whole town is shocked. Usual stuff you’d expect.”
“He says how Longbottom died?” Dun asked as he followed. “Say who did it?”
“I haven’t got that far, but I’d doubt it. None of it seems real to me.”
“Then it’s all just fiction?”
“Some of it’s true, maybe.”
“True? What’s true?”
“He’s got Handisides in it, and a couple of others I recognise. Sal, who owns Sal’s.”
“He’s got real people in there? Then it’s not fiction. What do you call it when it’s not fiction?”
At the neighbouring desk, Benny Taylor leaned back in his chair. “Real life,” he offered.
“The main stuff about the girl,” Dan said to Dun, “that can’t be real. I think she’s the main character. It’s all from her point of view. As far as I could tell, Max isn’t a young woman, so that’s kind of weird, why he’s writing about her.”
“Think she could be a substitute for Max?” asked Dun. “Like he was there and he’s using her character as cover for what he did?”
“It’s possible, I guess, but I don’t know,” said Dan. “Her grandmother runs a boarding house up there. Perhaps Marshall stayed in the same place.”
“What do you mean, her grandmother runs a boarding house?”
“She’s a real person, this granddaughter. Everyone up there’s still talking about her even though she hasn’t been there for a while. She lives here in the city and I’m trying to track her down. Not having much luck there.”
“You’re telling me this Max Marshall has a real person as his main character? I thought you just said it wasn’t real.”
“Fiction,” said Benny.
“The story isn’t real but the people in it are,” said Dan.
“Non-fiction fiction,” said Benny.
“Shut up,” Dun said to Benny without looking at him. “Tell you what, Dan; check out exactly how much of it is real and how much isn’t. If there’s real people amongst all that poetry then I want to know who and what they’re doing there. If not, then I think we can pull the plug on it.”
“Pull the plug?” Dan asked, shocked at the thought.
“Unless you find anything we can actually use in the book,” said Dun, not knowing why that would upset him, “I think you’re done on this one.”
“He was lying to me, I know that much.”
“Who was? Marshall? How do you know?”
“His left eye was twitching. No, Dun, honestly, something wasn’t right with him. And if anything in his book is real I’m going to nail him to the floor with it.”
“Dan, you think everyone’s lying to you, don’t you.”
“Everyone lies to us,” said Benny.
“Just concentrate on the book, said Dun, ignoring Benny, “before calling any of the fictional characters in for questioning. Real people, okay?”
Dan rubbed his eyes before he settled back into his reading. The chat with Dun had come too early, before he had settled on a conclusion, and it put him off his rhythm. Yes, some was real and some was fiction. He knew the boarding house in Max’s story was a real place and called Trent House, and he also knew that a woman from the city named Sophie had recently stayed there. He could feel that much more was real too.
The phone was sitting right there and he knew he could get some answers with one call. He looked up the number for Trent House and called and asked the owner about her granddaughter. As much as Dan tried, he could not convince Susan Tyle that his questions were official police business. The only way to do it was to go back.
Sam knew that Dan was sneaking secret food stashes into the house. Under the bed on his side (for night snacking), up in the top kitchen shelf behind the good plates, under the seat of his easy chair (that was his favourite), inside a locked safe under the wood pile, and in a little nook behind the bathtub. She suspected he had other places but she was yet to find them. It was always a giveaway when he would emerge from a room emitting satisfied sighs. Food must be in there somewhere.
She knew that he would eat more than usual when his job started to get the better of him. While she didn’t want to be a controlling type of wife, she was worried about it. He was on his own diet plan, which was entirely up to him to watch his food intake, and he had made promise after promise that he would not go too far. But there again were the warning signs; suddenly happy for no reason, or agitated and restless. It was one of those rare cases that he would want to talk about over dinner, and no matter where their conversation went he would bring it back there again.
Sam didn’t know anything about Gendry. Aside from a couple of brief ventures out of the city when she was in High School, she had no interest in going near such a place again. From what Dan described, it sounded like the last place she would want to go if she did want to leave the city. Although the thought did amuse her, that if they did live there then he would probably eat all of Sal’s food and put her out of business.
“There’s something strange about this one,” Dan said from their lounge computer. “I can’t put my finger on it. I’ve gone through this book three times now and I can’t get to the bottom of it. Probably one of those things that’s obvious, right out in the open, and the more you look into it the further you get away from the answer.”
He was printing out Max’s story and giving each page a quick re-read, highlighting the interesting parts. He had three marker pens; green for good, red for bad and blue for uncertain. An orange one would have been better but blue was good enough. He wanted to know exactly which people were real and which weren’t. The blue was used so much that it was starting to run dry.
“Danny, I’ve been meaning to talk about your diet,” said Sam. Seeing she had his attention she muted the television. One of her favourite reality shows was on but this was important enough to miss part of it. Dan never bothered with the shows, saying he preferred his reality to be realistic.
“Not now, if you don’t mind,” said Dan, knowing why she was saying that. “Not with this.”
“We agreed we’d discuss your diet when you put more weight on. Are you working on a big case? I thought you were still doing the Gendry one.”
“It’s still the Gendry one, but it’s like no other I’ve ever been involved with. It’s more than some backward town. Now I’ve got this writer, and he lives here in the city, and he’s written all about the case.”
“How is that unusual?”
“It’s unusual if he wrote it before the crime happened. Sam, I hate to admit it, but I’m starting to wonder if this is not something supernatural. The more I look at it, the more weird it gets.”
“It’s just that I saw one of this guy Marshall’s books, and it was all about ghosts or something. And now we get this prediction-thing happening.”
“What are you saying?” she asked with a light laugh. “You think he’s psychic? I thought you didn’t believe in psychics. If I recall rightly, you said they’re all con artists.”
“I did and I don’t. I’ve come across a few in my work and I know they’re all kooks. But how else do I explain this?”
“Wouldn’t it help you solve your case if he actually was psychic?” She saw he was considering that, so she added, “You know, I think you need to take a break. I know you’re eating a lot more lately, and we both know it’s because the case is getting to you. If it’ll help, I’ll give the book a read through, see if I can see anything psychic in it. See if I get any weird vibes.”
“Sure, have a go, see what you think. Don’t go changing anything; leave it as it is. I know you like to correct everything as you go. This could be evidence. I’ve printed it off so I can refer to it when I get there. The highlighted stuff is mine, so don’t change any of that either.”
“What? When you get where? Are you going somewhere?”
“I have to give Gendry another visit.”
“Are you serious? Didn’t you just go up there? I thought you hated it.”
“You’re welcome to come along.”
“As much as I love you,” she said as she turned her TV show back on, “you know that’s not going to happen.”
He watched her relax back into her chair and resume with her show. It was said in jest, they both knew that, but secretly he wished that yes, she would accompany him to that place and quell his growing fears. Such fears were unknown to him. The very fact that he felt them at all made him more nervous. He wondered if he should just straight-out ask her to go with him, but when he saw her laughing over one of the contestants falling off a log and into muddy water, he realised that maybe she was better not going. He then felt better after he returned to the computer and dug out that half-muffin that he had kept hidden in his trouser pocket since mid-afternoon. He knew that she never thought of checking the clothes he was wearing, and he could carry a good dozen muffins or pastries at any one time. In two bites it was gone.
Dan stopped at a roadside coffee place and took all of the pages in with him. Three cups later he was part of a group of four, including two overweight tattoo-covered truckers, discussing the possibility of Max’s story being true. The locals knew Gendry better than Dan and he busily made notes of what they said. The boarding house sounded accurate, they said, and the writer was probably there recently. Sal’s was a well known stopping place for the truckers, and they knew some of the locals like Elbow and Two-Tooth. When Dan made it back to his car to resume his journey it was early afternoon and he faced a night drive to get back home. The three bags of fruit pies were finished within the next hour.
His stomach was crying when he drove into town and he had no doubt in his mind that he was going to clean out whatever Sal was going to serve him for his dinner. But first things first, he resolved, and he almost ran up the steps into Trent House. He used far too much force to ring the dainty little bell on the counter and then started to walk through to the next room to see if he could find anyone. Susan was walking down the stairs when she saw him and she greeted him politely.
“Dan Ironwright,” he introduced, “up from the city. We spoke on the phone yesterday.”
“Indeed, we did,” Susan said with a polite smile as she slowly made her way around the counter. “I’m only too pleased to help with your investigations. How long will you be staying?”
“Hopefully no more than a couple of hours,” he said as he looked at the rough collection of papers that were Max’s story. Now mostly out of order, they all had notes scribbled over both sides.
“Oh, you are not after a room? From your call I thought you were saying you had a lead in your case and wanted to meet some of Gendry’s folk.”
“That I do.”
“I had my twin boys fix up my main guestroom; new towels and such. Are you sure you don’t need to stay at least overnight?”
Dan sorted through the papers on the counter, to Susan’s confusion. “The twins, that would be Kerry and Jerry?”
“Do you know them? Are they in trouble? What have they done now? They have a habit of causing trouble like you wouldn’t believe, but I assure you they haven’t got a malicious bone between them.”
“And you have a daughter, Rebecca?”
“How would you have known that? Yes, I do. Why do you ask?”
“And a granddaughter, Sophie?”
“My first daughter, from my first marriage, died when she was young, but she gave us our lovely Sophie. May I ask you what this is about?”
“Certainly you can. Have you recently had a boarder by the name of Craigfield?”
“I can tell you without looking at my book, the answer is no. I have never heard of anyone with that name, I’m sorry.”
“Mind if I take a look at that guestbook?”
“Actually, there’s no need. We seldom have guests. It’s coming up to a year since our last. There are no recent names there.”
“What is real and what is not …” Dan said to himself as a couple of pages dropped to the floor. He felt a very strong sense of hunger, almost like a kick to his side.
“No matter. Sophie is the one I have the most interest in seeing. She’s not still here, by any chance?”
“I can take you to see her now if you wish.”
“She is actually here?” he asked, far more amazed than he should have been.
“She’s helping in the kitchen, last I saw of her. If you don’t mind my asking, this is official police business?”
“This is part of a homicide investigation, yes ma’am.”
Susan was shocked to hear that and she became subdued as she took Dan through to the kitchen. Sophie was helping Simona prepare vegetables and they were both startled to see Susan bringing in a stranger. The smell of the cooking food hit Dan like a smack to the head. Sophie was nothing at all like what he was expecting, being very short and with dark features, not the way he had pictured her when reading Max’s story.
“Sophie, my name is Dan Ironwright,” he introduced as he showed her his badge, “and I am from the city homicide.” He had trouble putting his badge away while still holding onto the pages. He could not take his eyes off a pot of the sweetest smelling soup he had ever encountered, and wondered if they would mind if he grabbed a spoon and took a taste.
Sophie turned pale. “It’s not about someone I know, is it? Who is it?”
“Come, Simona, let’s give them some privacy,” said Susan and they left the kitchen.
“Someone you know?” asked Dan, putting the pages on one of the few spaces available on the table. He wondered if he should ask first before trying some of that soup or just go ahead and find a spoon for himself.
“Yes, someone I know. Has someone I know died? I assume you’re here to tell me someone I know has been murdered. Who is it? Not Clarke? Or Nancy? Please, not Nancy?”
“No, it’s not like that at all.”
“Okay,” she said without really believing him. “Then what is it about?”
“Actually it’s a little difficult to explain. Have you heard of Max Marshall, a writer from the city?”
“Why do you ask?”
“This is not easy for me to describe, but it seems he has been writing about this town. More specifically, about your family. Even more specifically, about you.”
“Writing what about me?” she asked slowly.
“You’re his main character, in a book he’s written,” he said as he pointed to the crumbled collection of pages. “This is a copy. The original’s tucked away in his computer.”
“I’m a main character in a book? What kind of book?”
“I don’t know exactly; some sort of novel. Melodrama, really. Not my style. Actually, I prefer movies. But this is one book I can’t wait for the movie to come out.”
“What was your name again? Dan? Well, Dan, this must be some sort of joke. Are you a real police officer?”
“I assure you I didn’t travel all the way up here on account of a joke.”
“You have it wrong. I’m writing his story. Did the twins send you some of my pages?”
“Say what? I didn’t quite catch that.”
“I said, I am writing his story and he, Max Marshall, is the main character of my book.”
Dan looked at her and then the soup. He had no idea what she was talking about.
“Okay, let’s start this over,” he said as he tried to put the food out of his mind. “The investigation concerns the Longbottom murder. Since it is still an ongoing case, anything out of the ordinary will be looked at. This is no time for flippancy.”
“There is nothing flippant about what I am telling you, Dan,” she replied sternly. “The fact of the matter is it is not Max who is writing about me, I am writing about him. How did you know about that? I haven’t shown anyone my pages.”
“How much have you written?” he asked, humouring her. As far as he could tell, she was confessing her guilt.
“That’s easy. I can show you.”
She left the kitchen and at first Dan didn’t know if he should follow. He saw a spoon sitting by itself and he began to reach for it but he stopped himself, and then almost bumped into Simona who knew what he was up to and gave him a nasty glare. When he left the kitchen Sophie was already going up the stairs, stepping heavily on the creaking steps. When he got to her room she had already collected some of her most recent pages, together with what was being kept in a small shoebox.
“I will have this photocopied,” Dan said when she handed it all to him.
“Just take it all,” she said as she folded her arms. “I have no further interest in it. Especially if I’m going to be questioned about it like this.”
“No, I have no need to confiscate your property. I’ll get it copied and the original returned. And if I may ask, how is it you know Max, exactly?”
“I never said I knew him.”
“But you know enough to write about him.”
“He’s a character I invented. And how do you know about that?”
“He’s a real person. He lives in the city. I’ve met him. You expect me to believe you plucked his name out of the thin air?”
“Where else do you get names from? The phonebook?”
“Why are you writing about him, specifically?”
“Why write anything?”
“No, seriously, Sophie. Why are you writing about Max Marshall?”
“I’m just using a name. It’s all fiction. If it’ll help, I’ll change his name in the next draft. Something less controversial.”
“You still haven’t told me why you’re using his name.”
“Do you know how hard it is to think up new names?”
“That’s the only reason?”
“Read what I’ve written and you’ll see it isn’t anything to get worked up about. As if I’m that good a writer.”
He looked at the shoebox and realised that she may be telling him the truth. And it was a truth he did not want to face.
“Have you read any of Marshall’s books?”
“I don’t know he had any books, since I didn’t know he was a real person. Honestly, it’s not that rare a name. There’s probably many Max Marshalls in the world. I vaguely remember some golfer named that.”
“What about Anger Angel? Heard of that?”
“What? What-angel? Is that a name of a book? I don’t know what to think about this. You say he’s written about me? What is it, can you tell me? It is true, he has really written about me? How could that be possible? Do you think he’s been following me? Why would he do that? I’m finding this a little difficult to take.”
“Do you know anything about psychics?”
“I don’t know anything about any psychics. Why ask me that?”
“This is a very unusual case.”
“Yes, I can see that. Detective, all I have done wrong, is write something using his name, and I’m sorry if it’s caused confusion. I didn’t know that was a crime, and if it was I would have called him Bruce Balderdash or something.”
Dan took a breath and realised that he was rushing it. Here was this Sophie telling him that she was doing the same as Max, writing about him, when he was writing about her. This would take time to figure out, and certainly not while standing in a hallway holding an old shoebox with pain in his stomach.
“The only crime in writing is bad writing, I guess,” she added.
“I will get these originals back to you as soon as I can,” he said formally. “Is this your present address?”
“No, I live in the city. I’ll be going back home next week.”
“I can send it back here first thing tomorrow,” he said, before heading down to the dining room to get ready for the evening meal, ignoring her trying to tell him to just throw the pages away since she had no interest in ever looking at them again.
Dan’s night was sleepless. After arriving home at two in the morning he tried to sleep but then had to get up and start reading Sophie’s story. He found the style and storyline worse than Max’s, but that was because he had expected too much. When he finally crept back into bed without waking Sam, he fell asleep quickly but his dreams were of yet more of Sophie’s story. When he woke up a mere two hours later he had trouble remembering what was real and what came from his own imagination. He arrived at the office before anyone else in his shift and began to read it again, if anything but to remember what wasn’t in his dream.
Gregory Retter came in, in the lumbering way he always walked. The oldest of the detectives, he was a perennially lazy man, widely known as having the worst record for any detective in the city’s history. But he was a nice guy and he had several old friends amongst the brass, so no one really minded his work record so long as he had no important cases. When he heard him, Dan looked up with a start. Then he started yelling at him.
“One’s writing about the other, who’s writing about them! One is writing about the other writing. Can you believe that? They’re both writing!”
“You do what?” Gregory asked, not expecting to encounter hostility at such an early hour and it baffled at him. He went to take a look at the collection of papers on Dan’s desk and scratched his head when he saw how much of a mess it all was.
“This girl Sophie Trent,” Dan explained in a calmer voice, “she’s writing a novel about a man called Max Marshall. And in her story Max is writing a story. Problem is, Max Marshall is writing a story about a girl named Sophie Trent, who is writing a story. They’re both doing this at the same time. Something supernatural’s going on here, I’m telling you. This is way out of my league. This is like that Pink Floyd album matching with that film Gone With The Wind. Some things no one can explain.”
“You’ve been working on a novel in your spare time, Dan?” Greg asked, not paying too much attention to the pages because he was worried that he might have to read it for him. There were not many things he had learned in his life, but reading drafts from aspiring unpublished novelists was one that he knew to avoid.
“This is the work of two suspects in the Gendry murder.”
“They both trying to put the blame on the other? No kidding?” Greg asked as he reluctantly picked up a page and tried to make head or tale of it. “What’s their stories about?”
“Which ones? The real ones or the …”
“The ones in the story. You said they were stories in their stories?”
“The girl is writing about the guy, who is writing about her. And they are writing about them writing.”
“So, they know they’re writing about each other?”
“No, I didn’t say that. The characters in their books, they’re also writing.”
“That’s what I’m asking. You are saying they have both written stories about each other writing a story? And in these stories they have more stories?”
“I guess I am saying that, yeah. That’s making me feel dizzy.”
“Meaning there’s four stories going on? Or is it a continuous thing, into infinity? One writes about the other writing, who’s writing about them writing, and so on, and on.”
“Thinking about that is where my brain starts to go real fuzzy.”
“I knew that when you said about Dark Side of the Moon. The film you mean is The Wizard of Oz.”
“It is? Well, I never checked it out myself, see if it’s true or not.” Dan sat back in his chair and put his hands over his face. The change of thought was not doing him any good.
“Yeah, I did,” chuckled Greg. “Helps if you’re drunk, if you want to see any connection between them. I don’t know what they’re thinking; Floyd fans, that is. Or your suspects, for that matter.”
“You don’t believe in supernatural phenomenon?”
“Only on the sporting field,” Greg said as he placed the page back down on the desk and went to fill up his coffee cup. “Especially when I’ve got my pay check in any way involved with it. If I’ve got money riding on a team, the other team gets some strong supernatural forces to conspire to rob me. My advice is, just throw what you got there all into one of those files that forever sit on the bottom of a dark cabinet and chalk it up as one of those unexplained paranormal oddities. That’s my advice, and at this time of the morning, you’re lucky it’s for free.”
“Can’t do that. Can’t just go dropping it. They’re both describing my murder case.”
“Your case? Wasn’t the Gendry murder Dale’s? Wasn’t that hit-and-run?”
“‘Could’ve’ Moore put it on me.”
“Then arrest them, the authors. Both of them. Put them in the hole and beat it out of them. Sounds like one of them knows something they shouldn’t. Or maybe they both do.”
“Arrest them for what? Bad writing?”
“One of them knows something, and probably both of them do. They got together and thought they were real clever.”
“Need something more than that. Need a hook.”
“Tell you what: I’ll help you.”
“How are you thinking of helping me?”
“For a start, look for any similarities in their stories. That’ll show they conspired.”
Dan stopped and realised. “You know, you’re right. I did notice something.” He grabbed some pages and was disappointed to see how out of order they were. “To do that I’ll have to read through them both again.”
“I’ll give it a read, if you want.”
“Hands off. No offence, Gregory, but it’s up to me to get to the bottom of it. Tell you what: you want to help? Go get some breakfast for me. Make it two. I couldn’t be more hungry.”
“You haven’t had breakfast yet?”
“Yeah, but that was an hour ago, nearly.”
Dan was trying to explain his newest theory to Benny Taylor, who wasn’t getting it. They were having an early lunch in a small sandwich place before the usual lunchtime crowd came invading. Benny was amazed at how many pies Dan was making his way through. It didn’t matter how hot they were, or if the steak and cheese had too many gristly bits, or the cheese in the mince and cheese was too strong. All he needed was a large dab of ketchup on the top and he was away. It was easy for anyone to notice how fat his face was looking lately, but Benny was too smart to say anything. Such comments needed to wait until other police were within hearing range, for better effect.
“Something ties Sophie to Max,” Dan pondered, not noticing that he spat some small pieces of pastry, “and that something has a name, which is Craigfield. And somehow that leads to Longbottom. Who this Craigfield is, I don’t know. The only one in our records is a Craigfield Johnson, but I can’t track him down. How odd is that, that we can’t track him down?”
“If you can’t prove it, then forget it,” said Benny. “Do yourself a favour and forget it ever existed. No Craigfield, no book, no granddaughter in Gendry, no Max writing about her. Can you do that?”
“The killer of Longbottom would want me to, sure.”
“You can’t go saying that. You can’t get personal with this job. You know that, right? Soon as you start dwelling too much on the details, then you’re too wrapped up in it, and before you know it you’re believing all kinds of crazy theories.”
“Too late, I’m already in too deep. You can’t just say, ‘No murder,’ and it goes away. You know that as well as I do. They’re laughing at me.”
“Who’s laughing at you?” Benny asked, thinking someone had joked about his weight problem and he missed it.
“Sophie, Max, Craigfield; all three. What kind of a name is Craigfield anyway? He should be arrested just for that. Why can’t we find him? What’s that all about? We can find anyone, but not this guy?”
Benny sat back in his chair and looked at his watch.
“We can be sure Craigfield and Max have a history,” Dan continued, ignoring Benny’s disinterest. “Just place a nice bet on that one. That’s done. Home and hosed. By a length. What we don’t know is the connection of Sophie and Craigfield—heck, that name’s bugging me. I’m calling him Johnson from now on.”
“If that’s the same Craigfield Johnson, and if that’s his real surname,” Benny smirked.
“And we don’t know the connection to Longbottom,” Dan continued. It wasn’t that he was ignoring Benny, it was more that he was on a roll. He loved being on a roll, when his mind could put all the pieces together and he could throw out the distractions and false leads and realise the criminal in the crowd. “It’s there. I can smell it, you know? It’s there. Staring me in the face and I just can’t see it. It’s laughing at me; all smug, thinking it won’t be seen. This is not going to beat me. You know it’s not going to beat me. Craigfield can hide from our computer—Johnson can hide, I mean, but he can’t hide from me.”
“You don’t think you might need a break on this one?” Benny asked, now concerned for his friend.
The waitress walked up with a fresh coffee pot and asked if they wanted refills. Dan most certainly did. And three more pies. His roll needed to be fuelled.
He had them in his world now. They were far away from the light fiction of their books, from their cosy little apartments, their folksy little town, their typewriters and computers. Now they were in Dan’s two interrogation rooms; Sophie in one and Max in another and neither knew the other were there. That was how he started, and he would work his questions to find the truth. At the exact right time they would realise the other was in the neighbouring room, and they had heard the exact same questions. Dan could tell them whatever he wanted. They said that. They said this. Why do you think that is, Sophie? Say, Max, why did Sophie say that about you? It was especially pleasing that both had come in under the guise of helping their case, so neither had a lawyer.
Sophie was the first to face Dan’s questions. He started mild and polite, as was his norm, and then build up the anger. In truth, what was harder than hiding his real emotions was the fight to not think about his hunger. It was not very intimidating to grill a suspect while eating the ham and lettuce roll that he had hidden in his inside jacket pocket.
“Tell me about the guy in your story,” Dan said to Sophie with an inquiring tone. He was standing near to the only table in the room. Sophie was sitting with her arms resting on the table. Her hands were clasped and fingers fidgeted. Near to her was a large white file with no name on it but full of papers. It was untouched and Max guessed that she thought it was her story.
“Max Marshall,” he said again. “Can you tell me about him?”
“You’ve been reading my story? I’m flattered, of course, but confused as to why you would want to. It’s just a rough draft, and I probably wasn’t going to do much else with it anyway. Now, I’m certainly not. I told you to keep it, or throw it away, or whatever. I’m certainly not going to use it, not now.”
“But you do know Max? How well do you know him?”
“Of course I don’t know him. He’s just a character in my story.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about him, the real Max, I mean. His wife Jill? Got that pretty close. His friend Craigfield? Like you knew him too. Tell me about Craigfield.”
“These are just characters in my book, as I’ve explained. They’re not real and they’re not meant to be real. I don’t know any of them personally, if that’s what you’re suggesting. Are you suggesting that? I told you, I just used the name, and I‘m sorry he turned out to be real.”
“And his wife’s name?”
“Max’s wife is named Jill?”
“You also got his profession right too. How did you manage that?”
She looked worried. “I don’t know. You say he’s famous? Maybe I heard about him once and his name stayed with me; I don’t know. Am I in trouble here? You’re not telling me there’s some law that I can’t write about people if they’re real, are you?”
“Tell me about Craigfield.”
“He’s a fictitious character in my story. Like all of them. Or are you telling me he’s real too? I can’t believe that.”
“Where did you get the name?”
“I made it up.”
“You invented the name? He’s not based on a real person? Someone you met?”
“I’ve never met anyone with that name.”
“What were your plans for this story?”
“My plans? What’s the plan of anyone who writes? I just wanted to write.”
“You don’t have a publisher or a deal? You just wanted to write a story without knowing if anyone will read it? Why would you do that?”
“A publishing deal? That’s only for actual published authors.”
“Sorry but I can’t see why anyone would want to go to that much effort if they thought no one would ever read it.”
“With that advice, no one would write anything. But you know what? I wish I hadn’t, if this is what it gets me.”
Dan left it at that, for now. He wanted her to sit and think about what she said, while he went to see his other guest. Along the way he grabbed a cream roll from the fridge, where he had placed a whole bag that morning. He was no down to two. He was partly surprised that no one else had helped themselves to any of the rolls, but that was because he did not realise how wild he was looking when he was eating them. He would have preferred to have the ham and lettuce roll that was in his pocket, but that would mean trying to conceal a cream roll, and he had learned from experience not to do that again.
Max’s room was identical to Sophie’s but he was more relaxed, leaning back in his chair and tapping at the table leg with his foot. He too had a white folder on his desk, and like Sophie, it had not been touched. Dan would need to check the video later to see if he tried to take a peek, but it looked like he had not. To leave it untouched was a sure sign of guilt. No innocent person would be able to resist looking at it when they were left alone for a good half hour, as Max was.
“How well do you know Sophie Trent?” Dan asked him as soon as he opened the door. His tone was harsher than when he was with Sophie.
“I know no one by that name,” Max said, appearing bored and not moving a muscle. “Can you tell me what I’m doing here, please, Dan?”
“You’re here to discuss your book,” Dan said as he finished off the cream roll and grabbed one of the two spare chairs. “Quite an enjoyable read it is, too.”
“My book?” Max asked with interest that gave him life. He sat forward and looked at Dan like he was one of his fans. “Which one is that you mean?”
“The one in which you’ve described the life and times of Sophie Trent. You seem to know quite a bit about her. Why is that?”
“The one I gave you? That is hardly a book. It’s no more than a draft, and ordinarily I would never let anyone see a draft. I gave it to you as an act of good will, because you seemed interested, but I had no idea you thought there was something malicious about it. Besides that, anything that’s in my books that might align to real life is pure coincidence. Surly you don’t think it’s anything else other than fiction?”
“Coincidence of the pure kind, is it? Tell me about Craigfield.”
“He is an obscure young man who befriends Sophie.”
“Actually, no, I haven’t given my Sophie character a last name, and if I did, I don’t think I would give her that name. Especially now you’ve said it.”
“Why not? There something wrong with the name?”
“Not at all, but since you’ve said it, it’s kind of tarnished. And if I use it now, you can claim you helped me write my book and you’d have to have writing credit, should it ever be published. Besides, Sophie Trent must be a real person, for you to have mentioned her. Am I in some kind of trouble here? Do I need to call my lawyer?”
“Your character Craigfield, he’s based on a real person?”
Max looked uncomfortable. “My wife’s gym instructor, actually. I liked the name, that’s all.”
“You know him, then, do you? And let me guess: you know more about him than I do, is that correct?”
“Tell me more about him.”
“The character in my book isn’t meant to be the same Craigfield who’s my wife’s gym instructor. What purpose would that serve?”
“That’s what I’m hoping you can tell me.”
“Listen, I can see what your problem is.”
“And what is my problem?”
“The people in my book, most of them, they are actually based on real people in Gendry. As for Craigfield, I used his name and that’s all. He’s not meant to be the same person my wife knows. Other than that, the names, everything else is entirely fictional.”
“Then you’re saying the Sophie in your book is a real person?”
“And her grandmother, and family.”
“You’ve met her? You know her?”
“The real Sophie I haven’t met, no. I have talked to many others, the minor characters, but Sophie I only heard about. I wouldn’t even know what she looks like. I did some research, but not that much detail. And if you’re trying to tell me I know Sophie Trent because I’m writing about someone who happens to be called Sophie, you are mistaken.”
“Tell me about this research you’ve done.”
“It’s called a phone. Gendry isn’t a big place and someone knows someone else, and not many people move away, so if someone new comes along, everyone’s going to hear about it sooner or later.”
“You’re saying you rang them and asked them about the people they knew in Gendry? For your story? Why would you do that, use real people, in your story? You can’t go writing about their lives without their permission, can you?”
“First of all, I straight out ask them if they mind me using their names and story. Secondly, I don’t use their actual story. I just use it for ideas, and if I have to get close to reality then I will change it slightly. I’m not much of a writer to go and dream it all up myself. If I hear something I like I’ll use it, and add a twist to it so it looks like it’s something else. That’s not hard, doing that; altering a true story to get a new one, a new fictional one. Doing it that way, basing it on real life, all the background is done for me, and I’m free to build on it. It’s more realistic that way, since it is real; or should I say, starts out real. Something my wife tells me I’m not too good at, the realism. I do anything I can to help.”
“Who’s your contact in Gendry?”
“I don’t have a contact, unless you mean the phonebook. I just rang people at random, pretended to be an old friend, or distant cousin, get them talking, asking what’s happening in Gendry, and let them speak. Nothing illegal in doing that; we both know that. People just love to talk about themselves, given the chance. You wouldn’t believe the material you can get from just one of those calls. Fills in so many blanks for me; it’s great.”
“I don’t understand where Craigfield fits in. If he’s a real person here in the city, why add him into your story?”
“No, I didn’t add him, I just used his name, as I said. Check for yourself, I didn’t use his surname.”
“This is meant to be a different Craigfield in your story?”
“Why have a fictional character if everyone else is based on real people?”
“You said it yourself: you can’t go writing about real people and their real stories. Writing real stories is not what I’m interested in. I added Craigfield in to make it more interesting, to make it look like I was making up something new. I don’t know what the real Sophie is like, and what her life is; and I don’t need to know that. And in case you were wondering, everything I have there about the Longbottom murder is what I heard on the phone or found in online media reports. If I have somehow interfered with your investigation then I apologise. It’s not like I’ve actually published this work. The only people who know anything about it are a few friends and yourself. How you found out, I have no idea. I can guess, of course, but it’s too late now, since you’ve read it and thought it worth your investigation time to bring me in here. Actually, to be perfectly honest with you: I find it humbling that you think it is real. That means I succeeded in making it seem real. You don’t know what an honour that is for a writer. Thank you for that.”
Dan nodded, happy not so much in the answer but that Max was starting to open up and talk more. He went back to see how Sophie was doing.
“How long do I have to stay here?” she asked him when she opened her door.
“You’re still telling me you don’t know Max Marshall?”
“I’ve already told you. He’s a part of my story, that’s all.”
“You know he’s a real guy? Not only that, he’s a writer, the same as you.”
“So what if he is? I just used his name. I really don’t know where you’re going with this.”
“Want to know what he’s currently writing?” Dan asked, slowly building aggression in his voice. “A little story about Sophie Trent, who goes to Gendry to stay with her grandmother and do a bit of writing. And she falls for a mysterious guy by the name of Craigfield.”
“You’re out of your mind,” Sophie said as she noticed how fat he was, particularly in both his neck and stomach.
“And what are you writing about, Sophie? Just a little story about Max Marshall, who suspects his wife is secretly seeing a mysterious guy by the name of Craigfield. Max then wants to kill this Craigfield but hasn’t got the guts to go through with it. Am I right about it so far?”
“I have no idea about any real people or what they might be writing. Are you serious about this? I find it most disturbing you’re wasting all this time with such questions. Is this seriously how you run your investigations? I don’t look like a killer.”
“You think?” he replied sarcastically. “I’m going back to go see Max again. He’s here in a neighbouring room, just like this one. I brought you both in at the same time and he’s been sitting there telling me all about you. He’s a bit more open than you are, though. Told me more about Craigfield and what you were doing with him in Gendry.”
Dan returned to Max and he carried his aggression with him. “You know how you’ve written about Sophie in Gendry and how she’s writing a story? You know Sophie has been writing about you?”
“What do you mean, writing about me?”
“Sophie Trent. That’s right, the woman you made your main character in your little tale about Gendry, she’s in the next room. Want to meet her?”
“I would love to meet her, if what you’re saying is true.”
“I can do better than that.”
It was time for the big moment. He tossed open the cover of the white folder in front of Max and let him read the first of the crumpled pages, and then left him alone in the room. Outside he stood next to Benny who had just done the same thing with Sophie. They watched Max and Sophie read each other’s work. Benny was surprised to notice that Max was gleeful at the sight.
“So, are they telling you who murdered Longbottom?” Benny asked with a tired sigh, trying to understand what Max was up to.
“Haven’t got that far yet.”
“Then you’ve got a lead on Craigfield?”
“Probably, I think, yeah.”
“What have you got for certain?”
“Them. Look at their faces, seeing what the other has written about them. Isn’t that beautiful? Who’s going to crack first?” Without really thinking he took out the ham and lettuce roll and started to devour it.
“Dan, I say this as a friend. You need to get a grip here. You haven’t got anything on them. We work with evidence, no airy-fairy fantasy, and certainly not stories fit for woman’s magazines. Yeah, that’s right, I’ve given them a bit of a read. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
“How else do you explain what’s happening here?” Dan asked with his voice too raised, and he accidently spat some of his roll. “How could they both know each other well enough to describe their lives in detail?”
Benny noted the pained expression on their faces as they looked over the pages in front of them. “Paranormal activity, is what it was. Unless they have actual intel on Longbottom, you really need to think about giving this one up. Danny, I’m saying this as a friend, you’ve lost all your cool on this one. Drop it before Moore gets wind of it.”
Dan was having none of that. He stormed into Sophie’s room, feeling his anger raging.
“See?” he said as he picked up the page she was reading and held it closer to her, forcing her to sit back in the uncomfortable chair. “Craigfield, isn’t it. Explain that, please, Sophie. Tell me about Longbottom. Who killed him?”
“This isn’t real,” she insisted. “It’s about me but it isn’t me. It has my name, the names of my family, the names of people in Gendry, but that’s the only thing about it that’s real. Go ask anyone in Gendry, they’ll tell you the same thing.”
“I plan to, don’t worry.”
“This can’t be a real police investigation …”
“You know something and I’m going to find it.”
“Honestly, I know nothing. Who’s your boss? What’s his name?”
“This isn’t some mystical psychic nonsense,” Dan said with is voice raised. “We all know that doesn’t exist!”
Sophie couldn’t help but start crying as Dan left her room in disgust, returning to Max’s.
“All right, Marshall, tell me that’s not real,” Dan demanded.
“None of it is real,” said Max, looking disturbed. “I don’t know where you got this, but—”
“I’ll tell you, shall I? That’s from Sophie Trent. You remember her; the girl you’ve written about in minute detail.”
“That’s a very strange thing. Have you read this? Look close here, I think you’ve missed something. Sophie is writing about me, that is what it appears anyway. And what am I doing in this story of hers?”
“I don’t know, what are you doing?”
“I’m writing—my character in her story I should say—is writing a story about a girl named Sophie who goes to stay with her grandmother. And do you know what else?”
“In my story I describe a girl named Sophie who has gone to stay with her grandmother, who is writing a story about a man named Max. You see? It just continues, on an endless loop, forever. Who can explain such things? Perhaps sunspots, perhaps the tides, or the moon? Perhaps ghosts?”
Dan was enraged that Max could talk to him that way. He kicked his chair so hard that Max had to stand up.
“Tell me who Craigfield is,” he said threateningly. “You tried to kill him? At night, while he was sleepwalking. That part’s true, isn’t it.”
Max hurriedly grabbed a handful of papers and held them up in defence, almost as a shield. “This is just a story. You don’t think any of this is real, do you, really? It’s fiction. It’s just fiction!”
“Tell me who killed Longbottom!” Dan demanded.
“It was probably an accident. A speeding car, hit and run. Have you thought of that?”
“How would you know that?”
“That was the official report. That’s what the news reports said. That’s what most people in Gendry think happened to him. I know, I’ve talked to them about it.”
Benny came into the room and put a strong hand on Dan’s shoulder. “Come on, Dan. This has gone long enough.”
Dan let Benny walk him out to the corridor and then to the larger room filled with desks. “I’m making progress,” he said when they were away from the two rooms. “The car that hit Longbottom, we know what it looked like, right?”
“You’re referring to the police report? I didn’t see anything about that.”
“No, it must have been in Max’s story. When Handisides interviews Gendry folk in the diner. A white van that almost hit the undertaker.”
“You know that’s not real, right? Come on, Dan. Tell me you know it’s not real.”
“But it is real. It’s all real. Somehow they’ve uncovered the truth. Their writing, it’s amazing. They’re writing about each other, without knowing it. It’s like they’ve tapped into some kind of higher power, and they knew what’s happened. And somewhere here, today, we can find the truth of what happened to Longbottom. We just have to break them to get it out of them.”
“Dan, the report by Gant and Handisides, they never interviewed anyone in any diner. That’s in one of the stories, but it never happened.”
“Then they’re lying,” Dan said with a raised voice.
“You’re just getting that from the books. It’s not real.”
“No, it is real. Handisides is lying too!”
Dan was shouting now.
Benny looked at his friend and saw that he was not interested in thinking of any other conclusion. Everyone in the office stopped whatever they were doing and stared at them.
“We’ll find this Johnson person,” said Benny. “Should be easy enough now we know he’s Marshall’s wife’s fitness instructor. Then we will get to the bottom of the whole mess. Until then, take a break. Get some fresh air and have some food.”
Dan stared at him without speaking, and then realised that getting some more food would be a very good idea.
Dun Moore had not seen Dan for about a week but he heard a lot of talk about what he was up to. It was the kind of talk that made him not so much angry, more enraged. When he saw him and called him into his office he was shocked at how much weight he had gained in that time. That knocked back some of the anger. He could only guess at what his shirt size was, but it would be the type at the very bottom of the stack, or right at the end of the row. Dan’s face was bloated too, and his eyes were ringed with dark circles.
It was not a good time for Dun, as his own job performance was under review. He was trying for a promotion, as were most people with a job like his, but he recently heard that the entire police department might undergo a major reshuffle, and Dun could wind up with a lesser role. It was no time for one of his detectives to go rogue.
“Is there some explanation for your temper tantrum?” Dun asked as Dan sat in the chair in front of his desk and caused it to creak. “And why, exactly, did you have those two in interrogation?”
“Paranormal activity is my best guess,” Dan said with all seriousness. There was no other explanation that he could give. He noticed a half-eaten donut on Dun’s desk and wondered if he should ask for it or just go ahead and take it.
“I’m sorry, but what?”
“They know something; something big. Don’t be fooled by them. I know they’re lying. One looks like a day-care helper, or a nanny, but she’s in on the whole thing. Then you’ve got this stay-at-home type who thinks he’s some serious writer, except nobody’s ever heard of him; at least not any normal people. Put out a couple of strange books that I’m guessing have secret clues in them. Maybe apart they don’t pose a threat to civilisation, but together they’re a force. And when I say it’s a force, it may be something even they can’t handle. It’s all there in their writing. All there. Those are some serious documents we have there. We need to have them preserved and studied. What we don’t know: is it an isolated incident or could it be repeated?”
“Are you out of your mind? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Except it’s the most ludicrous nonsense I’d ever expect to hear from one of my detectives. And this is coming from you, Dan? Weren’t you one of my best? And now you sit here blubbering what? Books and secret forces? Is that what you said? You’re sitting in my office and saying what?”
Dan went to talk but Dun held up a hand. He wasn’t finished.
“Do you know how busy I am? Do you? I don’t need any of this. What’s happened to you, man? You used to be a good investigator; one of my best, in fact. Now look at you. Way overweight and untidy in your appearance, and making outlandish accusations that don’t even begin to make sense. I’m not liking what I’m seeing here. Don’t like it one bit. Take a good long look in a mirror, soon as you can. If you can’t see any difference to the Dan who used to work here; if you can’t get your act together, I’ll be looking for a new homicide detective. If any of what you just said gets out, I’m in just as much trouble as you, my friend. And that will not make me happy.”
“Can’t you see what’s going on here?” Dan responded like he had not been listening. “They’ve each written about the other. If I can put it all together, figure out how it happened, I can catch the killer. I’m not saying it’s one of them, or even that they know who it is. But together, they might. Maybe I’m right on it, that maybe it is something supernatural and spooky. Maybe it’s some psychic thing and they really don’t know each other. They could be telling the truth and they don’t know what’s happening, and can’t control any of it. Maybe they only know each other and what happened down in Gendry by thinking about it at the same time. A spiritual connection of some kind. Maybe that’s what it is. There’s a church there that might hold the key. I think one of Marshall’s books featured a church.”
“Just stop it right there.”
“This is serious!” Dan snapped, surprising Dun and making him shout.
“You’re off the case as of now!”
Dan took a sharp breath, realising that he had gone too far.
“Take some leave,” Dun said with sympathy. He could see that Dan was struggling and that made him lose some of his temper. “You’re a disgrace to your former self. Just an ugly sight. Never thought I’d say this to you, Dan, but if I don’t see a huge improvement when you drag yourself back in here then you’ll need to find somewhere else to call yourself a workplace, because it won’t be here and you can be sure of that. You think I need my detectives talking the way you are? You think I want to be in this office for the rest of my career? What if one of my bosses came in here, overheard you? Goodbye promotion. I don’t need that. Get out and get yourself together.”
Dan sat still and blinked. Then he relaxed and nodded, rubbing his head like it was all too confusing for him.
“To answer your question,” Dun said as he calmed some more, seeing that Dan was finally listening to him. “No, we don’t look to ghosts for evidence. Not exactly evidence we want to take to trial.”
“Did you want that?” Dan asked with a soft voice as he pointed to the half-eaten donut.
Dun slowly shook his head in response, unable to comprehend what that had to do with anything. It seemed like it was in slow motion as Dan reached for the donut and put it into his mouth. He finished it before he made it to the door.
Gregory Retter walked with his usual confidence and was oblivious to what Dan had been going through. Both caught up in their own worlds, they almost walked into each other. Dan was too flustered over what Dun had told him, so that was his excuse. Gregory’s excuse was that he never took too much notice of other people anyway.
“Hey, Daniel,” Gregory said with a loud voice after they both exchanged apologies, “what was the name of that suspect you wanted again?”
“For what case?” asked Dan, not really interested.
“Hey, are you all right?” Gregory asked with a concern usually missing from his normal demeanour. “What’s the matter? You look terrible. You been getting any sleep? I see you’re eating okay, so it can’t be that.”
“What case?” repeated Dan, not in the mood to trade insults.
“Longbottom at Gendry. Are you getting enough sleep, partner?”
“I can’t afford time to sleep. I have a case to work. What about the Gendry case?”
“Guy with a funny name.”
“You mean Craigfield Johnson?”
“I thought so, yeah. Hard to be missing that name, isn’t it. Two officers have just called in wanting to know if you still want to see him. They’ve picked him up.”
“They’ve found him?” Dan asked with wide eyes. “You’re telling me they’ve found Craigfield?”
“He’s here. You’d better get downstairs, before they let him go.”
“You mean he’s real?”
Gregory didn’t know what he meant. “Of course he’s real. You thought he might not be?”
“Not just a fictional character in otherwise true stories?”
“What are you talking about? What stories? Are you okay?” Gregory found himself standing alone with no answer as Dan ran to the stairs.
Although seated, Dan could see that Craigfield was a tall man, and the sort that the ladies might be easily attracted to. He also saw, in the upright and unnatural way he was sitting, that he was hiding something. A uniformed officer was standing in the interrogation room with him and Dan asked him to leave them alone.
“Got you at last,” Dan said with an odd smile as he closed the door. He just stood and stared at his target.
“Are you here to tell me what this is all about?” Craigfield asked, his voice smooth and deep, his manner not at all nervous. “I have been brought in here without a reasonable explanation and I don’t like it.”
“When were you last up at Gendry?” Dan asked as he peered at him closely. He took note of his physique and saw that he was strong and regularly worked out. He had manicured fingernails and a nice haircut. If Dan didn’t know better, he thought that his eyebrows might have had work too.
“I have never been to Gendry. Why, is it a crime to go there now?”
“Do you know a man by the name Allan Longbottom?”
“I have never heard of anyone of that name, so no is your answer.”
“What is your relationship with Sophie Trent?”
“I don’t know anyone called Sophie Trent. Never have.”
“How about Max Marshall?”
“Max? Do you mean Jill’s husband?”
Dan allowed himself a smile. He paced twice in front of his man, like his prey was cornered and he needed to ponder how to move in for the kill. “You do know Max?” he asked with deliberate slowness. He then gave a prolonged look at those eyebrows and imagined them being plucked by some beautician.
“Not very well, no. But I do know his wife, Jill Marshall. She’s one of my students. I help her at the gym. I teach natural body-sculpting. Is something wrong with Jill? Is there something I should know about? Is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” Dan said as he tried to refocus. He told himself to forget the eyebrows and anything else about him. It irked him that this man seemed so artificial. Unreal, even. “Tell me more about her, please.”
“If you insist. She’s a little vain, if you ask me. Perfectly fine body, but she’s never content with it, and wants to do too much too soon. I keep advising her to be easier on herself, that she doesn’t need to work out at top level, but she thinks she does, so what do you do? Plenty of women will kill to have her body. Now, can you tell me what this meeting’s about? Is something wrong with Jill? Is there something I should know about?”
“You’re having an affair with her?”
Craigfield’s whole body jolted with surprise. “Now wait just a minute.”
“Are you denying it? Her husband Max seems to think very strongly that you are.”
Craigfield managed a half-laugh and Dan noticed that he lost his cool. His appearance of perfection beheld a kink and Dan relished it.
“Denying what? That I’m having an affair with one of my students? What evidence could you possibly have to make that assertion? What are you anyway, marriage police? I didn’t know it was the dark ages again. What’s going on here? That can’t be the reason you have me here.”
“You had a recent altercation with Max Marshall?”
“That’s nonsense. An altercation? I have never had an altercation with anybody. Where are you getting this? Who’s telling you this? I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I think I need my lawyer if this is continuing much longer.”
“You know I have evidence?”
“Evidence of what?” Craigfield asked, exasperated. “Nothing you have asked me has anything to do with me.”
Dan hurried from the room and went to his desk. He ran back with an armful of loose papers, both Sophie and Max’s stories, all jumbled together so it was difficult to tell one from the other. He slapped them down in front of Craigfield who had no idea what to make of it all.
“They’re telling me,” said Dan, “what I need to know, and the more I listen the more I hear.”
Craigfield was bewildered as he looked from Dan to the pages and then back again. Dan thought that his eyebrows might be uneven. He also noticed that his hair was thinning. Less and less the perfect man.
“This is where I’m getting it,” said Dan. “Have a good read, and then you can tell me what you’re doing in both of them.”
Craigfield picked up a page and after a brief read dropped back to the rest. “This is insane,” moving to stand up. “You can’t make me read this. What’s this all about?”
“Why not read it?” Dan asked as he leaned over him, forcing him to stay where he was. “Are you hiding something?”
“You can’t make me read any of that and I refuse to do so without my lawyer present.”
But he couldn’t help but take another glance at the page.
“What’s this?” he asked as he saw his name. “Max Marshall? He’s invented something about his wife and me? This is why you’ve got me in here?”
He looked through more pages.
“And what’s this other one?” he asked. “Sophie Trent? Never heard of her. I think you need to tell me what’s going on before you do anything else.”
“Have a good read, then you can tell me what’s true.”
“I told you I’m not reading it.”
“It doesn’t interest you that you’re in it? In both of them?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You, Craigfield. You’re a character in their books. In fact, you’d be the most important character.”
“How could I be a character …?”
“Have a read, let me know what you think.”
Dan left him alone with the door shut, and eagerly watched him through the one-way glass. He became ecstatic when Craigfield started to read from the pages scattered before him. After five minutes he couldn’t stand it any longer and had to go to the food vending machine and was satisfied with a couple of packets of crisps. When he returned, with three different varieties, he found Benny Taylor looking into the room through the glass, wondering why the guy was in there.
“Which one’s he on?” Dan asked as he began to mow through his salt-and-vinegars.
“Which what?” asked Benny. Gregory had informed him about Craigfield so he had come running to see him. Like Dan, he had gone over the two stories several times, and his conclusion had been that Craigfield was not a real person. He didn’t like being wrong.
“Story?” Dan asked, nearly finished with that bag. “Which one? Sophie or Max’s. Watch his face for clues, will you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Dan. How does any of this have anything to do with Longbottom? You think there’s a connection other than the two stories? So now we find this Craigfield is real. Big shock to the system, and I would have put money on him being a figment, but there he is. But what does it prove?”
Dan stared at him wildly, which scared him. He hurriedly munched the last chips from the packet before he answered. “It’s all paranormal and psychic, and all that. It has to be. There’s no other answer. It’s like Anger Angel.”
“It’s like what?”
“The killer lurking at Gendry who got Longbottom, if it’s not Craigfield, then it’s mentioned somewhere in one of those stories. It has to be. Or maybe it’s in both of them? Could it be both of them? Didn’t think of that. Or did I?”
He emptied the remaining crumbs from the last bag and ripped open his last bag, the one that was barbeque flavour.
Benny felt intimidated but knew that he needed to point to what was obvious. “We’ve got nothing to hold him. We need to let him go. He’s asked for his lawyer, so that’s it.”
“He knows both Marshalls and he’s lying.”
“But not the girl? Not Sophie? He doesn’t know her?”
“We’ve got threats against him from Max Marshall, and an exchange between them that could have led to violence. Max probably is too humiliated to tell anyone about the altercation.”
“This is from what, a book? Marshall’s book or the girl’s?”
“Yeah, it’s from Sophie, but—“
“Have you got any connection between him and Sophie? Not talking about their books now. I mean in real life. What we can take to a real judge?”
“Not yet, no. I’m working on it.”
“He’s out of here. Get him out of here, Dan. If you won’t, I will.”
“You’ve got nothing. If he’s lying, prove it now. If all you’ve got are those so-called books—more a collection of wastepaper filled with random words, then you’ve got nothing. You do realise, don’t you, this has nothing to do with your case? The girl can’t even write good, or spell to save herself. And this Marshall character, he writes like a woman. I can’t believe it. It’s like something my girlfriend reads. Find the Longbottom murderer, that’s all we need to do. If we can’t then we toss it and move on. Don’t find aspiring authors and get them headbanging against each other’s walls.”
“He’s lying and they’re lying,” Dan insisted. He had just waited for Benny to stop talking before he said what he wanted. “Everyone’s lying. But this is the interesting part: they are all telling the truth but they just don’t know it.”
“Get a grip, will you? It’s over. Forget it. You’re chasing your tail on this one, and you’ve got nothing. It’s game over and there’s no winners.”
When Craigfield finished reading all of the papers, Benny made sure he was out of the building by escorting him out himself.
“Don’t they both have healthy imaginations?” Craigfield said to Benny as they waited for the elevator. “And so do you guys. Can I go now or would you like me to read something else?”
“You’re free to go,” Benny said formally, “but we may call you in if we have any further questions.”
“Or anymore stories?”
“No, sir,” Benny said, unable to look him in the eye. “That’s most unlikely.”
Benny went to Dan’s desk, to tell him that he was nuts and taking it too far, but he wasn’t there. Gregory Retter was there, and he was looking at Benny with a bemused smile.
“Guess what he said to me before he left?” asked Gregory, barely able to hold back a laugh.
“And what’s that?” Benny answered, expecting some smart-guy joke.
“He says he’s got it figured. He says he understands how to solve it. As for me, I don’t know what will burst first, his head or his stomach.”
Benny didn’t laugh or make a reply, but he did look at his friend’s desk and wondered if he will ever work with him again.
Sam arrived home with a few odd groceries and was startled by the presence of her husband. He was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at nothing. She didn’t remember the last time he was home before noon and her first thought was that they could go out and have lunch together somewhere, if he had the afternoon free. It would be at a healthy food place too, not somewhere he preferred to go, since she was very concerned about his weight. She made a mental note that she needed to find even larger shirts for him. Then she saw the library book Anger Angel on the table, which he had been reading non-stop for the last two days.
“Are you still reading that book?” she asked him as she placed the two grocery bags on the table next to him. “How many times have you been through it?”
“This should be the last,” Dan said as he jumped up and hunted through the bags and spotted a packet of strawberry tarts. “Before I head back there again. I’ve got to check that church out. Shouldn’t have missed it. Place must be full of clues.”
Sam watched him take one of the tarts and then she put the rest of the packet in the kitchen pantry.
“Max probably based Anger Angel church on that church,” Dan said between bites. “Wonder if he wrote it there? Some of these small town churches, they’re really spooky places. That might have given him some strong vibes. The Sophie girl probably knows about it too. You know what? The whole town knows about it, I’m sure.”
“Did you say ‘vibes’?”
“Psychic powers, I don’t know what you’d call them.”
“Since when are you interested in the paranormal?” she asked and noticed that he was more fixated on the food in the groceries than on her.
“How can I not be?”
“Are you feeling all right? I’m concerned about you. You look a little pale.”
Now he looked at her and she saw that he was scared. “This might be bigger than any of us realise,” he said in a way that made her scared too.
She wanted to ask him what he meant, but he hurried out the door. Then she noticed that the fridge door had been left open and he had taken about as much food as he could find. She had a horrible feeling that she would never see him again.
“Dan, are you sure what you’re doing?” she called from the front door but he didn’t answer.
She started to cry when his car drove away and he didn’t give but one glance in her direction. Then she irrationally began to worry that the shirt he was wearing might be too tight for him and she should have provided a bigger one, and now it might be too late.
It didn’t matter to Dan that Sophie’s apartment was nothing like the one described in Max’s story. Neither was there a nice elderly neighbour named Miss Hudson, and no ginger cat named Ginger. He wasn’t expecting the building to have a nice flower garden contrasting with any untidy front lawn. Nor was he expecting dirty floors and a young boy running past and screaming at him. Then he realised that he had imagined the place and it was not described by Max. In his mind he had seen Sophie’s home like he was there. He knew what her furniture looked like, and the colour of the walls, and all of it was wrong.
As soon as Sophie answered her door he invited himself in and she wasn’t sure what to make of him. He carried in a large cardboard box and she assumed that it must have something to do with the murder case.
“Is there something else I can help you with, detective?” she asked with fear in her voice. She was not sure if she should call for the police or if that would make it worse.
“Your computer, I need to see it,” he said hurriedly, looking around for it. Then he took a breath and tried to stop the sudden pain in his chest.
“I’m sorry?” she asked.
“You did your writing on a computer, right?” he said as he rubbed his chest and grimaced. “It’s special, I know it is. I need to use it to solve the case.” Then his breathing felt short and he felt the pain more in his side.
Sophie was perplexed. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” She peaked into the box that was now at his feet and saw that it was full of packets of muffins and scones, all with “sale” on them. There were also at least three large coffee cups jammed in there with them, all with steam coming from them. It was obvious that he wasn’t about to share any of it.
“Don’t you get it? We can solve the case. Right here. For that matter, why didn’t you or Max describe the murder for me? It would have made it so much easier if you had. That’s what your story needed; a bit of action. No, wait; yours did have action, it was Max that didn’t. No mind, I’m sure I can do it too.”
“You can do what?”
“Write the murder.”
Sophie backed away. “Is this official police business? It sounds most unusual.”
“There’s no other explanation,” said Dan, his face getting red with the anticipation, but then his chest started hurting again. He had to loosen his shirt when he sat down. “You two stumbled on something bigger than any of us can imagine. You do realise what it is, don’t you?”
“What you had. No? You were both writing each other’s lives. Didn’t know it, did you. Didn’t notice at all, I can see from your expression. Like you had any control over it anyway. Something else was controlling you and you didn’t even know.”
“Controlling me to do what?”
“Describe the crime,” he said as he looked like he was going to hug her computer. “You typed it, right here, and didn’t know it was really happening.”
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“What do you think I’m saying?”
“That my computer has the ability to …”
“Write real life, as it happens.”
“And you want to do the same thing?”
“Why not? I’ll just sit where you sat, draw on that same psychic energy.”
“Wow,” she said carefully. “You know what? I haven’t noticed any energy like that in my apartment. Too small, I guess. Sorry, but I think you’ve come to the wrong place. Perhaps you could try somewhere else?”
“But you did it, my dear young Sophie. You described his life without knowing him. You did that. Right? That’s what you told me.”
“Except for one thing. I didn’t write any of it on my computer.”
“What’s that?” Dan asked, not seeing that one coming.
“I used a typewriter. My grandmother’s old one, up in Gendry.”
“You didn’t write here?”
“Guess there’s more psychic energy up there, huh?”
“Her typewriter is in her house?”
“Like in the story. I should have known that.”
“Is this actual police business?”
Dan knew that he needed to leave. Her apartment wasn’t his only option. “You need to be careful with your attitude,” he warned her as he left, taking care that he didn’t spill anything from the cardboard box.
“My … attitude?”
“You’re very close to hindering a police murder investigation.”
She watched him leave without having any idea what to think of the visit. One thing she was certain of, it was not any kind of official investigation.
The box was lighter by exactly one third when he arrived at Max’s door. Dan needed to take a second before he knocked, feeling the pain in his chest get stronger. In the car the pain had come and gone, and it was worse whenever he was not eating. If he had stopped to think about it he would have seen that his frustration was not so much in feeling the pain, but that the pain was reminding him that he was not eating.
The door opened before he had a chance to knock. Max had seen him coming and he looked at him like he was a curiosity. He was prepared to answer his questions, and let him do whatever he wanted, if it would help to get him out of his life.
“Detective, this is a surprise,” Max said in a way that only he knew it was sarcasm. “Is there something else I can help you with?”
“I need to use your computer,” Dan said quickly, feeling out of breath.
“Why would you—“
“That’s where you do your writing, isn’t it?” Dan interrupted, walking past him. “You don’t go anywhere else, like your grandmother’s place, do you? No? You do it here, do you? Then I will need to use it.”
“What does where I do my writing have to do with anything?”
“Longbottom was hit by a speeding driver, right? Who speeds in that town? Better question is: who is allowed to speed in that town?”
“I have no idea,” Max said, completely lost.
“Yeah, I know you don’t. But your computer does.”
“My computer does what?”
“Don’t you see? That’s where the answer is.”
“The answer to what?”
“I’ll show you,” Dan said with a playful laugh, like an excited child. “You’re not going to believe this. Right under your nose the whole time.”
Dan went and sat at the computer, placing the cardboard box at his feet. He then glanced at Max to see if he had any interest in the box, like a cornered dog guarding a bone. He tried to find the computer’s word processor programme, without success.
“What is it you’re doing?” Max asked, not believing what he was seeing.
“The only thing I can,” Max said as he grabbed another muffin from his box and then quickly closed it. “Got any coffee? Any sort will do.” He put the muffin on top of the number keys on the far right of the keyboard, which annoyed Max even more.
“I suppose, yes,” said Max, hoping no crumbs would fall between the keys. “But can you please tell me what you’re doing?”
“You wrote your story here, right? And it was true. You didn’t even know it, but it was all true. Sophie, Craigfield, Longbottom; all true. And there she was at the same time, the exact same time, writing all about you and your wife and Craigfield. How amazing is that? What’s more, I know it. When you were doing it you didn’t know it. But now I have a chance to do it knowing what’s happening.”
“Didn’t we agree my book’s not real?”
Dan found a simple writing programme and with satisfaction swallowed the rest of his muffin. “Where shall we start?”
“You will need to tell me what’s going on,” Max said more firmly.
“Finding the murderer,” Dan said with all seriousness. “With your nice little magic computer. Let’s start with the speeding car, shall we?”
“I’m really not following you.”
Dan quickly typed a few words as he always did, using only his two index fingers. “That’s working. Look at that.”
He typed a sentence and that led into another one. After a minute he had a paragraph and then he was on the next. Max read over his shoulder and stopped himself from making corrections.
“Is writing always this fun?” asked Dan. “Now we’ll do the impact, and describe that in detail. It’s the details you’ve got to watch, right? Get them wrong, they stand out like sore thumbs. But get them right, they make the whole story.”
He wrote more and got carried away with his description.
“The driver is drunk,” said Dan. “And he sees he’s killed someone.”
Another paragraph followed. Then three more. He was on a roll.
“But then he panics. Who panics? Who speeds in Gendry? Who is allowed to speed there, and so no one notices, or points fingers? Who conducted the investigation? And then lied about it in his report? Yes, this is coming together, just as I thought it would. You are such a help for us, Max, you have no idea. If we had this months ago, we’d have him in custody real easy, and Gendry will be breathing safe tonight.”
“What are you saying?” Max asked, looking over what he had written. It took great restraint to not point out a couple of typos. Anything to prevent the man staying any longer than he had to.
“The one person who could successfully cover it up. The police in charge of the case.”
“Are you suggesting Sheriff Handisides was responsible? How can you be sure of that?”
“The computer says so.”
“No, really, how can you be sure?”
“Max, don’t you see? What do you think I’ve been doing? I’ve just been showing you how this works. Your computer told me. I told you it’s right under your nose!”
Max saw that he was serious and he chose his next words with care. “It’s just a normal computer. It’s getting a little old and I’ll need a new one soon.”
Dan felt the pain in his chest return and this time it was worse than ever.
“Are you all right?” asked Max.
“Put together with you and Sophie,” Dan said, ignoring both the question and the pain, “we have a miracle machine. It’s a gold mine. We need to get this into the office, with you and the girl. Believe me, this is big. Bigger than anyone can know.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Dan resumed typing, fuelled by inspiration and that he felt a little better. “So, he didn’t mean to run the guy down, just an accident, because of his drinking. But then he goes and hides the body, and no one questions him. He’s the guy doing the questioning. Who questions the questioner?”
When Dan finally finished and went to leave, picking up the box and then deciding he needed another muffin, he gave Max a warning. “Don’t touch anything.”
“You’re leaving, then?”
“Leave it just as I’ve written it. It’s pure gold.”
Max raised his hands like he would not be touching it. He watched Dan leave and then he shook his head, wondering who he should call to report it.
“What was that all about?” Jill asked from the kitchen, where she had decided it was safe to hide until Dan had gone.
Max looked at her with a bewildered smile. “I haven’t the slightest idea.” He then started to laugh, nervously.
Jill went to the computer to see what he had written. “What are we going to do with all that?” she asked.
“Leave it there, I guess,” he said.
At least until they were sure that he wasn’t going to come back.
Andy Handisides opened the door to see who had the gumption to speed down his main street and then lurch to a halt in front of the station with such violence that his building was pelted with pebbles. All that when the morning was still dark. The first thing he thought was that his town didn’t need another crazy speed racer.
When he saw Dan Ironwright struggling to get out of the car he did not know if he should be more surprised that he had come back, or how much fatter he had become. Andy noticed that Dan grimaced as he stepped out, and patted at his chest. The car jumped.
“Funny to see you here again, Detective Ironwright,” Andy said with the expected slowness of someone awake at five in the morning in Gendry. “The reason it’s funny is ‘cause I got word from your boss a few days back that you’re off the Longbottom case. In fact, you’re off any case at all, isn’t that the fact? Seems this is one of those we just have to shut the book on and put on the bottom shelf. So, what is it you want that makes you bolt in here like this?”
“Where have you parked your patroller?” Dan asked, fully alert after his night drive and umpteen coffee breaks, and in no mood for small talk.
“My car? Why do you want to know that?”
“Want to take a look at it?”
“For what reason? You’re not telling me you’ve come all the way up here to look at my car? Tell me you’re not telling me that. And here I was thinking about going about acquiring a new one, since it’s not much good for anything anymore. Covered a lot of distance, and it caused no problems, but when something gets old there comes a time to say goodbye. Everything has limits.”
“You’re not hiding anything there, are you, Handisides?”
Andy rubbed his chin, not knowing what to make of him. “Are you here on official business or not? Or are you just misapplying one of your days off? I can think of better to do on my day off.”
“Where’s the car?”
“In the back, in its parking spot, where it always is when I’m not out on my run. Take a look if you have to. I mean, if you really have to. Take as long as you like, in fact, and have a nice time about it, why don’t you.”
Twenty minutes later Andy, who had been trying to ignore the presence of the large city detective, could not take the suspense and had to go to the parking area to see what Dan was up to.
“You still there, Ironwright?” Andy called, not seeing anyone.
Dan had been lying on the ground, picking around under the front of the car, although he couldn’t get very far in due to his bulk. At the sound of Andy’s voice he went to get up and took a long time about it.
“You have a dent, right here, right in the front,” he said to Andy. “Got some paint missing. Other than that, you’ve done good work in cleaning it. But then, you’ve had plenty of time to clean it a couple of times, right?”
“You say what?”
“I know what you hit, Handisides. I know how and I know when. I know how fast you were going and how much you drank. I know what you did after you saw him, and I know the moment when you realised that you could get away with it.”
“Now, wait a minute. Hold on just a minute, why don’t you?”
“You can’t deny it. I have all the evidence I need. I have it in writing.”
For the first time Andy looked worried. “You have what in writing?”
“The murder of Longbottom. Sure, it was accidental, but then you had to go and cover it up. Was it because your were drunk? Was it because you like being the guy in charge here and you didn’t want to lose your job? Or did you just hate the thought of people knowing you let them all down by running over one of their dwindling population? One of their own? One of your own?”
Andy looked around and saw that the only lights on were from the street lights. Certain that no one was there, he leaned on the car and slowly took out a cigarette and his large silver lighter. “Got it all figured out, have you now?” he asked quietly. “This is the way they’re doing it in the city? Place has gone further downhill than I thought.”
“Got it in writing. All of it.”
“Have you now? All of it?”
“How does Craigfield Johnson fit in to it? That’s what the writing’s not telling me. It’s there, I can feel it. You can fill me in with the details now, to make it easier. Either way, I’ll find out.”
“The writing is not what now? Not telling you?”
“Tell me about Craigfield, Sheriff.”
“I will, if you like, if that will make you happy. Craigfield? Since you’ve been bugging me about him, insisting I make inquires for you, I’ve ended up talking to every living thing in the area. Not just Gendry, but all the outlying farms and out-of-the-way loners who’d rather not be disturbed, and in these parts we have quite a few of those. And you know what they told me, what they all told me, as one and in unison? Do you know what it was?”
“What?” Dan asked as he expected something outlandish.
“They have never heard of anyone called Craigfield. Or even anyone called Craig Field, or any other kind of variation you want to come up with. Now, this was before I went to explain the complications of his name to them, and to tell you the truth, I doubt they’d be able to follow any of it. But what’s the point if no bells are being rung with whatever version they’re hearing? Go ahead and ask anyone you like, anyone you see, in the street or door-to-door, and they’ll tell you the same thing: No one with that name has ever been in Gendry. Not ever. Sophie Trent never had any boyfriend here, was never seen talking to any tall blond handsome stranger, or any other kind of stranger. Her grandmother had no one staying in her house other than Sophie for the past year. What else did you say? Oh, yes: This dent you’ve spotted? Deer. Just a plague in these parts. Gave the thing a good whack but didn’t kill it. Thing came from nowhere and then ran off into the underbrush just as fast as it appeared. As can happen in these parts. Need to watch for them. Bit of a nuisance.”
He went back to his cigarette, eyeing Dan carefully. “I suggest you do the same,” Andy then said evenly. “Run off, not to be seen again.”
“I know you did it,” said Dan, trying to clean dirt from his hands.
“And then what? You want me to confess? Is that it? Tell me, this writing you have, to prove what you say, wouldn’t have been written by Max Marshall, would it? After I asked my people about Craigfield Johnson, I asked them what they knew about Max Marshall. And you know what they told me? Fool hassled them by ringing them up in the dead of night and asking for town gossip. Told them all these outlandish lies about being their old pal, or some city cousin, or a friend of a friend. Most of my people knew he was some kind of fool and kept talking to him just to be polite, as they do here. Too polite for their own good is what they are. I believe some even told him some family stories too, to keep him happy, to make him go away.” The last remark was directed to Dan and they both knew it.
“I know it was you.”
“And where’s your evidence for such an allegation?”
Dan looked at him and then the car, and realised that he didn’t have any. Not anything real. Not anything that would prove his case in court.
“Didn’t think so,” said Andy. “Now go back to your city and leave us alone. We like the way things are done around here. City people, they cause nothing but trouble, all their speeding and such. To put the blame on one of them, no one thinks anything else, and nor do they want to.”
Dan watched Andy walk back to his office with a swagger. He looked again at the dent and knew that it must have been caused by Longbottom. Andy was in his office by the time he caught up to him.
“I’ll tell the whole town if you don’t confess,” said Dan.
“Go ahead,” Andy said with his feet up on his desk, his morning paper open. “And I’ll tell them how you’re off the case and are, in fact, off any kind of case. If you like, I can ask your boss to come up here specially to detail how you’re not fit for work. What was it put you over the edge, Dan? Was it the stress? From what I heard, it got to you real bad this time. Been overeating a lot, they say. And they say you’ve been on a diet. Just makes it worse when you go from diet to binge. Shame there’s no evidence to that particular rumour, huh? Not like you look a little overweight? And another funny thing your boss told me: Did you know Max Marshall’s been calling him constantly, asking if it’s all right to turn off his computer? Did you know he printed out what you wrote and took it into your office? Some of your kind colleagues pinned it to the cafeteria wall, and they all had a real good laugh at it. All except your boss, of course, who tore it to pieces and turned a colour not usually associated with healthy people. That’s what I heard, anyway. So many rumours around, these days.”
“But what I know about you is true. Every bit of it, all true. The computer said it was.”
“A computer now?”
“They both agreed it was you. You can’t argue with that. That writing you’re talking about, it’s all about you and how you thought you got away with it.”
Andy looked at Dan without expression. For the first time Dan realised that he could not get his man. There was to be no confession gained by confrontation. The lawman knew what to say and what not to say. He did not share Dan’s belief in the power of the writing and it was now obvious that nobody else would.
Andy saw Dan’s frustration and sneered. “I don’t know what you do from here; where you go with this idea of yours. But the fact is, no one cares. All they can see is a detective losing his mind. There’s nothing for you here, Ironwright. Have a safe trip back home, now, won’t you? You’re not welcome here. Not welcome, not by anyone.”
Dan felt his chest tighten, this time more painful than ever.
The young woman noticed that the man across the aisle was tapping away at his laptop computer with a speed and confidence that she only dreamed she could have. His computer was an older model, about twice the size of what you could get now. She could never feel comfortable in using one like that, in public, on a train, where anyone could read it. They were the only two amongst ten rows of seats and she tried to be discreet and she leaned closer to see the screen. She was surprised at how much text there was; enough to distract anyone from the world around them.
If he had not previously drawn her attention by commenting on how nice the scenery was, and that he thought she was missing it, she would not have had the confidence to say anything to him. Her answer was that she was looking forward more to the end of the journey rather than the bits in-between. The train journey was not a long one, but it had seemed so when she was a girl. She had many childhood memories of watching the world go by outside those windows. Now it looked different. She hoped it was the scenery that had changed and not her.
“Catching up on your work?” she asked him.
“Sorry, what?” he asked, not expecting her to ask about his writing.
“Didn’t mean to disturb your concentration. It’s just, I couldn’t help noticing your computer. Looks like a lot of text to get through. All that would make my eyes hurt.”
“I’m a writer, so the more text the better; the more evidence I have that I’m working and not wasting time in playing computer games or net surfing.”
“I’m a writer too. Trying to be, anyway.”
He smiled and nodded, took note of her nice figure and then decided to take a break and sit back to enjoy the scenery, both inside and out.
“There are days I wonder why I stick with it,” he admitted after a few moments. “To write, I mean. Some days you can sit and stare and nothing happens, or worse, you can write for hours and the next day delete it all and wonder what I was thinking.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “You know what I do when that happens? I say to myself: writing is easier than not writing.”
“I like that,” he said, thinking that he may use the quote.
“But I don’t know how you can write on one of those things.”
“My laptop? It’s a wonder of modern science, I reckon. I’d be lost without it. That and my spellcheck, but I hardly need to use it. You know what I really like? The word count. Keeps me on my toes, knowing how many I’m putting down. How fast I can go an hour.”
“What I’d really prefer is one of those old-fashioned typewriters. Seeing the words forming on the paper, with actual ink, makes me feel like I’m part of the process of producing a book. Paper, ink, words, sentences. If I try on a computer it doesn’t seem real.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. Except those old typewriters have no word count. Or backspace. I like my backspace. Delete is good too. Cut and paste.”
“Everything you need for actual writing,” she agreed.
“I’m Max Marshall. You might have seen one or two of my books.”
“Sorry, but I haven’t. I’m Sophie Trent, and you wouldn’t have seen anything from me since I’ve never had anything published. Maybe one day.”
“What sort of writing do you want to do?”
“I want to try a novel. Maybe something dark and mysterious. I know you weren’t expecting me to say that.”
“Actually, I think it’s good to get away from our comfort zones, and take on worlds we don’t normal inhabit. As for myself, I’ve tapped all of what I know, and I wish I knew what else I could write about.”
“Why not write about a girl from the city going to live for a month with her grandmother in the quaint town of Gendry, to write her great novel?”
“Yes, that is well out of my comfort zone. Would this story be yours? Are you the girl from the city going to Gendry?”
“It is my story, but not the one I want to write about. But you can write that if you want to.”
“Write about you?”
“And all the interesting characters who live in the town.”
“Actually, that sounds interesting. But you couldn’t write about my life, it’s too dull. Writer sits at his desk all day, sometimes managing to put a sentence together, but mostly not. Massive attack of writer’s block. Okay, I’m not really like that, since I can usually get something done if I have to. Maybe for ten minutes once, I might have been. Last June, I think it was.”
Sophie laughed. “That line sounds better than anything I’ve come up with myself lately.”
“Could we really do that?” Max pondered.
“If I wrote about you and you wrote about me?”
“Do you have something I can write about?”
“You want something dark and mysterious? What about dark and sad?”
“Is that what your life is?”
“Actually, yes, it is, I’m sorry to admit. I think my wife is cheating on me. No, I know she is. And you know what? It’s probably for the best. I don’t know if we’ve ever been happy together. Write about that; I dare you.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” They sat in silence for a few minutes before Sophie couldn’t resist asking, “Do you know who it is she’s seeing?”
“I do, actually. Craigfield is his name.”
“Craigfield? What an odd name.”
“Make him a bad guy, please. Who throws on the charm.”
Max shook his head. “I don’t know if this is a good idea or not.”
“No, it is. I like it. Why not do it? We have enough time on this trip to exchange info about all the interesting characters in our lives.”
“I mean if we get published. It might look suspicious.”
“Don’t worry, I have too much professional pride to admit to anyone that I’ve stolen my ideas from a real person. Tell me more about this Craigfield.”
“I might have to put him into your story.”
“Then make him tall and handsome, and he sweeps me off my feet.”
“I can do that, but only if he betrays you in the end.”
“I’d have to. I’m not one for happy endings.”
“No, I like this idea, Max. But for it to work you’d need to tell me everything you can, about your life, your friends, their lives, as much as you want put into a book for people to read. And I’ll do the same for you. Whoever gets published first, the other one has to deny knowing anything about it, and throw their work away.”
“That’s a hard bargain. But you know, I think it’s intriguing enough to work.”
“We’ll see whose is the most believable, the one that can fool people the most and make them think it’s real.”
“What a devious mind you have.”
“Would I be a writer without that?”
When the train stopped at the Gendry station they went their separate ways, both with more than enough material. For some reason they both stopped and looked back at the same time, then smiled and waved.
Sophie has a dream to write her first novel and she plans on the perfect setting, her grandmother’s house in the quiet town of Gendry. Little has changed there since she left to live in the big city, and yet she finds inspiration hard to find. It does not help that there is both a mysterious stranger and a murder in the town. And yet there is also something else that does not fit, and it all points to Sophie herself. When police investigator Dan Ironwright is called in he finds more to Sophie than anyone expected, including her.