Somewhere beneath the soil of Galway city the body of a young woman slowly decays in a small cellar room, while her killer stalks the streets and waterways, anonymous and insane. Disaffected journalist Brian Hardy, cancer-stricken and barely functional without a drink, is tasked to follow the story of the search for the missing girl. As Hardy spirals ever closer to his own personal demise, he finds himself swept into the darkest recesses of human nature, where he catches the attentions of the one responsible for the crime—a man so corrupted that he will stop at nothing to protect his dark legacy from the intrusion of an outsider.
Note to the reader: Certain inconsistencies in formatting are deliberate, particularly in the use of italicization and boldface. These instances should be apparent in context.
Copyright Ross Breslin © 2016
All rights reserved
Hardy: How long have I got?
Doctor: Nobody can say that for sure Brian.
Hardy: Give me a ballpark.
Doctor: It could be months, maybe even a year. Maybe less.
Hardy: How much less?
Doctor: Nobody can say that for sure Brian, right now you just need to stay positive. I don’t want to give you false hope but you know, some people get a diagnosis like this and end up living for another six years. Nobody can say for sure.
Hardy: What if I said I wanted a second opinion?
Doctor: That mightn’t be a bad idea. Do whatever you have to do, but listen, I know what I’m talking about here. The results are in and it is what it is already. Right now we need to start looking at how we can make this as comfortable as possible for you.
Her skin was boreal blue and cold, still soft. The eyes never closed and contained in their pools of black the ichor and disease of her final days and what she had witnessed and endured. They were not accusatory or even, at the last, horrified in their final imprint. It was almost like a sadness, certainly to most it could look that way, though not to the one soul who bore its witness. That was not possible. To him it just looked dead, like everything.
Time passed. Her naked body and bruised flesh were finally given dignity and covered by a soft white sepulchral fur, like fine ash or thinly woven spiders’ web, that spread so slowly as to be imperceptible to watching eyes. Imperceptible in the slow passage of time and yet, if one could view the growth at hyper-speed, like a botanist’s camera-feed set to fast forward, the entire process would seem wholly organic, even conscious, in its ever-encroaching conquest of the flesh it took—an entity, groaningly, lurchingly, throbbingly alive. A hellish petri-dish display, one more exhibition of life’s dark miracle.
She remained in that little subterranean room until she wasn’t a she at all, was scarcely even an it. If there had been anything else beneath her besides cold hard concrete she might have returned to the muck of the earth. Something more might have grown from her besides mould and the maggots that feasted beneath it. It was a poor, putrid example of the planet that held it, a self-contained dead-end ecosystem that would never go anywhere, never evolve anything greater than what had already passed within it up until that moment. That was how he wanted it.
It was one of those days he felt like drinking the rent. Could probably make it last for three nights or more if he paced himself. Two good ones anyway, the kind of nights where you drink until you’re full of delight and the charm rolls out from your lips like sparks of Hermes and straight into the willing ears of whichever one of Aphrodite’s daughters doesn’t mind overlooking the flaws that night. Staggering down the wide open street from one bar to the next, one joyous arm around her waist (whoever she may be), he would feel like flinging his throat upward to the sky and extolling: “what a time to be alive!”
And then later, after the bars closed and the bedroom beckoned he would have his absolution, warm loving arms and alcohol breath and, Jesus, doesn’t it just feel good to have somebody to hold, even if only for a night?
What a time to be alive.
No, he couldn’t do that, not this time. Not again. That surly fuck hadn’t been joking when he promised Hardy that one more week behind spelled eviction time. Murphy would take whatever other arrears there already were out of the security deposit and keep the rest as collateral for breaking the contract of the lease. As Hardy’s long suffering landlord, this was all but guaranteed.
There was no way out of it. Hell, even at work now he was on shaky ground. Even if he’d had the bills to spare, he couldn’t bunk off. They wanted his head on a stick here almost as much as the bollix Murphy did. Some days he almost felt like giving it to them.
Hardy picked up the phone before it had finished its first bleat. He was raw today and it showed in his reflexes.
“Brian, get in here. We need to touch base.”
“You got it boss,” Hardy said and slid the receiver back down into its cradle.
He stepped out of his office and walked across the buzzing newsroom towards Downey’s office. When he reached the door, the single brass bar proclaiming “Editor” to the bees outside, he didn’t bother to knock before pulling the handle and stepping inside.
“Yo,” he said, “what’s the story?”
“You tell me,” Downey said, peering up over his spectacles from behind his desk. Hardy could tell that it irked him when he entered without knocking like this and it pleased him maybe more than it should have.
“There’s a lot of angles to cover,” Hardy said, “a lot of loose threads. As yet no answers. I’ve arranged to speak to the family later in the week, God help ‘em. A Sergeant Detective Michael Ward is heading up the investigation. So far they’re not treating it as suspicious, or at least that’s as much as he’s willing to tell me anyway. Wasn’t keen on talking face to face but if the girl doesn’t turn up soon I think I can bring him around.”
“Terrible thing,” Downey said.
“Well listen, what can you get me for press-time tomorrow? Anything worth a front page?”
“ ‘Search for Missing Girl Underway’,” Hardy said, “then a write up of her last known whereabouts, a word from the Sergeant and a word from the family, an update on the community effort and then a list of contact details for anybody with information that might be of help.”
“Good,” Downey said, “get on it.”
“Sure thing,” Hardy said. He paused with his fingers on the door handle before leaving again. “Who knows?” he said, “she might still turn up alive and well.”
Back in his office Hardy pulled out the coffee-stained folder from under his desk, with the single word “Emily” scratched in black biro on its surface. He cleared his throat, coughed—a deep harsh phlegmatic rasp—and then dropped the folder on the desk. He got up and went to the single window facing out over the grey and green and muddy expanse of Eyre Square below. He opened it and then lit a cigarette, smoking with his arms folded, exhaling each stream of smoke out through the window, one eye on the smoke detector above.
Emily Whelan. She was a cute kid, from a good family and smart by the looks of it too. Enrolled at university in the city, apparently because she wanted to stay close to home, close to her family. She didn’t seem like a runaway, but who could tell? Everybody has a part of themselves they keep hidden from the rest of the world, for whatever reason.
He didn’t have to ask the Sergeant if they were searching the water for a body. Of course they were. That was where they usually turned up, all of the missing. They went out one night with friends, just like Emily had, somewhere along the way they ended up alone and in the end the only real mystery was just how exactly it happened that they went over the edge. The girl could be out there somewhere now, bobbing to and fro beneath the stark Atlantic rolling grey.
But no, Hardy didn’t think the river had taken this one, she didn’t seem like the type. And besides, when the Corrib was hungry it usually feasted on males. Hell, some nights Hardy had even heard its call for himself. Black siren, singing its bubbling, garbled seduction from underneath the turbid dark. Climb up on the railings, swing one leg out over the chasm, just close your eyes. Let go of the bridge. But Emily wasn’t the type.
One thing about the river though, was that they never got to anybody in time once they went over. Sure, when the tide was low it was more than possible, but somehow nobody seemed to have that particular accident when the tide was low. It was a funny coincidence. It only happened when the river charged so fast that there could be no chance of reneging the deal.
Maybe that was why he’d never heeded the call himself. He would have wanted to have the chance to back out right up until the last minute, right up until that wet blackness filled his lungs and then his sight and then finally his mind. Who could know what misgivings one might have at that last moment, what renewed sense of vitality might come rushing in seconds before it all went black?
Or maybe he just wanted to live. Maybe behind all the ennui and despair, he really did want to live. Yes, that was probably it. So he would go on then, at least for now, keep hitting the keyboard and meeting each deadline at the last possible second, continue paying Murphy off week after week just enough to keep him at bay and still have enough left over for the barman and Hardy to have their turn. Keep doing that for however long it took. He didn’t know it then, but it wouldn’t take long. Within three weeks the cold cloak of death would take him too.
[_It’s so warm today, I feel so cosy and warm today, like a mommy spider wrapped up in her nest, just whiteness and fabric, fuzzy silk. I’d like to stay in bed all day today and I would if I didn’t know better, but I have a job to do. _]
Hey who are dese guys? Hey dese guys are crazy but I like ‘em. I like dese guys, dese guys are my guys. My disguise.
Heads bob and tilt on the street below my window and I smile down on them from above, bestowing a blessing while I sip my tea. Mmmm, bed was so good today, this morning. It’s so strange that some nights you can’t sleep at all but then in the morning you don’t even want to get up because it’s so comfy. Did you ever notice that? Isn’t that funny? But last night I slept like a sweet little babe so I don’t even mind that much. But gosh, what I wouldn’t do for another hour beneath those warm fuzzy sheets…
I’m walking the streets and I push my glasses up my nose and through the glass I see a little old lady, just a sweet old gal, walking towards me and I flash at her a smile so warm and beautiful and bright that you can see her own face take up the brightness and light up herself and you can just tell that I’ve made her day, this bright, intelligent handsome stranger walking the streets in the bright spring morning. It really makes me glad to be alive and I actually even continue thinking about her for a little while before my thoughts go somewhere else and then I’m there at work and it’s time to go in for another day and begin again.
He wasn’t built for the life of the scribe, not physically though he certainly had the mind for it—the mind and the thirst that so often went with it. But to see him in person, a good three inches over six foot and hulking with muscle and mass, he didn’t seem like a thinking man, although that’s what he was.
He’d followed his physical strengths in school, played rugby and played it well. The coaches said he could have gone national, maybe even international, but he’d never believed it himself. It was wishful thinking on their part, small-town mythologizing of the assets around them and he himself had never wished it enough to throw in his hat and falsely believe. At home by himself when he was alone he followed his true vocation, filling copy books with short stories and commentary-style think-pieces on whatever he thought the topical interest of the day. He’d always known what he wanted to do with his life even if no one else could understand it. In the end he was glad for that maybe more than anything.
This flu wouldn’t quit. Every spring and autumn it found him—those were the times there were always a strong strain or two going round after all—but this dose was different. This was going on months now. January was always rough but this year instead of receding in February the hangover of the holiday season had merely mutated into a mild but persistent sickness, all runny noses and moist congestion, which had only worsened as the winter passed for spring. Now he was hacking up thick wads of brown spongy phlegm every five minutes or so and his chest stung from deep within all hours of the day. He hated going to the doctor, always had, but now he knew enough to book himself in for the following afternoon. When it got too hard to smoke a cigarette, even Hardy knew something had to be done.
He spent the rest of the day writing up the story on the girl. Periodically he would pause and take out the grainy photo from inside the folder and hold it in his hands. Emily Whelan. She had brown hair and hazel eyes, the kind of smile that could only cross a face that had never known any great sorrow, any great defeat. She could have been anybody’s niece, anybody’s daughter. She hadn’t run away, looking at her now again for the umpteenth time, he felt sure of it. She hadn’t run away and she hadn’t taken the river. At least not on purpose anyway.
It was after dark by the time he finished his final draft and emailed it on over to Downey’s station, who had himself left the office several hours earlier. Hardy pulled on his heavy brown overcoat and paused for a moment before leaving to rifle through his wallet with a sad, quiet, resigned dismay. After Murphy and the doctor got their cut he had twenty, maybe thirty euro left over to do him for the rest of the month, until April Fools’ Day when the new month’s wages came in and he could begin again in comparative financial stability. The rest of the team would be down at the bar already now and he longed to join them but there was no way to make it work. At a stretch he could maybe pick up a bottle of cheap red on the way home. He thought he had something at the back of the freezer that he could heat up and glean nourishment from.
A light drizzle of rain permeated the expanse around the square as he stepped out of the office, the orange and yellow lights of the streetlamps and taxi cabs casting a diffuse glow off the droplets that seemed in the late evening darkness like the hovering auras of some calculating otherworldly energy. The sound of traffic and motors hummed around him, the footfalls of men and women in heels and dress shoes marching apace to their night-time destinations, to their bars and restaurants, comforts and revelry. Hardy pulled the collar of his coat close around his throat and coughed hard, before setting off through the streets amongst them.
It was frozen falafels that awaited him as supper, half a meagre portion, left over from some late night takeaway when the wealth had been richer spread. He ate the spongy reheated hash with slices of buttered white bread and ketchup. At least he had the wine.
There was nothing on television and he browsed the internet for a while, sipping his wine by lamplight, feeling warmer and healthier to the midpoint of the bottle and then downhill from there on after. As he poured out the final generous glass, wine gurgling like blood from the neck of the bottle and settling in the invert dome, itself grubby with a multitude of prior thumbprints, Hardy felt almost worse than he had before pulling the cork. It was now or never, to bed or to seek the second bottle—that was the crossroads at which he stood. It could probably be afforded provided he ate light for the rest of the week, avoided any costly surprises or emergencies. After the act, he might even consider it to have been worth it. Anything was possible.
He picked up the stem of his glass and held it ponderously to his eye. The orange light of the streetlamps outside cast strange shapes through the half-closed blinds, shadows and oblongs along the shoddy carpet of his small apartment living room. If he chose to look there instead of the glass who knew what visions might eventually unfold from those patterns?
Even though his work for the week was all finished, Hardy would still have to be on call in the office the next morning lest any last minute disasters kicked off before the weekly went to press, not to mention his appointment with the doctor for which he would prefer not to be hungover. For these reasons more than the question of money, he decided at last to make for bed, while the stupor of drink was still thick enough in his mind to carry him off to an easy sleep. Resolved, finally, he placed a saucer over the rim of the glass, the murky brown-red liquid now settled like a cave pool or a bog pond beneath it, and left it there waiting on his coffee table, a glass idol in the amber shadows of midnight.
The swans got sick and so they put up signs all around the pier and the Long Walk and Spanish Arch, proclaiming: “DO NOT FEED THE SWANS!” just like that. And they said: Do not feed the swans because the bread gives them diseases. “Pink Feather Disease” was what they called it and apart from the “disease” part that didn’t really sound like a disease at all. In fact it sounded wonderful. Pink Feather Disease, who wouldn’t love to see a pink-feathered swan?
And besides, the swans love bread, oh yes they certainly do. What else do they eat? We can’t feed them chips and burgers, can we? That would be bad for their little swan hearts. It’s a beautiful summer’s day and I’m standing down by the old boathouse at the foot of Nimmo’s Pier and I’m crushing the plastic packaging of a sliced pan that I just bought… somewhere… and I’m reaching in and taking the crumbs and scattering them to the four winds, to the sea, to the rocks and the pigeons and most importantly to the swans with their beautiful plumes of pink and rose that I see in my mind if not yet with my eyes. And a little boy and his mother walk hand in hand behind me towards the playground and the mother says: “Isn’t that man nice to feed the birds?” as they pass me so I turn and smile at the child and he says: “Yes.” And I say:
“They don’t want us to feed them you know, they don’t want us to feed the swans, but I say they deserve our bread!”
And both mother and son are filled with love and delight at my noble example of decency and soon the whole coast will be pink with swans and as they walk on down to the playground I see yet another flock of pigeons land amongst the pebbles where I’ve scattered my feed and I have had it with these greedy little grey-birds, these sky-rats of filth, because they don’t even seem to know or care that the feed is not for them and I feel the affront of their transgression so I step down to the water and…
But no, that was some other time, that was not now. I’m walking home from work and it is a bright sunny evening again, the weather has finally turned. Spring is in the air and birds chirp-cheep and whistle from every corner, every rooftop and tree branch and I almost feel like breaking out into song myself but instead just whistle a happy tune and enjoy the pleasure it brings to each stranger I pass on the street. It’s so nice today so that I don’t even notice myself diverting from the usual course home and now I am walking up along the canal, the current moving against me down towards the quay where they play water polo in the summertime with no recourse to the filth and pollution that surely must gather there, in bubbling rivulets of liquid rot. Now and then I leave a wreath on the railing down there, whenever the notion takes me, and I think about drowning, about people drowning in the quay, their frail little skeletons settling in the silt below, hidden from above so that nobody even knows they’re down there, in the mud beneath the water.
At the top of the canal I pause at the junction and look across to the gates of the university and watch all the beautiful boys and girls with their backpacks and sneakers and funny haircuts flowing in and out of the gates and I smile with parental benevolence at such beauty and innocence and truly we all know that the university is a castle, a fortress, a palace of knowledge and insight and progress and these are all its children and I too am also a fortress or a watchtower, watching over them all. Hot tears spill out one after another down my cheeks and I wipe them away with a smile of such pride and joy that it fills my heart with wonder that states of mind like these could even be possible in this world.
It’s getting dark at last and I’m almost home. My legs feel like I’ve been walking for hours and maybe I have but why not? Why not enjoy life while I live it, soak up the milk of nature and existence while it is still afforded to me? When all’s said and done, isn’t that what it’s all about in the end? Do you know what I mean? We only get one life so it is important to live it to the full. That is the warm heart of all wisdom, oh yes, take it from me. Aha, you know I know these things and always have. I’m happy to share whenever you have a question to ask. All you have to do is ask. I’m always here for you when you need me and I love you.
Mrs. Whelan returned from the kitchen with a gold-rimmed ornate tray on which resided china cups and saucers, a tea-kettle warmed by a hand-knitted cosy with the words “World’s Greatest Mum” calligraphically stitched with an endearing sloppiness throughout its weave, a white jug of milk and a plate of assorted biscuits, including rich teas, pink wafers and Kimberly mikados. The biscuits were wrapped beneath a sheeny film of cellophane that glistened in the cold light of the sun through the windows.
“Really Mrs. Whelan,” Hardy said, “there’s absolutely no need for you to go to all this trouble.”
“Oh not at all,” she answered, this stricken, harrowed woman who looked like she hadn’t slept for days, who had still managed to make an effort to get dressed and put on makeup and shower despite the very floor of her world having fallen out from under her, without any prior warning or indication that life could ever be so blatantly, viciously, dreamily cruel. “And please, call me Mary.”
“Thank you Mary,” Hardy said.
She placed the tray on the glass coffee table between them and then sat on the armchair opposite Hardy on the couch. “Everybody’s been so good,” she said, “the neighbours, the Guards. My sisters are down from Dublin and Jack’s brother is trying to get time off work from his job in Canada so he can come over to help with the search. There’s more traffic going through the house now than there ever was. Sometimes I think it’s almost like a wedding until I remember why it is.”
Hardy sipped his tea. Really it was like a wake. People knew how to behave, even if on the surface they all hoped and prayed and strove to convince themselves that Emily was somewhere out there still alive and well—the cultural tradition of ages was so engrained in the collective psyche that the stimulus-response pattern kicked into action no matter what the people tried to tell themselves. The dolorous scent of bereavement muddied every corner of this well-to-do four bedroom suburban home. Mary Whelan was disintegrating beneath the force of its denial.
“Please have a biscuit, won’t you?” she said, “We’re all out of sandwiches, though Angela was due to bring some over this afternoon. I don’t know what’s keeping her.”
He had no appetite but felt it would be impolite to refuse. Thanking her, he took a rich tea biscuit from the plate and crunched on it, dry-mouthed and slow.
“I spoke to Sergeant Ward at Mill Street briefly,” Hardy said, “how are you getting on with his team?”
“Oh, they’ve been wonderful,” Mary Whelan said, “they’ve been so kind, they gave us the number of a counsellor to call and everything, though we haven’t gotten around to it yet. We’ve just been so busy.”
“He sounded like a solid guy when I spoke to him,” Hardy said, not exactly lying, “he seemed determined.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Whelan said, “yes he is.” She hadn’t taken a sip from her own cup. It remained, cooling, clasped between two frail and white almost claw-like hands crossed at odd angles in her lap.
“Do you know how the investigation is going?”
Mrs. Whelan smiled. “Well,” she said, “not good.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Her eyes darted giddily to the window, almost coy and girlish, and she giggled, a strange and jarring sound that echoed shrilly through the silence of the room. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she said, “but they think… they think maybe Brendan, maybe Brendan had something to do with it.”
Hardy raised an eyebrow. “Brendan?”
“Emily’s boyfriend,” Mrs. Whelan said, “ex-boyfriend.”
“Is that right?” Hardy said, “And what do you think?”
She looked back to him, still smiling, though with eyes that now seemed dark and sardonic in their gaze. “Not a chance,” she said, “not Brendan. No way in a million years.”
Hardy nodded slowly. “Ok,” he said, “but they must have a reason for it, if they suspect him.”
She grimaced. “There was an incident. We didn’t know, he was always such a lovely polite boy, he even helped Mark with his grinds when he was failing maths—they thought he might have to go down to Pass Level until Brendan helped him through it. I don’t think Emily even knew, but Sergeant Ward told us that there’d been an incident a few years ago. A fight or some such that got out of hand and Brendan was arrested. They dropped the charges in the end and nothing came of it, but Sergeant Ward said that it showed aggressive tendencies, an inclination for violence or something like that. I don’t really know what went on Mr. Hardy—Brendan didn’t talk much about his home life, though I know he had a rough time of it growing up—but by the time we knew him he was the sweetest, most gentle boy you could meet. Whatever it was, he’d worked hard to get past it.”
Hardy continued to nod, his eyes glassy as he processed the information. “I see,” he said, “well I’m sure they’re just following up on every possible lead. Though I think you should know that sometimes… well when someone goes missing, if there’s foul play involved… often it’s from a person known to them. Known to the person personally, I mean.”
Mrs. Whelan’s eyes turned cold. “Yes, I’m aware of that,” she said.
Hardy winced. “I didn’t mean—”
“No, I’m sorry. It’s just Brendan’s been in Australia for the past two years but then we found out that he’d been back visiting the weekend when Emily didn’t come home. He flew out the next day. So that’s why they think…”
“But you think otherwise,” Hardy said.
“I know otherwise.”
Hardy looked past her to the mantelpiece, to the rows of framed photographs of the family. There was Emily, bright-eyed and happy as ever, her hazel eyes shining for whoever held the camera. Another photo depicted a teenage boy in a GAA shirt and shorts, knees bloody and caked with mud, holding a medal up around his neck with adolescent pride.
“Is that Mark?” Hardy asked, gesturing to the photo.
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Whelan said, “that was the day they won the county final. It was a wonderful day.”
“How’s he holding up?”
Mrs. Whelan shrugged weakly. “He misses his sister.”
Hardy nodded. In his pocket his phone beeped with a message. “Listen,” he said, “I have to get on. Thank you for your time Mary. I hope I haven’t intruded on you, I just wanted to see if there was anything else I could do.”
“No, you’ve done enough,” Mrs. Whelan said, “the front page, we couldn’t have asked for it.”
“I’ll keep on it till we find her,” Hardy said. “We’ll run something every week.”
Mrs. Whelan said nothing. Hardy set his cup on the tray and stood up. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Be well,” he said, “try to get some rest.” His words sounded hollow and crushingly inadequate to his own ears. He could only imagine how they sounded to her.
“Thank you Mr. Hardy,” she said.
Out in the car, Hardy erupted into a fit of painful hacking coughs. He frantically searched for a tissue to catch the discharge escaping from his lungs in thick ribbons of green and yellow and dark, viscous, ominous red. When he finally began to settle down again he took his phone from his pocket to check the message he’d received inside. It was from Linda.
“No,” it said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea Brian. Not tonight. Not any night.”
Hardy sighed, rubbed his temple and then looked out at the cold grey cul-de-sac around his car. He bit his lip and then typed a reply, pausing now and then to gather his words.
“Yeah, maybe not,” he typed, “but I could really use some company. Had a bit of a scare yesterday at the doctor. Have to go in for more tests again tomorrow but I’m still kind of shaken up. What do you say, wine and a movie, my treat? Even just to talk?”
He placed the phone back in his pocket and then twisted the ignition, pulling out and turning in the road, making his way back in the city centre direction. The phone stayed silent from then on.
[_I’m lying on the stones at the shore beneath Cladagh, the slow waves brushing the coast at my feet like a chorus of hungry ghosts, a concordance of voices, whispering a hymn carried forward just for me from somewhere out there beyond the bay where the grey horizon meets the sky. My feet are pointed out to the water, legs and arms akimbo, and behind my head the boxes and rectangles and triangles and spheres of the city are scattered across the country skyline like the ejaculate of some great proto-architect splattered forth from beyond the confines of space and time. The pebbles and stones and spikes dig into my body and spine, sweet passion and penance, and on my face a perpetual smile. My eyes are closed and the heat and light from the sun casts everything I see as a great throbbing pink and orange mass of nothingness. I have always been here, out in raptures on the beach. _]
A rumble carries to my ear, slow, deep, guttural and sensuous, and then I feel the slouching beast against my face. Soft mewls and my smile widens. Wait for a moment to see what gift of nature has now arrived for my present attendance and then turn my head and kiss its neck, taste its fur and feline dirt. Slouching beast longing for a touch and it mewls again and I laugh and now I’m on my side and the purring becomes deeper and richer and lustier and we’re rolling together in perfect fluidity, caresses of flesh and fur, beast and I and childhood returns to me and the sweet memories of time gone by. I am a child. I am a child again
And I’m sitting in the pot again, bathing with all my brothers and sisters in the pot again. Must have been in trouble! Uh-oh must have been up to no good again so now I have to be washed clean. The stew boils at my flesh and I am raw and pink and gelatinous and I mewl like a kitten and all my brothers and sisters are kittens, or in any case pre-kittens, foetal things, more like worms really, tumescent and shining in the broth around me. But still with feline features! Cartilaginous ossatures of panthers and lions and tigers yet to be born, still forming shape from the pink soft matter of their tubular little bodies. Oh but I myself to my detriment am better formed, chubby fingers and toes clutching through the stew for some fat potato or carrot to catch onto and steady myself lest I drown in all this boiling nourishment.
The great wooden ladle plunges down from above and stirs a terrible maelstrom about us and all my siblings, blind and mindless, mewl and moan as their plump bodies rub up against my own, sleek and pulsating in the impossible heat. I look up the wooden stem of the spoon, oak of the ages, to the feathered claw that clasps it, black and shining, and above to the familiar face that fills the entire circle of all that can be seen of whatever it is that lies above. The crow is fat and shabbily unkempt, feathers ruffled and sharp-edged. Its eyes are black, pupil-less, and the nares of its beak are covered in some firm vitreous that forbids sense of the rising miasma from its pot below. From the clutches of its beak hang withered bulbs of lavender and blossom, carnation and rose, dusty and fragmenting, faded pinks and purples, dangling gently from desiccated stems. I raise one tiny hand from out of the soup towards the crow and it cocks its head to the side, looking back down, eye to my eye, and it caws once, just: “OM”
Years later but still before now, I am astounded to see a great and rusting hulking frame rising up from the water beside the pier where before no such thing had ever stood in its place. Pedestrians walk up and down the way and I try to catch their eye, my mouth open in disbelief and wonder. Doesn’t any other see this strange rig that has to all accounts of sense seemed to have appeared simply over night? What marvellous happenstance has created this impossible structure, for what purpose can it stand, so strong above the water?
And then I learn that it is for the ocean race that has come to town, source of great fortune for local merchant and libertine alike. How they must glide across the waters, these men in their yachts, shore to shore, sea to sea. I have always enjoyed to see the boats in the harbour floating upon the sheeny black.
The streets that night are filled with revelry, a festival of chaos and hysteria, the ecstasy and agony of all man. I move amongst them, throngs and throngs of people, pigs, swilling from plastic cups and fornicating wildly in alleyways, then regurgitating up their festering soup of Guinness, burgers and chips to make room for the next excessive course. How, I wonder, can they not see me? When I stand so clearly in the orange light of night-time before them all. Hum of a thousand voices and yet there is none to speak my name, none to raise a finger and point and then howl with rapture choking every vowel: “There! See now, he has risen! He has risen to judge us!”
They wear the masques of ritual madness, hook-beaked swan and snarling lynx, spider and bird, pigs, pigs and more pigs. A sudden wind blows me down an alley and I see her staggering to and fro, thighs caressed by the lace hem of her short black skirt, a dark web gracing the flesh. Hair long and blonde, in straggles down her back which faces me. She keels forward, clutches her hips and heaves up a soup of stomach acid and alcohol onto the cobbles beneath her heels. I am carried closer. “Shush darling,” I whisper, “shush sweet baby, don’t be sick. Don’t be sick.” Coughing and spluttering, she thrusts a palm against the wall to steady herself, turns so that now finally I can see her angelic face and then, with muddy eyes smeared with clogs of thick mascara, she slides down onto her ass. She lies there. I am above her and she is sleeping. I lower myself onto my knees, her vomitus still warm as it soaks up onto my jeans and I kiss her lips and pull her breast to mine and cradle her in my arms and hold her until together we shudder with sweet release and then I leave her there to rest, my sleeping beauty who will wake to the new day never having known what great and unfettered glory came to her and caressed her in the night.
But that was long ago and in the telling I don’t mean to make you jealous my sweet. That was just a taste and nothing like what we shared. There has never been another. Only you. Only you. I know, now that the spring has come again and the birds are in the sky and the blossoms bloom at the end of every black spider-leg branch, that I was always destined for something more than the profane human entanglements of loin and limb which seem to satiate the feeble passions of all the others. The love I have to give demands a higher plane. What we shared, our ritual and ascension… It’s only you my darling. You have been made immortal in my image and you alone, to date.
And yet as I walk the pavement by the canal I see a young woman on a bicycle, an intelligent thoughtful type with spectacles and supple olive skin, and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that at the very least she makes me think of you. You know I will always be loyal to you, that goes without saying love. But what we had, what I gave to you, by its very nature can only be given once. Only to one once. Would it be just to never give it again? To deprive all others of that gift? It’s food for thought darling. Just food for thought.
Two sheets of black glossy portent sealed his fate. The oncologist pointing with a stylus scraping the sheet, clinical in his manner of course, but what else was to be expected? It could just be pneumonia, he said, but that was highly unlikely. Too much was abnormal, too many blotches of uncertain fog behind the bones.
That proud, pumping chest that had once torn across fields of mud and grass, in rain and snow, clobbering other men to seize each fierce and hard-fought victory, one after the other. Those lungs that had thundered from the shell of a drunk tank, roaring with righteous agonized rage, later in his youth when things at home had finally all gone wrong. Now it was rendered a freeze-frame of death. Feeble, irregular crisscross of ribs, translucent over darkness and other clouds of great and immovable grey. The source of his pain. This was no flu.
Hardy, naked but for a gown, coughing into his hand before lying back on the strange, alien plastic. The great grey wheel of the machine at his feet, whirring softly and beeping, its circular toothless maw looming, waiting to take him in, digital numbers on a screen above and two glass circles on either side, like the compound eyes of some bulging cyborg insect or a pair of technological cold sores on the mouth of the machine. The nurse gently guiding his hands over his head, whispering meaningless words of comfort. The light in here so far from daylight that the room could be a hundred miles beneath the earth, yellow tepid luminescence like the pallor of a corpse.
They feed him into it, into the CAT scan, a crosshair of liquescent red lasers marking out his crumbling chest for future annihilation. Faint humiliation of his position, quiet grimace. Wait for it to be over. It might not be so bad.
Days later, Hardy waiting in reception, alcohol on his breath. More tests, more bad news to come, he can feel it. It shouldn’t be this fast, when is the health service ever this fast?
A young woman follows the whims of her son, toddler-aged, around the small table in the centre of the room. Shows him toys and books, fairy tales—Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, Mother Goose. Hardy watches with a grim smile, tries to keep his mind off it. Would he have ever had kids? Probably not. Now it was decided for certain.
Bronchoscopy this time, getting closer to the final certainty. More mundane, hollow pleasantries with the nurses. All so chipper and upbeat, professional nurturance of their demeanour. Hardy didn’t want or need it. Hardy on a bed, wheeled through labyrinthine corridors, doctors and nurses and consultants from all ethnicities and cultures and religions passing by. Why was their no sunlight? Probably interfered with the machines. Sensitive technologies for these most important of all life’s questions.
Hook him up to machines, tube to plunder his body, camera for the doctors to see and tiny claw to slice away the tissue for further analysis. Moderate anaesthesia and they say he should remain lucid (lucid though placid) but he passes out anyway. Dreams of spelunking through tunnels of red, raw flesh, viscid with the pus of disease. Somewhere else he is with Linda, walking in Coole Woods that time she told him about the assault, her just a girl, drunken on holidays, out of reach and violated. How it made him feel. Powerless.
At last, the final revelation. Drum-roll, applause, Small-cell lung cancer, extensive spread, inoperable, almost certainly incurable, standing ovation. Curtains fall. Right now, the doctor said, we need to look at how we can make this as comfortable as possible for you. Brian Hardy was on the outs at last.
April Fools’ Day came again and Hardy’s bank balance was imbued with a moderate replenishment. He could have told Downey or the girls at HR about his diagnosis and they would have given him time off work, probably would have even been decent enough to make out like it was only temporary, like it wasn’t Hardy himself who was only temporary. But no, he didn’t want the fuss and like the doctor had said right now the important thing was making his final days comfortable. The only time Hardy had ever really broached a semblance of comfort was when he was working. He needed it and he would stick with it for as long as he was physically able.
On April first he finished his work early—a follow up story on Emily to fulfil his promise to Mrs. Whelan, this time destined for relegation to the third page instead of the cover, and a few other generic write-ups from the preceding week in the city by the sea. He sent his work to Downey and then left without waiting for a reply.
After a brief trip to the ATM to receive his spoils, Hardy made his way next to the “E-Cigarette” store. It was time for a change, not like it would make much difference at this stage, but the cigarettes were simply causing him too much pain and now that he knew why, it was even harder to derive enjoyment around it. The lady at the store showed him how to use the new contraption, filled it with menthol-flavoured liquid that almost made it seem medicinal to inhale and then he was set. Dying dogs, new tricks, something like that.
After that, Hardy strolled down the pedestrianized plaza of Shop Street, past tourists and buskers and performance artists plying their trade in the soft warmth of the sunny spring evening. Puffing on his new machine like some sort of science-fiction Sherlock Holmes, he meandered finally into the King’s Head and ordered himself a pint of Guinness and a Jameson on the rocks.
Force of habit brought him back outside to drink, even though he probably could have inhaled his vapour inside, but regardless, the evening was pleasant and he might as well enjoy it. He wouldn’t have many more now. The drink was good and he savoured it, like he would have anyway on a new month’s payday, watching the girls of spring walk by with their bouncy joi de vivre.
The black cloak of night descended over the city and it started to get cold. Hardy moved from bar to bar, getting drunker, sloppier, tasting the wares of as many establishments as he could manage, like he didn’t know if he’d ever get the chance again. Eventually he ended up in some club, sometime long after midnight, holding himself up with both elbows on a counter, struggling to guide the straw to his lips. The bare black sky of the night was above him, the lush, verdant smoking area around him thronged with people, most of whom were barely half his age. Somehow he found himself in conversation with a woman from his own generation, she most likely humouring him in his state of maudlin, messy intoxication. She had daughters and he told her to cherish them, to look out for them. The world was harder on girls, he said, and they needed somebody to look out for them. She told him he looked like he needed somebody to look out for him himself and he asked her if she fancied taking up the task. She said she didn’t but smiled anyway, patting him on the shoulder before leaving him to find his own way home.
Hours passed and the bar stopped serving. People began to leave. No woman returned his smile and finally, beyond desperation, Hardy left alone. He sang a faint song as he zig-zagged, drunken, homeward up the dying streets of dawn. The stories were in for another week, the obligations fulfilled, and there was nothing else for him to do.
I saw you in the paper today. Imagine my surprise. No I’m not angry, of course not darling. It’s just a shock, that’s all. It’s been half a month already, hasn’t it? I’m just annoyed that they haven’t left you alone by now. I’m not angry. I’m never angry at you.
But there you are, looking up at me from the cheap recycled pulp, the grainy off-colour photo doing nothing to capture the pounding vitality that I and you both know you truly have when you’re at your best. But here you look like a common slut. You could be any little harlot snatched off the street, forcing a smile for all the gawking, mealy-mouthed faces that must be fawning over you this morning. I can see the strain around your eyes as your lips curl into that twisted Pan Am smile. I can read the violation in your eyes. And ok, I’m furious. I’m furious, but not at you. Hush my sweet, hush now.
I didn’t want to say anything before but for a time you were in a lot of papers, believe it or not you were even on the TV news. Yes I know, I was as surprised as you are. Savages, dumb apes, they all wanted you, that much must be no surprise, though I know how modest you can be. But really, it was understandable. I took you from their midst, raised you up to a level that you truly deserved. No wonder they clutched blindly after what they’d lost, even if they never even knew what that was. But this now, this is too much. I can’t eat my toast when I see you there, like a whore, what they’ve done to you in their rag of ignorance. I wouldn’t wipe my rectum with it, though the way they’ve rendered you is worth for little else. My morning tea tastes like vomit because of it and I throw the cup across the room, where it smashes against the wall into a million porcelain pieces, an ochre stain splattering across the wallpaper as the liquid trickles down to the floor. But please don’t blame yourself, my anger is not because of you.
Ah you are so sweet my love, with your carmine lips and auburn hair. I have never known such ineffable profundity as I saw in your eyes when together we rose. I was glad to give it as you were glad to share. It’s funny but I find it hard now to remember your taste, how your naked flesh felt beneath the caress of my hands. Maybe it’s because you’re no longer with the physical shell that held your spirit, the chrysalis that I so gently and diligently cracked open to release your flame. Now you exist only here with me, but oh how I long to feel your skin again. Perhaps that is my weakness. Even I too in some ways am bound by the chains of muscle and flesh.
I remember the first time I saw you, how angels and devils sang. The whole world stilled for you and I and when you smiled at me I felt alive for the very first time. It’s a cliché I know, perhaps even a false one because of course I am alive and always have been, of course, but I can think of no other way to put it, the moment was simply beyond words, impalpable, divine. And you felt it too, from the very first moment, you radiated your need for me, your need to submit and be made whole again, by me. I in my disguise and yet you alone saw through it, your smile then was nothing like the one in the paper, it was heaven. I breathed it in.
He sat alone in his room, hands on lap and the table bare, save for the newspaper spread out beneath him like the document of some singularly-obsessed detective, poring over a case. Opened on the third page, a third of the way down, there beneath the headline and Brian Hardy’s name, was Emily’s face—a snapshot of the girl who would grow little more than a month or two after that moment had been claimed. Little more than a month or two from that moment and then she would be claimed again, this time frozen forever. She was the one he had taken from the world.
It was early in the morning. He always woke early and would sit sometimes for hours at his table, scarcely moving, his breath so faint and shallow that his chest seemed bereft of any motion at all. Sometimes he would smile, faintly, and other times his lips would curl downwards, never more than a millimetre or two, in a shadow of whatever distaste or repulsion was working its way through the psyche within. For the vast majority of moments that passed, however, his expression told nothing at all.
He was tall and thin, rangy. It was the build of a person who had never borne any relationship to food beyond the necessity of inputting energy into the viscera that carried him through the world. Not once had he ever savoured a meal or held a glass of fine wine to his eye in appreciation of the subtleties and nuance of the flavours within. He had only experienced anything comparable to such bodily pleasures once in his life and he longed with a deep and inexorable ache to receive it again.
Minutes passed, in increments of five, ten, twenty, fifteen. The long black hand of the clock sporadically flicked its way around the yellowed face like a skeletal arm, splayed out and lurching, impossibly re-animated from beyond the grave by the force of some ghoul’s final spite-filled accusation. The time passed from six am up to ten to seven. He sat, pale and pallid, the eyes behind his glasses listless and almost closed, seemingly without any colour in their irises at all. His lip twitched almost imperceptibly as the hand of the clock creaked forward to mark another minute passed.
There are some who say that there’s only one for one in this world, you know, but I believe it a myth—a falsity packaged and sold to the teeming masses by smart but unscrupulous charlatans churning out holiday cards all year round. Yes, a myth I say, but please do not mistake my assertion to be evidence that I am anything other than a fully-fledged and committed romantic at heart. We both know that much to be true. Oh yes, we know that much at least.
But my dear I am also a realist and to say that there are not many souls who carry for one another an inter-compatibility of personality and style would strike me as a grave and even, dare I say it, irresponsible falsity. There are many out there for many and it is really just a matter of trusting the fates to bring us together. And ok, for some of us, those with more refined and advanced sensibilities—those of us who are, perhaps even to our detriment, simply more evolved in our very nature—our fellow kindred spirits may seem few and far between when we long to reach out to touch and be touched. But that does not mean we cannot find each other, you and I are evidence of that. Nor does it mean that there are not many more out there with whom we might equally chime. It may just be that we have to look a little harder than those leering, drooling Neanderthals that surround us at every turn in this tragic, underdeveloped society of ours.
Certainly the notion of one for one seems to fly in the face of the natural human sex drive. Don’t blush my dear! We’re both adults, we can talk about it with maturity. Oh my, you’re so demure, almost prudish even. No I don’t mean it as an insult, not at all. You’re adorable my sweet. But really I know you can be coy too, yes I feel it, behind that smile. After all, we both went there together to the heights of passion and ecstasy and bodily release. We both learned together that the act of sex can transcend the churlish titters of schoolboys whispering in secret hallways or the drunken, lubricious gyrations of those mindless reprobates who nightly perform their disservice to that most holy of all human acts. Sex is a unity of body and soul, you’d do well to remember it, but even still, to say “one for one and one only”, is that really natural?
I say not—and bear with me for a moment. All around us we feel the pressures to accept the model of monogamy as the one and only true way for man to live with woman. The priests shout it from the pulpits, themselves chaste or perverted beneath the dusty black cloth of their robes. The entire modern notion of the “nuclear family” is built around man at the top with woman beneath and her children below. Is that in itself not too much pressure for woman to bear?
On the subject of monogamy, George Bernard Shaw once wrote that confusing monogamy with morality does more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error. I am inclined to agree. Then again on the same subject Oscar Wilde himself had this to say: “Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.” Hush, I say this last in jest, you know already that you are more than I could ever ask for. No, not one too many, never you.
But even still you see how such questions have wracked the minds of men much greater than you my love. It is a question of ages and the reason it persists is because, deep down, in our heart of hearts, perhaps we truly know that monogamy itself is unnatural and never should have been.
I am reminded of my days of youth when I first felt the early prick of puberty take hold. I can see that you enjoy the thought, I’m sure you’re curious and of course it’s only natural. But please transcend any jealousies that may now arise, for you see there is another more enlightened way to conceive of the whole great dance of love and life. It is not a waltz perhaps but a joyous and everlasting conga line, the real music is made not by a pair but by many.
In my time I was quite the Byronesque, I doubt it much surprises you. In my fifteenth year, when I felt the waking ox within, I took to wearing a long black robe tailored from the feathers of ravens and crows. Call it the vapidity of youth but I still say that it suited me and for woman-kind it was nothing short of aphrodisiacal, although that was never my true intention in assuming that garment.
Walking the streets they throw themselves at my feet and genuflect up towards me from the paving stones. They bare their supple white milky-pale breasts and beg me to take them in hand. Glistening lips painted in pinks and purples shine in the cold and unforgiving sun. Eyes cloud over and pupils dilate, I can taste their womanly sex radiating up from all around me. The streets undulate with their bodies, for miles ahead, moaning and twisting, each trembling to their own private rhythm of need. I float above it and see how the whole city has been tarnished with a blanket of harlots, how it trembles like a thing alive! They cry out in the agony of longing for me to take them, to take them all, and I say No. And the ululations that rise then are like the voice of all that was never made whole, every soul and moment that ever rose towards greatness and fate and then faltered, falling like a feather back to the teeming abyssal below.
[_ _]The black minute hand of the clock clicked into place marking the hour and his gaze flicked towards its face almost perfect in time, as though attached to its arrow by some slender psychic chord. He cleared his throat and then rose from the table.
The bedroom was as bare as the kitchen. A mattress wrapped in plastic and a crimson silky blanket that looked more suited to the floor of some Amsterdam harem than this empty and unfurnished habitat where he lay his head each night. He walked to the closet and opened it on a row of neat and nondescript shirts, hanging like empty skins in a furrier’s shop. He ran his fingers gently through them, one after the other, before selecting a well-pressed purple shirt with some franchise’s nondescript logo stitched to its breast. He dressed slowly and methodically—this was how he moved almost always—and then he left the room.
Out on the streets he walked the city, past the people as they navigated their way around the corners of their lives. As he walked his expression never changed. It was faint smile, pale brow, and eyes that were dead and devoid of anything remotely corporeal.
For his part, he did not see them, those he passed on his way to the daily employment. He could see their shapes, even their faces, but to him they were one and the same. Only on occasion would he register a face—a young woman here or there might catch his attention, for a moment almost waking him from the foggy labyrinth of his mind, before being dismissed once again from all tangible existence. For their part, those who were more perceptive and who happened to look longer than a second into his face were stricken with a brief and uncomfortable dissonance, an uncanny, unexplainable sense of unease, before they too dismissed him in style. Presently he arrived to his place of work, signed himself in with his given name, and began to interact with the world.
[_No, I never gave in to the call of the flesh in my youth, though I was not above temptation. Instead I endeavoured to keep the temple of my body pure until I had fully matured, until I had attained the wisdom that I knew was the destiny of my youthful potential. Is it a choice I grew to regret? Never. _]
But now that I have fulfilled that potential, now that I have attained the requisite wisdom to fully engage with the art of physical and emotional love without succumbing to its suffocating nature and being assimilated whole, I feel that I am ready to return there once again. And you, as my truest love, I would like us to take this journey together. You see I think it’s clear now that you can never be enough for me, not by yourself alone, and perhaps I have already been inattentive to these labours of yours. Perhaps you are already struggling to live up to the power of my needs.
[_By now you can see the merits of polygamy and perhaps, my dear, this is what you wanted all along. Could it be that you thought it would anger me, repel me, repulse me, for you to suggest we bring another to our bed? No, it is no sin, darling, it is perhaps the highest of virtues itself. Let us take this weight from your shoulders, let us share the love again. It thrills me to think of how you two will grow to love one another, how together we will make such perfection complete. A trinity of love. The three of us together. _]
So it is decided then. Above the mountains three bells ring. Clouds part. Dong. Listen. Dong. Hear it my sweet, take my hand. Dong. The gates of Olympus open and a river of rose water spews forth down the harsh gradient, across rocks and scrub-brush so arid and desiccated that they crumble and melt into mud and mush beneath its liquid absolution. Down beneath the mountain, the people claw and fuck in their huts of shit. They will be drowned beneath the liquid of the Gods. This is blood my love, life’s blood. You know it must be released. This is our baptismal, our communion, our holy matrimony. Somewhere in the sun, too bright to clearly see, an angel takes form. Feel the heat of her golden locks, her eyelids flicker over planets of gaseous fire and heat. From her lips spill forth utterances so celestial and divine that any who should hear is instantly driven insane. Somewhere out there our lover waits, she can feel us near and she longs to find us. She will find us. She will come to me just as you did and when we see her we shall know. The blood pours down the mountain and onto the vale of ignorance, gurgling and filling it, thousands of leagues deep. It boils as it fills the chasm, none escape, no one survives. Above in the heavens our angel smiles and the words of prayer continue to strike forth from her mercury lips. She is burning in the sun and she burns there forever.
He was given a name and now, at the place where he went to spend time each week and do things in exchange for money, it was fixed to his breast on a small, cold rectangle of plastic. It was a name like any other and he had no particular attachment to it beyond its convenience for performing tasks in the wider world, like renting an apartment or purchasing unmentionables online. The name had been given to him but to him it was not his. It was simply a strange and barely understood necessity, a surreal conceptual tool required for life in an irrational universe.
Customers would come through the shopping centre and he would watch them sometimes from behind the counter of the mobile phone store where he worked, his face puffy and pale as though the capillaries themselves were unaware of their manifest purpose and his eyes half-closed and dull, almost serene in their dreamy vacuity. Someone had told him once that he was supposed to smile, that it made the customers feel more at ease, and now he did so constantly for all the hours that he spent there, whether alone or not. To him there was no difference.
His fellow employees avoided him and even grew to dread the days when they were obliged to spend a shift with him alone, but they did not talk about him behind his back or ever share with one another the eerie and unsettling sense they felt around him, that cold radiation that shrouded his person like the aura of a corpse. They did not mention it to one another, but amongst them all it was equally understood.
Of the customers, very few ever inferred more than the slightest hint that this strange and quiet docile man selling them mobile phones and phone equipment over a shopping mall counter was not like them at all, not like anybody, not really human at all. Sometimes he longed to tell them, not with words but with actions. Sometimes he wanted to show them what he was, but instead he continued to politely and persistently push the full package of whatever item was currently on offer. More sales meant more commission and therefore more pay, that much at least was understood.
[_I hear it between their words, her name. It’s still uncertain to my ears, I’ll have to see it written down or hear it spoken directly, but I hear it nonetheless. It is the whisper that unfolds when their mouths close, I see it in their eyes, the shared understanding, even though they don’t know it themselves. They are only vessels for the message, for the destiny. There will be another, I will take another. She will come to me just like before and she will surrender everything to me, her name, her house, her job and then later even more. Her dreams, her aspirations, her plans, her fear. I will take it all, I will take it and eat it, open my throat and tear it from her lips. Drink it with my eyes. I will. I will. I am waiting now and watching. She has golden hair now and her eyes should be golden too but they might be blue. I know because an angel told me. It was never my idea. It’s all a joke to somebody. It’s just the way life is. Listen to the voices under the bridge, they are wolves’ voices. This is how it is. This is just the way it is. _]
Shards of sunlight like daggers invaded the cracks in the curtains and sliced through the musty gloom that permeated Hardy’s bedroom. Motes and dust danced in their beams like pixies affronted by the inertia and decay that surrounded them. The whole room stunk of death.
Under his blankets Hardy deteriorated. Empty bottles, wine or whiskey, scattered the floor between crumpled clothes, tugged or torn off in various states of drunkenness and dying over the past number of days that had passed since his diagnosis like fog in a dark night’s wind. It was a Monday—Easter Monday, eight days before he would die—and despite his best intentions Hardy hadn’t made it into the office since the Wednesday before.
Cadaverous, his hulking body covered by a sheet and his eyes open and unblinking beneath their crack, Hardy watched the dust in the invading sunlight. Following the beam to the window led to a pillar of brightness and energy, blue and white of the world beyond. Somewhere out there, as if miles from the prison of his disease, a beautiful day was unfolding.
The cancer was rampant inside him, he could feel it now, recognize its life-force separate from his own as it drained the energy and nutrients from his body. It was personal, it was alive, eating him and indulging itself as it romped through the autumn meadows of his flesh, apparently untethered even by the restraints of its symbiotic dependence on its host. There were supposed to have been more tests, he was supposed to have come back to the clinic to determine if and by how much the disease had spread but Hardy hadn’t bothered. He didn’t need a machine to tell him it was everywhere.
The drink was Catch Twenty-two. It was obviously bad for him, speeding up the process, gnawing at whatever the cancer hadn’t taken yet, and he could feel that and knew it. But for his mind it was needed, or at the very least that was what he believed. He wasn’t eating and was only ingesting the medication prescribed to him when he felt like it, sporadically and as if as an afterthought, but the booze could still make his eyes shine like it always had. For a while at least. Then the pain and the exhaustion would take over and he would collapse again beneath the sheets into a world of surreal and portentous nightmares and visions. He knew he was dying and was too tired now to resist. When it came he intended to submit without question. This was how it would end, here in this bachelor’s tomb of a musty bedroom.
He had reason to get up that day though he wasn’t sure he had the strength. He was to talk to the Garda Ward at Mill Street, find out if there were any leads on the girl, but he knew that it was pointless. The sole motivation was the oath he had made to Mary Whelan to stay on the case and even that was scarcely enough to pierce through the agony of his condition. If she was alive sooner or later they would find her. If she wasn’t then they wouldn’t, surely that was all. What role was there left for him to play? He was broken, dying—obsolete.
When the motivation to rise finally came it was in a phone call from the editor, Downey demanding to know why Hardy thought he could get away with not even popping his head around the door for a full week—Juvesence or no Juvesence—and what he had for when the office opened again the following morning. Hardy fell back on the Ward meeting and promised an update on the Emily story, even managing to derive enjoyment from Downey’s outrage that he was still chasing that angle when there were other more important leads to follow up on, like the local businesses’ award, or the city council’s new litter collection initiative. And so in the end it was simply contrarianism and Hardy’s long-held and complicated antipathy for authority figures that finally brought him to his feet and set him once more on his final course of destiny. He threw back the sheets, rose naked from his bed and lifted a whiskey bottle from the floor, drinking its last fiery mouthfuls like a gladiator going into battle, rising just one day later than the Lord himself.
It was indeed a beautiful day and Hardy’s flesh tingled at this first exposure to sunlight after so long in the shadows. The gentle warmth on his unshaven cheeks was like a great thirst being quenched, though still direly insufficient as a cure for what ailed him. It was not a long stroll from his apartment to the Garda Station which was good because he was not fit for much more and even then had to pause several times, bowed over and coughing while other pedestrians looked on with mixed horror and contempt, mistaking him perhaps for a common street drinker in the throes of delirium tremens. Hardy was in too much pain to notice and if he had he wouldn’t have cared.
Ward kept him waiting long enough for the thirst to set in, the few drops of whiskey had warmed his blood but now the sensation was passing and the shakes were on their way. When a young Garda finally came to bring him to the Sergeant’s office Hardy’s mood was foul. He walked the narrow corridors in tow behind the Guard, smiling at the scant graffiti that had been scratched brazenly and surely frantically into the walls along the way.
Ward didn’t get up from his desk. He was Garda through and through, tall and built but with a sizeable gut, bald dome of his head circled with downy grey and his face cold and hard. No doubt he’d beaten his fair share of drunken youths in his time before setting them back out on the street in the morning with no official charge and the implicit understanding that justice had been served. He was old school.
“Yeah,” Hardy said, “we spoke on the phone.”
Ward’s cold expression broke as he took a closer look at his visitor, his grey eyes softening with concern. Hardy was surprised to see it.
“Are you feeling alright today Mr. Hardy?” Ward asked.
Hardy’s face was sallow and gaunt, dark and puffy rings glistened under his bloodshot eyes and his skin had the look of a man who had lost too much weight too fast and not from the spoils of exercise or healthy eating.
“Touch of the flu,” Hardy said, pulling out the seat and sitting down. “I’m here about Emily Whelan.”
“I know,” said Ward, “I’m sorry I couldn’t see you earlier. This isn’t my only case, heavy workload and all that, you know how it is. An Easter break around here is purely mythology.” Ward raised an eyebrow as he looked Hardy over. “Are you sure I can’t get you something? A glass of water maybe?”
Hardy shook his head. “No,” he said, “thanks. So I saw Mary Whelan recently, she told me about Brendan.”
Ward’s gaze darkened and he leaned back in his chair, spine military straight and his face equally stern. “You can’t mention that in the paper,” he said.
“Of course not,” Hardy said, “we’re talking off the record here.”
“On or off the record I can’t speak about any leads in an ongoing investigation, you know that.”
Hardy shrugged. “Mary Whelan seems pretty certain the kid’s innocent,” he said.
“Mary Whelan’s been through hell,” Ward snapped. “Of course she doesn’t want to think the boy was capable of hurting her daughter, not after inviting him into her home, feeding him, letting him stay over nights. But we have good reason to suspect him. He put a man in the hospital for Christ’s sake, over nothing but a lifted pint.”
Hardy nodded but did not speak. Right now he felt like he could do worse for a drink himself.
“Did they have much animosity between them?” he asked, “Emily and the kid—from what I gathered it seems like they split on relatively good terms.”
Ward studied Hardy’s face, the Sergeant’s own expression a mixture of distaste and weary resignation. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t know what your special interest is in this—from the look of you, you look like you should be in a hospital bed instead of butting your nose in here—but we’re ninety per cent certain that Brendan Herron is the boy. He was in and out of the country like a ghost that weekend and all our attempts to reach him in Australia have fallen on deaf ears. The force over there are looking to catch up with him for something else, another violent assault Mr. Hardy, alcohol related again, and they too have no leads. We know he’s our man.”
Hardy rubbed his temple, sullenly, and sighed. “Maybe,” he said. “You know what, I think I’ll take that glass of water after all.”
Ward buzzed for reception to bring it in and then directed his attention back to Hardy. “If you print any word of what I just told you we’ll come down on you hard, you and your whole paper. See how you handle a wall of silence from our office after that.”
Hardy smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I know.”
A constable came in with the water and Hardy drank greedily, surprised at how much he needed it. When she left again he turned back to the Sergeant. “Did he have any contact with Emily the day she went missing?” he asked, “Do you know what she was doing?”
“She spent most of the day with friends,” Ward answered, “spent the afternoon shopping for clothes and a new phone in the Kennedy Shopping Centre and then they went out on the town together. My guess is the Herron boy must have crossed her path by chance later that night when she was leaving the club and followed her, maybe there was an altercation and it got out of hand. We already know he gets violent on the drink.”
“It makes sense,” Hardy said, “I’ll give you that much.”
Ward nodded, himself already clearly convinced. “Go home Mr. Hardy,” he said, “get some rest. Leave the detective work to the men who know what they’re doing.”
Hardy smiled, tight-lipped, and then put out his hand. “Thank you for your time,” he said, then he got up and left.
Leaving the station, the woman constable at the desk stood up reflexively at the sight of him and put out her hands as if to help, her expression one of simple, automatic concern.
“I’m fine,” Hardy smiled, “just a touch of the flu.”
Outside by the railings, he had to stop and steady himself to gather his strength. He stood bowed over, watching the gravel, one arm clutching the cold iron and his breath shallow, sharp and painful. Ward had failed to convince him. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was Mary Whelan’s certainty, or maybe it was something else, something about a young man, lost and raging, taking the blame for all the darkness in the world once again, lashing out against it all the only way he knew how. Had the Herron boy heard about Emily? Surely he had friends to tell him, perhaps that would explain whatever altercation had taken place overseas. Maybe Mary Whelan could reach him, some friend of a friend might know how. Otherwise Ward and the force would disdain all other investigations until they had him in their cell. Hardy knew how they were.
When he was fit to, as fit as he’d ever be, maybe more fit than he’d ever be again, Hardy straightened himself up and shuffled out onto the pavement and on towards his apartment. Mary Whelan would want an update, she deserved it, and tracking down the boy would give her something to focus on, something to keep her mind off the despair. It would be good for her, good for the boy too, Hardy would call her as soon as he got home.
What else was there then? Emily had been shopping with friends, new clothes and a new phone, would it be intrusive for Hardy to speak to them? Perhaps they had something more to tell, something Ward had overlooked. If he had the strength in the coming days, maybe he himself would play detective, track her final movements, see if anything appeared. It would give him also something to do, something to keep his own focus away from death’s looming horizon.
I don’t want to rush into it this time, not with you, not like before, not with the first one. I almost couldn’t help myself then, I’d already waited so long, but this time I think I can wait a little longer. This time I will let myself savour the thrill of the chase. This time I will enjoy every step along the way. Though already I can’t wait to have you, my whole body burns with anticipation. And yet even still, you for your part you have no idea. Or maybe you’re just pretending. Maybe you know as much as I do about what’s coming to us, that great rift in the universe that will slice open all time forever for a moment. Perhaps you only feign ignorance of the fate in store. If that’s the case then I know you must be burning as much as I am for that moment but you must be patient. We both must be patient.
I’m walking the canal by the cathedral, the university at my back and the park on the other side of the slow black trickle that moves forever beside me. I can see fish beneath the water, dim shapes of deeper black flitting sleekly beneath the surface. I had fish for breakfast this morning and it’s funny that I remember that because I usually don’t but yes, I did. Tuna forked out of a can over naked toast. I couldn’t eat more than a few bites but I remember it. It was early in the morning. It is early in the morning.
He moved slowly along the canal walk, a slight breeze ruffling his hair and the sky bright and blue above him. To see his smile, thin bloodless lips, pressed together in a tight crescent, one might mistake it for a symbol of some sick serenity, though no such sensation resided within. The eyes told it—the emptiness, the void. If he had ever had so much as a metal plate or a pacemaker placed within his body one could say he was more robot than man, such was the paucity of human emotion in his person. But he was a creature of viscera and like all creatures he craved. Closer to that mouth, barely audible on his breath that smelled of sweet and sour decay, a quiet chromatic tune ebbed and flowed with no apparent rhythm or reason. He did not even notice it himself and when his attention was drawn lazily from the river of ceaseless thoughts that raged within his mind, the tune stopped.
Up ahead, with the lock and pier and coast in view on the horizon, three teenaged girls were standing by the railings of a playground facing the canal. They wore the frayed navy woollen jumpers of school uniform, their skirts defiantly high over runners and boots that were certainly not school issue. His pace did not quicken as his eyes tracked their movements like the target of a homing missile set to destroy. They smoked cigarettes and chewed gum, arms crossed over chests and gestures jerky and self-consciously cool. He raised a hand to wave.
The girls stopped and looked up at him, closing in. One of them, perhaps the leader, eyed him scornfully, while the other two looked to her first for assessment and then back to him, shy and furtive. They were nearing the end of their teenage years and by now well aware of the potential danger that lurked behind the approach of any unknown man.
“Alright,” the leader nodded, nonchalant, and now he was beside them, standing closer than anybody with a modicum of social insight would.
“I was wondering if you could tell me what time it is?” he asked. He was blocking their view of the sun so that his face was a shadow and his eyes unseen behind the searing white tint of his glasses.
“Yeah, sure,” the girl said, “it’s twelve o’clock, a little bit passed.”
“Shouldn’t you girls be in school?”
They could see his strange unfaltering smile, though little more.
The leader girl cocked her head to the side, flicked ash from the end of her cigarette, and stared at him dead in the direction of his unseen eyes. “We have the day off.”
“You shouldn’t smoke you know, it’s disgusting.”
“Well that’s our business, isn’t it?”
He did not move or speak, the smile remained for a moment and then he pursed his lips together and spat at the girl’s painted forehead. Before realization could settle the jolt of their surprise he had turned and continued walking down the canal at the same leisurely pace as before. They screamed after him in anger and shock, a barrage of insults and offense, but he paid them no mind. From his lips again the tune began to sound.
At the bottom of the steps by the lock, where the water settled in a pool of languid, ineffable black, he turned right towards the pubs and clubs of the city’s west-side, the final outpost of the social city centre before the streets gave way to the supermarkets and garages of suburbia. Turning up Dominick Street so that he was now facing north again, he began to make his way up towards the hospital. From there he walked for miles.
Now, sometime later, he walked through the wide indolent pavements of some housing estate, one of countless more just like it, each barely distinguishable from any other. He walked with the same relaxed and affable stride as he had since he’d begun, a warped flâneur whose interest in his surroundings was solely reserved for the profane. Finally, he reached the destination, a house at the end of a cul-de-sac, its stop a sweetly conspicuous crop of oak trees dissected by a path to the next estate over. He did not pause or allow himself to look at the house until he was safely hidden in shade.
Can you feel me? I bet you can, can’t you? I bet you feel this delicious tingle too, this wonderful scrumptious excitement now that we’re so close together again. Don’t let it show on your face. Hide it from them, those savages, that unworthy whoreson who gave you his seed, the bitch who harboured you in her rotten womb until you were ready to begin your proper gestation in the world beyond. Now you are ready at last, your destiny is almost complete. You will graduate with full honours beneath me. Honey, I’m so proud of you. Imagine my fingers on your lips. I know you can feel it, but please, don’t laugh!
That’s right, hide it inside you. This pleasure is just for you and me. They would never understand. They would crucify you if they ever even sensed that you should one day rise leagues from their pigsty. Oh yes, ignorance must feed itself on ignorance alone if it’s ever to survive and all else must be destroyed. They would drag you from your bed and crucify you on the street. All the neighbours would slink from their houses and gather around to watch. And all because they fear, my love. FEAR. But we do not fear. We would not even give it a name. Please be patient. I will take you from them soon, you have to trust me, I’ve done this before, but first you must be patient. I want to enjoy this. I need to.
He stood in the shadows of the oaks, hands hanging limply by his sides from flaccid wrists. Fingers that ached to choke a young girl’s neck. He did not move. He barely breathed. He smiled sickly, his eyes did not blink. Minutes passed, perhaps not many, a cyclist passed him on the pavement and never thought to turn his head into the darkness beneath the trees. He went on unwatched. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. The door to her house opened and filial voices carried to him effortlessly across the windless day.
Her father first stepped out, holding a bottle entombed in shiny red and gold wrapping paper with a ribbon on its neck. He was dressed smart-casual with a grey blazer over shirt and jeans. From the shadows of the trees he could not have read the kindness in the lines on the man’s face—the fluster, impatience, and excitement of his expression—and if he could have he would not have understood any of it. The mother followed next, an older woman but beautiful in a long black gown with her hair done up. He paid neither any mind. He knew what happened next.
It was her, like a revelation, stepping from the doorway. The one he hunted. She could not have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three years old, she had the beauty of a model but with the kindness of a certain youthful wisdom on her face. Her eyes were blue and her hair blonde as his intent had stipulated, a wholly different palate to Emily’s for a change of pace, and anything else about her was simply superfluous. He watched her and as he did one foot moved reflexively forward, his entire body shuddering with orgiastic sensation. Then they were in the car, pulling out of the driveway and driving away. He waited for a moment and then stepped out of the trees.
[_Did you feel it! You did, didn’t you! I saw it on your face, the same as mine, you felt it just the same as me, God, my fucking GOD! I thought I would burst. Oh my, my oh my. You held it well, I must say, a commendable performance. The fools were none the wiser as you navigated that storm of pleasures and thrills. I only saw it myself because I was looking for it. Because I was looking and because I can feel you, because of our connection. I wanted to do it right then, be damned to the interference, I almost did but I am strong. I am stoic and I am strong. I am an exemplary inspiration to the worms. They could all take a bite from my apple and the world might be better for it. Yes, so we wait. Because, of course, the time wasn’t right. You felt that too, I know, even if you longed for the contrary. That’s why you need me. You are young and I am your guide. Trust me and, as ever, be patient. _]
Soon I will bring you to my altar, draw the sacramental wine from your veins. I will open you and free you. We will drink the juices of life, we will share that together and I will take you forever away from here, forever away from them all. And their lives will go on, dumb, brutish and ignorant, like pigs in a cage. They will never even notice that you are no longer there. Because they never saw you as I do. They never knew what you are truly worth.
He was standing now by the front door. To be safe he rang the bell, lest anybody still remain inside, and then he tried the handle. No budge, but that much was to be expected. He walked along the face of the house and then cupped his hands against the window, peering into the dim living room inside, mentally mapping the layout within. The street around him was still empty, though he did not check and nor did he care. He walked around the side of the house to try the back door. No luck, it was bolted and locked from the inside, and he smiled at this resistance, the refusal of the lock fuelling a certain kind of teasing foreplay to the experience.
Beside the back door a window gave view to the kitchen inside, clean and neat and tastefully-fixtured, the fridge tacked with photos and letters from loved ones and the table adorned with a bowl of fruit and two silver candleholders erect on either side. He pressed his hands against the glass, resting his forehead on the surface, eyes closed, enjoying it. Then he opened his mouth and licked a long line upward along the cool glass. When he stepped back the imprint of his hands and tongue remained in a translucent ghostly mark that would, later that day, fade away entirely so that when the family returned they would never imagine who it was who had come to their window to bear witness that afternoon.
He heard a purr and turned back to face the lawn. A tabby cat, Rubenesque and pampered in its grooming, strolled towards him and then stopped, sitting down to weigh up this unfeeling intruder who had entered its territory. It opened its maw as if to yawn and then meowed.
“Hello lover,” he said.
He moved slowly to his knees and waited for the cat to come to him, which presently it did. Gently he took it in his arms and cradled it, stroking its fur with his chin as its soft belly vibrated with the thick, guttural emissions of its pleasure. He rose to his feet, softly stroking the cat as he carried it, and then walked back around the front and on to the road. Up ahead now a young father and son were kicking a yellow football slowly between them on the tarmac. Still stroking his carrion, he walked smoothly by them, eyes ahead on the pavement and thin smile on his lips.
The father called to him as he passed and he did not turn or slow or register the intrusion at all.
“Hey you! Where did you get that cat?”
“It’s my cat,” he called back, continuing to walk up the road. “I lost it once but I found it in the trees down there. It got away from me but never again, ha ha.”
The man whispered some strong words to his son and then moved after the stranger. “Stop,” he called, “I’m talking to you!”
Raising the cat to his lips, softly he murmured, “Go on now sweetie,” and then he dropped it to the ground.
The father, outraged and red-faced, continued after him, such that he was even obliged to quicken his pace, before the other man finally gave up at the end of the estate. Once he was in the clear again his gait slowed and the smile returned to his un-furrowed face.
Bastard! [_Fucking meddling cunt. Probably take the little puss back to you and present himself a hero. Of course, of course! How could I have thought it would be so easy, that none other in that shire should register your majesty? Maybe he’s more awake than the others then, maybe he has eyes for you himself. You must stay away from him, he is a danger, he would hurt you, don’t ask me how I know because I wouldn’t wish to tell but you must trust. I see now why you keep the doors locked. My dear you are as wise as you are beautiful. I would take his eyes out in an instant with my bare hands. Then who would the hero be? I’d give them to you in a svelte little jewellery box. Wouldn’t we laugh? We would toast champagne. _]
Beast! Intruder! Savage and envious swine! He has ruined my day! I’m only glad you’d already left by then, that you were spared the distaste of hearing his bark. What a voice, what an impetuous beast. A voice that deserves to have its vocal chords shred. I would remove the head and kick it to the boy, kick it back and forth—a better football to play with, a better father figure to admire than that fucking brute! I am enraged. I have been disserviced. My noble and lofty goals have, on this day, suffered a grievous affront. This evening I shall stick a knife in something and know that the cleansing blade moves beyond space and time and into his dreams. Then he will know regret. He will never be the same again. Perhaps after that he will leave you alone.
He was to go the work place that evening and take part in a late shift and he walked now all the way back across town to his apartment, entirely unaware of the hot ache in his legs that had resulted from a whole day of ceaseless wandering. At home, he selected the work costume and dressed himself before setting out again to the shopping mall. It was a Friday, as it had been the day Emily had come to the store with her friends, and though late, it was as busy now as it had been back then.
The previous shift worker, a mid-twenties layabout whose mind was already hungrily anticipating the feast of cheap cans and joints that would await him after work, nodded to him in greeting as he came in behind the counter.
“Hey,” the worker said, “you didn’t happen to be on staff for March twentieth did you?”
He turned towards his colleague, vacuous smile and empty eyes. “How would I know that?” he said.
The worker shrugged. “Yeah well, some journalist guy was in earlier, said he wanted to speak to whoever was working that day. I stuck his card in the cash register.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
The younger man nodded slowly. “Sure,” he said, “ok then. I’m off. See you later.”
He did not reply and the other worker left the shop, glad to be away from the strange being who had taken over for the evening and gladder with every step that brought him further away. Walking to the cash-register, now alone in the shop, he pressed the key to open it and then took out the card from inside. “Galway Times,” it read, “Brian Hardy: Senior Reporter.” Beneath that was a phone number. Idly, without thought, he placed the card in his pocket and then promptly forgot about it, as his mind gave way to the furore of his thoughts.
They watch you, don’t they? Incessantly—the neighbours. Yes, I’m beginning to get the full picture now alright, now I am beginning to understand how it really is for you. They never sleep do they, they never stop? Long into night they stand by the window, blueish silhouettes against the dreadful glow of their television sets. Mindless zombies, they slaver and chomp and dream of being worthy to caress your cheek, to take your golden locks between their teeth and taste the sweet secretions of your feminine scalp. When they see you they ejaculate, their bowels loosen, urine flows in hot streams down their legs and they are too strange to even change their clothes. Oh my darling, how it must disgust you! Now it all makes sense, now I understand you fully. Oh my poor sweet girl. Oh darling.
You must be strong, their ignorance and cowardice is their weakness and I am confident enough that none should be so brave as to attempt to harm you, at least not in the few short days before I can come and redeem you from their midst. You must hold out and think of me if it ever gets too much. Be strong like I know you are. Be strong for daddy. I am coming for you darling. I am coming for you soon.
In the case of an emergency, staff at the phone store, whilst working alone, were permitted to close up shop during normal operating hours, pulling down the shutters halfway and placing a sign on the metal grille proclaiming “Someone will be with you in five”. This practice was strongly discouraged by management and was almost never instigated by the other workers.
When he grew bored or distracted on the evenings he happened to be alone, he would sometimes make use of this convenient loophole and wander for ten or fifteen minutes around the shopping centre, visiting the other shops or observing the late-night shoppers like a man somehow stranded against his own wishes in a particularly mundane safari experience. Hitherto, he had never been called out by management for this gross insubordination, though this was more a result of good fortune than anything else.
Now, with his mind somewhat frenzied, or at least more frenzied than usual, he stepped out from behind the counter and began to pull down the shutter. A woman who had been eyeing the shop from across the way with the intent to buy, approached him.
“Are you closed?” she asked.
Without turning to face her, he hung the sign on the grille and then tapped his finger against it. “Someone will be with you in five,” he said and then wandered away across the plaza, leaving her to decipher the exact meaning of his words for herself.
This should be a slaughter house. That would be the work place. Can you imagine? I would dress in white aprons stained with juice, soft white cloth of a butchers’ cap on my head. I would wield the cleaver, wouldn’t you love to see it, sweetness? The justice of shepherd and flock. Oh, in a perfect world, you would be by my side, your golden locks safe beneath the criss-cross web of a hair net, your supple young flesh naked but for an apron of your own. I can almost hear your joyous laughter, it is like music to my ears. We would make love in an abattoir of flesh, I would feed you their meat and bone and cradle you in my arms as I watched it make you strong. I would spread your legs and feed you, I would impregnate you with the glory of the gods. I would put myself inside your womb.
I am walking across the mall, no light of sun has ever touched this place. It is quiet now as it is getting late but still these proles fulfil their duty, feeding the system with their coinage. Cogs in a machine. I pause by the window of a hairdresser, tall beauty cutting locks from some young ape. I would see her draw those silver blades down to his throat, the hands no longer her own, horror in her eyes as she cannot stop what happens. The artery bursts, the blood shoots out across her face. She turns to the window to see.
I am walking past the shops, many closed now, closed for the night. Newsagents’ ahead with the newspapers in a stand outside its open doors. I move closer, something has caught my eye. Sparks burst from my chest, powerful electricity though it is no pleasure, not like before. It is her, on the cover—the first one, your predecessor, who once fulfilled her purpose long ago. I feel sick in my stomach, like the vomitus is ready to bubble up. I read the headline beside her face. “Mother of Missing Emily Slams Tenuous Garda Lead”. There is a lump in my throat like violence. Coldness precedes the rage, I need a moment to process. I see the name beneath the headline and I know it. It says: “Brian Hardy”.
Taking the paper in his hands he held it close to his eyes and read the words printed there studiously. Beneath the headline, the story began:
“The mother of twenty-one year old Emily Whelan, who went missing after a night out with friends on the twentieth of March this year, has spoken out against the tenuous lead put forward by Garda Sergeant Michael Ward relating to the case. A suspect, known to the family, had been sought from his home abroad and was out of contact for a number of weeks, though this paper can now report that he has been reached and intends to return and submit himself voluntarily to questioning after dealing with some pressing obligations at home.
Said Mary Whelan of the suspect: “[The suspect] would never lay a finger on Emily, not in a million years”. Mrs. Whelan claimed to have spoken to the boy in recent days and asserts that he has a strong alibi for the night in question, having spent it with friends at a house party that lasted until the following morning, when he boarded a bus for Dublin Airport with his travelling companions. At the time of printing, Sergeant Ward was not available to respond to these latest developments.
Emily Whelan had been out socializing with friends on the night of Friday the twentieth of March when…”
Fingers white around the paper, his face somehow even paler than usual, he stood outside the newsagent, lips moving with the frenzy of his silent muttering. From the counter inside, a young student on exchange from India watched him cautiously. When he turned finally to leave, paper still in hand, the shopkeeper called after him:
“Excuse me sir, are you going to buy that paper?”
He turned slowly, eyes furious behind the glass of his spectacles. His voice was like the Minotaur when he spoke. “Go home and fuck your mother’s corpse,” he said.
He left the mall and returned without haste to the home place. The sign remained on the shutters of the phone store until the following morning when the manager would arrive. They would try to call him but he would not answer and never answered their call again. He had more important concerns now and another job would be easily found.
He recognized the name, pulling it from the fog of his previous disregard. It was the name on the card, it was the name on the first article. Pillaging the waste-bin in his kitchen, he found that first affront, the picture that had so insulted and offended him, violating as it did what he believed to be his own sole and sacred property. He spread it out now on the table along with the latest Emily report. Yes, on both the name was the same. And this man had been at the work place that day, he had been looking for him, with a lie on his lips and the intention to trap. Oh yes, it was undeniable. He knew. The man from the newspaper knew it all.
It was best to come to the office late now, if at all—the better to avoid the unbridled fury of the editor at large. Initially of course, Downey had been delighted with the latest scoop on the Emily case, he’d even left a message on Hardy’s home answering machine attesting just that, but his mood soon soured once Ward got onto the paper, gunning for blood for the breach of trust after Hardy had promised not to mention the lead on Emily’s ex-boyfriend. It was a shaky but vital alliance that existed between the paper and the police and with the other newspapers of the city out there as competition, a blue wall of silence facing future reportage was the last thing Downey needed.
In one fell swoop Hardy had managed to piss both men off royally, while at the same time diverting the Garda investigation back to its proper course, thereby fulfilling his promise to Mary Whelan to stay on the case and do whatever he could to help. As far as legacies go it was scant, but he hadn’t had all that much time to prepare. Mary Whelan, at least, had been grateful for the effort and an innocent boy would have his name cleared if nothing else. As a final corporeal act it would have to suffice.
All the same, he suspected that Downey would now seek his termination for this latest stunt and he would get his wish, though probably not quite in the way that he imagined. In any case, Hardy sensed that he didn’t have much longer left anyway. For the meantime he just wanted to enjoy his time in the office. Even with Downey across the way most days, this small windowed room had been something of a sanctuary to him, particularly at night when the building was quiet. And while none of the other reporters could be termed friends exactly, he had enjoyed the after-work trips to the pub with them at least as much as he enjoyed drinking alone. He would miss working at the paper.
The weather had turned. It was cold outside and a thin mizzle permeated everything, the orange streetlamps buzzing faintly in its moisture. It was the same every year, the glorious sunshine and heat of early spring lulled the walkers of the city into a false sense of security before giving way to overcast skies and rain that seemed like it might remain there forever. April was indeed the cruellest month.
It was difficult to get a good radio reception when the weather was like this. A pain, because at night the national stations actually played real music instead of the corporate-approved dross they pumped out constantly during civilized hours. Through the crackle of the static, some old Neil Young song played—a classic, haunting guitar solo shrieking across the airwaves from some other distant era. Shrouded in the light of a desk lamp, Hardy sat before his open laptop and listened. The screen before him was blank, word processer opened but with an empty page, the cursor blinking periodically, its petition to work destined to go unfulfilled. He knew he wouldn’t write another story for the paper. He had nothing to write about anymore. If Downey needed one more excuse to sack him, he would be easily obliged.
Hardy sighed and stood up from the desk, even this small movement now a laborious task. Behind him the music continued to play, vocal-less and strange, fading in and out through the crackling static. He walked to the window and peered out of the blinds at Eyre Square below. Dark figures moved to and fro in the hazy damp. Taxi drivers sat hidden in shadow behind the wheel, waiting for a fare and thinking about God knows what. It was a quiet night. Dead.
If Downey gave him the sack, would anybody know when he passed? How long would it take for someone to find him? Would anybody miss him? He had told Linda about his upcoming tests almost three weeks ago and heard nothing from her since. If she thought he was dying, apparently she didn’t care either way and why should she? They had never been anything more than glorified fuck buddies to begin with, despite what either of them once might have wanted.
There were no more parents now and if there were they would surely miss him no more than he had missed them when they had each passed, though it was unlikely they would have shared his relief. They had been his nightmare growing up, he merely their burden. A faint, sardonic smile creased the corner of his cracked lips as it occurred to him that the only person who would actually note his absence was Murphy the landlord. It wouldn’t be long before Murphy came sniffing around once the numbers went back in the red. Murphy would get a nasty surprise for himself. Another impromptu legacy of Hardy’s, just satisfying enough to hold back the ache.
Hardy watched a man and woman walk hand in hand towards Shop Street. Despite the weather neither bore an umbrella over themselves or the other and their pace seemed solemn and purposeless as they walked. He thought about Linda again. It was her who had wanted something more at first, wasn’t it? That was why she’d called the whole thing off without bothering to offer any particular reason why. It hadn’t been Hardy who’d longed for more than just the hot merge of genitalia and a stiff goodbye in the morning, had it? Surely he hadn’t mourned her when she took herself away, most likely into the arms of some other interchangeable male—but if not, why not?
Why, there were many whys now. Why had he lived so long not living at all? Why had he refused to ever look inward, dousing his spirt in alcohol or distracting himself with petty rivalries and unwinnable campaigns against authority figures who probably just wanted to get by, probably didn’t even see themselves that way at all. Why had he spurned every chance at connection—true connection—with a lover, when that was all he longed for now, the only real regret he could actually allow himself. Why would he die alone, trembling beneath a damp sheet, at the last too weak to even put himself out of his misery with whiskey and pills?
Questions, questions and no answers—at least none that could satisfy the mind. Why would he die? Because everything died. Why was he alone? Because he’d spent his whole life behaving that way. That was all there was. No great design or purpose. Nobody would mourn him, nobody would remember him in any meaningful way.
It was taking too much effort to stand, so he turned back to the desk and as he did, the minutes-long solo on the radio finally gave way to a voice, high-toned and haunted. “He came dancing across the water…” Then the radio crackled out and there was only static and fuzz. The song had been cut off, like Hardy, before it had even begun. He did not attempt to retune it or even turn it off, merely sat down at the dull light of his desk lamp and placed his head in his hands, with the interminable chaos of elemental sound, faint in the background.
He had never begun, and self-delusion aside, probably never would have. Whatever it was that had held him back from the feast of life was too deep, too frightening to ever explore. He had been content enough with his own feast, the feast of booze and cigarettes and a slow but persistent suicide, when he’d thought he had years more to live it. Now he had days, days counting themselves off one by one, and he had no affairs, no life at all, to be put in order before the last. He had no wish to play chess on the beach with some hooded figure when his time finally came. For him the seven seals had always been broken.
His phone, set to silent, vibrated against the desk, causing him to jump with fright. He picked it up and held the screen to his view. A private number, again. Bringing the phone to his ear, he pressed the answer icon and spoke. His voice was low and cracked with his disease.
Only silence on the other end.
“Hello?” he said again and the phone went dead.
Sighing, he placed it in his pocket and then stared back at the blank screen of his laptop, as if any answers could come from there. He’d been receiving these calls all weekend, two or three times a day—always a private number and never anyone else on the other end of the line. Perhaps it was Garda Ward or one of his acolytes. The rank and file of the Garda Síochána had always been, in his own experience dealing with them, little more than a petty and adolescent band of jocks. Maybe this was their idea of intimidation, payback for his publication of “off the record” material. He recalled his trip to the phone store a few days previously, when he’d entertained a notion of tracking for himself Emily’s final movements on the day she vanished, see if he could speak with the last few people who’d seen her alive, maybe get a story out of it. It had seemed a fitting way to spend his own final hours. He’d left his card at the shop that day and the calls had only begun after that. Could there be something there perhaps? He elected to give it more thought. At least it would keep his mind busy. He was running out of ways.
Steadying himself, he closed his laptop and then stood to place it in his briefcase. He had no intention of working and there was no point staying here any longer now. At home there was whiskey and the effortless release of a warm bed and blanket to lie under and wait for the end. Hardy turned off the lamp but not the radio and then shuffled to the door, pausing along the way to clutch his side, as if that could be enough to ward away the pain. He left his office in darkness, only the crackle of dead noise remaining behind him.
There was only one window lit in the building. Someone was having a private vigil. At night now the royal blue lettering above the doors of the Galway Times Office was rendered faint in the darkness—a shadowy mauve, a discreet whisper imparting the name of the newspaper. The same as on the reporter’s card. He had been waiting and watching, waiting for a long time now. In the shadows of the park on a bench beneath a tree, he was observing his own vigil, his and the building’s facades aspectant together. And now after hours just one last candle burned.
For time uncountable he watched, his ears deaf to the quiet hum of night time traffic around him, the muted hiss of soft rain on the concrete. His face turned upwards as if to receive benediction from the darkness above, his glasses steamed, eyes blank and holy. As he watched a shadow came to the window, a dim shape covering the light, and a gentle tremble, unrepressed, quivered his spine. His lips parted with a sigh.
It was the reporter, the one who understood. The other.
Droplets from the clouds spilled down his cheeks as though tears, the water cool and forgiving, like the caress of a virgin’s hand lifted from the satin of her coffin. He knew what happened next. How he would release himself from this other’s intrusion. When the shadow faded from the window, his brow creased as though pained by the loss.
Keeping his eye on the window, he removed his phone from his pocket and held it in his hand. Phones were convenient items, they were like the mind—cataloguing names and numbers, intimate details, memories imprinted in photo or film. But when you put them to your lips you didn’t have to say anything at all. That was the secret. He dialled the last called number—along with the new girl’s number, one of only two saved in his address book—and held the phone to his ear. Thunderous excitement rumbled through his feeble chest as he heard the voice speak. It was the voice of the other.
He smiled, counting moments with silent blinks.
He disengaged the call.
Presently the light went out and he stood from the bench, inching closer toward the building, the better to get a full view of the street beneath. When the doors opened, he winced his brow, scrutinizing the darkness, trying to see. And then he moaned. A silent, twisted rictus of agony that scarred the infinite blandness of his face. It was himself—that was the first thought—his true self. Underneath the masks and cowls. A walking corpse. The other was the same as him, tall as him, thin as him, and his flesh too was rotting. Even in the faintness of the streetlamps, the orange of the streetlamps, he could see the sores, read the disease. This was no man. The other was like him. It was an idea that inspired only terror and despair.
But he knew what he had to do, even though certainty had thus been acquired, he needed to be sure on every level, so before he left the darkness of the trees, he called the reporter’s number again. There was no smile this time when he heard the voice, when he watched the walking corpse hold its own phone to its face and speak from the other end of the park. He hung up and waited for the reporter to lead.
He kept his distance as the other walked, of his personal skill-set stalking was one of his most cherished and enjoyed. All the while he followed, he was transfixed, amazed, bewildered. There was no effort to follow, he was attached now by every instinct. The effort was only in holding back behind the one who led. Together, step in step, lurching, they reached the reporter’s apartment building and then the other went inside. He watched from the street until he saw a window light up above and then he stepped back into shadow, eyes to the light, where he waited.
Hardy kicked through bottles strewn across the floor as he made his way to the lamp beside his bed. Fumbling in the darkness, first he fingered the bottle—the whiskey that would be his other torch—and then he felt the switch. He clicked it and the room was illuminated.
In the dim light the rubbish of his room was not only profane, it was mysterious—a hodgepodge of miscellaneous clutter, unprocessed waste that had settled where it fell like the rising bricks of his tomb. He sat down on the bed, wheezing, and then reached for the bottle. Fire water stung the inside of his throat and seared away the rawer bite of his disease. After a time, he reached down and untied his bootlaces. The pants came off, the jumper, and then he was swinging his legs up onto the damp mattress. Above him on the wall, a dank cloud of black mould had spread over the past weeks like some foul acheiropoieton, a dark Madonna come to mourn above the altar of his bed. It was like a shadow that loomed behind him, almost humanoid, alive in its own way. The world kept turning, every end was a new beginning. Would the mould reach down to him and take his body too before they found him? For a moment he felt guilty for Murphy, it was more than a cheeky prank he was leaving him. What would remain of Hardy was a little more shocking than a flaming bag of dogshit on the porch.
Leaning back against the headboard, Hardy brought the bottle to his mouth and drank greedily. With a guttural sigh, he wiped the droplets from his bearded lips and then slowly lowered his head to the pillow. He closed his eyes.
Outside the office, he’d received another transmission from the mystery caller. It had to be Ward’s boys. They were persistent in their intimidation and certainly they had the muscle to back it up—Hardy might have been concerned if he thought he would actually be around to see it all pan out. He smiled at the thought of being jumped by a pack of plainclothes thugs, even the slightest beating would do him in in this wasted state. He could see their faces now, shocked and suddenly guilty, wishing to take it all back for the first time in their lives—all that unchecked power and authority finally crumbling like the body of Hardy beneath them. Fuck ‘em. It would be too good a fate. And another big scoop for some other reporter to take up the mantle.
But no, they wouldn’t go that far, at least not for this transgression. Whatever came next would be politics purely and Downey would suffer the brunt of it. This little prank with the phone was merely child’s play.
Of course there was the other possibility that it was someone else, maybe someone from the phone store as he’d considered earlier, but that didn’t seem likely—a person whose very trade was phones would surely know how to use one, so why would they subject him to this? No, it had to be Ward. Nothing else made sense.
Another few mouthfuls of the devil’s brew and Hardy was ready to pass. He opened his eyes just long enough to set the bottle down beside the lamp on the bedside table and then he drifted off, first through the organic chaos of hypnagogia and then fully into the realm of dream.
He was walking through tunnels of sand-coloured brick, an endless catacomb, amber-lit from some unknown source, the light emanating from everywhere and nowhere at once. The corridors carried forward into darkness, the darkness always ahead and moving further away the further he went. He turned corners, square circuits surely, for around each corner each corridor was the same. The sand beneath his feet glittered, warm on his bare soles. He had to press forward, he had to see. These were the hallways he had always longed to walk.
One moment the darkness was ahead of him, the passageway stretching off in a spiral of ever-diminishing squares until just the one remained, just the black one, and then he was standing at the threshold of a broad rectangle courtyard, open to the sky and the firmament above. It was night, or perhaps that was not quite right—it was dark—in this place he felt that it was always dark, the void above not of any living atmosphere, just formless infinite empty black space. The walls here too were lit with that same syrupy golden glow, the bricks illuminated but not candescent, as though the light was diffusing from some other place far beyond the dimensions of the universe that reflected it. There were plants and vines crawling the walls, trembling with life, shuddering gently in the windless dead like alveoli and he could not discern the sand of the courtyard below for the blood and viscera, the butchery of all mankind against itself, that strew the way before him.
Across this bleeding, gruesome carpet—the fallen armour and weaponry of ages, sinewy and red-raw skulls, eyeballs glaring naked and insane from their meaty sockets—some great king reposed on a golden throne. Seven foot, eight foot, his bulging muscular body covered from head to toe with shining gold—the craftsmanship of the armour a testament to the flesh itself, so detailed in its design that even the muscles were veined. This great and regal beast sat slumped in his throne, golden visor nodding forward against his breast, as though finally exhausted by the excesses of whatever terrible feast had satiated him. Barefoot, Hardy stepped out towards him.
No path across the flesh parted for him through this red sea. The ground was uneven and wet beneath his naked toes, still warm with the recently-departed life, metallic steam rising up from the bodies like the very spirts of the fallen escaping. Warriors of all eras filled this agony garden, broken flesh-wrapped bones, orange and red with torn musculature and sinew, severed hands, skinned of meat and still clutching at the handles of their broken pikes and swords. Mongols, Paladins, Zulus, Trenchmen from the Somme, all impossibly transported from one hell to the next before falling here in the ancient tradition of their forebears. Hardy walked amongst them like some naked messiah, up to his calves in viscera, the gooey flesh slipping and sliding to accommodate him as he moved towards the king.
Stone steps rose up from the devastation to the throne that loomed like a tower above him. Closer now the triumphant warrior in gold was even bigger and broader than he’d seemed from the threshold. Beside the arm of his throne a great double-headed mace, this not golden but silver, leaned just within reach of the king’s gold-clasped fingers. How many skulls had this weapon grafted to, crushing the bone like wafer, liquefying the brains beneath and mocking any boundaries of a self-directed soul?
Hardy climbed the steps and reached out to wake the king. What was the judgement that awaited him? What was the final answer before even inquisition itself evaporated? He raised his hand up against the golden plate, up between the gold-muscled sternum. The metal was cold to the touch of his open palm, there was no resistance. The head lolled to the side and the visor fell open. Only dust poured out.
Now the armour was crumbling in on itself, powdery grain glittering in that every-light and streaming out from every aperture like sand from a broken hourglass. In rivers it came forth, the form and shape of the king shrinking with every second, the dust warm and cleansing as it poured over Hardy’s feet and legs and onto the bloodfield beneath. Now the armour too was melting, dissolving in golden pools that were more energy than liquid as it merged with the dust, flowing forever forward. The throne too dissolved and the bricks of the walls beyond. Hardy turned back to look over the courtyard and saw that all was melting, flowing together in thick, transparent beams of red and gold, amber and rose. The sky above now erupted with cosmic epiphanies, galaxies and stars of impossible brightness, searing life-giving electricity exploding like fireworks over Olympus. All beneath was golden-red, merging together, liquescent no longer, now transparent, nourishing—energetic and essential. It surrounded Hardy, flowed through him, dissolving his flesh and bone until he too was transparent and formless. Above, a great black hole ripped open the darkness, its quavering borders deep electric-purple and its centre somehow blacker than the endless void it inhabited. Hardy watched as it grew wider and wider, a terrible black vastness that threatened to engulf everything below as it descended, closer and closer…
Hardy was lying beneath water, the surface overhead rippling with the cleansing sunlight of a blue sky above. He could see the ovate underbodies of ducks paddling over him on the water, their little duck flippers kicking left and right against the water. All was tranquil. All fear removed, all doubt, every thought and pretence, every idea, cleansed and removed. This is the end, he whispered to himself, and no water filled his open mouth. No air bubble rose with the words. This is how it ends.
Beneath his body there was only emptiness, lightness, nothing. He let himself fall softly, drifting downwards, away from the light above. As he sank, the water grew cool, the world overhead now distant, the white shimmering globe of the sun small and amorphous like the face of an infant yet to be born and the ducks like tiny trembling water-insects flitting to and fro across the shimmering aqueous ceiling. It was cold now, cold and comforting. It was getting dark. The sun disappeared and Hardy saw nothing at all.
You fucking bastard. You. You, you, you. You Other. Just who do you think you are? Will you sleep tonight? Can you read me? Do you feel me? Do you… do you know me? Do you know who I am, what I am? Just what exactly is it that you have in mind? Whatever it is I’ll get there first, I don’t care if you predict it. You only think you’re strong. I am strong. I am the strong one of our pair. I will bury my fucking jaw in your forehead and suck out your brains.
Read ‘em and weep. Hey dese guys clear da tables again, we have the better cards see. And by us, I mean we, not you and I. Not you. You’re invited but you’re not one of us. You’re not legion. We are strong and we are merry, we drink blood from a virgin’s cherry. That’s the song we sing. I bet you don’t know how to sing. Oh Jesus, oh how I long to bury my fingernails in your throat. I want to let you out, I want to let you go. Just, please, please just let me fucking kill you.
You have no choice. Reporter. It sounded like a request but it was a command. I wasn’t asking you bubba. Poppa. Head of the family. Guardian of the lost girls. Saint-like father of the paper mulch. I’ve wiped my haemorrhoids with your words. Wiped till the blood and shit fluxed together and then I flushed them down the drain. Oh yes, that one’s actually true. I bet you already knew. Did you scream and cry? Did you moan? Jesus, did you… did you laugh?
I am standing here on the street below your window. Only yours is lit now, all else is black. How long do you leave that light on—all night? Are you afraid of the dark, brave and fearless reporter? Do you tremble at the wind through the shadows, the faint whistle of the wind through a coarse brittle pelt? There are wolves under the bridge. I know because an angel told me. You’ll have to pass it on, put it in your paper—this was never my idea. It’s not my fault. Tell it to the insects and all the while you will clutch to the candle, you alone in a world of black. I have eaten them all. Come to your window and look out. There is nothing here. There is nothing out here.
It is years from now, years and years and years in the future, millennia ahead. The other cannot hear me. The other is gone, long gone. I killed him years ago. I no longer even remember. Other? What other? Don’t talk nonsense, how could there be an other? There is no other, fool. Fool! There is no fool. How could there be a fool? Now there is only me here with my death’s work, my eternal. Oh great ossuary, pillars and turrets of bone, polished so clean, stripped by the wind of ages. This palace, this dungeon, it rises for leagues and leagues through the sky. Long ago I ate the sun, it’s just darkness now, just death. How long did it take me to build? I don’t remember. I can’t even remember anymore and now I am clutching my own bare ribs, bending my spine forward with guffaws of laughter at the thought. I am bone too now, now I am just pure white bone.
I walk the halls of my great castle, the bone itself twists and reconfigures to guide me where I want to go. I dance in a frenzy across it all, bone to bone. There is no difference now. I am the castle. I am the ossuary. If I had a name that would be it, wouldn’t it? But there is none to use names now and no sound to carry them. The song is death. The lyrics are death and I sing them eternally, forever and ever through the ages and I hear it all, everlasting, amen.
My throne room, adorned and constructed only with the best materials, the prettiest, the sweetest, the most innocent and fuckable. All that’s gone now! It’s just bone! Just bone! But this room, the throne room, has my favourite craftworks (not the other, the other is somewhere buried far below, down in the pit, I don’t even remember the other anymore). I have a cathedra of bone. No appearances now to keep up so why not sit upon it and scream, scream, scream my rejoices into the endless black! Any challenger has long been vanquished. Their bones absorbed to my dry and lifeless domicile. Nobody exists anymore, nothing exists. Nobody could come and take this from me. Nobody could rob me of this. I swear it!
What is that noise? There is no noise. I clap my skeletal hands together on a whim, all just because, and there isn’t even any dust left in the world to rise up from them. No dust. Everything is dry and purified. It’s not wet. It’s not wet and rain is not soaking through my hair and running down my eyes and steaming up my glasses that can’t even fucking see in this darkness anyway and the light is still on in the window of his room!
No. There is no light. It was years from now, it is years from now. That was misremembered. Ha. Ha ha! I don’t even remember I don’t fucking remember. A spider scuttles down the pillar of bone beside my throne (no there is no spider!) There is water trickling down now, no!
It is not wet I am not standing beneath a window it is not still lit there is not rain and noise and filth and life. It is not.
To the voices under the bridge.
Athena is screaming in the sky and she bleeds down upon me and I am soaking in her blood and it is cold. It is years from now, years from now and I am eating Athena but I cannot see it. I cannot see it.
[_I am standing on the street beneath your window and it is still lit. Are you awake? Do you still breathe? I wonder if you’re laughing now, laughing, laughing, laughing, into the endless black. This is what you want, isn’t it, a game of wits? You in the tiny square of light and me in all this black. It’s not exactly fair, is it? You think it’s not fair to me, but it’s not fair to you. Just that little square of light, against it all. I don’t care if it rains, I will go on singing in the rain, singing all night long, singing my song. The song of death. I think by now you have heard it. We are strong and we are merry, the world is dark and vurrry scurrry. Scurry on now, into your last-lit corner. Like a rat, like a cockroach. My boot is the boot of fascists, skinheads, Nazis. But I disdain them all. Do you know that they are just the tools? They are just fools. My jesters and when I tire of them I will strip the bone, devour the flesh, build the foundations of my castle. But you, you wouldn’t want that. You would want to get in the way, disrupt it all. I will disrupt you reporter, I will disrupt. _]
It is cold now, cold and wet, and the rain is relentless. My clothes are soaking. This narrow street is empty and dark. The light above still remains but I need to let this body rest. It’s not to happen now. I must retreat and hatch. The darkness is my friend. I will return and incubate. The other is formidable. The other is different. Not like me, but almost. It is the other. The hateful other.
Reporter. One day soon I shall be free from you. I had a premonition once of a great and wonderful palace of bone. The hallways were empty and endless. You were not there and it is in the future. Maybe tomorrow I will come for you but believe me when I say you won’t know when. You won’t even know me when I do and you know that I know these things. Do you think that I love you?
On the last day of his life, Brian Hardy slept late. It had rained through the night and all through the early morning, hard and heavy, the showers assaulting the narrow pedestrianized street beneath his window like millions of tiny battering rams, a merciless, furious attack. He had dreamed, between the booze and the cancer and the psychological collapse, he had dreamed intensely. Like the visions of shamans, his sleep paralysis had seemed to impart some great and profound secret, some wondrous truth, unknowable to the waking human mind—it had been ineffable, uncontainable, fleeting. Before his eyes opened in the dim musk of his bedroom the epiphany had faded, lost to the deepest reaches of the infinite human subconscious. It was still bright. Still day. Hardy was surprised.
Most days now he stayed in bed upon waking. The energy wasn’t there to rise and there was usually a bottle at least half-full within reach. With the drink came energy or the illusion of it at least, enough to venture out in search of wares to restock the armoury. But today, he did not drink. Today there was energy, though little of it—a preciously limited resource, like a holographic orchid, delicate and ephemeral. With silent wonder, he cherished its appearance.
He hadn’t eaten since… when? Days at least. There was no appetite, the alcohol fed calories enough. But today, though there was still no hunger, he felt that he could eat, could even enjoy it. Without thought to the dregs of whiskey in the bottle by the lamp, Hardy heaved himself up and pulled a dressing gown around his emaciated frame, tying the cord tighter than he had ever imagined possible. With his sallow skin, bearded face and oozing sores he was like a hunger striker, rebelling against some cruel oppression that could not be bested any other way.
The cupboards were empty and this was no surprise. Hardy showered. He dressed. He stepped out onto the rain-washed street in the hours of the early afternoon and felt the sun on his face. Whatever deluge had come the night before had seemed to purify the very air itself. Faint voices of the busier streets carried to him on the breeze. Hardy made his way towards the coffee shops of Shop Street. It was quiet for a Tuesday and he seated himself easily. He ate light, though he managed to eat it all—a tuna salad sandwich with crisps and a cup of tea. He did not expect to hear from Downey, he had signed in at the office the night before and the editor might expect him to sign in tonight again. Maybe he would be waiting for him. Hardy did not expect to see him again. He would never be back to the office.
On the way home he stopped into a shop on Quay Street, pointing out a bottle of Jameson to the elderly woman at the counter.
“Isn’t it fresh today?” she smiled and she was kind enough to overlook the debauchery of his purchase in the state he was in.
“Yes, it is,” Hardy said and he smiled.
At home he uncorked the whiskey and sat at the kitchen table. The table was bare but for the bottle and glass and a small ragged notepad and pen. Hardy raised a glass and then he picked up the pen.
He wrote: “To whom it may concern…”
He stopped and stared at the paper, before crossing out those lines.
“Friends. I know I haven’t…”
Hardy poured another glass, held it in his hand for minutes, watching the amber depths, his eyes bloodshot and sunken in his weathered face. Finally he drank, drank it all down in one, and then sighed, long and deep and cathartic.
He turned the page on the pad and wrote again.
“I’m sorry I wasted it. I’m sorry I didn’t fight back. Sorry I didn’t want to fight back. Maybe somebody else would have. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry we only got one shot. Through it all I tried to do the right thing, the best I could, in whatever way I thought at the time. I see now that I was often wrong. I know it’s too late now but I’m sorry.”
He stood up from the table, took the bottle but not the glass and went back to his room.
When a heavy drinker drinks he doesn’t get drunk, not like others do, tipsy after three or four pints and mercurially jolly from there. A hard drinker drinks for his balance, for normalcy, for his stability. He drinks and stays the same, one drink after the next, until that fateful sip that flips it all upside down and sends him raving and mad, slurring and dribbling, into the blackout comatose chaos of deep intoxication. Hardy hadn’t been there for a long time, though it was not for the want of trying. Now halfway through this latest bottle of whiskey, the sunlight outside rapidly fading for darkness, he was as sober as he had been upon waking, perhaps even more so. He scoured the bottles scattered around him with a deep and anxious foreboding. The one by the bed still had a bite or two, a few others could be put together. It was looking likely that he would have to make a choice before the off-licenses closed at ten. He might have to go sooner while his strength was still up. Why, he wondered, couldn’t it just come? Why couldn’t it end while he still had whiskey to spare?
Finally, around seven pm, he put on his coat and went to restock. He was still alive when he returned home, a bottle of Jameson under each arm. That should do him for a while, keep him well, on his way to perdition. He returned to his bed and drank some more, staring for hours at the wall beyond the foot of his bed, that great black shadow of mould rising higher and wider behind him.
He was still relatively sober when the phone rang and this time the number was public. He eyed the screen for a second before answering, considering whether he knew it or not. It was a mobile, though not any he recognized.
“Hardy,” he said, clicking the receiver.
The voice at the other end was flat and nasal-toned, slightly upbeat and yet somehow void of any genuine human emotion—like the uncanny cadence of a talking clock. “Is this the reporter? With the Galway Times?”
“Speaking,” Hardy said.
“I have some information for you. Information about the missing girl.”
Hardy sat forward on the bed. “What missing girl would that be?” he said.
There was a pause, Hardy wide-eyed as he waited.
“The girl. The one that got lost … Emily.”
Hardy grabbed his notepad from the bedside table, knocking over the bottle that waited there, sending the whiskey spilling out of its neck and soaking into the carpet below.
“Who am I talking to?” Hardy said.
“I… I have a friend who works at the phone store. In Kennedy Shopping Centre? I saw the card you gave him.”
Hardy scribbled frantically on the pad, holding the phone with one hand to his ear. “And who am I speaking to now?”
“I’d rather not say,” the voice answered, “but my friend. He’s funny. Different. I think he knows.”
Hardy grimaced with fevered frustration. “Knows what?”
“Knows about the girl. Where she’s waiting.”
Hardy’s eyes widened still. “Are you saying she’s alive?”
“ … Yes. Yes, but I can’t talk for long. Can you meet me somewhere? It’s not safe for me now. I can meet you at Bar Infinity on Shona Road. Can you come?”
“What time?” Hardy asked, looking at the alarm clock by his lamp.
“Soon. Midnight, say. Midnight would be comfortable. I can get away then.”
“Ok,” Hardy said, “how will I know you?”
There was a pause, a pause that gave Hardy the unsettling sense of a muffled smile on the other end of the line.
“You’ll know me. And I know you, I’ve seen you in the paper. If you don’t recognize me then I’ll come to you.”
The phone went dead and Hardy leaned back against the headboard, eyes bleary and mouth open in wonder.
Holding the phone still in hand, his thoughts now cleared entirely of death or whiskey, Hardy dialled in the number of the direct line to the Garda Station at Mill Street. He waited frantically, impatiently, his chest heaving to and fro, as he listened to the tone. Finally a voice answered.
“Garda Síochána, what is the nature of your call?”
Hardy’s words caught in his throat, such was the ferocity of his intention to speak. “I… It’s about Emily Whelan,” he said, “this is Brian Hardy from the Galway Times, I just received a call from an anonymous—”
“I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to slow down. What did you say your name was again?”
“Brian Hardy, with the Galway Times.”
There was silence at the other end of the line. Finally the voice spoke. “And what was the nature of your call?”
“It’s about Emily Whelan. Is Ward there? Let me speak to Ward, he knows me.”
The voice strained with the intimation of patience. “Ward, sir?”
“Sergeant Michael Ward, let me speak to him.”
“Sergeant Ward is not available Mr. Hardy. What is the nature of your call?”
Hardy rubbed his forehead furiously, fingernails scraping the flesh. “Listen to me,” he said, “listen very carefully. I just received a call from an anonymous tipster. He says he has information about the missing girl.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes,” Hardy said, “That’s right and he wants to meet at Bar Infinity at midnight. Can you send someone over at that time—plainclothes maybe, so as not to spook him?”
Silence once more. This time he was certain of the smile when the Garda spoke again. “I’m sorry Mr. Hardy all our units are busy tonight. I’ve registered your call and I’ll make sure Sergeant Ward gets word in the morning.”
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Hardy growled, “this could be our man!”
“Sir, please calm down. I already told you we have no units tonight. Perhaps you could re-schedule your meeting?”
“Oh fuck you to hell! Tell Ward the same!”
Hardy hung up the phone. He sat in silence. It was a quarter past eleven now. Silently he cursed the fates and then he drank some, just enough to give him his bearings.
He dressed, he splashed water on his face, he drank another bite and then spiked the next one in a cup of coffee. He called Downey’s personal mobile but there was no answer. It went straight to voicemail and Hardy, wracking his brains, pacing to and fro around his kitchen as the hour approached, mustered some hurried words.
“Hey,” he said, “it’s Hardy here. Listen, I’m about to go out and meet a source on Emily Whelan. Guy says she’s still alive. Wants to meet at Bar Infinity at midnight. I notified the Guards but they blew me off. Listen Eanan, I’m going to meet him, I’m going alone. If you don’t hear from me within the hour then something’s gone wrong. Let the cops know. Eanan, I’m sorry how things turned out with Ward. It was the right thing to do. We did the right thing.”
He hung up the phone and put on his coat.
Between the adrenaline and the meal of the morning, Hardy managed a brisk walk as he made his way towards the bar. He was there with minutes to spare.
The bar was empty, a good thing, and he sat in wait at a table by the door. It was minutes to midnight and the reporter would soon announce his appearance. The Lazarus, the Nosferatu, the walking corpse of the written word. A single candle burned in a glass on the table beneath his face and he smiled with his lips, with his mockery of a blissful, vacuous serenity.
The door opened and a stranger stepped inside. Fraught and ragged, his hair and beard straggly and unkempt, his brown overcoat several sizes too big for his feeble frame, his face yellow and oozing with sores. He drank it all in, drank in the reporter’s presence at last so close to view. It was hard to say who saw the other first. Their eyes locked for a moment outside of time—between each all was understood.
“Please,” said the killer, “have a seat.”
“You’re the one who called me.”
“That’s correct. Would you like a drink my friend? You look positively arid.”
“No thank you.”
The one called Brian Hardy sat down in the booth opposite him, back to the wall. “What do you know about Emily Whelan?” he said.
“Why don’t we have a drink first?”
“I said I’m not thirsty.”
“Well do you mind if I partake? My nerves are all in jitters you know.”
“Go ahead,” said Hardy, “but be quick about it.”
The killer walked all the way down the long empty barroom to the bar itself. Hardy watched him as he went, tense and apparently in awe at the lackadaisical manner and stride of him. The killer serenely scoured the shelves behind the bar, searching for a missing bottle. He cleared his throat to the woman working the bar.
“Excuse me,” he said, “do you have some Advocaat?”
The barwoman turned to check the shelves and then shook her head. “Uh-huh,” she said, “I can check out back for you if you’d like?”
“Please, and in the meantime give me a glass of Bailey’s.”
The woman served him and then left the room. Instead of waiting for her return, the killer took the drink already served and then turned to walk swiftly back to Hardy. As he approached he reached out to place the drink on the table, the last second flicking it up towards Hardy’s face. As the milky booze hit him Hardy recoiled, the killer’s other hand revealing a needle, sharp-point out, reflecting for a split-second the light of the candle, before jabbing right into Hardy’s neck.
Hardy stumbled back and fell out of the booth, one hand clutching his throat, a thin stream of blood trickling out and his face and chest soaking with spilled Irish Cream. His legs gave out, his vision blurred. He moved to fall but the killer caught him in hold.
“Should have just had a drink, Brian Hardy, would have been easier for you but I think I liked it better this way.”
Hardy mumbled—soft, meaningless words, his consciousness distorted and diminishing. “That’s right friend,” the killer said, “I think we’ve been here long enough. We’d better get out before they kick us out.” He guided his carrion out of the door and the two men stumbled into the night, like a pair of old friends in the intoxicating throes of some long-overdue merry reunion.
We are drunk and we are merry, we’re going to feast on Brian Hardy. I did it, I fucking did it! I got him, I trapped the beast! He’s mine now, tonight we do the act. Tonight we do it, the release, the bliss, the fucking kill!
Outside the street was empty, quiet, frozen in time—the fat yellow globe of the moon reflecting like a sorrowful river off the pavements below. With his arm around Hardy’s shoulder and his other holding him up by the gut, the killer stumbled forward along the road. A taxi up ahead was waiting for its fare like Charon in the moonlight, pulled up to the empty jetty of the footpath. With his eye wild and intent upon this carriage, the killer and Hardy lurched forward.
That’s right, that’s right. Just another few steps my friend. Just another few steps and you will know nothing more of misery or woe. You were too good for this world, they didn’t know you like I did. We’ll remedy it all, remedy it all. Relax into your medicine, be glad—the universe itself has buckled tonight to make such exception for you. These hands were never meant for the likes of you but you are special. I love you, yes I love you now and I will release you, soon. We must… just… press forward…
He pulled open the passenger door beside the taxi driver and looked inside, face twisted into a ghastly, leering, liver-lipped smile.
“Hello there,” he said, “my friend is worse for wear, can you bring us back home?”
The driver, an African immigrant, eyed the killer and then Hardy, weighing up the odds of some impending messy disaster.
“Ok,” he said, “get in, but if your friend gets sick back there you will have to pay a fine.”
The killer nodded, his face now solemn, but his eyes still maniacal and wild. “Agreed,” he said. “Agreed. You have a deal my good man.”
Fucking kill this one too if I have to, if he asks questions. Stick the needle in from the back, right into his spinal cord. The car will swerve, out of control, foot still on the pedal. Enjoy it like a rollercoaster as it hurtles to fiery doom.
The killer and Hardy piled into the back, Hardy comatose and bleary, the killer in rapturous high spirits. He bounced around with every movement, gestures animated and thrilled, like a child on his way to an amusement park for the first time.
“Where are you going?” the driver asked.
“Take us up to Menlough, good sport, out by the old Pier Road.”
Home, back home again, back in there, down
“Out by Lough Corrib, yes?” the driver said.
“In that direction, that’s right.”
Bring him back there, to the dinner table. All the good times, all the lovely happily happily. Oh God, Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus…
The driver pulled out of the street and up towards the Dyke Road leading out of town, parallel to the river and under the Bicentennial Bridge. Soon they passed the old ruined river house and the sprawling waterworks. Trees and fields now, the twinkling tapestry of the city-lights behind them, only the black of the countryside by night ahead.
“Your friend there,” the driver said, “he had a heavy night tonight, eh?”
The killer stared, pale-faced, mouth puckered into a little black O. “He…? He had a heavy night? Yes! He’s had a rough one, yes! He’s a very bold boy!”
He elbowed Hardy aggressively, the other man moaning slightly at the assault, face still dripping with milk.
“He’s a bad boy, oh yes, Mammy will have to spank him at home! Out with the old shillelagh again! Straight to bed with no supper for this one, this roustabout, this empty shell, this configuration of a man’s appearance! A ghost! A ghost!”
The driver did not speak again. In the back seat, the killer poked and prodded at Hardy, played with him like a boy and his favourite action figure. As they approached their destination, a strange stillness settled over him, like the very hairs on the nape of his neck were standing rigid and cold in the moonlight.
Coming up, it’s coming up. I can feel it again. Feel it all, the place, the home. What is this? This feeling. What is it, other? Is it in you too, can you feel it now too? Do you feel anything at all?
His voice was flat and dead when he spoke.
“Pull in up ahead here,” he said, “by those old gates.”
The driver drew the car to a stop on a narrow country road, close to the lake and the source of the river, but barred from both by the thickness of the trees. Beside them, a few feet forward, was an old drive, overgrown with nettles and weeds, the posts of the gateway almost entirely subsumed by brambles and bracken.
“That’s fifteen euro please,” the driver said.
The killer gave him twenty. “My friend and I have very important jobs in town,” he said, “we are bankers and businessmen. We wouldn’t want anybody to hear about our drunken ways. Do you catch my drift?”
The driver stared at him.
“Just keep it,” the killer said and dragged Hardy from the car.
Here we are now, they’re all still here. Here in the wind. I hear their voices in the rustling grass. The hoot of an owl is a welcome back home—welcome back, you never should have left us. Why did you leave us? Nobody gave you permission to leave us.
The taxi pulled away back into town, and the killer and Hardy persevered through the overgrowth up the narrow, twisted drive. The soil was thick and black and pungent beneath their feet, thorns and nettles tore at them and stung as they pushed forward—neither felt a thing. The moon had disappeared behind a veil of silver now and the night was dark, all deep blues and purples. It was almost impossible to see the way ahead.
The path twisted and turned, now under rows of bent and blackened oaks, the overgrowth only thicker and wilder the further they went. Fields of uneven, rocky soil passed them on either side, the earth years untilled. Up ahead the dim, bloated shape of a building slithered out of the darkness and now the moon was coming through the clouds, now the entire broken purlieu was aglow in the bloated white moonlight.
Home. Home again at last. Safe again. Little house on the prairie. Little monster by the lake. Back to burnt-out womb. The washed-out brick and charred wooden beams. Do I love this or hate this? What is this?
“Welcome, my friend,” the killer smiled, a thin bead of sweat running down his pale forehead and shining in the moonlight. “Welcome home.”
The house had suffered a fire some years past. The bricks were torn and stripped of their outer layer, grey and gritty and black with the char of fire damage. The roof was falling in on itself, ancient red shingles clutching like dead skin cells to the broken, dusty beams. It was a two-storey farmhouse, with a small shed built to the back of it like some depressive’s half-hearted afterthought. The path to its mouth was completely taken under by the rampant wild foliage. The door was open, barely clutching to its faltering hinges.
Sucking in a last breath of effort, the killer stumbled forward with his arms around Hardy and guided them both up inside, into the dark.
All still here never went away never died never burnt voices still here noises the pot on the stove and the paper on the table the cows moaning from outside it’s all right here it never left none of it always here
They stepped into the house and the killer let go, Hardy falling with a thud and a sigh to the ground beneath him.
Moonlight spilled in icy beams through windows that were jagged with the shards of ancient glass, jambs and lintel splintered and grey, blackened from the fury of whatever flames had raged this place. The moonbeams pooled in perfect squares—latticed by the shadows of the failing window-frames—that appeared across the dusty floor like pallid spotlights waiting for their performer to enter and commence his solemn re-enactment.
Dust and broken glass littered the way—animal carcasses long since stripped of their flesh by the hunger of decay, domestic and wildlife alike—and the killer kicked through it all like some jolly, harried housewife moving stray socks and children’s toys out of the path for a guest to enter. There was no hallway in this house. The front door opened on a large single-spaced room that was part kitchen, part living room, part threshold. By the back wall an old broken staircase, now falling in on itself, stretched its arms upwards in petition to the collapsing ceilings above. Over the highest step, before the steps themselves descended into broken wooden chaos, a mounted deer head peered down from the wall with marble-black eyes glinting subtle moonlight like sorrow untold, watching the distraught of it all beneath.
Hardy lay where he had fallen by the door. The killer left him there, moving to and fro in zigzags about the chamber, following the precise trail of some private reverent ritual that could not be known or understood by anyone who had not shared his own exact legacy of fearsome experience.
The killer stroked dust from a dresser, picked up a black and white framed photograph of a roasted chicken on a table, the glass cracked by some long ago blow. He moved to the kitchen, stood before a rust-coppered pot on the broken old stove, full to the brim with some hardened crusty black matter that may once have been a supper decades before.
Whatever fire had raged here had been reserved mostly to the upper-floor, to the bathroom and bedrooms above, and in those areas where the moonlight spilled through cracks in the ceiling, the killer would pause and look up into the light, his face naughty with the recollection of some long ago mischief. Behind the haggard staircase, a trapdoor, reinforced with a bolted lock that could not be more than a few months in place, led down, down to a cellar below. Down into a dark, almost empty space where even the killer would not go but rarely, to perform his terrible, avaricious self-revelation.
He returned to Hardy and hunkered down in the dust beside him, leaning over his face and studying him with a complex, curious inquisitiveness.
“Should I kiss these eyes that have seen me?” he said.
The killer stood up slowly, catching Hardy by the ankles as he rose, and then dragged him through the disarray and deeper into the black heart of that broken domain.
“They saw nothing at all, only shadows.”
The killer let Hardy’s legs fall again and they hit the dust with a thump, the unconscious man moaning with an ache that was more of his dreamscape sedation than the world beyond it. The killer stood above him, hands behind his back, as though pained by the underwhelming disappointment of his enemy’s ultimate form.
“We frolicked in the grass, down to the water, all three. Summers past, late in the evening, found a way to laugh. Down in there, our stockings caked in mud up to our pale little knobbly knees. Drowning in filth almost, we embraced it. Caked ourselves in mud and if it wasn’t found out it was because we would wash ourselves clean in the river before returning home. As if, as if. And then the screams, blackening the trees, sending crows flapping like clouds of darkness into the great, grey endless sky above.”
The killer kneeled down over Hardy again, patted him gently, consolingly, on the thin paunch of his stomach.
“He died on the road coming home, hit the tarmac and broke his skull and it was in the bright hot daylight of morning. We came to see though whipped for it, we watched and saw, his eyes open and blank, surprised. Imagine it, surprised. All that animation gone away, it was like a painting that we stepped into, through the frame. Not real and yet moving. Even the paint was still wet.”
Hand still resting on Hardy’s core, the killer sat back and sighed, a beam of moonlight splitting his face right down the middle so that one side was brightness, almost absolution, and the other was ineffably dark.
“After that the work was worse, wasn’t it? Yes, yes, and we hated the cows, we hated them. Hated the sheep and the chickens too, who were all of them like our secondary masters, we hated the dog even. Hate is where the heart is and it got better and better and better from there. Don’t you recall? I do, I do.”
The killer inched back now, pulling Hardy’s head forward and lifting it onto his lap. He caressed Hardy’s scalp, hair sticky and straggly with spilled Irish Cream. Now the moonlight was on Hardy alone and the killer alone in darkness. He held the unconscious man like a soldier waiting with his fallen comrade for the end to come, the bomb from above or the bullets from all around the slaughter that surrounds them.
“In my fifteenth year I took to wearing a long black robe tailored from the feathers of ravens and crows. Call it the vapidity of youth…”
Stroking Hardy’s pale, stricken forehead, the killer hush-hushed him, wrapped his other arm tight around the man’s abdomen and held him close to his breast.
“The journey was a long one, fraught with demons and ghouls, the banshee at the end of every road, shrieking. Did I go where shamans go? I say that I did. I did, for that was the path that I chose. I slew the fat spider in the cavern, believe me, I slew her and then I suckled from the bristly teat. I tasted the poison and evolved. What more was there to do after that? How reality paled… But the quest went on, indifferent to my woes, the river never ceases. If you can’t go forward, go sideways Mr. Hardy, sideways and down.”
The killer turned his head upward now and perceived the moonbeam ahead of him in its entirety, not as a whirlpool of photons hurtling around Hardy in his arms but as one great piece, a single translucent pillar that could never be touched by human hands.
“Perhaps you would follow me where I go, reporter? You would report. You would pen the next bible perhaps, disciple? Alas but you cannot, this is our final caress. I fear that you are an anomaly, I thought long and hard of what to do with you before it came to me in a flash of inspiration, a choral hymn of all the girls yet to be killed guiding my eyes, unveiling the way. I will honour you. Yes, I promise this at least. You will be honoured before your cessation.”
The killer stood up, letting the unconscious Hardy slide slowly down from his lap and onto the floor.
He returned to the dresser, removed his mobile phone, placing it on the dusty surface, and then pulled open the top drawer, the shelf grinding out with a churning, awful sound that only accentuated further the dead silence around. The drawer inside was lined with cling-film, protecting the precious items within from the interminable dust of their surroundings. Small bottles of chemicals, a pair of pliers, a meat cleaver, gloves and a roll of chicken wire. The killer ran his hands through the air above them, like a clairvoyant in the act of divining, and then he removed the chicken wire and the pliers. He turned and walked slowly back to Hardy.
“You can’t stay here Mr. Hardy, you must know that much at least. This is a sacred space, it was not built for the likes of you, unique as you are—as you say you are. I don’t mean any offence, but this is not your home. I have a special place for you, somewhere you will be clean. Somewhere we will both be clean.”
He was above Hardy now, smiling in the darkness, savouring the anticipation of what was to come. He kneeled down and gently but firmly drew Hardy’s hands together across his lap as if into a position of prayer. Then, bare-handed, he unwound the coil of chicken wire and held the point against Hardy’s wrists. Rolling the coil around Hardy’s hands, he bound them tighter and tighter, the blood seeping out in thick red beads that seemed black in the darkness. The killer gave no thought to himself, his mouth open in wonder, as the wire cut through his own fingers too, drawing his own blood in sharp black beads. Holding the bind tight with one hand, he took the pliers and twisted the point into a knot, holding the metal in place.
Next he scooted down to Hardy’s ankles and did the same, wrapping the razor-thin wire around the man’s bony ankles until the blood seeped out of the metal on either side.
“You wanted her for yourself, you greedy swine. It’s alright, I understand. The victor bares no vitriol for the fallen, in victory he celebrates the battle for the dance it always was. I understand you and your hunger alike Mr. Hardy. But she is not yours. I wonder does she listen now, down there beneath us, listening and smiling, tight-lipped in the darkness, trying not to laugh? My sweet little angel.”
Beneath him, hands and legs bound, Hardy stirred in his slumber. His voice was a murmur.
“Emily,” he whispered.
The killer smiled above him, open and earnest at last here in the one place where he could be honest.
“You will never see her,” he said, “not as you are. Maybe afterwards, after you’ve been released but even then it will only be from a distance. Only as if in a dream. She is floating in the darkness, that which you can never touch. I imagine I won’t see you after this, that I won’t know where you are at all, but I hope you find your own darkness on the other side Mr. Hardy. I wish you that much if nothing more.”
The killer paused and looked up, through the beam of moonlight and over to the old wooden trapdoor, to the rusty bolt that he himself had fastened there so that only he could have access, only he should control. What was in there could only be opened by his own dark volition. It was the sole achievement of his existence. Somewhere beneath the furious maelstrom of his mind, he knew this.
He stood up on his haunches, placed a hand on each of Hardy’s wrists and then rose slowly, hoisting the other man up and then into a bear hug, arms wrapped around his waist, Hardy’s wire-bound ankles dangling loosely below.
“That’s it, that’s it,” the killer soothed. “Hups a daisy, come on now big fellow. We’re almost done.”
If he could have sensed his own body, the killer would have known that he was already exhausted from dragging Hardy to and fro all night according to the derangement of his own mad whims, but he had never been receptive to such signals. It was an affliction that allowed him moments of almost other-worldly strength, like a man under the influence of some powerful stimulant, burning up every iota of energy in his body without any distress at all, until finally he would collapse on his bed and sleep for twenty-four hours or more. He never questioned these binges of sleep or connected to them the fiercely taxing bouts of physical labour that preceded the rest. In his thirty years of life there had been little he had questioned.
Hoisting Hardy across the room, he dragged the convalescent back towards the door, grunting and heaving, grinning over gritted teeth the whole time.
“Say goodbye Hardy, say goodbye to the one you could not save.”
And now they were outside again, the killer moving backwards from the doorway onto the path, the glow of the fat white moon that beheld it cold and damning over that savage reliquary of sorrow and woe. He dragged his captive on a tangent from the path, through a jungle of soaking reeds and grass that had not been cut by beast or man for many years. They crossed the field which cradled the chamber and then through a gap in a wild, unbridled hedge to the next field over, this one centred by a flat-topped, gradual knoll. At its far side the faint shapes of cows could be seen, black in the night, and beyond them, the river—broad and flat and glistening with the moonlight that danced along its precious ripples, dancing forever. The killer dragged Hardy direct across the way towards it.
[_Are they buried out here still? Did we erect a stone for each of them, one after the other? No of course not, who could be? There are none here. There were no lack of tears to wonder at, wonder all night in the darkness under a thin blanket. _]
But what is it then? What was it we buried here? Pieces of me? Under the soil, chunks I somehow forgot I once had had? Poppycock. The chunks are all right here. I have them right here clutching to my grateful bones. Each one sings their own song. Sometimes I just forget to listen. That is all.
They moved across the field beneath the moonlight, themselves two black shapes, seeming more like one single entity the further they went—a shifting, churning transmogrifying thing. Closer to the water’s edge. Now the lake could be seen, the great broad black lake that stretched far up into the countryside to the north like a Connla’s Well, not of wisdom but of woe. From its turgid haunches spilled forth the shortest river in the nation, the ocean itself mere miles below, sucking it all into eternity forever.
This is how it ends for him now, this is how we release. Take him down to the river and baptise. Baptise us both. I too have become unclean. I have been coaxed astray from the path. I must find my way back again. I have lost myself along the way. What was my purpose? Was there ever a why? I don’t know what it is.
They passed further through the wetness of the field, over the gradual crest of the hill and down the other side, down where the gradient moved steeper, sharper towards the banks of the river below.
I hope you were wise enough to prepare a hymn. I, in my fever, did not. Shall I place my fingers on your lips as I lower you down, would that release your song? I want to hear it Mr. Hardy, it would be a privilege to hear you sing.
They moved now through thick black trees, the final threshold before the land gave way to that which was not one thing but a multitudinous flow of many, billions upon billions of shifting molecules that could never be beheld together in one place and would never again be in that one place after, not a thing at all but a never-ending ongoing happenstance that cleansed the sands over which it passed. Black soupy stinking marsh gobbled at their feet beneath them as they moved through the trees, schlepping sounds like the muck were goblins slavering at their toes.
Now they were out in the open again, the river broad and free before them, crests and waves uncountable sparkling with an armour of moonlight all across the way. The water flowed gently in the stillness of the night and the sound of it lapping was like the call from a den of riverine nymphs, promising sensuous death, the final longed-for release that could only be gifted in the embrace of their aqueous vulvae. The killer dragged his foe across the swampy, reedy marsh. Even though the rain had been heavy the night before, tonight the skies were clear and the tide was low. The killer paused, frozen, clutching Hardy in his grip, face turned up to the great white goddess in the sky.
What was it again? The why of it all. I fear it has escaped me. A momentary loss, brought on by the frenzy of haste. Yes, yes. There was a reason. Of this I am sure. I will find it again soon after. Perhaps it is Hardy that has blocked it. It will return when Hardy departs, that itself follows itself, logic after logic. Of course.
He wrapped his arms tighter around Hardy’s waist and then stepped into the river.
It flows around my feet, soaking into my boots and through the satin, lacy socks. Over my toes, icy-cold, wet and moving. It wants me to move with it, it begs me, implores me, but I must move through it. We must move through it, across it, against it, out as far to the middle as my legs can take me and only then may I release and be freed.
The bed beneath the water was rocky and uneven, sharp in places with stones that had been shaped and sharpened over centuries by wind and water and the gravity of a planet that hurtles forever in circuits of movement through the perfect pristine wonder of infinite space. The water flowed swiftly around them, lapping against them, soaking up and into their trousers as they waded further out to its depths, leaving the riparian world behind them forever. Hardy’s eyes were open now, had been open for some time, and they shone gravely in the luminescence of the moon. His body still limp, trunk surrendered still to the killer’s clammy embrace. They moved further, the broad channel deepening rapidly, now the icy caress of the river around their waists, playful water spirits dancing up from the underworld to meet them. From here neither would walk on land again.
I feel it under my balls, shrivelling in the cold, now against my navel, the infinite tongue of some all-knowing naiad lapping against my skin, tasting and forgiving the baseness of my flesh. Why was it all? Why didn’t we make it down here before they called us back again—up to our hearts in the blackness of mud? What was I in the world when I moved across it? Soon, surely, I will find the answer and retrieve it. Yes I will. I open myself to receive. Hardy now you may open too.
If his hostage had regained full consciousness the killer had not yet any inkling, Hardy in his arms as they flowed through the river, now almost floating more than walking. Hardy seemingly allowing himself to be carried entirely by the killer’s strength, using none of his own—perhaps so as to tire out his captor as much as possible in these last crucial moments. They were almost up to the solar plexus now each, when the killer halted their watery stride.
“Brian Hardy,” he said, “I’m sorry that the fates have not permitted your continued existence… but the only road forward now is cobbled with your bones. Goodbye.”
He turned Hardy around in his arms, letting the river take some of the weight, so that now Hardy was facing him. Hardy’s eyes were closed once more as the killer beheld him, considering what was to him the opaque paradox of the other’s human eyelids, and then in a hurtling fevered movement Hardy raised his arms, wrists still bound together, up over the killer’s head and down again around him, locking the other man in his desperate embrace. Launching himself forward against the killer, the two men plunged underneath, leaving a tail of turbid furious liquid hurtling up in fountains through the air around them.
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO no no no no no no no NO!
Under the blackness the men struggled. Down here no oxygen could feed their lungs, replenish them with life. Only above could either hope to find a further existence. Hardy had caught the killer by surprise and the strength with which he held him in his wire-clasped hug was equal to that with which he now held them both underwater. The killer’s heels dug and scraped against the dissolute silt, struggling in vain to find a sturdy hold from which to kick back. Hardy buried his face against the killer’s breast, against his throat, pushing downwards even with the force of his own forehead. Above the water only ripples gave hint of the mortal contest raging below.
No you can’t fucking Hardy no you can’t be in this now it’s not it’s not this Bastard you Bastard Kill you Kill you in the water cannot die I cannot die
Both men were weakening, fading, both men fought on with every minutia of determination left in their soul. They hurtled through the water around them, above them, the currents of the river pulling them out further, pulling them down deeper, assisting Hardy in his mission against the killer, the killer in his mission against Hardy. The river had made its judgement and now both petitions to murder would be irrevocably fulfilled.
NO PLEASE No Please Brian Hardy you’re like me, you’re just like me, I know I know. I surrender. I repent. I shouldn’t have challenged you, I shouldn’t have hidden her from you. Please just let me have air. PLEASE you can have it you can whatever it is just take it and LET ME GO
The blackness of the water through which they thrashed was nothing to the blackness seeping forward now from the depths of the killer’s mind. Final efforts of consciousness were given to the struggle against Hardy, such that he could no longer maintain the clasp over the bodily threshold of his own mouth against the water. His mouth fell open and the cold river rushed in, filling his stomach, filling his lungs. He did not feel it. He stopped fighting, stopped before Hardy—not for surrender but for the lack of any remainder of a conscious will.
I see it now, again, this is what I forgot. It moves towards me through the blackness, through this endless blackness. Not the future, not the past. There is not even now and I am flowing to it in the black, flowing, flowing as the black, and I see its face and it has many faces and they are not its face because it does not have a face. Hear it, I say it does not even have a face!
Certainly not the one I imagined, not the one I remembered from long ago, because it wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t ever that at all. And it opens to me, this, what it is, it is bigger than anything bigger than the black that flows into it, that—I—flow into it and it is a light. It is a light. It is a light and there was nothing to fear, there was never a thing to fear, never a thing to hate. There was nothing. There is nothing, there is a light and there is nothing and that is all it is.
The river flowed on, its streams now thoroughly unbothered by any ongoing petty pandemonium thumping through its watery heart. Under the water, under the black, sinking, were the two men in the cold. Their blood now too running cold, the sons of Hermes and Hades entwined together but for a sole crucial moment before one’s grip weakened over the other and that one, limp and lifeless, slipped into the stronger current of the river’s deepest channel and was pulled away from those shores and that place and then flowed off with the water under the moonlight in the silence of a night which was now just over, which had been uneventful but for this, which was giving birth to a new day which would flow again into night, suns and moons uncountable until the very sun and moon themselves burned from existence and something else unknowable had come to take their place.
The needle went into his neck and he had seen it, seen it in the killer’s hand, glinting in the candle light, a static image, a single second expanded into eternity. Like a car crash, the world seemed to slow for his thoughts while his motions remained chained, uselessly, to a much swifter timeline. There could be no time to mount a defence—there was time eternal to understand.
It was in his neck and he was stumbling out of the seat. Now thoughts were gone and movements everything, the last hope was only in flailing, clutching, grasping. And then both were fading, then he felt himself in the killer’s embrace. The world was fading. Was it all just a dream? The whole unpleasant thing—from birth to death? It might as well have been.
Now there was only comfort, only the bliss of being, of living, existing without thought. What was there to judge, to compare or interpret? There was no longer anything to judge with. Just a life that could neither understand nor care for its own impending extinguishment, the flawless and inexorable destiny of its own inherent nature.
He felt a shadow around him. He felt himself in an embrace and melted into it, as if now at last without his fractured mind he could allow the touch of another to comfort him. There was no other, no real boundaries. Just life and energy, the common flow of all things in the universe. What dim and faint consciousness that remained—itself just enough to comprehend this and nothing beyond—was experienced as a wonderful ecstasy, a transcendental blessing permeating from everywhere.
Golden light and a faint all-consuming hum, this was experienced. Warm, comfortable, blissful release, this was felt. Now and then he felt the expression of a distant universe upon the body that was miles away around him, almost impossible to feel—like a telegram from the pantheon, received with the indifferent mind-consuming joy of the soul itself.
He felt that out there somewhere he was moving now, still in the embrace of the universe, passing through space and time, and then he was fading back from that world even further, fading back into his own mind. Back into whatever it was that knew itself as Hardy.
Visions, images, olfactics of ages past pass through him, memories experienced as though ongoing, regressions accepted as indisputable fact. The shadow with him always as he moves backwards in time. He is transported fully back to his childhood, to his parents. In this world a self independent from his parents is utterly forbidden, he is a slave to the emotional narrative they dictate for him, which is a narrative of chaos and terror, total submission. All other instincts and emotions are blackened with the violent brush of shame, locked away and forbidden. Years pass. By the time he is old enough to fight back he has already lost. Now the fight itself becomes one more act of self-destruction, an invitation to punishment, to psychological evisceration. The shadow is with him always throughout. It whispers in his ear:
This is the thing people talk of when they talk of love
Now he is a man, the shadow with him still, shrouding him, keeping the light of other lives away. The shadow has been his oldest friend, now around the corners of his conscious mind he understands that the shadow has always been his only enemy. Years away from them but they always with him, one day he wakes to learn the parents died—an unsolved freak occurrence with the subtle implications, perhaps, of a murder-suicide. A dim dark delight dances over an abyss of rage and pain which is underneath the black, underneath an ocean of deepest black, something he knows he cannot look into, cannot let himself willingly face. That is why it was put there, a disease of the mind designed and refined by generations of screwed-up broken people, passing it off to one another like grotesque and quivering squid shooting poisoned ink at their own kin down in the deepest, darkest depths of the Mariana Trench. They will never admit to it, each is alone and ashamed, consumed by what each shares within them, passes amongst them. This was the family heirloom, foisted on him through subtle spells, hymns and incantations far beyond the twisted comprehension of the broken ones who moaned it through every gesture, every intonation, in every expression and movement.
Something was lost, someone was lost, long ago. A child was never welcomed to the world. What grew in its place was a shell, a ruse, a pretty mask on a limbless leper, a cripple in a wheelchair pushed by a shadow that whispers, whispers, whispers endlessly in his ear. Hardy can feel his body again, feel the shell of his flesh as it is breached once again, an achingly insufficient boundary against the world of cruelty beyond. Sharp, electrifying metal cuts through his wrists, through his ankles. There is comfort in spilling blood, an externalization of wounds that are otherwise unfathomable.
“Emily,” he whispers.
You will never see her, not as you are…
As a man he searches for enemies, placeholders for the parents within, the shadow pointing the way, always at the edges of his vision. He gets into trouble, burns bridges, confirms for himself what he has always believed. That the world hates him, that humanity hates and fears him. That this is the only truth. Throughout all this, for some inexplicable reason, he attempts to pursue a normal life, a career, the mirageous grail of personal fulfilment. He fails, of course, vindicated at every turn.
Now the blood is running from his wounds thicker and across the void between him and his skin he feels the contrast of the heat of the blood and the coldness of the air. He is outside, somewhere far away he is outside and the shadow is dragging him through fields of long wet grass. Hardy is waking for the very last time.
His eyes opened on darkness, he listened to the sound of the killer and his own fevered breath, the violent rustle of grass, as he was dragged through the cold, wet darkness of night. A great ache followed the awakening, pain that was hot and cold as it churned throughout his body, internal, external. His hands and feet burned with the affront of their physical breach while the thundering chemical smog of his mind was like the furious compression of some great industrial drill tearing at the rocks of all nature itself. This terrible cloud in his head, this diseased hangover of an agonised lifetime, almost drove him back into the depths of his coma, almost demanded a premature surrender, and Hardy almost retreated again.
And then he was back, fighting his way to the surface of his mind, to the sensory world beyond. He could see little in the darkness, for now he could recall less, but he knew with a tremendous certainty that his actions in these pounding moments could well be the most important of his entire existence—the ultimate and final summation of his life. A purpose after all.
Yes, and now recollection too began to return. He was Brian Hardy, who had slipped and stumbled and fought his way down black alleyways of futile error, fuelled by ignorance and idiocy and the awesomeness of the self-destructive drive that had underscored his every action like a treacherous ley line leading directly to death. He had written about Emily, fallen beneath cancer and madness, genuflecting without thought to both. He had drank and starved to quicken the journey, challenged others to take a part, and finally, without a friend, he had invited this killer into his world.
The one who was dragging him through wet fields in a night aglow with moonlight. The one who held him to his breast, so close that he could feel the other man’s shallow breath. Cold fear tempered the physical torment of his condition—did this psychopath know he was awake?
It was pertinent to remain as languid and as loose as he must have been in his previous unconscious state. Thankfully this was not difficult. The real difficulty would have been in struggling, in hardening, in fighting back against the other man’s hold. There was little strength in his body now, though strength at least in his will. He was dying now, even if the killer evaporated completely from this moment and left him alone he would still not live to see morning—the only question now whether he would leave this world alone.
He would have to trust, trust himself for the very first time, he did not know where they were going, what grave this mad man was dragging him into, nor how he would strike at his captor before that time came. A slight flick of the wrists alerted him to their bind, the sharp pain of his ankles as they dragged against the ground warned him of theirs too. At least his arms were free—when a chance arose to use them he could not allow hesitation.
Now they were under darkness, thick pungent mud beneath their feet, the killer struggling to press forward. Was this man exhausted? How much time had passed since that time in the bar? Had he been dragging Hardy ever since? Perhaps there was hope.
Then the trees passed from above and they were by the river, glittering and majestic in the moonlight. All was clear, the moon so bright against the black sky that no creature could hide its face without slinking into shade. The killer paused, still as a deer in a hunter’s crosshair. Hardy helpless in his arms, praying to himself to succeed. If this was it, if the killer knew he was awake, he would have to strike soon. And then the grip tightened around his waist and the killer pulled him into the river.
Cold water flowed against him, biting at the wounds of his ankles and up towards his waist. A quick impulse to denial was felt, a dread at these certain waters of his approaching death. No, no, it couldn’t be this. It couldn’t be over. Wasn’t there a promise in life that things would be well, gifts would be bestowed? Riches, the love of a woman? Wasn’t he due those things before the removal took place? No, no there was no such promise. It was over. He had to trust that, trust his own final form, aches and scars and all those things too.
They moved deeper into the water and Hardy knew how it could be done. It was possible to find strength if strength would never after be needed. It took strength to pump his heart, to deflate and inflate his lungs, to power the miracle of his human mind. He could take that strength away from these processes, away from himself, and use it all to take them both beneath the river.
They stopped in the water almost up to their shoulders, Hardy’s legs dangling in the flow as he let the killer take his weight entirely, using up the bastard’s energy as much as he could. Hardy’s eyes were closed again, his jaw set, bracing.
“Brian Hardy,” the killer said, “I’m sorry that the fates have not permitted your continued existence… but the only road forward now is cobbled with your bones. Goodbye.”
Hardy almost laughed at the fool. He felt the killer turn him in the water so that now the other man must be watching him. Hardy’s eyes were still closed and he never opened them again. It was time.
He rose his bound hands up from beneath the water and then threw them down over the killer’s neck and against his back, clutching him into his irrefutable embrace. Electric stars flashed against his vision such was the ferocity, the pounding determination, of his final effort to wield strength in this world. Launching his entire body against the killer, he drove them both down beneath the water.
Hold on Hardy, his mind serenely sighed, hold tight. Forget everything else. Forget that this is pain, forget that this is effort and sensation. Now indifference to these things. These things just are. This is destiny. This is predetermined and immovable. There is no world in an infinite multiverse where either of us would rise again. No effort to assist that which is already certain. In a moment this will already be done and therefore already has been written. Hold on, hold on, hold on.
After a time, the killer stopped struggling, went limp in Hardy’s arms. Hardy had been holding on until that moment and continued to hold on for a moment thereafter. He was smiling under the water and somehow still conscious without even a breath of air. Still conscious though without a thought at all.
Above the river clouds passed across the sky which was mostly clear but for these scarce wisps of silver and grey. The earth moved and the moon moved too, towards its bed beyond the flat verdant horizon. The water flowed in currents and waves above the point where the two men had descended without rising again. It flowed like that for millennia. Further downstream a swan took flight from the water and rose north over the lake and into the copper clouds of dawn, fizzling out from sight against the fires of the new morning sun. Two magpies flew down from the sky and alighted the fragrant blossomy branch of a rosebush, joined then by a third and finally their awaited fourth. A kingfisher lifted its beak from the water, the silvery scales of its prize sparkling from its grin against the nascent light of the new spring day. In the distance the first traffic of the morning’s caravan of careerists moving sleepily into the city could be heard, joining the joyous song of the birds who woke early each day to welcome the light. In this bright sun now the river was not black, but silver, golden—azure and white. Floating down now, down further under its ice-cold waters, Hardy knows nothing but bliss.
Body of Man Discovered in Water
The body of an unknown male was discovered in the river after becoming tangled in the Salmon Weir in the north of the city early Tuesday morning. A local fisherman had been casting for fish in the Corrib beneath the weir when he noticed a strange shape hitting the metal and becoming tangled in its grille. Upon further investigation he alerted Gardaí to the presence of the body and Garda Crime Scene Investigators took over the scene from there.
The man has not yet been identified, though Garda sources have confirmed that they are treating the death as suspicious, citing signs of a struggle and other as yet undisclosed indications of foul play. It is not known if the death is related to the disappearance of well-respected Galway Times reporter Brian Hardy, who vanished Monday night after alerting Gardaí that he intended to meet a source in the case of missing student Emily Whelan. Brian Hardy left his apartment shortly before midnight to meet the source in a local bar and has not been seen since.
[_Emily Whelan went missing on the… _](Continued on page six)
She doesn’t know why she has picked up the newspaper. The headline had caught her attention from the corner of her eye and without thought she had lifted the top edition from the stand and begun to read. It gives her a chill and she can’t say exactly why. She has little taste for the intimate details of such tragedies, though is careful in her day to day life never to forget that they are there—that this mystery is, in fact, the mystery of the world. There is a darker half beneath the one she was born into and she knows this. Though young she has made effort to give light into the darkness and heal what little has been gifted into the scope of her immediate influence. Before university, she had spent a year doing charity work for the homeless in India, her academic and personal interest in human rights legislation that followed foreshadow a long and illustrious career. This was how she had been raised, in a home of love and kindness and compassion.
She does not turn the page to continue the story. It is not her place to intrude uninvited into the personal miseries of others and she has no wish to. She allows herself just a moment of sympathy for those involved before replacing the paper on the newsstand and releasing it from her thoughts.
She goes to the counter and greets the elderly woman there. “Just this please,” she says holding out a bottle of water. They exchange some conversational pleasantries as she pays and then she leaves, stepping out onto Quay Street and into a busy, sunny pleasant Saturday afternoon.
She finds herself in a thoughtful mood as she walks towards the Spanish Arch, where she intends to sit for a while by the water and watch the world go by. It will be summer soon and almost a year has passed since she finished her college degree with first honours. She enjoys her work at the coffee shop in the city but knows that she can’t stay here forever, her ambitions and talents dictate that she must depart this nation that had been robbed of its self-actualization by a corrupt cabal of patriarchs and matriarchs who some years past had sold the country’s hope for their own venal desires. She is thinking of leaving soon—perhaps London or New York—and her parents support her in her decision, though as it transpires she will not leave for another sixteen months and when she does she will not be alone.
The Arch is busy and there is scarcely a spare seat on the stone slab benches where she intends to sit—save for the furthest one down, on which a young man sits alone facing out to the water, hands clasped over the lid of a paper coffee cup between his lap. She does not intend to disturb him, he seems deep in his own thoughts and she would respect that, but when she arrives behind him she finds the words come out of their own volition.
“Excuse me,” she says, “are you waiting for someone?”
The boy turns, surprised, and raises an eyebrow. She thinks that he is handsome, though sad.
“I mean, is this seat free?”
“Yeah,” the boy smiles, “sure, of course.”
“Thank you,” she says and their smiling eyes linger on one another for a moment, the first of many such moments, for many years to come.
“I’m not disturbing you am I?” she asks, “it’s just you looked like you were occupied with your thoughts.”
“Oh no,” the boy says, “no, though yeah, I guess I was.”
She sits down beside him, he now turning back from the water to face her. Neither speaks for a moment. In each other’s presence it feels right.
“Your accent is strange,” she says, “I can’t quite place it.”
The boy laughs. “I was overseas for a couple of years,” he says.
“Oh, so you’re a fish out of water then?”
There is a kind, teasing mischief in her eyes and he shrugs bashfully.
“Well, maybe I was before. Not anymore I guess.”
“Are you sticking around for a while?”
He nods slowly. “Yes, I think so. Something bad happened to someone I care a lot about. That’s why I had to come home again. I don’t really know what I’m doing next.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she says, watching him, watching his sadness.
“I think it might be ok now,” he says, “as much as it could be anyway. We can’t say for sure yet, but we think somehow things might have been made right.”
She reaches out with her hand and touches his. He lets her.
“Good,” she says.
Note from the author
Hi there, thanks for taking the time to read my novella—with the absolute deluge of material out there vying for your attention and available at the click of a fingertip (not just literature, but movies, TV shows and video games too) I’m truly grateful that you were interested enough to stick the course and follow the story that I had to tell all the way to its final conclusion. These days an aspiring author lives on word of mouth or they don’t live at all so if you have the time I’d really appreciate it if you’d post up a review of the book, either on the retailer’s website you downloaded from or on Goodreads (or both, if you’re really feeling generous). Doing this for me is not just a hobby or a potential career-path (my bank balance can attest to that) but a calling, in the truest, least-clichéd, sense of that idea, and I’m going to continue doing it for the rest of my life regardless of success or failure because as far as I’m concerned I don’t have any other choice. So if you like the words I’ve been slinging, a little helping hand in spreading them is truly appreciated. At this stage, it can go a long way.
—All the best and thanks for stopping by,
Somewhere beneath the soil of Galway city the body of a young woman slowly decays in a small cellar room, while her killer stalks the streets and waterways, anonymous and insane. Disaffected journalist Brian Hardy, cancer-stricken and barely functional without a drink, is tasked to follow the story of the search for the missing girl. As Hardy spirals ever closer to his own personal demise, he finds himself swept into the darkest recesses of human nature, where he catches the attentions of the one responsible for the crime—a man so corrupted that he will stop at nothing to protect his dark legacy from the intrusion of an outsider. This compact literary thriller is the debut work from Irish author Ross Breslin