He Died Twice

Well, here it finally is! My first novel, and I hope you will think it’s page-turning fun. Murder! Mystery! Spies! Assassins! Costume changes!

I really wanted to write a thriller with a central character that I could relate to, someone outside of the security services, but who has enough knowledge of their methods to play them at their own game.

Kate Edwards does not enjoy perfect mental health, and she has few resources to fight back with other than her friends and community, her intelligence, and her love of spy fiction. Every day she gets new shocks, and new information. Every day, she has to change her game plan and her identity to adapt to these new circumstances. Can an ordinary person evade pursuit and help to blow the whistle on rogue security agents and her own husband? And will she ever be able to stop running?

A sequel is in the planning stages….

All profits from the sale of this eBook will be donated to the Cornwall Refuge Trust, who provide shelter, advice and support to victims of domestic abuse in Cornwall www.cornwallrefugetrust.co.uk Not all of us are lucky enough to have a safe or loving home to shelter in during this lockdown.

He Died Twice (Chapter 2)

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Brockenhurst, Hampshire 50°48’55.5″N 1°34’32.8″W March 23rd 20.22 hrs

Kate turned into the street where she lived. She’d arrived here on auto-pilot, without intention. There was no sign of a police presence. No unfamiliar cars on the street. She pulled up to the driveway and waited for a minute. Nothing moved. Silence. She would risk going into the house. But she locked both doors with deadbolts and drew the security chain across. Inside the house it was very very quiet.

Kate dumped her hat, coat and bags onto the sofa. Her handbag was littered with tiny glass cubes. She just went and ran a bath. She was shivering, freezing, and her mind was blank. In the bath she did not cry, but shuddering dry sobs racked her from time to time. She could not relax. The hot water seemed to make no difference to her body temperature and it stung her scrapes and bruises, but it washed off the blood. She was crazy! Anyone else would have gone to the police! What the fuck had she done, letting her fears take hold of her, imagining all sorts of dark plots like she was in some kind of a thriller? Unlikely. What had actually happened was that she’d tampered with evidence at the scene of a double murder, and made no effort to cover her tracks. There would be footprints, fingerprints … Fuck. Great big bloody footprints. Stupid cow! Eventually the water was cold so she pulled the plug, stood up and showered in clean hot water.

No. Something was very, very wrong here. Bobby was involved in something she’d known nothing about. Something to do with Russians, relationships with people she’d never heard of, guns, and murder. Wrong. Her initial instincts were correct, she felt it. Knew it. Now she needed to be smart. To ignore Bobby’s dressing gown with his smell that twisted her heart and be smart.

The first thing to do was put her bloody clothes into the washing machine with a lot of bleach. She didn’t know if it would get rid of the blood completely, but it might make it harder to prove that she’d been at the Everton house. Then take the batteries out of the phones, her own and Bobby’s. The stranger’s phone was a cheap simple model, brand new by the look of it. She took the risk of switching it on. There was nothing on the phone. No contacts, no saved or sent messages, no call history. She took the battery out.

Now for the two men’s wallets. Bobby’s she knew – she’d bought it for him, and there was a picture of the two of them tucked inside that she’d put there herself. She took out the cash, just over forty pounds, and pulled out the credit cards and other contents. There was a partly-stamped loyalty card from a coffee shop, a couple of business cards that seemed to be legitimate contacts for the sporting events business, driving licence, nothing out of the ordinary. She looked at the other wallet. It was a worn brown leather bill-fold of good quality with no branding on it. Inside it was one thousand pounds in crisp notes and nothing else at all. Nothing? No clues to his identity. Kate sat back on the sofa, rubbing her head as if to massage some understanding, some comprehension into her brain. She was trying not to get carried away, but it seemed to her that the man was deliberately ‘clean’, like an agent about to go into the field. No identifying material whatsoever. Burner phone. Think about it later. Got to keep moving.

Online, she transferred all her money and all her available overdraft from her current account to her savings account. She made a written note of all the most important email addresses, then deleted them and her browsing history. She threw folders of her personal paperwork into a bag. Her passport, driving licence and registration documents she left to one side. From up in the loft Kate lowered two suitcases and all the camping gear she could find. Tent, mattresses, sleeping bags, cooking stuff, torch, clothes line, penknife. That reminded her of the flick-knife in Bobby’s pocket. She hadn’t ever seen that before… Stay focussed. Axe, saw, mallet, staple gun. Heaven only knew what she was preparing for, but, by hell, she’d be prepared!

Kate pulled out the storage drawers from under her bed and gathered three wigs and a set of fake dreadlocks she’d once had fastened into her hair, Bobby’s hair clippers and any hair dyes she could find. She packed all her underwear. Clothes: as many different things as possible. Kate had always dressed eclectically; she had many different guises if need be. Her huge and unwieldy wardrobe would now prove its worth. She took her warmest things, a lot of T-shirts, and walking boots. Books – only the essentials: Ray Mear’s Bushcraft and Tom Brown Jr’s The Science and Art of Tracking, The SAS Survival Guide, Food For Free by Richard Mabey. ‘Essentials’ for Kate meant that she needed at least one work of fiction. Scanning the shelves, her eye fell upon her Len Deightons. Nine books in the Bernard Sampson series. Too many to take? They’d been gleaned over the course of years from charity shops – they were many-times-read, tattered old friends. Goodbye, Bernard and Fiona Sampson, spies extraordinaires! And just when she most needed their skills. Bollocks, she would take them.

She thought, in a distracted way: Is someone coming here right now to shoot me? She shook her head as if to dispel those thoughts and re-settle her brains. They said ‘him’; they don’t know about me. Keep doing, stay focussed. Photo albums. Maps.

Out to the garage; it was still and quiet on the street, chilly and damp. Kate drove a sky-blue 1968 Triumph Herald 13/60 that she was still fixing up; she set the battery to charge. She readied it for a journey, inflating a tyre that must have a slow puncture and checking the lights and the oil, water and fuel levels. Into the boot she put in all the spares and random bits and pieces she’d accumulated for it.

Now it was nearly midnight.

Now, with basic preparations made, she thought again about Bobby’s secret life. Kate hesitated outside the door to Bobby’s office to gather resolve. Inside, it felt like he might be back any minute. There was the usual chaos of bike bits and frames, sports wear, magazines and random bolts and things strewn about. A 3-D model of Bobby’s exhibition stand at the London Triathlon Show took pride of place on a shelf that had many race numbers tacked to it. But Bobby’s filing system was well-organised. The box files and folders contained information about the sporting events company that Bobby ran: receipts, bank accounts, proposals, letters; all relating to his business. If she found nothing at all, she would have to call the police and confess everything. She would feel like the most stupid person the world had ever known, and probably be suspected or charged, but she’d have to. The thought of Bobby still lying in that room, cold and bloody and dead, hit her suddenly. She pressed her fist against her mouth and cried. She was the worst wife, the worst friend. A stupid, self-deluding, scared fantasist. Perhaps she was mad.

In the back of the bottom desk drawer, she found another phone and another cash box. A second phone? The cash box was locked. She shook it. Something metal inside. Kate decided to look at Bobby’s secret second phone and powered it up. From ‘Jerry’: Meet as per, Brisleigh Close, 18.00. That was the meeting Bobby had gone to tonight. So the man was called ‘Jerry’. There were messages from ‘Jim’ – maybe the ‘Jim’ Bobby had spoken of in the conversation she’d overheard? – but there were only those three messages in the in-box. Nothing in ‘Sent’. No other notes or information or apps on the phone, only some numbers attached to names she didn’t recognise or that were mythical: ‘Daniel’, ‘Martha’, ‘Sheela-na-gig’ and ‘Odin’. The messages from ‘Jim’ seemed mundane: Fancy a coffee?; Can we meet up today?; Taking Susan and the kids away for a few days. Kate turned the phone off and put it into her pocket.

She searched the desk for a key to the locked box, then checked Bobby’s key ring. No. She went out to the workshop and looked for a key there. She pulled out drawers of nuts and bolts, brake pads and Allen keys. No key. Then, in a tool box, she found some bullets. Ten of them. She collapsed backwards against the work bench. Bullets? What the fuck does a sporting events organiser need bullets in his toolbox for? She knew nothing at all about bullets, but they looked real enough. She was not going to call the police now. Grabbing a penknife, she struggled with the lock on the cash box. She managed to nick her finger, but no luck opening it. So she tried a piece of wire, then an Allen key. Wire and Allen key together. She fiddled around in the lock, and suddenly it turned.

Inside, a small key and an envelope. She examined the key, which was engraved with ‘Bauer, Zurich’, and the number 23346, and put it in her pocket. She opened the envelope. Inside were two printed paying-in slips from a Bournemouth bank with a German name. Just under £8,800 pounds in cash had been paid in with each transaction. An odd figure. She left the workshop and locked it behind her. In that other reality, the moon was visible between the clouds and owls hooted to each other from the trees. So far, no-one seemed to have driven into her street since she’d gotten out of the bath, and the phone had not rung. The police had not arrived on the doorstep.

It was now 2 am. She loaded the rest of the things she’d collected into the car. Back in the house she made tea and a cheese sandwich because she knew she should. Shock had worn off, leaving her feeling sharp. Let’s see what’s in the backpack. Aside from the gun, the laptop, and Bobby’s sweaty running gear, there was a folder with a proposal for a triathlon in the Peak District next March. Sweet wrappers and loose change rattled around in the bottom with Biros and old receipts. She upended the bag and turned it out onto the coffee table, unfolded all the receipts and looked through them. Coffee, magazine, sandwich, mini-statement of current account: £1354.73, Tesco’s shopping, mini statement printed out in Bournemouth a week ago for another account with £149,347.12 in it. Stop. What? Kate pulled the envelope out of her pocket and compared the statement with the slips she’d found in the locked box. The same bank. A hundred and fifty grand?! There was no way Bobby had that kind of money. They lived a comfortable life, but not a wealthy one. If he had, she would have known about it, wouldn’t she? They’d have used it to do things with, or at least to be able to take holidays, buy better cars? Either the money wasn’t his – but then how did he get the mini-statement? – or else here were more lies. Suddenly, she felt very far away from Bobby, further away than she had when she had realised he was dead, on the floor in that awful room. Reality and fiction, life and nightmare, seemed to be switching places.

Hard thinking was what she needed to do now, but she was exhausted and incapable of any kind of thinking, and very cold again. Oh, let the police or the Mafia whoever come and beat the door down and drag me away in the night if they want to! There was nothing she could do right now to stop them; she felt a bone-tired weariness and sickness, such that she just didn’t care. Kate took her oldest and most trusted friend, her teddy bear, from his shelf and wandered sadly into the bedroom. No cuddling up to Bobby tonight. No cuddling up to him ever again. She fell asleep crying.

When the alarm went off, she hoped it had all been a dream. She felt something next to her face, and settled into it. Bobby. All a terrible dream. But the thing was too furry and too small. Not Bobby. Not a dream. Tears welled up again, and she felt tired and helpless, unable to do anything but lay face down and weep. Then she sighed and dragged herself up. Bringing her bear with her, cradled in one arm, Kate went into the kitchen to make tea. The cold light of day and the cold of the quarry-tiled floor hit her simultaneously, waking her fully. “Oh, Ted!” she said, and buried her face into his worn furry head. But she knew what she was going to do.

Kate emptied all the useful food from the fridge and cupboards into bags and went and got dressed, putting on careful make-up to hide her pallor and puffy eyes. She chose a wig and put it into her handbag. Firing up the computer, she looked up the makers’ name on the key to find out what kind of lock it might open. Then she shut the computer down and put the hard drive, the food and faithful old Ted into the car. The car started first time, with its customary racket. Kate reversed out of the garage and onto the driveway and said goodbye to her home in the rear-view mirror.

He Died Twice (Chapter 1)

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Everton, Hampshire 50°44’53.8″N 1°35’21.5″W March 23rd 18.57 hrs

It was dead quiet on the street. Behind neat fences and hedges, detached houses stood like islands in their wide lawns. The only visible signs of life a were few different-coloured windows lit up from the inside. The jolly theme tune of The News Quiz faded out and the announcer began the link to The Archers and still she was waiting… The car had grown chilly in the past fifteen minutes and the windows were misting up. What the hell was he doing in there? Bobby often ended up chatting to clients for longer than he’d promised, but he knew she was picking him up and that they had to be somewhere – they were going to be late for dinner with Craig and Mel now. There was no phone signal here, she’d already tried.

Oh for fuck’s sake!”

Kate snatched the keys out of the ignition, grabbed her handbag and got out of the car. Unlatching the low gate and passing through a tall, thick hedge, she stomped up the path towards the house, grumbling. The house had no security or porch lights, and, suddenly feeling an unevenly paved surface beneath her feet, she slowed, picking her way along. Halfway up the path she heard raised voices from inside the house:

“…You know what they will do. They won’t let you just walk away. And there’s nowhere you can go that they won’t find you. Your only option is to carry on, do what they ask.”

But not this, I can’t do this! I must have some right to refuse jobs – for god’s sake, Jim’s one of our own, and his family surely have nothing to do with any of this! He won’t have told Susan anything, just like I wouldn’t tell Kate anything: for her own sake. I can’t hit kids. I won’t!”

Hit kids’? What kind of weird job was this they were talking about? And what wouldn’t he tell her ‘for her own sake’? Was the business in trouble? Bobby sounded angry and distressed.

Bobby. I know it’s a tough assignment, but Jim needs to be terminated. That’s your job, I suggest you do it. Approval goes all the way to the top. All the way. The Russians as well. You know what that means.”

But why all of them? It’s hard enough to contemplate doing Jim, although, well, it’s hard to take in, but I do accept from what you’ve shown me that he’s a traitor. But all of them? I’m practically Cindy and Rory’s uncle! I won’t fucking do it, I’m telling you now. Get someone else to do it.”

Bobby sounded furious. Who were Cindy and Rory? He was their ‘uncle’? ‘Jim’ was a ‘traitor’? Kate had never heard of these people. The whole thing was mystifying and therefore fascinating. Perhaps they’re rehearsing a play…? She stopped where she was, hidden in the shadows of the front garden, to hear more. The other man was saying:

“…Bobby. Our employers do not take it kindly when a trusted employee such as yourself refuses to carry out their duty, however morally repugnant. Our employers start asking themselves questions, and they start coming up with certain answers … especially if that employee and that duty are close friends, like family, even, with ties going back years, and so on… Surely I don’t need to spell this out any further? You do this job, you’re proven squeaky clean. You refuse, your loyalties are questioned, and the same fate may well await you and the lovely Kate. And your kiddies too, if you had any. It’s the way it is. Shitty, but true.”

Shitty is fucking right! I’ve done this work for HMG reliably for more than ten years, and this is what they think of me? That I’m untrustworthy? Fuck you, and fuck them. I’ll take my fucking chances in Timbuktu, you can tell them that.”

Shh! Keep it down, for god’s sake! There is no Timbuktu, son. I –” the man broke off. Kate wondered why. She was motionless, riveted. What the hell was going on? It didn’t sound like any kind of conversation that could possibly relate to organising a cycle safety workshop, which was what Bobby had told her this meeting was about. And anyway, Bobby was self-employed, he didn’t have employers who could tell him what jobs to take. He sounded odd, not like himself. Ten years was the whole length of their marriage.

The voices went quiet. Kate crept closer to the window. She couldn’t see in because the curtains were drawn; there seemed to be whispering, but she could make out no words. It was cold out here and her feet were getting wet. She looked down to see that she was standing in a flowerbed. She held her breath and strained to hear what was going on. A breeze whispered through the hedges. Her breath escaped quietly in mist and it grew darker.

Inside the house, the man Bobby knew as ‘Jerry’ put his finger to his lips and inclined his head towards the TV screen in the corner. It showed a night-vision image of the front garden. During the most heated part of their argument neither man had looked at the screen, and so it was not until now that either spotted the figure standing close up by the window. Bobby immediately knew that he’d made a huge mistake in asking Kate to pick him up from this briefing when he hadn’t known the subject of it. But how many times had he been that lazy over the years? It had always seemed important to maintain an illusion of normality, to let her pick him up or meet him places, as if he’d really just been organising triathlons or hill-running events. So he’d reasoned, and it had worked out fine until tonight. In the blurry green image, Kate looked ghostly, and you couldn’t see her expression. From the way that she was standing by the window and not simply ringing the doorbell, it seemed impossible to doubt that she’d overheard at least part of the conversation. It took a split second for this to flash through Bobby’s mind. It took another for him to reach round to the back of his belt and release and open his flick-knife.

Jerry took only the same brief moment to turn to Bobby with suspicion and horror in his eyes. The flick-knife convinced him. You could read Jerry’s calculations on his face: Jim must somehow have found out what was coming and got word to Bobby. The wife obviously knows all and is here to help Bobby kill me and clear out. Jerry drew a gun and aimed at the window. Aware that Bobby was not carrying a gun, not wanting to risk Kate getting away, he shot at her first, rather than ensuring that Bobby was disarmed or disabled. It was instinctive, and it was stupid.

Kate, get down!”, yelled Bobby as loudly as he could, and, not pausing to look at the TV screen to see whether she had done so, simultaneously launched himself at Jerry, managing to deflect the shot towards the upper right corner of the window.

The gun was silenced, but Bobby’s shout and the explosion of glass fragments from the window made Kate jump in surprise so hard that she stumbled backwards over the border of the flower bed. She sat dazed on the grass, then stupidly ran back to the window. Like the time I got that electric shock from a tap and immediately put my hand back on it again; her body demanding further proof. From inside she could now hear sounds of a violent struggle, things being broken. What to do? She ran to the front door. Locked. She pressed her face up against an etched glass panel trying to see through the little clear strip at the edge of the pane. Inside the house there was a deep groan and the noises stopped. Frantic, she hammered on the door, terrified that Bobby had been shot. The door began to open in slow, slow motion. In its wisdom her body now decided to anchor her to the spot, whilst shrinking itself as small as possible. Behind the door stood Bobby, covered in blood. Kate felt faint. He must have seen this in her sudden pallor; he grabbed her around the shoulders and pulled her into the house. He sat her down on a chair in the hallway.

Breathe! Put your head down between your knees! I’ve got to sort out a couple of things here and then we’d better get away.” Oddly, he seemed not the least scared or shocked himself; in fact he was perfectly calm. This was Bobby in the ‘professional mode’ – cool and focussed, serious looking – that Kate was used to seeing when he was at work. In this situation it was surreal. The whole thing was surreal, it wasn’t helping her dizziness.

Get away? I don’t understand… Shouldn’t we call the police…?”

You don’t know what’s going on here – that’s for the best right now. Kate, you have to trust me. These are dangerous people. I’m sorry to have gotten you mixed up in it, but we’ll have to discuss that later. We can’t call the police, that would endanger our lives even more.”

What? Wh–?” Kate mumbled into her own lap.

Bobby said nothing more, but went back into the front room. She lifted her head and looked after him, and immediately regretted it. Alongside the remains of a broken table and smashed lamp lay a man. Was he dead? His belly was just a mess of blood. Bobby was doing something to a laptop at a desk in the corner, and a greenish film was running backwards on the TV. Bobby stuffed the laptop into his backpack. He crouched beside the man on the floor and went through his pockets, taking his phone and wallet and adding them to the bag. Looking at the man made her dizzy almost to fainting, and she had to put her head back down between her knees. So Kate missed seeing the moment when two small discreet thuds sounded, and Bobby grunted and slumped and then fell back with a crash.

In an instant her head and vision cleared and she rushed into the room. The wounded man had managed to shoot Bobby in the stomach before collapsing again. Bobby was slumped against the sofa with the backpack in his lap. Not moving. She ran to him without thinking about the other man, or the blood, or anything else except that the love of her life lay wounded or dying. She said his name and kissed his face. Tears ran down her cheeks. She tried to find a pulse, a heartbeat. There it was, faint, fluttery. She held him and whispered “Come back, my darling, hold on! I’ll get help, just stay with me, I’ll get an ambulance…” She was looking around for her bag, her phone…

His eyes flickered open.

No … no ambulance…” he whispered. “No police… Run.” His eyes were fully open now and boring into hers, trying to communicate something more than he could manage to say. “Run. My love. Sorry … all this … run, now! Kill … you … too… GO!” He raised an arm towards her and tried to push her away. He placed her hand on the backpack and then he died. Blood came out of his mouth.

Kate curled up into a ball and put her head in her hands. What the bloody hell is going on? Am I actually awake? She stayed like that for what seemed a long time. But when she raised her head and opened her eyes it was all still there in Technicolour. The two men lay motionless and bloody in the wreckage of the room. A green and black image – a night-vision image of the front garden – was frozen on the TV screen. They had been watching the front garden with night vision? That seemed very unusual. Most people just have security lights or a (fake) CCTV camera. In her stunned mind churned images of what she’d just seen her husband (her friendly, kind husband) do, with scraps of the conversation she’d overheard. ‘Russians’, silenced guns, ‘hit kids’ … night vision cameras … ‘I’ve served HMG for ten years’ – what was ‘HMG’? Bobby had said ‘dangerous people, get out, run, kill you, too’. The other man had said ‘the lovely Kate as well’. All this whirled around and around in her head as she hugged her knees and rocked, tears on her face and fear in the pit of her stomach.

What the hell am I doing? She sat back on the floor and thought: This is not a good place to be sitting a moment longer. A numbness descended upon her. She was freezing cold.

Bobby had said ‘don’t go to the police’ and she had her reasons not to trust them herself. Terrors present combined with demons from the past. Instead, she got up and went over to the bodies, and prised the gun from the dead stranger’s hand. If the authorities could not be trusted, she needed to secure this evidence herself. She wrapped the gun in her scarf and slid the bundle into the backpack’s front section, alongside Bobby’s wallet and phone, which were sitting in their usual organiser pockets. The quiet in the room thrummed at her eardrums; Kate pushed her hand into Bobby’s jeans pockets and pulled out only keys and some loose change. Taking Bobby’s back pack with her, she caught sight of herself, covered with blood, in the long hall mirror and had to sit down suddenly in the same chair as before and breathe a bit. Some deep impetus forced her up from the chair.

There was no noise from outside. Kate stood close to the front door, hardly breathing. Silence. She opened the door a crack. She could see nothing in the dark garden. Leaving the door ajar, Kate stepped into the porch, and as she did so, saw a hand reach in and carefully unlatch the front gate. Another hand holding a gun followed it. Who are all these people with handguns running around the countryside? Kate darted back inside, then turned and raced down the hallway towards the rear of the house, into a kitchen. The back door was locked. She rattled the handle in a panic. Someone entered the house through the front door and she heard footsteps and curses.

Kate looked around desperately; there was just enough light to show a small china dish in the shape of a fish on the nearby windowsill. With a Chubb key in it. She grabbed it and trembled it into the lock. It turned. But she’d been heard. She had to run.

Round the back! Don’t let him get away!”, hissed a woman’s voice from the hallway, and Kate heard someone bang out of the front door.

The back garden was smaller than the front; just a few feet away, a side gate led out onto the street. She dashed across a bare patio, not looking behind her, and decided to vault the gate, which didn’t quite work out: her foot caught on the top of the gate and she fell over it ungracefully and landed hard on the ground. Her pursuer came around the house, reached the back door, found it open, and span around to face the back garden. Now the fact that she was down on the ground was to her advantage. Kate stayed low and crawled away, towards the street corner where the car was parked.

Where did he go?”

Over there!”

Whoever it was that was pursuing her did not want to shout or call attention to themselves. Probably not the police. She ran to the car and unlocked it. Everything seemed to take such a long time – fumbling with the handle, trying to get in, get the key into the ignition, close the door… She started the car as her two pursuers came running around the corner, weapons raised. She screeched away from the house. The back window exploded, showering her with little chunks of glass. It took her a second to realise that bullets had caused this. She was just driving, as fast as she could, round the corner, out of sight, through the maze of bungalows and out onto the lane that led directly into the National Park. She knew this lane very well and could put on speed here. Trees rose up on both sides. After a quarter of a mile, Kate pulled off the lane into a parking spot. Turning off her lights, she tucked the car tightly behind some scrub. Then she ducked down and recited atheist’s prayers until a car came tearing down the lane and past her hiding place without stopping, slowing only very slightly at the bends. Someone was a very good driver. Kate waited for a breathless few minutes, heart pounding and frozen with fear, no cars came by. Her breath became short and her chest tightened. What the fuck shall I do? Then she remembered: the woman had said “Don’t let him get away.” They did not know who she was, or even that she was a woman. Kate restarted the car and pulled slowly onto the lane. She should not stay so near that horrible house.

For ten minutes or more, she drove mechanically, her body trembling, without thinking where she was going. Craig and Mel! She didn’t want to risk them coming to the house to see why she and Bobby hadn’t shown up to dinner. She pulled over in a lay-by to text:

So sorry! Car broken down, waiting for AA. Will not make it tonight. Ring you tomorrow and re-arrange? xxx

It was 7.31 pm by the dashboard clock. Half an hour had destroyed her life. She rested her head on the steering wheel. The numbness was wearing off and she shook violently. She drove a circuitous route into the depths of the forest, to take shelter with the trees.

A morsel

I’m afraid I have been remiss in my blogging – I’ve been engrossed in trying to finish the first draft of an espionage novel! And when it’s not that, I’m plagued with thoughts and theories about the Neolithic, etc. You know how it is. So here’s a morsel of fiction for you, not newly written, but I hope you enjoy it.

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ON MOONLIT NIGHTS it’s so difficult for me to sleep. I had gone to bed with my husband at around 11pm, read for a while, and even fallen asleep before midnight; but by 3.30, I was awake again. I lay still and tried not to think for about half an hour, but then I started getting itchy and sneezy and I knew it was no good – I’d have to get up. I crept into the dark living room, pulling on my dressing gown as I went. I found my eye drops to stop my eyes from itching so much. The challenge now was to find something to occupy myself with, other than the obvious. I switched on the TV. Scrolling though the forty-odd channels, I found very little of interest. I left the tail end of a TV movie playing, and cast around for a book I hadn’t read. The itching was getting more severe. I ran my hands through my hair. No books appealed. I opened up the laptop and began to play Solitaire for a while. Along with a cup of tea and a cigarette, this could often keep me occupied for a few hours until the restlessness wore off. Tonight I played about five games, no wins, and then grew bored.

One of the windows must have been open a bit behind the curtains. A breeze was blowing in, cold and crisp, and scented with the woods. When I lived in London, I would have gone out at this point, no question, and roamed about a bit. City streets still feel more comfortable to me at night, although you’d think I’d feel more at ease in the countryside. Now I was hungry. I opened the fridge and pulled out some leftovers – lamb stew, part of a pie, milk. Anything I could get down me quickly. I devoured the food quickly, ravenously. It didn’t fill up much time and didn’t really appease me at all. There were things I might have done – I needed to shave my legs, I needed to file a lot of old mail and receipts, but those sorts of things were out of the question at this point. The itching phase was over now and it left me with an aching sensation in my bones and teeth. I massaged my jaw. I had to get up and stalk around a bit, trying to stretch out my hunched shoulders. I heard clicks as I did this. A look in the mirror confirmed my suspicions – I was changing. If I stay asleep on those full moon nights I can often get away with it – my husband sleeps really deeply and I think he likes the fur to snuggle up to. I’m not a real danger to people, never have been. So I don’t worry that I might do something to him.

Time to take some more direct action. In the fridge were some steaks which were for tomorrow night’s dinner. In order to get around the fact that my husband would miss them tomorrow, I’d have to replace them during the day, but luckily he was working tomorrow which would make that a lot easier than if he had the day off. On those occasions, I have to sneak out to the supermarket before he wakes up, but after first light, the precise timing of which is hard in the winter months. I ripped the packet open and demolished the good raw meat. It was glorious, but another kind of torture arose – I could really do with a nice cup of tea to wash it down with, but my talons were now too long to manipulate kettle, teabags and cup. Fuck.

I sat back, tried to watch the end of the movie, which I didn’t understand at all because I hadn’t been watching it. Eating the meat was always a tricky business. Often it would be satisfying and sleepiness would steal over me. I’d pull out the sofabed and sleep in the lounge until sunrise, then brush my teeth and creep back into bed. But after half an hour I knew that this time it wasn’t going to happen. It was now 4.30, and in the summer I might have been in the clear, but at midwinter I still had hours to wait until the moon’s effects wore off. The wind picked up outside and blew the curtains open a little. That was it. Actual moonlight entered the room and I couldn’t help myself. I tore open the curtains and pushed up the sash. Climbing out onto the flat roof outside the window, I sniffed the air and felt my fangs and claws grow to their full extent. Once I give in to it, I love being a werewolf. I threw back my head and howled with the joy of the night and the moon. Dogs all around the neighbourhood woke up and barked. I leapt from the roof to the driveway and bounded into the night, towards the forest and a nice fat pony.

 

The Artist

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Marilyn Zusman was a rising star, a photographer notorious for her controversial subject matter and fearless realism.

Two years previously, Marilyn had won a substantial modern art award for her series of photographs of homeless teenagers in Manchester and Glasgow. These had provoked both critical acclaim and accusations of exploitation. There was something unnerving about the clarity of Marilyn’s visions of these freezing and half-starved children, misery etched on their dirty faces, the paraphernalia of cheap, nasty drug use scattered around. Because Marilyn was a middle-aged, slightly matronly figure, it was even more disturbing. People were shocked when they met her that such a ruthless vision wasn’t coming from a young, dynamic, callous-looking figure known for cocaine binges and drunken outbursts in expensive and exclusive nightclubs.

One of the pictures was especially disturbing. It depicted a boy of 14 or so – it was hard to tell because of his emaciation – sprawled on a dirty pink nylon sleeping bag in a doorway stained with vomit and urine. The boy’s face was squashed peculiarly against the paving, almost dissolving into it. It appeared that he was dead. It had pitched her name into the tabloids for the first time. Previous work depicting nudity and some South Indian road workers hauling heavy stones up a motorway embankment was unearthed and reprinted in the two-page colour spread, as evidence of her cruelty and moral poverty.

In fact, this publicity meant that she sold large amounts of prints and got a book deal, which when published sold thousands more copies than it otherwise would have done. Her dealer was delighted. After a long confidential chat, they jointly decided that controversy should be further courted. Marilyn began to overtly take pictures of the dead, which proved immensely popular.

Now a respected artist with the highest credentials, Marilyn gained access to morgues and hospitals, where she photographed corpses whole and broken, newborn and ancient, burned or squashed. She switched to black and white for this series, because the colours were garishly strong and the first, colour, prints lacked gravitas. Gravitas was essential to the work’s acceptance. So they mounted the first show and it went down a storm. Marilyn refused to appear on television, but she was interviewed for magazines and Sunday supplements. Alongside her homely, greying, hand-knit portrait, the reproductions of the melancholy cadavers appeared in all their incongruity and frailty. It was media dynamite.

Marilyn and her dealer began making rather a lot of money. As a follow-up, Marilyn gained access to a forensic research facility, a ‘body farm’, where bodies ‘donated to science’ by their previous inhabitants lay in the open for months, even years, so that the process of decomposition could be studied. Marilyn took pictures of the rotting corpses and their current inhabitants, the maggots and beetles and millipedes that were the vanguard of putrefaction. She took pictures of bellies swollen with gas and reeking fluids, and frazzled, gaping half-clad skeletons, a few tufts of gingery hair remaining. Marilyn also went to archaeological sites and photographed ancient skeletons, crouched in their small irregular holes, stained with rust and verdigris, the only remains of their earthly possessions. She photographed mummies in museums, desiccated and fragile, the power and influence which they had once wielded still evidenced by the reverence with which they were handled.

The resulting show cleverly contrasted this reverence for the long-dead with the cavalier treatment and deliberate decay of the newly dead. Again, it was a sensation, and Marilyn began to be feted as a philosopher as well as an artist. There were some who said that her work was becoming sublime. Marilyn started to believe her own publicity. She appeared on television now, as an interviewee or a pundit. She talked in a measured, rather old-fashioned accent, with just the slightest hint of her Cornish background. Although Marilyn was always careful to dress staidly in Laura Ashley prints and large cardigans for these appearances, actually Marilyn was a millionaire and an international celebrity. She received invites to showbiz parties and charity fashion events, although she never accepted them.

Marilyn’s exposure to death and hardship had, in fact, made her rather a cold fish. Her TV persona was a carefully marshalled caricature, a kind and respectable front upon which mud would not stick and scandal could not rain. In reality Marilyn would have liked to dye her hair, have some surgery, wear expensive clothes and take a young and handsome lover. But so far, there was not quite enough money, and fame itself had not yet grown stale.

Marilyn had gone to London to see her dealer. They had to talk about the third book/show which they had agreed would be the last of the death series. Marilyn now thought that it might be her last work of any kind. For her, the lure of the life she desired had overtaken the desire to make art – a desire she had been fulfilling for nearly all of her sixty years now.

Jerry”, she said as his secretary withdrew from his expensive office, “I’ve come to a decision. I’m going to do this last lot, and then I’m going to die.”

She left the phrase hanging there in order to see his reaction. Jerry looked suitably surprised.

Yes, I’m going to disappear, fake my own death, and become anonymous. Then I’m going to become another woman, Jerry, and I’m going to enjoy the fruits of all this goddam labour, I’m going to drink, Jerry, to lay beside swimming pools in diamonds, sipping cocktails, and by hell, Jerry, I’m going to fuck like the very devil!”

Jerry’s mouth fell wider open. It was hard even for Marilyn’s closest accomplice to reconcile the heart of the woman with the cardigans and sensible shoes. People are easily fooled by appearances.

Jerry’s shoulders dropped several inches.

Okay, Mar, okay. I thought for a moment you meant the real thing! But okay. I sympathise. I guess I’m already enjoying the high life, and I admire your fortitude, keeping up appearances and so on. Just a year or so more and you can drop the front, and go off and turn yourself into whoever you want to be. But first things first. The new work.” He steepled his fingers and attached them to his chin. Over this construction he considered her, and waited for her reply. Marilyn was the genius. Jerry had the phone numbers.

It has to be more extreme. So far it’s been the passive dead. Now I want the angry dead! I want murder victims! Violence! I’m in an angry mood and I’m going to find angry corpses!” Marilyn got up and paced with energy around the office, pausing to look at a huge print of a desiccated and papery torso which she had found in a ditch at the forensic facility.

Don’t you think it will be going too far? Not to mention getting relatives to sign the releases…”

Then we’ll get them from places where you don’t need permissions. I’m serious, Jerry,” she said after seeing his face. It was Jerry who fielded the calls and took the flak, who persuaded the galleries and publishers that this work was not gratuitous, was in fact very important. “I’ve got the money and I’ve got the contacts lined up. I’m planning to go out to Darfur and work over there, but I’m also getting some imported to work with over here.”

Imported? Imported? Are you crazy? There is no way on earth that they are going to let you import bodies. And no-one is going to accept war-zone work – it’s not a new concept. It’s reportage, for fuck’s sake! Come on, I know there’s better than this!” Jerry was exasperated. But Marilyn was not perturbed.

Jerry, I’m still your employer. I do the work that I want to do, and if you really can’t sell it, then that’s a problem. But you cannot tell me what to photograph! You can’t suddenly pretend that you are the one with any idea of what will be art or not!” (Here she conveniently ignored Jerry’s twenty years at the top of the art world) “You’ll see. This will be the best work ever. And it will be so poignant, so shocking and touching, that everyone will understand why I chose to end it all afterwards. You’ll see.”

And Marilyn sat down, took out some plans, sketches and ideas, and began to explain them to Jerry.

Two weeks later, Marilyn flew to Africa and started work. She set up a network of desperate contacts, with whom her dollars went a long way. She organised an aeroplane, refrigeration, and a collection of vehicles. Then she travelled around with a group of soldiers, no more than children, photographing the scenes of violent death and chaos that they encountered daily. But Jerry was right, really. In this work there was nothing that an experienced journalist could not have captured, and perhaps, less insight than such a photographer might have achieved. So she returned to England and began the arrangements at that end. Marilyn worked in Cornwall this time, at a small airstrip which she had purchased. The bodies, mutilated and torn, began to arrive, in cold storage. They were mostly the corpses of black people but sometimes white. She went to a wrecker’s yard and bought some written-off cars and twisted motorbikes, just mangled heaps of metal. She even got wind of a small plane which had crashed, and bought that too. Her plan was to pose the dead bodies in the wrecks, in such a way that imparted more consciousness of mortality than chance could achieve – chance stripped bodies found in car wrecks or lying in heaps of all personality, made them passive, and these she wanted to stare defiantly at the viewer, discomfiting and worrying them.

She set to work, rolling the bodies around on trolleys and stretchers, heaving them into position with surprising strength and posing them to her will. She pried eyes open, glued crushed flowers into hands, arranged adults in smashed cars which had children beneath the wheels. She sat the dead in position so that they appeared to be staring, glassy-eyed at the camera.

And gradually, a sense came over her, an unearthly sense, but one which she was aiming for: that the dead were not gone, not at all. All the corpses she had photographed before had been far away, lifeless matter, empty flesh that in no way except the most superficial resembled human beings. These were different.

And they began to whisper to her “Marilyn, Marilyn, turn me around,” they’d suggest, “I’ve been in a few pics already, I don’t want to be recognised!” “Marilyn, Marilyn, try propping me up with that piece of metal, I want to be able to look right out past the camera and into the world!”

At first, unnerving though it was, Marilyn thought these comments were just a reaction of her own mind, a kind of fracturing to create the distance she needed to be able to make this work. One morning she came out to the airfield, very very early because she liked dawn light, and she found several corpses crammed into the wreck of a Maserati which had arrived yesterday.

Jerry!” she yelled down the phone, “Some bastard has found out!” The bodies were kept locked up in the cold storage unit, to which she had the only key. “I don’t know how they’ve done it – the lock’s intact, but the door is open, all the bodies are rapidly decomposing, and I’m sure the police will be here any minute!”

Calm down, I’ll be with you as soon as I can – I’ll get the next train. Go home. Clear up as much as you can and go home. If the phone rings, or anyone knocks, don’t answer. I’ll text you when I get there. But just calm down!”

Actually Jerry was just as freaked out. He’d always had his doubts about this project. He just prayed to god that there was anything he could do.

Meanwhile Marilyn began to shift the bodies back into the cold store. She heaved the first one onto the stretcher. As her hands touched the corpse, that of a young man with a large ragged gunshot wound in his chest, its eyes sprang open. She jumped back, startled. It was probably some effect of delayed rigor mortis. But the corpse grabbed her hand.

Marilyn, Marilyn, make me famous! I want to drive that red car!”

Marilyn turned, and ran. She couldn’t waste energy screaming, she just ran, her head pounding, feeling that she could faint at any moment, her vision made into a tunnel by dark enclosing specks which swarmed thicker and thicker, until she was running blind into the dark, and she lost the fight with unconsciousness and fell.

When she awoke, she was at home, lying on the sofa. The sun was high in the sky, but there were no policemen in evidence. At first she consoled herself with the thought that it had all been a dream, but then she heard Jerry’s voice on the phone.

Yes, I’m really concerned. ‘She’s such a tough old bird, but something weird seems to have happened this time… Uh-huh…well, I’ll call you back later…no, nothing, thank god…okay, Louis, speak to you later – bye.”

Jerry came over, looking worried. “Are you okay?” I found you lying out there – I’m not sure how long you’d been out of it – must have been a few hours. Want to see a doctor?”

What about the – the – ” she could not even say the word ‘corpses’.

No, you did great, not a sign of any –, or any mess. I’ve put the word out about who might have been poking around – it’s bound to be some local kids, nothing to do round here…”

No, no Jerry! I didn’t manage to clear any of it up!” now she was really scared. It meant she must be losing it, that it was finally getting to her. This was the end.

Well, my dear, whatever happened, it’s all cleared away now, and you’ve nothing to worry about right now. Just get some rest, and I’ll organise some food.” Jerry meant order some food – he couldn’t even make toast.

It took several months for the show to be ready. Much of the developing work was done by assistants, who had never been to site, and only knew about the trip to Darfur. The pictures were startlingly good, and gave one a sneaking suspicion that the dead do not go away, after all, but retain some power over their bodies, and therefore the world of matter. This power seemed to shine out of the open eyes and defiant faces of these war- and accident-ravaged people. Marilyn was hardly ever at her studio, she found that her nerves jangled when she saw any of the pictures, and especially ones featuring the dead man who had featured in her awful vision.

In the end she could not even supervise the hanging, but left it to her most trusted assistant, with some instructions. It didn’t matter very much – the work was so strong that you could have hung it in a dark cowshed and the critics would respond. And it made her plan to fake her own death much more convincing. Everyone was worried about her already.

She went along to the show that night dressed soberly, looking a little pale. She chatted quietly to some journalists and to some friends. Inside she triumphed and almost forgot to stay in character. This work was the best received yet! Everyone was commenting on how her ‘immense sensitivity’ was bringing the dead to life in the photographs! There were close questions about Darfur, which she could, of course, answer in all honesty. And she looked shaken by this work, very shaken. Jerry was delighted. Finally, the yacht of his dreams was in sight! And a gorgeous model was chatting him up! Flattering him! They were home free!

Marilyn wandered around a different corner, into a side room she’d not yet visited. There was a giant print of a crushed Maserati. In the driver’s seat, a young man with a ragged gunshot wound lolled, hands still on the wheel. In front of the car a beautiful woman lay sprawled, dress torn open to reveal her breasts, and bruised and broken body.

Marilyn stood gaping. A critic sidled up to her.

That one’s amazing. How on earth did you find these scenes? Of course, it’s as much a matter of chance, but then the angles you’ve managed, and the light – so delicate, not at all African.”

Yes,” came a decidedly African voice from behind them. “Yes. It was hard work, very tiring, and of course – we weren’t used to the cold. But the effect is astounding. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.” Marilyn spun around to see the young man from the picture. Standing there. Gaping wound, obviously dead and a little the worse for wear after so many weeks, muddy from the pit in which he’d been buried after the site was closed down. The critic smiled nervously and backed away. He thought it was some kind of stunt. A weird stunt, but convincing.

The young man just stood and looked at Marilyn. “I know it’s not as good as yours,” he said, “but we’ve not got your experience. Thanks for including it anyway. Bernadette will be very happy.”

Bernadette?…. I, I,…” Marilyn’s voice trailed off.

The girl there, Bernadette. She was a nun, of course, killed by the militia after they did god knows what to her. But you’ve, we’ve, given her a new lease of life, a chance to be happy here in the UK.” As he spoke, bewildering Marilyn completely, Bernadette limped into the room. Rather sickening noises accompanied her steps – her legs were broken and bent out of shape. Bernadette was grinning broadly, and her eyes lit up when she saw the huge photo of herself.

Marilyn backed out of the room and back into the main room. Now she knew she was losing it. She needed a drink.

But in the main room she saw that all her ‘models’ were mixing with the guests. They all looked excited and happy, and were talking loudly. And the other guests were looking horrified. Not at the models, but at her. She was a phoney. She’d posed live models and made then up to look as if they had terrible injuries! The models were describing the airstrip, and how the shed in which they’d stayed had been so very cold, and everyone’s faces were growing dark, angry, as if she’d brought some poor refugees over here and treated them cruelly in order to make art! But these people were dead, didn’t they understand?

They are dead!” she suddenly yelled. It was beyond her control. Silence descended. It was in poor taste. Or perhaps it was part of the show, no-one really knew. The make-up that that models were wearing was very, very good. She ran over to a boy with a huge gash in his neck

Look! Look!” she remembered that this boy’s neck was chopped almost through and that his head has swung back and almost fallen off when she was positioning him. She grabbed his head and pulled it back slightly, but it resisted. “He’s dead! His head was falling off!”

Blank and disgusted stares met her all around. She ran again, propelled by the horror as she had been at the airstrip. My god, she thought, I’m actually mad, but I’m sane enough to realise it! The models uttered piercing ululations and ran after her, out into the street.

And so it was ever after. Marilyn was pursued by all her African models wherever she went. They insisted that she take their pictures at Disneyland, in the Caribbean whilst shark fishing, and skiing in the Alps. “You made us live!” they sang happily when she protested. “Just one more photo!”

Meanwhile the corpses spent all her money and eroded all her acclaim. No-one was really sure what had happened. Her insistence on retaining this entourage of poor refugees dressed up as increasingly dilapidated cadavers might have been a great artistic and political statement, but it was disturbingly exploitative, smelly, and frankly bonkers.

The only photos she took now were hasty snaps, capturing the final moments of the rotting models, who insisted on immortality with increasing urgency as their flesh collapsed and withered. And when they finally mouldered entirely, Marilyn had them ‘interred’, at their insistence, in a large mansion in the Italian Riviera, piles of dusty bones ranged in front of large TV sets, arguing about what to watch, and demanding constant attention.

Eventually Marilyn left them there. A trust fund serviced the house, and she found a couple of staff unscrupulous enough to manage the place without asking any questions. She got into a tiny boat and sailed away. The servants immediately collected up the piles of bones and threw them into the ocean. The mad woman would not return, and so they lived in the house themselves at her expense. The voices of the dead models rose up from the ocean and drove Marilyn on her little boat out into the Atlantic. And there they dragged her down to an unquiet eternity with them under the sea. And they complained all the time that she hadn’t brought her camera.