Another chapter of my novel Dark. I've also finished 2 but it still needs some work.
|Wet twigs crunched underfoot to a drumbeat of raindrops striking against the leaves of trees. I battled through the wood, struggling against the thick latticework of vegetation beneath my feet. Vines and stalks tugged at my shins and clung to my shoes, holding me back, warning me against the scene I knew I was ahead. Pulling my legs free I continued on deeper into the forest, towards the light beckoning me with long, luminous fingers that reached at me between the trees. My clothes became heavy with the wet air and worsening rain. Saturated denim began to bite and rasp at the skin on my legs, and the sodden arms of my jacket began drawing my hands to my side hindering my progress. Clawing at the brass zip of my jacket I pulled it from my shoulders throwing it to the forest floor. I leant my back against a soft moss covered trunk to catch my breath, the light cleaved by the tree carried on either side of me far into the distance, suspending the heavy rain like weightless diamonds. My shoulders began to stain with grey splashes as the deluge now concentrated its efforts on my white t-shirt, the material clinging closer to my skin with every strike, fearing the night.
I rounded the trunk and continued on. Up ahead I could see the source of light winking at me from behind the many trees, standing straight and solemn like mourners at a funeral. I quickened my pace, knowing what was waiting, knowing the futility of my efforts. My heart raced inside my chest, my coarse breath beginning to burn through my throat and nose. I broke into a clearing, the shafts of light merging into the blinding glare from a sole, car headlamp.
I stood motionless in front of the broken BMW, the light silhouetting me then scattering off into the forest shirking responsibility. The left side was completely crushed, missing the front tyre and most of the entire wing. It had come to rest on its right side against a tree at considerable force, the impact shaping the car around the thick trunk, concealing the driver’s door. Branches from the tree caressed the vehicle, curling and winding over the bodywork in a fatal embrace. Wood flashed like bone beneath scars gouged into the bark, thick sap bleeding into the night mixing with the rain.
Looking to my right I could see the path the car took down the embankment. A wide trail of crashed foliage and earthen blisters led from the car, up to the yellow light of a streetlamp three hundred metres away. Strips of untouched bushes and plants punctuated the route, a sign the car had violently flipped and cartwheeled its way to the clearing. A single rear indicator had survived the brutal descent. The light flashing in patterned defiance, bathing the backdrop in an intermittent orange glow, accompanied by a clicking from within the crumpled interior. Half the registration plate still clung to what remained of the grill, the remaining letters confirming what I already knew;
This was my car.
I scrambled over to the passenger-side trying to get a view beyond, but the door and roof were crushed completely inwards. Frantically I climbed onto the bonnet, slipping drunkenly on the coating of rain and mud. The windscreen was a cobweb of cracks, the glass fogged with condensation completely veiling the interior. Tears stung my eyes mixing with the heavy rain blurring my vision, sobs beginning to echo the beating rain. Chest heaving I began punching at the corner of the windscreen, glass teeth biting down on my fists with every blow. I punched so hard that red imitations of my knuckles began to form on the glass, but I didn’t stop-I couldn’t stop. The glass eventually gave way with a sigh, the blood trickling into the gloom. I grabbed at the corner peeling it back like a thick enamel scab. I pulled my entire weight back; safety glass crunching into my palms. The windscreen gave way completely, sending me falling backwards from the hood.
I landed hard on my back, the windscreen covering me like a rigid, fractured blanket. I threw it off wiping the rain from my eyes with my hand, blood momentarily filing my sight, drowning my vision in a crimson hue. I quickly scrambled back onto my feet jumping back onto the hood. I knew what I would find, but when I saw her I screamed out.
An agonised wail left my lips, a sound of despair so primitive it would haunt anyone who heard it, sending a chill to the very depths of their soul.
“Hey… Wake up will you!”
An ethereal voice tore me from my dream, opening my eyes bright light clawed at the lids causing them to machine gun in defence. I massaged them open, pupils becoming more resolute to the intrusive light at each sweeping motion. Confused I searched for the source, a large black shadow plunged towards me flooding my still-blurred vision.
“John, get this down your throat.” The cruelty of the light was replaced by the thumping feeling in my skull, the precursor to a hangover that was racing to catch up with my conscious. Closing one eye I was finally able to focus on the origin of the shadow; my brother Paul stood in front of me, with a mug of black coffee pushing it to my still cracked lips.
“Hold on a second for Gods sakes, h-how did you get in?” I propped myself up with one elbow taking the coffee from his grip, placing it on the table. The pain of the dream still lingered in my memory, regularity never diminishing its effect.
“Door was on the latch, you know for someone that hardly ever leaves this house; I’ve never seen somewhere that looks so unlived in.”
“Well, since becoming a widower, I’ve not really been in the mood for any house parties.” I tried to be as caustic as possible, but the through the fog of hangover it sounded apologetic. I clumsily pulled my legs from the couch and sat up, pushing my hair from my forehead.
“No, you prefer a party for one.” He picked up the almost empty bottle of vodka from the table and had a sniff, his face exaggerating disproval, ”Jesus John you should take it easier and maybe just drink pure ethanol, this shit will rot your guts.” He tossed it into a small wicker bin.
“I’m sorry, but I finished the Grey Goose”. This time the sarcasm was conveyed without difficulty.
“Yeah, well you’re also out of food. Do you know you have an entire fridge full of nothing but condiments? What do you have with your fire-water… mustard?”
Paul was 6 years younger than me, and although I was always seen as the more attractive brother, he had been the one with the drive to succeed-something I always lacked. At 6’1” he was taller than me, a fact he was always at great pains to remind me off. His brown hair had started to thin at an early age… a fact I loved reminding him, male baldness seemingly arbitrary in its genetic application. Although self-conscious his widow’s peak actually complimented his image, enhancing his no-nonsense, city-cop appearance. His broad forehead was perched above blue piercing eyes, capped by impressively bushy eyebrows. His eyes, always animated, were complimented by prominent crow’s feet at their corners, the deep grooves more the evidence of a life spent laughing than age. His nose was a little smaller and squatter than mine, but his mouth was almost like caricature my own, long thin lips anchored by deep smile-lines. His half-cocked smile was always at the ready with a foul-mouthed, sardonic one-liner, notorious for finding himself far funnier than anyone else. His laugh was a staccato-like bark that machine-gunned through your head causing your eyes to involuntary blink at every note.
“Have you come over to have a go at me? Because if you have you can fuck off! I didn’t ask for any of this.” I picked up the mug with both hands, the hot ceramic agitating my skin helping to sharpen my dull senses.
“No actually, I didn’t. But seeing the state you’re in though I can’t exactly help it can I? Aren’t you supposed to be going back to teaching in a couple of weeks? I may only be a detective but I’m quite sure private schools don’t employ drunks.”
He was right; I was due to start back at school in early January. They had given me a 4 month sabbatical after Sarah’s death so that I could get my shattered head together; all it had done was provide me with a platform of self-pity. I was as far away from starting back as I would ever be. The mere thought of working again made my brain throb with frustration.
I drank the coffee. The bitter liquid rolled down my throat, the gentle swallowing giving Paul all the reply he was going to get. There would be no intervention, the blue-print of the evenings previous plans still stuck fresh in the cobwebs of my hangover.
As if reading my mind Paul glanced at five or six Paracetamol still pockmarked across the table… martyrs to my boozed-up intentions. The weight of concern pulled on his eyebrows as he looked at me accusingly. In reply I merely popped two of them into my mouth whilst murmuring “headache.” The smooth tablets landed on my rough tongue like pool balls on felt, and I pushed them towards the back of my mouth with a drink of coffee. One stuck in my throat painfully scratching my gullet on the way down, admonishing me for lying about its true purpose-I silenced it with another gulp.
“Look, you know everyone is worried about you. You have every right to be upset bro, but you have to move on. I know it’s hard, and I know it won’t help that Mum and Dad aren’t around, it doesn’t mean forgetting Sarah. You’ve just got to try and get your life back on track, you know as well as I do that seeing you like this would break her heart.”
“Well she’ll never see me like this will she because she’s dead, so what does it fucking matter what I do now!” I felt anger rise to the tip of my throat my grip tightening around the mug ready to launch it across the room.
The fierceness of the reply caught Paul unaware and he half turned his face in an attempt to glance the blow. His eyes searched the room, dancing from point to point in a plea for something to grab his attention. As a family we always found it hard to talk about our feelings, a quick change of subject always preferable to a show of emotion.
“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I’ve just found things difficult, and people constantly telling me I should move on aren’t helping. I’ll move on when I’m good and ready, but you have to trust me and let me come to terms in my own time. I’m not going to do anything stupid.” My eyes broke from his with a jolt of embarrassment at the lie. Looking back into Paul’s I could see nothing but concern, his empathy always dulling the blade of my temper.
“Well, other than make sure you weren’t trying to kill yourself there is a reason I wanted to see you tonight.” He chuckled as he said it, although a quick glance to the remaining pills on the table stripped the humour from the comment.
“I spent most of the day at a murder scene, well to be honest I don’t even know if it is a murder or not. I-Well, I don’t know what the hell it is. This is hard to explain so bear with me. We got a call at around eleven last night. A young woman from Moor Park calls frantic saying her mother has disappeared from her bedroom. The station sent a couple of Constables along, and when the daughter opens the door her dad is in the lounge wailing in Polish, with his hand in a frozen bag of peas. He was absolutely hysterical and along with his accent it took them an age to get any details from him at all. I get a radio call in and the Officers at the scene are at a loss so Stevie Burrows and I jumped into a car and took a trip along.”
Excitedly setting the scene he sat down next to me on the couch. His shoulders relaxed as he started talking, his body relieved to be shedding the burden of the story. The words impatiently leapt from his lips in rapid fire, as if the act of forming syllables was taking too long. Letting the last of the strong coffee saturate through my hangover I straightened my back feigning interest. Moor Park was an expensive private residential estate consisting of mostly upscale houses; it was an unlikely location for the crime of the century.
“So we’re shown upstairs to the lady’s bedroom, and well- it’s really weird John.”
“What’s weird?” My comment was unintentionally barbed with agitation, positive his vagueness was intentional in an effort spotlight my attention. Paul ignored my annoyance, his eyes looking past me to the scene he had already set. His pupils oscillating from side to side in their sockets like eager hands, grasping at important details from the shelves of his memory.
“So we’re shown up to the room and there are signs of a struggle, well at least it seemed like a struggle.”
He paused for a moment, I couldn’t tell if it was for effect or that he was struggling to verbalise the scene.
“Well… all the furniture was compressed up against one side of the room. I mean everything, all the furniture, photos from the wall, even the carpet had been pulled from the ground… everything.” He pulled out a packet of cigarettes and nimbly lit one up, silently nodding for my approval only after the glowing rock drifted above his fingers. I shrugged, I had stopped three years ago but always enjoyed the smell.
“What do you mean compressed?”
“Well, I don’t know how else to explain it. It was like someone had tipped the room on its side then trodden everything down with their foot. The majority of the bed was snapped and pushed right up against the wall, and the mattress was all twisted like a pretzel. Bro, I’d struggle to bend one of those double with my body weight, let alone twist it around like piece of pasta. The room looked like a Tsunami had passed through it.” He let the sentence hang between us, intentionally drip feeding me the scene in an effort to create drama; it was obviously working as I had angled my body towards him, body language trying to syphon more detail.
“What about the other side of the room?”
“Well that’s the thing; it was empty… well apart from…” He paused and rubbed his temple in an attempt to coax out the image. He took a deep breath before he spoke as if he were ready to admit to the crime himself. “There was a large circle of ash taking up the majority of the wall, thick almost black in the centre, dispersing towards the edges. It had a diameter of about 4ft, and looked like it had been blasted towards the wall under high pressure.”
“What about the woman?” Briefly a relieved smile painted across Paul’s lips, knowing he had piqued my interest. It quickly disappeared as he began to contemplate the question.
“No sign… nothing. The windows were painted shut and hadn’t been opened for years. If the husband was right, and she went in that room, there wasn’t anywhere else she could have gone. We spent some time speaking to the daughter, and she said that the husband heard his wife screaming. He climbed the stairs and heard the commotion, which must have been whatever the hell had rearranged the furniture. He tried to open the door but it wouldn’t budge. Well not only wouldn’t it open-it burnt the skin off his hand. It just gets weirder and weirder. Paramedics checked him over and they said it wasn’t a heat burn, and it was more than likely a radiation burn. I don’t have to give you a list of reasons why that shouldn’t be a radiation burn.” Paul grimaced at his own statement, and blew a long cloud of cigarette smoke out the corner of his mouth in exasperation. The smoke swirled in the cool room, pareidolia transforming the haze into a million recognisable shapes.
“What time did the Paramedics take a look at him?”
“Radiation burns don’t tend to show 24 hours or so after exposure.”
“Yeah, add that to the ‘doesn’t make sense’ list. We checked the door knob and there was no malformation or any indication that it was hot enough to burn, well-apart from the old man’s fingerprints still stuck to the plastic. The thing is, in the room there was that dusty, slightly metallic smell. I know that smell john, I’m positive the ash on the wall is all that is left of dear old Mrs Nowak. Question is what the hell is able to do that to a human? I’ve got forensics on it but I can’t imagine they’ll be able to give me causation.”
“You’re sure it’s human remains?”
“I can’t be positive until forensics confirm, but I’m almost certain it’s her. There’s a sense of stillness when you enter a place of death, and that room was as still as I’ve ever felt. I could make out little bits of grey bone fused to the wallpaper on the wall. What the hell burns bone but not wallpaper?”
“Spontaneous human combustion?” The reason behind his protracted storytelling was starting to make sense.
“Ha-ha, come on ‘Mr Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’ behave yourself. Listen I’ve got the old woman screaming at about 10pm, the old man runs upstairs and tries to open the door. He can’t and is injured, he says his wife screams for about 2-3 minutes then all goes quiet. He’s too scared to try again to open the door, so goes downstairs and phones the daughter. She appears thirty minutes later opens the door, finding the room as I described then calls us. Something reduced an elderly woman to ash in less than an hour… in her own bedroom with absolutely no evidence of fire. The only evidence I have apart from the ash residue is the contents of the bedroom crushed against the opposite wall and a door knob covered in burnt skin. Please feel free to stop me when this starts sounding ridiculous.”
“O.k. I admit it doesn’t make much sense. But why are you asking me?”
“Come on John, don’t make me spell this out. Did you ever see anything like that when during your investigations?”
“Ahhh… and so his intentions are revealed. This is rich; didn’t you say that the supernatural was for idiots scared of death?” I threw my head back and rolled my eyes in mock indignation.
“I had my reasons John.”
And he did, in 2005 he nearly lost his job after a six year old girl from Watford had gone missing. After seven weeks with no leads, and on my advice, his department privately brought in a psychic to help with the investigation. She told them that the girl had been abducted but was still alive in Belfast. She was found four days later in a shallow grave not three miles from her home... she had been dead for a month. Paul had to explain to his superiors exactly why he contacted the Belfast Constabulary. The fact that he had employed obscure and archaic methods was leaked to the press, and he was hung out to dry. Most careers wouldn’t have recovered, it was a miracle Paul’s did.
“Yeah I know… I’m sorry buddy.” Embarrassed I fidgeted with the remaining Paracetamol on the table, remembering the reasons for his distrust and my part in it.
“Did you… have you encountered anything like this before?”
I sheepishly looked at him out of the corner of my eye, his eyes were pleading, his question an honest request for help.
“Paul I was a paranormal investigator not a Ghostbuster. Ghosts don’t vaporise people, they go bump in the night. The most I ever got was some EVP’s, a couple of heat signatures… moving shadows, stuff like that. The more I think back, I don’t ever think I experienced anything that couldn’t be explained. To be honest I think you’re looking in the wrong place, and you’re asking the wrong person.”
“Yeah… probably. I’m clutching at straws, I’ve just never seen anything like this before and I guess it’s got me a little spooked.”
“Bet Poirot didn’t get spooked.”
Laughter crackled in the space between us brightening the tenebrous room. Although at first I resented Paul encroaching on my misery, there was no doubt I missed his company. We both knew his case was an excuse to take my mind off Sarah, and I was secretly thankful for the distraction. There was no doubt though that the room had Paul genuinely unsettled. He rose from the seat and walked into the kitchen, extinguishing the butt of his cigarette under the tap he poured us both another coffee, more to postpone his departure than anything else.
“Can I be honest?” He said sitting back down.
“No, but you’re going to anyway.”
“You look like shit.” He quickly took a drink of his coffee, his eyes peering over the edge of the mug shielding his face from my reply.
“Where’s your taser officer? Any more chat like that and I’m to stick it up your arse and turn you into a lamp”. The furls of a smirk broke out from the sides of the mug, and pulling away the cup he let out a spray of laughter that ricocheted throughout the room.
“I don’t need one, being Detective Inspector I generally turn up after the drama has finished.” Laughing at his own joke he took another gulp of coffee.
Standing he walked over to the television and picked up a photo sat face-down beside it. It was a picture of Sarah taken the morning after our wedding. She was slightly hung-over and bereft of make-up, her flushed cheeks glowed under her brunette hair delicately draped over her face and shoulders in exquisite patterns. A smile playfully danced across her lips as her brown eyes chided me in mock embarrassment. It was the only one I hadn’t packed because I remember taking it as if it were yesterday… and it was the image my mind used when she broke into my thoughts, which was often.
Paul starred at the photo for a moment and tried to speak, but the noise was caught in his throat, not brave enough to break his lips. He collected himself then looked at me, his eyes moist with affection.
“I miss her John.” He closed his eyes and a tear broke free, gliding down his face towards the photo in his trembling hands.
“Yeah, me too buddy.”
There was many times in my relationship with Sarah that I had felt envious at her and Paul’s friendship. It was never jealousy born from mistrust. Paul was quite openly gay-although you would never have been able to tell-but was a result of them being friends long before Sarah and I met. They knew each other through Sarah’s work as a Pathologist, and I was introduced to her during a chance meeting in a restaurant. Paul had championed a date for over six months. At first I was a little reticent as I was still at University finishing my post-graduate in teaching. The idea of dating a Pathologist always seemed a little above my station.
I eventually agreed to see her at a gathering of friends during New Year, more out of an attempt to satisfy Paul’s moonlighting at matchmaker than anything else. My skin was flushed with embarrassment as she smiled warmly and shook my hand, the heat from her smooth skin almost as intoxicating as the whisky I was nervously sipping too fast. Her long dress spilled down her slim figure like water from a cliff, her slender hips giving her the outline of a champagne flute perfectly matching the elegance of her poise. Her grace magnified my unease, framing every clumsy movement in an anxious halo. Contrary to my teenage-like bashfulness I realised that we both had very much in common, and her serene and open eyes were able to encourage a peculiar sense of honesty from me.
“I’m glad we met John.”
It was at this point, sat looking at my brother I realised how selfish I had been. Blinkered with grief I had ignored the fact that there were others mourning Sarah, because I was too busy trying to find a reason to blame myself. Watching Paul’s shoulders sag in silent remorse I felt an overwhelming release, the act of sharing my sorrow bursting a damn of melancholy from deep within. I stood and hugged him, his silent tears gaining strength turning into a lurching weep, a paradox to his laugh.
“I’m so sorry John.” Sobs tore at the sentence, breaking it into stuttering syllables that collapsed from his mouth.
“Thank you, brother."
He broke my embrace swiping at tears crawling down his face, as if they were mosquitos dancing across his skin. With reverence he placed the photo back down, but this time face-up, tenderly angling her eyes toward the centre of the room. I didn’t object, even though I had watched her coffin being lowered into the cold ground the mere memory of her smile always humanised me. This is why I hid them all, not wanting the softness of her presence to intrude on my self-loathing.
We both sat back on the couch, Paul standing a second or two longer in pretence of smoothing his clothes, waiting to follow my lead back into emotional convention.
“So, what do you plan to do about your exploding Polish woman?” My humour seemed a little coarse but Paul appreciated the levity.
“God knows, before I do anything I need to wait for forensics to come back to me. I’m going to need to put a report upstairs by tomorrow evening. If I suggest a whiff of any “Scooby Doo” shenanigans I’ll be dragged up before the Chief Superintendent by my occultist balls. I genuinely don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. We’re going to have to tear the place apart to rule out any gas leaks or electrical disturbances. Other than that, this is going straight in the “I’ll be fucked” file.”
“You would leave it unsolved!?”
“You’ve been watching too many US cop dramas my boy. Even in the middle class London suburbs murder is at an all-time high. Although this may hurt your thick moral fibre, the brass upstairs would rather I spend more time on solvable crimes than unsolvable ones. Human mortality is basically boiled down to statistics. However bizarre an elderly Polish lady barbecued in her own flat isn’t going to make a dent in an Excel spread-sheet of teenage knife crime.” Although his comments echoed mine the humour wasn’t present, I could see the haunted look of vexation glide over his eyes.
“You know, I’m probably other-thinking this. It’ll turn out the husband was drunk, and the wife went out earlier in the day leaving a heating blanket on, or some other catastrophe of domestic routine.” He paused for a second, eyes arcing across his forehead betraying distrust in his own theories.
“Although… I’m going to be honest with you, something is not right about this, and it’s kicked at me like a mule since the second I walked in that room.”
“I’m sure it’ll come to you.” The statement was reflexive, borne out of a distaste of silence. The peculiarity of his story had already been chased from my mind by the ghost of Sarah’s memory.
“Yeah, I’m sure it will. Ah, it’s late, I’m sorry man. I gotta get going. Listen, I’m going to the football on Saturday with the lads. The stand has been finished and we’ve got hospitality seats, you’ve got to come?”
I hadn’t yet been out socialising since Sarah’s passing and the request caught me unawares.
“I’m not sure Paul. I’ve enjoyed seeing you tonight, but I don’t think I’m ready for the world yet.”
“No, I understand. It was just a thought. When you’re ready heh.”
“When I’m ready?” It came out more as a question to myself. “You’ll let me know about the Polish woman yeah… it’s starting to annoy me.” I pretended for Paul’s sake.
“Ha-ha, how do you think I feel? Look I really appreciated you letting me bend your ear, it feels far better to share the burden.”
Paul stood and put his jacket on. I stood and gave him another hug, this one accompanied by the familiar roughness of machismo normally reserved for brothers. He made his way toward the front door. Opening it he turned to me and gave me his usual over-enthusiastic thumb up.
“Paul, I really appreciate you coming round. I really do, and I will take what you said on board. I really need to get my head sorted.”
“Like you said bro… when you’re ready.”
He turned and left. As the door closed behind him it felt as though the room darkened once more. I was reacquainted with my hangover as the pulse grew from behind my eyes again. Walking solemnly over to the television I gently placed the photo of Sarah face down, then I silently walked through to bedroom climbing fully clothed on top of the covers. I lay thinking about Paul’s story, turning the details over in my mind. It was all pretence; I used his tale as a scarecrow to keep away the grief, hopeful that I would possibly take the Polish woman’s room into my dreams, instead of that crumpled car. My efforts were futile of course, her face glided back into my mind like a pendulum, always returning as quickly as I could remove it. And as my eyes once again became heavy, I know that she would be waiting for me as she always did, in that damn clearing.