Authors: Erin Kelly
Tags: #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction
He didn’t have far to go. The others were in a new bar in an old wharf where Viggo had found them a private room that overlooked the Aire. Brilliantly, they were allowed to smoke on the balcony. They looked down onto the Crown Bridge whose red and gold paintwork was reflected in molten ripples on the water in the low evening sunlight.
There were only fifteen of them but it felt like a party three times bigger. Charlene was, for once, drinking to enjoy herself rather than to forget. Viggo was making them howl with stories of his new life as one of Aminah’s winged monkeys.
’s only truly successful alumnus, the prodigious Alexa, was there with stories of her contacts and her expense account and the way that promotions kept landing in her lap. Luke ought to have been jealous of her career – not that long ago, she’d been the one getting his morning coffee, and now she was heading a features department on one of the tabloids Jem so despised – but Alexa was talented and she deserved it. She made Luke’s night when she drunkenly told him that she owed him her whole career and begged him to pitch some ideas to her, saying what a terrible shame it was that he’d stopped writing big, important pieces. Alexa didn’t seem to think he would have a problem getting his byline back in print. If she’d heard about his fall from grace – and of course she would have, everyone had – then she was too kind to mention it.
Knowing that there would be a row with Jem at the end of it and, taking the view that he might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, Luke took half an E and smoked more cigarettes than he could count. It was close to dawn when he turned into the dock. He saw through his drunken haze that someone in their block was having a party, and wondered if they would let him join in. They had released those Chinese lanterns, the paper balls that float up into the air when you put a tealight in and eventually catch fire. Or that was his first thought, but he soon realised that he was wrong. Chinese lanterns float gently upwards and these fireballs were falling slowly to earth, or landing in the dock with a soft extinguishing fizz.
Luke looked again at the source of the flares. Suddenly sober, he broke into a trot. As he ran past the barges, the breeze carried a shrivelling, fire-framed page of text past the end of his nose. He looked up to the balcony and saw another little firebird divebomb its way towards him. His notebook landed at his feet, the cover curling back to reveal Len Earnshaw’s eyes shrivelling away to nothing.
The bastard had set fire to his books.
Jem returned from work the following evening in a taxi. Luke watched from the balcony as the driver helped Jem load three large boxes into the lift shaft. He staggered into the flat beneath their weight, then laid them in a row at Luke’s feet.
‘For you,’ he said, sweeping his arm from left to right as though he was hoping to displace some of the tension that filled the room. A brittle laugh, plainly intended to ease the pressure, only betrayed the nerves beneath his bluster.
Luke opened the first two boxes in silence. Jem had somehow managed to replace almost all the books he had burned the previous evening. He must have spent all day doing it. His secretary might have placed the orders and arranged couriers but Jem would have had to compile the list. It was an acknowledgement that his had been the greater wrongdoing, but the moral high ground was not as comfortable as Luke would have expected it to be.
Jem bit his thumb, waiting for what – thanks? He could chew his skin off for all Luke cared. These were his books only in the sense that they were the same texts, but the ones in front of him were brand new, some with different and unfamiliar covers, all without his page markings and annotations. The blank notebook, identical to the irreplaceable burned volume, was an insult. Luke opened the third box, more to stoke his anger than to see what it contained, and was stopped in his tracks.
The topmost book was a hardback copy of
In Cold Blood
. It was covered in clear plastic; and a rare-bookseller’s sticker announced that it was a first edition, signed by the author. Luke picked it up, trying not to let awe transform into gratitude. Jem couldn’t buy his way out of this one.
‘Open it,’ said Jem. Luke did, and almost staggered to see that the book had been hollowed out, its words excised to make a shallow coffer of the pages. The vandalism took Luke’s breath away but fresh horrors remained. In the hole was a flat box from Cartier. ‘Open it,’ Jem repeated, a quaver in his voice downgrading the command to a plea, but Luke couldn’t bring himself to touch it. Its contents, doubtless intended by Jem to draw them back together, would be the thing that finally cleaved them apart. This uncomfortable state of denial was still better than what must follow it. He shook his head. Jem didn’t acknowledge the refusal and opened the box himself. Inside, a platinum band gleamed against plush. Luke covered his eyes. When he parted his fingers, Jem was on one knee before him. His beautiful face was wide open, and repulsive with vulnerability and eagerness.
‘Luke Considine,’ he said. ‘I am sorrier than I can ever explain for being such a jealous idiot. I can only attribute it to the spell you’ve cast over me. I know it comes with a dark side, I don’t care if it hurts me sometimes, you’re worth it. I accept that about us.’ He kissed Luke’s knuckles. A wave of something cold, the opposite of desire, infused Luke. ‘You’ve made me happier, more alive than I ever knew I could be. I want to feel that way for the rest of my life . . .’
Oh shit, no. Not this.
‘Darling Luke,’ said Jem, ‘Will you marry me?’
Oh shit, yes. This.
‘How can you even ask that, after last night?’ said Luke. He closed the book and handed it back. Jem stood up and stumbled backwards, a clumsy Cossack kick. Luke had never thought of himself as the type to break someone’s heart but here he was, watching Jem’s smile wobble and slide. He was furious at Jem for putting him in this position, for turning him into this person.
‘Don’t say no,’ said Jem. ‘Please don’t say no. Even if you’re not ready yet, don’t say no. Don’t say anything. The offer stays on the table. It’ll stay on the table for the rest of my life.’
Luke’s inner voice urged him to turn his no into a never, to displace any remaining ambiguity. Do it now and it will be brutal but it will be unambiguous. But no words would come.
He let Jem lead him by the wrist – such a powerful grip, he’d forgotten about the difference in their strength – into the bedroom where fear and guilt were hands on the small of his back, pushing him face-down into the pillows. Breathing through the bedclothes, he told himself he was letting Jem fuck him because he knew it would be the last time, not voicing even to himself the chill reality that he did not trust that a refusal would be accepted.
When he was sure that Jem was out for the count, Luke did his second moonlight flit in twenty-four hours. This time he took more than his keys and his wallet. He emptied his half of the wardrobe, dragging the suitcase to the sitting room before fastening the noisy zip. His rucksack he filled with enough clothes to last him the week, his satchel with his laptop, phone, various plugs and chargers. After some hesitation, he packed his two awards: heavy, but irreplaceable, and too important a reminder of what he could be again. His hand hovered over the Cartier box for entire minutes; putting it in his pocket felt like forcing down rotten food. There was a handful of twenties on the sideboard and, closing his mind against the image of kicking a prone man in the face, Luke took them as well.
He used one of the notes to pay for a cab to his old flat. To his relief the driver was not interested in conversation. The back seat was somewhere dark and private where Luke could cry in silence. Only one note escaped, a tomcat yowl that surprised both of them and made the driver swerve.
Viggo opened the door like it was no big deal for someone to turn up unannounced this far south of midnight. He poured red wine into two coffee mugs, and listened without comment while Luke told him everything.
‘Are you moving back in?’ was his first response, and Luke loved him for including the offer in his question without even the suggestion of an I Told You So.
‘Thanks, but I can’t stay in Leeds. Since the magazine went it was mainly the book keeping me up north, and now that’s fallen through . . .’
‘Where will you go then? London?’
‘I don’t know. I feel like I need something as
as London between me and him,’ said Luke. ‘I reckon I’ll go and see Charlene in Brighton for a while. I’ll give her a ring first thing. I feel like I’ll be able to breathe down there.’ Brighton should be safe. He thought back to Jem’s only encounter with Charlene, that first night in Charmers. He was sure they’d just said ‘down south,’ and hadn’t specified the town, and Jem had shown no interest in her since. Female and poor, she had no currency for him on the grounds of sexual jealousy or social interest.
‘When are you off?’
‘Tomorrow, if that’s OK with Char. Can I leave my case here for now? I can’t stay another night in Leeds. I just want to get the fuck away from him. And not that he knows this, but he needs some time away from me, too.’
The telephone calls started at ten to six in the morning. By six Luke had switched his phone to silent. By half past nine, when he boarded the train, he had thirty-two missed calls, as many voicemails and seventeen text messages. He read the first couple.
Where have you gone? This is very childish, Luke.
I said I’m sorry, I bought you a ring, what more do you want?
By Doncaster the tally of unanswered calls had reached eighty-two, draining Luke’s patience and most of his battery, and he finally turned the handset off, not bringing it back to life until he reached Brighton station.
On the concourse a billboard for the local paper, the
, declared that it was going to be the last few days of an Indian summer, a mini heatwave before autumn proper kicked in. A seagull swooped towards Luke, yellow beak open as if to devour him, and he pressed himself against a cast-iron pole, his exhausted heart hammering in his chest. No more coffee until he’d at least spoken to Charlene. He entered the postcode she’d given him into his map application. Her office looked to be a good half-hour walk away, and his backpack was already growing heavy, but somewhere on the train journey he had already resumed his poverty mindset and he walked past the queue of white and turquoise taxis snaked under the latticework canopy of the station forecourt.
He followed the map faithfully. The Brighton he knew from pictures was a Regency paradise and while he did pass a couple of creamy terraces, he found that the route he was taking was built up with ugly shopping precincts and tall sixties office blocks. He could not smell or see the sea but he could sense it and, with it, that feeling of possibility that always comes with being near open water. He had heard that the town took its name from the pure quality of the light down there and it was true that things looked clearer, cleaner, than he’d seen in a long time.
The blue dot on his map had almost caught up with the little red pin that marked his destination. He passed a discount bookshop, a charity shop, a firm of solicitors and, at the corner where narrow streets met in a tangled crossroads, he found what he was looking for.
The hoarding said Jocelyn Grand Properties in faded gold, with the sub-head Lettings Agency beneath it. This was not like the estate agency near Jem’s, which had fridges full of drinks, TV screens and brightly coloured sofas beckoning you in. Through the plate window he could see half a dozen people sat at desks, making phone calls or counselling young couples. He pressed his nose to the glass and saw Charlene, a telephone cradled between her ear and her shoulder. When he entered, she winked and mimed the quacking of a duck’s beak to show that she was trapped in conversation.
Luke briefly checked his own phone again. The calls had stopped, for now at least, but the messages were still building up. It was clear that Jem didn’t know that Luke had left Leeds.
Please come home. I’ve taken the day off work. I’m waiting in for you.
I bet you’ve gone to HIM, haven’t you?
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it about Viggo. I just want you home.
Luke shut it down. Even turned off, he felt the charge of it, heavy with Jem’s hurt and anger and worry in his pocket.
He looked around. The wall behind Charlene was plastered with local maps blown-up twenty feet wide. They stretched from Lewes in the east to Portslade in the west. A featureless sea skirting along the bottom of the map was relieved only by a couple of jutting piers. These were not ordinary streetmaps but the highly detailed Land Registry kind, with each building separately demarcated. Only the main roads were easy to read: on the side roads, the street names sardined themselves into tiny gaps. Here and there buildings had been coloured in pink highlighter. In some places, out near Whitehawk entire streets were shaded this way. Did this represent all their property? Would one of these pink squares be his new home? Which were the fashionable areas and which were ghettoes? Charlene had said that although it was out of the question that Luke stay with her, she’d sort him out with the best affordable flat she could find. Actually, the word she’d used was ‘garret’, along with the phrase ‘beggars can’t be choosers’.
Finally she put the phone down, and jumped around the desk to give him a bear-hug. Luke was so shocked to see her in a skirt that it took him a few seconds to reciprocate.
‘Hey, you,’ she said. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Oh, you know . . .’ said Luke, suddenly not trusting his voice to hold steady.
‘Want a tea, or a coffee?’ He nodded, and she led him to a small kitchen at the back of the office. While the kettle boiled, Charlene looked Luke up and down, taking in his meagre luggage for the first time. ‘Where’s all your stuff?’