For the first few months, Ray couldn’t enter the flat without being struck by its emptiness. The sparse second-hand furnishings gave little sense of occupation. Barely functional, they told of a limited, almost monastic existence. The moment he shot the front door bolts and their echo died on the scuffed laminate, he felt himself consumed by the silence. A dropped teaspoon on the worktop alarmed him; the kettle’s gradual boil and click reassured him. It was a tangible absence you’d do well to stand for a week, let alone the eight months he’d kept it company. He was reconciled to its residency rights. It was a given.
That evening, before the dark came, he put some music on. Nina Simone. Last night it had been Lady Day, one of a handful of CDs grabbed from the old house before he fled. Later, depending on how much cheap red he drank before passing out, and whether Ms Simone laid her hand on his arm and reminded him he was worth a word of quiet consolation or spiked him with guilt, it might be Julie London. Some nights their voices soothed him, made the emptiness almost bearable. He’d wonder who he might have been if gifted half their sass and strength and soul? The same, he guessed. Only with a little more sugar in his bowl and a little less fear in his belly.
He hadn’t spoken in seventeen days.
Nobody’s fault but mine. It’s a question of responsibility he thought, swilling coffee grounds down the sink. The smell of fresh coffee, one of his few remaining luxuries, sprung as he cut open a new pack. The question after all this time remained the same: could he face himself, own up to himself? An answer had emerged from the silence: he had what it took to kill, but not the detachment to let it go.
Ray clung to the distinction as he peered through the kitchen’s rain-spattered window. The CD stuttered. Nina’s piano playing, which to his ear always seemed moments either from collapse or an outburst of violence, repeated one note, then stalled completely.
He ticked off the receipt against the items on his list, counted his remaining money, checked the slip from the cashpoint and scribbled a few calculations. Things were not looking good. Back in August with the police looking for the wrong people in all the wrong places, a text from Margaret assured him she’d find – an acceptable route back in three months. The old lie: home by Christmas. But, if any of them were to be trusted, it probably was Margaret. He’d burrowed through the long winter since then, fighting isolation demons. Drink demons. Guilt demons. Murderer sweats that took him to bed for soulless afternoons. There were no more text messages. The company didn’t want him. He didn’t want them. And even if the laughing blonde on the Co-op checkout – the one who blushes as she makes tannoy announcements, which makes him love her a little in spite of himself – even if she was the nearest he had come to a connection with anyone, there was no going back to London, not now.
The coffee percolator put-putted and sighed, job done. He rinsed a cup and would have dried it. He paused, hearing a new note in the silence. Something foreign and intrusive. He stood motionless feeling the rhythms; a clock tick, a fridge hum, the distant pulse of traffic. Relentless beats. But there was that false note again, a dry throated swallow, a sense of anticipation. Ray slipped out of his loafers and took a step which placed him within reach of the knife block. He eased out a narrow-bladed boning knife and planned a path from kitchen to living room.
Vaughan stood motionless by the back window in Jesuit black. His crooked index finger, its top joint missing, pointed to the knife. ‘Not necessary.’
True. He was already dead if that’s what Vaughan had decided. There would be no need for conversation. The knife suddenly seemed crude and amateurish. Ray carefully set it down on the dining table.
‘I’ll ‘ave a coffee though, Ray. Sweet and milky.’ He unbuttoned his jacket.
Ray took his time in the kitchen. He thought about running. A flight response feeding off the sinking feeling in his gut. Vaughan was sitting upright at the table looking out into the yard. ‘D’you get many sparrows? We ‘ardly get any, there’s a shortage.’
Ray put the coffee down and went to the window, a fucking shortage of sparrows. Jesus Christ.
‘Just so’s you know, Fergus is waiting for us. He’s out there in the station car park. With Extra.’
Vaughan went on with his routine. Ray could hear the music and emphases of repetition in its telling, a little anecdotal party-piece. ‘It’s a bloke, his name, his street name. You ever ‘ad a street name? I ‘aven’t. I don’t need a street name. People know who I am. This feller calls himself Extra. I think he’s actually called Jerome.’ A pause for Ray’s benefit. ‘He’s doin’ your work a treat.’
‘How did you find me?’ Ray’s voice sounded brittle.
Vaughan smiled. ‘Who says you was ever lost?’
‘Was it Margaret?’
‘No mate, she doesn’t work for us anymore.’
You could only read it one way, Margaret was dead. Ray imagined her end. Taken out into Epping Forest, quick, quiet. They’d have drugged her first. She’d have fought like a feral cat otherwise.
‘Nice coffee. What is it, Kenco?’
‘What do you want?’
Vaughan set a familiar blue-tinted plastic envelope square on the table, A5, zipped and sealed. Inside there would be instructions, photographs, a name, a place, an address, a deadline. Like the first time. ‘It’s a job.’
Ray felt the hairs on his arms rise, a chill, a sweat.
‘’Ave a look then.’
He swallowed. ‘Not interested.’
‘For fuck’s sake, it’s work, a way back.’
‘I don’t want it.’
‘It’s what you do.’
‘It’s what I did. Once. And that was a debt paid.’
‘Come on Ray, I’ve driven all this way, don’t piss about. Don’t say no, it makes things awkward. Seriously, I could’ve sent Fergus, but I wanted to come myself. I wanted you to see how important this is.’
‘No offence, but I can’t.’
Vaughan started smiling, which was worse, definitely worse. ‘I’m not offended. Do I look offended?’
Ray turned on the lamp in the corner, its light barely covered half the room. With Margaret gone, Vaughan must’ve been on the up, next in line. Everything comes to those who wait, maybe. Margaret had been his mentor and she despised Vaughan, whispering her contempt in Ray’s ear the last time they were together. She thought him crass, infantile, vindictive. Ray glanced across the street to the car park. Two figures were silhouetted against the dusk, one lit up for a moment in the glow of a cigarette. He pulled the curtains. He wasn’t going to kill for Vaughan, not for any of them. The answer was in the silence. He said, ‘Tell me, Mister Vaughan, how many times’ve you killed someone? Not given the word, actually got up close and finished the job.’
‘That’s fuck all to do with anything.’
‘Go on, how many?’
‘Take the poxy envelope.’
‘Was it you who did Margaret?’
Vaughan was up, the chair sent skidding across the floor. He got in Ray’s face. The razor rash on his neck reddened. ‘You really need to watch yourself. You been out the loop too long, Ray. Some things you don’t ask and that’s one of ‘em.’
‘Nah, you didn’t kill her, you bottled it, got someone else. Who was it, one of them outside? Mr Extra?’
‘Oh fuck off, I ain’t ‘avin you take the rise. Get your things, you can read on the way.’
Ray didn’t move. ‘Who is it – in the envelope?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘A bloke? Woman? Kid?’
‘It doesn’t matter, we don’t ask. The fewer people who know, the better.’
‘Yes I’m fucking sure.’
Ray picked up the envelope, weighed it in his hand. It was thinner than the last one, couldn’t have been more than a three or four sheets of paper, maybe a picture or two and the banker’s draft down payment, priced according to prestige. The seal was intact. He tossed it back. ‘It’s not worth it.’
There’s nothing in the dark that isn’t in the day. Ray had told himself so as a kid, night after night. He’d said it to his own kids, even though by then he knew it was a lie. He knew the darkness in this flat, this room intimately, its reach, the shadows it threw at the wall. And here was Vaughan, intruding, hunched over a mobile, killing the silence with veiled threats and keypad bleeps, texting his psycho oppo, Fergus. His thumb hovered over the send key. ‘Last chance Ray.’
And there was the answer. In the silence. ‘Okay.’
Ray picked up the chair and sat at the table. His hands sweated. He wiped them dry on his trousers and reached for the envelope.
Vaughan stood at his shoulder. ‘Good lad, makes sense. Margaret always reckoned you were something special, a bit different, but then she…’
Ray forced the blade in further than he thought. It was an act almost without drama. The blood oozed through Vaughan’s black sweater, he walked backwards a couple of steps, nudged the CD player as he sat down against the radiator. Only when he pulled the boning knife out did the blood begin to pool around him. He stayed that way until his mouth hung open.
Nina was singing again. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.
For a minute, Ray did not move. Then he broke the seal on the plastic envelope, ripped away cling film from the package inside and tore open a white A5 envelope. There as expected was the banker’s draft. This one was worth a few quid. Twenty-five grand. Then the name, the address, a list of known pubs, clubs, hangouts, associates and a photograph.
It didn’t take long for Fergus to realise the text hadn’t been from Mr Vaughan. Someone had his phone, well Ray had his phone, had to be. They broke through the back gate into the yard. Ray’s door was open, music spilling out. And there was Mr Vaughan, lifeless like you wanted to chuck him a penny for the Guy. On his lap were some papers and a photo. Extra picked it up. ‘Ferg, it’s him.’
‘The picture, it’s Mr Vaughan. Says so on this paper, your name’s down an’ all.’
‘Leave it, all of it. Wipe it and put it back. And don’t stand in this…stuff.’
He ushered Extra out, turned the light off. He went to pull the plug on the CD player, but left it on. It didn’t seem right to leave Mr Vaughan in silence. He closed the door without looking back.
Bio: Nick Triplow is the writer of the South London set crime novel Frank’s Wild Years published by Caffeine Nights, Autumn 2011. He co-wrote the script for Ted’s Return Home, a short film about Ted Lewis, author of classic British crime novel Get Carter. Originally from south London, now living in North Lincolnshire, he is writing the official biography of Lewis, teaching creative writing and working on re-writes for conspiracy thriller, The Paradise Man. Introducing ‘Max’ – Inspector Mark Lomax. For further info and contact: www.nicktriplow.blogspot.com