Trowchester Blues (A Trowchester Blues Novel)
This title is part of the Trowchester Blues universe.
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Michael May is losing it. Long ago, he joined the Metropolitan Police to escape his father’s tyranny and protect people like himself. Now his father is dead, and he’s been fired for punching a suspect. Afraid of his own rage, he returns to Trowchester—and to his childhood home, with all its old fears and memories. When he meets a charming, bohemian bookshop owner who seems to like him, he clings tight.
Fintan Hulme is an honest man now. Five years ago, he retired from his work as a high class London fence and opened a bookshop. Then an old client brings him a stolen book too precious to turn away, and suddenly he’s dealing with arson and kidnapping, to say nothing of all the lies he has to tell his friends. Falling in love with an ex-cop with anger management issues is the last thing he should be doing.
Finn thinks Michael is incredibly sexy. Michael knows Finn is the only thing that still makes him smile. But in a relationship where cops and robbers are natural enemies, that might not be enough to save them.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Spoilery warnings (click to read):
This title also contains mentions of past emotional abuse, off-page rape, and off-page murder
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Thirty seconds after Smith knocked at the front door, the suspect threw open the back and charged out. Michael May, standing to one side waiting, kicked the guy’s knees out from under him, and moved in to try to seize an arm, get the bastard in a half nelson, under control.
But this guy—Watkins—was tougher than these white-collar city boys usually came. He took the fall like a pro, used the momentum to roll, and came up running. He was a wiry git, taller than May—most men were—with long legs. That damn kung fu fall set off all kinds of alarms in May’s head, but at this stage it was fight or lose him, and he was not going to let the bastard get away.
A wheelie bin in the narrow passage between the back of the house and the street slowed the perp up enough so May could throw himself at those long legs and rugby tackle him to the ground. Watkins went down, but he squirmed like an eel. May took a heel to the balls, and blessed his own foresight in wearing rugby protection down there. He held on tight, not wanting to walk his hold up the guy’s body and potentially give him a better angle to use his fists. Pinned by May’s considerable weight, facedown on the pavement, there wasn’t a lot the guy could do to him. May could lie here just fine until Reed or Smith got round to coming to help.
The perp tried rolling. No luck. He pushed himself up on his arms, trying with better leverage. Failed again. In terms of sheer physical force, May outclassed him easily.
“Nigel Howard Watkins”—this was an unusual position from which to make an arrest, but May wasn’t going to turn down anything that worked—“you are under arrest for—”
Watkins flopped flat. One of his long, flailing arms went to the back of his designer suit trousers. His jacket shifted, and there was the bulge of a gun stuffed down the back of his waistband.
May’s heart kicked up beneath his ribs. Fuck, every villain had a gun these days, and they hadn’t brought any armed officers with them. His mind went white and clear even as his lips tingled with cold adrenaline. Don’t let him draw it.
He punched Watkins in the kidney with his left hand, reached up with the right to try to grab for the gun. The moment his hold loosened, Watkins squirmed again, got one leg out from under him and kneed May in the ribs with it. May body-slammed the guy back to the pavement, swarmed up him, got his hand on Watkins’s hand just as it grasped the gun, and kept it pressed down hard against the guy’s back, so if he did pull the trigger, he’d shoot his own arse.
“May?” Acting Detective Constable Reed called from the exit to the road.
“Here! I could use a little help.”
The yard gate swung open. Reed—a tall, skinny kid who lived up to his name—ran through, pushed past the wheelie bin, and got his knees on Watkins’s shoulders.
“You’re not going anywhere, sir.” May managed to get his thumb on the pressure point of Watkins’s wrist. Watkins jerked like he knew exactly what May was doing, knew that as soon as May dug in there, his hand would go numb, he would let go of the gun, and it would be all over.
If the man was going to shoot at all, it would be now. And yes, the bullet would go through his own buttock on the way to tearing into May’s belly, lodging itself in his pelvis or his spine, but May would still be dead, and he’d be alive. Could he be tough enough for that? Tough enough to get another shot off afterwards, take Reed down too, and escape?
“You’re not going anywhere,” May said again, digging in to the pressure point with his fingers, pushing with his own resolve against Watkins’s determination. “Nigel Howard Watkins, you are under arrest for kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment of a minor.”
Watkins struggled against May’s hold, but his fingers opened involuntarily, and May wrenched the gun out of his hand, threw it out of reach. The high, shrill edge to May’s mood quietened down into a more familiar wariness. Okay, okay. Thank God, we’re all fine.
He breathed out hard, pushing the panic aside, and drew on the comforting blanket of routine. “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention, when questioned, something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
Reed passed him handcuffs. He snapped them on, breathed again two, three times before giving the ADC a smile. “Good work. Let’s get him up.”
The fight had gone out of their prisoner. He rose easily enough, stood between them meekly with his smart white shirt black all over with the exhaust residue and smut of London’s streets. Jermyn Street tailoring, gold watch, this season’s spiky City cut on his muddy-blond hair, manicured hands. Maybe with blood under the nails, they’d have to check.
“You can’t touch me,” he said, obviously trying for suave and not quite making it.
“You got him?” Smith appeared at the yard door, wiping her hands over and over against her jeans. Jenny Smith, May’s longtime partner, was hard and clear as diamond. His already queasy stomach—roiling with the comedown of that sudden flood of fight or flight—sank at the sight of her. Mouth pale, skin greenish, creases of strain between her eyebrows. It was bad.
“Bag the gun,” he replied, nodding to it.
She knelt down to do it, not looking at him, not looking at Watkins. “Is he going to be secure in the car? You should see inside.”
May could almost feel the confidence coming back to his prisoner, as if he were a vase being filled under a tap of it. Being physically overwhelmed and disarmed tended to knock even the most egotistical down a peg, but this guy was bouncing back from it with all the arrogance of his suit. He wasn’t going to sit still and be a good boy while he waited for the police to gather evidence.
“We’ll bring him.”
Inside the man’s house, it was glossy. A whole Victorian terrace house, not even split into flats. The ground floor was open plan, finished in pale wood, with a floating staircase up to the second and third floors. The bannisters were wrought iron. Nice and sturdy, so May used his own cuffs in addition to Reed’s and secured Walker there, each wrist cuffed to a different spoke.
Smith passed the bagged gun to Reed. “Stay here. Make sure he stays too.”
May caught Smith’s gaze and raised his eyebrows. Reed’s staying here?
She shoved a tendril of barley-sugar-coloured hair back into her plait and gave him a twist of the lips that said, ADC Reed is twenty-one. Too young for this. “I’ve already called for forensics, but you should see, so you can corroborate my evidence.”
The smell began halfway down the stairs to the cellar. Very clean stairs. They ended in a small stone room full of racks of wine. Not a speck of dust on the floor, probably because if there had been, the place where the far wall swung out to reveal a hidden room would have been obvious at a glance. May drew on gloves, though he didn’t intend to touch anything.
His educated nose picked up the bouquet of blood and burned flesh, layered with the fainter and yet more disturbing scents of semen and corpse. The energy of the fight had well and truly worn off now. His hands in his pockets shook no matter how hard he clenched them. He stopped where the false wall, cheerful with green bottles, still blocked his view, and closed his eyes for good measure.
“Jenny, I . . .”
But she was a woman and a mother. She’d seen everything he’d seen over their shared career. If she could take it, what kind of a pathetic excuse for a man did it make him that he could not?
Smith looked at him with a kind of cold fury that meant, You are not leaving this all to me. Pull yourself together, but what she said was, “No, you know, on second thoughts, why don’t you and Reed just take him in? I’ll wait for forensics.” And see, he was letting down his partner with his weakness. She’d have to go home at night and know she was the only one with this stuff in her head. She’d have no one to talk to about it, no one to understand the pain that came out as morbid jokes and obsessive hand washing and one too many beers on a Friday night, if you were lucky.
No one needed to tell him he’d been flaky lately. He knew he’d been unravelling for the better part of the last year. That didn’t mean he had to give in to it. He could try acting like a man and suck it up.
“Let me see,” he said. Didn’t miss her look of relief and guilt. No matter how concerned she might be about him, she didn’t want to be alone with this.
The victim was a fourteen-year-old girl. Quite dead. By the look of her, she’d been dead for a couple of days. Her wrists, where she’d been chained to the radiator, had melted into the metal. Stacey Merriweather: ran away from home after a family argument over her grades at school, failed to return.
Cameras on Platform 3 of Piccadilly Station had seen her sitting with her back to the wall, crying. A disconsolate little package of short skirt and Hello Kitty hairband. Had seen the camel-coated back of the kind gentleman who’d comforted her, and a flash of his pocket watch as he’d reached down to help her to her feet.
They’d traced that watch to waterfront properties, a high-powered job in the City, every luxury money could buy and then some. A slew of false names, this house belonging to one of them. And then they’d followed the trail down and down again to this room with its operating table and its instruments and its chains. To this corpse with its internal organs removed and placed in labelled jars. With its lips sewn shut and its eyes sewn open and a Hello Kitty hairband in its hair.
May thought he said something. Pretty sure the strangled noise was his voice. But he’d mostly lost himself, not quite following who was striding back up the stairs with Smith’s shouts chasing him and a head full of such rage that the skull had shattered under the pressure and the fury was smoking behind him in a tail like a dark comet.
Footsteps came running behind him, but he was in the living room now, looking at white furniture, deep white carpets like clouds. Looking at polish and varnish and golden autumn light slanting through high windows onto a monster in an Armani suit.
“Sir!” Reed squeaked as May reached out a lazy hand and shoved him aside.
Fingers tried to grab hold of his jacket from the back. “May! May! Michael! Listen to me.”
He twitched them aside, drew back, and punched Watkins straight in the gut, the satisfying impact reverberating through his knuckles into every bone of his body. How about he show the bastard what it was like when his internal organs were pulped?
Watkins tried to double over, still cuffed to the stair rods like a crucifixion. It brought his smug mouth down perfectly to the level of May’s fists, and May hit him twice more, splitting his lip, bloodying his nose, making spittle and blood fly. He grinned, fierce, righteous, because this was just what the guy deserved. No. He deserved more, so much more. May drew back his hand to strike again.
But something was stopping him from swinging. He tried his hardest, succeeded in unbalancing Smith and dragging her forwards, but she kept right on clinging to his arm as Reed’s long grasp locked around his waist and the ADC fought to pull him away.
May could have shaken them both off without much effort, but the contact, their grip, their concerned voices, started to wake up something human in him again. He was coming to after having been unconscious, all the madness that had been spiralling around his head contracting into a little black hole that he swallowed back down.
Just because the guy deserved this didn’t mean May could go around beating up defenceless citizens. He was not fucking Batman. He was better than this.
“Shit,” he said, appalled, and stepped away from the prisoner. “Shit. Jenny, Mark. I’m sorry.”
They let him go. Stood, looking at him with shocked and unsettled eyes, Jenny with that guilt back, all over her face like she somehow thought any of this was her fault.
Silence while it all sank in, and then Watkins raised his head and smiled. “I have friends in places so high you don’t even know they exist. I’m going to be fine. But you? I’m going to see you broken for police brutality at the least. At the very least.”
It was later, and he was standing in DS Egmont’s office, breathing in the smell of cardboard files, hot ink from the laser printer, and the sergeant’s cheap cologne that he wore in bucketfuls and refreshed every time he went to the toilet.
May wished it was stronger. Strong enough to scour the remembered scents out of him, take the inside off his nose and make it impossible for him to smell anything again. He couldn’t stand in front of the sergeant with his hands in his pockets, so he locked them together behind his back and felt the tremor travel up his arms, across his shoulders, and jangle the headache that sat like a fat crow on the crown of his head.
“Sit down, May.”
DS Egmont looked like he’d been left out too long in the sun. White shirt, grey tie, grey skin, white hair, white rims around his pale, pale-blue eyes. Rumours had it he wasn’t as old as he looked, nor as washed-up, but maybe he didn’t have the ruthlessness he needed to get promoted. Maybe he’d had so much of the stuffing knocked out of him as a lowly copper that there wasn’t anything left to rise up the chain. May figured he knew how that felt.
He sat down carefully, tucking his hands under his thighs to keep them still.
Egmont nodded at them. “You hiding the split knuckles, or are you hiding the shakes?”
Stuffing or not, he was a wily old bastard. “Shakes, sir.”
Shame was perhaps ninety percent of the weight lodged under May’s breastbone where a heart should be, but he had enough experience of the stuff to know the shame was only a sugar coating on something more insidious, so deep, so hollow he often wondered why he didn’t implode. Take himself out of existence, like a soap bubble with all the air sucked out. Right at this moment, he’d welcome it. Just to be able to stop. Stop thinking. Stop hurting. Stop being him. That would be fantastic.
Of course it carried on not happening. He bowed his head and addressed the blotter and pen set on Egmont’s desk. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Egmont got up and took his crumpled suit and dandelion hair over to the window. “First of all, good job on getting that sick bastard. He thinks he’s walking free from this, but he’s not. If there ever was an open-and-shut case, this would be it.”
“Yes, sir.” May wished he could believe it. Half of him still did. Under all the despair, part of him still believed in justice. Even in the criminal justice system. It was creaky and slow and weighted towards the criminal, but it wasn’t systemically corrupt.
It didn’t have to be, though. “I don’t know. He seemed pretty sure. Lots of money, best lawyer, one bad judge. What’re the chances?”
“That’s not our concern.” Egmont looked out over the scrubby miniature roses in their faded window box to the rooftops of his metropolis. “But it’s hard to coerce a whole jury, and if he tries, we’ll charge him with that too.” He took in a long breath. “That’s not what I want to talk to you about.”
In the light from the window he had all but disappeared: only a pair of dark trousers and a belt visible against the light; everything else a haze of white against a white sky. May’s imagination tasered him with the memory of a man literally severed at the waist. He’d seen one once, as a new constable: a man who had committed suicide by jumping in front of an underground train; his lower half intact, his upper half smeared along the train tracks for three miles.
He closed his eyes in an attempt to force the picture back into the dark, but all the graves were opening now, and his head was full of horrors he couldn’t even say he’d imagined.
“No, sir. I assaulted a prisoner. In . . . in my defence, sir, he deserved it.”
Egmont turned around, but it didn’t do much to make him more visible. He was just a condemning voice from the corner, disembodied, like a judgement handed down by God. “He deserves hanging, and not the long-drop kind either. But maybe you can comfort yourself with the thought of what he’s going to get when he’s banged up with the decent cons.”
He sighed, drifting back to his desk, suddenly visible again, a man made out of paper and regrets. “But you, May. I can’t have you going round assaulting my suspects. I don’t give a shit what he deserves. I deserve not to have my station under investigation for police brutality. Do you hear me? I need you to get yourself together and be absolutely squeaky clean from now on, or I will not go to the wall for you. As it is, I’m tempted to let you face this one on your own. The man was tied hand and foot, for God’s sake. You didn’t even have the excuse of an affray.”
May took his hands out from under his legs and tipped his face into them. How the hell had it come to this? He’d known he wanted to be a policeman from the age of five. He’d spent his school life getting between the bullies and their prey. He could no more walk away from someone else’s danger than he could leave his own arm behind, but . . .
But he was starting to think he couldn’t do it anymore. If he had to walk into another room with another dead girl in it, he couldn’t guarantee that anyone would be able to hold him back again. He wanted it all to stop so badly, he’d started fantasising about choking the next rapist with his bare hands, and if he ever met Watkins again . . . He could almost feel the man’s neck under his fingers, the cartilage cracking under his thumbs.
“Are you losing it, May? Is that what’s going on?”
It wasn’t such a hard question to answer after all. “Yes, sir. I think so. I think maybe I should resign before you have to throw me out.”
“You can’t promise me it will never happen again?”
“No, sir. I’m fairly sure it will.”
Egmont sighed. May could feel the pale gaze on the top of his bent head. Then the sergeant sat down and hunted in his desk before drawing out the appropriate form. “I understand your father just died?”
That was an unexpected stab. Smith must have mentioned it. May hadn’t taken time off for the funeral, just arranged it over the phone, and hoped the old bastard had at least one mourner, but it damn sure wasn’t going to be him. “Yes, sir.”
Another sigh and some warmth in the wintery old voice. “Well, I think I can sell this to the powers that be as an incident brought on by grief. With that and your resignation, we should be able to put it to bed in such a way that your pension is secure and your record is clean.”
“Yes, sir.” The prospect of being dishonourably dismissed hadn’t felt real until he narrowly avoided it. Grief and horror overwhelmed him again at the reprieve. “Could I . . . Could I come back? If I get this under control—some kind of anger-management thing—could I be reinstated?”
It was like asking, If I sort myself out, could I be Michael May again? The job was so integral to who he was.
But Egmont shook his head. “Maybe you could reapply, start again on the beat in some little peaceful station out in the sticks, but no one’s going to want you like this, Michael. Just be glad that you got out before you fucked it up any worse.”
“I can’t believe it.” Jenny tucked the ends of her scarf back into her green greatcoat and glanced away. Her mouth set hard and her chin crumpled a little in an effort not to cry. Out of solidarity, May looked in the opposite direction, over the lawns and trees of St. James’s Park to where the fountains were playing in the Serpentine.
October’s wet cold had taken a brief break in favour of the kind of autumnal weather you saw on postcards. The sky was clear deep blue, the ashes and oaks of the park had turned a dozen shades of burnt umber and orange and gold. Blown leaves whispered down the paths and the water in the fountains glittered like diamonds.
He watched London’s bundled-up passersby hurry along and saw murderers and their victims as though the day had been rolling in spilled blood.
“I shouldn’t have insisted you went in,” Jenny was saying, her voice under control now. He looked back, and her face was smooth again, her eyes only a little brilliant, and that could pass for the effect of the wind. “I could tell something was wrong. I shouldn’t have—”
“It was going to come out sooner or later,” he said, nudging a fallen conker with the toe of his shoe. It reminded him of childhood’s small pleasures, such as they were. At least his school days were all behind him. He’d have to go a long way before his life got that bad again.
“But you were holding it together until then, and I—”
The wind plucked the ends of her scarf out of her coat. A silvery thing that looked soft. She’d tied it in some kind of elaborate knot, and he hadn’t even teased her for it—that was how bad things had got.
“You know—” he started them walking again, over towards Paddington and Khan’s Indian restaurant, where they traditionally ate when everything was shit and they needed to be reminded that something was worth carrying on for “—I’m not sure I’ve been normal for months.”
Jenny laughed. “You’ve never been normal, May. It’s what I like about you. I ask myself every morning, ‘What kind of freak show are we going to get today?’ It keeps things interesting.”
The wind tussled with her hair, unravelling it from its braid. It never stayed as sharp as she wished. Two hours into the day she always ended up looking like she’d rammed it into a hedge full of teasels. Then she would bitch about it and spend twenty minutes in the toilets redoing it. He once suggested shaving it all off. She actually had the kind of strong-boned face that would look good under a buzz cut. But she’d just called him a wanker and laughed.
And now she isn’t your partner anymore. Like taking hold of an electric fence, the thought tensed all his muscles to the point of pain, but he couldn’t let it go. He stopped and put his head in his hands. After a while, she took his elbow and tugged, and they walked on with her leading him, like a plough boy with his horse.
“But yes,” she conceded, “you haven’t been quite the life and soul of the party you normally are. I’ve missed the deadpan snarking. What happened?”
“I don’t know.”
He managed the glimmer of a smile at her scepticism as they skirted the fountains and the little Victorian glasshouse that looked in the long rays of the setting sun as though it were made out of light.
A final screen of trees and they stepped out onto Bayswater Road, glowered over by monumental hotels. Had to run full pelt over one carriageway, then stand on the white line for ten minutes waiting for the chance to get across the second. Then they disappeared into the warren of narrow streets lined with white-terraced houses just like the one belonging to Watkins.
Queensway Tube station fell behind them in silence, then Bayswater.
“I just stopped being able to switch it off,” he volunteered finally as they proceeded past gardens full of chained-up bikes. Chained like her. A squat little discoloured church broke up the neoclassical façades with unexpected Gothic, and he thought about pederastic priests and the people behind them in the shadows whom he could never take on and win. It was like being a child forever in a house of fear, forever powerless to make the misery stop.
“You know? We get one guy and there’s always another. There’s always someone who’ll protect the criminals and the rich, and there’s an unending supply of victims, and nothing we can do to dismantle the whole . . . the whole fucking structure that props it up.”
She flinched, and he wished he hadn’t said anything. This whole talking-about-your-feelings lark was fine when your feelings were fit to be seen, but it just spread the shit around when they weren’t.
“We,” Jenny said. “We are the structure that stands against all of that, Michael. You, me, the unit, the CID, all the button mob on the beat. We’re here to stop it. And we did, today. We stopped him.”
“Too late for Stacey, though.” May’s turn to hide his face so she wouldn’t see him fight off tears. He fixed his gaze on black-painted railings rather than see wheelie bins just like the ones under which he’d lain wondering if he was going to be shot. He wouldn’t have to imagine the light flooding in from the sash windows they passed, that were the same ubiquitous pattern as the ones in the house where he’d found that little corpse. “I can’t look at these streets and not think of going down into every basement, finding it flooded with blood. The whole fucking city’s just floating on blood.”
Jenny took his elbow again, but she was quiet until they turned onto Westbourne Grove. The shopping centre’s cupola was lit up magenta pink against London’s orange night sky. Golden palm trees outside Khan’s gleamed with familiar welcome.
“Maybe this is a good thing, then,” she said gently. “I don’t want you to go, but it sounds like you really need to get away.”
Inside, Tahir showed them to their usual table, but maybe he recognised when a man was so bowed with shame he could barely stand up, because he forwent his usual banter in favour of turning up with two whiskeys and a basket of bread, then leaving them so May could pull himself together in peace.
What kind of a man was he, that he could believe in this so much and still find himself unable to do it? Maybe his father had been right all along; he was useless and just too stupid to realise it until now. He was a mummy’s boy, a cringing little crybaby who would never amount to anything. Well, that had turned out to be true, hadn’t it? And perhaps he could live with that part, if only the anger would go away, the terrible werewolf anger that was his father’s true legacy. Could he be turning into the bastard? This explosion of fury, could it be some kind of late-onset psychosis that would eat him out from within, leave him bitter and cruel, delighted by his loved ones’ fear? He’d rather slit his wrists right now than let that happen.
He sipped the drink, the burn and buzz setting a thin film of gold between him and the darkness. The bread seemed to solidify him, and he remembered he had not eaten today, too rushed for breakfast, too broken for lunch.
Sighing, he looked up into Smith’s smile as she nodded Tahir back over and ordered for him. There was a finality in her gaze he didn’t want to think about. “So what are you going to do now?”
May got the pieces of himself together enough to smile up at Tahir. Another person he was going to miss, another regret. They could have got closer if he’d taken the time.
“Is it a funeral?” Tahir asked and put his hand down tentatively on May’s shoulder. He was a beautiful guy, with his black curling hair and his strong brows and eyes dark as polished obsidian. He’d made a couple of passes at May since his divorce, which May had rebuffed because the force was old-fashioned about queers and he was married to his work.
Wrong choices everywhere. He reached up and covered Tahir’s long hand with his own squarer paw. Too beautiful a boy for a forty-year-old failure like him anyway. The guy deserved better. “Kind of,” he said, distracted and regretful at the way Tahir’s fingers tightened on the sore muscles. “Funeral for my career. I’m leaving the force, leaving London.” He indicated a spare seat. “You want to sit down?”
“You wait until now to ask me?” Tahir took his hand back. There was a brief moment of indecision, and then May could practically see him make the decision to disengage. He was very gentle about it, though. “But I mustn’t.” He nodded at the rest of the room, where the tables had begun to fill up. “My father will have my guts if I sit and chat during the dinner rush.”
He patted May’s shoulder again, maybe consolingly, certainly in farewell. “We should have seized the day sooner. But I hope it goes well, your new life.”
May watched him leave with the sense that everything was being cut away. A new life, eh? But he didn’t want to have to let go of the old.
“So.” Jenny applied herself to tearing her naan into orderly rectangles, eating first the curved pieces around the edges that disrupted its neat lines. For the first time that day, there was something resembling her normal liveliness in her eyes. “You didn’t shut him down this time. That’s interesting.”
May relaxed minutely. If she was teasing him, then one thing at least was still all right. “Just leave it.”
“I’m having new thoughts about why your wife left you.” She shuffled to one side to let Tahir put down rice, balti, and a bottle of Tiger beer.
“Yeah, bringing that up is guaranteed to raise my mood.” May smiled back, because oddly enough it was true. The shit in his life was hard enough without having to go home to arguments and recriminations and guilt. At least he was alone now, where he could drink himself into a stupor and pass out on the couch with no one there to tell him how pathetic he was.
“That’s what I thought,” she said, and partitioned her food into two careful camps, curry on one side of the plate, rice the other, a perfect straight line where they touched. “You know, I always thought she was a terrible bitch. But it can’t have been much fun being some dour copper’s full-time beard.”
He wasn’t sure how they’d got to this of all subjects. He’d been so careful on the job, never a one-night stand, never a lingering glance, just “unhappily married straight guy” leading to “divorced and bitter.” It wasn’t even that he expected her to be biphobic, just that the days when it wasn’t safe for people to know he was bi were not exactly long ago. “You knew?”
She waved a naan soldier at him in triumph. “Not until right then. You walked straight into that one.” She had relaxed enough to slump against the back of her seat, cross her legs, and rest her cowboy-booted foot against the pillar of the table. He recognised the pose. Tea-break time. Watercooler moment. Shooting the shit.
“Seriously. I can see why you haven’t told anyone before, but—like Tahir says—you have a new life now. You could find someone, settle down. You know? Actually have a chance to be happy. It could be great. Anyone in mind?”
“Are you joking? In my state? What if they got on my wick and I punched them? I’m not . . . really not fit to be with myself at the moment, let alone someone else.”
“You wouldn’t do that.” She nudged the balti pan over to his side of the table so that he could eat the quarter of it that she didn’t have space for. “I know you. You’re a lamb in wolf’s clothing—”
“But I don’t trust myself.”
“No.” Her smile turned bitter again. “No, and I guess you don’t want to have to deal with someone else until you at least know where you stand with yourself. Fine, then. No boyfriend just yet. But what are you going to do?”
He’d been trying to avoid this realisation from the moment he’d cleared out his desk, but hey, that was cowardly too. He should face the facts as they were. Not facing them would not make them go away.
“My dad left me the house.” A little clench of anxiety, a pain in his chest like a stomach ulcer. “From all accounts it’s a tip.” Brown patterned wallpaper. Brown curtains with great cream-coloured roses on them like moonlight seen through the slats of a trap. “But it’s a waterfront property. There’s a boatyard next door and a narrowboat docked at the end of the garden. I’m going to go there . . .”
Ramming his head back between the bars.
He’s not actually there anymore. And even if he was, it’s been a long time since he could hurt you.
“And I’m going to do it up, see if I can sell it for a profit, buy something else with the money, do the same again. You know? I like making stuff with my hands.”
“You’re good at it too,” she agreed. “Those bookshelves you put in for me? They. Are. Awesome. All my friends think they’re some kind of bespoke designer ware, with that curve. And yes. It’ll do you good to repair things, make ugly stuff beautiful. Come to terms with the past. All that jazz.”
He had the sneaking suspicion that at some point she had stopped talking about shelves and segued seamlessly into suggesting that he could make some peace with his memories, with the old bastard and the place where he grew up. That seemed needlessly optimistic, but he was not going to tell her so now that they’d both crawled their way out of the morass of despair and grief. It was a fake hope, but a fake hope was better than none.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Maybe it’s time to clear out some old stuff and make way for the new. After all, I’m about due for a midlife crisis. I should buy a sports car. Get a tattoo. Drive off and see the world.”
“Have a few one-night stands.” Jenny’s smile made a good attempt at impish. Didn’t quite get there, but he wasn’t going to point out the deficit. “I’m sure you’ve got a lot of good sex to catch up with.”
“Is that you objectifying me now? Is that like one final indignity?”
She made up the shortfall with interest, her smile flicking straight through to delighted laughter. “If only I’d known earlier. You could have been my sassy gay friend.”
That pinged him wrong. He thought of saying, Listen, I’m not gay, yeah? I’m bi. Different thing. But that seemed a little harsh and this was a bad time to start an argument. Best to let it pass for now.
“Hey, I still can be your sassy bi friend, I hope.” He reached over the table and took her hand. It turned in his grasp, clasped back, and squeezed.
“Absolutely.” Her smile had an element of apology in it. “You’d better expect me at weekends and Christmases. Holidays too maybe. Where is it you’re from anyway? Is it nice?”
Her enthusiasm was catching. He remembered that he’d liked the town, everywhere that wasn’t his parents’ house at least. “Yes, it’s good. Trowchester. Fourth smallest city in the country. Takes three-quarters of an hour to walk across it by foot from one side to the other, and half of that’s river and floodplain, but it’s got a cathedral and a charter, so it’s a city, officially.”
Tahir rematerialised to clear the empty plates, returned with a platter of halva, cham cham, and rosewater rasgulla, which he put down with an air of apology. “The meal is on the house, of course. Father said if we had known you were going, we would have done something better.”
May bent his head over the sweets while he worked on smoothing out his anguished look, thrown straight back into grief by the kindness. “I didn’t know either,” he managed at last. “It was— It was kind of sudden.”
“But you will come back?”
And that was the killer, wasn’t it? He didn’t know who he was anymore. He couldn’t stand London. He couldn’t stand himself. But he had a hard time believing anything would be better in the place he’d left as soon as it was legal to go. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to be left of me to come back.”
He should have kept his mouth shut because Jenny’s smile fell off like rotten plaster. “Phone me,” she said. “Whenever. I’m always going to be here. You’re not alone.”
He could have waited, could have clung on until the bitter end, watching daytime TV, or walking aimlessly down the streets where he expected every loose paving slab to tip up and reveal a corpse.
But having made up his mind to leave, he was impatient to get it over with.
He found a leasing company to take responsibility for his flat, put his belongings in storage to be reclaimed or thrown out later when he had the energy to deal with them, and set out ill-advisedly late on Wednesday evening, feeling like Major Tom in the song—high above everything, the world spinning by without him. It was nice of Jenny to say he wasn’t alone, but she was wrong. He was alone, and he was unimportant, and if he died on the motorway on the way to the Midlands, there was no one in his life for the authorities to contact about it.
This realisation gave everything a surreal, disconnected feel. The traffic on the M25, bumper-to-bumper jams, insane drivers, interminable crawling chaos? It was like he wasn’t involved with it at all. Someone else was piloting his body through the turns.
Night fell with a rolling of clouds as if the world had drawn on a blanket, and as he finally freed himself from London’s traffic, the rain began to fall. He reached for a CD, refused to sink to the level of listening to Pink Floyd while depressed, and put on Vangelis instead. It did nothing to counter the sense of being alone in a tiny vehicle while the world did its thing without him, but at least it made him feel like Rick Deckard from Blade Runner. Washed up, yes, but unaware that he was about to embark on an adventure that would change his life. If he was going to be a retired and pathetic wreck, he might as well model himself on a retired and pathetic hero.
He’d managed to achieve some kind of Zen acceptance of fate for most of the drive, but when the landscape became familiar, when he started to recognise the hills, know the names on the signposts, everything closed back in.
His mouth dried. He rotated his jaw to try to work the stiffness out of it, but as soon as he stopped, his aching teeth would go right back to grinding. And it was stupid to feel like this, but knowing as much hardly made it stop.
He drove past the water tower on the outskirts of town. A retail park had sprung up under its bulbous shadow, and he stopped at the McDonald’s there to eat a cheerless dinner and brace himself for the last gasp.
New nightclub on the high street with a neon dragon twisting around its door and a queue of implausibly dressed young people under umbrellas waiting to go in. Looked like the cinema had shut. If he let himself, he would feel regret at that—he’d spent so much of his teenage years there. Even on a good day, the potential of his father’s anger filled the house with land mines. Home was where a wrong word or a wrong gesture, or being alive in the wrong room at the wrong moment, could trigger an explosion. The rules changed from moment to moment, so he and his mother never learned how to be safe—because that was the point, of course. They never were.
So the cinema had been a fantastic escape on rainy weekends. But regretting its absence would mean thinking about the past, and he was not going there. That was not what he was doing here. This was all about the present moment, nothing more.
Most of the shops were shut. The DIY shop had moved to a less salubrious venue at the bottom of the street, and the space had been taken over by an alternative-therapy beauty parlour. Otherwise the city was pretty much the same as it had been when he’d left. Even in the rain it managed to project a ghost of charm with its eclectic architecture and its drenched flower boxes. Its wet streets winding up to the cathedral, whose twisted spire was floodlit blue.
The golden angel at the very top of it looked down on May as he turned left from the high street, wiggled through narrow lanes congested with parked cars, and came at last to his old home.
He drew the car into the gravel drive and stopped with the house picked out by his headlights. The rain felt colder here, pouring off the porch, flooding the pots of the bay trees that stood by the front door. The front garden hadn’t been tended for years and was now a wilderness of brambles behind a towering leylandii hedge.
Curtains were drawn over all the upstairs windows, and shutters locked behind the lower. He got the impression the house didn’t want him inside any more than he wanted to go in. But he couldn’t sit out here in the car all night.
He pulled his coat over his head and ran for the front door. Goose bumps stood up over his arms as he fumbled with the key. The wind blew water under the porch roof and spattered him with it as he finally got the key in the lock and tried to turn it.
It wouldn’t open. He tried again, but the lock wasn’t stiff—the key simply didn’t fit. Now that he looked, there was a second lock farther down that took a deadlock key, something he’d never had.
He shrugged his coat on properly and buttoned it tight against the cold. It was very like his father to leave him the house while changing all the locks so he couldn’t get in. It wasn’t worth feeling more than a moment’s irritation about it.
Jamming the useless keys back in his pocket, he left the relative shelter of the porch and stepped out into the drenching rain. The pea shingle of the garden path scuffed his London shoes and water soaked into the leather as he rounded the side of the house to get to the back garden.
New fence. Locked gate. But there was a drainpipe up the side of the house that his father had not reckoned with. He took a run up to the wall, jumped, and used the pipe to scramble farther, got a hand and foot on the top of the fence and let himself drop into the long, sloping back garden.
No lights on the opposite bank. With the willows whispering down to the water’s edge, it was profoundly dark except for a wavering yellow glimmer to the right, where next door’s land joined his.
He was already as wet as it was possible to get, so he followed the glint, curious to see what it was. The fences down here were much less intimidating. Great swathes of slats had been knocked over or were missing. He could step through onto the concrete frontage of a boatbuilder’s workshop, in which a channel had been dug out to the river and a single-boat dock built. A rusty gantry crane straddled the dock, its taut chains still tight around the decaying hull of a coal barge that had been hauled out of the water for repair when May was five and left there to rot ever since.
Beyond it lay a larger boatyard, closed up tight for the night. More-fortunate boats stood in dry dock to be repaired, and in a larger basin beyond the offices, a dozen narrowboats drowsed with lights behind their windows and thin smoke trickling from their generators.
But the fire or candlelight he’d seen earlier spilled out of the belly of the rotting barge, showing off her great ribs. He wished for a torch or his badge or both as he crept closer, suspecting the local ne’er-do-wells were making an incompetent attempt at arson. “Hello?”
There was no reply, but his policeman’s instincts told him that something had stirred, something had pricked up its ears and was now listening to him approach.
“Is there someone in there?” He came two quiet steps closer. Still no movement. A less experienced hunter might have doubted their prey’s existence, but he just eased his weight onto his toes to go more quietly and listened harder for the crackle of a fire. He snuffed the air but only smelled diesel from the distant pumps and the dank, depressing scent of waterlogged wood.
He thought of saying, It’s the police, but it wasn’t, and at that bitter reflection he almost walked away. It was no longer his job to investigate suspicious things. Let someone else phone for the fire brigade or disturb the drug addicts in their den. Not his business.
He considered, I mean you no harm, as an opener. But if it was drug addicts or petty vandals, then I mean to scare the shit out of you and get you off my neighbour’s property would be closer to the mark.
It had been so long since he’d been a private individual, nothing to back him up at all—no station, no sergeant, no authority. His step faltered at the knowledge, and he felt a pang of bereavement a hundred times stronger than he had felt when they told him his father had died. It made him gasp, rub a hand over his face to wash away the distress.
His fingers were still over his eyes when the rotting boat erupted with scrabbling noise. He dropped them, looked up in time to see a flash of white on top of a dark figure scrambling over the far gunwale and dropping onto the concrete forecourt of the boatyard. The instinctive reaction to a hooded figure running away was to give chase, but God, it was fast. Chains and detritus on the ground kept breaking his step, breaking his concentration. He got around the concrete lip of the pool in time to see the two luminous stripes on the back of the fugitive’s trainers sprint around a distant shed.
He pushed himself hard to catch up, rejoicing in the familiar thrill, but when he got to the shed, there was no one in sight and no further glint of light. Panting, he put his hands on his knees and caught his breath. “Damn it.” Then he returned to the dead barge and its crane.
He used a stepladder attached to the rear right leg of the crane to scramble onto the deck of the barge. The wood felt spongy under his feet, and as he got to the edge of the cabin his heel went through, sending a rain of punk through into the hold.
The light filtering out of the boat was not strong, but in the almost absolute darkness it was enough to show a rope descending through a hacked hole in the deck, disappearing into the gold-lit dim of the hold. No guarantee there wasn’t someone else down there, someone braver, waiting in ambush for him to lower himself through the hole, eyes dazzled and hands occupied.
He went anyway, half because he refused to be afraid, half because he wasn’t entirely sure he cared if there was a bullet with his name on it tonight.
Rain dripped from his hair into his eyes, pittered into the puddles awash across the keel. The stink of stagnant water mingled with the sweet rankness he was familiar with among London’s homeless, the ones who had pissed themselves and then slept in it, had it dry into their clothes over days of damp body heat while they sheltered in cold doorways.
Gleaned wood from supermarket pallets had been laid over the ribs of the boat at the stern, where two layers of deck still kept a watertight roof over the hollow. On this dry platform flickered a pumpkin-spiced candle in a glass holder traced with decorative golden glitter, and a single dirty blanket with its end trailing over the platform into the bilge.
Around the platform, on every accessible space, flowers had been drawn—silvery ones scraped into the mould with a fingernail, huge black ones burnt on, maybe with the flame of this very candle.
May hunkered down and fished the corner of the blanket out of the puddle before it could sop up all the water. He looked at the little nest and blew out a long sad breath. When he was young, he’d thought everyone in Trowchester lived in snug stone houses. And yes, he’d gone so far as to hoard food under the bed in preparation for running away, but he’d never really had the courage. He didn’t want to think that this place, this corner of old England where there was honey still for tea, could have anything in common with the uncaring metropolis.
There couldn’t be blood on the pavements here too. There couldn’t be, or where would he go to escape?
Pulling himself together, he took his notebook out and wrote Sorry. Tore out the page and pinned it to the blanket with a two-pound coin. Chances were whoever lived here was a petty shoplifter—he’d stake his life that candle had not been paid for—but it was a small measure of freedom that it was no longer his duty to care about that part. Anyone who lived like this deserved a little treat, now and again.
Climbing back out, he stumbled blindly through the fence and into his own garden. Knowing his father, cracking the house was going to be a serious business, and he would need light for it. He followed the slope of the ground down to the river’s edge and waded among sedge and grebe nests before his outstretched hands found the hard edge of the narrowboat’s stern. It too was locked, but it was a great deal easier to lift the small doors off their hinges and crawl through to the cabin than it would have been to do the same to the house doors.
He stumbled and cursed, knocking his knees against piles of hard-edged stuff his father had clearly put in here to hoard. Broken dishwasher. Valve-powered TV. Microwave with the glass shattered. Even a bookcase. He reached the bed eventually, blindly groped for the covers, stripped off his soaked clothes, and crawled in to shiver.
The bedding clearly hadn’t been aired since his father’s cancer was diagnosed six months ago. It smelled of damp and dust and mildew. Worse, it smelled of wariness and cruel laughter. It tightened around him like a fist. With the roof so low and the walls so close, he might have been lying in a coffin, but that was obscurely comforting. If he were dead, then he could stop. He could lie down and rest. He could let go.
He hoped he had not frightened his vagrant neighbour out of their night’s sleep. The rain kept coming down, and no one deserved to be out in it alone. Maybe that could be his project. Not the house, but plugging up the leaks in the hulk of the barge. Give the poor bastard somewhere dry to sleep and a proper address, so they could start looking for a job . . .
“You’re a lamb in wolf’s clothing,” Jenny had said, and yes, he didn’t see why he should stop trying to protect people just because he could no longer be official about it. He only hoped his homeless neighbour wouldn’t die of exposure before they had the chance to find out that Michael was a soft touch for a hard luck story right now.
The morning came early and bright. Condensation trickled down the narrowboat’s tiny windows, pooling even under the cut-glass roundel in the toilet. The gas did not want to play but yielded to his persistence, and he boiled hot water before discovering there was neither tea nor coffee aboard.
“Urgh,” he said, clambering back into damp, clingy clothes. “Fuck that. Fuck all of this. All of it. Every last bit.” Then he drank his hot water and scrambled out to face the day.
Morning light revealed that the back of the house was easier than the front. A yellow plum tree grew close to the conservatory, so he could climb up the tree, across a branch that was dropping plums outside the conservatory door, and gingerly edge along the main supporting beam of the roof until he came to the spare bedroom windows. They were locked too, of course, but with a simple latch he could jimmy with a credit card.
He swung them open, crawled inside.
The place still smelled of misery, though if he was reporting it at the station he would have described it as the scent of decaying carpet and toilet cleaner, old age and dust. Since it was bright outside, he left the window wide. Sidling into the other bedrooms, feeling like a burglar, he opened all the windows in the hope of flushing out the smell with fresh air.
First things first. Downstairs, he chipped a chunk of semidissolved granules out of the cracked container in which his father kept the coffee, went to turn the kettle on, and discovered that the electricity had been turned off. He stood far too long facing the countertop, stymied by the silent appliance while his mind took a brief absence of leave. Reassembling himself to do anything else seemed to take more resilience than he had left. But he did it eventually, sighing and raising his head.
There were coffee shops in town. He only had to locate the house keys, then he could drive to the nearest and get his first coffee of the morning there, with something good to eat thrown in.
Long experience both of searching houses and of his father’s sense of humour let him turn up the house keys in only half an hour: bundled in a plastic ziplock bag and taped inside the cistern of the upstairs toilet.
“He’s such a card, your father. It must be a laugh a minute living with him,” the old lads at the bowling club used to say to Michael as he stood dumbly in the corner of the room, waiting for his father to stop showing off and take him home, before the dinner his mother was cooking was spoiled to the point she could be blamed and harangued for it. And yeah, yeah, it was hilarious being the butt of the joke all day, every day, all your life.
“It’s not funny, Dad,” he’d dared to mutter once or twice, when the unfairness of it had got to him, and he’d been in a public setting and therefore relatively safe.
His father would beam from ear to ear, implore his friends to sympathise with his plight. “You see what I have to deal with? The boy’s got no sense of humour, and his mother is worse. I try to keep things cheerful, but these two? Sour as Scotsmen and twice as mean. For God’s sake, don’t be so uptight!” Then—when they were home—there would be three-quarters of an hour of shouting about how Michael had let the side down, how Michael had shamed him in front of his friends, how he should throw Michael out on the street, though it would break his mother’s heart . . .
His father’s little jokes—they were just the petty nastiness on top of a whole berg of malice. Further proof, maybe, that his father enjoyed making life hard for him, but not worth getting too riled up about. He threw his useless keys into a plant pot, went down, and opened the front door.
Only to narrowly avoid being punched in the nose by the woman who had raised her fist to knock. They both ducked and recoiled. She laughed. She was a motherly-looking Chinese lady, with her plaited hair tied back in a headscarf. She wore an apron whose pockets were stuffed with bottles of spray cleaner and bright-yellow cleaning cloths.
May gave her what he hoped was a politely inquisitive look.
“Are you young Mr. May?” Unbelievably, she handed him a red thermos.
“I am.” He unscrewed the top of the flask and inhaled deeply the smell of instant coffee, more watery than Michael’s caffeine dependency might have preferred but oh so welcome. “I’m sorry, I don’t . . .”
“Mrs. Li.” She watched him struggle with the desire to pour and drink, and her smile settled into a beam of smugness. “My husband and I own the boatyard next door. I came outside to clean the unused boats and saw your car. You arrived during the night?”
“Yes.” He ushered her inside, ashamed of the cold shabbiness of the place, although to be honest the ghost of unhappiness that clung around every piece of furniture might not be visible to her. “I couldn’t get in. I had to sleep in the narrowboat.”
“But you had keys?”
He decided not to embark on a full retelling of his father’s last prank. The bastard loved to be talked about, and May had long ago decided he never would. “It turned out I brought the wrong ones. But it’s okay. I knew where he kept the spares, so I’m all good now. Just got to get the gas and electric back on, and then we’ll be set. So I’m afraid I can’t offer you—”
Mrs. Li’s smile broadened. “I thought that might be the case, and that you would need something hot to pick you up. You can bring the flask back when you’ve finished in town, and meet the rest of my family.”
“There was an old codger who owned the boatyard when I was little,” May offered, not quite sure what to do with a conversation that wasn’t a questioning. “Looked a proper old salt. Aran sweater, beard, and pipe and all.”
Her smile didn’t falter, but her eyes took on a considering look, as if wondering if he was working up to something annoying. I thought you people only ran restaurants, for example.
“Yes. He retired in 1990 and we took over. You’ve never been back in all that time?”
Oh no, her faint disapproval must be more a reflection on his filial piety. “We didn’t get on well, my father and I.”
She wrapped her right hand around the handgrip of a spray-cleaner bottle as if it were a gun, and sighed. “But still I am sorry for you that he’s dead. It’s hard to lose a parent, no matter what.”
This time May did pour the coffee and wrap his hands around the cup to chase away the cold. He sipped, and his entire body sighed with relief. “Oh. You are a lifesaver, Mrs. Li. I needed this. Here . . .”
He dived into the kitchen for a cup, filled it, and gestured her to one of the sofas. “Well, I can’t offer you my own coffee, but I can offer you yours.”
She waved it away with a resurgence of the smile. “I shouldn’t. I have five boats to clean and pump out before the next batch of tourists arrives at nine to hire them. You enjoy that and come over, meet us properly later.”
“That sounds like a lot of hard work.” He escorted her to the door feeling marginally better about the day. Good neighbours were a blessing.
“Oh, it is. My . . . uh . . . my child helps, but only on the holidays. I don’t want anything getting in the way of their schoolwork during the terms.”
“I can see that.” He held the door open for her. Coffee had given him the mental alertness to begin to grapple with his problems, so he added, “Is the crane and the barge in it part of your yard?”
Her step faltered a little, and her expression became unambiguously complicated. “I presume you noticed the state of the fences?”
Folding her arms and looking at where the tip-top of the rusting crane could just be seen over the hedge, she admitted, “The ownership of that strip of land is disputed. Your father has deeds to the dock, but so do we. Sometimes your father would put a fence up to claim the land as his, and my husband would knock it down. Sometimes my husband would fence around the land where our deed claims the boundaries, and your father would knock it down. This—” she made a gesture he thought indicated their introduction, the chat “—was partly in hope that we could talk to you more reasonably than we could to him.”
“He liked to jerk people around as a hobby,” May offered, feeling guilty and tired again. It was always this way. He ended up talking about the old man no matter how many times he vowed he would not. “He was never going to settle with you. He’d have been having far too much fun knowing he was pissing you off. I’m not like that.”
Truth was he’d set out from the age of five to be the exact opposite. To be reliable and straightforward and honest. To have people know that they could trust him, and not to betray that trust. He heaved a great sigh of weariness, and followed her gaze to the beam of the crane from which the dead boat hung. He was still determined to do something for its mysterious occupant, if only they could be lured to come back.
May drained his first cup and refilled it. “I’d really like to be able to do some work on that old barge. Maybe see if it can be repaired. But I’d rather have the goodwill of my neighbours. We can talk about the deeds, figure something out that’ll suit us all, I’m sure.”
Mrs. Li’s smile took on a shade more softness. “Well. You need time to move in before we pester you. How about you come over for dinner on Friday, and we’ll talk about it then?”
Dinner on Friday gave him a point to steer by, like the North Star seen through clouds. With that as a goal, he could probably make it through the week. Maybe the boat restoration project wasn’t so mad after all. And presumably he’d find out what was up with her . . . child as well, because the trained investigator in him just didn’t want to leave that one alone.
“Thank you,” he said again, ushering her out into the cold yellow morning. “For the coffee and the welcome and everything. I needed it.”
She waved a cloth over her shoulder as she walked away. “Anytime.”
May went inside so that he could phone for the amenities to be turned back on. But the house phone was dead too, and his mobile dangerously low on battery. The empty house surrounded him with silent recriminations, inviting him to sit and contemplate how very badly he had messed up his one chance to do what he’d always wanted to do with his life. Misery flowed out from under the tables, from under the carpet, down from the spiders’ webs in the corners, and whispered at him with its soft, inexorable voice.
So he finished all the coffee in the thermos and went out.
Trowchester looked better in daylight than it had when he’d driven through it in the rain and under the influence of disappointment. With its great cathedral, its castle, the ruins of the Roman walls, the holiday traffic up and down the river, and its apparent location on some sort of Stone Age Zen pathway he wasn’t entirely clear about, it owed a significant proportion of its wealth to tourism. And while the natives complained about this incessantly, it did mean the place made an effort to keep itself pretty.
The tourist hordes were thinning now as autumn added a bite to the wind and clogged the gutters with bronze leaves, but hanging baskets still filled the streets with colour and softened the predominantly grey stone buildings. Tourism meant there was not only a Starbucks and a Costa, but there were three other independent coffee shops and one tea shop far too splendid for an impromptu breakfast.
May got a fry-up in Sandra’s Café, where he didn’t have to worry about spilling sauce on the plastic tablecloths, and then headed for the town hall and the government buildings that surrounded it.
He spent several hours in the offices of British Telecom, British Gas, and Northern Electric, receiving promises that the power and phone service would be restored to his home in due course. They would of course try to do it today, but he should be prepared to spend another night without.
With that in mind, he bought supplies for the narrowboat: another gas canister to power the fridge and cooker, the kind of groceries that could be cooked on a two-ring hot plate, a duvet and sheets, smokeless fuel for the stove. As he packed them into his car, loneliness hit him like a physical blow, taking him by surprise. He felt the universe all around him, huge and busy, and himself, utterly irrelevant to its purposes, untethered from everything that made human life worth living.
So he wasn’t going back to the house in that state of mind. He dumped the groceries in the boot, locked the car, and headed for the library, where he could read in the warmth, surrounded by people, and pretend not to be so acutely on his own.
As he passed the stone cross on Castle Street, a little bookshop caught his eye. Wedged between a glittery emporium selling implausibly coloured dream catchers woven out of nylon thread, and a sweet shop that claimed it was Ye Olde Candy Shoppe, which made him wince and had certainly not been there when he was young, the bookshop with its awning and small table of rummage books looked too classy for its company.
Its green-painted door had a knocker shaped like a giant squid, and was forbiddingly closed. The frontage of the shop was so narrow its display window was scarcely wider than a second door. There was only one thing in it: a single volume on a book stand, open at two carpet pages of illumination. Tangled swathes of colour drew his eye. Patches of gold burned under noon’s strong light. May approached until he could see the delicate, intensely detailed pictures more closely.
On the right, a castle was being built out of a field of flames. Little stone masons in medieval clothes proved on a second glance to be animals on their hind legs. A giant hare with a cunning expression was operating a treadwheel on the top turret to hoist up a pallet full of hedgehogs. On the left was a sea full of monsters with the keel of Noah’s ark just visible at the top.
Above this astonishing volume, old-fashioned golden letters had been applied to the shop window in a similar style to the fake Victorianism of Ye Olde Candy Shoppe. May looked up and burst out laughing. They read, “Bibliophile Bookshop: If this book doesn’t bring you inside, I don’t want you. Piss off.”
The door opened silently onto coconut matting and a long pale corridor with cream walls, on the right hand of which was painted in careful copperplate, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The steps up, with a handrail of ship’s cable, had been roped off. Two steps down, through an arch to the right, and he stepped into a wizard’s study. Heavy wooden bookcases lined the room and stood three deep freestanding in the centre of it. The smell of leather and paper and knowledge permeated the air. A great bench littered with tapestry cushions reclined beneath the window. Two enormous volumes were chained to reading desks just before the shelves began, their covers embossed with ravens.
Brass astrolabes glinted in spare corners and a distant alcove held a great Pegasus of glittering glass. He looked up and laughed again because yes, there was an embalmed dragon hanging from the ceiling, and it was giving him a peculiarly reptilian sneer.
The sound of his laugh brought movement from the distance. He walked forwards, saw more steps down into a further series of cave-like rooms where a young man with blue hair was just edging himself out from behind a large desk half taken up with a steampunk monstrosity of a till.
The young man straightened, looked at May, and froze for a long, telling moment. Not a bad-looking lad, but with a round scar on one cheek that spoke of having been bottled in a bar fight. Toned physique, square hands with tattoos over the knuckles, something indefinable about him that said gay, and something much, much stronger that said ex-con, but May was keeping an open mind on the ex. Maybe it was the flinch, or the way he had obviously IDed May as a copper and was now wondering what to do about it, but they recognised one another as predator and prey at a glance.
Except that May wasn’t a copper anymore, and he had better not forget it. He swallowed down the stab of grief just as the shop clerk swallowed down his own reaction and said, “Can I help you?”
He should have expected that question and had an answer prepared. Instead he was thrown. “I . . . uh. I don’t know.”
“No, you can’t help this gentleman, Kevin,” a voice came from behind him. An older voice, amused, urbane. Just a little touch of Irish accent. “This is a man who needs something he himself doesn’t recognise. Something he can’t express. Am I right?”
Now May was amused too, because yeah, he’d just said that, but when this guy rephrased it in his intellectual doublespeak, with that smooth voice, it sounded deep. It sounded like he was here on some kind of quest. He turned with a smile to meet the person who was obviously the wizard in charge of this establishment.
The guy was shorter than him. That was always a pleasant surprise. But whereas May was wide enough across the shoulders to feel square, this guy was perfectly shaped for his height. He should have looked small, delicate even, but something about his personality turned it around, made him seem lean, capable, beautifully built and proportioned. Made everything else in the world seem out of scale.
He wore pale flannel trousers and a tweed jacket with a crescent moon tiepin worn in one lapel like a brooch. His white shirt was unbuttoned to the top of his waistcoat, his oak-blond hair cut in a floppy 1920s’ style. Right down to the clever, ironic expression in his green eyes, he could have stepped out of an episode of Poirot, and though May had seen young intellectuals in London attempt the same look often enough, this was the first time he’d seen it really pulled off.
This vision of elegance waved a hand dismissively at his clerk. “Be off with you.”
From the corner of his eye, May watched as Kevin took the hint. Stopping to haul a box of books out from under the desk, the young man disappeared through a distant door with a nervous backwards glance in May’s direction, trying to look like he was busy doing his job and not running away.
Rocking his weight back on his heels, the wizard considered May with a small smile, as though May were one of his pieces of art, or a volume he was appraising to buy.
“You liked what you saw?”
May could have dealt with camp easily enough. This wasn’t quite camp, or if it was, it was camp done sideways, undermining itself. He had no idea what to make of the man’s attitude or demeanour. He thought he was being checked out, but he honestly couldn’t tell for sure.
The guy’s impish smile spread at his confusion. “The book in the window?”
“I like it,” said May. “But it can’t be real, right? You’d never put a real medieval manuscript out in the sunlight like that.”
“Well, well.” Everything about the guy seemed calculated to be soft. The oatmeal-coloured trousers, the whimsical fringe of his hair, and the lowered, lilting voice. But May got the impression that he was marshmallow wrapped round barbed wire. He liked it.
“They do say ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’” said the wizard approvingly. “It’s obviously true in your case.” He held out an ink-stained hand for May to shake. The grip would have crushed his bones together if he hadn’t expected it and braced beforehand. “I’m Fintan. Fintan Hulme, the proprietor of this marvellous emporium. Call me Finn, why don’t you? Everyone does.”
“Michael. Michael May.”
“What can I do for you, Michael May? More to the point, why haven’t I seen you in here before? A man who knows enough not to expose a valuable manuscript to the light, but can appreciate a more robust copy . . . I would have thought a man like that would have had the good taste to come in sooner.”
Okay, so now he was pretty sure he was being flirted with. A long way away from home with no career to lose and no one to disappoint, he was being hit on by an extraordinary guy. It occurred to him with a thrill of wonder that he didn’t have to shut this down, and then with an accompanying thrill of terror that he didn’t know how not to. He glanced aside, discovering that someone had drawn a mousehole on the skirting board with a little cartoon mouse beside it.
He admired the whimsy of it, wished he had something equally offbeat and interesting to say, but could think of nothing but the truth. “I . . . um. I just moved in. Into town. My dad died, left me the house. Though I’m actually in the narrowboat at the bottom of the garden.” Catching himself rambling, he ducked his head, tried to pull himself back together. “And you don’t need to know that, do you? Sorry. But I arrived yesterday evening. You were closed then.”
When he looked up again, ashamed of his inarticulacy, his bald, unimaginative earnestness, Finn was so close he could see the faded freckles over the bridge of the guy’s nose, laughter lines like spidery writing in the corners of his eyes. They were blue, close to. Blue with scatters of yellow spots around the pupil that made them seem green at a distance. And they were full to the brim with amusement.
Finn leaned in even closer, making May freeze, afraid to do anything in case he got it wrong.
“I’d open anytime for you.”
Finn laughed at the expression on May’s face. Nipping his upper lip between his teeth as if to stifle a triumphant smirk, he retreated and let May catch his aborted breath, struggle to slow his runaway heart. Wow.
Teasing. That had been teasing, nothing more. But shit. The visceral need to grab hold with both hands and taste that mocking mouth was brutal. Like nothing he’d ever felt before. He almost . . . It was almost scary. So unexpected, so unprecedented. He didn’t know where to go from here, what he should say or do to put things back to normal. He covered his face with his hands to try to hide the fact that it was burning.
Silence from Finn, and then footsteps approaching him. He startled as a narrow hand wrapped around his wrist and tugged, making him uncover his face.
Finn looked older, with the impish expression dropped to make way for concern. Lines on his forehead and bracketing his mouth said he was about the same age as May, just doing a better job of not crumpling under the years. “I’m sorry,” he said gently. “That was too much, wasn’t it? You’re bereaved. I shouldn’t make fun.”
Embarrassingly enough, May had to pull his hand back and cover his face again as his eyes stung. He didn’t care about the old bastard dying. He didn’t. But bereaved just about covered everything else.
“Let’s find you a book.” Finn touched his wrist gently again, leaving a fleeting impression of warmth. “Books cure all ills. What will it be?”
I am so very impressed with [Alex Beecroft's] work. Her writing is lyrical and poetic without being flowery and pedantic. . . . All in all a great read from a new author and a happy beginning to a new series!
[A] phenomenal book.
I loved everything about this story.... It’s a book you won’t want to put down and one you will happily pick up again and again while waiting for the next in the series.
Such beautiful use of language...So many wonderful quotes. The whole thing is just. Such a great story.
Brilliant writing, intriguing characters, and a storyline that just swept me away.