If you want to read the rest of the collection, you can buy it here.
I didn’t want to believe it, but it was true. I sat in my car and looked through the window of the cafe. It was him all right. Jack Fairchild. He was talking to a girl, a pretty, waif‑like girl in a tie‑dyed top and flared corduroys. Silver rings with semi‑precious stones studded her fingers and she had about half a dozen rings in each ear, plus a stud in her nose. It made me wince just looking. Not that I’ve got a problem with other people doing it, you understand, but I’m squeamish, and I’ve never understood the attractions of body‑piercing.
After a couple of minutes, they got up and came out of the café. I dropped low and pretended to be looking for something on the floor of the car. A moment later, Jack’s car pulled out and I started driving after him, trying to hide in the traffic, and still trying to digest what I’d seen. Because Jack Fairchild was dead; he’d killed himself six months before, and I knew it beyond all shadow of a doubt. Because I was the one who’d found the body.
Sheila Harris knew him, and she knew me. She’d gone out with Jack for nearly two years, finishing with him a year or two before his suicide, and next to me she’d known him better than anyone. If anyone else had told me that they’d seen Jack walking around in another city, I’d have dismissed it and said they’d seen someone who looked like him. But this was Sheila.
She’d rung me up as soon as she’d got back from Preston, and asked if she could come round to my flat. I’d always enjoyed her company and it wasn’t particularly late – and in any case I’m a night‑owl – so I said yes.
I’d never seen her look so shaken. She was white as milk and chain‑smoked cigarettes all the way through. Sheila was another of the hippy‑chicks that Jack was so fond of (and who were pretty fond of him too in their way) – all flared trousers, silver jewellery and assorted New Age knickknacks, and in Sheila’s case, a scent of sandalwood – and cigarettes were something she usually only used to roll joints with. To see her demolishing the best part of a packet of twenty Embassy No.1s was enough to alert me.
I made her a cup of coffee and added a dash of Navy Rum – I keep a bottle handy for emergencies like this. So far she’d told me nothing, other than that she had to see me right now, and from her manner I was pretty sure it wasn’t because she wanted to propose marriage.
“Okay,” I said once I’d set up a saucer as a make‑do ashtray, and watched Sheila stub out her second cigarette since entering before starting on her third without even a pause for breath. “What is it?”
“Okay,” she said, “It’s Jack.”
“Jack?” Even as I said the name, I felt a wave of giddiness pulse through me. Thinking of him made me think of what I’d found. A lot of things brought back bad memories, had done ever since; the woods in autumn, the smell of wet leaves and damp earth, the creak of tree branches, even the feel of a light rain on my face, all brought the pictures back. And so, of course, did his name. “What about Jack?”
“Okay,” Sheila said again, obviously psyching herself up. “You’ve got to believe this, Ian. I wasn’t tripping, okay? Hadn’t even smoked a spliff. God knows I could do with one. You haven’t –?”
I did, but I wanted to get some sense out of her first. Sheila stoned tended to lose the plot totally and gibber out whatever went through her head, usually free‑associating from one topic to the next every five seconds. If she took so much as a single drag on a joint she’d start telling me about whatever Jack‑related thing it was, move on to the time we all went camping together and within two or three minutes she’d be telling me about the Middle East or the Balkans. That was usually pretty entertaining, and God knows I’ve done stupider things myself under the influence, but tonight wasn’t the time, not yet. “Maybe later,” I told her. “What did you see?”
She sucked on her cigarette, hard, and gulped more rum‑laced coffee. “You know I was on the coach back from Blackpool tonight?”
I nodded; Sheila’s current boyfriend, a muscle‑bound boy‑racer called Andy, had relocated there a month ago. I was hoping the long‑distance relationship didn’t pay off, partly because I’d always carried a torch for Sheila, but more importantly because Andy was an ignorant bully who’d done nothing but wear her down since they met. It beat me what she saw in him. Still, it was her choice.
“The coach stops in Preston on the way back, and I was nearly there when I remembered it’s my dad’s birthday tomorrow and I hadn’t got him anything. Not even a card. By the time I’d got back to Manchester it would’ve been too late to get anything, so I got off in Preston – thought I’d get the next one.”
I nodded understanding. Nothing weird or Jack‑connected there.
“I went and found a shop – got him a big bar of dark chocolate and a card. You know how he loves dark chocolate. Anyway. There was time before I went to get the coach, so I went for a coffee. There’s a little caff in Preston, really nice – I’ve told you about it before.”
I remembered now. “Louie’s?” Sheila nodded. Louie, she’d told me, was a transplanted American who’d never quite realised that the ‘sixties were over, and set up his own shrine to the decade in the cafe named after him. I’d been in once or twice; he still dressed the way he had back then – possibly in the same clothes – and bound up his long, greying hair with a red white‑spotted bandanna. The café served mostly vegetarian food, but the coffee was great, apparently. And there are worse soundtracks than America, the Byrds and the Rolling Stones back when they were good to listen to while you eat.
But I digress.
“So I went in there, and I had a coffee and a bit of carrot cake, and then I was just setting off when I saw him. I’d got across the street, when I saw his car pull in, in front of Louie’s – you remember how Jack used to park?”
Didn’t I just. Like he was going to ram‑raid the premises and changed his mind at the last moment.
“That was what made me look. And then I saw him getting out of the car. He didn’t see me. It was him, Ian! It was Jack Fairchild, I swear to God.”
“Jack’s dead, Sheila. You were at the funeral, remember?”
She snapped furiously, slamming down her mug so coffee spilled on the table. “Don’t fucking patronise me, Ian.”
“I’m not. But he’s dead, Sheila, I should bloody know.”
Sheila stubbed out her cigarette and her fingers played with one another, knotting and unknotting for a whole five seconds before she lit up another smoke. “Shit, I’m sorry, Ian. But it was him, you know? I didn’t know him as long as you did, but it was a long time, and Jack was always pretty... distinctive, you know?”
I knew. It was one of the more restrained things the local vicar had said about him the time he’d left something extremely unpleasant on the altar at the parish church.
“So what was he doing?”
“Nothing much. He went in, had a coffee, that was it. I had to go anyway – had a coach to catch, and to be honest I was afraid he’d see me.” She stubbed out yet another cigarette. “So there you are. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of you rolling a joint now?”
“I think that could be arranged,” I said, and reached for the tobacco tin I kept under the sofa. Either she’d seen him or she hadn’t. But equally I’d seen him, and in a condition which would make going into a café six months later for a drink pretty unlikely. Even in Preston.
So ultimately there was only one thing left to do.
And that was how come I’d driven up to Preston. Jack and his girlfriend were heading across the city, into a residential suburb just outside town. They stopped outside a rambling Victorian house on a road called Laburnum Close, and went inside. After a couple of minutes, I got out of the car and strolled along the road towards the door.
It was early evening, and the setting sun glinted in bits through the branches of the sycamore trees along the roadside. I reached the bottom of the house’s narrow drive. A rambling, overgrown front garden sprawled out on either side of it. The porch, recessed into an arch of greyish‑red brick, had a white door with four frosted glass panels, flanked by two curtained windows. It put me in mind of a mouth open to snarl, howl or bite, flanked by bulbous eyes like those of a predatory fish.
Beside the door were five bell‑pushes – the house had been converted into flats. I looked at the names: Mr. A. Akinbode, Mr. N. Singh, Mr. M. Ortega, Mme Larousse, Mr F. Jackson.
F. Jackson. Always assuming that this was where Jack and not the girl lived – and she hadn’t looked like a Madame – this was presumably him. F. Jackson instead of Jack Fairchild. There was a certain humour in that.
Something moved out of the corner of my eye – I thought I caught a glimpse of a pale face pressed against the glass of the window to my right, but it was gone as I looked, and the tightly‑drawn curtains didn’t even so much as twitch, as shiver.
I’d had a good long look at him, and there was no doubt that it was Jack Fairchild. It couldn’t possibly be anyone else. But...
I got back in the car and drove back to Manchester as fast as I could, but however fast I drove I couldn’t seem to outpace the memories.
I’ve got a different approach to Sheila when it comes to things that frighten me, shake up my sense of what’s possible in this world or generally just plain freak me out. Sheila had come to me as a friend to talk to, unburden herself. Me, I paid a visit to the bottle of Lamb’s Navy Rum under the sink and put as much away of it as I could between reefers. I passed out sometime around one o’clock in the morning and woke up again around seven o’clock with a scream and a splitting headache. I’d slept badly, dreamed badly. My scream had been the carry‑over from the last dream I’d had – sitting up on my sofa half‑awake to see Jack Fairchild in the armchair opposite, grinning at me with a pale face, lips bloated and purplish‑black, his eyes full of blood. At least, I hoped to God it had been a dream.
I went to see Sheila about it the next day. She brewed a soothing cup of camomile tea and offered to massage my neck and shoulders. I accepted and thought impure thoughts as she unknotted the muscles that had cramped up sleeping on the sofa.
“You were right,” I admitted finally. “It was him.”
“Told you,” she said, with a shrug. “Question is, what do we do about it?”
“I don’t know. The police checked the body I found pretty thoroughly. He had a record with them, remember; only minor trouble but enough for them to have his prints. They checked those and his dental records. One hundred percent proof positive. That was Jack’s body I found – even if I hadn’t recognised him that would clinch it. But...”
“But he’s alive and well and living in Preston.”
“Occam’s Razor,” I said simply. “The simplest explanation is usually the right one.”
“And what’s that?”
“A look‑alike. A doppelgänger. Hell, maybe even an identical twin.”
“Do you believe that?”
But we both knew it. The man we’d seen didn’t just look like Jack; it dressed like him, it even had the same little mannerisms. What were the odds against that?
“So what do we do?”
I drove back up to Preston the next day, went back to the house on Laburnum Close and rang the bell for Mr F. Jackson’s flat. No answer. I thought for a few minutes, then rang another of the bells.
Mr A Akinbode answered the door, a tall Nigerian with a lilting accent and half‑moon glasses that made him look ten years older than he was, an exchange student at the local college. Yes, he knew Mr Jackson. Yes, the description I gave matched him. No, Mr Jackson wasn’t in. Mr Jackson had left that morning. No, he didn’t know where. No‑one did. There one day, gone the next, leaving his keys and his unpaid rent in an envelope pushed under the landlady’s door.
Gone. No forwarding address. “Probably ran off with one of his girls,” said Ade Akinbode. The ‘A’ stood for something long and complicated I kept getting in trouble with, but he’d laughed and just told me to call him Ade (`A‑day’) like everyone else.
Ade laughed again; it was a loud laugh, booming, and a couple of pigeons clattered from their perches in the sycamore just outside the drive. “Oh yes, girls, my friend. A different one almost every night.”
“That sounds like him,” I smiled. Shortly after, I made my excuses and left.
And it might have ended there. Whatever the mystery, the Jack Fairchild look‑alike had departed for parts unknown. As time went by, it was easier and easier for both Sheila and I to convince ourselves that we’d only seen someone who bore a resemblance to Jack. It hadn’t been that long since his death after all.
And even if it somehow was Jack, he’d made no effort to get in touch with his old friends, had he? If somehow, for some reason we couldn’t understand, he’d faked his death, he obviously wanted to make a break from the people he’d known, if not the lifestyle. It hurt to think that, so we preferred the first explanation. And so the memory of the incident faded from our minds, till now and again we only occasionally joked about it.
Sheila gave Andy the Arsehole the push. A couple of weeks later, she came round for a dinner I’d cooked, but nothing came of it. Another week or two went by, and she started seeing someone else. Not for the first time, I kicked myself soundly and told myself to get a life.
I went out with a couple of girls – a nice but vacuous receptionist for a computer firm, and a girl I’d met at a rock‑and‑metal club in Manchester who claimed to be a witch. The second one lasted a while, but then her old boyfriend – a Hell’s Angel – finished his stretch in Strangeways for GBH with intent, and they got it back together. And that was the end of that, as I had no wish to have a man known to his friends as Mad Dog for a love rival.
But Lorry – short for Lorelei, or so she claimed – left a few legacies, like a Motorhead CD I rather enjoyed playing now and again, and a copy of the Big Issue. I was flicking through the magazine one day, not long after Lorelei was clasped once more in the arms of Mad Dog, trying to find something I hadn’t read. The features range from entertaining to the disturbing, and among other things there’s a regular column on Missing Persons. Have You Seen..? it asks, and then below are the pictures of the disappeared and a little information. I used to share a flat with a drama student when I was at college, and what a flake he was. I kept expecting to see him in that section of the mag.
I didn’t see him, but I still nearly dropped the magazine as my stomach gave a horrible lurch. There were three missing persons, but I didn’t notice the one on the left or the one in the middle. It was the one on the right who caught my attention.
She smiled up at me in flat, grainy black and white. It wasn’t a great picture, but I recognised the face, the smile. And I recognised the half‑dozen rings you could just about make out in each ear, and the stud in her nose.
I met Jack Fairchild when we were at primary school together. The ripe old age of five.
We grew up together. We were different even then; he was sporty, forever tearing round the asphalt playground in a game of football, while I was the bookish type, forever buried to the nose in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit or, better yet, a Dr Who book. But he liked Dr Who as well, and that was the beginning.
So we became friends. We invited one another to our birthdays, we went out on our bikes together in the summer holidays and at half‑terms. Went camping together, rang doorbells and ran away together, dared each other to venture across the local golf course and dare the slicing balls of power‑crazed golfers.
We tried alcohol for the first time together, tobacco, cannabis. Got drunk together – and threw up – smoked together – and threw up; got stoned together and lay sprawled out on the floor with zoned smiles spread across our faces, talking about how, like, one tiny atom in our thumbnails could be, like, one little tiny universe…
We went out in search of willing girls as well, headbanging away in the hard‑rock and metal clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, although Jack was always a damn sight better at it than me.
Jack changed. From being a clean‑cut sporty type he got into thrash metal and took to wearing black leather studded and chained with silver, with hair almost down to his waist. His bedroom walls reverberated to the strains of AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Deicide and Slayer. I always thought he was taking the Satanist stuff in the last two groups’ songs a sight too seriously, but never realised how seriously. Then again, I didn't see as much of him in those days; he took to hanging with a different crowd. Not till the night he broke into the church and – well, left some pretty revolting things on the altar and equally charmless statements on the walls.
He was damn lucky not to get worse than the community service they gave him, and after that he mellowed out. His musical tastes changed to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Doors, the Stones. I got to know him all over again, and it was kind of like old times, but with more dope and psychedelic music. Things seemed different.
Jack was a lot better. He got a flat in Old Trafford and entertained a seemingly endless string of girls. He was happy. He played guitar, occasionally got together with some friends where they acted vaguely as if they were members of a band, and supported himself in ways I wasn't always sure about and decided to remain blissfully ignorant of.
Then Jack's parents, and his younger brother Adrian, died.
A year passed since the article in the Big Issue. Sheila got back with Andy the Arsehole, then gave him the push again. She went out with a couple of others, but never with me. A couple of meals, but that was it. Regretfully, I began to accept that to her I was, an always would be, a friend and nothing more. Lorry came back for a couple of weeks while Mad Dog was away – running smack or executing someone with a hacksaw for looking at him the wrong way, I forgot which. Kind of thing that really added a peaceful atmosphere to the romantic interludes. He came back and Lorry rejoined him. I was never sure what she saw in him. Or maybe it was what she saw in me.
Then again, I didn't have much time for a relationship. Jack had begun to be an obsession. The spare room in my flat was piled high with Big Issues, and a map studded with red drawing pins. I'd kept looking. There wasn't much I could do in terms of tracking Jack down; I had no clues where he'd want to go, except maybe someplace where he wasn't likely to run into anyone who might say 'hey, aren't you supposed to be dead?'. I hoped to God my suspicions were wrong, but while I suspected I couldn't just leave it.
The only thing I could think of was to keep buying the Big Issue and checking out the Have You Seen...? section. It was a long shot, with over a quarter of a million people missing at any one time across the country, but it was the best that I could do. And over that year, I'd religiously kept every issue, looking for a pattern.
I read the papers too. I had the girl's name too – Kelly Moores – and waited for news of a body being found. There was none, But in the Issue, over that year, I'd started to see a pattern.
Several girls turned up in Have You Seen...? who'd disappeared in the Preston area in the six months following Jack's death. Girls who fitted in the same category as Kelly Moores. The same kind of clothes, the same kind of hippy innocence in their grainily‑photographed faces. The kind of girls that Jack had always gone out with, who had always been charmed by him.
I really didn't want to believe the picture I was starting to put together. Of course, it could have nothing to do with Jack; it could just be coincidence that he'd spent time with Kelly Moores shortly before she'd disappeared. But I had to know.
I knew what I was looking for. And I knew that if I saw Jack again in any place where the pattern re‑emerged, then his guilt was almost certain. The map in my spare room would, sooner or later, point me in the right direction.
And sooner or later, it did.
Jack and his family had their ups and downs over the years – he was never the easiest of kids, God knows – but in the years after the church incident things had started to settle down, especially when he got his own place. And then their car went off the motorway on their way back from a family visit to the Lakes. Boom. Crash. Bang. All gone. The whole Fairchild family except for Jack.
Jack changed. He became quiet and morose. I saw as much as I could of him. He was bitter, and angry. Life had lost all meaning. I did what I could, which was to be there as often as possible, listen to him when he talked, hug him when he cried, brew black coffee whenever he'd had to much to drink, and roll his joints when he was too drunk or stoned to do it for himself. It was a bad time, and the lowest I'd ever seen him.
But he came out of it. I was there, Sheila was there, a couple of girlfriends were there, and we steered him out of the woods.
The woods. Maybe an unfortunate choice of phrase.
The funerals had come and gone. Jack had the choice; his flat in the city, or the family home. In the end he chose neither. The house was too full of memories; he sold it, gave up the flat, and bought a small house in North Wales, not far from a decent sized town but surrounded by hills. A pine forest half a mile away. And a wood of silver birch right behind the house.
The birch. That's where I found him, that autumn.
To be fair to Jack, I don't think he'd meant it that way. I called in unannounced; I was coming back from a visit to someone else in the area, and decided to drop in on him. It had been a week or two since we’d last spoken.
I pulled in at the cottage. His car was parked outside. When I knocked on the front door, it swung wide, inwards.
He wasn't anywhere in the house. I wondered where the hell he'd gone. I decided to try the birch woods, and walked into the field of greyish‑white trunks.
It was a grey day, the sky's belly heavy, pregnant with rain. Soon it began to fall. I smelt damp earth, wet leaves. The rain was light, cool and fine on my face. Trees creaked in the wind.
The rain picked up. I looked grimly around and decided to double back to the house. Maybe Jack had walked down to the village. Then I remembered I had a mobile phone and so did he. As I started walking back, I took it out of my pocket and rang his number.
Nearby, I heard a mobile phone ring.
And ring. And ring.
Till the answering service took over.
"Jack?" I called. Suddenly I felt a sense of foreboding. I began walking back through the woods. Which way had the sound come from? I dialled again. I followed the rings till the answerphone picked up once more.
I thought, then, that he might have had a fall. That was the worst I suspect, that Jack had slipped and fallen, tripped on a root, knocked himself on a stone.
It took me a moment, when I saw the long, dark, bundle swinging from one of the trees in the mizzling misty rain, to recognise it for what it was. I scrambled through the woods and looked up at it. Even though the flares and the Slipknot t‑shirt, and the long dark hair that hung down in strings were distinctive, I had to look up into the face, pallid and bloated from hanging in the rain for, the police determined later, two days, before I realised that it was indeed Jack Fairchild. His face, or what was left of it, looked like a wadded ball of grimy, sodden newspaper.
The tree creaked softly as he swung on the coarse rope he'd looped around his neck. As my mind reeled, my eyes wandered, till they finally found something they could fasten on which wasn't as bad.
It was a knot. Tied in the rope that had killed Jack, yes, but a knot nonetheless. Something to look at, something...
...something strange about it. I couldn't say what. It was an odd, complicated knot, like nothing I'd seen before.
"I'm worried about you," said Sheila.
"Why?" I said, passing her a joint.
She stared at me. "Why?" Then she grabbed my arm and hauled me across the flat and into the spare room, jabbing a finger at the map. "Well, how about that for a start?"
The map in my spare room; I was telling you about it before. Whenever I heard about a disappearance that matched the description of Jack's kind of girl, I put a pin in it, looking for a pattern. And in the end one came out.
The five most recently-added pins were all tightly clustered around the city of Birmingham. All girls who'd vanished within the last couple of months.
"It's become an obsession with you," Sheila said. "I mean, is this healthy? Is this normal?"
"Well, what's normal?" I shrugged. "Normal's a meaningless term."
"You sound like Jack."
I laughed. "He used to say that all the time, I know. I told him that after the church thing. I was trying to show him he could be whatever he wanted, not get bogged down in what he'd done."
"Don't try and take responsibility for whatever you think he's doing now, Ian. Jack's been a big boy for years."
"So you think I'm right?"
"I didn't say that!" she snapped. "God's sake, you read enough missing persons reports you can find a pattern anywhere."
"And I just did," I said. I gestured to the other pins. "How many others are down to him on that map? How many who never made the papers? Obsessed? I was nowhere near obsessed enough, Sheila. I should have been out there every time I saw a disappearance who fitted the profile, I –"
"Yeah, and maybe you could have if you were an international playboy or something, but you're not. You've got a job and a limited income, remember? You know, your bank account? Or did you think your bank manager was sending you love‑notes or something?" Sheila sighed. "God almighty, Ian, if you thought something was going on you should have gone to the police."
"I did!" I snapped. "Again and again and again. They've got me down as a nutcase, Sheila." I stared at her for a long moment and she stared back. "And so have you."
I stopped myself saying anything else, like she was the one who'd told me that Jack was still alive, or around, or whatever he was. Because at the end of the day, I was the one who'd drawn – or jumped to – conclusions. The responsibility was mine.
I reached out and touched the five pins buried in Birmingham. "Here."
I leaned over and kissed her cheek before she could protest. "I'm going, Sheila. But thanks for the concern."
I rang in sick the next morning and set off for Birmingham. It was another of those dull, overcast days, with the sky spitting rain, so tightly crowded with dark clouds it was like a lid jammed down on top of the world. I drove through cities of grey concrete and steel, dulled by the rain; through suburbs of boxlike houses and through bleak countryside of wind‑ruffled grass, of rainswept stone. The storm seemed to grow as it followed me down.
I arrived in Birmingham in the early afternoon, found a cheap B & B and booked myself into it. Then I went out and started searching.
I found the cafes, the bars, the clubs; all the different places where Jack might come in search of his prey. I bought coffee, a Thermos flask, and Pro‑Plus tablets to keep me awake. I staked the places out, sustaining myself on caffeine and junk food. The pubs in Moseley where the local hippies gathered to buy or deal weed by day, and the clubs where the rock-chicks gathered – Costermongers and Edwards No.8 – by night. The next day I rang in sick again. So many hunting grounds, and no proof the hunter hadn't already moved on. All I had were faith and patience.
But in the end they paid off.
I found Jack Fairchild for the third and final time on the fourth day of my hunt. As I watched him come out of The Fighting Cocks with another pretty flower‑child on his arm, it took me a few seconds to realise it was finally him.
I ducked down low in my car once more, watching him pass. He was smiling, his long thin angular face framed by the long chest‑length hair and spiked by the little goatee beard. When the lights of a passing car caught his face, he'd never looked more devilish.
His car drove off. I followed it, remembering the last time I'd followed his car, with Kelly Moores in his passenger seat. I'd chickened out of going into his house then. Not this time. Not ever again, I promised. I already bore the responsibility for Kelly Moores and God knew how many others. I had no idea what I would do when I found him, how the hell you were supposed to stop a man who was already dead. But I had to try.
The road he pulled his car to a halt in might have been Laburnum Close all over again; the two were virtually identical. Identical too the house, the same kind of big Victorian place partitioned into flats.
As I moved across the road, I thought I could hear voices whispering. I kept thinking I could see faces, pale faces pressed up against the windows, out of the corners of my eyes as I approached, but they vanished whenever I tried to look straight at them. I remembered the face at the window at the house on Laburnum Close, and I knew I'd come to the right place.
Six tenants this time, and there was no way to pick from the names which was Jack.
I took a deep breath and fetched the crowbar from my car, then forced the door open. I crept into the house.
Where was he?
I heard noises. Gasps. Pants. Jack. Despite the circumstances, I felt myself smile. Even dead, he didn't seem to have changed.
I followed the noises up the stairs. On the top floor, as I crept out onto the landing, I heard the gasps getting louder, and saw shadows dancing in the light that seeped out from under one of the doors. I tiptoed to the door and listened. Now what was I supposed to do? Kick the door in and leap through, brandishing the crowbar? And what if it didn't even turn out to be Jack's room? What if –?
I stopped dead. The gasps weren't gasps of passion of pleasure, as I'd thought at first. They were something else, something far worse. My doubts disappeared, and in one of the few courageous actions I've ever performed I jumped at the door with both feet and smashed it wide open. I almost went sprawling as I staggered into the hall, but regained my balance and reeled on.
The gasps came from the bedroom. I kicked it wide open and froze solid.
The girl who Jack had brought out of the bar had been about nineteen, pretty, her hair plaited into yellow‑dyed dreadlocks. She still had the dreadlocks, but without them she would have been unrecognisable. She hung from the ceiling, on the end of a noose of rope. She was naked, her feet dangling at least a foot off the ground. Already her body seemed impossibly shrunken and shrivelled, like that of a very old woman perhaps, or a mummy. But most horribly, she was still alive, and her twig‑like fingers fumbled helplessly at the noose. Her black, rolling, desperate eyes found mine and begged for help. I wasn't sure what I could give, but I stepped forward to try.
But the noose wouldn't unknot. It was, I saw with sickening clarity, the same knot that Jack had tied around his neck that day. The best I could do was lift her up, take up the slack.
But it couldn't help her. Her body continued to shrink and shrivel in my arms, and then I saw what looked like a thick white smoke escaping her mouth, her nose, her body, her skin. It was drawn up into the rope, swirled into it and disappeared. There was hardly anything left of her now. I didn't have a knife. If I only had perhaps I could cut her free, though I suspect it was already too late.
Then her gasps became a thin, bleating scream, and the smoke swallowed her up. Her thin cry faded away to nothing, and the last of the smoke swirled up into the rope and was absorbed. Nothing remained. The noose seemed to slacken, widen out. It was big enough to fit my head through now, but I had no interest in trying.
I stumbled back from what I had seen, and a hand fell on my shoulder.
"Hey, man," said Jack Fairchild. "Good to see you."
He ushered me through into the kitchen. I looked at him; he was paler than I remembered him, his skin was as cold as ice and his eyes were black as coal. He carried the rope in his hands, widening the noose to knot it around his waist.
"Brew, man?" He asked. His voice was dull, lacking in the emotions it sought to put across. I shook my head. "Suit yourself."
"I saw you dead."
"I'm sorry about that."
I shook my head to clear it. "You got those old books of yours out again, didn't you?"
He grinned mirthlessly. "That old black magic, eh Ian? Well..." he spread his arms. "...it bloody worked, didn't it?"
"How many have you killed?"
"Don't know if they're dead exactly," he said. "You saw what the rope did. It uses them to keep me... the way I am. Forever, Ian. Think about it, man, you could live forever. We could."
I stared at him in disbelief. "We?"
"Yeah, sure, man. Why not? I was hoping you'd show up one day."
I swallowed hard. "What makes you think I'd be interested?"
"You're a fool if you don't," he shrugged, and I knew he didn't just mean I'd miss out on a good offer.
Beside the cooker there was a wooden block stuck full of knives. It was my only chance; I went for it and yanked out the biggest weapon I could find.
Jack reached out for me and I lunged at him, catching him in the stomach. He laughed out loud; I pulled out the knife despairingly and stabbed again.
This time the blade took him in the waist and, by pure luck, cut through the rope. Jack shouted in rage.
Two things happened at once. I grabbed the rope and he hit me. I flew across the kitchen and hit the far wall. The rope writhed in my hands like a snake. The two snapped, frayed ends of it touched and knitted together once more.
Jack wasn't smiling once more. He lunged for me. I jumped clear, scrambled down the hall – but Jack was suddenly there at the door, grinning fiercely.
"No escape, man," he said. "I'm faster. Advantage of being dead. Now," he held out a hand, "give me that and I promise I'll just kill you. I won't take you into the rope and‑"
I pulled my battered lighter from my pocket and flicked open the cowling, striking the wheel. Jack's mouth yawned open – everything seemed to have gone into slow motion – and he lunged forward. A flame danced up from the lighter, and I touched it to the rope, raking it along it.
The dry fibres caught instantly. Jack screamed, a high, hysterical note, the flame lighting up his face. The rope thrashed in my hands, like a snake once more. A snake of snapping, crackling fire. I threw it at him and ran.
He screamed again as I reached the door, and something made me turn around.
Jack stood rooted to the spot in the hall, terror on his face. The burning rope had fallen at his feet, and formed a ring of fire about him. The whitish smoke poured up and billowed away, and with it came the whispers I'd heard as I approached the house. And then, from the shadows in the flat, I saw movement. Pale figures stepped forward, towards Jack, uncaring of the flames that raced across the carpet and up the walls, even though they were naked. They were pallid and gaunt, and their dark eyes burned with something dull and reptilian.
"Man!" Jack screamed to me. "Don't leave me like this! Man!"
But there was nothing I could do. He'd made his bed, made his deal. Even if I wanted to I couldn't have interfered.
Their pale hands were all reaching out. Jack's knees buckled and he sank down. His face grew more gaunt, his hands were thin bundles of sticks. He was losing all that he had taken.
I tore myself away from the sight and ran out through the front door, slamming it behind me. Jack screamed again. I didn't stop running till I was out of the house and in my car, and driving. I wept all the way home.
The next day I learned the house had burned to the ground. Everyone inside had got out, except for one man, a tenant on the top floor called John Edwards. They found what was left of him among the ashes. No one was able to explain the forty other sets of fragmentary human remains that were found there too.
Sheila emigrated a few months later, to Australia with a new boyfriend. By then she wasn't worried about me any more; Lorry had come back and the two of us were pretty happy. Apparently Mad Dog was serving a life sentence for murder now, and had found Jesus; he'd written to her saying he could no longer wished to see her, unless she wanted to repent and be Saved as well. She’d decided to pass on the offer.
It's been two years since then. Lorry and I are still together. We're even talking about trying for a kid. I suppose stranger things have happened.
Yes, life is good. I'm happy.
But now and again I remember Jack. I try to remember the good times, and while I'm not religious, now and again I sneak into church and light a candle and hope for the best. But I don't think it'll do much good.
Even if I'd wanted to interfere, I couldn't have. But even so...
Had I wanted to?
Yes, of course I had.
He was my friend.
(c) copyright Simon Bestwick 2003
(c) copyright Simon Bestwick 2003
The characters in A Hazy Shade Of Winter find themselves in landscapes—both physical and mental—that are immediately and recognizably modern, but which contain terrors which are universal and timeless. In Bestwick's world, an innocent walk in unfamiliar surroundings becomes a journey into a nightmare; a stranded tourist faces a bizarre challenge; a harassed employee takes a desperate revenge on her employer; and a secondhand book of ghost stories becomes the instrument of a malevolent, restless spirit. Nothing is quite what it seems; and the line which separates us from something much worse often vanishes altogether.