I recently pushed myself out of my comfort zone and entered a writing competition. It’s not something I have done before, but I saw it and knew I had the beginnings of a draft somewhere that I could use. So, to challenge myself, I did it. The longlist was released yesterday and, although I didn’t make it on there, I am still really proud of the piece I wrote, so thought I would share it with you. I had a few lovely people who read it, cut out the annoying bits and boosted my confidence, so for that I’d like to say a HUGE thank you to them – you know who you are.
The competition was the Crime Writer’s Association Margery Allingham Short Story Competition:
Our mission is to find the best unpublished short story – one that fits into legendary crime writer Margery’s definition of what makes a great story:
“The Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.”
So here is my entry, in all it’s late night edited glory. I hope you enjoy it and feedback is, as always, hugely welcome and much appreciated!
Bleaching light forces apart the slits in my blinds. Bleary eyed, I check the time. 05:57. The overwhelming urge takes hold; as my arms lengthen, my fingers brush her hair. I turn and face her, watching the light caress her features, admiring the beauty that had captivated my imagination. The early morning sun accentuates the colour of her hair; a soft barley, framing her face in gold. My eyes lap her up, dehydrated explorers – she was the final condensation in a shared canteen. I move on, studying her lightly stained lashes, that line those eyes; the same eyes that had locked with mine.
The only thing which numbed the pain. I ordered my fifth, swilling the burning liquid across my tongue, between my teeth, down my throat. My watch dared me to decide whether or not I had time for a sixth. 21:42. Probably a seventh as well.
“A passionfruit Martini and a dry white wine,” A voice laced with honey spoke before I could attract attention. I concentrated my vision on the barman in front of me; without looking, I knew it wasn’t worth my time. I was too fragile: she, too fabulous. Only when I sensed her walk away did I steal a glance. As I had expected – her white dress swung in time with the curve of her hips as she melted into the crowd. I ordered my sixth.
“A passionfruit Martini and one for this gentleman.” I glanced to my left, met with a gaze so powerful that the rowdy Saturday night soundtrack faded into silence. I could taste the salt of the ocean on my tongue.
“You look like you need it,” she smiled, pushing the glass towards me and £20 towards the server. After a moment, I turned to thank her, but instead caught only the scent of her perfume on the breeze of the open door. Downing in one, I clutched my jacket by the neck, and stumbled outside.
There she was; gently shivering under the heater as she struggled against the spark of her lighter. That final drink still racing through my blood, I pulled out my own redundant lighter and smiled my awkward smile. The flame glowed for what seemed like eternity, flickering against the gentle spring wind – not yet warm enough to warrant the bare arms she reached out to me with. I watched the tobacco incinerate and float into the sky, studding the ink like stars. We shivered together in tandem, conversation flowing, weaving patterns through the dancing smoke. The night became frosty, hazy, as we waltzed from the bar into the night.
Bleaching light. 05:57. I reach out my half asleep arm and stroke her cheek. Pale. Cold. There are few things worse than waking up at 05:57, with a sore head, next to someone so beautiful, so peaceful, and not being able to remember her name, how you got home, or why she is dead.
Bile rises up my throat. Hours could have passed as I stagger out of bed, yet only 2 minutes disappear.
9. 9. 9. I punch in the numbers mechanically, as though I’ve done this a thousand times.
“Hello, Emergency Service operator; which service do you require?” Police, obviously. Ambulance? Too late, but I request both anyway.
“What is the nature of your emergency?” I describe, panicking – my voice doesn’t mirror it.
“What is the name of the victim?” Victim. I don’t know.
Check her pulse – there is none. Do you have a torch? Yes. Check her pupils – they don’t dilate.
An endless series of questions, statements, police tape, photographs, evidence bags, a stream of investigating officers. I am met with constant disapproval, shrinking me. Of course, they are all women. Why wouldn’t they be?
From the hallway a brown strap screams at me. I close my eyes and breathe in the memory; stark against the white of her dress, bouncing rhythmically as she floated away. My eyes flick back, before catching the gaze of a nearby officer. Her disapproval has been the strongest, and I am sure it’s only about to grow.
Poison strong enough to paralyse – “I presume this doesn’t belong to you…”
“No,” I respond. An undiagnosed stammer betrays me, castrating the truth. Her permanently crackling radio screeches into life as she speaks in numbers and code down it. The chestnut haired officer surveys me with her equally chestnut eyes. Poison strong enough to kill.
I swallow down the bile. It stays put.
Tacitly aware of the neighbours’ curtain twitching, I accompany Chestnut to the station. Suspicion pierces me, each glare a skewer through my flesh. As we drive, I eyeball my alien house, once so safe; now people invaded my space for a woman I didn’t know. Blue lights, tape, silent hissing. I am shocked by the silence; nothing awaits me – a half empty car park and the distant, shrill call of a telephone. This isn’t how the movies do it: you’re supposed to hide from the paps – a scarf obscuring your expression, disguised beneath a veil of shame. My heart fights to escape, ricocheting off my ribcage.
Chestnut’s sickening silence continues. I notice the beads of sweat on my forehead and dab my brow with the cuff of yesterday’s shirt, a pale stain already there. Every breath makes my mouth drier, my tongue swelling behind my teeth. I am booked in – they fingerprint, swab, take details. Deposited in the interview room, Chestnut spits: “Detective Samuels will be right through.”
My jacket smells pungent – I could never stand the rancid smell of smoke, and now it felt accusing, an incriminating alibi. My father spent much of my childhood with his nose in a crossword, puffing on a pipe. smoke pirouetting against the light of his office. I was certain he saw my reaction, and I’m sure smoked twice as much. Mother was a teacher, grafting for little gratitude, neglecting me for thirty unofficial spawn. I should have been stillborn, a miscarriage, a stain on my mother’s underwear.
The metallic chime of the door wakes me from my lethargic state and I look up to see a magnificent woman before me – 5’10”, 11” even.
“Ezra Frost?” My father’s insistence on my name ensured he would always have the upper hand. Even now he’s dead, he can still manipulate me. Little did he know I would resemble Prufrock more than Mr Nixon.
I nod as the Detective extends her hand. She sits, chewing on the end of her pen as she sets the file neatly in front of her. In the top left corner, etched out in thick marker: Cassidy, Elizabeth.
“Ezra…?” She had laughed deliciously as she dragged on her cigarette, nicotine filling her lungs, before exhaling gloriously. “Your parents didn’t give you a chance, did they?” There was something in the way her lips kissed the smoke that made me crave it.
“They certainly were one of a kind,” I muttered, maintaining my exterior.
“Like the poet?” she asked, curiosity swimming in her eyes.
“Erm… Yeah.” I replied, taken aback. “Exactly like the poet.”
“Well, Ezra. Here’s to poetry,” she sniggered, before raising her glass to mine, sending a chime ringing through the air. “I’m Libby.” She peered at me from under her fringe, her cheeks forcing a smile upon her eyes. Breaking eye contact, I raised my empty glass and gently tapped hers. Bad luck, they say.
I wake to a familiar feeling in an unfamiliar setting. My eyes adjust in the burgundy light shining through the cheap, unlined curtains. It takes a moment for me to realise where I am, an empty bottle still loosely clasped in my aching hand, early morning news chirping from the ten inch television screen. Hotel 41 is known to be a drug den, but on such short notice, it was all I could afford.
“Could you stay with family?” Detective Samuels had asked. It had taken everything I had not to laugh at her. I told her I’d get a hotel.
On the cabinet beside me, my phone buzzes angrily, the tinny speakers blaring my now distasteful ringtone. I had only changed it a few days prior – Die Young Stay Pretty. The dulcet reggae tone had always appealed to me, letting me believe I was alone on a Caribbean island, drinking cocktails and basking in Vitamin D. Reality couldn’t be further from the dream. I pick up, my voice cracking as I greet the faceless voice of Detective Samuels.
“Mr. Frost? Sorry it’s early – I hope you slept well. A few things have come up that we need you to confirm.”
From the moment I had brushed her skin, I had prayed. I’d drunk myself into a coma last night, just to feel nausea, to feel the comforting spin of intoxication, to try and feel less disorientated in my own mind. This, I was the master of. This, I could control.
I pull on my jeans, and go in search of my shirt, strewn on the bathroom floor. Splashing my face, I notice the puffy, rosaceous stranger. My hair is lank against my head, my wrinkles, cavernous in the harsh strip lighting above, my mouth downturned. I look every inch the sombre victim, betrayed only by my eyes; flat and acrid, as they had always been. ‘Unfeeling eyes’ my mother had once called them. She had known so little about me, it made sense she’d feel that way. I give the stranger in the mirror a final blast of water and spray the remains of an aftershave tester on my neck – the last littered belongings of the previous occupants – and throw the empty bottle on top of the used condom that lay in the waste paper basket.
Checking out, Libby’s captivating face stares up at me from the front page of The Sun. She was the sort of story they relished. Tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, no doubt, which seemed an unfitting end, considering.
The incessant scream of the shrill telephone seems constant. My head is swimming, yet I’m sure I would find it equally irritating were I sober. Detective Samuels materialises from behind the glass; a bullet proof wall of protection. I follow her back into the room. I become conscious, suddenly, of a large, glistening window to my left. How many pairs of eyes studied me the way she did?
I hedge my bets: “I know how it must look…” Samuels lifts her head, but her eyes remain stagnant, flitting across the page in front of her. “But I really don’t know any more than I have told you…”
This time, I notice her sage eyes stabilise as they lock with mine; a momentary lapse in emotion. I feel my leg begin to quiver.
“What time did you say you arrived home?”
“I didn’t,” I reply.
“Remind me again, in which bar did you meet Libby?” I know this one.
“The Mouse.” I reply. My local. More like home.
“And later?” – my face confused, she pushes further – “Where did you go later in the evening? By our records, The Mouse calls last orders at approximately 23.15. You were seen leaving with Libby at 23.42. We are trying to piece together your… Her movements,” Samuels corrects herself, before producing a bar receipt wrapped in the cellophane of an evidence bag.
“Did you accompany her here?”
“I know a great place!” Her golden waves rippled as she stumbled towards me in excitement. I had never seen anything so radiant before. I knew now that I’d never see it again.
“It’s a new place, about ten minutes away!” Her eyes shimmered as I extended an arm in a mock gentlemanly fashion.
“Take it away, Mr Frost!” she had laughed as she grabbed hold. Mr. Frost. Such a sensational crescendo to the way she hummed my father’s name. We had laughed together that night; a laugh I had forgotten I had; a laugh I had forgotten existed.
“Take it away, Mr. Frost. I’m all ears”, Samuels snarls, perched in the corner of her web, a venomous black widow. I repeat what I have remembered, violating the intimacy of our fractured conversation. She twitches her leg as I talk, scanning me, processing me. Venom drips from her baying fangs.
“I just have one more question,” she goads. “How does your wife feel?”
Her words sting, paralysing each ventricle of my heart in turn. I see her, winding her silk; poised. The viper. Sophie. Her name repulsed me. We had met in the spring, love blossoming with the trees. We were a cliche, a classic romance, a whirlwind.
“She doesn’t feel,” I snort. “She’s incapable of it.” Samuels raises her eyebrows. I am clouded by a crimson mist; I reign it in. “She left me.” Understatement. Sophie had annihilated me. Yet another area of my existence that left me perilously balancing between sanity and psychosis. Samuels’ fangs retract. I am winning.
I accept her offer of a glass of water, reject the offer of a break.
“When was the last time you saw Sophie?” I tell her.
“And your brother…” she pursues, “James Frost?”
My charming, effervescent elder brother. A magnet of good fortune. I heave on the vinegary taste of the past. James was the artist, the musician, the prodigy. My parents had surprised him at eleven by funding his attendance at the prestigious Westminster School. My gift had been the lesson that not all men are created equal.
He attended University. He brought home a telephone directory of girlfriend candidates – girls next door, the kind my mother liked. I had nothing until Sophie; my Helen of Troy. Not content with his own lot, James looked for more. He found Sophie.
The day she left, the first whisper of winter drifted through the air as I drove home – my unfulfilling life paling into nothing against the promise of Sophie’s embrace that never came. I no longer recognised our home – the living room, kitchen, bathroom… Bedroom. I was a voyeur to the past.
“Ez,” she began. “I’m sorry,” she ended.
“I haven’t seen my brother or Sophie since.”
Samuels chews absentmindedly on her fingernail; I watch the splinters bend and grind as she mutilates herself. Disgusting.
“We’ve spoken at length with the driver who took you both home – he says he dropped a man and woman matching the description of yourself and the victim back to your home address at around 01:50. In your earlier statement, you mentioned you paid. Correct?”
I remember her stepping in, a jewel of rain on the tip of her nose, her white dress translucent, her handbag open, purse in hand. Purse in hand.
“Only, the drivers account is different. He remembers Libby. She paid by card.”
Samuels eyes are ravenous. Mine begin swimming with tears. I think back, still feeling the cold change in my hand; I am being massacred by my own brain. She had been the most extraordinary creature; could I have been the one to extinguish that?
The moment is broken by the obtrusive clatter of the door. My old friend Chestnut barges through, barely acknowledging me, making a beeline for Samuels. She levels with Samuels’ ear, whispering frantically, and I witness the triumph drain from Samuels’ face.
“Remind me,” she barks in fear, “You said you were at which bar?”
Have you ever run over a rabbit? Witnessed that split second between life and death? Where its eyes lock with yours and you see its fear, panic, loneliness? I had seen that, but not in the eyes of a beast. Samuels was skittish, frantic. In her haste to remove me from the room, Chestnut had missed the photograph. The one that hovered across the ground to my feet as she entered. I dart into a toilet cubicle. The harsh blue light hides my veins, but gives enough light for me to discover the truth. Fumbling, I tremble the lock closed, let my eyes adjust in the dusk, take in what I am seeing. A grainy CCTV image, marked 00:17. The Magpie. Libby’s white dress. My breathing stutters. Stops.
The repulsive bass pumped through the doors of The Magpie bar; I gritted my teeth as we pushed through swarms of acne-ridden wasps, humming and writhing and grinding, enslaved to the monotonous tone of the music. Her voice was far more tuneful than anything else I could hope to hear in there, and we settled on the bar stools. I remembered watching Libby, her inquisitive eyes scanning the room, my face, her phone screen. She set it down in front of us and the illuminated screen flooded back into my memory.
A hand on my shoulder grounded me and reminded me we weren’t alone. Libby’s gaze was so encompassing it was easy to forget that we were in a bar in Soho. I could drown anything out, with her, even in that short space of time, even the repulsive beat of the speakers. The hand on my shoulder was not hers. The hand on my shoulder was not moving.
A shooting pain radiates up my arm as I fall heavily into the wall.
00:17. His face is pixelated, but I recognise it immediately.
Hammering. I come round, slumped against a sodden wall that bears the secrets of thousands of criminals. Two faces pore over me, players in a perverted game.
“Sir?” one ventures, his voice tentative. A gentle man – the kind my father would have despised. His hand feels featherlike against my shoulder as I stand, pushing him softly, but firmly away. I feel myself sway – I had stood up too soon. Staggering, I fall back against the wall before succumbing to the grief I had held off until now. I had lied. I hadn’t known it, but I had lied. I can picture Samuels now, salivating at my deceit. It was what she craved. I had remembered last night. I had remembered it all.
I suppressed the gin and rage and grasped the cool latch, opening the door. She stood, crafting that salacious melody with her existence. Now, it sounded out of tune and tasted bitter.
“Oh Ez! We thought we had lost you forever!” she cackled, mistaking my grimace for a smile. I wasn’t pleased to see them. She pushed past me, squeezing my hand as she did so, and kicked off her shoes. A bead of rain trickled down her forehead and to the end of her nose. Her dress was translucent, breasts practically visible through the cold spray of nature and taut material that clung to every curve. Libby threw her purse into her bag and discarded it by her already forgotten shoes. I had never known anyone’s lack of manners to be so tantalising.
“Where did you go?” she asked. I heard the hurt in her voice; I ignored it.
“Three’s a crowd,” I spat.
“Don’t be a baby,” she winked. Her gaze drifted over my shoulder towards the monster that lurked behind me,
“Yeah, Ez. Don’t be such a baby. He always was the one to throw toys out the pram.” James swayed into the living room, as if history had dissolved, salt in water.
“Won’t Sophie wonder where you are?”
“Left me mate! I tell you, you had a lucky escape there! What a lunatic.” James’ mock cuckoo sound that followed only made me loathe him more. I cringed at his familiar tone.
“I’m going to bed.” I slurred. Libby’s eyes widened.
“No!” She brushed hair from her face. “It’s still early!” For a second, I foolishly believed she wanted me.
“Hey Libs, want some wine?” James emerged, that inane grin plastered to his smug face.
“It’s too late.” I retorted. I lay in bed, listening to the squeals and laughter that shattered me, before fading into the night, a stupor ahead of me, comatose.
Bleaching light forced apart the slits in my blind. It was always James.
The detective listened from start to finish, pausing now and then to clarify. The emergency press conference vowed to satisfy the baying press and bring up some leads for Samuels. A morbid job. A job that she must have to leave at the door. I wouldn’t be able to leave this behind. I’d have to live with no fear of retribution. I walk outside Currys; the screens in the window flicker into life. I stand, naked against the cold night air, watching.
Samuels’ face. Heavily prepared, heartless statement.
Libby’s face. Staring into my soul, an image taken from social media.
Her parents’ faces. Doting and loving, appealing for any further information, for the killer to come forward.
His face. Prime suspect. If anyone knows his of whereabouts, please call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
If you see him, do not approach him.
He is considered a highly dangerous individual.