Memories of a Murder – Chapter 3

Start at the beginning here or read the last chapter here

 

Harry’s Apartment, Los Angeles, February 2010

 

Tricia was nearly thrown backwards onto the floor as Harry crashed past her in the doorway and raced for the toilet bowl in the bathroom at the far end of the corridor. She picked up the photo frame from the floor that he had knocked down in his rush past the small table and sighed as she ran a finger over the crack that had appeared in the glass.

“Harry? Harry, are you alright?” She asked him, even though she could hear his retching as the fried breakfast she’d made him made a surprise reappearance.

“I’ll be fine.” He stepped out of the bathroom, and she got her first look at him, dressed up in the new Armani suit that had been tailored especially for the occasion. Tricia gasped, her arms prickled with goose bumps and for a moment, a small fleeting moment, she could have sworn her heart had stopped. Despite the fact that he and Vincent were twins, Tricia had always seen vast differences in their behaviours and in their appearances, but now… it was like he was back.

“You, err, you broke your picture.”

“Oh, just put it on the side, I’ll sort it out later.” He walked past her, ignoring the proffered photo frame, back into his bedroom.

He didn’t mean to be so callous, he didn’t know how fragile she still was, or how much he reminded her of him right now. She looked down at the picture of the two brothers, the crack running across Vincent’s forehead. He didn’t know that seeing a picture of him made her want to howl inside, he didn’t know that she’d hidden all the photos she had of Vincent because seeing images of him made the pain so unbearable.

How could he know? They never talked about him.

Tricia moved into the bathroom and studied herself in the mirror. She took a deep breath and concentrated on the bridge of her nose. Staring at one fixed point was all she had to do in order to stop herself from crying. And she couldn’t cry, Harry needed her to be strong. Always. That was her job.

She slipped the small photo frame into her clutch bag and clipped it shut, before following Harry into his bedroom. He was stood at the edge of the bed, his face was pallid, and glistening with a cold sweat.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” She asked, slipping a hand onto his shoulder.

“I’m just nervous, you know. I mean, it’s the Oscars!”

He looked at her. He took one step back and looked at every inch of her, and that’s when she knew she had Harry back, and that Vincent was not with her, not anymore. Vincent had had a way of looking at her that made her whole body shimmer with desire, with eroticism, a way of looking that made her feel as if every inch of her flesh was special and wanted.

Harry, as lovely as he was, had a way of looking at her without even seeing her. Harry would just see the dress, the deep red that had become her signature colour, the small bag that hung off her arm so effortlessly and the heel that tensed the muscles in her calf so perfectly.

“You look wonderful.” He said.

“I know.” They both laughed a little. “Come on, we’re going to be late.”

Harry took her arm and they started to make their way down the stairs. “You know, you don’t have to come with me. It’s not really that big a deal.”

“Not that a big deal?” She took a deep breath, finally feeling able to slip back into the role of agent, mentor and boss that she felt most comfortable with. “Of course it’s a big deal! You’ve been nominated for Best Actor – and I know you’re going to win this time. Besides, turning up with a gorgeous, natural blonde – ”

“Natural brunette.”

“ – is going to help quash those latest rumours that have been doing the rounds.”

“They’re not rumours, T.”

Tricia glared at him. “I know that. You know that. Doesn’t mean everyone else has to know it as well.”

“I’m gay, T. It’s part of who I am. If the great American public aren’t ready to accept that of me yet, then that’s their own problem.”

“Which becomes your problem when they stop paying you to appear in movies as the lead heartthrob. Which then becomes my problem when I stop receiving fifteen percent – which once again then becomes your problem when I kill you. Also, how many times do I have to tell you not to admit to it, no matter where you are, or who you’re talking to? For all we know this whole place could be bugged.”

“I’m sure the paparazzi wouldn’t stoop to putting cameras and microphones in my apartment.”

“Maybe not, and maybe the next time my roots come through they’ll be deep purple.” She ushered him out through the front door and onto the steps outside. “Look, all I’m saying is, if you have to say it out loud, just call it something else, will you?

Tricia tottered down the steps in her three inch heels into the back seat of the Bentley waiting for them at the bottom. Harry locked up the front door and then sidled in beside her

“Look, why does it even matter if the press find out that I’m – ” He glanced at the driver in the front seat and then back at Tricia who was glaring dangerously at him “That I’m… interested in kayaking?”

Tricia gave him a look that plainly said, do we need to have this conversation again?

“Kayaking,” she began slowly, “is a dangerous sport and I know of plenty of other young heartthrob actors who have lost many young female fans because of it.”

“You do?” Harry grinned cheekily. “Maybe you could introduce me to a few of them and we could… kayak together.”

“If I still smoked, I’d be sparking up a whole pack right now.” Harry smiled to himself as she fumbled through her bag and pulled out a stick of chewing gum.

“You know, miss,” the old, scratchy voice of the driver came from the front seat, “I really don’t think anyone cares all that much about kayaking, my son does it all the time and no one bats an eyelid. In fact I’ve kayaked with him, myself, once or twice.”

“Really?” Harry said with a sly smile at Tricia, “Does your wife know?”

“Just drive, will you?” Tricia shot at the old man in the front.

“Yes, ma’am.”

As the car pulled away down the street, Tricia leant over and pulled the divide across, giving the two of them some privacy in the back seat.

“I’m just saying, it’s not – ”

“A wise career move, yeah, I know.” Harry conceded with a nod.

Neither of them spoke for a minute, the only sound coming from the soft smacking of the gum between Tricia’s teeth.

Vincent remained unspoken between them. Tricia knew that when Vincent and Harry had been children they had both dreamed of being world famous superstars. The dream had come true for Vincent and he had left his old life and his twin brother behind in England. After Vincent’s death, Harry had made the difficult decision to step in and help the studio complete the picture that Vincent had been working on.

His performance was critically acclaimed and that, along with the tragedy of losing his brother had catapulted Harry’s career to heights that Vincent had barely been able to imagine. Tricia knew that it was no longer really what Harry wanted, his heart wasn’t in it, but he continued to live Vincent’s dream for him, leaving his own life behind.

She knew that Harry had posthumously made this promise to Vincent, but he didn’t know she had made the same promise. She had wanted to stop, wanted to give it all up, but she owed it to Vincent to help Harry. And that was why, however much she didn’t like it, she had to keep his preferences a secret.

“Did you have a chance to look at those scripts I sent over?” She asked.

“It’s all the same sort of thing I’ve done before,” Harry sighed, “I’m being typecast.”

“But you are being cast, Harry, and that’s the important thing. Look, I had a script arrive on my desk yesterday morning, it’s perfect for you. You play an astronaut, Jack something or other, who launches into space on a routine mission to Mars. Then, when you come back you realise aliens have taken over the world.”

Harry gasped falsely. “Let me guess, then I stop them, along with my beautiful and amazingly intelligent co-pilot, played by some vacant but virginal-looking actress who can barely create a look of shock or fear or anything because of all the chemicals that have been pumped into her forehead.”

This time it was Tricia’s turn to sigh. “Look, I know you don’t like these movies, but just get a couple more of these under your belt, you’ll be able to start doing things your own way. You’ll be able to make the movie that you want to make.”

Harry glanced down at Tricia’s bag and frowned. “Why have you got this?” He pulled out the small picture of himself and his brother that she had slipped inside.

“I was going to get it fixed for you, a new frame or something.”

“Oh.”

They sat in silence for a moment, both of them staring at the picture, until Harry pulled the glass from the frame and took the photo from it. Behind it was another photograph, one of Harry and another man, both of them hugging and grinning at the camera, clearly deep in love.

“Who’s that?” Tricia asked, glancing over at it. “Wait, is that Frederick Cromwell?”

“Yeah.” Harry smiled at her, and she saw his eyes sparkle, the way Vincent’s used to when he had looked at her.

“Since when did you two know each other?” She asked, a dangerous sinking feeling in her stomach.

“About five months ago.” Harry shrugged.

“Wait, don’t tell me the two of you are –” Tricia glanced at the divide in front of them and lowered her voice. “Don’t tell me the two of you are kayaking together?”

“He’s really good on the rapids.” Harry smirked.

“Harry, you really shouldn’t be – is this why you’ve been refusing work? Have you been with him?”

“He’s writing a screenplay.”

“Oh, because his last one was so good.” Tricia rolled her eyes.

“I’m going to be in the leading role, look he’s a really good writer.”

“You think I’ve never heard of him? I know exactly what that man is like and I know the sort of film he’d be writing. I am telling you right here, right now, I’m not letting you appear in some kind of gay porno!”

“Tricia, please – ”

“And he’d better not be there tonight. If you see him at the ceremony, or at the after party, I want you to blank him. The last thing I need is for this rumour to hit the papers tomorrow.”

“No problem, I’m going to have to leave the party early.”

“Why?”

“Freddie’s flying back to England tomorrow for a few days.”

“So?”

Harry hesitated for just a moment.

“So, I could use a damn good kayak before he goes…”

 

 *                *                *

 

He straightened his tie, smoothed down his hair and checked his reflection in the mirror. He smiled as he heard a hesitant knock on the door, and sat down behind his desk.

“Come.” He said simply, slowly, letting the ‘m’ linger slightly too long in the air.

“Mr Johnson?” Harry entered the room, nervously. “Harry Hicks, they said you, err, that you wanted to see me?”

“Call me Briggs,” the man said, smiling warmly, his fingers loosening his tie slightly as he did, “and yes, I did want to… see you. Please… sit down.”

Harry sat in a chair on the other side of the small desk and flashed a weak smile as the man in front of him stood and began to slowly wander around the room.

“I’ve heard a lot about you from my casting lady, seen the pictures. I must say… I’m impressed.” He let his finger slide across Harry’s shoulder blade as he passed him.

“She said that I’d got the part, I’ve got to tell you, Mr – Briggs, this means so much to me, to be in one of your films is like – ”

“I’m afraid I have the final say on who appears in my films.” Harry fell silent, Briggs Johnson stared at him just as silently.

“Please, I’ll do anything, this is a huge opportunity for me.”

“Good, I’m glad you think so.” He stood behind Harry, placing his hands on his shoulders. “It’s very important you understand what I’m saying to you here, I would hate for there to be any kind of misunderstanding… especially as I am yet to make up my mind whether I should give you this part or not. Stand up.”

Harry stood up and turned to face him. Johnson moved in closer to him and stared into his eyes. Harry could feel the breath of the older man on his face as he ran his tongue along his lower lip.

“Mr… Mr Johnson,” Harry stammered, “I’m… straight.”

“Turn around.”

“Briggs, please –“

“Turn around, Harry.” He repeated and Harry did, a strange force compelling him to. For a moment nothing happened and then Harry felt the man step up behind him, his body just inches from his own.

Suddenly Harry was pushed down, his face shoved hard onto the desk. “What – what are you doing?”

“It’s just a rite of passage, Harry. Every one of my leading men has been through this.”

Harry felt something hard against his behind and he twisted his head enough to get a glimpse of what he’d feared. The man behind him had removed all his clothing.

“Of course, every one of my leading men who’s appeared in my films has been given the opportunity to help… choose the actresses. You do understand what I’m saying, don’t you, Harry?”

“I… I think so…”

Harry felt the cool air against his own behind as the waistband of his trousers was lifted. A pair of fingers grazed against his cheek.

“Do you want me to continue, Harry? Do you want this part?”

“I – “ Frederick laughed, cutting off Harry’s nervous mumblings.

“Did he honestly say all this, Harry?”

“Freddie!” Harry groaned, standing up. “You’re the one who wanted to play this game!”

“I know, but I can’t believe Briggs Johnson really said all this to you.”

“I promise you, every word.”

“So, he’s fucked every actor that’s appeared in his films?”

“That’s what he said.”

“Did you…?”

“I got the part, didn’t I?” Harry smirked and sat back down.

Frederick stared at him, a curious look on his face. “Huh.”

“Please, Mr Johnson,” Harry turned and put his hand on one of Frederick’s, “I really want this part.”

“Forget about Briggs Johnson, Harry, I’ve got a better – a bigger part for you.”

Harry laughed as Frederick dragged him into the bedroom of the hotel suite they’d hired for the night.

 

*                *                *

 

“I don’t want you to go.” Harry carefully teased Frederick’s nipple with one finger.

“And I don’t want to go, you know that.” Frederick murmured, holding his lover’s head nestled tightly into his chest.

They were sprawled across the large king sized bed, early morning Los Angeles sunlight spilled through the window over them and the bright white sheets.

“So, if you don’t want to go and I don’t want you to go, why are you going? We could stay here and…”

“And what?”

Harry opened his eyes, lifted his head to look at Frederick and flashed a devilish grin. “I’m sure we could think of something.”

“Behave.”

“Why is it you’re abandoning me again?”

“I’m not abandoning you.” Frederick reminded him, “I’m going back to England for a few days to help Grandpa hire a replacement for Uncle Michael.”

“I thought you’d quit so you could come out here?”

“I had, but it’s family, you know? Besides, I might be able to convince him to finance my next movie, and if I can, then I get a say in the casting. And I know a gorgeous young man, good body,  great little fucker, who’d be perfect for the lead role.”

Frederick started to pull himself up from the bed as Harry rolled away from him. “You mean you’re seeing someone else?”

“You can never accept a compliment, can you?” Frederick sighed.

“Maybe the compliments aren’t good enough.” Frederick rolled his eyes as he slowly walked into the bathroom. He could feel Harry’s eyes, watching his naked form walk away and self-consciously clenched his buttocks.

Frederick stood under the shower, letting the water run softly over his head and down his back. He was the happiest he’d been in years, Harry was about to move into his brand new apartment which Frederick had helped to decorate. He was taking advantage of some rare time off and spending every day he had with a gorgeous man who loved him. It felt to Frederick as though they’d earned this time.

Shortly before they met, the body of Harry’s brother had been pulled from a lake, and until recently, it felt as though Harry had still been mourning his twin. Perhaps it was just a natural process, perhaps it was the excitement of his new apartment, but in the last few weeks Harry had seemed to finally loosen up. Life was good, there was nothing wrong.

He quickly soaped himself all over, stepped out of the shower – only slightly disappointed that Harry hadn’t joined him – and dried himself off. He stared at himself in the full-length mirror, and smiled, happy with what he saw.

Frederick returned to the bedroom and was, again, only slightly disappointed to discover that Harry had not stayed in bed. He quickly pulled on some clothes and moved out to the living-area of the hotel suite, to discover Harry wearing a dressing gown and sat on the couch watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

“I’ve just sent for some breakfast if you want it.”

Frederick looked at his watch. “I don’t think I’m going to have time, I’d miss the plane.”

“Maybe that’s the point. It’s full English.”

“You really know the way to a man’s heart, don’t you?”

Harry smiled and spoke in a playful sing-song voice, “I ordered extra mushrooms.”

Frederick licked his lips, “Maybe I could manage a few bites.”

“Just think how many bites you could have if you stayed here with me.”

“You, Mr Hicks,” Frederick said leaning over his boyfriend, “have got an unhealthy obsession with bites. I’ve still got the marks on my arse from last night.”

“Well,” Harry said, in between small light kisses from the man leaning over him, “you just looked so delicious.”

“I’m not going to deny that.” Frederick moved away, across the room, looking for his pair of tan shoes that he’d kicked across the room in a rush the previous night. “It’s a bit reckless for you, this whole hotel thing, anyway isn’t it? What if somebody sees you with me and blabs to the press?”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” Harry dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand as Elmer Fudd pointed a gun in Bugs’ face. “First of all, this is a Hollywood hotel, the staff know the score, discretion is vital. Also, none of the press can find out I’m staying here, because I’m signed in under an assumed name. Everyone does it.”

Frederick pulled on his second shoe “So, if you’re not Harry Hicks, who are you then?”

“I can’t tell you that, it would ruin my whole cover, I’d never be able to use that name again.”

“Can’t you even tell me your first name? I hate having anonymous sex.”

Harry smiled. “It’s Donald.”

“Nice to meet you Donald, I’m Frederick Cromwell.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Frederick Cromwell.” Harry grinned and shook Frederick’s outstretched hand.

“Of course,” Frederick moved across the room, attempting to do the cuffs up on his shirt, “if anyone asks, I’m Gordon Jones.”

Harry threw a small cushion across the room at Frederick who caught it and laughed. He placed the cushion back and held out his arms to Harry.

He smiled as Harry buttoned up the cuffs for him. “What would I do without you?”

“You’d be walking around with your sleeve all flapping about, and that would just never do.”

Frederick collapsed onto the couch and started to slide a hand under Harry’s dressing gown. “You know, I’ve about ten minutes before I really, really definitely have to leave. You’ve probably got time to… grab a bite.”

Harry pulled away and closed his dressing gown up. “The full English comes with sausage… I’ll wait for that.”

“Perhaps, you’re right,” Frederick sighed, “I’ve still got to pack up my laptop.” He stood back up and moved over to the jumble of wires and machinery on the desk.

“So, what exactly are you going to do on that long plane journey back to England?”

“Bound to be some movie on that I’ve not seen. I’ll probably make a start on that screenplay as well.” He said, motioning with the battery pack of his computer.

Harry nodded and then frowned a moment later. “What screenplay?”

“You know the one I told you about. The one I’m writing for you.”

“You told me that was finished, that… that you were just polishing off some rough edges before you let me see it.”

“Err… yeah it is.”

Harry stood up. “So hang on, it’s nearly finished, just got some rough edges, but you’re only thinking about making a start on it on the plane.”

“Ok, so maybe, it’s not as far along as I said it was, there have been a few complications.”

“You told me that we just had to get the money and we could shoot the movie. Have you actually started writing the thing yet?”

“Well, not in the strictest sense of the word,” Frederick blustered, “but I pretty much know what’s going to happen. It’s no big deal.”

“No big deal?” Harry repeated. “No big deal? Two months ago, you told me that it was in the bag, I’ve been turning down other work to be in this movie of yours and now you’re telling me that you haven’t even started it yet?”

“Look, I didn’t ask you to turn down work, besides, when have I had time to write it, Harry?” Frederick asked. “I’ve been with you nearly twenty four seven since we met. I don’t know how multi-talented you are, but I’m not that great at creative writing when someone is biting on my arse!”

“So, this is my fault?”

“Well, yeah, actually, maybe it is. Maybe, if you weren’t so damn needy all the time, if you weren’t so clingy, maybe I would be able to have my own life.”

“I’m the needy one?” Harry asked incredulously. “How am I the needy one, when it was you who was coming around to my apartment every single day? When it was you constantly ringing me to check that I was ok?”

“I was only doing that, because whenever I didn’t, you worried about me, you used to panic that I’d gone and got myself beaten into a bloody corpse like your stupid brother!” Frederick regretted saying it straight away.

Harry just stared at him. “Grow up.” He said, eventually.

Frederick continued to pack up his computer, deliberately avoiding looking up at Harry. There was a small, timid knock on the door and Frederick stalked over, nearly wrenching the door off it’s hinges causing the young, uniformed man to jump in surprise.

He walked in pushing a small trolley with him. “Your Full English with added mushrooms, Mr, err… Duck.”

“Donald.” Frederick mumbled to himself as Elmer Fudd hid behind a rock, his fingers jammed in his ears, protecting him from the cartoon explosion that filled the screen.

Sensing the tension in the air between the two men, the young man stepped back to the door. “I could come back for the trolley later if it’s more convenient.”

“Yeah,” Frederick said, taking some notes out of his wallet and handing them to him, “that might be a better idea.”

“No.” Harry said, not taking his eyes from Frederick. “Stay, there’s a breakfast going spare. Do you like sausage?”

“No, really, Sir, hotel staff aren’t supposed –

“It’s ok,” Harry put his arm on the young waiter’s shoulders, “Mr Cromwell was just leaving.”

Frederick looked up at him. “Harry, don’t – ”

“No, Frederick. I mean it. I want you to go.

 

Cromley’s Head Office, London

 

Robert Forrester stared out of the window of Ernest Cromwell’s office and sighed. The bright lights of London twinkled in the night sky, high above the noise and the dirt of the streets below. Twinkling like diamonds and rubies suspended in the air, just out of arms reach. All those riches, Robert thought, just out of grasp.

His hand went to the left pocket of his only remaining pair of smart trousers, a pair that hadn’t been washed in two weeks. Inside, he slowly fingered the last of his own riches, a single grubby pound coin.

He moved away from the window and sat in the chair opposite the large desk. His eyes pierced through the darkness and explored the bookcase on the walls, so many thick books, yet covered with a dust that exposed their owner as being more interested in appearances than in literary excellence.

That afternoon, he’d been sat in the very same office, in the very same suit that he’d worn in so many other offices lately, and he had cocked up royally his last chance of getting a job. Only a last minute charm offensive had convinced Cromwell to give him one more chance, a chance over dinner that night.

Ideas, he’d told him, strategies, plans, ways forward, Robert had all of them. Or so he’d said. Ernest hadn’t been convinced until Robert had promised him more money, higher income, increased profits – in short – more power. Ernest’s ears had pricked up and he’d agreed to give Robert a second chance.

Of course, he’d said, I can’t do it now, and Robert’s heart had sunk. He had nowhere to go that night, he needed a job, he needed it now and he really needed a massive advance in wages. Take me out to dinner, Ernest had said and then promptly named the priciest restaurant in London, we can talk about your ideas there.

He pulled the coin out of his pocket and slowly let it move across his fingers. He wasn’t quite sure yet how he’d pay for dinner, but that wasn’t his biggest concern. If things went badly, he’d excuse himself early, go to the bathroom and never come back, ditching a large restaurant bill on Cromwell. If everything went well and Robert managed to impress the old man into giving him a job, his new boss would probably take up the bill. If he didn’t, he would charm whoever he could into paying for him or into waiving the bill.

As it was, he would have to chat someone up enough to convince them to take him home with them, or he’d have to retreat to picking pockets again, something he hadn’t done since he was freshly out of college, nearly two decades previously. That time he’d only had to do it a short while before finding himself studying at a university, and then landing on his feet a few years later a Psychology teacher at a prestigious London college.

He’d managed to stay there until just a year previously when he had been fired for sleeping with one of his students. In fact, he’d been sleeping with more than one of them, and had been doing so for several years. It was only when two girls and one young man went to the headmaster’s office to complain about the sexual harassment because he wasn’t sleeping with them that things had been stirred up and it all came out

Within a week, not only had he lost a job, but gained a reputation as a serial student shagger within the teaching community. Things had gradually died down and he’d nearly managed to secure another teaching post when one of the younger art teachers recognised him from her own student days and warned the employment board. This further reminder of his reputation spread throughout teaching circles along with the rumour that it wasn’t just girls he was sleeping with, but boys as well. A claim Robert had vehemently denied – for it was only one boy, and there had been no sleeping of any kind, merely brief sexual encounters in broom cupboards designed to get Robert closer to the boy’s vast inheritance. Still, the rumours spread like ripples and Robert had found himself without employment and no real chance of going back to teaching.

Robert just prayed that Ernest didn’t know any teachers.

“Who are you?” The door swung open and an attractive blonde woman, wearing what could only be described as a blue power suit delivered directly from the eighties, entered.

“I’m waiting for Mr Cromwell. We’re going for a dinner tonight.”

“Ah, you’re the one that won’t leave him alone.”

“Robert Forrester.” Robert held out his hand and the woman shook it, smiling out one side of her mouth.

“Jennifer Cromwell.”

“His… daughter?”

“Daughter-in-law.”

“Right.” Robert quickly withdrew his hand, but Jennifer took hold of it again.

“It’s ok. My husband is dying.” Robert smiled a little and then jumped when he heard voices outside the office. Cromwell was there arguing with a younger man.

“Oh, that’s Frederick.” Jennifer said, noticing the diversion in Robert’s attention. She frowned and sat up on the desk. “Ernest’s grandson, golden child the way Ernest goes on about him, anyway.”

“How do you mean?” Robert sat down in a chair in front of the desk.

“You haven’t heard about the fabulous Frederick? About five years ago, he wandered in here while his grandfather was with the board trying to figure out the best way to crush the latest rising competition.” Jennifer picked up a framed photo of Frederick on the desk. “Five minutes later, Ernest had fired half of his board members and put Freddie on the payroll. Two years after that and there’s an extra fifteen million pounds profit in the bank account.”

“So what are they arguing about?”

“God knows. They’ve been arguing ever since Frederick left for Hollywood.”

“Hollywood?”

“You really haven’t heard of him? He’s a screenwriter. Following his dream, or something like that. Following his cock more like.”

Robert frowned at her. “You don’t – “

“Listen, Frederick, I’ve already told you, my answer is no.” Ernest Cromwell burst into the room, turning on the light as he came, followed by a much younger man.

“Mr Cromwell.” Robert stood up and shook his hand.

“Forrester! I see you’ve met Jennifer then? Still got your underpants, have you?”

“Ernest,” Jennifer ignored his comments, “Jacob and Alistair are waiting downstairs, we still need to go over those financial reports.”

Cromwell sighed and looked at Robert. “I’ll have to delay dinner for thirty minutes, maybe an hour.”

“Of course, Mr Cromwell, that’s fine.”

“Right, well, you can just wait here, I’ll be back up as soon as possible.”

Cromwell made his way to the door and his grandson followed. “Grandpa, can’t we – ”

“No. I’ve already told you, no is my final answer. Now, I’ve got to go and do some real work, it’s a dirty job, but someone in the family has to earn a living. You can just get a taxi to the airport and go back to Hollywood. Goodnight.”

With that Ernest Cromwell walked out of the office and stalked off down the corridor. Jennifer nodded to Robert and quietly followed the old man out. Robert looked at Frederick and smiled, some alone time with the old man’s golden grandson, he thought, was no bad thing. I might be able to learn a few tricks.

Frederick walked over to the desk and sat in his grandfather’s chair, as Robert sat back down in the chair on the other side. “What are you in for?” Frederick asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Job interview.” Robert shifted a little in the chair, it wasn’t at all comfortable. “You?”

“I needed some money, though it’s like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Of course, it’s probably easier to borrow money from a bloodless stone than it is from Scrooge there.”

Robert smiled and extended his hand across the desk. “Robert Forrester.”

“Frederick Cromwell.”

“Ah, the famous writer.” Robert replied as Frederick shook his hand.

“You know my work?”

“I’ve… seen your film, read some of your reviews.”

“Wow,” Frederick said with a real amazement, “I knew that people had seen the reviews, but I didn’t think anyone had actually sat through the film.”

“I fell asleep in the theatre, it came on after a showing of Gone With the Wind.”

“Of course.” Frederick nodded and a silence filled the room for a moment. “So, job interview, huh, how’s that gone for you?”

“About as well as your money hunting mission.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Frederick mused, “you’re getting dinner.”

“What I’m getting is one last chance to impress him and a hefty restaurant bill at the end of it. So how come you need the money? I thought your entire family was minted.”

“We are,” Frederick nodded, “but even I don’t have enough money to finance a movie.”

“Another movie?” Robert asked with a raised eyebrow. “That’s brave.”

“Foolish, maybe.”

“So what went wrong? He didn’t let you borrow the money, because of the first one?”

“No, no, he actually quite enjoyed the first film, at least, he says he did. No, it was all going well, he nearly had his chequebook out, but then I said the ‘B’ word.”

“Belgium?”

“Boyfriend.”

Robert paused. He hadn’t expected that at all. Normally, he could sense this sort of thing. His mind suddenly started racing, being alone with the golden grandson was most definitely not a bad thing. Internally, as he smiled at the young man, a switch flicked from ‘charm’ to ‘flirt’.

“Boyfriend?”

“Boyfriend.”

“Oh. So, you’re – ”

“Yeah, at the moment anyway.”

“At the moment?” Robert asked.

“I butter my bread on both sides, if you get my drift.”

“And he doesn’t approve of you spreading your butter around like that?”

“He’d prefer I only buttered one side.”

“Let me guess,” Robert smiled, “he wants you to keep your butter away from the backside?”

Frederick laughed and looked out of the window. “Crude, yet accurate. The only reason he hasn’t disowned me completely is because I, and I’m quoting here, still bone women occasionally.”

“Well, you don’t look stupid.”

“Excuse me?”

“Well,” Robert said, leaning forward, “the way I see it, is that you’ve known your grandfather for, what – twenty years?”

“Twenty three, but carry on.”

“You know how he reacts when your boyfriend is mentioned, so why bring him up?”

“It just kind of happened.”

“How?”

“Well, like I said, it was all going really well, I’d told him about my idea for the film and he loved it, he’d near to damn it signed the cheque, and I just got excited. I said, Donald’s going to be so happy!”

“Donald? The toast?”

“So, that’s what Grandpa says, ‘Who’s Donald?’ I tell him he’s my boyfriend. Well, then, he wants to know why Donald, specifically, is going to be so happy. And I tell him, he’s going to play the main character.”

“And Ernest wasn’t all too happy to fund a movie starring a gay man who was – literally –  leading his grandson off the straight and narrow.”

Frederick clicked his finger and pointed it, like a gun, straight at Robert. “The chequebook snapped shut faster than a bulldog clip. So, now I have no money to produce a film with a script that I haven’t yet written starring a man who won’t be my boyfriend for much longer.”

Robert frowned. “He wouldn’t split up with you just because you can’t put him in a movie, would he?”

“Of course he wouldn’t, he’s not like that. No, we just had a huge argument before I came away, the biggest one we’ve ever had.”

Robert stood up and walked around the desk, sitting on it just in front of Frederick. “Couples fight, they cool off, then they make up. That’s the fun bit.” He winked.

“Maybe.” Frederick mused.

Robert looked down at the young man sat in front of him, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

“Here’s the way, I see it,” Robert said, loosening his tie, “I think we can help each other.”

“How’s that?”

“Despite the whole screwing men thing, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, by the way,” he added, throwing another wink Frederick’s way, “it’s clear your grandfather thinks a hell of a lot of you.”

“How do you figure that?” Frederick asked with a frown. Robert leant back on his hands, pushing his crotch forward. It was practically eye level for Frederick, and he smiled as he spotted the young man take a look.

“I know enough about your grandfather,” Robert began as Frederick stood up, flustered, “to know that he’s got a fairly large family. What is it, three children, nearly twice as many grandchildren.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“There are only two photographs in this office, one on the wall of him opening a supermarket, and then there’s this one.” He pointed to a frame on the desk.

Frederick looked the photograph of himself and smiled. He remembered the day that picture had been taken, the previous autumn when he had briefly stayed with his grandfather before moving out to Los Angeles. They’d spent the day painting the walls of the dining room, Ernest had felt they needed a fresh coat and he didn’t trust anyone else to do it. Frederick felt that it was more he didn’t want to pay anyone else to do it, but he had helped him anyway.

Surprisingly, they’d had a good day, they’d had a lot of fun and Frederick had bonded with his grandfather in a way he’d never done before. The next day, Frederick had all but shattered that bond, or so he’d thought, when he announced he was bisexual, and moving to Hollywood.

“So, you want me to convince Grandpa, that in the five minutes I’ve known you, I’ve gotten to know you so well, and that I think he should hire you? What do I get out of the deal?”

“I’m a financial advisor, Frederick, if I get this job with your grandfather, I’ll be the one telling him how to spend his money. I could tell him to spend it all on crackers or water pumps in Africa. Or on a movie.”

Frederick turned and stared out of the window, usually he looked up to the stars for inspiration, but none were ever visible in the centre of London, and so, he peered down at the streetlights below. Eventually, he turned to face Robert, who had now stood up to face him.

“I barely know you.”

“We can change that.” Robert said stretching out his hand, hooking two fingers into the waistband of Frederick’s jeans and pulling him in close to him.

“I have a boyfriend.”

“I have two.” Robert bent his head and slowly began kissing Frederick’s neck. “I won’t tell  if you don’t.”

Frederick remained standing as Robert leaned back onto the desk. “I can’t.”

“Of course you can.” Robert pulled him in closer, causing Frederick to straddle his left leg. Despite Frederick’s protests, Robert felt part of Frederick that was urging him on, pressing into his thigh. He felt sick.

Frederick hesitated for a few seconds before pushing Robert down completely onto the tidy polished desk and lying atop him. For several moments their mouths exploded with frenzied kisses and thrashing tongues while their fingers frantically clawed at buttons, belts and zips.

As Frederick pulled down his own boxer shorts, he whispered in Robert’s ear. “Roll over.”

“No,” Robert said, using his superior strength to turn Frederick back-down on the desk, “you roll over.”

“I’m a top, I’ve never… I don’t do that.”

“You do now.” Robert pulled down his own briefs. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”

 

*                *                *

 

“So, how exactly is this going to work?” Frederick asked Robert as he buttoned up the front of his shirt.

“First,” Robert started lacing his shoes as he spoke, “you tell me the best way to get your grandfather on my side. Then, you tell your grandfather that, in your opinion, I’ve got some really good ideas and that you think I would be really good for the job.”

“Then what do you do for me?”

“Then, I get the job and I tell your grandfather that investing in the movies would be a good idea, and that what better film to start with than yours. Simple.”

“What do you want to know?” Frederick asked, sitting back down in the chair behind the desk.

“How do I get him to like me?”

“Well, don’t tell him about what we just did, for a start. And if you really have to, don’t tell him we did it on his desk. I can’t see that going down well at all.”

“Ok, anything else?”

“Secondly, agree with everything he says.”

“Everything?”

“Everything. The man likes to be right and he likes others to acknowledge that he is right, he’s surrounded himself with yes men for sixty years, and it seems to have worked out for him.”

Robert continued to ask Frederick questions, and Frederick was just explaining to him some of Ernest’s political persuasions when he stopped. Robert turned to look, and saw Ernest stood at the door.

“Frederick, what are you still doing here? I thought I told you to go home?”

“Err, you did, grandpa,” Frederick said, getting up from the chair, “but I was about to call the taxi and I got chatting to Robert here. He was a bit nervous about his interview.”

“Well,” Robert felt Cromwell’s eyes all over him and prayed that nothing looked out of place, “if he gets the job, he’ll have big shoes to fill.”

“What do you mean?” Frederick asked and Cromwell shifted uncomfortably on his feet.

“Michael. His… his cancer’s progressed, he’s not going to be able to work much longer.” He turned to Robert, almost as if he owed an explanation. “Michael’s my eldest, he’s my current financial advisor.”

“Grandpa,” Frederick looked at Ernest nervously, “I know you’re busy, but can I talk to you for a moment. In private?”

“Two minutes.” Cromwell sighed heavily. “Robert, would you excuse me, just a short while longer?”

“Of course.”

Robert stepped out of the office, and as he closed the door, he glanced back to see Ernest and Frederick whispering to each other, frantically.

“You realise you just got played, don’t you?”

He turned to see Jennifer sitting in a chair, staring up at him. “Excuse me?”

“They,” she nodded her head towards Ernest’s office, “played you.”

“What?”

“It was supposed to catch you off guard, they’ve done it before.”

Robert pointed to the office he had just left. “That was an interview?”

“I’ve already told you, he’s the golden child. If he doesn’t like you, I can assure you, you don’t get the job.”

Robert gave a small, disbelieving laugh. “I don’t understand. That was all a set up? None of it was real? They weren’t really arguing?”

“Oh, the argument was real. They can’t spend more than half an hour in the same room together without arguing. Ernie might disagree with him on pretty much most of the decisions he makes, but he trusts him. Can’t choose which toilet paper to wipe his arse with without checking Frederick’s opinion first.”

“Well, I certainly hope I gave Frederick a thorough understanding of my… skills.” Robert said as Cromwell stepped out of the office, beaming.

“Right, then, Forrester, are you ready?”

“Absolutely. Let’s go.”

Frederick stepped out from behind his grandfather and started to head for the door. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Robert. Goodnight Aunt Jenny… send my love to Uncle Michael?”

“You’re not staying?” She asked

“Err, no. I’m heading back to LA. Work to do, and all that.” He nodded to them and walked off towards the staircase at the end of the hall.

Cromwell watched him go and sighed. “He’s a good enough lad, his only problem is this Hollywood business he’s got himself involved with.”

“You don’t approve?”

“Well, it’s a very hit and miss way to make your money, there are better things to gamble on. Tell me, Mr Forrester, would you ever advise investing in cinema?”

“Well, Sir, like you said, it’s a very risky business to gamble on. And with your grandson’s track record in the movies…”

Ernest nodded. “Exactly what I said.”

“Besides, I don’t think, the Hollywood thing is his only problem.”

Cromwell paused and looked at Robert enquiringly. “How do you mean?”

“Well, I think… I think he might be gay.”

“And that would be a problem for you?”

Robert remembered the feeling of revulsion he’d felt as he’d gripped hold of the young man’s thighs just fifteen minutes before. “Yes. It would, Mr Cromwell. I probably shouldn’t be saying this sort of thing in a job interview, but I hate faggots.”

Ernest gave a small laugh. “Oh, don’t be silly,” he smiled, patting Robert on the shoulder, “Call me Ernest.”

 

 Click here for the next chapter

 

 

 

 

 

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Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All by Jonas Jonasson

After reading three different genres those that I’m used to, for my fourth book of 2016 I returned to familiar territory – and boy do I mean familiar.

 

My job means I’m pretty lucky and I get to read books months, sometimes years, before they are officially published.

 

Sometimes, this means I spot a really good book months before anyone else talks about it, sometimes it means that suddenly everyone is talking about a book that I’ve shamefully had on my to-read pile for six months.

 

But occasionally, it means I get early access to the next book from an author I’ve enjoyed before.

 

Jonas Jonasson (he who wrote The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared) has a new book coming in April of this year – Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All.

 

When it comes to writing reviews, I struggle to remain impartial. Just because I liked a book doesn’t mean everyone else will, and just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean others won’t. I try not to sit on the fence, but if I find myself about to write ‘the sort of people that enjoy this sort of book, will enjoy this book’ then I know that I’m not giving an honest review. Usually it means I hated it.

 

However, never has the phrase been more relevant than here.

 

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All tells the story of Per Persson, the receptionist at a hotel and a disillusioned priest he meets while out on lunch one day. The story follows them as they manipulate the eponymous Hitman Anders into making them millions of kronor.

 

What follows is the typical Jonas Jonasson type adventure, incredible strokes of luck and chance forcing the characters along a journey that they seem to be passive participants in, all told in a lackadaisical narrative.

 

It’s more of the same – which is great for those that have enjoyed Jonasson before. But if you didn’t like him before you’re not going to like it this time around.

 

And if you did like it before, you may not even like it this time. The lead characters in this are unlikeable, and not just because they’re villains. The characters in Hundred Year old Man and it’s follow up The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden were hardly all angels themselves, but they had heart.

 

There was a spark of humanity that shone through the apathetic narrative that made you care about them. There was a sense of epic-ness in the story that made you feel their actions were having a huge effect on the outside world.

 

That doesn’t necessarily happen in Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All and so because the narrative is so laconic it’s hard to engage with these characters.

 

Perhaps what was so frustrating was that for a book that so concentrated on divvying up money, and one with a main character called Per Persson – there wasn’t a ‘per person’ joke in sight. Maybe it’s just a joke that is obvious thanks to the translation.

 

Still, I enjoyed it, perhaps not to the extent I enjoyed his other books, but it has to be said:

 

If you enjoy this sort of book, this is the sort of book you’ll enjoy. And if you like this, check out The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – they’re far superior.

 

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All is enjoyable enough but fall shorts of it’s predecessors. It earns 2.8 out of 5

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 2

Start at the beginning here or read the last chapter here

 

53 Years Later

 

Harry stared through his own faint reflection and out at the countryside rushing by them. He rested one side of his forehead against the window and let the vibrations shake through his skull, causing a single strand of his fringe – his bangs, his American colleagues called it – to fall down from its swept back position.

He was experiencing a moment of pure, unadulterated nothingness. His mind was concentrating only on the harsh shaking of the window, his eyes – crystal blue according to his official biography, although ‘dull grey’ would have been Harry’s response if anyone had ever bothered to ask him – could see nothing in the darkness of this cold December night.

This was the first time in months where Harry wasn’t on an unchangeable itinerary and his imagination could come up with no original thought of its own. It was as if the controlled madness of his life had killed Harry’s last remaining brain cells.

He could feel them searching for something to think about, an opinion to express, and before they found it, Harry knew the single thought that they would alight on. The thought that had always been there since it the first time it had formed. It never dominated, it lingered in the background, often remaining quiet for hours on end, but always appearing in the quietest of moments.

Harry thought of his brother. Of the promise that he had made him. To live his life for him. And then Harry thought of his own life. The things he had given up. The people he had given up. The secrets he kept.

“Condoms!”

“Excuse me?” He turned to find Frederick sitting bolt upright in his seat, clearly having woken from his slumber at some point during Harry’s thoughts of nothingness.

Frederick glanced at the taxi driver watching them in his rear-view mirror and lowered his voice.

“Have you got any?”

“Err, no, all out I think.”

“Shit. What are we going to do?”

He looks genuinely concerned, Harry thought, like it’s the end of the world that we won’t be able to fuck for a couple of days.

Frederick turned away from him, flashing the smooth lines of his cheekbones as he did. His question was rhetorical, he wasn’t expecting Harry to provide the answer – solving problems, answering questions, neither of these was in any schedule of Harry’s that either of them had ever seen. Frederick never expected Harry to provide the answer to anything.

Instead, he rubbed the dark stubble on his square chin, as if it were a lamp that a genie might spring out of. Harry watched him hypnotised for a moment – his last few brain cells still working their way back to life – before reaching out with his hand. The index finger on his left hand reached for the smoothness of Frederick’s plump lower lip and gently turned his face.

“You’ll just have to find another way to get rid of your tension.”

“Speaking of tension,” Frederick took his lover’s hand in his, lowered it from his face, and looked at Harry’s other hand, curled in a fist by his side, so tightly that his knuckles were turning white, “what’s up with you?”

Harry checked the time on his wrist-watch. “I just don’t want anything to go wrong.”

“We’re ten minutes late, Harry, it’s hardly the biggest crime of the century.”

“I know, I know,” Harry sighed, looking out of the car window, now able to distinguish some of the scenery flying past. He thought that the bare branches of the trees looked like arms reaching for him out of the darkness. “It’s just, I don’t want to create a bad impression with them, that’s all”

Frederick leant over and put his hand on Harry’s. “It’s only my family, they’re hardly royalty. No matter what they might try and tell you.”

“I used to work for Cromley’s, remember? Your grandfather has a reputation of being a touch… difficult.”

“Don’t be so silly, that’s just a front. Granted, he’s forthright, but you haven’t got anything to worry about. He can be a bit of an old bastard but he’s not a snob or anything.”

“The man’s got servants!”

“They’re not servants,” Frederick rolled his eyes, “Pat and Ella have been with us for so long, they’re practically family.”

Harry groaned inwardly, Frederick’s family was large enough. Including himself and Frederick, there would be twelve of them spending Christmas at ‘Cromwell Manor’. Fourteen if you included the servants. “Talk about throwing me to the lions.”

“Don’t worry you won’t be the only one,” Frederick put his hand on Harry’s knee, “Mum’s bringing her new boyfriend. I’m not sure what his name is.”

Harry raised an eyebrow, every time Frederick talked about his mother, the words ‘new boyfriend’ were generally not far behind. “I thought you said she’d sworn off men?”

“For about a week, apparently.”

“And you’re ok with that?”

“Of course. She’s going to introduce her new boyfriend and I’m going to introduce mine. It’s only fair.” He grinned and gripped Harry’s hand as if to confirm just who his boyfriend was.

Harry forced a weak smile, but Frederick had already turned to look out of the window on the opposite side of the car, failing to see the severe lack of enthusiasm radiating from Harry’s body. He had promised his agent, Tricia, that he and Frederick would pretend to be friends and nothing more during their trip away. He hadn’t told Frederick yet, and was running out of time to do so.

“There it is, Cromwell Manor.”

The taxi had turned a corner onto a long driveway, a large, almost majestic house stood at the end.

Wow, thought Harry. It was big. Very big. And it was close, and getting closer. “Stop the car.”

“Excuse me?” The driver asked, but continued to drive.

“Just stop the car.” Harry repeated

The driver slowed and pulled over to the side of the long driveway and Frederick turned to face Harry.

“What is it?”

“I can’t do this.”

“Harry, we talked about this, you said you wanted to meet my family. I want them to meet my boyfriend.”

“Well, they can’t.”

“Unless you’re expecting me to bring you a plate of turkey breast out to the taxi tomorrow, there’s going to have to be some sort of introduction.”

“No, I get that, that’s not what I meant.”

Frederick frowned, before turning to the taxi driver. “Could you give us a moment?”

“Take as long as you like,” the driver said, “I’m leaving the meter on.”

“We won’t be long.”

“Sorry.” Harry murmured quietly, a wave of guilt washing over him for kicking the poor man out of his own car.

“Ah, it’s not big deal, I could do with a fag – err, I mean a smoke.”

Harry smirked and Frederick rolled his eyes as the driver heaved himself out of the car and sparked up a cigarette. Frederick unbuckled his seatbelt and shifted in his seat.

“What’s going on, Harry? They’re going to realise we’re sleeping together.”

“You planning on doing it in front of them?”

Frederick sighed loudly. “Look, I know you don’t want the general public knowing and I suppose I can understand that – for now – but those people in that house over there, they’re my family, they’re hardly going to sell your story to the tabloids.”

“They don’t have to. Look, I’m not judging your family or anything here, but I just don’t know them. One wrong word from one of them and my whole career could be ruined.”

“So? You can’t live your life in lies and secrets, Harry. People are going to find out about you sooner or later, it would be much better if it came from you rather than from some drunken screw in a motorway service station toilet.”

“You know I would never do that. I’m a film star, Freddie, I can’t be taken seriously as a romantic lead if the audience all know that I’m gay.”

“You sound an awful lot like Tricia, right now.” Frederick sighed, Harry knew that Frederick and Tricia didn’t exactly get on. He was hoping to keep her name out of it. “It’s called acting, Harry, pretending to be something you’re not. Which by the way you’re not being paid to do at the moment, so you can drop the straight act.”

“You’re just a writer, you wouldn’t understand.”

“I love you, Harry.” Frederick grabbed hold of Harry’s face, the smooth skin of his hand contrasting against the rough stubble on Harry’s cheek. “Even if you don’t have a job, we can be together, isn’t that enough for you?”

“I love you too.” Harry smiled, but pulled away sharply when Frederick leant in to kiss him. “What are you doing?”

“I’m kissing my boyfriend.” He smiled a fixed grin.

“Not here.” Harry pointed out of the window to the taxi driver, who was sitting on a fence post opposite, looking in at them. The glowing red embers at the end of his cigarette cast his face in a sinister glow.

“I think he’s already guessed.”

“But we don’t have to kiss it up in front of his security camera, do we?”

Frederick pulled away and re-buckled his seatbelt. “I hate this.”

“I know.”

The driver pulled open the door and sat back in the driving seat. “Have you girls finished your squabble yet? I’m freezing my nuts off out there.”

“Yeah, I think we’re done here.” Frederick almost spat at Harry.

The three of them sat in silence for a moment as the driver started up the engine again.

Finally, as they approached the house, Frederick spoke.

“So, what’s the story then? What do I tell them when they ask who you are, why I’ve brought you home for Christmas?”

“Tell them the truth.”

“Whose version?”

“The one where you and I met in a British theme pub in LA and became friends. The one where you invited me to spend Christmas with your family because you knew I didn’t have anywhere else to go. You know, the version that actually happened.”

“Just leave out the bit where I shove my cock up your arse, right?”

The car jerked forward suddenly as the driver stalled the engine. “We’re here.” He muttered quietly.

“I would hope you might just leave that little bit out of most general conversations, actually.”

Frederick stared at Harry for a moment before opening the car door and climbing out

“Freddie!” A plain young woman ran down the steps and wrapped her arms around him as he climbed out of the taxi. She had short, brown hair, almost bland in its limpness, just above her shoulders. She wore nearly all black apart from the white apron, frilled at the sides to make it look like a doily on straps. “How are you? How’s Hollywood?”

“I’m good, Ella, it’s good. We’re all good.”

“Good, good,” Ella said with a big grin on her face, turning to Harry as he pulled himself out of the car, “and I know who you are, Mr Harry Hicks.”

“Yeah, that’s Harry, he’s my – ”

“Colleague.” Harry interrupted earning a vicious look in the process.

“Friend.” Frederick finished.

“We’re working on the same film together, and I had nowhere to go for Christmas this year.” The smile on Ella’s face faded as she shook Harry’s hand.

“Colleague? But Freddie told me that you were – ”

“Yeah, I know what I said, Ella, but I got it wrong, you know what I’m like. Harry’s as straight as anything, we’re just… friends.”

“Err, Mr Hicks?” The driver cleared his throat as he dropped a suitcase at the top of the steps. “Will that be all, Sir?”

“Oh, yes, err, thank you, umm…”

“Dave.” The driver gave his name as he and Harry walked over to the car.

“Right, thank you Dave.” Harry muttered in a state of distraction, his eyes trained on Frederick whispering frantically to Ella as they started carrying the cases inside the house.

“You’re welcome, Mr Hicks.” Dave’s eyes lit up as Harry pulled out a small roll of notes. “Oh, and I’ve got something for you two,” he said, “call it an early Christmas present.”

Harry pulled his gaze away from the large house as Frederick disappeared inside and found Dave fumbling around in his wallet, before handing over two sealed condoms.

“You won’t need these?” Harry asked, a little surprised.

He stared at Harry in despair. “No. The wife’s decided we need another baby.”

“Well, err, thanks, Dave”

“And don’t worry, discretion is assured.”

As Harry tucked the condoms into his inside jacket pocket, he caught his eye, and suddenly realised that Dave’s ‘discretion’ would come at a price. “Let me assure you, Dave, that there is nothing to be discreet about.”

“Of course not, Sir.” Dave took the notes that were offered to him and climbed back into the car. Harry caught his smirk and realised that he’d not convinced him of anything. He would have to pay up. Harry peeled off another few notes and offered it to him through the window.

“Have a good Christmas, Dave.

“Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir.”

Before Harry could put his wallet back in his pocket, Dave had restarted the engine and roared off back down the driveway.

“Harry!” Frederick appeared out from behind the two large doors at the top of the steps. “Are you coming in or not?”

Without waiting for a response, Frederick went back inside, leaving the door wide open. Harry took a deep breath and slowly walked toward it before slipping quietly through and joining Frederick inside. The entrance hall was much bigger than he had imagined. A few antiques skirted the walls of the room, including a rather intrusive suit of armour, which was set up immediately to the left of the door, as if to guard the house from unwanted visitors. By far the biggest thing in the room was the large staircase immediately opposite the entrance.

The dark red of the carpet that ran down the centre of the stairs matched the earthy tones of the wood panelling on the walls which stretched up to the ceiling three floors above them. The stairs themselves rose sharply before branching off into two, snaking around both side walls. At the top of the first flight was a large painting of a sour looking man, it was positioned in such a way that any visitors had no choice but to look up at him as they walked through the door.

At the bottom of the stairs, stood next to Ella, was the same man. So realistic was the painting, that he looked like he’d walked straight out of it. He was studying Harry intently, with a scowl on his face, a scowl that fit so easily, it looked as though it had come first and the man had been built around it.

He was short, plump, though not fat, but somehow managed to be incredibly imposing. He had grey hair, but not much of it, spread across the top of his head. Not quite a combover, but certainly destined to become one.

“Grandpa, this is my friend, Harry.” Frederick said waving his hand towards him with a flourish as if he were performing a magic trick and Harry was the rabbit he’d just pulled from his hat.

“Mr Cromwell.” Harry stepped forward and warily shook the hand that the old man had stretched out. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

“You’re not one of his funny friends are you?” The old man’s voice was gruff and accusatory. Harry disliked him immediately.

“Excuse me?” The old man held firm onto his hand, almost as if he refused to let go until Harry had answered him.

“You know the type I mean, all pina coladas and pink feather boas.”

A quick glance at Frederick told Harry that he was staring straight past him, at a spot on the wall. There was no emotion displayed on his face, but the message was clear. It’s up to you.

“Well, I’m usually a Guinness man and my feather boas are only pink because I washed them with a red sock.”

The old man stared at him silently for a minute, both Frederick and Ella watching tensely. After a moment he laughed huskily. He placed an arm around Harry and clamped down a withered hand onto his shoulder. “You can forget this Mr Cromwell crap, call me Ernest.”

“Yes, Mr… Ernest. I’ll do that.”

“You know, Frederick needs more friends like you. I’m hoping it’s just a phase he’s going through, this whole bisexual thing.” Harry looked at Frederick, but he simply shrugged. Looks like I’m not the only one who’s not being completely honest, Harry thought. “With more people around like me and you, son, maybe we can tempt him over to the normal way of doing things.”

Frederick opened his mouth to speak, but Ernest waved him away before he could start.

“Spare me the ‘I’m normal’ speech.” He growled at Frederick. “The only reason I let you stay in this house is because you haven’t been turned all the way. There’s still hope for you, boy, don’t you agree, Harry?”

Ernest stared at him and for a moment, Harry could feel an anger rising within him. He wanted to tell the bigoted old man just exactly where to go, but something stalled inside his throat and he remained silent.

“Yes, Harry,” Frederick smirked, “do you think I can be saved from eternal damnation with the rest of the faggots?”

Harry bit down on his lip and scowled across at his boyfriend, as he carefully chose his words. “I don’t think that you’ll be going to hell, if that’s the question you’re asking me.”

“There we go,” Ernest said with what was clearly an uncharacteristic grin, “Hollywood hasn’t managed to turn this one, why shouldn’t it be the same for you, Frederick?”

“There’s my Hollywood Superstar!” A tall, blonde woman came sweeping down the staircase and launched herself past Harry, Ernest and Ella and hugged Frederick. She wore nothing but a red silk dressing gown, and a good half an inch of make-up. She was clearly in the middle of her preparations for the evening. She had large, coloured-from-a-bottle hair, which surrounded her head in an almost perfect circle and made her head look far too large for her body. But she wasn’t unattractive, in fact, in her face, Harry could see the ghosts of the qualities that most attracted him to Frederick.

“Of course, it might not have been Hollywood that turned him.” Ernest muttered out the side of his mouth and Harry couldn’t quite stop himself from smiling.

“Your grandfather’s not bullying you, is he?”

“Nothing more than I can handle, mum,” he replied returning the hug, “besides, it’s not me that’s the Hollywood Superstar. Harry’s the actor, I’m just a writer.”

Frederick sent a pointed stare to Harry that might as well have been a set of steak knives as Harry moved towards his mother.

“Good evening Mrs Cromwell, nice to meet you – ”

“Oh nonsense, we’re practically family.” She batted away Harry’s outstretched hand and wrapped her arms around him with as much vigour as she had her son. For a moment Harry thought he would choke on the strong smell of her perfume, but as quickly as she’d pulled him into the hug, she planted two quick kisses on each cheek and pulled away. “Call me Elizabeth. Call me mum!”

“Mother, you misunderstand,” Frederick said stepping forward, “Harry’s not my boyfriend. He’s straight.”

“He is?” Elizabeth asked, the disappointment sketched into every corner of her face. “That’s such a shame, he’s so cute. He’d make a perfect son-in-law. Oh, maybe I should introduce him to Victoria?” She turned back to face Harry. “Victoria’s my daughter, now she has got a son, but what man doesn’t want a ready-made family?”

With Ernest standing on one side, Elizabeth on the other and Frederick still glaring like a Rottweiler in a bad mood, Harry turned to the safest face in the room. “Ella, perhaps I should go and get ready for dinner?”

“Oh, absolutely,” she said picking up Frederick’s bag, leaving Harry to his own, “the only thing is, I’ve… I’ve put you and Frederick in the same room, I guess I just assumed that you were… you know.”

“That’s ok, I’m sure we’ll manage.”

“Do you mean we’ll have to share a double bed?” Frederick asked with mock horror. “Whatever shall we do? I guess, one of us will have to sleep on the floor.”

“It’s only two nights,” Harry smiled not breaking eye contact with Frederick and earning a small smirk in return, “I’m sure we can cope with sharing a bed for two nights.”

“Ooh, honey,” Elizabeth cooed, grabbing hold of Frederick’s shoulders, “do you hear that? You might be able to turn him yet.”

“You’d better bloody not.” Ernest’s voice was back to a growl again.

“I’ll show you where your room is.”

Harry began to follow Ella up the large staircase in front of him, chancing a backwards glance at Freddie as they went. For a moment, their eyes locked, but then he lowered them, choosing to continue his conversation with his mother and grandfather.

“Where do those stairs go?” Harry asked, gesturing to a set of stairs in the far corner of the entrance hall. They were a lot less grand than ones they were climbing, and Harry wouldn’t have even noticed them had he not been looking down at Frederick.

“Oh, down to the kitchen – and the servants quarters.”

“Servants quarters?” Harry let out a small nervous laugh. “He doesn’t actually make you sleep down there?”

“Well, it’s very nice,” Ella said, a look of complete seriousness on her face, “it’s been completely renovated, not at all how it would have been a hundred years ago.”

“Still… it’s a basement. What about windows? You can’t ever see daylight – sunshine.”

“Daylight and sunshine?” Ella smirked at Harry, a twinkle in her eye. “You haven’t been back to England for a long time, have you?”

“It’s been a while.” Harry murmured, trying to pretend that he hadn’t lost his breath.

They had reached the top of the first flight, and already Harry had begun to regret packing so much. He set his case down under the pretence of taking a closer look at the large portrait of Ernest in front of him, but quickly turned away, grimacing at the rather too perfect likeness of the old man’s ugly face. His eyes settled on the woven tapestry underneath it.

Ernest’s name had been carefully stitched in gold at the top, there were no names above his, no parents, as if he had just appeared by himself, already at the top of the tree. Which, Harry reminded himself, was probably how Ernest had always viewed the world – a world just waiting for him to arrive.

A small, thin line connected his name to ‘Doreen Cromwell (1922-1966)’, and then descended downwards before splintering into three strands that led to ‘Michael Cromwell’, ‘Elizabeth Cromwell’ and ‘Gary Cromwell’. The brackets underneath the eldest, Michael, had already been filled in. He’d only died three months before.

“What about Raymond?” Harry asked, suddenly remembering something from several years before.

“Raymond?” Ella halfway up the next flight, dropped Frederick’s bag and turned to look at Harry. “Who – who’s Raymond?

“I thought Ernest had a son called Raymond?”

Ella shook her head. “No, no, just Gary and… and Michael.”

“Huh. The old man lied to me.” Harry muttered to himself, but continued when he saw the confused frown adorning Ella’s forehead. “I used to work for Cromley’s a few years back. Before… well, when I was younger. One of the customers, Raymond, he called himself, said his father owned the business.”

Ella laughed. “Some people will say anything to appear important – probably trying to get a free cappuccino from you, or something.”

Harry smiled and for a moment, they both stared at the family tree. Harry’s eye traced the golden line down through Elizabeth to Frederick’s name. “The stitching is beautiful.”

Ella smiled and nodded, before turning to Harry and giggling. “You’ve, err, you’ve got some…” She rubbed the side of her face, and Harry pressed two fingers to his own sticky cheek. A neon red paint had come off onto them and he frowned at it, baffled.

“What-?”

“Lick.” Ella held a crumpled white handkerchief up to Harry’s mouth. Before even properly registering her bizarre request, Harry poked his tongue out and Ella dabbed the cloth onto the end, before rubbing it gently on his cheek. “Elizabeth’s lipstick,” she said, noting Harry’s continued furrowed brow, “it gets everywhere. I’ve even found it on the banisters before – don’t ask me how it got there.”

Harry smiled as she pulled away. “All gone?”

“All gone.” He asked, warmly reminded of his mother

“Thanks.” He picked up his case again and looked up the stairs before him. “Let’s get going then.”

“Sorry about the long trek.” Ella smiled apologetically, as he heaved the case up the steep ascension in front of him, marvelling at the ease with which she carried Frederick’s. He shrugged nonchalantly as he finally managed to pull the case onto the flat of the hallway, though he silently thanked a higher power that there were no more steps. “With the cases, it was the only way we could come.”

“There’s another way of getting upstairs?’”

“Yeah,” Ella nodded, gesturing down the hallway, “the second panel in from the right is a door. There’s a set of stairs behind it, takes you right down to the entrance hall. It’s too narrow for cases though, it was designed for us scurrying cleaning girls.”

“A secret passageway?”

“Not exactly secret, more hidden, but yeah, the place is full of them, Ernest loves them. Though, actually, he’s a little too large to use most of them, these days.” She glanced guiltily over her shoulder to check he wasn’t following, and then smirked before opening a door and showing Harry into a large bedroom.

“Is this Frederick’s usual room?” He asked.

“Yeah. A little somewhere that he can call home whenever he’s back from America. He decorated it himself.”

Harry smirked, the room seemed almost identical to Frederick’s apartment back in LA. A large piano took up one corner of the room, which Harry knew for a fact was purely for decorative terms since Frederick didn’t know how to play. On top of it was a small pile of books, all of them looking as though they’d been started once, and then never finished.

He’d always had a habit of starting a book and then never put it away or passed it on until it was finished. He felt that was giving up, admitting defeat, and that was something he never liked to do. Out of habit, Harry picked up the half dozen books, carried them over to the bookcase on the wall by the door and started to file them back into place. He let out a small laugh as he discovered a complete set of Charles Dickens novels that had never been read.

“Are you alright?” Ella asked, she had laid Frederick’s case on the large double bed and started to unpack.

“Yeah,” Harry smiled, “Freddie’s got almost exactly the same library on both sides of the Atlantic, and it doesn’t look like he’s read any of them.”

Ella gave a knowing smile as she refolded a pair of Frederick’s jeans. “Well, you know Freddie, perception is everything. As long as people believe he’s read all those books, he’ll never have to. It’s disturbing at times just how like his grandfather he is.”

An involuntary cold chill shuddered through Harry. Disturbing was indeed the only word that could describe the vision he had in his head at that moment. Thankfully for Harry, a knock on the door temporarily removed the image from his mind, though it soon returned as he opened the bedroom door to find Ernest grinning back at him.

“Ah, good, good, settling in? Just wanted to make sure you were ok?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. This place is… amazing.”

“Yes, it is rather, isn’t it? Listen, about that,” Ernest said gesturing to the large double bed in the centre of the room, “if you like I can get Ella to make up another room, you know if you don’t want to sleep in with another man. I don’t know what she was thinking of in the first place. Like I’d let that sort of thing go on in my house.”

“No, really, it’s… it’s alright, it’s not like we’ll be getting much sleep anyway.”

Ernest’s face fell. “Excuse me?”

“Well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Late nights drinking wine, early mornings opening presents, that sort of thing.”

“Right, right, of course. Well… if you change your mind, just let me know.”

“I will.” Harry nodded and went to close the door

“It’s quite a large bed, so you won’t have to get too close to him.”

Harry paused, unsure of how to respond. “I’ll be fine, thank you, Ernest.”

“I’m sure Ella can provide you with one of her rape alarms if you’d like?” Ernest looked across at Harry, smirking, clearly enjoying his own joke. Harry’s face, however, remained stony. “Mr Cromwell, I may not share the same lifestyle as your grandson – your grandson! – but he is my friend, and frankly what you have just said is not only offensive to him, but also to me.”

“Your friend?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m here, not because I don’t have anywhere else to go, or that he’s going to write me a part in one of his scripts, but because he’s my friend. In fact, he may be the closest friend I have, and if I must I will defend him to the death from bigoted old fools like you.”

For a moment Ernest said nothing, but then he stood up to his full height – a few inches shorter than Harry – and bore his eyes right into him. “Young man, let me tell you something. I’m going to walk away and pretend that you didn’t just talk to me like that. The next time I see you downstairs at the dinner table, I shall smile at you and I shall offer you food and drink. Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and again I shall be the perfect host, and I shall smile and talk to you pleasantly throughout the presents, the meal and the inevitable game of Charades in the evening. The day after that, I shall sit at the same table as you for breakfast and I shall smile. And then you will leave, and I shall smile at you as you go, and then you will never come back to this house again. And you will never talk to me like that again.”

“And if I do?” Harry felt his hackles rise.

“I shall destroy you,” Ernest grinned, flashing a row of teeth like a crocodile, “absolutely, one hundred per cent. Nobody – nobody – talks to me like that.”

“Or me.” Harry glanced carefully over his shoulder at Ella, who was putting some of Frederick’s clothes away, and apparently couldn’t hear them. Harry lowered his voice anyway, Let me tell you something, old man, I’m not frightened by anything or anyone. Now, you’re going to leave this room, and you’re going to remember every word I’m about to say to you. My name is Harry Hicks, my brother’s name was Vincent Fisher. He was murdered by drug dealing scum and I found that dealer, I tied him up in my basement and I kept him there for a week. On that first day, I carved a letter into his back. And then on each day after that, I carved another letter and another letter into, until by the end of the week my brother’s name was spelled out in bloody scabs across his skin. On that final day, I took my knife and I slit open his chest. I ripped out his heart with my bare hands, just like he’d ripped out mine, and for a moment, for one split second he saw me holding up his heart.”

Ernest’s eyes boggled, his face turning purple with anger, but Harry continued. “I dumped the body in the woods, it was never found, and I was never caught. I imagine you wouldn’t want to piss me off.”

“You’re not in Hollywood anymore, boy,” Ernest sneered back, although there was a slight quiver in his voice, “this is the real world and your threats don’t frighten me.”

“Maybe the threats don’t frighten you, but you can tell that I’m not afraid of you… and that scares you shitless.”

Ernest glared for a moment, before turning on his heel and stalking off down the corridor. Harry grinned to himself, shut the door and turned around to discover Ella, staring at him, her mouth agape.

“Ella, listen, I – ”

“You totally just ripped off your own movie!” Her face broke into a broad grin. “That whole speech – almost word for word from that film!”

Harry laughed, he couldn’t help it, Ella seemed to have a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “Well, he needed taking down a peg or two, arrogant old sod.”

“You’ve only known him ten minutes, can you imagine how everyone else feels?” They laughed together for a moment, as Ella returned to unpacking Frederick’s case. “So, that was from ‘Street Beater’ right? The one you got the Oscar for?”

“It was only a nomination,” Harry smiled weakly, “and that little speech didn’t seem so… cheesy when I said it for the film.”

“Well, you’re a very good actor. Despite what he said, I think Mr Cromwell believed you.” She moved over to the far wall which was taken up with six large doors, opened one of them and started hanging up Frederick’s shirts.

Harry watched her for a moment, but they didn’t really see her. He was thinking about Vincent, his brother. Harry might not have ripped out anyone’s heart for his brother, but he had done something nearly as bad.

“How many clothes does he have here?” He asked, snapping out of his daze.

“Oh, only four of them are closets – the middle two take you through to the en suite.”

“I don’t get it,” Harry said, flicking through the clothes that had already been hanging in there, “why would anyone need so much closet space?”

“You tell me.” She smiled softly slipping a pale shirt onto a coat hanger.

Harry bowed his head. “Look, I don’t know what Frederick told you, but I’m not…”

He trailed off, but Ella finished his sentence for him. “You’re not gay. I know, I know, you keep saying it. Except… I haven’t actually heard you say it yet.”

“I’m not!” Harry wanted to be angry with her for pushing it, for not letting it go, but he already knew that he was angrier with himself than he ever would be with Ella or with Frederick.

“But you’re still not saying it.”

Harry rolled his eyes and sat in a chair near a desk opposite the piano. Ella came over and looked down at him.

“I’m not gay.” He mumbled softly, but they both knew that neither of them believed it.

“You know,” she said, “I was the first person Frederick told, did he ever tell you that? For six months after that moment, I stood by and listened as he continued to tell the rest of the world ‘I’m not gay’. I knew what he was, I knew he was lying, but even then I was more convinced by his lies than yours.”

“Well,” Harry stood up and patted his pockets, “remind me not to take up acting. If you’ll excuse me, I think Freddie may still have my mobile.”

“Odd, don’t you think?”

“What’s that?”

“If he’s just a friend, why does he have your mobile?”

“It doesn’t mean anything, I guess I’m just paranoid about radiation. Excuse me.”

Harry left Ella in the room continuing to unpack Frederick’s case and braced himself against the windowsill at the far end of the corridor. It had started to rain outside. Sheets of rain flew down so hard that Harry could see nothing but his own sorry reflection. Is Ella right? He asked himself.

He had made Vincent a promise, to live the life that his brother had always wanted. That meant listening to Tricia, doing what she said. Turning up to parties with attractive young women on his arm. What if they all know?

He glanced around and ran his hand across the wall, searching for the join in the wood panelling that betrayed the hidden staircase. He pushed randomly for a moment before finding himself in a tight, steep staircase. He carefully made his way down the steps and as he reached the bottom, he heard the sound of the front door opening.

Harry stepped into a dark corner of the entrance hall, just behind the suit of armour, in time to see Elizabeth – still in her dressing gown – ushering a man into the house. He was covered from head to toe in drops of water, the rain had pasted a few curls of dark brown hair to his forehead. None of them had seen him enter, and Harry took the opportunity to watch Frederick. Harry often found himself staring at him when he was sleeping, or when he thought he was alone, and lost himself in thought, transfixed by his beauty.

She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He’s nothing like that bitter old man.

“Blimey, that rain came from nowhere,” the man said, “one minute I was driving along down one of those clear country lanes and the next thing I know, I’m practically swimming.”

“Oh, it’s been like it all week,” Elizabeth fussed over him, “I told you, you ought to bring an umbrella. Now come here, let’s get you out of that wet coat.”

The man peeled off his raincoat and shook the loose strands of his dark hair to get rid of some of the spray. Harry felt a flush of anger course through him as Frederick looked him up and down, but soon forgave him. The man was gorgeous. Harry felt a stirring in his trousers as he watched him kiss Elizabeth, and for a moment, the flush of anger was replaced with a spasm of jealous. Harry was quite certain in that moment, that, if he’d asked, he would have left the country with him right there and then.

“Robert, this is my son, Frederick. Frederick, this is my new partner – ”

“Robert Forrester.” Frederick said breathlessly. “Yeah, I remember.”

“You remember?” Elizabeth frowned and Harry silently joined her, after all, Frederick had told him that he didn’t know this new guy’s name. None of them had seen him yet, and Harry slipped back up a step to continue watching them unseen. “Remember from what?”

“Oh, well, I, umm,” Frederick stumbled, “well, you told me didn’t you? Last week, when I rang you, remember?”

“I did?” Elizabeth frowned again and so did Harry. He was certain Frederick had said he didn’t know the man’s name.

“Well, I guess, I did.” Elizabeth sighed.

Robert stepped forward and shook hands with Frederick. “Nice to meet you, Frederick.”

“You too, Robert.”

They stepped back from each other and there was silence for a moment. Something wasn’t right.

“How did you two meet?” Frederick asked.

“Oh, Robert works for your grandfather, he’s a financial advisor, he took over your uncle’s job when he fell ill. Now, I think I’m going to go and finish off getting ready for dinner.” Elizabeth smiled, it seemed she couldn’t sense the tension in the room. Harry, however, certainly could. “Are you coming, Robert?”

“Err, no,” Robert said and Harry noticed him staring at Frederick as much as Frederick was staring at Robert, “I’m going to wait for the rain to ease off a little and then get my bags from the car.”

“Ok, well don’t spend too long out there, I don’t want you catching cold. Freddie, give him a hand, darling.”

“Of course.”

Elizabeth took hold of both of their hands, squeezed gently, smiled and swept up the large staircase.

Frederick pulled Robert off to one side. “We need to talk.”

Harry stepped forward out of the corner of the room and coughed a little to make his presence known. “What do you need to talk to him about?”

 

 

Read the next chapter here

Tenacity by JS Law

After having read ‘chick-lit’ and a memoir, the next book I picked up was another from a genre that I don’t normally read.

 

I’ve always found thrillers to be a bit of a contradiction. There are so many of them out there that they can become a bit disposable, and they sort of all merge into one.

 

At the same time, they’re quite a feat of creativity. It can be hard to sustain the tension a thriller requires for three hundred pages, and it’s only when a thriller fails to do so that it stands out from the rest.

 

Therefore, it’s always with some trepidation that I begin what is billed as a thriller.

 

Tenacity begins at the climax of another story, almost like the reader has arrived too soon and must sit out the end of the show that was on before. It’s exciting, but it feels as if we’re intruding on something we don’t know anything about.

 

And then, it’s forgotten and we are riding along with Lieutenant Danielle Lewis as she is summoned some years later to investigate a suicide on the HMS Tenacity.

 

Except, it’s not quite forgotten. The events of what happened to Dan before colour how she is now, some years later. She is at odds with pretty much every other member of every other rank of the Royal Navy, first having dared to tackle the bad guy on her own, and secondly for suggesting he may not have worked alone.

 

Everyone is working against her, and so when the HMS Tenacity must set sail with the suicide still an open case, Dan suspects foul play. She immediately insists that she travel aboard to continue her investigation.

 

Of course, on a submarine with an all-male crew suddenly having to find sleeping quarters and showering facilities for a female is problematic at best, and with a whole bunk to herself while the men have to crush themselves into even more decreased space than normal, she suddenly finds herself making even more enemies.

 

Dan must work through her investigation, trying to work out who hates her because they hate her, and who hates her because they don’t want her finding out their dark secrets.

 

What results is a tense and claustrophobic thriller, and what JS Law manages to do in Danielle Lewis is create a character who we really get under the skin of. But the time we spend getting to know her, coupled with the time navigating the red herrings of all the other characters, we’re left with a bunch of secondary characters who don’t seem that real.

 

Because Dan is investigating what is apparently a suicide, we’re not even sure as a reader that there is a bad guy, although obviously there must be because it’s that sort of book. The eventual reveal of who the bad guy is not that climatic, because to me, it was fairly obvious – most thrillers tend to be thriller by numbers, and this one is no exception, but I enjoyed the way we got there.

 

It’s obvious this book is the start of a series, if not through the implication at the end of the book, then through it’s marketing, and that means some allowances can be made in terms of plot for the setting up of characters. Dan is set up so well here, answering the ‘Would I read the second book in the series?’ question becomes a breeze.

 

Would I read the second book in the series?

 

Do you know what? I would.

 

Tenacity was a fairly conventional thriller, but the writing, building of tension and a world so alien to me, yet so believable puts this above average on the scale.

 

It scores a 2.9 out of 5.

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 1

Start at the beginning here

November, 1944

 

Ernest woke up suddenly to find the house shaking and the air raid sirens blaring outside. For a moment, he was disoriented, but then felt the house shake again and immediately jumped into action, pulling on a pair of crumpled trousers, and a thick scratchy jumper over his pyjamas.

He moved the black out curtain aside and peered across the street in front of him. Ordinarily the street would be dark, nothing could be seen, but tonight, there were beams of light waving into the air above, searching for the enemy aircraft that were attacking the city.

Ernest could see that a fire was blazing less than three streets away. Willoughby Street, he calculated, and turned away from the window. He had to get to the air raid shelter in the back garden before his own street was hit.

He rushed from his bedroom onto the landing outside, the door next to his own, the door to his parents room, was closed. Perhaps she hadn’t woken yet, perhaps she didn’t know what was happening, he had to get to her, make sure she was ok.

He’d promised.

Ernest tried the handle, but the door wouldn’t move. It was locked. He took a step back, turned sideways and threw his body into the door. The weight of his tiny eight year old body was not enough to move it, but he tried again, this time, aiming his elbow at where the lock connected with the door frame.

A spasm of pain shot up through his arm, and Ernest swore loudly as tears pricked in the corner of each eye. Still, the door hadn’t moved, but he couldn’t give up on her. He roared loudly as he threw himself back at the door, this time crashing through it into his mother’s bedroom.

“Mum!” He shouted, as he tried to ignore the blinding pain in his arm. He looked over to the double bed in the centre of the bedroom, it was empty. She’d already gotten out. She would have grabbed hold of Raymond and made her way down to the shelter, he told himself, she would be there right now, waiting.

He moved back out on to the landing and was startled to discover it had started to fill with smoke. Somewhere a fire was burning and he knew then that the attack was closer than three streets away. Ernest crouched down to the floor as he’d been taught and moved towards the stairs.

Only when he was halfway down did he hear a noise that sent a shiver down his spine. Raymond was crying somewhere above him.

He turned again, without hesitating, and rushed back up the stairs towards his younger brother’s bedroom. He shoved open the door and immediately could feel the heat upon him. The smoke forced him to clamp shut his eyes and for a second time he dropped to the carpet.

He crawled across the floor, moving towards his brother’s cot. He could still hear Raymond’s bawling, but now it was accompanied by the crackling sound of flames. An almost distant memory of once finding the noise of a fire comforting flashed through his mind, but he quickly dismissed it. He was anything but comforted.

Ernest forced open his eyelids and immediately felt the stinging heat of the ash in his eyes. In front of him, the exterior wall of the house had been ripped away and through the gaping hole, Ernest could see the streets stretching away from him. All around him houses were burning, and theirs seemed to be at the centre of it.

He moved closer to the cot, and the floor below him creaked. Only then did he realise that it wasn’t just the wall that had been blown away, but part of the floor had also been destroyed as well.

One leg of the cot was resting on nothing but smoky air, hanging precariously over the kitchen, ready to crash down onto the broken floorboards and bricks below. The other corner leg, closest to the night air, was supported by a broken floorboard, one that looked as if it would snap at any moment.

As he pulled himself to his feet, his eyes were drawn to the garden below, also scattered with bricks. And then Raymond cried again, reclaiming his attention.

The cot was covered in dust, and pieces of brick and glass. Lacerations were spread across Raymond’s bare face and arms, and the blanket he lay on was red from his blood. Ernest grabbed hold of the now crimson fabric and scooped his younger brother up into his arms.

He held him close to his chest and turned to the door, but was stopped by a thick wall of heat. He couldn’t be sure, but either the fire had spread or another one had started. The flames were now licking at both Ernest and his brother, causing Raymond’s pained screams to become louder.

Ernest squinted through the door onto the landing and could see that the fire had begun to burn on the stairs in front of him. The wooden banister running around the edge of the staircase was beginning to crumble into a black ash, the foul smell of burning paint filled the rooms and a thick, dark smoke lingered at the top of the stairwell.

A moment of indecision flushed through Ernest as he began to panic over what to do. He had to get his brother out of the house and down to the air raid shelter where their mother was surely waiting for them, but the wall of fire blocked his way.

He looked over again at the hole in the side of Raymond’s bedroom, the burning beams circled around it, the dark garden littered with debris outside and then the shelter at the end, a welcoming oasis in a chaotic battlefield.

Without thinking, the small boy hugged his younger brother closer to his chest and sprinted at the fire. He launched himself off the end floorboard and out through the flames just as the wooden planks crumbled into the kitchen below.

He landed on his feet on the grass but immediately a spasm of pain shot through his foot and up his right leg. His body, unable to cope with the agony, fell forwards to the ground. To avoid crushing the babe in his arms, he twisted as he fell. His head hit the grass, but his back hit a lump of rock, and in that moment Ernest’s screams were louder than those of his brother.

Still holding on to Raymond he pulled himself up to his knees and stared at the house before him, trying to ignore the excruciating pain all over his body. He couldn’t see his brother’s bedroom through the thick smoke, but he could see the kitchen, lit up by orange flame, excited by the fresh wood of the cot that had fallen from above.

From outside, the damage to his house looked minimal, at least compared to that of the other houses he could see. The house next door, the Andersons, was completely alight; the entire top floor crushed. Whatever had hit his neighbour’s was what had caused the destruction in his brother’s room, nothing had actually hit their own house.

He heard a scream nearby and it jerked him back to reality, he stood up on his good leg and moved towards the bomb shelter, grimacing with each step he took, trying to block out the pain that seemed to flow through his entire body.

He hobbled toward the shelter, pulled open the door and threw himself inside, slamming the door shut behind him.

“Mum, I’ve got Raymond, he’s alive, but – ” He looked around the shelter, but there was no one there. It was empty. “Mum?”

He remembered the locked door to his mother’s bedroom, the bed inside, undisturbed, not slept in and his brother, Raymond, left behind in his cot. The realisation hit him harder than the rock he had landed on. His mother, their mother, had left the house without them. She’d left before the air raid had started.

“Mum? Where are you?” His voice came out small and timid and the only reply was that of his own plea, echoing around the damp, metallic structure. Wherever she was, she’d been there for some time. She’d put Raymond in his cot at around seven and then Ernest had gone to bed an hour or so after.

He pulled a pocket watch from his trousers where he’d left it before he’d gone to bed and checked the time. It was just past four in the morning. He stared at the hands of the watch, the second hand slowly ticking round, trying to figure out just where his mother might be. His chain of thought was interrupted by Raymond’s screaming and he held him close to his chest once more.

“Hey, Raymond, come on, shh. We’re going to be alright.” He looked nervously at a puddle that had appeared in the corner of the shelter. “We’re going to be fine.”

Ernest felt a small scratch sharper than even than that of his jumper against his chest and pulled the baby away from him. He looked at his brother’s face, a piece of glass was embedded in it. Without thinking, he pulled the shard out and used his sleeve to stop the bleeding as Raymond’s screams increased, the wound painfully exposed.

Ernest began to dust away the grit from his brother’s hair, humming softly as he did trying to comfort not only Raymond, but also himself. He noticed a small piece of glass on Raymond’s neck and, again, without thinking, pulled it away. Blood began to spew violently from his brother’s neck.

“Oh God! Raymond!” Ernest cried out in surprise as he quickly became covered. He tried to plug the bleeding, laying his brother down on a chair and kneeling in front of him. Raymond’s crying became more breathy with each sob. He pulled off his jumper and wrapped it around his brother’s neck in a useless attempt to stem the flow of blood.

“Raymond, come on, come on.” Ernest took a deep breath, in an effort to keep his own tears inside. He picked his brother up again and held him close. It was only when Raymond’s sobs stopped suddenly that Ernest himself began to cry.

He put the child down again and started to back away from him. Raymond was no longer crying, no longer screaming, no longer in pain – but he was looking. Looking straight at Ernest, a glassy, accusing stare.

He sped through the door of the shelter, slamming it shut behind him and leant on it, tears streaming down his face. He screamed loudly, hoping his mum would hear, hoping that anyone would hear and help him.

A cold, unbearable wind hit him, and he shivered uncontrollably. Staring around at the crushed houses and the flames around him, Ernest instinctively turned and went back into the shelter.

Raymond was still there, still staring, still facing the door. Ernest slowly stepped over to him and picked his jumper up off of him. He hesitated for a moment, before slipping it back over his head. The scratchy wool felt infinitely better than the sticky, blood-stained parts that came into contact with his chest. But both felt hugely better than the bitter cold that had enveloped him outside the shelter.

He moved to the opposite side of the sanctuary, leant against the wall and slowly descended to the floor, loudly sobbing. He held his father’s pocket watch in his hand and stared at it for a moment. He screamed with a ferocious roar and angrily threw it against the side of the shelter.

As he did, he heard the noise of another loud explosion outside.

 

March, 1951

Doreen hurried out of the house and moved quickly across the yard in front of it. If her parents found out that he had gone missing again, it would be her that would be in trouble. After all, she was supposed to be the one taking care of him. She was the one responsible for getting him up in the morning, she was the one responsible for cooking his meals and getting him to help her father feed the animals and tend to the pregnant, hungry sheep. And she was the one responsible for making sure he didn’t go missing. Again.

Her parents hadn’t been very enthusiastic when Ernest’s father had asked if he could live with them. He’d said he couldn’t take care of him on his own and go out to work, not anymore. He would pay them any money for his upkeep, of course. As soon as money had been mentioned, they’d been only too happy to take him in. Of course we have to take him in, they’d said to Doreen – he’s family. Doreen wasn’t exactly sure how they were related, second cousins fourteen times removed or something like that. They dressed him in hand-me-downs and then pocketed the money they received every month.

Since Doreen was not strong enough to work in the fields, nor old enough to have found her own husband, she was the one contributing least to the house. Yes, she helped her mother clean and cook, and yes, she cleaned up all of her brother’s cuts and bruises, but now she had a role in the family. A proper job, she was the child-minder, looking after yet another young boy.

“Ernest!” She whispered harshly, quietly hoping he would be able to hear her, but her parents wouldn’t. “Ernest, where are you?”

There was no answer and Doreen looked around her, helplessly searching for a clue as to where to look. When no clue presented itself, she tried to think where he would go.

He liked the barn. He liked sitting in the hayloft and staring out the window, it was his favourite place to sit. But that was locked at night, there was no way in and only her father had the keys. As daring as Ernest might be, he would never dare to sneak into her parent’s bedroom and steal them.

Think, she told herself, where else would he go?

Then she remembered, the very first day he’d come out to them, just two months before, it had been up to her to give him the tour, introduce him slowly to life in the country. She’d taken him right to the edge of the farm, and they had spent almost an hour at one spot, looking out at the valley that separated their fields from the large hills that stretched across the countryside.

Ernest had been amazed by it, she remembered as she carefully stepped through the dark grass in front of her, the vastness of the landscape had silenced him. Since that first day, she’d often found him quietly staring out at the valley when he should have been helping out with the work.

And that was how she found him then, sat on the wooden post of the gate, leaning back against a thick tree trunk behind him.

She watched him, silhouetted against the moonlight. At fifteen, he still had the slender frame of childhood, yet there was a broadness beginning to creep in on his shoulders which gave away the man he would become.

“What are you doing out here?”

For a moment he said nothing to her, he simply turned and stared, soaking in the sight of her face, her milky skin glowing in the moonlight. And then he turned his head back to the hills ahead of him.

“It’s odd, isn’t it?” He asked, ignoring her question.

“What is?” She joined him at the gate, leaning instead of sitting, staring at him instead of the hills.

“You can live for years in London – the biggest city in the world – and you feel so big, just because you live there. Then you come out here and you realise just how small you are, just how big the world really is. Look at that.” He gestured to the space in front of him. “It’s so big, it’s bigger than the farm, it’s bigger than London. It’s bigger than any of us.”

“How old are you really?” Doreen asked the curiously sensitive boy sat next to her. He merely smiled at the joke but said nothing. There were several moments of contemplative silence where Doreen studied Ernest intently and Ernest studied nothing in particular, just as hard. “I know it’s difficult for you Ernest, being stuck here with strangers, not seeing your dad. Your mum…”

Ernest climbed off the post and faced her as she trailed off. “You can say it. I do know, it is my fault after all. She’s dead.”

Doreen said nothing. What could someone who hasn’t lost their mother possibly say to someone who had?

“It would have been her birthday today. Every year I’ve wanted to celebrate it, do something special for her, but Dad never acknowledged it – he barely acknowledged me. It’s because I killed her.”

“You didn’t kill her.”

“I promised my father I would look after her!” He shouted at her, unwelcome tears starting to form. “I told him I would keep her safe and I couldn’t! I didn’t even know where she was when the bomb hit.”

“That’s not your fault. Your mother was a grown woman, you were just a child – you were eight years! There was no way you could know where she was. You couldn’t have helped her.”

“What about Raymond?” Ernest stared at her and Doreen bowed her head, silent. “He would have been eight by now, if I hadn’t killed him!”

He descended into a series of racking sobs and Doreen put her arms around him and hugged him tightly. As she did she had to fight to keep herself from crying. “It’s not your fault, you hear me? It’s not your fault, it was war. Your brother, he was small. I’ve heard what happened, they said there’s no way he would have survived, even if you’d landed in a hospital bed when you jumped out that window. The way you got him out of that house… your mother would have been proud of you.”

“Proud? I let him die!”

“You were there with him at the end. He didn’t die alone, and that’s the most important thing. That baby died knowing that he was loved, that there was somebody there fighting for his life, willing to risk his own life.” Tears were streaming down Doreen’s face. She felt so sorry for the young man in front of her, he was so vulnerable, so fragile. “That was you, Ernest, you did that. He didn’t die alone. Your mother… she… she didn’t have anyone. But she would have been so happy knowing that you were looking after him instead of her.”

Ernest turned away from her and swallowed. More tears escaped from his eyes. After a moment he leant forward and gently kissed her on the lips. Startled, Doreen kissed back, before suddenly jumping away from him.

“Now, come on,” she sniffed, ignoring what had just happened, “we’d best get you to bed, you’re going to have to be up early tomorrow – Father wants you to help out with the lambing.”

She frogmarched him back across the fields, into the farmhouse and up the stairs towards his bedroom. The whole way she could hear him breathing loudly, trying to keep back the tears. He was still thinking about his mum, but her mind was on that kiss. Her parents would be horrified to know how many young men she had kissed, but Ernest was the youngest, and the only that had ever caused the hairs on her neck to prickle in the way that they had. His mouth had been firm on hers, she could still feel the slightest hint of stubble on his top lip. It had excited her in a way no man ever had before.

Ernest stopped and stared at his door. “Can’t I spend the night with you?”

Certainly not,” she bristled, “for a start, you’re too young. And secondly… well, secondly…”

“This isn’t about the kiss.” Ernest put a hand on her shoulder and she felt her legs go weak. “I just don’t want to be alone. Not tonight. I just need somebody to hold me. You’re the only person who cares about me. Doreen, please, just one night.”

“Right, well, perhaps you could, just for a few hours. But you do need to forget about that kiss, nothing can come of it.”

“There was no kiss.” Ernest smiled at her and walked into her bedroom. “Besides I’m sixteen soon.”

Doreen cautiously looked around the corridor before following him in. Ernest was more grown up than her brothers had ever been at that age. It was easy to forget how young he was.

They sat on the edge of her bed for a moment in almost complete silence.

“She wasn’t alone when she died.”

“Pardon?” Doreen only realised how tense she was as Ernest spoke. She was not in the present at all, just nervous, excited about what could happen next.

“Mum, when she died. She wasn’t alone.”

“Oh.” She was brought back to reality by the realisation that Ernest was not thinking about her, not trying to seduce her. He was still a boy, a young man grieving for his mother. “We were told that they found her in the garden.”

He shook his head and stared down at the floor. “They… they didn’t. I found her in the neighbour’s garden.”

“Oh, Ernest, I’m so sorry. If you… if you don’t want to talk about it, it’s ok.”

“No, it’s ok. I… I want to talk about it. My best friend, Jimmy, he died that night too.” Doreen took his hand but Ernest just smiled and pulled it away. “It’s stupid, really, I watched his house burn and I didn’t even know. I woke up and saw a fire, only a couple of streets away, I didn’t even realise it was Jimmy’s house until they told me he’d died. Well, Jimmy… you see, he, he always had a vivid imagination, he… he used to tell me that he had a cousin on the other side of the city, and that he and his family went to their air raid shelter one night and they were found the next morning and they’d all drowned. A dodgy air raid shelter, built in the wrong place or something. One of the bombs cracked a mains pipe in the ground, and the shelter just… filled up.”

“They drowned in an air raid shelter?”

“He swore it was true, I never really believed him. But that night – the night my mum died – there was this puddle of water in the corner, and I swear it was just getting bigger and bigger.” He pulled a pocket watch from his trousers. Doreen tried to get a glimpse of it, but he held it tightly in his hand. It was almost like he’d forgotten she was even there. She could just see that the glass was cracked and one of the arms bent. “When Raymond… when Raymond died… I threw this at the wall. It was my dad’s, I felt… I felt like I’d let him down, that I didn’t deserve to be his son any more. It landed in the puddle at the same moment that the last bomb hit. I watched it floating there in that puddle, and I just couldn’t stop thinking, what if I’m next? Raymond was on the chair, I could still see his face, his eyes open, staring at me. I couldn’t stay there…”

Ernest began to cry and Doreen put her hand on his. “I left him there, I left my brother there in that… tin shack and I went outside. The… the whole house was flattened, completely destroyed, so was the Anderson’s. I climbed through a hole in the fence, and I started to move towards their shelter. Theirs was above ground, I… I thought it would be safer, that if it started to fill with water that we could just… open the door and it would be ok. But I got to the door and the all clear sounded and I… I turned back to face the houses and they were nothing, just two piles of rubble in the street, and I… I saw, I saw this leg, sticking out of the rubble.”

Doreen put a hand to her mouth as she gasped. Ernest was shaking as he continued his story.

“She was… buried, but somehow… I knew it was her. I started to dig her out, and… and she was cold and… and naked.”

“Naked?” Doreen asked. “You mean, she’d…?”

Ernest laughed through his tears. “Our own next door neighbour. All the time that my father was out there fighting, my mother was…”

“Oh, Ernie…” Doreen pulled him into a hug.

“That’s why it’s my fault. If I had looked after her like my father had asked, she would have been there with me and Raymond. If I had kept a closer eye on her, then, then she wouldn’t have been able to do anything with that… She would have heard that air raid siren, she would have taken Raymond and she would have woken me up and they would both still be alive.”

They rocked together, tight in embrace until they pulled one another down onto the bed. She held him close, stroking the back of his head. Doreen was silent for a long time, as she felt tears running down her own face. It was only when she felt his lip brush against hers that she pulled away from him and sat up.

Ernest sat up again and took hold of her hand with one hand and cupped her face with his other.

Doreen felt a soft, pleasant tingle run through her body as his hand traced its way down her chin, fingered the top of her blouse and then moved over the top of it to her breast.

“Ernest – “

“Please.”

“You need to get some sleep. I’m going to go… brush my teeth, you get ready for bed. I have a blanket and I’ll get a spare pillow from the cupboard, you can… you can sleep on the floor.”

Doreen crossed the hall into the bathroom. She stared into the mirror at her own reflection, at her tear stained face and sighed. She could barely believe what the boy had told her, everything that he had seen that night.

She wanted to comfort him, to make him feel better, but she didn’t know what to do, what to say. The boy had lost so much to this stupid war, so much in one night and she didn’t know how to make it better.

When she returned to her room, Ernest was naked in her bed. And she found a way to make him feel better.

 

April, 1957

Ernest walked in the door, kissed his wife on the lips and handed her a small wooden box. “Happy Anniversary.”

Doreen ripped off the bow and opened the box to find a pair of diamond earrings. “Oh Ernie, this must have cost you so much! Can we afford this?”

“I’ve got news!” Ernest grinned. “Me and dad have decided to expand. We’re opening up a second store.”

“You are?” Doreen flung her arms around her husband and hugged him tightly. “Come on, sit down, I’ve cooked you your favourite dinner.”

Ernest sat and watched as she brought two steaming plates of roast chicken through from the kitchen. She sat down opposite him and started to eat, but stopped when she realised he was continuing to watch her.

“What is it, Ernie? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, honey, I was just looking at you.” He smiled at her and Doreen felt her face redden. “Can you believe we’ve been married for five years already? I never thought I’d be married by the time I was thirty, let alone celebrating my fifth wedding anniversary when I’m only twenty one.”

“We didn’t exactly have much choice, really, did we? Not that I regret it for a moment of course.” Doreen put her fork down. “Why don’t you go upstairs and see him before you eat? I can slip this back in the oven, keep it warm.”

Ernest looked at the clock hanging above their heads and smiled at Doreen. “I think I’d like that, it feels like I haven’t seen him for weeks.”

“Off you go then,” said Doreen, already on her feet, picking up their untouched plates, “just don’t keep him up too long.”

“I won’t,” he promised her, “and as soon as I’m done with him, I’m spending the rest of the night with you.”

Ernest climbed the stairs and slipped into the darkness of his son’s room. “Hey kiddo,” he whispered, “are you awake?”

“Daddy?” A small voice sounded from underneath the duvet.

“Mind your eyes, son.” Ernest turned the light on and saw the young boy pulling himself up into a sitting position, rubbing his eyes as he did.

“Daddy!” He hugged his father as Ernest sat on the bed next to him.

“Oh, God, I’ve missed you, I’ve really missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too, daddy, where have you been?”

“Me and Grandpa have been on a little holiday.”

“Where have you been?” The boy asked sleepily.

“Lots of places, we went to London and to Birmingham and to Bristol. We even went to Wales, that’s a whole other country.”

Ernest proceeded to tell his young son all about his plans for expansion of the small corner shop that he ran with his father. All the while a puzzled look adorned Raymond’s face.

“How is Grandpa going to work in two shops at once? That’s unpossible.”

“Impossible, and no it’s not, Grandpa’s going to work in the new shop and I’m going to work in the old one.”

“Maybe… maybe I could work there too?”

“Perhaps when you’re older, would you like that?”

“I’m nearly six.” The young boy said with a grin and Ernest couldn’t help but smile as he watched him, his head cocked to one side, like a small puppy, considering for a moment before smiling and nodding enthusiastically. “I like playing in the shop.”

“Well, when you’re older, me, you and Grandpa are going to have lots of shops to play in. We’re going to have shops in every town in the whole of Britain and we’re going to live in big, beautiful expensive houses, and have maids and servants to help us with everything. Would you like that?”

“Won’t we get lost? If the house is too big, we might lose each other.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure I never lose you. Now, you’d best get to sleep, or we’ll both be in trouble with mummy.” He kissed his son on the forehead and made his way over to the doorway. He switched the light off and was about to leave when a voice spoke in the darkness.

“I love you, daddy.”

Ernest smiled. “I love you too, Raymond.”

 

 

You can read the next chapter here 

 

 

 

 

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I don’t often read Non Fiction titles.

 

I find that the majority of history books can be dull and patronising, while autobiographies are guarded and vacuous at best.

 

The word I would use to describe The Last Act of Love is ‘memoir’. It doesn’t tell the full tale of Rentzenbrink’s life up to this point, nor does it tell the story of her brother’s life.

 

Instead, it’s the story of his death.

 

I’m finding it very difficult to talk about this book, perhaps because it’s real. People actually felt this pain. These tragic events actually happened.

 

But this isn’t relentlessly tragic, it reflects the events of what happened. Some of it hard, some of it upsetting, but some of it positive, uplifting even.

 

I find it weird that I sat next to Cathy at a meal last year, and I had no idea about all that had happened, though I did get a whisper that was writing a book.

 

Perhaps she puts it best herself when she talks about carrying the grief around in a rucksack. She’s learnt how to carry that rucksack around with her, and accepts it always will be there. But what she notes with some insight is that nearly everyone has a rucksack of some sort.

 

Everyone has a story, a tale. Some of them don’t have the twists and turns that exist in others. Some are smaller in scale than others. But they’re still there. They’re still as heavy.

 

Maybe one of the reasons I don’t really like Non Fiction titles is something that the author notes shortly after her rucksack observation. Those of us who have been brought up with books, specifically fiction, crave some kind of narrative resolution, that simply doesn’t exist in real life.

 

If there’s one thing I’ll take from this book it’s this; The story goes on, it continues to be told. And we have to learn to go on with it.

 

Despite my scoring system being geared towards fiction, The Last Act of Love manages to score an impressive 4.1 out of 5.

Memories of a Murder – Prologue

March, 2001

 

The lights flickered out above him, and he took a deep breath.

It was time.

He hadn’t planned this, it wasn’t something he’d set out to do. Even two hours ago it wasn’t something he’d ever thought about. But then he’d seen the shop.

At first, he hadn’t noticed it, but it had appeared in the corner of his eye like a speck of dust, before the familiar name loomed out and stopped him dead in his tracks.

He hadn’t left the house in a long time and he had taken for granted that the world around him had stayed the same. The fish and chip shop was now an Indian takeaway; the park on the opposite side of the road now lay in disrepair; and the hairdressers, video rental shop and Mr Singh’s corner shop had all been knocked into one big supermarket.

Not just any supermarket. A Cromley’s.

He’d wandered, in a daze, into the shop, and queued up, as if somehow expecting to find him serving on the other side of the counter. It was only when he got to the front and the boy had asked if he needed any assistance, that he realised he didn’t have anything in his hands.

His eyes quickly settled on the first thing he saw behind the boy, and requested it. He’d paid his money and then slipped the small green lighter into his pocket, before slowly heading to a small café area on the far side of the shop. He’d been the only one there, and had slowly begun to fiddle with the lighter. It was then he’d made up his mind.

Now – an hour or so later – he was crouching underneath a small plastic wooden-effect table, the knuckles on his right hand white from clutching the lighter so hard. A small bead of sweat ran down the side of his face.

A pair of feet walked confidently into his field of vision, paused at the table opposite him for a moment and then moved towards him.

Raymond found himself holding his breath, the black shoes in need of a good polishing – he couldn’t help but notice, couldn’t help but still care a little bit – were only inches away, and a second pair had joined them, stepping up closely behind the first.

“Tim, stop it,” the voice of the boy who had served him earlier, “someone might see.”

“There’s no one else here.” An older, deeper voiced issued from somewhere above the second pair of feet.

“The window.”

“Why do you think I turned the lights down?” The second voice – Tim – whispered.

The first pair of feet away from Raymond, toward the second pair and he felt the table move slightly, as Tim stepped forward, pushing the younger man against it.

There was a gentle smacking noise and Raymond let himself breathe out while the two men either made enough noise to mask the sound of his shallow breaths, or were too distracted to hear him.

“Tim!” Raymond heard a surprised shout as he saw the pair of black polyester trousers – standard Cromley’s issue – fall to the floor, landing crumpled atop the dusty shoes.

“How else do you expect me to get what I want?”

“Not here.”

Suddenly, the eyes of the boy who had served Raymond earlier were looking directly into his own. They widened in shock for a moment, but he said nothing. He stood up, taking his trousers with him.

“You’re not going to get in trouble. I’m the boss. Come on, just once. I spend all day watching you sit behind that counter serving those dickheads that come in here, and I have to stop myself from taking you, right there and then. Just once, please, let me lie you across that counter and – ”

“Alright. I get your point.”

“Not as often as I’d like you to.”

A graphic, uninvited image appeared in Raymond’s mind, and he was suddenly thankful that he’d only seen their feet.

“Let’s just cash up and everything first, yeah?”

“You’re such a goody-two shoes.” The older voice chuckled, and Raymond heard the soft padded sound of a hand gently smacking the arse of the till assistant. He watched the older man’s feet move away, out of sight and started to get up.

“Wait.” The boy whispered. Raymond heard the sound of a door, a short distance away, opening and then swinging shut.

“You didn’t say anything. Why?” Raymond asked, pulling himself up from underneath the table

“Tim’s very secretive,” The boy stepped away from him, “he wouldn’t be very happy if anyone had heard us.”

“Can’t say I was that happy hearing it myself.”

“What are you doing here? The shop’s closed.”

“My name is Raymond Cromwell.” Raymond offered by way of an explanation and he surprised himself with his honesty, it wasn’t a name he’d used in a long time, and he was surprised he still thought of himself as that person. Perhaps it was being here, in this place.

The boy shrugged and stared blankly at him.

“This is my father’s business.”

“Right, of course,” he laughed, “then that gives you every right to be hiding underneath tables at eight o’clock at night.”

“I was -”

“What’s that for?”

Raymond looked down at the lighter still clenched in his hand.

“Oh. This is…”

“What? Some sort of insurance job?”

“Sorry?”

“Your dad needs some money or something, so you come up with some plan to burn down one of the stores, right?”

“No, I – ”

“It’d be me that gets the blame. Me or Tim, you know? They’d say we hadn’t closed up properly. We’d get interviewed by the police, the insurance people, they’d say it was our fault.”

“No, listen, you don’t understand…” Raymond stopped suddenly.

How have I not thought of this before? He dropped the lighter on the floor and dashed towards the door.

“Hey, stop, where are you going?”

“I’d forgotten… I can’t believe…” Raymond tried the door, but it was locked.

“Forgotten what? What are you talking about?” The young man followed him across the shop and Raymond grinned at him.

“Do you have the keys? Give me the keys.” Raymond took them from him, still grinning like a madman.

“Thank you,” he gushed, glancing at the name badge on the young man’s chest, “Harry! Thank you so much, Harry.”

Without another word Raymond shoved open the door and dashed out into night air, leaving Harry bewildered in the doorway, the keys still swinging in the lock.

 

*                *                *

 

Nearly ten years later and a hundred and fifty miles away, Ernest Cromwell’s face thudded onto the top of his desk. The feeling that struck him the most in that moment was the intensity of his fifteen hour stubble pressing into his cheek and then a shiver passed through him causing him to forget it.

He couldn’t feel the wound on his back, it was numb, and there was no pain, but he could tell it was there, knew it was deep and that it was quickly draining the life from him.

His eyes lazily focused on the silhouette of his attacker – his murderer – fleeing the study and he tried to think, to figure out where he had gone wrong. His body was immobile, he could barely move, it seemed to take a massive effort to even blink, but his brain, his mind was alive. He thought of his business, his sons and his daughter, and their families – his grandchildren. He thought briefly, angrily of Harry. But then he remembered his wife and their life together.

For a moment, as images of Doreen swam in front of his eyes he felt happy. As his last breath rattled through his throat, he still didn’t understand what had changed, what had led him to this death, and that was what he felt in the last moment of life. Frustration. Ernest Cromwell had known, had controlled everything and yet he had failed to anticipate this moment.

He would never know that his fate had been sealed on that cold spring day nine years earlier. All he knew now was the gun lying on his desk, the barrel of it pointing directly at him.

And then he knew nothing. And never would again.

 

 

Read the first full chapter of Memories of a Murder here

I Take You by Eliza Kennedy

I’m starting off my 2016 reading by picking some books that I might not usually go for. Right at the top of the list was I Take You by Eliza Kennedy for no other reason than that it was one of the most recent ones to pass by my desk.

 

This is typical chick-lit. Or at least I thought it was.

 

I have read chick-lit before, but not really anything like this.

 

At first I thought that main character Lily Wilder was a cross between Samantha Jones (off of Sex and the City) and Ally McBeal (off of, well… Ally McBeal). But after a while I realised, this was a character conceived in the post-Lena Dunham world – although it is entirely possible this view point is coloured by the fact I’ve just started watching Girls for the first time.

 

Lily is a lawyer, good at her job, but neurotic about it (hello Calista Flockhart), but where she is confident and open in her life is in her sex life, a woman with a voracious sexual appetite (stand up, Kim Catrall).

 

Where Dunham comes into it though, is the author isn’t afraid to go there. The climatic scene of the whole plot is literally that, with the conversation taking place between blowjobs in the hotel bedroom and doing it doggy-style in the bathroom.

 

Let’s pause the sex for a moment and take a look at the plot.

 

Lily is getting married to Will. Will is perfect for her, except they’re rushing into marriage and something doesn’t feel quite right. Throw in that she’s sleeping with every man she encounters, single handedly defending an oil company from a massive compensation claim, and dealing with her father sleeping with all three of his ex-wives and Lily is having quite an eventful week.

 

It’s hard to say whether I liked this book or not. It made me laugh out loud on several occasions, and although the plot was a little ridiculous in places, it was definitely written with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

 

The sex WAS sexy (for those of you that are into that sort of thing) but did feel out of places (sometimes not so much tongue-in-cheek as… well, you know where I’m going with that one.

 

The plot seemed to lurch from one disaster to another, and there seemed to hang on a lot of coincidences. A huge storm and a treacherous colleague meant that Lily ended up working on her own with her gran’s help.

 

There were a huge number of characters, none of whom felt particularly well drawn – apart from Lily herself, who did maddeningly stupid things – although, at least these were picked up and pointed out by the other characters.

 

It took me a little while to read, it wasn’t the kind of book that I felt I had to return to every day, but when I did, I slipped back into it quite comfortably.

 

But did I like it?

 

Honestly, I’m not sure. But that’s why I’ve created a spreadsheet to help me work out if I like a book or not. I’m a fan of a spreadsheet.

 

From here-on, each book I read will be rated on several criteria – resulting in an average score out of five. This will also help me compile a proper Top 10 at the end of this year, instead of the hand picked one I created last year.

 

I like a chart.

 

I’m (probably) not going to go back and re-rate books I’ve read before, but to give you an idea on how the scale works I went back and re-rated two books from last year.

 

The one I liked the least Girl on the Train scored 1.4 on the scale out of 5 and A Little Life scored 4.6 – which is likely the closest we’re going to get to a perfect score.

 

I Take You by Eliza Kennedy is out now in Hardback and kicks off the new chart with a respectable 2.8 out of 5.

Accidental Resolutions

I’ve spent the last six months or so reading a shit load of books. And with it, I’ve been writing reviews of them. One review a week, written as much for me as they were for anyone else.

 

But, in case anyone was interested, I published them on my blog – this blog – and I did all the correct social media stuff. I had a brand, a regular time, I tagged the authors, the publishers, the publicists and made as many references to pop culture (Justin Bieber, One Direction, etc) to try and boost the number of page hits.

 

It sort of worked, page views and visitors increased every month from July through to December, and while some of the numbers came from people directly clinking on the links I put on Twitter, I was starting to see a lot of traffic from search engines.

 

I can’t see what the search term was when people come through from Google (and perhaps unsurprisingly, that seems to be the search engine most people use), but I can from other search engines. So I plugged in some of the terms myself.

 

  • The one that came up most was Jude St Francis – the main character of A Little Life (my favourite book of the year, and incidentally the post that had the most views across the year).

 

A Little Life was one of the big hits of 2015, one of the most talked about books of the year, so I was surprised to find that my post about it was getting traffic. Surely there must be a million posts out there just like mine?

 

When I typed Jude St Francis into Google – a link to my blog was the first result. Now a month or two later, it’s the second link. This was a huge surprise, I’m not sure how it happened, but it did.

 

Moving by Jenny Eclair is fast proving to be my second most popular post, and when I put that into Google, I discovered mine was the fifteenth link.

 

I’m not sure what I’m doing, but it seems to be working.

 

Last week, I was looking at my ‘Yearly Stats’ on WordPress and discovered I was only sixty views away from hitting two thousand for the year. I was excited to see how close I would come and so re-posted a few links.

 

I nearly made it. I was fifteen views short. One extra day would have done it.

 

And then I stopped to think. Two thousand views in a year, and I only started regularly posting in July. A little bit of quick maths tells me that I could hit four thousand views a year – or more – if I posted regularly.

 

Whether that’s an audience of one, reading things four thousand times, or four thousand individual people, I don’t know, but that’s a big number,. And some of them, I know, are reading more than one page at a time.

People are choosing to read what I write – and some of them, likely, even if it’s just that one maniac, are coming back to read more.

 

I’d considered self-publishing before, but it’s never really appealed to me, even in this world of self-made internet billionaires like EL James. I never thought I would have the energy or the presence to be able to sell an ebook online.

 

But a few things occurred to me last week:

  1. I have an established audience (even if it’s only one stalker)
  2. I write because I like to write, not because I want to make money (although if anyone offered me some, that would be great)
  3. I write well to deadlines.

 

And so I decided two things:

  1. I would publish my already written novel Memories of a Murder on my blog
  2. By the end of 2016, I would write the second novel, already largely planned – a sequel to Memories of a Murder.

 

The first part of Memories of a Murder will be published next week… just as soon as I’ve blown the cobwebs off of it.