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.
“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?”
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?”
“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