The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

The Forgetting Time has a great premise – what do you do when your child won’t stop crying for his mum and asking to go home, when you are his mum and he IS home?

 

Janie gets desperate and ends up speaking to Dr Anderson, an expert in past life theory, who has spent his life investigating stories from young children who report memories that don’t belong to them.

 

At the same time as Janie’s son Noah recalls being Tommy, Anderson has discovered his is suffering from aphasia a condition similar to Alzheimer’s.

 

It’s a nice set-up, the young boy at the beginning of his life with too many memories and the old man towards the end of his life who doesn’t have enough.

 

It’s a great idea with a lovely symmetry, and provides a really interesting delve into the idea of past lives, however…

 

The first half of the book is a bit of a struggle. I very nearly gave up, and I never give up (A Brief History of Seven Killings being a notable exception).

 

Once the character of Denise turns up, the book gets much more interesting and the story gains a heart that it was previously missing, but it does take far too long to get there.

 

I’ve scored it 2.8 out of 5, which is a fairly average score, but I was surprised to see it end up at the bottom of my list. I DID like it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it as a read.

 

Excuse the pun, but it’s a bit too forgettable.

Advertisements

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 15

Read the last chapter here or start at the beginning here

 

Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire

Christmas Eve, 2010

 

“Dickhead.” Reece muttered to himself, though he wasn’t sure whether he was cursing Harry, his grandfather or himself.

Both Harry and Ernest had accused him of trying to rape Ella, and he didn’t know why. Reece thought that he and Ella had always got on well, and when he’d found her in the wash room, bent over the side, scrubbing at that jacket, he had realised just how attractive she was.

He’d flirted with her a little bit, and then after receiving all the right signals, he’d made his move. She had screamed, he admitted, but in surprise. In pleasure. She obviously hadn’t expected him to take her there and then. Ernest and Harry had both misinterpreted it completely and ripped into him.

His Granddad had dismissed him with a look of disgust, but Harry on the other hand had come onto him, tried to rape him.

“It’s because you’re so attractive,” he looked at his own reflection and nodded sagely, “and gorgeous. He couldn’t help it… he was overcome.”

Reece laughed and took a swig from the bottle of vodka he’d smuggled from his downstairs. He carefully sat down on the edge of the bath in the en-suite. After his brief interlude with Ella, and despite both the encounter with Harry and the copious amounts of alcohol swimming in his bloodstream, Reece was horny.

That was one thing that Reece had always been proud of. No matter how much he drank, he was always ready for action, and had never failed to disappoint – or so he thought. One drunken night in the Student Union bar a few weeks before, Reece had tried using it as a chat-up line. Since it had earned him a fairly severe slap from his roommate’s girlfriend, he’d decided not to use it again.

“It’s probably more of a second date admission.” He told the mirror, and then laughed loudly at the thought of ever going on a second date with anyone.

At that moment, he heard a noise from the bedroom. Reece shushed his reflection, and then leant against the door with a loud thump in an attempt to listen to the new arrival.

“Hello?” Her voice asked, uncertain of what she had heard, and indeed even if she had heard it.

Reece jumped back from the door and looked at himself in the full length mirror. His eyes had started to go a little bloodshot from his contact lenses – he should have taken them out two hours before – but other than that, his face was as handsome as ever. The stubble that had formed during the day since his last shave, only added to his attractiveness, he told himself. Made him look like a bad boy.

At that thought, he laughed again.

He looked down at his smooth bare chest, lightly defined to made it appear natural, though it took several trips to a beauty parlour to wax the stubble from him. He had a cream towel knotted at his waist, his proudest asset hanging loose underneath so as to cause a bulge, enough of one to catch the eye, but not one that revealed too much.

Reece knew seduction. He knew how to talk to a girl, he knew how to walk, how to stand so as to make himself appear more attractive. He knew which was his good side and always arranged for any potential mates to see that side as much as possible. Whenever his numerous charms failed it was because the girl was a lesbian, and when they succeeded, well, it was… sheer animal magnetism.

Or so he thought. What he had never realised was that more often than not, it was him that was seduced. His best side was whichever side of his trousers his wallet happened to be, and the girls that weren’t after his money, were simply curious.

One night, while he had still been in school, Reece had realised the ‘advantage’ he had over other men, and had hit on a plan to press it. He arranged for all of the boys in his class to come over for a party one night, and in the small hours of the morning, once the dozen or so boys had fallen asleep, he had left his bedroom, carefully making sure that he trod on the fingers of Taylor Jeffries on the way out.

Taylor was not usually one of his friends, he was openly gay and fairly camp, but he got on well enough with everyone in the group for it not to seem too odd that he’d received an invite. Taylor had woken when he felt the pain in his fingers, just in time to see someone disappear round the door.

He heard noises coming from down the hall, and after ten minutes or so, when the figure hadn’t returned, Taylor suspected that someone had smuggled in some more alcohol and wasn’t sharing it with the group. He made his way along the hall to where the light spilt out through the open doorway of the bathroom.

Once the wide-eyed Taylor had reluctantly returned to the bedroom, Reece had finished the job, pulled up his boxer shorts and returned his father’s Lesbian Lust magazine back to its usual hiding spot.

At 9am on the following Monday, Taylor started whispering to his girlfriends. At 4:02pm on Wednesday, a group of female teachers were talking about what Taylor had seen. And at 7:18 pm on Friday evening, Reece had rolled off of Vanessa Daniels, no longer a virgin.

The door to the en suite opened, and Jennifer entered, just dressed in her underwear. She jumped back in surprise as she saw Reece stood before her, a vodka bottle, hanging almost forgotten, from his left hand.

“What are you doing in here?” She asked as she grabbed a towel to cover herself up.

“I thought maybe we could swap some knitting patterns,” Reece smirked, “maybe play a hand or two of Bridge. What do you think?”

“I think that maybe you’re deluding yourself. Out.”

“Oh, come on, I know you’re upset, it’s understandable, you haven’t seen me for three months. But we can make up for that now.”

“Reece, listen to me,” Jennifer said as she started to adjust her make-up in the mirror above the sink, “I don’t want you, I haven’t missed you, and we won’t be making up for anything.”

Reece stared at her for a moment, until an expression of realisation spread across his face. “Oh…” he said with a smile, “you’ve forgotten.”

“Forgotten?”

“This.” Reece let the towel around his waist drop to the floor.

Jennifer stopped applying her mascara long enough to roll her eyes before continuing. “Good Lord, spare me men with big dicks.”

“Excuse me?”

“Some men think that just because they turn up with the equipment, that they can be excused from the game. Your uncle was just the same.”

“I didn’t need to know that.” Reece gave a small smile as he pressed himself up against Jennifer. “Are you telling me you haven’t missed this?”

“Missed it? It was like sitting on a piston, you didn’t do anything, Reece.”

“If it was that bad, if there was nothing there, then how come you kept coming back for more?”

Jennifer laughed as she moved out of the en suite into her bedroom. “Are you telling me you’re that naïve?” She asked as she slipped a brightly coloured dress over her head. “Zip me up.”

Reece stepped forward, still nude and fingered her zip carefully for a moment before pulling it up to her neck. “Oh come on, you enjoyed it.”

“Reece, I slept with you for one reason and one reason only.” She stepped over to her dresser and fished through a small wooden jewellery box. She glanced in the mirror to see Reece gripping his groin and grinning.

“I told you, you’d missed it.”

“I thought that your grandfather might make you his heir,” Jennifer said plainly as she clipped a small earring on to each ear, “I needed to make sure I was going to be on your good side. I think you’ll agree with me, when I say that after tonight, it’s clear that sleeping with you is going to get me nothing more than a mild case of the clap.”

“You were using me?”

“Of course I was using you. Every woman you’ve ever slept with was using you, Reece, just to see what it’s like. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date.”

“A date?”

“Well, not exactly, a date. But like I said earlier, I need to be on the good side of Ernest’s heir.” Jennifer moved to leave her bedroom, but paused at the door and glanced down at Reece’s crotch. “And, by the way… I’ve had bigger.”

 

*                *                *

 

“Just put it away.”

Gary stared across at his wife and with a defiant cock of his left eyebrow, unscrewed the lid from the top of the vodka bottle and took a swig.

“I don’t have to do anything you tell me.” He said, foregoing the theatrical grimace he usually reserved to suggest he wasn’t used to the drink. “You never do anything I tell you to do.”

Nicola was sat up in bed, filling in the answers to a crossword in her magazine. “Rubbish.”

“No, it’s true. I keep telling you to defend me against my father, but you never do.”

“I do!” Nicola argued, without tearing her eyes away from twenty three across.

“You defend the other two, those sons of yours, but never me!”

“They’re your sons too, Gary. God, you’re not jealous of them?”

Gary frowned and said nothing before sighing loudly and sitting himself down on the end of the bed. Nicola put her magazine down and crawled over to him. As she spoke, she gently rubbed his shoulders.

“Listen to me, you have nothing to be jealous about, ok? I love you, just as much as I love them. More.”

“But you always defend them,” Gary moaned, “he picks on them, you take up arms, he picks on me, you sit back and watch him.”

“I just… I don’t want to upset him, Gary, we’ve got nowhere else to go. He’s the only person putting a roof over our heads at the moment.”

“It’s because you agree with him, isn’t it?”

“What? No.”

“You think I’m inadequate… that I’m less than a man. That I can’t provide for my family. We can leave!” Gary jumped up with a sudden enthusiasm.

“What? We can’t leave, it’s Christmas Eve.”

“No, we can leave, get a place of our own.”

Nicola’s shoulders dropped in despair. “Gary, we had a place of our own, they kicked us out.”

“I wondered how long it would take you to bring that up.”

“Bring it up? It’s not as if it’s entirely irrelevant! The only reason we’re here is because you got absolutely smashed out of your brain and beat up the pool boy!”

“No, the reason we’re here, is because you found an opportunity to kick me when I was down. It wasn’t enough that, I was up on assault charges, no, you grabbed the opportunity to come running to my father, to remind him of just what a miserable wreck I am, and give him the chance to save the day again!”

“Now, just wait one second! The only reason I did that was because the pool boy agreed to drop the charges if we moved out! If it wasn’t for me running to your father, you’d be rotting in a jail somewhere right now, being used as somebody’s bitch!”

“You didn’t have to go running to him! We could have gone somewhere else, gotten another apartment somewhere!”

“No we couldn’t, Gary!” Nicola screamed, climbing out of bed. “We didn’t have any money coming in, we were four months behind with the payments on that place as it was! And yeah, before you ask, your father paid those bills off. You don’t have a job!

“Fine.” Gary took another swig. “That’s fine. I’ll get a job. You want me to get job, I’ll get a job, that’s what I’ll do.”

“You’re a violent alcoholic with next to no work experience, nobody’s going to employ you, Gary.”

“I can stop drinking anytime I like, I’ll stop. And… you’re forgetting I was in that job for nearly twenty years. That’s not nothing, it counts for something.”

“It was the only job you’ve ever had, and you were fired from it by your own father! Nobody’s going to employ you, Gary!”

“He will.” Gary marched over toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Nicola pushed shut the door as he opened it.

“I’ve got a job interview.”

“Not at this time of night, and not the state you’re in! You’ll probably get us all thrown out on the streets on Christmas Day! Some provider you are!”

“Let me go!” He pushed her away from him, yanked open the door and started to march down the corridor.

“Gary! Gary, if you don’t come back in here now, you can forget about coming back at all!”

Gary stopped and slowly turned to face his wife. She was glowering angrily at him, but behind her, on the dresser he could see his half consumed bottle of vodka. He wanted to go back for it, but she would think she had won and shut him in. He turned away from her and continued to walk, as he did, he heard the door slam behind him.

 

*                *                *

 

Although he wasn’t sure why, Gary instinctively hid himself as he saw his father step out of his office. He said something that Gary couldn’t hear to his lawyer, and the pair of them moved up the corridor towards the kitchen.

He waited for a moment to make sure they were out of the way and then slipped across the corridor and entered the study. He poured himself a drink and sat in a small armchair in the corner of the room, in front of a tall bookcase.

Since his father had not turned the lights off, or locked the door, Gary was sure that he would be returning. He would simply wait here until he did, and then they’d be able to have a civil conversation about Gary returning to work.

He downed the remainder of his drink and moved to pour some more from the bottle, only to discover it was empty. Gary frowned and looked around the room. Ernest had left two whiskey glasses out, one of which was now in Gary’s hand, but there weren’t any bottles around anywhere.

He wandered over to the desk and sat himself down in the black leather chair behind it. He tried a few drawers, but they were locked. As he bent down to try the bottom drawer, he noticed a bottle, completely full, set against the side of the desk. He grinned triumphantly and set both his glass and the bottle on the table.

Not taking the time to either read the label or pour into the glass, Gary took a large swig, straight from the bottle.

“Ah, Scotch!” He licked his lips, not feeling the fluid burn his throat on its way down, and set the bottle back on the table. As he did, he noticed the papers in front of him, and started to read. He was just beginning to decipher the legal jargon when he heard some noises outside in the corridor.

Again, not completely sure why, but acting on drunken instinct, Gary grabbed the bottle of Scotch and darted across the room. As he shut himself in Ernest’s large walk in closet, and settled himself down between the suits hung up inside, he heard a small group enter the office.

“I still don’t get why I had to be here. It’s nothing to do with me.” Gary didn’t recognise the voice of the man speaking.

“I don’t like it much either, Harry, but I already told you, I don’t have an awful lot of choice.” Ah, the poof, Gary told himself, before quietly remembering his son was now one of them. He quietly shifted himself so that he could through the gap where the two doors of the closet met. He could see his father sit in the chair behind his desk, both Harry and the lawyer were there as well as Pat, who was slowly hobbling over to the armchair in the corner.

“I needed two people to sign as witnesses to my will,” Ernest continued, “I wanted Pat and Ella, but since you were there and Ella wasn’t, you’ll have to do.”

“Can’t it wait?” Pat asked. “I mean, if you want Ella that much, she’s only having a shower, she won’t be long.”

“No, best leave her alone.” Ernest sighed loudly. “I just want to get it out of the way, my head’s had enough for tonight, I just want to settle down with a good book, a nice glass of scotch and settle down to a long night’s sleep. Gregory, if you will.”

“Ah, right of course,” Gregory gathered up some of the papers that were spread across the desk, “if I could just get you both to sign at the bottom of each of the two copies here, that’s it.”

Gary saw Pat quickly sign both piece of paper and then lean back in her chair and put her foot up on the small table in front of her. Gregory handed the pieces of paper to Harry.

“Come on, what are you waiting for, boy?”

“Well, you’ve got to give me to time to read it.”

“You don’t need to read it, just sign it.”

“I’ve got to read it, Ernest, if I’m going to be witness to it,” Gary could hear a playful lilt in Harry’s voice as he moved back from the door long enough to take another swig from the bottle, “I mean, that’s the whole point of a witness, isn’t it, Mr Lloyd?”

“Well, I guess you could put it like that.” The lawyer rubbed his eyes, red from exhaustion. “Although, in this case, you don’t need to – ”

“Of course I need to.” Harry looked across at Ernest. “I’m just looking out for your best interests. I mean, I’d look pretty silly if I signed this piece of paper and your lawyer here had conned you into leaving everything to him.”

“Don’t be daft, I’m not leaving anything to him.”

“Who then?”

There was silence for a moment as Ernest studied Harry intently. “Frederick.”

“What?” Pat sat up suddenly. “I thought you were leaving everything to that Robert fellow?”

“You didn’t hear, Pat?” Harry asked. “Robert –”

“And I had a falling out. And now I’ve changed my mind and leaving it all to Frederick, so will you just sign the damn paper and get out of my office?”

Gary heard the slight scratch of a fountain pen on paper and then saw Harry pass the papers over to Gregory.

“Is that everything?” Pat rasped. “Can we go now?”

“Make my day.” Ernest gestured to the door and Pat climbed out of her chair.

“I’m going to make my way up to bed as well.” Gregory opened the door to the office for Pat. “Are you sure you don’t mind me staying the night?”

“Oh, no, of course not, Gregory, you’ve done a big favour for me tonight, coming all the way out here, at his hour as well.”

Gregory nodded to Ernest and to Harry and left the room. Harry made his way over to the door, but rather than leave, he simply closed the door, and turned back to face Ernest.

“What made you change your mind?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your will.” Harry said, as he dropped into the seat opposite the desk. “What made you change your mind?”

“You heard what that man’s been doing to my family. What he did to Victoria… what he did with Freddie.”

“Not about Robert. Why did you decide to leave it all to Freddie?” Harry asked, and Gary could just about see him pick up a letter opener from the desk and start to fiddle with it. “I mean, he’s gay, and he was there with Robert. In your office. On your desk.”

“Frederick’s bisexual. And he doesn’t pretend to be anything but. Frederick… enjoys sleeping with men, he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. It repulses Robert, but he still does it, just to get ahead.”

“So you went for the lesser of two evils?”

“Frederick is a good businessman. If he could just forget about this whole writing thing and…”

“And stop fucking men?”

“Then there’d be no question in my mind.”

“Look, you might be able to stop him from being a writer, by leaving him the business, but you can’t stop him from being who he is.”

“Maybe not, but I can help steer him in the right direction.”

“How do you mean?”

Gary saw a familiar, triumphant smile spread across his father’s face. “Frederick only gets the business if he gets married. To a woman, before you start mentioning any of those hokey ‘blessings’”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. But, any man can get married to any woman, that’s not really going to turn him straight.”

“That’s why he has to remain married for at least two years and father at least one child.”

Harry said nothing as the old man grinned wickedly at him.

“Why do you hate us so much?” Harry asked finally.

“Us?”

“Gays. Homosexuals. We don’t negatively affect your way of life, in fact, we practically run your shops for you.”

“It’s wrong.”

“It’s more than that. Come on, what is it? You get chased by one as a child?”

“I’m not afraid of gay people.”

“Of course you are, that’s what homophobia is, Ern. Why do you hate us so much?”

“Because you destroy people’s families!” Ernest shook suddenly and gripped the edge of the desk for support. Gary stared at him through the crack in the door as he turned to face the window.

“How do you figure that?”

Ernest turned back to face Harry for a moment, before moving over towards the closet. Gary held his breath as he heard his father remove a picture from the wall to the left of his hiding place. He let out a small sigh as he heard the steel safe being opened. He watched Ernest empty the contents of a box onto the desk. He saw his father’s gun fall out, as well, as a smaller, gold object. Ernest picked up the smaller item and handed it to Harry.

“A broken watch?” Harry asked. “So what?”

“It’s my father’s watch. Look at the time.”

“Twenty past four. I don’t get it.”

“I threw that watch at the wall, at the exact moment my baby brother died in my arms.”

Gary paused, the bottle of scotch halfway to his lips, his father had never mentioned having a brother before.

Harry put the watch down on the desk. “Mr Cromwell, I’m sorry, I…”

“It was sixty years ago, you don’t need to be sorry.”

“So you’re not looking for sympathy, fine, I won’t give it. But why bring it up? Killed by a knife wielding poof, was he?”

“He died in my arms.” Gary watched his father’s bottom lip quiver as he avoided eye contact with Harry and simply stared at he pocket watch. “A bomb flattened our neighbour’s house. There weren’t many houses still standing, but ours was. Anyway, I didn’t wake up when the air sirens went, I never did, for some reason, I slept through them. My mother would go and get the baby, and then came in to my room and woke me up. That night, she didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“She was already dead. She’d been next door, having sex with… with that woman.” Ernest glanced across at Harry, but Harry kept his head bowed. “If she hadn’t been… what she was, she would have lived. If she had been at home instead of with her, she would have woken me up, they’d both have lived. But she didn’t, and he died, in that dingy, wet little shelter”

Silence filled the room and lingered in the air for a few minutes. “I think that perhaps you ought to leave, Harry. I’d like to be on my own.”

Harry dropped the letter opener on the desk, pulled himself up and moved over to the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob. “You know, Ernest, I do feel sorry for you really, I do. But you can’t blame what happened on your mum being gay. And you certainly can’t punish Frederick and Matthew for it either. It makes no difference whether your mum was with a woman or a man that night. You’re just a bigot, you can’t just drag up traumatic childhood experiences to justify your prejudices. The sooner you realise that, the sooner you’ll be able to get over it.”

Gary heard the door open, and then softly close as Harry left the room. Ernest sat in his chair for a moment before turning and looking directly at the closet door. “You can come out now, Gary.”

Gary pulled himself to his feet and bashfully stepped out of the closet. “How did you – ”

“You’re not a quiet drunk, Gary. Besides, you’re the only other person in this house that drinks Scotch.” Ernest snatched the bottle away from his son.

“You had a brother?”

“That’s none of your business.” Ernest snapped, as he liberally poured the drink into a glass.

“I think it is.” Gary moved over to the desk and looked down at the broken pocket watch, lying next to the gold-plated letter opener.

“What do you want, Gary?”

“A job.”

Ernest started to laugh loudly, only pausing to take a gulp of his drink. Gary picked up the letter opener and swivelled it on it’s point on the desk as Ernest’s laughter trailed off. “Oh, thank you for that son, it was just what I needed. Now… get out.”

 

*                *                *

 

Reece had woken with a start as Pat’s scream rang throughout the house. He’d quickly pulled on some clothes and run downstairs to find Pat, Harry, Matthew, Victoria and his mother all gathered around outside the door to his grandfather’s office.

“What’s happened?”

“Where’s your father?”

“I don’t know, I thought he was in with you. What’s going on?”

“Oh, honey,” Pat whispered, holding her hand to her mouth, “I’m so sorry, there’s been an accident.”

“What kind of accident?”

Reece turned around to find Ella had entered the corridor, wearing a dressing gown and towelling her hair.

“Oh, Ella, darling,” Nicola pounced on her, “have you seen Gary?”

“Umm, no, sorry. I just got out the shower.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it an accident, Pat.” Matthew said, and Reece noticed for the first time just how pale his younger brother looked.

“Will someone just tell me what’s going on?”

Harry folded his arms. “It’s Ernest. He’s been killed.”

“Killed?”

“Reece, honey,” Nicola rubbed her son’s arm, “will you please go and find your dad, he should be here.”

“Right.” Reece nodded, and he quickly turned and ran down the corridor, nearly barrelling straight into Elizabeth and Robert as they hurried into the corridor. As he reached the lobby, he realised he had no idea where his father might be.

“Dad!” He shouted. “Dad! Where are you?”

No answer came and Reece resigned himself to looking in every room in the house. He quickly pulled open the door to the drinks room, but it was empty, as was the lounge opposite it. He dived into the dining room so quickly, that he almost missed his father slumped, snoring, against the wall.

“Dad! Dad, wake up, it’s – ” He stopped as he noticed the small gold knife in his father’s left hand. He remembered the way his father had been stumbling around drunk, a few hours before, drunker even than Reece had been. Could he have murdered his own father? No, he wouldn’t do that. But then Reece remembered the drunken arguments and the various threats that Gary had levelled his father ever since they’d moved in with him.

Reece slowly slid the knife from his father’s grasp and dropped it into the fish tank on the cabinet next to them. As the knife slowly sank to the bottom, and the fish darted out of it’s way, Reece shook his father awake.

“Dad… dad, I’ve got some bad news.”

 

The next chapter of Memories of a Murder will be published on Sunday 1st May

And I Darken by Kiersten White

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we’d started a new YA book club at work, and while we haven’t quite gotten around to the club part, I have now read the book.

 

And I Darken by Kiersten White boldly bills the lead character as the latest in a long line of heroines that includes Ellen Ripley, Elizabeth Bennett, Hermione Granger and Buffy Summers.

 

Books that make these sort of claims tend to fall into two categories, the vast majority of them are perfectly good books that are the victims of over eager publicists, or they genuinely are that good a book.

 

The latter are, unfortunately, rare. The reason good characters stand out so much, male or female, is because of their relatively small number among a vast sea of their merely adequate counterparts.

 

Telling your readers that this is the next iconic name in books is a bit like purposefully trying to write a tweet that goes viral. It should just happen naturally.

 

Having said all that, does Lada Dracul warrant being added to the list of slayers, spies and Scarlett O’Hara?

 

It’s a tentative ‘yes’ from me – and here’s why:

 

And I Darken is not just the tale of Lada – it’s also the tale of her brother, Radu (here’s mistake number one in the marketing – it’s not just for girls, Radu is as strong and compelling character as his sister).

 

They are the younger children of the leader of Wallachia, and he is absent from much of their early lives. However as they grow, he begins to sense something about them both. When it comes to leaving the country, he takes them with him, but ultimately has to leave them behind with the Sultan in order to safeguard his homeland.

 

Radu, younger, sensitive, but with a gift for charming people (you can see where this is going) starts to adapt, while Lada contrarian ugly duckling that she is resists, however they both befriend Mehmed, a boy they later discover is the son of the sultan.

 

And so we have our threesome. Every good story needs a trio of central characters be they Harry, Ron and Hermione; Kirk, Spock and McCoy; or Wakko, Yakko and Dot (the Animaniacs for those uneducated of you who need telling) – and And I Darken is no exception

 

Some of the peripheral characters are vague and forgettable, a trait that is unfortunate when a few of them pop up unexpectedly later on, causing me absolutely no degree of the intended surprise as I have no clue who they actually are – but our core characters are well defined, and not just our central threesome.

 

Plot wise the story is a little Game of Thrones-esque, a little hard to follow at times, but you get the gist, and understand all the important bits. There’s also some gratuitous nudity, although no dragons (SPOILER ALERT: Or are there? – that’ll make sense when you get to the end, it’s amused me).

 

I was surprised to discover that the book is largely based on true facts – Radu the handsome exists, albeit largely as a footnote in the story of Vlad the Impaler. Here our writer has taken some poetic licence, namely, taking Vlad and turning him into a teenage girl named Lada.

 

I know when I’m reading a good book, not only do I race through it, but I break my rules of how long I’m going to read for – and on this one, not only did I do that, but I also found myself desperately reading every part of the proof copy jacket to find out if any more were planned (yes they are, this is the first in a trilogy).

 

Does it live up to it’s promise? As I said at the beginning, it’s a tentative yes – I don’t believe anyone would have listed Buffy Summers or Katniss Everdeen great female characters of our time after their first outing, but the promise was there.

 

The promise is definitely there with Lada, but this is more than her. Radu plays a huge part in this book, sharing the narrative as equally with his sister. I await the subsequent books eagerly and hope that Radu continues to share this story with Lada. Together, the two of them could usher in the next big series in teen fiction.

 

And I Darken scores 4.1 out of 5 from me. It is published on 7th July by Corgi Books

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 14

Read the last chapter here or start at the beginning here

 

DI Jennings was sat on a small fold out stool opposite Harry, he was using a flowery print ironing board as a desk to lean on as he wrote. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it would be funny.

Several hours had passed since he and Matthew had discovered Ernest’s dead body, Harry wasn’t sure exactly how many, he never wore a watch and there was no clock in the room they’d locked him in.

When the police had finally arrived, they’d taken his mobile from him and shoved him alone into this room. Paranoia told him that he was the chief suspect, that they’d shut him in here for the safety of the others, who were all laughing and emptying the drinks cabinet as they told the Detective exactly how he must have done it.

Common sense, however, was whispering in his other ear and informing him that everybody had been shut away, to stop anybody getting their stories straight with each other before being questioned by the police. Still, after all this time on his own – had it been twenty minutes, three hours? He didn’t know – the paranoia on his shoulder was getting louder and louder.

Matthew hadn’t believed him at first, when Harry had told him his grandfather was dead, he’d had to come over and find out for himself. As he backed away, clutching his stomach and gagging, Harry had dialled triple nine on his phone. He told the operator what had happened, but then she’d asked for the address and he began to splutter down the line that he didn’t know where he was.

He was trying to describe the surrounding area, what he could remember from the car journey – a large, dead oak tree, recently struck by lightning, a long gravel path, with a hedge alongside it – as Pat entered the room. She looked from Harry gesturing wildly with one hand as if the operator would be able to determine the address with unseen vague hand movements, to Matthew vomiting and shaking on the floor, before her eyes finally rested on Ernest’s corpse, slumped over the desk. A loud scream shot from her lips.

He had thrust phone into her hands and half listened to her babbling about an ambulance as he attempted to soothe Matthew, and stop him from throwing up, by rubbing his back gently.

Disturbed by Pat’s scream, Nicola had been the first person to rush into the room, before stumbling back in surprise at what she found. Harry tried to usher everyone out of the room, literally having to drag Matthew out, and as he shut the door Victoria had appeared, demanding an explanation.

One by one the rest of the family arrived, disturbed by the noise, and wanted to know just what had happened. As Harry told them, their initial shock soon turned to suspicion and everyone stiffened as the tension in the corridor grew.

One of them, gathered there outside the crime scene, was a murderer, and they were all looking warily at each other, not letting anyone stand too close to them. Victoria started demanding to see his body, she said that she wouldn’t believe it until she saw it with her own eyes, and she pushed her way past Frederick and Harry into the old man’s study. Frederick tried to pull her away from the desk, but by then, the damage had been done. They’d all seen his corpse.

Elizabeth, in particular, was hysterical and while Robert tried to calm her down, Frederick and Reece once more moved everyone out into the hallway.

Fairly quickly an ambulance crew had turned up. Thirty seconds behind them a squad car with sirens blazing, crunched to a halt on the gravel driveway, sending a cloud of dust up into the beam of light produced by the floodlight above the front door.

Several more uniformed officers arrived, the paramedics departed, and one bleary eyed officer assembled everyone in the drinks room, adopted his best sombre tone and regretfully informed them all that Ernest Cromwell had passed.

Bleary eyed sombre cop explained that they would need to wait for the Detective to arrive, that he was on his way, but until he did arrive, they would all have to wait alone. Then he and several other officers, started to take them one by one from the room. He marched Harry past Ernest’s bathroom, past Ernest’s study, where Harry assumed the body still lay, diligently being inspected by a team of forensic officers.

Then he had sat in there, slowly waiting for the detective to arrive, waiting for the day to be over. The officer had suggested that Harry try to get some sleep, that the detective had to cross quite a distance to get here, and that he would want to examine the crime scene before even thinking about speaking to any of them, but he couldn’t sleep.

He kept thinking about Cromwell’s cold, pulse-less neck, about all the people he’d met that night. Everyone had a motive, including himself, and possibly even Joshua at a stretch, though he couldn’t quite imagine him sneaking up on his great-grandfather and pulling a trigger.

Harry had just started to doze off, sat on the floor leaning against the washing machine when Jennings had burst in.

“Harry Hicks,” he’d said, looking down at him, half asleep sat next to a pile of dirty clothes, “I never realised how glamorous a film star’s life could be.”

“This is nothing,” he said pulling himself up, “you should see what I get up to at New Years.”

“I’m DI Sam Jennings,” he offered his hand, which Harry gently shook, “I need to ask you a few questions about what happened here tonight.”

“I know, I’ve been waiting to answer them for about six hours now.”

“Don’t exaggerate, Mr Hicks, it’s twenty minutes to five, you’ve been in here less than three hours.”

“Still, not the best start to Christmas Day is it?”

“Yes, well, I apologise for the wait, but the traffic was… well, I’ll be honest with you, the traffic was non-existent, but this place is in the middle of nowhere, and it took me a while to find it.”

“Hey, not a problem, I’ve been looking to get some alone time, for a while now, this was just the break I needed.”

“Right, Turner, any chance of a chair?” The young officer who had followed Jennings in glanced around for a moment, before pulling out a fold away stool from behind the door. “You want me to sit on this? I suppose you want me to use the ironing board as a desk as well, don’t you?”

Turner simply shrugged and dragged the ironing board over in front of Jennings.

“Why don’t you have a seat?” The detective gestured to him and Harry rolled his eyes before hauling himself to sit on the edge of the washing machine.

He looked down at Jennings slightly too large for the stool, definitely too grizzled for the patterned ironing board cover. “Is this… usual?”

“It’s Christmas Day, and my marriage is over if I miss dinner for a third year running. I’m going to have somebody locked away for this murder by lunchtime. If that means I have to bend the rules a little bit, so be it.”

“Fine. Where do you want to start?”

“Why don’t we start with you telling us why you’re here?”

“This is where your man shoved me when he split us all up.”

“No, I don’t mean, here in this room, I mean here in this house, in these people’s lives? Why aren’t you with your family?”

“I don’t really have any family.” Harry said quietly. “Frederick was coming back to England for Christmas, he said I could come along. How could I refuse?”

“It’s all a bit odd, isn’t it? You and him?”

“In what way?”

“You’re a big Hollywood heartthrob, he’s a gay man.”

“He’s an Englishman,” Harry smiled, inwardly cursing himself, as the instinct to protect his secret kicked in automatically, “I’m an Englishman. We met in a British pub in Hollywood, the Bulldog.”

“So, you’re friends, nothing more?” Jennings asked.

“Nothing more.” Harry said quietly.

“I see.” He scribbled down a note in his pad. “Tell me, why do you suppose Mr Cromwell was murdered? Who could possibly want to see him dead?”

“How big is that notepad of yours?”

Jennings gave a curt nod. “Are you suggesting that he was not short of enemies?”

“I guess you could say that. There was a large argument over dinner about… nothing. Everything, really.”

“What started it?”

Harry frowned as he tried to think back. “Ernest did. He announced to his family he was going to make Robert his heir, put him in charge of the business.”

“Robert?”

“Forrester, he’s here tonight. I’m not sure where you’ve put him though.”

“And his family didn’t like it?”

“Not one bit.”

“Who?”

“Reece, Jennifer. Gary. I guess Gary was probably the most upset about it.”

“Do you believe that Gary was upset enough to kill his father, simply because of his announcement?” Jennings asked.

“I guess it wasn’t entirely the announcement, more of the way he said it.”

“How do you mean?”

“He insulted the entire room, told them just why he wasn’t putting any of them in charge.”

“And why was that?”

“Umm, I don’t know,” Harry frowned, “Gary’s an alcoholic, Reece is going the same way. Nicola, Jennifer, Fiona, they’re all women – and whores as well, apparently.”

“What about the others?” Jennings asked, checking the notepad in front of him. “Elizabeth? Frederick?”

“I don’t think Mrs Cromwell’s ever been interested in running the business, she seemed perfectly happy about the whole situation.”

“So Elizabeth Cromwell is the only person who doesn’t have a motive, as far as you’re concerned?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that. Ernest turned on Frederick, pretty much told him that because he was gay, he was worthless. He accused his mother of not standing up for him. Maybe she finally did, though, I’m not sure I can imagine her shooting him.”

Jennings wrote something down on his pad, paused for a moment, carefully choosing his words. “How close did you get to the body, Mr Hicks?”

“Close enough to know I didn’t want to get any closer. To be honest, I knew that when he was alive as well?”

“You’re an expert in gunshot wounds, are you? You knew straight away that Mr Cromwell had been shot?”

“Umm, no. I just saw the gun on the side and assumed.”

Jennings motioned for the young officer to come over. He pointed at something on his pad, and Turner nodded, before quietly leaving the room.

“Just to confirm, make sure everything matches up, what ‘side’ did you see the gun on.”

“What? Why?”

“I’m just trying to establish everybody’s movements, I need to know if anything was moved by anyone. Please, where was the gun?”

“It was just on the edge of the desk. The corner closest to the door.”

“Ok, so what happened after Cromwell’s announcement? Anybody make any death threats?”

“No. Gary let slip that Ernest had had another son, years before, but he’s not around anymore. Everybody started arguing and then when Ernest started picking on Frederick, Matthew told everyone that he was gay as well.”

“Matthew is…” Jennings checked his notes again, “Gary’s son, Cromwell’s grandson?”

“That’s right.”

“I’m guessing the old man didn’t like this very much?”

“Correct.”

“What about Victoria, Frederick’s sister?”

“What about her?” Harry asked.

“Well, she’s done it before. She killed her father when he attacked her family.”

“They argued about that, he brought it up, threatened to tell Joshua, that’s Victoria’s son, what she’d done. But I hardly think that she would have – ”

“She stabbed her father in the back three times. Her grandfather died due to a… similar wound in his back.”

“It’s completely different.”

“If you insist. Who do you think did it then?”

“I don’t know, I guess… Robert. He and Ernest had a huge argument.”

Jennings frowned. “They had an argument? What about? The man was making him his heir.”

“He was. He changed his mind.”

“Why?”

“Ernest and I walked in on Robert. He was arguing with Victoria and Frederick.”

“What about?”

“Victoria and Robert slept together, years ago. He’s Joshua’s father. And…” Harry hesitated. “Frederick and Robert slept together as well. Robert used him to convince Ernest to give him a job.”

“And Ernest wasn’t impressed?”

“Not particularly. He told Robert, he wouldn’t leave him in charge of the business.”

“I’ve already spoken to Mrs Cromwell, she says that Forrester was in bed with her until her father’s body was discovered.”

Harry smiled. “She doesn’t know what he was up to with her children. Perhaps you should tell her and then ask her again.”

“I’ll do the police-work, thank you, Mr Hicks.” Jennings frowned a little but made a note on his pad anyway. “What did you do for the rest of the evening?”

“Not much,” Harry shrugged, “I talked with Freddie for a while. He was… he was upset that Robert had used him. Then I got a call from my agent, I spoke to her for about twenty, thirty minutes maybe.”

“So, when you finished the call with your agent, that would have been, what? Ten o’clock?”

“More like ten thirty,” Harry said, “I went down to the kitchen to get myself something to eat, I passed that big grandfather clock in the hall on the way.”

“Was there anyone else in the kitchen with you?”

“Ella, briefly, but she left to… she went to have a shower. It was just me and Pat, we talked for a while.” Harry wasn’t sure why he didn’t mention Reece’s attack on Ella, perhaps to protect her. It wasn’t as if it had anything to do with the old man’s death. Reece would have killed me before his grandfather.

“What did you talk about?”

“She told me about Raymond, that’s Ernest’s son, the one he lied to his family about.”

“I see. But you were with Matthew Cromwell when you discovered Ernest’s body?”

“Yeah. While Pat and I were talking, Ernest came into the kitchen. Said he needed witnesses for his new will, his lawyer had arrived by then.”

“I was under the impression that he didn’t like you very much?”

“He didn’t. But he only needed a signature.”

“Do you know what this new will said, Mr Hicks?”

“Not a clue. I couldn’t have cared less. I just signed the thing.” Harry shifted uncomfortably as another lie slipped out, and so easily.

“So, what did you do then?”

“I left him in his study.”

“With his lawyer and…” Jennings checked his notes again, “Patricia French?”

“No,” Harry avoided eye contact with him, “they’d already left by then. I stayed behind for a couple of minutes. I wanted to talk to him.”

“About what?”

“Frederick. Matthew.”

“Ah, the gay grandsons. How lucky they are to have such a caring… friend like you sticking up for them. Do you remember seeing the gun on the desk when you were talking to the deceased?”

“Yes. He got something out from his safe, got it out then.”

“Was this before or after Mrs French and Mr Lloyd left the room?”

“After.”

“It was just you and him?”

“Yes. Why?”

“According to you, the man was shot in the back with his own gun. That’s not a pre-meditated murder, that’s spur of the moment, an opportunity. Seems like not only were you the last to see him alive, you were the only one to know the gun was there. Mr Hicks, did you kill Ernest Cromwell?”

Harry almost choked on his own tongue as he felt Jennings eyes bore into him, gauging his reaction. Jennings was clearly hoping to catch him off guard. “What? No! I talked to him, that’s all. I was out of there before midnight.”

“Can anyone vouch for that?”

“Matthew. He saw me leave. I spent the rest of the night with him, he was upset, needed someone to talk to.”

“And then you discovered Mr Cromwell’s body?”

“That’s right. Matthew threw up and I rang the police. Several hours later, you turned up.”

He ignored Harry’s last comment and carefully scrutinised his notebook for a few moments. “Well, thank you, Mr Hicks,” he said with a false smile, “you’ve been most helpful. If you would just stay in here a little while longer, I may have some more questions for you a little later on.”

He stood up and walked out of the room, without even waiting for a response from Harry. Once again, Harry was left on his own, contemplating the night’s events.

 

*                *                *

 

Harry was woken up by the sound of the door opening. Again, he didn’t know what the time was, but he knew that some time had passed since Jennings had last visited him, early morning sunlight was streaming in through the small high window set in the window opposite.

“You’ve been lying to me, Mr Hicks.” Jennings snarled at Harry, as he pulled himself up.

Before he had been woken up, Harry had been dreaming that he was being arrested for Ernest’s murder, and no matter how much he protested his innocence, no one had believed him. He’d been dragged from the house in handcuffs, with everybody watching, Frederick hugging Robert for support, Matthew stood at the back, ignoring him and above them all, the large portrait of Ernest looking down and laughing maniacally.

Now Jennings was looking down at him, and he wasn’t looking happy at all.

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think I mean?”

Harry stared at him for a minute, but he stared back, just as hard. “Someone told you I was gay.”

“Oh, not someone, Mr Hicks, some people. Apparently, it’s almost public knowledge these days.”

“That’s exactly the point though, isn’t it? It’s not public knowledge, I can’t really afford for people to know. It would ruin my career. Do you honestly think that – ”

“What I think Mr Hicks, is that it’s Christmas Day, there’s been a murder, and one of the suspects is lying to me.”

“It’s not relevant.”

“I decide what’s relevant, not you!” He shouted so loudly, that Harry thought the vibrations could probably be felt in every room in the house.

“Who told?” Harry asked as Jennings sat himself back down at the ironing board, noticing for the first time, that he had brought a small laptop in with him.

“Let’s see, there’s your boyfriend, his sister, Robert Forrester, he seemed quite keen for me to know. And young Matthew.”

Harry sighed, a small smile on his lips. “He said he wouldn’t tell.”

“Don’t be too hard on the kid, he didn’t have a choice. He was trying to protect you.”

“Protect me? What do you mean?”

“Like I said, Robert was very adamant that I know that you were arguing with Mr Cromwell. He seems to think that you might have killed him.”

“What? Why could he possibly think that?”

“Oh, you’ve got to admit, it would be rather poetic. A rather homophobic old man, killed by a gay man… shooting at him from behind. It’s all rather… Freudian.”

“I didn’t kill him.”

Jennings stared at him for a few moments. “I know. In fact, that’s about all I do know at this point.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve been able to determine that Mr Cromwell didn’t die until some point after midnight. At 11.55 he made a phone call to an automated service, transferring some money from his personal account to the account of Mr Gregory Lloyd, presumably payments for his services tonight. You were with Matthew Cromwell by that time.”

Harry frowned. He’d had dealings with the police before, and his attitude seemed off. “And you’re just going to take my word for it?”

“Well, not just yours. Matthew has sworn to it as well. Plus, we have this.” He patted the laptop.

“What’s that?”

“Your alibi.” Jennings lifted the top of the laptop, waited for the screen to load and then pressed play on a video clip.

A view of Matthew’s bedroom appeared, a small clock in the corner indicated the time was 23:52.

“Just making sure it’s turned off.” Matthew moved away from the screen and Harry could his own face clearly displayed upon it.

“Right.”

Jennings quickly tapped a few keys and Harry watched in horror, as he and Matthew both quickly moved around the room, quickly gesturing to each other. Jennings looked away from the screen and turned to Harry as the video showed him pulling Matthew’s clothes from him. The two of them quickly started to have sex on the bed, both stark naked, faces in clear view.

Jennings closed the lid shut. “The video shows you and Matthew in the room until 01:07. The records show that your phone call to the emergency services came through at 01:13. Obviously, we’ll have to get the video verified, but it looks like you’re in the clear, Mr Hicks.”

“Do you know who did do it?”

“I have my suspicions. You were right about Mrs Cromwell, though. Once I told her the truth about Forrester and her children, she suddenly remembered that he was in the bathroom when she woke up. She has no idea where he was all night.”

“I told you.”

“Since you are so clued up on the goings on in this house, maybe you could help us with another little mystery. The gun, the one you saw on the desk. The thing is, we can’t find it.”

“What? It was right there.”

“Who else was in the room at the time?”

“Umm…” Harry struggled to remember, “Matthew. Nicola. Pat. Everyone was in there at one point, Victoria pushed her way in and everyone else followed.”

“You didn’t see anybody take the gun?”

Harry shook his head quietly, and found his gaze drifting to the laptop on the board in front of him. “If… If the media get hold of that – ”

“The media will be the last of your worries.” Jennings kept a stony expression on his face. “You’re not going to be charged with murder, Hicks, but someone’s going to want to talk to you about sleeping with a minor.”

“What? He’s sixteen!”

“In six days time.”

Suddenly Harry felt as if his insides had collapsed, as if he was no longer a man, but a hollow shell of skin and hair. This was it. His life, his career. Everything he’d ever done for Vincent. It was over. He’d be branded a sex offender and completely shunned by everyone he knew.

“I…  I’m…”

“Get up.”

Harry pulled myself up from the floor and slowly followed him towards the door. “Are you arresting me? Because of Matthew?”

“I could, but I won’t. Just remember this, I don’t like being surprised, Hicks, if I find out you’ve told me any more lies, I’ll have you down that police station on statutory rape charges so quickly, you won’t have time to pack your Oscar.”

 

*                *                *

 

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” Harry asked Jennings, stopping outside the oak-panelled door to Ernest’s drinks room.

“Don’t worry, Hicks,” Jennings muttered as he pushed open the door, “your secret’s safe with me.”

Harry saw his gaze settle on Pat, who was sitting on a chair just inside the door, he wondered if she’d told him about her affair with her boss.

“Looks like I’m the last to arrive to the party.” He said, looking around at everyone sat around the room on assorted chairs. Reece was leaning against the wall on the far side of the room, looking out at the early morning sunshine.

“Hey,” Robert raised his voice, as he pulled himself up from the small cards table, “why are you keeping us all locked up in here like animals? When are you going to let us out?”

“I’ve already warned you, Forrester, it might be a good idea if you try to keep a lid on that temper of yours. I’ll be with you shortly.” With that, Jennings turned and left, closing the door behind him.

Robert stood close and looked down at Harry, curling his lip in a sneer. “We were just talking about you.”

“How flattering.”

“Not really,” he said coldly, “we were just contemplating why he might have kept you longer than the rest of us.”

“Turns out he’s a fan. Wanted my autograph”

“Robert has a theory,” Victoria said, sitting on the floor with Joshua as he played with a few small toys, “he thinks that since you were the last to see him, you killed him.”

“Ernest’s murderer was the last person to see him alive, since I didn’t kill him, I wasn’t the last person to see him.” Harry looked Robert in the eyes. “Do you think you can grasp the logic of that?”

“That’s not entirely true. We know you were the last to see him, Pat told us she left you alone in his office with him.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Pat rasped, sounding as if something was stuck in her throat, “I wasn’t meaning that you killed him.”

“He has an alibi.” Matthew said slowly and clearly, almost as if he’d said it a thousand times already. He was sat on one end of a couch, there was a spare seat on his left, and on the far end sat Frederick, who was just looking at Harry quietly.

“Ah, yes, I forgot,” Gary spoke up, but remained sitting at the same table Robert had stood up from, he was the only other person sat there, “he was with you all night, in your bedroom.”

“It wasn’t like that. I was just giving him some advice, listening to him. Someone had to.”

“Not all night.” Frederick mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

“Matthew said the two of you were in his bedroom all night, you weren’t. I went up there to talk to him, there was no answer. Either you weren’t in there, or – ”

“We were in here.” Matthew quickly interrupted his cousin. “We came in here for a few minutes.”

“You came in here?” Jennifer asked, suddenly sitting a little more rigid on another couch. “Umm… what for?”

“Well…” Harry stumbled, looking down at her, “it had been a long night, I thought we could both use a drink.”

“You know he’s under age, right?” Nicola, sat next to Jennifer, looked at me accusingly.

“Believe me, I’m well aware of that fact.”

“Sodomy,” Robert sneered at him, “supplying alcohol to a minor, murder. No wonder the police kept you in there so long.”

“Sodomy isn’t a crime, Robert, you should know that.” Robert’s face flushed with anger and he grabbed Harry by the collar of his shirt and shoved him against the door.

“Just sit down!” Elizabeth stood over by the drinks cabinet shouted across the room at Robert. When he didn’t release his grip on Harry’s neck, she threw a scotch glass across the room. “Sit down!”

The glass smashed into the wall with a thud causing shards to fall down just next to Ella’s chair. Ella gave a high yelp and leaned over towards Pat to avoid the debris.

Robert stared into Harry’s eyes for another moment, before letting him go and turning back to the table. Both Frederick and Matthew were trying to catch Harry’s eye, but he purposefully avoided them and sat on the couch next to Jennifer.

For a few moments, there was silence.

“I need to go to the toilet.” Fiona said quietly, staring straight out in front of her, her eyes on a bookcase.

“Just hold it darling,” Jennifer said, just as quietly, “they can’t keep us in here much longer.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Reece muttered, continuing to watch something in the distant hedgerow, “they’re probably monitoring this room, got it bugged or something. Trying to catch one of us out, maybe all of us, maybe they think we did it together.”

“You can hardly blame them for thinking that,” Victoria said, “I don’t think anyone in here can honestly say they’re sad to see him go.”

Elizabeth glared at her daughter but said nothing, as the door opened and Jennings entered, followed by two uniformed policemen and Gregory Lloyd, Ernest’s lawyer.

“Good news everyone, we’ve found the old man’s will. Anyone want to know what it says?” A silence filled the room as Jennings looked at us all, a glint in his eye. “Oh, come on, all that money, all that power, you must be wondering which one of you lucky people gets it all. No? Well, I’m keen to know. Mr Lloyd?”

Gregory took a deep breath as he looked at Jennings sideways, before unfolding the piece of paper. “This is the last will and testament of Ernest Cromwell, I hereby declare that all previous – ”

“Oh come on, Lloyd, skip the boring stuff,” Jennings looked around, grinning wildly, “just give us the gist, who gets the money?”

“Upon the death of Mr Ernest Cromwell, all his assets shall be divided evenly between Mr Frederick Cromwell…” A few people looked at Frederick in surprise as the lawyer hesitated. “And his wife. Should Mr Frederick Cromwell not be married within twelve months of the death of Mr Ernest Cromwell and remain so for a period of two years, all assets will be sold off and the money donated to local government, to do with as they deem fit. Mr Frederick Cromwell’s claim on the inheritance shall be declared invalid if the union does not last for a minimum of twenty four months or produce a child of either sex.”

“Local government, eh?” Jennings smiled. “Sound like I’m going to get a shiny new desk at work.”

Everyone in the room, but Pat and Harry seemed shocked, they merely looked at each other and nodded. Only one other person in the room seemed unaffected by this announcement. Gary said nothing, he didn’t move or flinch as he heard the details of Ernest’s will. He simply stared into his glass, swirling the clear liquid around the bottom of it.

 

 

Read the next chapter here

The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby

I have a lot of access to a lot of books, so the pile of books on my to-read window sill grows at an alarming rate.

 

There are some books that have been there for ages waiting to catch my attention at the right moment (like The Passage by Justin Cronin) – these will be read, it’s just about when,. Then there are others which will barely have a chance to gather dust before being swept off the pile to be read.

 

Finally there are those in the middle which have intrigued me enough to make it onto the pile, but then fill me with dread when I look at them because I know they’re probably going to be awful.

 

The House at Baker Street by Michelle Birkby was one of the latter – a book that features the famous door of 221b Baker Street and proudly boasts

 

BEHIND EVERY GREAT DETECTIVE, STANDS A GREAT WOMAN…

 

This is a book told from the point of view of Mrs Martha Hudson, widow, landlady and housekeeper to Sherlock Holmes.

 

Holmes is a story that has been told a million different ways from a million different points of view, all of them a slight variation on a theme, and all of them have happened in just the past year.

 

I feared we may be at peak Sherlock, so it was with some trepidation I sat down to read.

 

Before I go any further, I must admit, I’ve never actually read any of the original Conan Doyle stories. Everything I know about Sherlock Holmes comes from the adaptations, most recently, and obviously, the Cumberbatch/Freeman series.

 

It was these two, along with Una Stubbs and Amanda Abbington that I had in mind when I began to read, and I was immediately hit with a strange sensation.

 

Either both this book and the television series are extremely faithful to the original books, or Birkby wrote this while binge-watching the BBC series (possibly a few times, since there aren’t many episodes, and it takes more than a weekend to knock out a book).

 

Regardless, the tone of voice is so similar to the TV series it feels like the characters in the book walked off the set – and that’s no bad thing. What it does is bring the characters to life, instantly, without any jarring misalignments to other established versions of the character.

 

The investigation itself is typically Victorian, it takes full advantage of the setting and culture, thus setting itself apart from it’s televisual counterpart. I thought about bringing it into the modern day, and while it would be possible, there would need to be some significant adaptations.

 

A woman is being blackmailed for improper behaviour, except the blackmailer seems to want nothing in return. He is threatening to destroy this woman’s life, for no reason at all. Laura Shirley seeks out Holmes to help, but he sends her away, apparently not interested in the case.

 

In typical arrogant style it was a game, Holmes fully expecting her to return at a later point, finally willing to tell him everything. What he hasn’t bargained on, however is Mrs Hudson’s sympathetic ear. Together with Mary Watson, Mrs Hudson takes on the case herself, nearly biting off more than she can chew.

 

Ultimately, however – and this is no spoiler – the book ends with Holmes intrigued by Hudson, suddenly seeing her in a new light.

 

And so am I.

 

I am now desperate for Steven Moffat do a special, Holmes-lite episode and push Stubbs and Abbington to the forefront, and I would be more than happy to see Michelle Birkby write it.

 

This a great book, and I would definitely recommend – 3.7 out of 5 – it’s let down slightly by not quite eliciting enough feeling for the victims, but still very good.

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 13

Read the last chapter here or start at the beginning here

 

Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire

February, 2009

 

Ernest was slumped over the desk at an awkward angle as Gary entered the study. For a moment, he stared at his father, unsure of what to do.

“Dad?” Michael asked, following his younger brother inside, and shutting the door. The resulting bang of wood upon wood caused Ernest to wake and sit up suddenly. “Where have you been? We were supposed to meet at the office an hour ago.”

“Oh.” Ernest frowned and checked his watch, massaging his shoulder as he did. “I’m sorry, boys, I guess I nodded off.”

“Right.” Michael nodded, frowning as he did.

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing to be concerned about. When you get to my age, you start needing to take an afternoon nap or two.”

“Well, perhaps,” Gary started as he and Michael sat down in front of their father’s desk, “it’s time that you started to take things a little easier.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like you say, you’re not getting any younger and yet… you seem to be putting more and more time in at work. Perhaps it’s time you thought about retirement.”

“Actually,” Ernest said as he straightened out the papers on his desk, “that’s why I wanted to meet with the two of you. I have been thinking about retiring, for a long time now.”

“You have?” Michael asked.

“Oh, come on, Michael, you can’t pretend that you haven’t noticed. For the last few years, I’ve been giving you more and more of my responsibilities.”

“You want Michael to take over the business?”

Ernest looked across at his youngest son. “I would absolutely love for Michael to take over the business.”

“Dad – ”

“But,” Ernest interrupted Michael, “we all know that unfortunately, due to circumstances out of our control – ”

“They are not circumstances out of our control, Dad!” Michael shouted. “It’s a disease. I’m ill!”

A muscle in Ernest’s cheek twitched as he looked away from Michael and focused on Gary. “As your brother has just reminded us, he’s not really in a position to head up a company, let alone take one over full time. It’s time for us to shift our gaze from past disappointments and wasted potential to the future.”

Gary sat up straighter in his chair. “So, what have you decided then, Dad?”

“As you both know this is a family business and I want to keep it in the family. Obviously, there are only so many people in one family and so my choices are a little limited. But I believe that Frederick has the potential.”

“Frederick?”

“Well, of course,” Ernest frowned, “who did you think we were talking about?”

“He is the most logical choice,” Michael agreed, “he’s dynamic, creative, intelligent.”

“Ok, I see, I see.” Gary conceded. “If Frederick’s the next logical choice, then why am I sat here?”

“Well, the qualities that would make Frederick the ideal man to take over the business are also the same sort of qualities that could mean he wouldn’t take the job. He’s unpredictable, we need a back-up plan.”

“And I’m the back-up plan?” Gary asked.

“What? No. I’m talking about Reece. I want to send him to university, he doesn’t quite have the raw talent that Frederick does.”

“Reece?”

“Well, I guess it makes sense, it would keep the business in the family, after all.” Michael agreed.

“Excuse me? Aren’t we forgetting someone?”

“Well,” Michael nodded, “of course Matthew would be considered as well, but at the end of the day, he is only thirteen.”

“I’m not talking about either of my fucking children!” Gary stood up. “I’m talking about me!”

“You?” Ernest laughed as Michael buried his head in his hands. “You want to run this business?”

“Why is that funny?”

“Look, perhaps I’d better leave, this is between the two of you.” Michael stood up.

“Yeah, perhaps that would be a good idea. I’m always going to look like second best while you’re in the room.”

“Listen,” Michael spat at Gary, “I’m not to blame for your failings, and I’m certainly never going to play down my own successes in order to make you feel good. But let’s just get one thing straight. You are not second best, we’ve already established that Frederick, Reece and Matthew all come before you!”

Gary frowned at Michael as he left the room. He turned back to face his father and Ernest began to laugh again.

“What the hell are you laughing at?”

“You!” Ernest grinned. “Your delusions that you could ever be a successful businessman! You’re barely even a successful man!”

Gary’s face turned red. “You really are a monster, you know that?”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah! You don’t know the first thing about me!”

“Well, I know that for four weekends running, you’ve been hungover whenever I’ve come around!”

“That’s rubbish.”

“Rubbish?” Ernest asked. “When was the last time you were drunk?”

Gary laughed. “Ok, ok, you got lucky. Just because I was out drinking last night with some buddies, doesn’t mean that I’m not suitable to run Cromley’s!”

“And what were you doing the night before? And on Monday night?”

“You’ve never given me a chance to be anything but a failure!”

“You were always a failure, before I even started treating you like one.”

“I’m a failure? Look at you!”

“Look at me?” Ernest cried. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m a multi-millionaire! I took one measly little shop that my father owned and duplicated it and multiplied it a million times over! I married a beautiful woman, had four children – ”

“That’s exactly your problem! Yeah, you’ve got a successful business, but you’ve got three children not four! That beautiful woman you married? She died nearly forty years ago! You’ve never got over that, you’ve never been with anyone since! All you did was fool some poor deluded woman into screwing you sixty odd years ago!”

“Leave your mother out of this!”

“No, really, she was lucky she died when she did, she wouldn’t have had to live with you for the past forty years!”

“Luck had nothing to do with your mother’s death. Your mother died, because she thought you were ill!”

“I was ill! I could have died!”

“And you couldn’t even do that properly could you!”

“Is that what my whole life has been about? You’ve blamed me for mum’s death?” Gary smiled slyly. “Well, I’ve got news for you, if you hadn’t been so wrapped up in making your millions and millions of pounds and actually been home with us that night where you should have been, mum never would have died. It’s your fault she’s dead!”

A stony silence filled the room between the two of them until Ernest’s curled fist smashed into Gary’s jaw.

Ernest looked down at Gary, crumpled on the floor. “You think I don’t know that? I’ve relived that night in my head a million times over, if I’d just been at home, if I hadn’t gone to work, if I’d just retired when I’d wanted to…  get out.”

 

February, 2009

 

“So, what?” Frederick asked as his grandfather pocketed a red ball and bent over the table to take his next shot. “You want me to run your business?”

“I want you to consider coming to work for me. You’re a talented young man, Freddie, with the right training, perhaps a little bit of education and guidance, I think that you could really do something with Cromley’s.”

“But I assume that you’re not going to just hand over the keys to the company Rolls Royce, put my name down on the executive parking list, hand me the password to your laptop and let me go at it.”

“Well, quite. You have potential, Frederick, and no matter how much potential anyone has, it needs to be tapped.”

“Look, Grandpa,” Frederick smiled as his grandfather’s red ball kissed the cushion near the corner pocket, wobbled a little, but remained on the table, “I appreciate the offer and everything, but I really don’t think I want to… you know, become an office worker, right now.”

“Just take your turn, Freddie.” Ernest sat on the couch with a glass of scotch and watched as Frederick sank a yellow ball at the opposite end of the table.

“We’re even.”

“So we are,” Ernest raised an eyebrow, “look, I’m not supposed to say this, but out of all my grandchildren, heck, out of all my children, you’re my favourite. You’re the only one who’s never disappointed me.”

“Well, you have my word that I won’t tell anyone. Unless of course, I’m trying to rub Vicky’s nose in it.”

“Of course you won’t tell anyone, you might not be able to back it up. You’re starting to disappoint me more and more each day. You’re twenty two years old and you’re still working for that Pathetic little newspaper.”

“So, you want me to quit that and come work for you?”

“All I’m saying is give it a go. While you’re waiting for your true vocation in life to find you, give this a go, you might find that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.”

“I already know what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

“Ah, yes,” Ernest smiled, “you’re going to be a writer! You know, this might surprise you, but to be a writer, you actually need to do some writing sometime.”

“You’re unbelievable, you know that?” Frederick frowned. “Just because you don’t see me write, doesn’t mean I don’t write.”

“Well, you never talk about it.”

“My writing’s kind of private. When it’s ready, I’ll share it with the world, but until then, it’s kind of a personal thing.”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Until you’re ready to share it with the world, why not try this?”

“Listen, Grandpa,” Frederick sighed as he tried to line up his shot, “I’ve got a new job. I start in two weeks time.”

“A new job? Doing what?”

“My agent sent out a few spec scripts to some film producers, one of them really liked some of my stuff.” The yellow ball he was aiming for, rebounded off a cushion and stopped in the middle of the table, while the cue ball wobbled precariously on the edge of the middle pocket.

“And? They’re going to get you to write their films for them.”

“No. They’re putting me on a training program for junior writers. Eventually it’ll lead to co-writing credits, and then who knows.”

“And this training program, it’s full time?” He gently hit the cue ball and Frederick watched as it softly rolled to the end of the table, and gently knocked in the red ball hovering on the corner.

“Not exactly. When I’m not on the training program, I’ll be working with one of their top writers, an assistant.”

“Oh, Freddie! Forget about being an assistant!” Ernest cried. “Stay on the training program, whatever, but while you’re doing that, work for me. Not some snobby writer you’ve never met before!”

“Well, I could probably just about manage the workload, but the commute would be one hell of a bitch.” Ernest hit another red, but it bounced off one of Frederick’s yellows and came to a rest halfway up the table.

“What do you mean?”

“The job’s in Hollywood.”

“Hollywood?” Ernest asked.

“Well, of course, I’m hardly going to work in the British Film Industry, there’s no money in it.”

“But Hollywood? I mean, the only kind of men you find there are drug addicts and queers!”

“Well,” Frederick laughed as he pocketed a yellow, “you’ll be pleased to know that I’m not a drug addict.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, no, nothing, it was a joke.”

“No, it wasn’t, you tell me what you mean.”

“Look, I think… I…” Frederick spluttered as a small knock on the door interrupted him.

“Is this a bad time?” Nicola poked her head around the door, and Frederick lowered his gaze back to the table. He nervously hit the cue-ball straight past a yellow ball and into a corner pocket.

“Well, actually, Nicola, it is.” Ernest smiled at her. “Perhaps – ”

“Well, tough.” Nicola entered the room and dropped a small suitcase on the floor. “We’re moving in.”

“You’re what?” He asked, retrieving the white ball from the opening at the end of the table.

“Me, Gary and the kids, we’re moving in.”

“What? Why?”

“Perhaps, I should go,” Frederick stood up and moved towards the door, “you two clearly have stuff to talk about.”

“No!” Ernest stood up. “You just wait right there, we’ve got things to talk about – and a game to finish.”

“Look,” Nicola smiled sweetly, “I don’t want to interrupt the two of you, so if you just tell me which rooms we can have, I’ll start moving us in.”

“No, you can just wait as well.” Ernest turned to Frederick. “Just what did you mean by that little quip?”

“What little quip?” Nicola asked.

“I was just making a joke, that’s all.”

“You implied you were gay!”

“Oh, is that what this is about?” Nicola shrugged, and sat down on one of the chairs, crossing her legs. “Little Freddie finally plucked up the courage to tell his grandfather he’s gay.”

“I’m not gay!”

“You knew?” Ernest’s head looked as if it were about to start boiling.

“Well, of course.” Nicola smiled as she selected a stick of chewing gum from her purse. “We all knew. What did you think all that stuff was about his father’s death?”

“The man was drunk,” Ernest frowned, “he attacked Freddie for being out late, Elizabeth and Victoria stepped in to help and he attacked them as well. He was killed in self defence!”

“I’m not arguing that,” Nicola said, casually smacking her lips as she spoke, “all I’m saying is that he wasn’t angry because Frederick had stayed out late, he attacked him because he’d stayed out late with his boyfriend.”

Ernest scowled up at his grandson, the shot he was all prepared to take, forgotten about.

“I’m not gay!” There was a long silence. “I’m… I’m bisexual.”

Ernest unconsciously pushed his cue forward without even looking at it. The white ball smacked into the black ball and then careened into a side pocket.

“I win.” Frederick muttered to himself.

“You’re a what?”

“Oh, it means that he likes to sleep with both men and women. You know, he pockets both the yellows and the reds, if you like. A lot of people do it nowadays, it’s quite en vogue.”

“Listen, Nicola, stay out of this.” Ernest glared at her.

“Actually, I’d rather not. I’ve got a manicure booked, so I’d like to move all my stuff in before that.”

“Yeah, and I’ve got to go home. I’m going to tell mum about my new job.”

“Nicola, if you could just give us a moment – ”

“Actually, I really couldn’t, have you seen the state of my nails lately?” Nicola grabbed hold of Ernest’s forearm.

“I’ll see you later.” Frederick slipped out of the door as Nicola pushed her father-in-law into an armchair.

“Nicola, just what is going on? Why are you so keen on moving in? What’s happened to the apartment complex.”

“Oh, that, we were kicked out. The resident’s committee voted in an overwhelming majority that we were no longer welcome.”

“What? Why?”

“Oh, Gary arrived home yesterday morning, a little worse for wear.”

“He was drunk again?”

“Just a little.”

“And how is that my problem, Nicola?”

“Because, Ernest,” Nicola sat down opposite him, “if it hadn’t been for you, he wouldn’t have been drinking.”

“What did he do?” Ernest asked.

“I’d rather not say. All I will say is that the communal pool is going to be out of action for the next couple of weeks while it’s cleaned.” She picked up her bag and slid out of the room.

Ernest stood up and braced himself against the pool table. He picked up the cue ball and stared at it, just able to make out his own distorted silhouette in the shine of it. Then, with a loud, anguished roar, he sent it smashing through the window.

 

Starbucks, London

March, 2009

 

“He did what?” Jennifer almost choked on her latte.

“He rolled in to the complex at about seven in the morning, threw up and then took a – and I’m using his words here not mine – a slash in the pool.”

“Well, what did the attendant do? Didn’t he try to stop him?”

“Oh, he tried,” Nicola took a bite of her biscotti, “but Gary assaulted him, quite viciously by all accounts.”

“How viciously?”

“Well, I’m not quite sure, I never saw the… wounds, but the blood, my god, it looked like an explosion in a pizza factory.”

“Is he being charged? I mean, he assaulted that poor man.”

“Oh, no,” Nicola waved her hand dismissively, “our lawyer managed to convince him and the committee that involving the police wasn’t necessary. However, one of the conditions made to us by the committee was that we leave immediately.”

“I still can’t believe that Gary would do that, he seems so… gentle.”

“Well, I’ve still got some friends back at the complex, one of them is going to ship over a copy of the CCTV tape, it should make for interesting viewing.”

“Well, I don’t mean to seem insensitive,” Jennifer smiled, “but… was he drunk?”

“Of course he was bloody drunk!” Nicola frowned at her sister-in-law. “When isn’t he?”

“But he’s been doing so well, what happened?”

“Who do you think?”

“Oh,” Jennifer sighed, “what did he say?”

“I’m not exactly too clear on that, Gary wasn’t really in a condition to say, and when I asked Ernest about it, he was a little preoccupied.”

“Preoccupied? How?”

“Oh, you mean, you didn’t hear?” Nicola asked, signalling the waiter.

“Hear what?”

“Well, Frederick was there, and Ernie had just found out that Frederick was, you know…”

“No! How did he find out?”

“Well, from what I gather, Freddie was telling him about how he’s moving to Hollywood, and he made some sort of quip. Well, that’s when I walked in and… confirmed it all for him.”

“Oh, Nicola. You do manage to put your foot in it sometimes, don’t you?”

“What can I say?” Nicola smiled broadly, pulling some money from her purse and slipping it onto the small saucer in front of her. “I’m going back to mansion, I’m going by your place, do you want a lift?”

“Oh, no, it’s ok, I’m meeting Michael here in a few minutes.”

Nicola stretched across the table and grasped hold of Jennifer’s hand. “How is Michael holding up?”

“Oh, not good.” Jennifer rested her head between her thumb and forefinger. “He’s pretending he’s ok, but the stress is taking it’s toll. I think he’s going to have to stop working soon, and you know how much he enjoys his job. The minute he has to stay at home all day, is the minute his life ends.”

“But what about you and Fi?”

“Oh, sure, we’re important, but it’s his job that’s his baby, that company is his life.”

“Oh, here he is now! Michael!” Nicola waved across the cafe to Michael as he entered.

Michael smiled and hobbled across to them, leaning on a walking stick.

“Nicola, you look gorgeous as ever.”

“Oh, thank you, Michael, you’re looking dashing of course.” Nicola and Michael air kissed each other. “Look, I’ve got to go. But it was lovely seeing you, both.”

Michael took a seat as Nicola slipped out of the door onto the busy street outside.

“She’s managing quite well under the stress of it all, don’t you think? I mean, after what happened with Gary, and having to move in with your father, it could be difficult.”

“Well, of course she’s handling it well, now that Frederick’s out of the picture she’s going to be sorted well into her retirement.”

“What do you mean?” Jennifer frowned.

“Well, you know, dad was planning on training Frederick up as his apprentice, don’t you? Now that Frederick’s moving to Hollywood, that’s no longer an option, especially considering his condition.”

“It’s not a condition, Michael, what you have is a condition. Frederick has… a preference.”

“Right, whatever, that’s not the point. Now that Frederick’s all but disinherited himself, somebody’s got to step up to the plate. Daddy’s looking to Reece, possibly Matthew to do that. So, even if Gary completely cocks things up and doesn’t manage to get in dad’s good books, Nicola’s got two back-ups.”

“But what about me? What about Fiona? We’re family too, and we’re from the good side. Neither of us are drunks, neither of us are gay, and Fiona’s certainly not going to end up pregnant, not if I have anything to do with it.”

“Perhaps, but you’re both women. Daddy’s from that old school of thought, women don’t belong in business and men don’t belong in other men’s beds. If you were to even suggest to him that you might be the one to take over the business, he’d treat you in exactly the same way he’s treated Frederick. He only just tolerates you as his PA.”

“But… how am I supposed to provide for Fiona, once… once you’re…”

“Listen, honey, dad’s not going to cut you off. He’ll make sure you’re provided for.”

“And what happens when he dies? I mean, he’s not terminal like you, but he’s probably not got much longer.”

“Well, I guess, you’ll just have to get Reece onside. You’re going to have to be the best aunt ever.”

“How do I do that?”

“I’m sure we’ll think of something.” Michael smirked.

 

The Bulldog, Los Angeles

October, 2009

 

Frederick took a deep breath, straightened his suit, smiled at the bouncers and walked out of the balmy night air into the coolness of the bar. He glanced around the room, but saw no one familiar and so found a stool at the bar.

“Hey, Freddie! What are you having?” The bartender smiled across at him.

“Good evening, Bryan. I’ll have a double vodka and coke, and anything you want as well.”

“Honey, you know what I want, but you keep saying no.”

“Yet you keep trying night after night.”

“And you keep coming in here night after night, tempting me, teasing me.”

“Bryan, look, I’m sorry, I’m not in the mood to be hit on tonight.”

“Why?” Bryan asked as he mixed Frederick’s drink for him. “What’s happened?”

“You remember that family I told you about, back in England?”

“Yeah, they’re all like lords and ladies, aren’t they?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

Frederick looked up at the young black man. “My uncle, he… he’s dying. He has, like… cancer or something, I don’t know.”

“How long has he got?”

“A year, a week, a day, I don’t know. I just… he got taken into hospital last night. He’s not getting better.”

“You think perhaps you should go back?” Bryan asked, as he wiped down the top of the bar with a small towel.

“Maybe, I don’t know. If I go back, my grandfather’s going to lay a huge guilt trip on me and within a month I’ll be married, with three kids and in charge of a huge national corporation. If I don’t go back, I’ll be officially the black sheep of the family, and when I do eventually go back, he’ll lay an even bigger guilt trip on me.”

“I guess, you’re screwed whichever way you go. If I were you…” Bryan trailed off as a man approached the bar. “Hey, Harry, what can I get you?”

“Coldest beer you’ve got, please.” Frederick looked up as he heard the southern English tones coming from the young man.

“Hi.” Frederick smiled at him.

“Hey.” Harry smiled back politely and took the bottle from Bryan. “I’ll settle up with you later, Bryan?”

“Sure, whatever.” He nodded to Harry and then turned back to Frederick. “Ok, so like I was saying, if I were you – ”

“Was that Harry Hicks?” Frederick asked as he watched the young man take a seat at a small table in the corner.

“What? Oh, yeah. At least twice a week he comes in here and just sits there on his own. I think it’s God’s own special way of torturing me.”

“Listen, Bryan, thanks for listening to me whine, but just… save that thought.”

“What are you doing?”

Frederick smiled blankly. “I’m going over to talk to him, obviously.”

“I thought you said you weren’t in the mood to be hit on?”

“I’m not. But it’s Harry Hicks, man! There are some people in this world, you just have to go for when you get the chance. Who knows when I’m ever going to this kind of opportunity again? Quick, get me another one of those beers, you just gave him.”

“You know, I don’t think he bats for our team, Freddie.”

“Bryan, it’s Hollywood,” Frederick smiled as he took the bottle and put some money on the bar, “our team is the only team.”

He laughed to himself as he made his way over to the small round table, and placed the bottle down in front of Harry.

“Hey, I got you a drink.”

“Thanks, but… I already got one.” Harry raised the small bottle and took a swig from it.

“Yeah, I know. But I figured if I got you another one all lined up then we wouldn’t be interrupted by Bryan over there bringing you another one.”

“Right.” Frederick smiled and remained standing at the side of the table. “Err, you want to – ”

“Thanks.” Frederick sat down opposite him. “So, what’s a great big Hollywood superstar like you doing in a dingy little pub like this?”

Harry shrugged. “Reminds me of home, I guess. You know how outside, it looks so warm and cosy and then you get in here and there’s no one else around. It’s just like one of those old village pubs back in England.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Frederick smiled. “You know, Bryan said you come in here a lot, but I’ve got to say, I think I would remember seeing you here before.”

“Ah, you see, that’s the beauty of this corner, you can see out, but you can’t see in. You’ve never seen me here because you’ve never looked for me here. I’ve seen you, though.”

“You have?”

“Oh, yeah, you hardly keep yourself hidden. You’re always up there, laughing and joking around. Anyone would think you were the actor and I was the writer.”

“You know who I am?”

“Everybody’s heard about you, Frederick Cromwell.”

“All good?”

Harry smiled. “Mostly.”

“So… what are you up to at the moment?”

“I guess, you could say I’m between projects. Me and my agent are looking through some scripts. You?”

“Well, actually, I’m in the middle of submitting a few scripts to some producers myself. Maybe you could do one of mine, we’d be a great double act. We could get Kate Winslet to play your love interest, it’d be like the English taking over the entire town!”

“So… what have you been writing about then?”

“Well, I don’t really want to talk about it here, you can never know who’s listening.”

Harry leaned in to Frederick and smiled. “Frederick, there’s hardly anybody in here.”

“Yeah, but Bryan’s been looking really shifty lately.”

“Ah, well of course, I never did trust him.” Harry laughed. “How about we go somewhere a little more private? Maybe we could go back to your place and I could look over some of your… pages.”

Frederick quickly downed the rest of his drink. “Let’s go.”

“I tell you what, you go and get a taxi, I’ve got to settle up with Bryan.”

“Right, two minutes.” Frederick grinned and bolted out of the door as Harry moved up to the bar.

“Sorry, Bryan, I’m cutting it short tonight. How much do I owe you?”

“Forget about it, it’s on me.”

“Thanks. See you later.”

“You know,” Bryan started as Harry turned to go, “I’m doing my best to keep it a secret, just like you asked.”

“And I appreciate that.”

“Perhaps, but you’re not exactly making it easy, leaving here with Frederick. Everyone knows he’s gay.”

“It’s business. He’s got a script he wants me to see.”

“Right, of course.” Bryan shrugged. “I’m just trying to keep an eye on you.”

“Yeah, well,” Harry smiled weakly, “it’s a shame you didn’t do the same for my brother.”

Frederick appeared at the door and looked across at them both.

“Taxi’s waiting.”

Bryan reached across the bar and took hold of Harry’s hand. “Just be careful, won’t you?”

 

Queen Mary’s Royal Hospital, Wiltshire

July, 2010

 

Michael opened his eyes as he felt someone’s hand take his. He saw the clinical, dull white of the hospital ceiling above him. God how he wished death would come, if only to escape staring at that ceiling for another day. To his left was a bank of hospital machines, all busily confirming the ongoing nature of his existence, slowly aggravating him to death. The heart monitor especially, was the bane of his days, as it emitted a small bleep each time his heart gave a beat. Again, it would be worth death, just to escape the bleep.

He’d told this to a nurse who had just clucked over him, plumped his pillow and then bustled out of the room, returning five minutes later with a second nurse. Between themselves, they pressed a few buttons and the bleeping quietened, though grew more high-pitched. They beamed at him and he didn’t dare tell them that it was, perhaps, worse – who knew what fresh new torture they would dream up for him.

To his right sat his daughter.

“Fi.” He croaked.

Bleep.

“Dad,” she smiled and leaned over to hug him, “I didn’t mean to wake you.

“It’s all right.” Bleep. “I was having a horrible dream that I was dying of cancer.”

He smiled weakly at his own joke, but the smile on his daughter’s face faded quickly.

“Where’s your mother?” Bleep.

“She says she’s gone to grandpa’s, she keeps talking about us moving in.”

“Ah, I see.”

“Dad?” Bleep.

“Yes?” Bleep.

“I think mum’s having an affair.”

Bleep.

Bleep.

Bleep.

“My kingdom,” Michael said pulling himself up into a sitting position, now staring at the dull white wall, “my kingdom for a mute button.”

Bleep.

“Dad, did you hear me?”

“I heard you.”

He gazed at her for a moment, and decided that she needed to be told the truth, she needed to know what was going on. She needed to understand and support her mother, not turn against her.

So he told her, he told her how they had decided between them that Jennifer would seduce her nephew – it was ok, they’d told themselves, there was no blood relation – so that when Ernest handed the business down, Jennifer – and Fiona – would still be in a position of privilege.

He asked her to remain quiet, to not say anything to anyone, and to help her mother keep the affair secret.

“It needs doing, Fi. It’s a necessity.”

Fiona was inwardly appalled – her father was so cold, so logical in his thoughts that she wondered if he had always been this way, but then she remembered the way he’d been before his illness. How loving he had been, how fiercely protective of his family.

It seemed he would do anything for her.

“You’ll do it? You’ll help your mother out?”

Fiona nodded, she would do anything for him as well. She left the room, feigning the need to use the bathroom and Michael was left alone with the slow beeping of the monitor next to him.

Bleep.

He felt bad at seeing Fiona’s face like that.

Bleep.

But he felt fantastic at the same time, being honest like that had lifted something from him, as if everything would be ok.

Bleep.

He wondered how many bleeps were left.

Bleep.

His time was coming, he knew that much, but how many? Ten? A hundred? A thousand?

Bleep.

One thousand was a nice round number. He smiled and started to count.

Bleep. Nine hundred and ninety nine.

“Not dead yet?”

Michael looked up at his brother in the doorway “I’ll die when you dry out. How many hours clean are you?”

Gary checked his watch. “Twenty-three.”

“A personal best.” Nine hundred and eighty five.

Gary sat in the chair next to the bed and they sat in silence. Michael counted all the way down to nine hundred before he made his decision.

“Do you remember Raymond?”

“Who?”

“You know, that bloke that came to Lizzy’s wedding, the one that dad had a huge argument with.”

“Vaguely.”

“Said he was an old friend, he’d heard about Elizabeth and wanted to stop by and catch up with us all.”

“What about him?”

Michael thought for a moment (eight hundred and seventy three). “He’s our brother.”

“What?”

“I heard him and dad arguing.”

Bleeps eight hundred and seventy through to three hundred and twelve consisted of Michael telling Gary everything he’d found out since then about their older brother. They discussed it in detail, but both of them agreed they couldn’t remember him, despite having vivid, clear memories of their mother, who had left them at the same time.

“But then dad did fight so hard to keep her memory alive. Perhaps they’re not our memories at all, but his.”

“Is he still alive? Where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll ask dad.”

“I dare you.” Michael smiled at his younger brother and they both managed a small laugh.

Fiona returned to the room, claiming to have gone for a walk, and the three of them sat and talked about nothing. Michael continued to count all the while and as he reached a hundred, Fiona stood up.

“I, err, I want to see mum.”

“You’ll stay a few minutes more, won’t you?” Michael asked. Ninety seven.

Fiona sat back down, but no one could think of anything more to say and Gary and Fiona started to gather up their things to leave.

“Goodnight, dad.” Fifteen.

“Fiona, please, wait.”

“What?”

“You’ll ring your mother won’t you? You’ll let her know you’re on your way back?” Twelve.

Fiona nodded.

“Goodnight, bro.”

“Gary. Fi. Please.”

“What?” Gary asked bemused as Fiona watched from the doorway.

“Your hands.”

They both came over to the bed and took one of Michael’s hands each.

“Now what?”

“Just five more.”

“Five more what, dad?”

Four.

Three.

Two.

One.

 

Bleep.

 

Cromwell Manor, Wiltshire

 

Jennifer rested her head against the soft skin of Reece’s chest. It was about the only thing she liked about him. She definitely didn’t like the post-coital fingering of her hair that he always indulged in, but she supposed she had no choice. What Reece wanted was the priority, she and Michael had decided that right at the beginning and right now, Reece wanted to snuggle.

As Reece rambled on in her ear, she stared at the wall at the far end of the room, at the poster of some glamour model pasted up. She looked vulnerable, weak, one finger hooked in the waistband of her short shorts, a finger on the other hand resting on her pouting lower lip and her nipples protruding through the wet cotton of the tight white t-shirt she was wearing.

But Jennifer saw something in her eyes, a small glint of something that she herself had had years before. The survival instinct. This girl wasn’t weak or vulnerable, she was strong and manipulative. She knew her strengths and she was playing them in order to survive. And according to the tabloid newspapers, this was one girl who was surviving.

Jennifer had been like that, once, a long time ago, before she’d married Michael and had Fiona. She’d started at Cromley’s as a PA, as Ernest’s PA, when she was fresh out of school, a position she’d held ever since, in fact.

She quickly clocked Michael as the richest candidate most likely to fall for her seductions and he had. Though he was a little older than her, she dated him for nearly two years before ‘accidentally’ falling pregnant and pulling him into a hasty marriage.

She hadn’t counted on actually falling in love with him, but she had, and ever since then she’d let him protect her, she’d let her survival instinct subside and placed all her faith in him.

But now he was dying and she was having to resurrect her survival skills, not only for herself, but for her young daughter as well.

She had convinced Reece that her marriage to Michael was over, that it would never be the same again, especially not now he was dying. That was the hardest part about it all, pretending that her relationship with her husband meant nothing. Even at his funeral, when he did die, she wouldn’t be allowed to grieve properly. Reece would be there, and he would think he knew how she really felt, and she would have to pretend that he was right, that burying Michael meant nothing to her, but the opportunity to spend more time with Reece.

University first, she had told him. Once you get university out of the way, once you’ve left, that’s when we’ll tell anyone. Michael would have been long dead by then, and Reece would be in a good position to settle down.

Jennifer’s mobile rang and Reece jumped up suddenly.

“Is that Fiona? Are they on their way?”

He started pulling on his clothes as Jennifer answered the phone.

“Fiona?” She smirked as she reached out for Reece, stopping him from pulling his jeans up, by reaching her hand into his boxers through the flap on the front. He sat down and grinned, collapsing backwards onto the bed. She grinned as she got the reaction from him she’d been hoping for. ‘Hello, darling!”

Reece braced himself against the bed as Jennifer stopped her rhythmic movement, though her hand kept her grip of him. “Just calm down, and tell me again. He what? Right, err. I’ll be there as soon as I’m finished up here.”

“What was that about?” Reece asked as Jennifer hung up.

She stared at the phone for a second and dropped it on the side. She looked down her arm, at her nephew’s hard cock throbbing in her hand and almost threw up. But then she caught sight of the glamour model on the wall, took a deep breath and plastered a broad grin onto her face.

“It was Fiona.” She said, resuming her stimulation of the young man. “Looks like we’ve finally got something to celebrate!”

“What?”’’

“It’s Michael.” She said leaning down to kiss him.

“What about him?”

Though her heart felt like it had shattered into a million pieces inside her, Jennifer gave a small giggle.

“He’s dead.”

 

 Read the next chapter here

 

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir

Divorced, Beheaded, Died

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived

 

I’ll be honest with you, my prior knowledge of Henry VIII’s wives didn’t stretch much beyond that little rhyming couplet.

 

But then I found a proof of the newest Alison Weir – the first in a series of (presumably) six books that track the lives of Henry VIII’s wives. The first one covers the life of Katherine of Aragon, although, there is as you might expect a guest starring role for Anne Boleyn – plus a cameo Jane Seymour (not Dr Quinn)

 

The book begins, not at the beginning of Katherine’s life, but at the beginning of her new life as she travelled from Spain to England to meet her future husband – PLOT TWIST – Prince Arthur.

 

I’ve got to admit, that had me hooked. I suddenly realised how little I knew about that period in history. This is the sort of thing that comes up in pub quizzes, and I would have been absolutely stumped.

 

So I read on, wondering what else I would learn.

 

I actually learned quite a bit, and I enjoyed doing so, but it didn’t quite feel like fiction. Perhaps because it’s fiction based on real people, written by a historian. Essentially all the salient plot points and letters have been assembled in chronological order and then connected with some well-written prose.

 

I was keen to learn what happened to Katherine after her divorce from Henry, and it seems she refused to acknowledge the divorce and became a prisoner of the king – although a prisoner in some comfort, however limited some of that comfort might have been.

 

With it being a book about someone’s life (I’ve written this before) it’s no surprise to discover that it ends in death. She and Henry were together for some time and Katherine was an old woman when the divorce happened, so not an awful lot more happened after he banished her.

 

However, we still had around a hundred pages and three years to cover before we reached the end. What we had then was a never ending cycle of Katherine moving to ever smaller residences and writing letter after letter to anyone who might listen.

 

It was a little tiresome for me as a reader, but I guess that just illustrates how tiresome Katherine’s final years were.

 

With it being a fictional account of a real life, the loose ends are not neatly tied up, especially as it ends with the death of Katherine. We don’t learn what happens to her daughter Mary, we never find out if Henry gets a son, or if there are any ramifications to England leaving the Catholic church.

 

Of course, we do actually know what happened, but it doesn’t get picked up in the book. Other fiction takes all the loose ends and neatly ties them up.

 

Perhaps we have to assume that this is not a story about Katherine, but the first part of a story about Henry. We learn a lot about him, although never from his viewpoint, and presumably we will continue to learn about him in the subsequent books.

 

Perhaps these tales about his wives, will end up telling us more about the man himself.

 

I found the book flat in places, perhaps a little too historical, it was a little emotionless in places, as if the author was reluctant to put too many words and thoughts in the mouth and mind of what was a real person.

 

This was a bit of an experiment for me, not something I would normally read – although I’ve said that so much recently, I’m not sure what I do normally read any more.

 

Will I read about the other wives when the books are released? Definitely. It’s an odd mix between fiction and non-fiction so it’s hard to compare it to other books, but based on my scoring system I’ve been using all year, it scores 3.4 out of 5.

 

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir is published on 5th May.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memories of a Murder – Chapter 12

Read the last chapter here or start at the beginning here

 

Harry could remember his own mother very clearly. He could remember flowers she liked. He could remember the way she would expect Vincent to be on the other end of the phone every time it rang for almost a year. He could even remember the way she would delicately set the table even when it was just the two of them having dinner.

But he couldn’t remember what she looked like when she smiled. Nor could he remember what she looked like when she was angry or sad or amused. The only thing he could remember about her appearance was when he found her slumped at the bottom of the stairs, her head at such an odd angle, her eyes glazed over and her mouth lolling open ever so slightly.

Every time he had tried to picture her since her death, he could only ever see that strange angular face. He’d discovered that once you’d seen a dead body, it was hard to get that image out of your mind. It could haunt you throughout your whole life, shape everything you do, and poison every thought.

“What were you doing in there?” Matthew’s voice snapped him out of the trance-like state he’d ended up in. Harry was leaning against the door to Ernest’s office, staring at the wood panelling opposite. He turned to Matthew, he was holding a rucksack limply at his side.

“I was just speaking to your grandfather about something.”

“It’s late. I didn’t think anyone would still be up.”

“It’s Christmas Eve, people are supposed to be up till the wee hours.”

Matthew smiled briefly. “Yeah, I guess I forgot about that. Still, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas anymore.”

“Yeah.” For a moment there was silence between them. “What’s in the bag? You playing Santa and filling everyone’s stockings?”

“Oh, no,” Matthew laughed nervously. “These are just some clothes.”

Harry looked towards the utility room where he had discovered Reece attacking Ella. “Odd time to do your laundry?”

“Excuse me?”

He gestured to the room at the end of the hall. “Like you say, it’s late.”

“Oh, right. This, err, this isn’t laundry.”

“You don’t say.”

Matthew pulled the pack onto his shoulder. “I’ve just come from there. It’s just a few of my shirts… Ella was washing them for me. I thought I’d come and get them, save her bringing them up.”

“Right.”

“So… what are you up to? Going back upstairs?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Right, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

Harry looked at the bag on his shoulder, the trainers on his feet and shrugged. “Hey, it’s ok, I’ll walk up with you.”

“I’m… I’m not going back upstairs.” He patted his bag. “I’ve got everything I need.”

“Look, I know we hardly know each other and that you don’t really care what I think, but can I talk to you for ten minutes? If you don’t like what I have to say, then I’ll let you go.”

Matthew stared at him for a moment, attempting to assess if he would remain true to his word. “Fine,” he shrugged, “let’s talk.”

“Not here, somewhere private. Where we won’t get interrupted.”

“Ok. We’ll go to my room.” Matthew led the way down the corridor. “I think you know where it is.”

 

*                *                *

 

Harry sat down carefully on the end of Matthew’s bed as he closed the door and checked his watch. “Ten minutes.”

“What are you doing?” Matthew was stood over by his laptop, pressing some keys.

“Just making sure it’s turned off.” He tapped the top of the webcam.

“Right.” Harry nodded and looked around the room at the various posters of himself stuck up on the wall.

If it was possible the room was messier than it had been when Harry had first set eyes on it. The drawers on the cabinet had been pulled open and various piles of once folded clothes had been thrown casually onto the swivel chair which sat in the middle of the room, aimed halfway between the television and Matthew’s laptop.

Matthew dropped his rucksack on the floor by the door, pushed all the clothes off of the chair and sat down in it, before checking his watch again.

“Nine and a half minutes.”

“You know, considering the fact that you’ve… got my face plastered all over your walls, you’re a very hostile person.”

Matthew closed his eyes for a moment before giving a small smile of amusement. “I’m not a hostile person. I’m a private person, I don’t share my emotions all too well.”

“You shared them pretty well at dinner tonight.”

“I said I’m a private person, I’m not completely devoid of emotion. The stuff he was saying, what he said about Freddie. About you. I don’t know, I guess I just… I didn’t.”

“How did it make you feel?”

“I was angry, he – “

“No. You came out. To all your family, just like that, in one go. How did it make you feel?”

“Numb, I guess.” Matthew stood up and started to pace. “I didn’t even realise what I’d done at first. Then I got up here and… and I sat down and it was quiet and I started to think about it.”

“What did you think?”

“I don’t know, I guess I got scared. I mean, you’ve heard the way he speaks, that look in his eye, I thought he was going to kill me.”

Harry sighed quietly. “Frederick never came up here to see you, did he?”

“No.”

“So, what? You’ve been sat up here all alone for four hours? Without even talking to anyone, without even waiting to see what your family’s reaction might be, you just decide that the best thing is for you to leave?”

“I guess.”

Harry hesitated. He was worried about what Matthew might do, and he was the only one there. It shouldn’t be me talking to him about this. Of all people, it shouldn’t be me.

“You’ve been letting it fester, thinking about nothing else, of course you’re going to think the worse, but – ”

“But, if I stay – ”

“If you stay, maybe your grandfather will go on a crazy rampage with a shotgun and kill you. Or, he might decide he wants to see what all the fuss is about, pull on a pair of hot pink Lycra shorts and head out onto Hampstead Heath. The truth is, you can’t predict the future, you can’t know what’s going to happen before it happens, and running away from it is just the coward’s way out.”

“Maybe you’re right, maybe you can’t know the future. You can make an educated guess though, and I’m willing to bet that it’s more likely he has a shotgun in his closet than a pair of hot pink Lycra shorts.”

Harry sighed again and for a long moment there was silence as he tried to think of something else to say.

“You know the story of how Frederick came out?”

“Victoria ended up killing her own father that night, I think we all know the story.”

“I’m not talking about how he came out to his family, I’m talking about the first time he came out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Freddie was going out with a girl called Rebecca at the time. One night he got horrendously drunk and hit on their friend Graham. Anyway, Graham wasn’t so drunk and he turned him down. The next morning Frederick proposed to Rebecca.”

“Frederick got engaged?” Matthew laughed.

“Not quite, she turned him down. But he kept asking, almost once a week for six months, he’d ask, get rejected, and then ask again. Then one day she accepted and Frederick panicked. He told her that he was in love with Graham, that he was sorry, but he couldn’t be with her. He ended up not only breaking Rebecca’s heart, but he destroyed any potential relationship he might have had with Graham and ripped apart Rebecca and Graham’s friendship.”

“And this is supposed to make me feel better? It sounds pretty shitty to me.”

“It does, doesn’t it? But, you see, a couple of months after that Rebecca took Frederick shopping for something to wear on his first date with Graham. In the end the only reason Graham and Frederick even split up was because of Edward’s death. Graham couldn’t handle the pressure of it and he moved away, Rebecca followed and they’re sharing a flat in London somewhere. Freddie still talks to them, they’re some of his closest friends, he’s always on the phone to them.”

“So, what’s your point?”

“My point is… things change Matthew, and you can’t predict how they change. Frederick could have run away when he and Rebecca split up, but if he had, then he wouldn’t be who he is now, he wouldn’t have Rebecca and Graham as such close friends.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“What happened when you came out?”

Harry stood up and made his way over to the door. “Look, I’ve got to go.”

“Now who’s running away?”

“I’m not running away, I’m…” He checked his watch and smiled. “My ten minutes are up.”

Matthew climbed onto his bed and sat with his head against the back rest. “Look, you win, I’ll stay. At least until Christmas is over.”

“Good. Then I definitely don’t need to stay.”

“Please?” Matthew looked up at Harry, his wide blue eyes shining with a sudden vulnerability. “I… I want to talk. I need to talk.”

Harry looked around at the posters on the wall, and then down at Matthew lying on his bed. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe you should give one of your friends a call, talk to someone who really knows you.”

“I don’t have one.”

“You’re telling me that of all your friends there’s not one who knows you better than anyone?”

Matthew bowed his head. “I’m telling you that… I don’t have any friends.”

Harry let out a small involuntary laugh. “You’re kidding, right? Everybody has friends, what about the people in your class at school? The people you sit with at lunch, the ones who laugh at your jokes?”

“Well, sure,” Matthew shrugged, “I know people. There are people who were randomly picked to be in the same classes as me five years ago, but they’re not my friends.”

“Tell me about them.”

“What is there to tell?”

“Well, who’s the ringleader, the one in charge? The clever one? The slutty one? The funny one? How do you – or don’t you – fit in?”

Matthew frowned, seemingly trying to decide where to start. “There’s the two Rebeccas, Becky and Becks, they’ve been best friends for years, way back into infants. Except, that’s kind of changed in the last couple of years. Becks started going out with this guy, they’re still totally in love, and Becky lost a little weight and discovered just what a bottle of blonde hair dye and make up could do for a girl. She got a little attention, and now she’s a total drama queen, everything’s either about her, or happening because of her you know what I mean?”

Harry couldn’t help thinking of Frederick and smiling. “Yeah, I think I know the type. Who else is there?”

“Lucy, I guess, you’d call her the pretty one. She used to get all the attention, and then like I said Becky suddenly grew up and Lucy got pushed to one side. Anyway, now she’s become the bitchy, slutty one. She’s only really still in the group because of the seating plan our tutor draws up every year. Then Valentine – ”

“You have a friend called Valentine?”

“Pity the child born on a saint’s day to eccentric parents.”

“She’s lucky there wasn’t a Saint Trevor.” Harry laughed at his own joke.

“Anyway, Valentine, she’s pretty much the outcast, she’s had a rough life, like, really rough, Becky would probably kill for the kind of drama V’s had. Anyway, she’s not really a very serious person, it’s her way of coping I think, but you know, everything’s a joke with her.”

“I’m starting to notice a common theme.”

“That they’re all female? Yeah, I’m just not quite like the other guys for some reason.”

“So you don’t have any male friends at all?” Harry asked.

“There’s Jason, he’s going out with Becks, he’s, err, he’s really…” Matthew blushed and avoided eye contact with him.

“You can say it.”

“I guess I kind of… fancy him a little. He’s quite nice to me, but I think that’s only because I’m Becks’s friend, you know, keep in her good books. Then there’s his best friend, Dean, Becky’s on again off again drama fulfilling asshole of a boyfriend.”

“You know, I’m not sensing much love here.”

“No, he’s a total prick.”

Harry laughed a little “I didn’t just mean for Dean, I meant for all of them. It doesn’t sound like you have a very high opinion of any of them.”

“They’re all nice enough for what they are.”

“And what’s that?”

“Superficial. None of them know what it’s like to have to be so guarded all the time, they can relax, they can be themselves. They don’t have a care in the world.”

“They don’t know you’re gay?”

Matthew shook his head. “I don’t trust them.”

“Why not?”

“I see the way they treat each other, the constant bitching behind each other’s backs, telling each other’s secrets to anyone who’ll listen. I just don’t trust them not to tell the wrong person about me. My life would be a living hell.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“It wasn’t that long ago you were at school, can you imagine walking into the PE changing rooms with everyone having just found out you’re gay? They’re hardly going to lay out the red carpet for you.”

“Point taken.”

“It’s no big deal, they’re just some people I see at school. They all go out with each other after school. They don’t invite me, I don’t invite myself.”

Harry moved away from the door and sat on the end of the bed again. “Well, the way you put it, I don’t think you’re missing out on too much. From the sounds of it, they’re not really a nice bunch of people to be around.”

“See, now, I feel bad.” He rubbed at his eyes a little. “They’re not bad people, they’re lovely, all of them – except Dean, I guess – I adore being around them.”

“Well, there you go then, you do have people to talk to, ring one of your friends, have a big, deep and meaningful and a cry, it’ll do you the world of good.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not? I thought you said they were all lovely people?”

“They are, I guess. It’s not them, it’s me.”

“You?”

“I’m scared. I don’t want to risk losing anyone by telling them I’m gay.” The smallest of tears started to appear in the corners of Matthew’s eyes. “So, I have to pretend to be straight, to be something I’m not. That means I can’t let my guard down for one second, in case someone realises. I spend all day at school, keeping myself at a distance from everyone, and then I get home and I have to raise my guard even more and it’s so hard and I don’t think I can do it anymore.”

By now tears were streaming down his face and Harry reached out to comfort him. He slowly patted the top end of his calf muscle, smoothing the crease in his jeans. “Hey, come on, it’s alright, you’ve taken a big step tonight. You came out to your family, you’ve got to admit that’s got to be harder than coming out to your friends.”

His sniffling started to subside, and he looked up at Harry. For a moment their eyes locked together before his gaze shifted to Harry’s now stationary hand on his outstretched leg. Harry hastily pulled it away.

“Listen to me,” he said, “as soon as Christmas is out of the way, you are going to invite one of your friends – all of your friends over, tell them who you are, let them know the real you, it’ll be such a weight off your shoulders, I promise you.”

Matthew smiled gently at him. “Thank you, Harry.”

“Hey, it’s nothing.” Harry tried to act casually as he stood up and started to look through his CD collection. “So… apart from this Jason guy – who if he is going out with one of your friends – is totally off limits, is there any other special guy in your life.”

“I don’t really fancy him, like I said, he’s just nice to me.”

“And you blush over every bloke who’s nice to you, do you?”

“I don’t know,” Matthew shrugged, “he’s the only one who is. Most of my friends are girls, apart from Dean and Jason. And Dean’s a –”

“A prick, right, yeah.”

“You’re the only other guy I’ve had a conversation with lately.”

He stood up and slowly walked over to face him, and as he did, Harry noticed again all the posters of himself adorning the wall.

“Matthew, I don’t think you should – ”

“A day ago, you were just some Hollywood Superstar dating leading lady after leading lady. Tonight you’re a gay man, and not only are you in England, but you’re spending the first few minutes of Christmas Day in my bedroom. I’ve come this close, you’ve got to give me at least one kiss.”

Harry stared into his crystal blue eyes and found himself unable to speak as he moved in closer to him. He slipped one hand on the back of his head and pulled himself up a little so that their lips met. A shiver shot down Harry’s spine as Matthew’s soft unblemished lips began to slowly massage his. Almost instantly, Harry was hard and as he pulled Matthew in to him, applying pressure, relieving the tension a little, he discovered that the teenager was even harder. Their bodies touched, all the way down from their lips to their toes, and it felt so different, to Harry, so new and fresh to be kissing someone other than Frederick.

The squeak of the door handle suddenly interrupted them, and Harry pulled his head away from Matthew, breaking the kiss. Their bodies stayed in contact, Harry’s fingers tied up in the belt loops of Matthew’s jeans, Matthew’s running through Harry’s hair.

Harry watched, wide eyed in terror at the down turned handle as the door was pushed hard against the frame, creating a muffled thud. The door remained closed.

“I locked it.” Matthew whispered quietly.

“Matthew? Matthew, are you awake?” Frederick’s voice sounded from the other side, and Harry quickly covered Matthew’s open mouth to stop him from answering. Matthew nodded at him and Harry slowly removed his hand.

They both listened intently, and it wasn’t until Harry heard Frederick’s footsteps moving away from the door that he realised he’d been holding his breath, and let out a huge sigh of relief.

He quickly moved over to the door and listened to it for a moment. “It’s alright, I think he’s gone.”

Matthew sat on the edge of his bed and looked at him. “Why didn’t you want him to know you were here?”

“Considering what we were doing, I don’t think that would have been a good idea, do you?”

“He didn’t have to know,” Matthew shrugged, “for all he knew you were just up here talking to me about stuff.”

“Maybe I just didn’t want to see him, ok?”

“I thought there was something up. You two haven’t seemed right all night, even before I knew you were a couple. You looked pissed off with each other, and now you’re kissing other men.”

“That…” Harry pointed a finger at him. “That, was a mistake.”

“It was nice.”

“It’s over. Forget it.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that, I just snogged Harry Hicks!”

“Do you want to keep your voice down?”

Matthew smiled, but said nothing. Harry sat next to him, side by side, on the edge of the bed, and let his head drop into his hands. After a moment, Matthew turned to him. “Is it because you pretend you’re straight?”

“What?”

“Is that why he’s pissed off with you? I mean, if I was sleeping with the sexiest man in Hollywood, I’d want to tell anyone and everyone.”

“You realise what would happen if I did come out, right? It would totally ruin my career.”

“So? I’ve read the biography, I know you never wanted to be an actor why should you care?”

“I never had a huge ambition to be gay either, but that’s who I am, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

“Ok,” Matthew frowned, “you’re contradicting yourself quite a lot here. First of all you’re proud that you’re gay, but you won’t tell anyone because it’ll ruin your career, despite the fact that you came out to a dozen or so people tonight, and only one crabby old dude took offence to it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s not really your target audience.”

“It’s different, not everyone’s as accepting as the rest of your family.”

“Are you kidding me? You call this lot accepting? Everybody bickers over every little thing in this house. Even you, you’ve only been here a couple of hours and you’re already not talking to Frederick.”

“I’m not not-talking to him,” Harry sighed, “I just… we had an argument.”

“What about?”

Harry stared at him for a moment, trying to decide if he really wanted to share the more intimate details of his love life with this kid. He had already shared too much. “I suppose you’re going to find out sooner or later.”

“Damn straight,” he smiled, “you can’t keep a secret in this house.”

“I found out tonight that Frederick slept with someone else, while he was with me.”

Matthew’s eyes widened. “Who? Was it someone famous?”

“It was Robert.”

“Redford?”

“Forrester. The man currently sleeping with your aunt.”

“Oh.” His face fell in disappointment, before the implications of what Harry had said began to sink in. “Oh!”

“Yeah. I guess, you could say we ‘were on a break’, I don’t know, but we’d had an argument, just before he came over here a few months back. Met him at Cromley’s, in fact Robert fucked him right on your grandfather’s desk.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, it was a bit of a shock. I mean, we’ve both had other partners, you know? Frederick’s gone out and gotten drunk with a few of his friends before, woken up in one of their beds.”

“And you’re ok with that?”

“It’s just something he does. I know he loves me, but sometimes, you can’t help it, you just get horny, I get it. I’ve only ever done it the once, I was on a shoot out in Nevada in the desert. We’d been in out there for days, and we were staying in these shabby little trailers. Anyway, one night Tom – umm, one of my co-stars and I, we were lonely, we spent the night together.”

“Wow, that’s…” Matthew seemed lost for words. “I mean that’s really… liberal.”

“It was a two week fling, once the shoot was over he went back home to his wife and kid, I went back to Frederick.”

“Well, what made this different? You know, him and Robert?”

“He never told me about it. I told him about Nevada, he told me about his flings. We shared notes, we told each other what we got up to… it was a turn on.”

“So, you’re worried that it meant something? That the reason he didn’t tell you was because he felt guilty? That he enjoyed it too much?”

“That’s exactly it. Robert fucked him and he enjoyed it.”

Matthew’s frown deepened. “Look, I might be being stupid here, but I still don’t get this. Why would he enjoy being with Robert more than any other guy?”

Harry sighed deeply. “Frederick’s never had… sex like that before, at least he hadn’t. He always said he couldn’t bring himself to let someone… I didn’t mind. I enjoy both, so we just did it that way all the time. Him on top.”

“But he let Robert?”

“And he enjoyed it.” Harry could feel a small tear forming in the corner of his eye. “But he didn’t tell me, because he loved the fact that he had this power over me. He was the one fucking me, night after night, he felt powerful, like he owned me. I was his bitch, and he didn’t want to let that go. I guess, I just realised tonight, all the stuff he’s ever done, it’s all been to keep me under his control. He’s writing a movie for me, literally telling me what I’m going to say, so I turn down job after job. He encourages me to come out, because he knows that I won’t, but that it’ll make me feel guilty. I’ve just been so stupid.”

Harry was really starting to cry now and Matthew leaned in to hug him. They held each other tightly and Harry remembered the kiss they’d shared minutes before. Matthew’s soft tongue, plunging into his mouth with a fresh excitement, the softness of the skin of a young man, that sweet, fruity smell of the hair gel in his hair.

Matthew pulled away from him. “If you ask me, Frederick’s really stupid. I’d let you fuck me.”

And that was it. The moment Matthew had said those words, Harry knew what was going to happen. There was no denying it, no escaping.

“What?”

“I said I’d let you fuck me. You’re intelligent, gorgeous and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. You’re also a Hollywood megastar and filthy rich at that. Why not?” He rubbed his hand across Harry’s thigh.

Why not? Matthew was a young, gorgeous guy and Harry was here, on his bed, late at night and there was an incredible attraction between them. And damn it, I’m horny. He wants me to fuck him and I want to fuck him. Oh, God, I want to fuck him. 

Matthew pulled himself up and stood in front of Harry. He grabbed hold of the bottom of his top and quickly and expertly pulled it over his head. Harry looked at his milky white, slender, tender torso, noting how it was completely different to Frederick’s ripped, sun-kissed six pack.

“I know I haven’t exactly been with a lot of guys… well, you’re the only one I’ve even kissed… but that kiss… that was amazing.”

“It really was.” But I can’t just throw away everything I have with Frederick over one kiss.

Harry looked back over at the door and sighed. He knew that if he went back to his room right now, Frederick would be waiting in bed, maybe reading a book. They would talk, and they would both apologise for shouting at each other and they would make love and everything would be ok.

Matthew unbuttoned the top button on his jeans and softly gripped the zipper on his fly. “Do you want to or not?”

 

*                *                *

 

Harry dozed quietly and held him in his arms, both of them relaxed in the soft warm afterglow of a frenetic sex session. Both of them naked, both of them happy.

“Wow, you were right.” He whispered softly.

“You enjoyed it then?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re glad we did it, then?” Harry asked.

“Yeah.” Matthew turned his face to Harry’s and smiled. “Wow, wait until I tell everyone at school.”

“School?” Harry pulled back from him a little. “This question is probably coming a little later than it should have, but… how old are you?”

“Sixteen. Last week. Don’t worry, we’re legal.”

“It might be legal, I don’t know if it’s exactly moral, though.” He pulled himself up and stepped over Matthew. He reached out a hand and pulled the condom from Harry’s softening penis.

“Can I keep this?”

“Oh, that’s disgusting.” Harry frowned.

He looked at the used latex as Harry pulled on my boxer shorts. “Maybe you’re right.” He dropped it on the floor, leant back in his bed and rested his head on his hands. “Wait until Granddad finds out what we did.”

“You’re going to tell him? You want to wait until I’m out of the country?”

“I might not go into too much graphic detail, but I think I should talk to him.” He pulled himself out of his bed and grappled around on the floor for his clothes. Harry looked at his pert, smooth bum bobbing in the air and smiled.

“You’re going down now? It’s one o’clock in the morning.”

“He’ll still be up, the man’s a total insomniac.”

“You want me to come with you?”

“I don’t think that’ll go down too well, meeting the new boyfriend and all that.”

“Listen, Matthew, I think we should talk. Tonight wasn’t about… I’m not…”

“It’s alright, Harry, I understand. You’re with Frederick, I get that. But still, I need to talk to him.”

He slipped on a pullover and moved over to the door.

They both quietly looked around the landing to check it was empty before stepping out onto it. They made their way down the stairs in silence until they reached the first floor. Matthew smiled nervously at him and turned to go down the last flight. Harry pulled him in close, kissed him quickly for luck and then grinned and let him go, before stepping on the landing towards the bedroom he was sharing with Frederick.

Harry reached the door, placed his hand on the handle, and stopped. He quickly turned back around and followed Matthew down the stairs to the ground floor.

At the bottom of the stairs, he almost stood on a crumpled piece of white cloth. He bent down and picked it up. In the dim light he could just see the initials R.F. embroidered in the corner and there was a smear of what looked like blood across the centre. He smiled. Someone had not only punched Robert, but they’d drawn blood. Harry found himself hoping that it had been Frederick. He stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket and tiptoed down the corridor towards Ernest’s office.

Somewhere below him, he heard a loud clunking noise from the pipes. It echoed loudly in the silence of the rest of the house. Ahead of him, was a soft orange glow, spilling out from the crack under the door to the study, bathing Matthew’s shins in amber.

Matthew was stood in front of the door, nervously rubbing his index finger. He stepped back from it and turned to move away. He caught sight of Harry at the end of the corridor and stopped walking. Harry nodded to him across the darkened hallway to reassure him and Matthew nodded back. He turned to the door, grabbed hold of the handle and pushed the door open.

He stepped in, Harry smiled briefly and turned to go, but stopped when he saw Matthew back out of the room.

“Harry. Harry!”

“What?”

“Harry, it’s…”

“What is it?” He moved down the corridor and saw Ernest, in his office slumped over his desk, a small pool of blood on his back. He moved in and quickly felt for a pulse.

Harry glanced at the gun lying on the desk and then looked Matthew in the eyes. “He’s been shot. He’s dead.”

 

 

Read the next chapter here