Authors: G. Brailey
The sky was still yellow. It hadn’t changed much in the few moments it took Zack Fortune to leave his apartment and make his way outside. It was an unfortunate yellow certainly, no bracing tones of burnt ochre or the delicacy of primrose, this was the yellow of fetid flesh, seared across the heavens like some putrid accident or like some crazed person had let rip with the wrong pot of paint.
At the doorway of his ultra-modern apartment block Zack braced himself and looked up, awed by the sinister custard clouds rolling around above and beyond like giant canaries. As a distraction, or for reassurance maybe, he knelt down to tighten his lace, his new running shoes absurdly white against the dull grey of the pavement, and it did the trick, all as it should be on ground level, no surprises there.
It was five thirty, a Thursday morning in June, already unbearably humid, there was not one breath of air. The city would be alive soon, infested with the human race, but not yet, not quite yet. In the distance, to Zack’s left, a posse of sturdy men flanked a dust cart on its unwieldy procession down the street. Opposite, an elderly scarecrow of a man crept along soundlessly behind a nervous fox terrier, tethered at the end of a bright pink bejewelled lead.
Zack started to run.
Zack had always been comfortable in his own skin. He turned heads now at the age of 39, much as he had at 17, although there was something disturbing about his looks, as though too much had come his way, as though he had ended up with double rations by suspect means. Without anyone noticing him doing any work at all Zack managed to achieve star status at every academic institution he had ever attended, Cambridge included. He broke hearts, and he infiltrated minds, Zack was the guy no one ever forgot.
But things were about to change for Zack Fortune, suddenly life was about to get extremely difficult indeed. Yesterday was weird enough, but nothing had prepared him for what was about to happen next, how could it? Last night Susan had excelled herself with her swan song, dive bombing what was left of their stricken relationship clean out of the water, but they were free of their shackles now, liberty beckoned.
Twenty minutes later on his way back to Claremont, Zack decided to take the short cut through the mews. He liked this vintage enclave, and had occasionally toyed with the idea of giving up his penthouse flat with its breathtaking views across the London sky line to settle for one of these sweet little relics with their gaily painted doors and their window boxes. But he could never go through with it somehow, finally conceding that ‘quaint’ wasn’t quite him. At the end of the mews he crossed over the square into Brunswick Street and started down it, narrow and gloomy, a place that knew no sun. For some reason it was as if light couldn’t quite make it down to street level, like the architects had got something terribly wrong. It seemed strange to Zack that he was the only person in this street, no cars, no people, time, after all, was getting on. Then came the shout, piercing and clear, it hit him like a bullet.
“Zachariah! Look! Up here! Here I am!”
Zack stopped, shielding his eyes with his hand, casting around to search out the voice that sounded pleased with itself - triumphant almost. Rather like an animation, silhouetted against the sun, a girl stood with her bare feet clutching over the edge of the roof of an old red bricked apartment block, a short skirt skimmed shapely legs, a shoulder bag strapped across her. From the street her face was featureless, her arms outstretched, like she was about to dive.
“Here I come! Catch me!”
Zack stared, trying desperately to pick up signs of recognition, but there were none, not from here. Who the hell was this girl? Then panic punched him.Please God, no… not Susan.
A moment of absolute stillness between them, eerie, airless, as though a deadly vacuum had sucked them in and was holding fast. Then, the girl threw her arms out wide as though to fly and stepped from the roof. Like a grotesquely heavy bird with damaged wings failing in their duty to support her, she plunged inevitably, silently. A splatter, thud and crack as body parts hit the ground and bounced up again on impact, all this inches from Zack’s feet.
Zack tried to step forward, to put out a hand, to do something, but he couldn’t, his body had seized, a scream lay dead in his mouth. Like an insect, tied round and suspended in the silk of a spider’s web, his lungs midway between floors, he was able just to stand there, a hostile witness, transfixed by the twisted neck that had snapped like a chicken’s, and at the rivulet of dark blood that set off on its course from beneath this sudden corpse like a determined little river.
People appeared from buildings now, some tentative, some speaking seriously on mobile phones and formed a sad, untidy circle round the girl, as though a playground game was about to start up. Soon, a young man appeared running down the steps of the mansion block, a pair of trousers hastily hoisted at his waist, his feet and his chest bare. He did what Zack was unable to do, stooping down, he rolled the girl over onto her back, her wiry dark hair falling down on each side of her bashed up, bloodied face like drawn curtains.
It wasn’t Susan.
Only now was Zack able to gulp air, relief chasing through him with the efficiency of morphine, his breath pumping in and out like a bellows - as though it had nothing to do with him at all, and from his joints a sense of reprieve that soon they’d be back to their old routine.
The man gazed at the girl in wonder, trying to fully comprehend the tragedy she had just bequeathed him, then he scooped her up, her head lolling, too heavy for her slack neck, her gaping mouth swamped with blood, and started to rock her like a baby, as though willing her back to life.
Zack watched for a moment, curious at this dead stranger who knew his name, but embarrassed finally by the intimacy of these bleak moments, he backed off, allowing the bystanders to swell forward and to take his place. Then Zack turned, and swiftly walked away.CHAPTER 2
The day before the girl jumped from the roof of her apartment block, calling out his name, Zack woke with a jolt. He was straight out of bed, into the living room and moving towards the view - a daily ritual, but never before like this. The sky was ablaze, the most urgent red he had ever seen bedecked the sky: crimson, violet, damson, heavy bloody clouds hung there like cuts of meat strung up on an invisible butcher’s rail. Zack gawped at the spectacle, as though his eyes were deceiving him, as though any minute now they’d admit their pretence and reveal the truth. But they didn’t, for two whole minutes they didn’t. Then, from the bedroom, he heard Susan stir.
A little later Susan stood across from Zack emitting her usual vague kind of aggression. She was an attractive girl, with olive skin and a generous mouth, but invariably her eyes were shot through with apprehension, as though tragedy was but a heartbeat away.
“Are you serious?” she whispered.
Zack looked deadly serious.
“But why?” said Susan, “why now?”
Zack shrugged and tried to look concerned, but the truth was he wasn’t, the truth was he had one eye on the clock wondering just how long all this would take.
“We slept together last night,” she said, as though he might have missed that.
“I know, I’m sorry, that shouldn’t have happened.”
“But it did,” said Susan, simply.
“I’m not… brilliant at relationships, I did warn you.”
“Oh yes, of course you did,” she said. “So that’s all right then.”
Susan watched him do that stupid boyish shrug. She was beginning to feel sick. “But we get on,” said Susan, “we get on really well.”
“Of course, of course we do….”
“The sex is good.”
Yes, and it means nothing, as easily acquired as sliced bread, but Zack didn’t say that, instead he looked like he agreed, I’ll give her that - for what it’s worth - a morsel of compensation.
“Look, it’s me and this commitment thing.”
“Oh yes? And what commitment thing is that?”
It was a struggle, but Zack remained looking grave, he remained looking as though he knew he had some serious problem for which he was about to seek urgent medical help.
“I’ve got a very early meeting… but we’ll talk…” he said, grabbing his jacket and heading off into the hall.
“When?” she said.
“Later… sometime…” but the two words ‘never’ and ‘preferably’ came into his head as the door closed firmly behind him.
He could have dealt with it better of course he could, after all it wasn’t such a revelation that Susan was getting on his nerves. That crazy, ‘look how unpredictable and funny I am,’ was now so routine as to be wearying. The night before, she’d insisted on their seeing some dire French film despite the fact Bolton Wanderers were playing Barcelona at home and broadcast in high definition no less in his local pub, he’d made half-hearted protestations but got nowhere.
“I thought you’d want to see my favourite film, I thought you’d be interested,” she’d said as she’d breezed in, grabbing a bottle of beer from the fridge and yanking its cap off with her teeth.
Even that party trick was by now beginning to pall. A novelty for the first few times, after that, he’d wanted to say, ‘hey use a bottle opener why don’t you? It’ll cut down on the dentist’s bills if nothing else,’ but no, every damn time, as though he was still meant to be impressed by a girl pretending to be a pirate.
Two hours of sub titles wasn’t Zack’s idea of fun, nor being dragged across London to some provincial dive for the privilege of reading them. Neither was he enamoured of someone digging him in the ribs all the way through to make sure he hadn’t missed any of the profoundly dull plot points. He should have told her last night, of course he should, but she was so fired up by the God awful, ‘Jules et Jim’, he didn’t have the heart somehow.
What is it with women and favourite films, favourite books? Who gives a monkey what their favourite film is? But for some reason they have to wear this stuff like a badge, as though it offers some deep insight into their psyche. Zack was sure of just two things, 1. He was British and 2. He was heterosexual, neither was up for grabs. But when women started on all this tedious, ‘This might just give you a little bit of a clue as to who I really am,’ with reference to a thin volume of verse, Zack knew it was time to head for the hills. Blokes were so much easier, funnier, less complicated and better company by far. Men preferred men really, but men, if you were straight, could not provide the sex – paradox – discuss.
Susan had been so full of the joys of ‘this blasted French thing’ (Zack’s rather unfair view of Truffaut’s masterpiece), that when they got back to his flat, she threw her clothes off and ran excitedly from room to room spraying him with the contents of a bottle of cider. Knowing it would be the last time Zack felt liberated enough to be utterly selfish. He’d done it how he liked it, without a thought for her. If pleasure had come her way it was entirely by accident. He found himself wondering if she’d noticed.
And in the morning, he could have chosen another time, another place, but the way she’d trolled around his flat like it was hers, like she contributed to the extortionate mortgage payments each month was now beginning to irk him. This, he thought darkly, as she helped herself to the last of the Sugar Puffs, would have to stop.
Zack dumping Susan wasn’t such a surprise as she’d made out. She’d sensed something was up for a while. Often she had to say things three times for them to go in, and he seemed ill at ease with her suddenly, the attentiveness he had first shown replaced with despondency, as though she was hardly worth the effort at all. And as Zack’s interest waned, Susan, panicked at the prospect of losing him resorted to desperate measures, talking too much, laughing too loud, frantic to hang on, and knowing deep down, that the tighter she gripped the more determined he would be to break free, but unfortunately, unable to come up with any viable alternative strategy.
How could she bear to be cut adrift from this wonderful man now? Unnaturally handsome, funny, the most fantastic lover, Zack could charm for England. Everyone adored him, which was a serious design fault as far as Susan was concerned, because the man himself could not help but notice that everyone adored him.
But discarding her like some old shoe after the wonderful evening they had spent together was simply preposterous, he just could not do this, Susan decided, as she made her way to work on her rickety bicycle. Oh no, not on your life, Zack Fortune.
Jason Heart sat motionless on the edge of his narrow bed in a small room on the second floor of a large lodging house in Holloway, North London, listening to the muted sounds of traffic drifting up from the street below.
Once, he had pulled the bed into the middle of the floor and stretched out his arms - they’d just about skimmed each wall. It was a cell really, but it was his cell. Being the responsibility of social services, he could have had a flat in one of those houses like the one in Crouch End, where the neglected and the unwanted, old enough to care for themselves are herded together and abandoned en masse, but he chose not to, he preferred to do his own thing.
Frail, twig thin, with clothes that swamped him, on first impression Jason looked younger than sixteen, but his eyes told a different story. It was like they belonged to someone else, someone who had given up hope. Wherever he fetched up Jason always felt he should be somewhere else. So when he hung around over in the park, or sat with the students in the pub, he always looked as though he was about to leave almost as soon as he’d arrived, and usually he did, stopping only to nod vaguely at a familiar face. Secretly, Jason would like to have stayed and got to know someone, especially that girl with the dreadlocks and the tattoos, but best not to, best not to, thought Jason.
Once, when a boy tried to come back saying that he needed somewhere to crash, Jason told him he couldn’t, no way, it wasn’t allowed. The boy didn’t believe him, but Jason didn’t care. What if he was someone in disguise? He could have been. Jason decided it wasn’t worth the risk and anyway, no one came back to his room, no one. The boy got angry when he told him this so Jason smashed him in the face with a brick, that shut him up.
Jason said: “Nyman, Holder and Drew, The Emerson Buildings, 21 Chancery Street, London WC6 B66. Aren’t you proud of me, Zack Fortune? I know your address off by heart.”
The ‘meeting’ Zack had mentioned to Susan was in Starbucks, with his old friend and work colleague, Sam Stein. They’d met up at Cambridge and remained friends since. Sam was short, stout, unmistakeably Jewish, a freakish little Robin to Zack’s Batman. Sam had been desolate when he’d first arrived at university. He stood out to say the least, with his stumpy frame, his potato face, and his overwhelming lack of style – an untouchable. But then Zack came along and took him under his wing, and for that alone, Sam would be eternally grateful. In fact, within days of their meeting Sam had been accepted into just about the most stylish set around. People tolerated him at first, wondering what Zack was doing with such a naff, suburban dwarf, but before long, people sought him out like they would a talisman.
Growing up in Golders Green and about as popular as a Jewish garden gnome, (Sam’s expression), Sam feared that his lack of success with women would become a lifetime’s work. But at Cambridge, Sam met Clarissa, a stunning girl who wore vintage hippy frocks, and big hats, and who had the most wonderful golden corkscrew curls he had ever seen. Zack had made a play for Clarissa once, but she’d turned him down, (the first and last time this had happened), on the basis that she’d rather fallen for Sam, and didn’t want to put him off by sleeping with his very best friend. This simple decision became a thing of legend at the time because no one could understand it. How could any woman turn down Zack Fortune for Sam Stein? It was discussed long into the night by their set and other sets, everyone fascinated by Clarissa’s appalling taste in men.
Some said it was because Sam was from a very wealthy family. Some said it was because Clarissa wanted to teach Zack Fortune a lesson. Whatever the reason, Sam and Clarissa became inseparable and married less than a year later.
Prompted by Sam, his company, Nyman, Holder and Drew had head hunted Zack two years earlier. Clarissa told Sam he was stupid. How on earth would he get promotion now? But Sam, lacking any competitive spirit could not have cared less. Zack was making quite a name for himself in the company and as usual, Sam basked in Zack’s success. More important than this, he saw Zack every day. Secretly, Sam had to admit he’d have taken a huge cut in salary just for this alone. He loved the guy. Not only because of Zack’s kindness at Cambridge, rounding him up like the outcast he was, but because of Zack’s unfailing and continued interest in him. Never a person to command friendship, loyalty or respect, for some reason this potent, dynamic man was Sam’s best buddy, and got off on being his best buddy, too.
“You shouldn’t be flattered by it,” said Clarissa one day when Sam was waxing lyrical about the special relationship the two men enjoyed, “it’s quite common you know, and it’s called something.”
“What is?” asked Sam, bewildered.
“People forming close ties with someone who is so obviously inferior, psychiatrists have a name for it.”
“Really?” said Sam, “now there’s a surprise.”
“It makes them look better by comparison, it’s the action of the insecure.”
Sam brooded on this for a while, but then dismissed it. Just how much better did Zack Fortune need to look he asked himself? He shone like a star anyway, the fact he shone even brighter beside Sam seemed academic. And anyway, thought Sam, you’re just jealous. And he was right, she was.
Sam smiled up at Zack as he breezed into Starbucks that morning, turning the heads of office girls perched up on high stools along the window then plonking himself down at Sam’s table and whipping the saucer off the mug of coffee Sam had for him on standby.
“Mate,” said Sam, “what’s new?”
“I am a free man, that’s what’s new. Susan is no more.”
Sam sagged. He looked tired suddenly. “So what’s wrong with Susan? Apart from the obvious that is.”
“And what did I say right at the beginning?”
“I know, the oracle spoke, and yet again I chose to ignore him.”
“Is she still opening beer bottles with her teeth?”
“That’s the least of it. She’s been going on about this French film for weeks, so we went to see it last night inEast Finchley for God’s sake, and it was monstrous, of course it bloody was.”
“She took you to see aFrench film in East Finchley?Hells bells, what next? A pig roast in Tel Aviv?”
“Plus, I missed the Wanderers because of it.”
“Ah well, now you didn’t mention that,” said Sam. “Any woman who comes between a man and Bolton Wanderers is signing their own death warrant.”
“I knew you’d agree, Mr Stein.”
The Bolton Wanderers thing started as a joke. One sunny day in Cambridge a group of friends, including Zack and Sam, finding themselves in the middle of a field, stoned out of their heads on a reckless jumble of stimulants had decided to vie for the most hopeless football team of all time. Zack said Bolton Wanderers which had won hands down. Not many of them knew about football then, it certainly wasn’t the sexy game it is today, and Bolton Wanderers just seemed pretty much a lost cause.
“Imagine,” said Zack, “wandering around Bolton.Boltonof all places! I’d die first!”
Sam pretended to be deeply offended by Zack’s remarks, insisting he was a lifelong ardent supporter.
“Take it back, sir, how dare you disparage Bolton Wanderers, the football team of my youth!”
“I won’t take it back!” said Zack, “I’ll be damned if I will!”
“Then I’ll fight you to the death. Be prepared to die, you varmint!”
“That’s cowboys,” said Zack.
“It can be anything I say it is!” said Sam, flamboyantly, pulling off a nearby branch to use as a sword.
It was one of those wonderful, stupid moments you never forget, a bunch of guys, young, optimistic, with huge potential, and no responsibilities, enjoying just being together and finding everything farcical.
Later on, maybe out of loyalty to the imagined favourite football team of Sam’s youth, Zack found himself developing a genuine interest in the club, and was now the ardent supporter Sam had once professed to be. Sam found this odd and amusing, and was rather touched by it. Bolton Wanderers became their secret shared interest, and although Sam struggled to remain committed, (he’d forgotten about the game the night before for instance), Zack was. Somehow it was like Zack telling him how much he cared. Sam loved it when Zack talked about Bolton Wanderers, it made him feel secure.
Zack started on his cappuccino as Sam gazed across at him with his usual amiable scrutiny. How could any man be as handsome as this, Sam asked himself for the umpteenth time. There was good looking and there was ridiculously good looking, Zack fell into the latter category. No sign of those looks fading either. If anything, they’d become more defined, more arresting as time had passed. Deep brown eyes that sometimes looked jet black, a Gallic nose, a perfect jaw line, high cheek bones, and the teeth of a Hollywood icon. How wonderful to be Zack Fortune, Sam had often thought, but second best was being Zack Fortune’s closest friend. As a consolation prize Sam had to settle for that and he wasn’t complaining.
He looked up to see a girl behind the counter wrapped round in a bottle green apron, staring at Zack, unable to believe her eyes. Sam smiled at the girl, silently saying: ‘Yes, I know love, it’s not fair, is it?’ but the girl didn’t even notice.CHAPTER 3
The offices of the law firm Nyman, Holder and Drew were situated on the 9th floor of a sleek office block, Emerson Buildings that dominated the city skyline. The company employed 40 staff and here at eight thirty this morning it seemed all of them were criss-crossing in and out of rooms, along passageways, hell bent on doing important things. Zack strolled into his office soundlessly, the thick carpet absorbing his tread. Inevitably Rose was already there, fussing round his desk. She looked up on his arrival, a hint of acknowledgement but only a hint, as though all reactions from this woman were at a premium.
Rose Crawford was mixed race, early forties, but looked a good ten years younger, and with dyed blonde hair cut close to her head and her willowy, athletic figure she cut quite a dash. A single mother, Rose had gone to college to study business management in order to support her twins, now twelve years old. Everything about her suggested wisdom, restraint, discretion and understanding. Zack knew they would hit it off on sight.
“Hey, Rose, what about that sky this morning, weird or what?”
“Was it?” asked Rose, surprised.
“You must have noticed, sun up, it looked like the sky was on fire.”
“Not in Shepherds Bush it wasn’t,” she said. Then, after a moment’s thought, “the vagaries of our post code lottery I expect… a letter to the mayor do you think?”
And with that Rose was gone, like she’d evaporated. Zack sat down at his desk, glanced at an open diary, but almost immediately got up again and went to find Sam. Sam was on the phone as Zack walked in so he hovered, waiting for him to sign off.
“Sam, did you see that sky this morning?”
Sam looked blank. “And this is a trick question is it?”
“It looked like it was bleeding.”
“Bleeding? The sky was bleeding?”
“Or on fire, crimson, dark red…” Zack’s voice trailed off, “what is this?” said Zack.
“I wish I knew, mate, I wish I knew.”
“I can’t believe no one else saw it.”
“Can’t say I did, but I’m not a morning person as well you know. That was my wife on the phone, Lady Clarissa.”
“Well thanks for that, but I do remember her name after all these years.”
“Twelve o’clock, she told me to remind you.”
“Remind me of what?”
“This regression thing,” said Sam, dropping his voice to a whisper.
“Oh God, no,” said Zack, remembering, “get me out of it, Sam,please.”
“No can do, mate, you promised, I was there, I heard you.”
“But I was pissed, you promise anything to women when you’re pissed.”
“Then a lesson learnt I’d say… be there or be square.”
The kind of salary Sam pulled in meant that Clarissa didn’t really have to work at all. At first she did. Trooping into a small publishing house, battling with weighty tomes on gardening, DIY, and self-help manuals, books she had no interest in, working for fusty old Norman Bell, a man she had even less interest in. So when he mooted one day that a recession seemed imminent, and that unfortunately there would have to be redundancies, Clarissa nominated herself as first to go. Her severance pay was agreed on the spot.
“He said – ‘oh all right then’ - just like that. I mean,really, that man!” said Clarissa to Sam, as soon as he’d got back from work.
“But you wanted to go, you offered.”
“That is not the point,” said Clarissa, a hectoring note in her voice.
“No of course it isn’t! He should have at least pretended to be sorry. Norman Bell has no social graces - that’s his trouble. He just wouldn’t know where to start.”
If anything demonstrated the difference between men and women this did, Sam decided a little later as he loaded the dishwasher. A man would be cock-a-hoop at this outcome, a lousy job kicked into touch, endless days of indolence stretching out in front of him while he lived off the fat of the land, or at least the fat of his redundancy money, but a woman? Oh no, she’d want full value, the wringing of hands, the shaking of the head, the ‘how on earth will we manage without you’ scenario, before she felt she’d got her money’s worth.
Although Sam would never have owned up to this, he was not remotely surprised by Norman Bell’s reaction. Sam had always got the impression that Norman thought Clarissa a liability rather than an asset to his little company, and yet a kindly man, unable to deal with confrontation, he hadn’t been able even to float the idea that Clarissa might be better suited working elsewhere.
Secretly, Sam was surprised Clarissa had lasted this long, (he wouldn’t want her anywhere near his office), because Clarissa hated the restraint of having to do certain things at certain times – like turn up, and work, it wasn’t her bag really. Sam told her not to bother getting another job unless she wanted to. Clarissa decided she didn’t, and realising she would probably die before she had read anywhere near all the novels you were meant to read before oblivion came knocking, she decided to get cracking and make a start.
Reading had always been Clarissa’s thing. She could spend weeks just going from book to book, imagining the life that was being described to her, becoming part of it but then always feeling very let down when the story came to an end, like she had to deal with reality again and she’d prefer not to thank you very much. She also felt a strange sense of abandonment too. She realised this was absurd, but for a while she resented these authors drawing a line under things, rejecting her involvement with their world and their characters. This feeling continued until she was immersed in another book, and another. She didn’t dare admit this to anyone of course because she knew it was rather strange.
But then Clarissa and abandonment had history, it had been a fixture of her childhood after all. Her father first, unable to bear his wife’s interest in their daughter became jealous and withdrawn. He found that he could not tolerate the intrusion of this small creature into their once perfect world, (he’d had no idea it would be so loathsome), so one day he just upped sticks and left. Then it was the turn of her mother. Reeling from her husband’s desertion, blaming Clarissa for it entirely and hardly able to gaze at this daughter of hers without wanting to thump her, she accepted a job teaching English in Tokyo and was never heard of again.
An older aunt stood in, brought Clarissa up as though she were her own, and she was adequate, she did her best, but there was an elephant in the room and everyone knew it. Clarissa’s parents did not want her, they did not love her, and for all the elaborate reasons and excuses why the two of them had gone off, it boiled down to this. But no one dared say so. Perhaps it would have been better if they had.
Clarissa often wondered if that was why she found herself attracted to Sam. No one wanted him either, so she would want him. She would want him as much as he wanted her. Perhaps that was all there was to it, although she didn’t dwell on this much anymore. But then, after believing she knew everything there was to know about her relationship with Sam, in the middle of her reading spree, Clarissa discovered a book about codependency, and although she would concede this to no one, it rang a bell. Everyone worried for Sam in case Clarissa left him, but Clarissa knew that if they were ever to separate, Clarissa would suffer the most. She needed Sam to need her, and thankfully, need her, Sam did.
A year earlier, entirely by accident and against Sam’s advice, Clarissa had become involved with New Age concepts. An old friend, Kelsey, had started up a New Age book shop in Richmond and had asked Clarissa to help her out occasionally because Kelsey’s primary occupation was acting, and on the rare occasion when a job came up, Kelsey was of course keen to take it. Standing behind the counter day in day out Clarissa started reading about the occult, about past life regression and reincarnation. She became fascinated by past life regression particularly and read as much as she could on the subject. If only these had been the books she’d had to deal with in the publishing house things might have been different, but Norman Bell, a strict Catholic, would never have given such contentious issues the time of day.
Sam was convinced that all this mumbo jumbo was another one of Clarissa’s fixations. She’d had her fair share over the years after all. So he just smiled politely and pretended to listen, believing it would be something else next week. But for the first time Clarissa did not tire of her new passion, like she had with Troika pottery, the life and times of Betty Boothroyd, car mechanics, Twin Peaks, ‘cutlery through the ages’, the life and times of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Georgian embroidery samplers, gorillas, French polishing, Isadora Duncan, Lindisfarne, the island and Lindisfarne the 60’s pop group to name a few, but had continued to read and investigate and had become so immersed in these things, Sam found it impossible to get her to talk about anything else.
Clarissa had gone on three courses to train in past life regression, although she kept quiet about each one because she knew Sam would hit the roof, especially if he found out how much they cost. The first one was a simple course in hypnosis which she managed to master days before anyone else. Then it was hypnosis with reference to past life connections, the third, putting all this into practice attempting to get people to dip in and out of previous lives when they were in a hypnotic state. By this time Clarissa was hooked, especially when one of her subjects started speaking in tongues. Percival Hollingsworth, the stringy 60 year old who ran the Rebirth Psychic Centre in Dollis Hill was flabbergasted. Although stuff of legend, he had never actually seen this with his own eyes. From then on he regarded Clarissa as next in line to the throne, he almost genuflected each time he saw her.
Finally, when she could keep all this to herself no longer she told Sam what she had been up to. Sam stared back at her like a man about to go into cardiac arrest. Could it just be Clarissa’s usual exaggeration or could it actually be true? The idea of Clarissa presiding over a man speaking in tongues was too bizarre to contemplate, but even when questioned closely Clarissa’s story remained the same, indicating a certain degree of truthfulness. Sam’s heart sank. This silly fad as he thought it was, had blossomed into a full blown obsession.
“I’m going to be a genuine regression therapist soon,” said Clarissa, bursting with excitement, “with my name on a certificate and a plaque on the door, how about that?”
Sam was so depressed by this piece of news he couldn’t even muster a reply. Eventually Sam told Zack, knowing full well what his reaction would be and it’s true to say that he was not disappointed. Zack found it hysterically funny and ragged Sam endlessly, until in the end Sam told Zack to shut up, it was bad enough being married to a trainee shaman, he really didn’t need Zack to keep going on about it.
Clarissa continued studying and carrying out her research, sometimes at the British Library. An Indian reference book was her favourite, one that she could barely open it was so huge, then, refining her technique, becoming more and more skilled, and practicing on an occasional basis with other like-minded folk. However, in order to obtain proper qualifications she had to pass a pretty strict test and so in preparation, at the end of a particularly boozy afternoon, after Clarissa had begged Zack to be her guinea pig yet again, Zack had finally given in.
Zack had told Clarissa in no uncertain terms that she’d be better off working behind the counter at Oxfam than spending her days on this trash and Sam wholeheartedly agreed, until Clarissa told them to stop ganging up on her, they knew nothing about past life regression so she would prefer it if they reserved judgement until they did. Zack was kicking himself that Clarissa had at last managed to beat him into submission but how the hell could he get out of it now? Ex-girlfriends had often questioned Zack about Sam and Clarissa, but especially about Sam. They just didn’t get it, no one did.
In their first month at university, a couple of days before they palled up, Zack overheard some posh kids calling Sam a Jewish midget. “A hideously ugly Jewish midget to be precise,” one of the girls had said, fully aware that Sam was within earshot. Sam blushed various degrees of scarlet, desperately trying to marshal enough dignity to walk away, torn between a shrug, a laugh. In the end he just looked close to tears as he pretended suddenly that he’d forgotten to be elsewhere and bombed off like a manic little cartoon character, accompanied by the posh kids’ laughter.
Zack thought about this for a full day and a half before walking up to Sam, alone as usual, sitting on a wall, (like Humpty Dumpty he’d often thought), and asked him if he was doing anything later that night.
Sam blinked back at him in shock. “Er… no… no,” he said.
“Good,” said Zack, “because there’s friends of mine I’d really like you to meet…” and that was it. He’d collected Sam rather like a milk bottle. People still stared for a while, the God, Zack Fortune, hanging around with a miniature Elephant Man? What was the crack? But after a while, they got used to him. Relaxed, Sam could be great company, so funny he could reduce a room to hysteria in minutes flat.
Not long after they met, Sam told Zack that he’d had an older brother, Michael - handsome, rich, making a fortune doing something dodgy but lucrative in the city, obviously their parents’ favourite of the two sons, he’d married a top model and life was sweet. Until that is Michael became involved in drugs as so many of the city boys are wont to do and died one night at the age of 23 in an orgy of amphetamines and cocaine. His parents were bereft, especially his mother who could not accept the tragic hand fate had dealt her, and who had framed Michael’s baby shoes and toys, mounting them along the hall of their house as some grotesque tribute to her dead son.
Sam told Zack that when he went round for dinner his mother would gaze at him across the table and it was clear what she was thinking: ‘Why didn’t God take you instead of him? Why did he leave me with this freak… the runt of the litter, the little ugly one… please God, tell me what I have done to deserve this?’
Sam seemed to think his parents had only ever put up with him because of Michael. Sam was the lame duck, but it was all right because they had Michael, the swan. Without Michael, however, their tolerance of Sam was tested. Here he was, as large as bloody life, a reminder of how totally useless he was, and a reminder also of just how perfect Michael used to be.
Once, when he’d had a drink or two, Sam brought the subject up, not directly, but sort of skirted round it. Neither of his parents denied the allegation, allowing Sam his few moments of rightful indignation before changing the subject. What Sam found most galling was that they didn’t even have the decency to be ashamed.
When Sam married Clarissa, Sam’s parents were excited, mainly because they thought that with Clarissa’s background and good looks there was a fifty-fifty chance of their grandson being at least average looking and of average intelligence, unlike Sam, who they considered a catastrophe in every department. And when they failed to conceive, his parents made it clear they thought the problem was Sam’s. How could a woman as cultured and as beautiful as Clarissa be unable to produce children? It was crazy even to think it. So, in his own way Sam had managed to dash their hopes once more.
It wasn’t just that Zack felt sorry for Sam, far from it. Zack would never spend time with anyone he didn’t really want to be with. Sure, he had about as much compassion as the next man, which in truth, is not very much, but being with Sam was not an act of charity, far from it, plus Sam had paid him back in spades over the years, picking him up each time he took a tumble.
“I love him, that’s all,” Zack would say when questioned, secretly acknowledging the fact that no one in his life mattered more than Sam Stein, and so if Sam’s good wife needed to be indulged for an hour or so, indulge her he would.
Sam and Clarissa lived in a rather grand mansion block in Baker Street, in one of those flats rather like the Tardis that had much more space within them than you ever thought possible at the front door. Clarissa had done the place out with expensive swags and flounces, sequined cushions and patchwork velvet quilts and replacing the window panes with airport glass to deaden the noise of traffic from the street below only added to the sensation Sam once suggested, of being encased in a top quality padded cell.
Zack arrived a few minutes late, full of apologies. Clarissa brushed them aside and took him by the arm leading him down the rather claustrophobic hall, lined with books and objets d’art.
“You hate me for this, don’t you?” said Clarissa, as they walked along side by side.
“Fear not, old friend, you’re still on the Christmas card list.”
“And when’s the last time you sent a Christmas card to anyone, ever…”
They entered an expansive room, bordered with antiques, where Clarissa indicated for Zack to sit down on a Chesterfield that took pride of place, bang in the middle of the floor. Sam loved this Chesterfield and had refused point blank all entreaties from Clarissa to dispense with it and get something more stylish. Generally speaking, they agreed on décor, mainly because Sam backed down in just about every dispute they ever had, but he stuck his heels in with this. “We are not getting rid of it,” he told Clarissa with rare grit, “so let’s just drop the subject, shall we?”
Clarissa had finally managed to get him to agree to it being recovered with aubergine cotton velvet, but that was it, a concession, nothing more. When it arrived back from the upholsterers Clarissa was quite surprised at how good it looked, and from wanting to bin the thing, decided that for once Sam was right to insist on its reprieve. Zack sank into Sam’s Chesterfield now, refusing a drink he simply said, “Let’s just get on with it shall we? I don’t have that long.”
Clarissa told Zack to pull off his shoes, to lay back, and to make himself comfortable. Clarissa pulled up a Victorian balloon backed chair, perching next to him. She knew Zack felt foolish, she knew also that he regretted agreeing to this, consequently, she knew she had something to prove.
“Now listen Zack, please, whatever happens don’t come out of the hypnosis yourself, however… well… hairy it gets.”
“Hairy?” said Zack, a little alarmed now.
“You must let me bring you back slowly, don’t think of trying to stop it yourself, that can cause real problems.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Zack with a grin.
As Clarissa told Zack to close his eyes and started speaking extremely quietly, Zack stifled a desire to burst out laughing. What on earth was he doing here? Lying on a sofa, listening to his best friend’s wife who everyone knew was a little left field, trying to get him to plunge the depths of his memory and come up with a scenario that placed him where? Floundering in the ranks of Oliver Cromwell’s army? Fighting in the trenches in the First World War? The whole thing was absolute tripe.
Zack continued thinking along these lines until he was suddenly aware that he had no sense of being in the room at all. He could barely hear Clarissa now, just some hum - was it from the fridge, or the washing machine maybe? He squinted out of one eye to reassure himself and saw Clarissa miles away, tiny, like a marionette. How could she be that far away, the room wasn’t that vast, was it? And why had she moved her chair? He didn’t remember her moving her chair. His eye lid snapped shut again, rather like someone had clawed it down in temper. He felt strange now, in limbo, suspended in a heavy atmosphere, and then without warning he was somewhere else, floating up the narrow staircase of a small stone cottage, and at the top of the stairs, across the landing, he pushed open a creaking door and stepped inside a room.
A bulbous ewer stood on a wash stand, a wool coat hung limply on the back of the door, and an old iron bedstead covered with a blood stained counterpane dominated the room. For a moment, Zack thought he was alone, but he wasn’t. A slight, emaciated figure peeked out from under the bed covers, his skull tightly bound with jaundiced skin, his long lank grey hair streaked with white and matted. He was immobile this man, but his haunted eyes swept and searched. Who the hell was this?
Almost as soon as the thought came into Zack’s head, the man’s arms shot out, his rough hands clutching Zack at the throat.
“Zachariah… at last you’ve come… help me!”
Zack recoiled and tried to loosen the man’s grasp, but his arthritic fingers, like the gnarled roots of a tree, held fast. Suddenly his ghastly face was right up close, and then his mouth widened, forced open by a torrent of blood-like projectile vomit that shot out and painted Zack’s face. The blood was every shade of red, crimson, damson, almost black, and now the force of it was finding its way under Zack’s eye lids round the back of his eyeballs, through his ears and up his nostrils, ending up at the back of his throat, and from there, seeping down within him, he was swallowing it.
As the blood started burrowing its way into Zack’s veins and coursing through him, he felt it burst triumphantly into the open cavities of his lungs, making him gasp and splutter for clean air. He had a sense that his own blood was no match for this livid transfusion which was taking over, looting him, running riot. Soon his life force would be vanquished and replaced, soon he would be someone else!
In genuine fear for his life and with a violent strength he pushed the beast from him, forced open his eyes and leapt up to see Clarissa flying across the room and landing with a bump. Had he done that? Had he? He leant down, grabbed his shoes and his body shot through with panic, he raced from the room, bolted along the hall and flung himself out of the flat.
Too agitated to wait for the lift, he fled down the narrow winding stairs of the apartment block to ground level, out of the heavy glass double doors, along the street that seemed to be bathed in a brilliant white light, causing each person he passed to look like a walking skeleton. Fear and a sickly smell of death and contamination did not leave him until he plunged into a coffee shop, still carrying his shoes, and aware that everyone was gazing up at him, he knocked into a table then sat down at it.
Three young office workers looked affronted at the intrusion. They shuffled their chairs a little to give him space, their conversation killed stone dead, coffee at sea in their cups.
“Are you okay, mate?” said one, frowning slightly.
“Yes, I am now. Sorry, sorry about that,” said Zack his hands slapped on the table to steady it, “had a bit of a shock, that’s all.”
“You should grab a tea or something, sugar’s meant to be good for all that.”
Zack nodded, realising now he had left his wallet in his jacket back at Clarissa’s. “Look… I’m sorry but can I ask you? Is there blood on my face?”
“No, mate, what… you been in an accident or something?”
“Yes, that’s right, I have.”
Understanding now, the three young men smiled reassuringly at Zack. Thank God, he thought, how lovely here in the real world. The world I know, the only world I know.CHAPTER 4
Back in his office Zack stood at the window gazing down to the street below. He didn’t hear Sam come in but he did hear him clear his throat.
“You survived then? No need to send out the cavalry.”
“Catch you later, Sam,” said Zack quietly, without even turning to look at him, “under the cosh a bit here.”
Noting that Zack’s desk was completely devoid of any kind of work at all, Sam turned and left, crossing Rose at the doorway.
“Karl Wake is here, Zack, shall I bring him in?”
“No, cancel Rose would you.”
“Cancel?” said Rose, convinced she hadn’t heard him correctly.
“That’s what I said”
“But how can I?” said Rose, “he’s up here already, he’s sitting in reception right now.”
“You’ll come up with something,” said Zack, “use your imagination.”
“Zack, are you okay?” she said. “Are you ill or something?”
“Get rid of him I said, and cancel everyone else.”
Bristling slightly, Rose turned and left, slowing only in the passageway to think up an excuse for Karl Wake. She caught Sam’s eye as she passed his office which was enough to make him pick up his phone and call Clarissa.
Zack remained at the window for quite some time. He was aware of life going on all round him, people in and out of rooms, piercing laughter from the water cooler, a couple of comments about a television programme from the night before and a lot of indecipherable chatter. Zack felt detached from it all, isolated, a small rowing boat out at sea. Even when head honcho, Geoff Turner came in, his head jutting out at that weird angle from his neck, his cheeks red and puffed up, his eyes darting, scanning for trouble when there never really was any, Zack failed to muster the right amount of deference somehow.
A couple of people asked him if he was all right. He told them perhaps he was coming down with something: it was possible. The stock reply was that there were quite a few bugs doing the rounds and he should take it easy, the usual office drivel. Then the phone rang, insolent, intrusive. Eventually he picked up.
“Indeed it is.”
“Yes, Clarissa, hello.”
“Are we still on for tonight?”
“Tonight?” he asked, as though the concept of night following day was one that had passed him by entirely.
“I need to speak to you,” she said.
Of course, it was Wednesday, and the first in the month. They had this ritual Clarissa, Sam and Zack, they met at Bellini’s in Covent Garden, all smoky glass windows, brilliant white table cloths, and disparaging waiters but with discretion guaranteed.
“Yes, of course,” he said, but for the first time ever Zack would have liked to have chickened out.
“Are you all right?” she asked, an echo of guilt in her voice.
“I’m absolutely fine,” he lied.
“You left your jacket here, I’ll bring it.”
“You do that, Clarissa, and I’ll see you later.”
Both Clarissa and Zack stared at their phones as they put them down as though somehow they would tell them more than they already knew, and what they both already knew was this: things would never quite be the same again between Zack, Sam and Clarissa, but what they could not possibly have known at that moment, was how much of an understatement that notion would turn out to be.
An hour later, back at his vantage point, Zack noticed the bright red of Susan’s mackintosh as she darted through traffic to cross the street. On the pavement opposite at a better angle, she looked up to his window, a hand shielding her eyes. Even from this distance Zack sensed her neediness that had finally done for her, at least done for her in his eyes. She waved. She’d seen him and waved then she beckoned, impatiently.
Zack left his office and headed towards the lift. By the time he had reached street level Susan was pacing outside the revolving glass doors. It was a little too close for comfort for Zack, who tried immediately to lead her off in another direction but Susan would not budge.
“Susan, please don’t do this,” he said, glancing round for any potential witnesses to their encounter.
“Don’t do what?”
“If you want to speak to me then fine, but don’t come here. This is where I work.”
“Oh I see, ashamed of me now are you?”
What an inappropriate comment Zack thought, it implied they were still together but they were not together, and they never would be again.
“What is it?” said Zack, “what do you want?”
“You said we’d talk, that we’d meet and talk.”
“I don’t think I said that exactly.”
“Yes you did.”
“Look… I made a mistake,” he said, noting how Susan looked hopeful suddenly, “I mean… I could have timed it better.”
“Yes, you could,” she said, “and not timed it at all.”
Zack could see her looking deep into his eyes as though in search of something. Should he tell her that there was nothing there and there never had been? That he was simply a male of the species: vacuous, selfish, predatory and self-serving, without depth or insight, and certainly with very little in the way of altruism. Susan was really beginning to irritate him now. How had he ever thought of this woman as attractive? Her eyes were too close together, her nose was too long and her mouth too big, all those things he loved at the beginning now seemed hideous.
“Listen,” said Zack, keen to put an end to the misery, “I’ll call, we’ll talk, but please Susan, don’t come here again.”
Zack turned back into the building and crossed reception, but noticed as he waited for the lift that she was still there, gazing in at him, like a child who had spied a toy in a shop window and was yearning for it. She remained in exactly the same place while he waited, her gaze resolute. Zack was relieved when the lift doors opened and then shut behind him, closing off the view.
As Susan eventually went off, she found her eye drawn to a boy walking towards her, thin, scruffy, hood up, his eyes deeply distracted by something. He shot Susan a brief glance as they passed which brought her to a halt. She swung round to find him through the crowd and saw him hesitate, before pushing his way into Zack’s building. There was something vaguely familiar about this boy. She recognized him from somewhere, she knew she did. But after a moment’s thought when she failed to come up with anything, she dismissed it. Susan was late back from lunch as it was.
Jason Heart, a little in awe of his surroundings, stepped inside Emerson Buildings and looked around. He didn’t think the place would be this big and it seemed Zack’s company was not the only one at this address either. Jason hadn’t bargained on that. A desk ran along one wall and a couple of solid women sat behind it. He walked towards them and waited. One of the receptionists, Betty Dibbs, fifty two years old, wary and hefty, but immaculately turned out, chose not to meet Jason’s gaze. She’d spotted him straight away as he crossed towards her and did not like what she saw. Finally, tired of waiting to be acknowledged, Jason spoke up.
“Zack Fortune, Nyman Holder and Drew,” he said, as Betty tried to look busy.
“Yes, thank you, I do know where he works,” she said eventually, with a swift, insincere smile.
“I’m here to see him.”
“Are you indeed?”
“Yes I am.”
“In what capacity?”
“Are you a client, or a friend?”
“A client and a friend, I’m both.”
“And Mr Fortune is expecting you, is he?”
“You have an appointment?”
“And the name is?”
“That’s my business.”
Patrick Obiukwu, the security guard was watching proceedings closely from his desk up by the main doors as Betty shot him a look, brief, but crystal clear.
“How can I tell him you’ve arrived for your appointment if I don’t know your name?” said Betty, stringing him along now, just for the fun of it.
“Tell him to come here, or I’ll just go up, what floor’s he on?” said Jason turning towards the lift.
“Oh no, young man, I don’t think so.”
By now Patrick had arrived trying to look like he meant business when in fact he only took the job because he was unlikely to encounter any trouble, any real trouble that is. (Patrick had a degree in comparative religion which seemed to cut no ice at all down at the job centre in Streatham, this position was best of the bunch.)
“Show our young friend out would you, Patrick, please, he’s just leaving.”
“No I’m not,” said Jason, backing off from Patrick’s gentle steer.
“Now, boy,” said Patrick, stooping down and fixing Jason with his hangdog watery gaze, “you want me to call the Metropolitan police authorities, or for Miss Betty here to hail a panda car into the vicinity?”
Betty rather liked it when Patrick called her Miss Betty, in fact, Betty rather liked Patrick full stop. She’d told him once that she went to salsa on Fridays in De Beauvoir and if he wanted to join her sometime he could.
Patrick was courteous but noncommittal, knowing he would never take her up on the invitation. Women could be vicious when crossed and if it all went sour his job would be in jeopardy. Better by far to maintain a professional distance. That way he would remain in employment, and that way he would still have enough money at the end of each month to send back to his wife Genevieve and his eight children in Awka Etiti. And anyway… Miss Betty had tree trunk legs.
“Just tell him I’m here and I have to see him!” yelled Jason.
“Look,” said Betty, exasperated, scrawling a number on a piece of paper and handing it over, “phone up and make an appointment, it’s the only way.”
Jason snatched at the paper, screwed it into a ball, and chucked it back at her. Pushing past Patrick he barged his way outside, looking in at them from the sidewalk. He saw Miss Betty shaking her head at Patrick who smiled back, pleased with his handling of this particular crisis, strolling over to his desk, his little empire really, problem solved.
Jason had imagined this so differently. He’d imagined walking in to Emerson Buildings and seeing Zack immediately. He’d imagined Zack coming up to him and asking if he could assist him in any way. Jason would say yes, he could, and suggesting lunch. (Jason knew people in the city were always going out to lunch.) Once in the restaurant, Jason would tell Zack about his summons and the trouble he was in, and Zack would tell him not to worry because he was a lawyer and he would make it all go away because that’s what lawyers did. From that point on they’d be good friends, going on holiday together, skiing, sailing, that kind of thing.
As it was, he’d been hounded out of the place by some fat old slag with horrible teeth and some dumb black bloke who looked like he was dying of cancer.CHAPTER 5
Zack had decided on the way home that evening to call Clarissa and Sam and cancel their dinner date. After all, he could make his imminent illness an excuse and that would be that. Zack did not think for one minute that what he had experienced during his time with Clarissa had been an earlier life, he just presumed it to be some kind of weird hallucination brought on by the hypnosis. The vision was odd, and very freaky, but after a youth spent experimenting with LSD in particular Zack knew what the mind was capable of. Now, in retrospect, he felt extremely foolish reacting the way he did, especially hurling Clarissa across the room. That was unforgivable, and he could only hope that Clarissa would not tell Sam.
But an hour later, following a leisurely shower and a change of clothes, Zack felt his old self again. In fact, he was pleased he had delayed that call, because now he decided he did want to meet up with his old friends, (especially Clarissa), but more than that, he needed to. If he put it off, as he first thought he might, the events of the day would hang over them like a thunder cloud waiting to burst. The first Wednesday of the month at Bellini’s was the one routine they all enjoyed together, and they prided themselves that barring holidays, they had never broken it.
Clarissa had panicked at Zack’s wild outburst in the flat. She had never seen him like that before. She had never seen anyone like that before, and of course she blamed herself. All her other guinea pigs had been willing participants and only too eager to see what past lives might reveal. Zack, on the other hand, had agreed to the regression under sufferance and Clarissa felt guilty now that she had put him through such an ordeal. Clarissa had asked Sam to delay his arrival at the restaurant so she could speak with Zack alone. The last thing she wanted was for Sam to start worrying, he was extraordinarily protective of Zack which alternately amused and infuriated her.
“He’s a grown man… he can look after himself can’t he?” Clarissa had said to Sam on numerous occasions when he was fussing about Zack, endlessly.
“Less so than people think,” was Sam’s stock reply.
Clarissa knew there were skeletons in Zack’s cupboard because Sam had said as much, but he refused point blank to elaborate, despite Clarissa’s many attempts to get him so to do. Clarissa was exasperated by this, but she also rather liked it. Sam’s loyalty, when it came to Zack, was absolute.
Two huge warehouse type buildings flanked Bellini’s on either side. One was a wholesale wine emporium run by an eccentric bunch of Greek Cypriots, the other, a development of luxury flats recently carved out of an old toy factory that had lain abandoned for years while inheriting family members wrangled over their spoils. The restaurant itself, elegant and low key, was set back a little way from the wide pavement but from the best tables the view was good, if this was the kind of view you were after.
Zack’s arrival at Bellini’s caused the usual stir. Dressed for dinner he looked sensational. Tonight he wore a very pale grey lightweight Gucci suit, an immaculate white shirt open at the neck, Italian suede shoes, and that perpetual boyish grin. He waved over to Clarissa as he weaved his way through the tables towards her.
Women diners would always follow Zack’s progress closely, for a few moments barely hearing what their partners had to say, and often demanding to know who Zack was. Waiters were told to say: ‘Something in the city’ ‘Married?’ ‘Sorry, we couldn’t say’.
Once, a big blonde American stand-up comedian had insisted she be introduced to Zack, offering a very handsome tip if one of the waiters would arrange it. Zack was civil, but declined her invitation to go back to the Holiday Inn and fuck her brains out. Zack was not flattered by this kind of thing at all, reminiscent as it was of his mother’s desperation, actually, he found it rather sad.
Zack dropped a kiss on Clarissa’s cheek as he sat down beside her. They didn’t speak for a while, just watched people streaming up and down outside.
“You’re okay?” she said eventually, grabbing his hand.
“Listen, Clarissa, I’m so sorry, I threw you across the room I think.”
“Okay, I did.”
“Nothing to tell, I saw no great vision of my past, I wasn’t a gladiator in ancient Rome or the Marquis de Sade, I wasn’t even holed up on the beach at Dunkirk waiting to be shipped back to Blighty…”
“So what scared you so much?”
“Let’s just leave it at that shall we?”
In the same way that Zack worried about Clarissa telling Sam how he had been totally out of control, so Clarissa worried that Zack would complain to Sam about the trauma she’d put him through. She dreaded getting a lecture from Sam about needlessly freaking Zack out and so she was debating whether to ask him not to mention it. As it was, Zack got there first.
“Please don’t tell Sam that I manhandled you Clarissa,” said Zack, “I’ll never hear the last of it - you know what he’s like.”
“I won’t, if you won’t,” she said, and he knew immediately what she meant.
“Done,” said Zack.
They flung their arms round each other and shared a kiss.
On the other side of the street Susan could see this, and from the other side of the street, the kiss looked much more damning than it actually was. Susan had always had her suspicions about Zack and Clarissa, they were a little too familiar for her liking. Zack professed to adore Sam Stein, but Susan thought it might be his wife that was the attraction, and it looked like her suspicions were correct if this cosy little dinner was anything to go by, plus, no sign of the midget anywhere.
Susan had found it easy to follow Zack’s Mercedes without being spotted because Zack had seemed more than a little distracted tonight. Susan liked to think it was because he was having second thoughts about dumping her but she doubted that somehow. Probably he was listening to his I Pod and therefore oblivious to the clanking whine emitting from the engine of her 10 year old Fiat Panda, which someone once told her, on a clear day, could be heard in Hull.
She used to ask Zack why he liked her, and all he would say was that she was odd and he liked odd. The pneumatic cleavage type of woman was not for him, which was just as well thought Susan, as she had nothing in that department at all.
Zack used to drop into the organic juice bar where Susan worked just about every day. She was usually covered in fruit pulp when he turned up, early afternoon, asking for his pick-me-up, carrot juice, with ginseng and ginger was his favourite. He was always friendly, always polite, and always gave her a tip, very few people did that. Susan didn’t think much about him really, apart from acknowledging the fact that he was way out of her league, but one day when she was sweeping up, sweaty, sticky, with strawberry bits in her hair and ginger smeared across her cheek he came in and asked if she fancied a drink.
Susan didn’t get it. “What kind of drink?” she said.
“Any drink you like,” said Zack, “you’re the boss.”
Susan presumed he wanted information, possibly the low down on the lease of the building which was up for sale, so she went along after work expecting nothing. She realised quite early on that it was a date, and thought she had blown it, she looked an absolute mess.
Back at her rented studio flat in Stoke Newington, showered and spruced, she apologized, and kept on apologizing, until Zack told her to put a sock in it, it was no big deal. But to Susan everything about Zack was a big deal. He wore suits and worked in the city, and had a flash high rise apartment and a bank account in Nassau, and he was exquisite looking. What on earth did he see in her? He told Susan that he had always been attracted to arty girls, creative girls, oh and he loved her eyes too.
“They’re too close together,” she said.
“Technically,” said Zack, “but as your mouth is too big and your nose is too long - it kind of works.”
Zack had done so much for Susan’s self-esteem, but now she wished she had never met him, because she’d become hooked. He was an addiction, and for her drug to be snatched away like this was the cruellest cut of all. She had heard that expression somewhere and now she knew what it meant. There was not one part of Susan that did not ache. The emotional hurt was one thing, the physical hurt was something else and totally unexpected. It had caused her to keel over twice that day and Zack Fortune had been entirely responsible. He must get off on this, she decided, scooping someone up from the gutter, making them believe that anything is possible then dropping them back down again from a great height.
Susan opened the boot of her car and reached inside. Her father’s antiquated old jack lay there, solid, heavy, like it meant business, she struggled to lift it out with one hand, but closed the boot back down again and set off.
Zack and Clarissa were still alone, still talking, heads together, so they did not see Susan cross the street and stand right up against the smoky grey window. But they did hear the smash as she slammed the jack against the plate glass, once, twice, three times, causing a sudden frosting to spread out, forming a network of small white lines, like veins on a leaf, right across the window until it was opaque, and then, with one more smash, a section of glass collapsed inwards as confused diners fled.
Zack grabbed Clarissa and half carried, half dragged her back, but it was not an easy manoeuvre to extricate her from the heavy chair, the table. A couple of people, slow off the mark looked like they’d been caught in a snow storm. As it was, Clarissa’s hair managed to trap a fair selection of little glass daggers making her look as though she’d broken her halo.
It took some time for people to grasp what had happened. Waiters stood rooted to the spot, not quite sure what to do.
“Call the police. Has anyone called the police?”
“Was it a car?”
“It was a woman.”
“Did she fall?”
“She hit the window with something, a pole or something.”
“What sort of pole?”
“Why? Why would she do that?”
“It wasn’t a pole.”
“That bloke has gone to catch her I think.”
“He just ran out.”
“Does anyone know her? Do you know her, Carlo?”
“What? You think I know these nutters?”
“So why did she do it?”
“This used to be a desirable neighbourhood, now look, crazy people we have to put up with!”
Zack heard none of this because as the diners and the waiters and Carlo absorbed the shock, he was racing along behind Susan through the crowds. Susan was a good runner and she was nimble too, adept at side stepping passers-by, better at it than Zack by far. They continued running, not much distance between them now but despite the adrenaline pumping, Susan was tiring.
Susan sped along towards the Aldwych, free of the crowds she had more space to run, but equally she was easier to spot. People stood back when they saw them, unnerved by the panic in Susan’s eyes and by Zack’s intensity. Some people looked concerned for Susan. Why was this guy chasing her like this? And more to the point, what was he going to do to her when he caught her up?
As Susan turned, heading up towards the Old Bailey, a stitch clutched at her side. She tried to ignore it, she tried to concentrate just on getting away but Zack was still behind her and gaining ground. He remained focused on her thin little legs pounding the pavement, her skirt dancing, her Oxfam cardigan flying up on either side of her like wings. Finally he was within arm’s reach. He stretched out his hand, clutched at her thatch of dark hair and tugged. Susan yelped, struggled to get free, struggled to prise his hand from her head but he held on tight.
Zack managed to steer Susan towards a narrow side street and frogmarched her along with him, still gripping her at the head like a puppet, then Zack pushed her up against a wall and held her there. For almost a minute they remained face to face, too puffed out to speak, allowing their breathing to recover.
“What is wrong with you, Susan?”
“Nothing, there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Are you completely insane? You could have killed someone, was that the idea? You want to kill me now, is that it?”
“It’s your fault!”
“It’s my fault that you are so messed up is it? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Last week you wanted me, now you don’t, I’m the same person, it’s you - you’re the one that’s mad. Or is it you and Clarissa now? Is that it? Or has italwaysbeen you and Clarissa?”
“It didn’t work out, that’s all.”
“Because of you!” yelled Susan, scrunching her hands up into two fists and boxing Zack around the face. “You think you can treat me like some piece of shit, well we’ll see about that!”
Zack tensed himself, letting her rage against him and wear herself out. It didn’t take that long. Frustrated that her blows seemed to be bouncing off him and making no purchase, Susan slumped back against the wall, howling. But Susan’s attack did one thing, it reminded Zack that he really shouldn’t treat people like this, but he had, and there were consequences, and now he had to face them.
“Susan, listen to me…” said Zack softly, putting a hand to her face, brushing away her tears.
“Now do you see what you have done? Do you?”
“I’m sorry, Susan. I’m sorry.”
“Come back, come back home with me,” she said, clutching at him like a greedy child.
“We can’t put it back together again,” said Zack, “it doesn’t work that way.”
After a brief hesitation, Zack backed off and started to walk away. At the end of the street he turned back to see Susan, motionless, gazing after him.CHAPTER 6
The following morning Zack turned out of Brunswick Street and was absorbed by the crowd. He knew he should go home and get changed, but for some reason he decided to walk to work instead, just like he was.
The old black guy stood up as he pushed his way into the building, and was about to accost him, when Betty called over.
“It’s all right, Patrick, it’s Mr Fortune!”
Yes, and I only walk past you each morning thought Zack as Patrick sat down again, still scanning him for signs of recognition. Betty didn’t miss much. Zack liked her in a funny kind of way. She was a dragon of course, but you know where you are with dragons. Zack went up in the lift fielding looks from the suits that surrounded him. He went straight into Sam’s empty office and sat behind his desk.
“Padre,” said Sam taken aback as he walked in ten minutes later, “what gives?”
Zack looked at Sam and Sam knew enough about his old friend to realise that something was up, and big time. So Sam closed the door, pulled up a chair and looked for hints, praying it had nothing to do with the stupid regression thing yesterday, which Clarissa admitted had not gone well.
“Brunswick Street, you know it?”
“Is that the dingy little place that opens out into the square?”
“That’s the one, I’d just turned into it on my way back to the flat when I heard a shout…”
“I looked up and saw a girl on a roof. She was calling out to me, calling out my name.”
“Who was she, this girl?”
“That’s the thing, I’d never seen her before. She was a complete stranger.”
“So how come she knew you?”
“You tell me.”
Sam looked at him. “What time was this?”
“And what did she want you to do?”
“I don’t know, I still don’t know.”
“So what was she doing up there?”
“She was about to jump off, Sam… she was about to kill herself.”
This silenced Sam for a few moments. It silenced both of them.
“She said something like ‘Zachariah, here I am, catch me’, then she jumped, and landed right at my feet. I thought it was Susan, God, Sam, I thought it was Susan…”
Sam responded to the catch in Zack’s voice by getting up and walking round the desk. He perched on the side of it now, patting his chubby hand on Zack’s arm, his usual show of solidarity.
“How did she know me? How did she know my name?”
“Well, she must have known you from somewhere, obviously…”
“But I’d never seen her before, I just told you.”
“An old girlfriend maybe…”
“Oh come on, I’m not that bad.”
Sam looked like he wasn’t so sure.
“And why ask me to catch her? The girl was intent on killing herself, did she want to flatten me as well?”
Sam puffed out his cheeks and for the moment could think of nothing to say.
“As soon as I turned into the street I heard her… actually, it was like she’d been waiting for me to turn up.”
“Maybe she was calling to someone else, maybe you misheard her.”
“There was no one else there… the street was completely deserted, until she jumped of course…”
“Did the cops come?”
“I’m sure they did, but I didn’t wait to find out. How did she know me, Sam? What did she want me to do?”
“You need to go home and get your head down, mate, sleep helps with stuff like this.”
Zack was expecting this. Sam’s remedy for everything was sleep. Zack stood up and started to pace, he glanced out of the window then back at Sam who was still perched on his desk, sidesaddle, like a tubby little parrot on a swing.
“I heard what happened last night by the way, with Susan… difficult?”
“Not as difficult as this.”
“So what did you do afterwards,” said Sam, as though the thought had just occurred to him.
“Have you been here since? I mean for two hours?”
“No, but don’t ask me where I’ve been because I couldn’t tell you.”
This seemed to confirm things for Sam. “Listen, mate, go back home and get some shut eye, things will look better when you wake up.”
The door opened revealing Geoff bewildered by Zack’s sports garb and about to mention it.
“Zack has had a bit of a shock, Geoff,” said Sam.
“He’s just witnessed a suicide, a jumper, in Brunswick Street.”
“Oh heck, that’s terrible, you should go home. We’ll cope I shouldn’t wonder.”
And with that, Geoff threw Zack a vaguely reassuring smile and ambled off.
As Zack left Emerson Buildings a little after 9 o’clock and turned off down Chancery Street on his way home, Jason Heart came running up and snatched his arm.
“You’re Zack Fortune, aren’t you?”
Startled, Zack snatched his arm back. “Excuse me?”
“I need help,” said Jason.
“Don’t we all, mate,” said Zack, “don’t we all.” About to move off again, Zack turned back and looked at the boy more closely. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re a lawyer aren’t you?”
“Yes, but not the kind you need, I stopped doing criminal law a while back.”
Jason looked crushed for a moment, then rallied. “Yes but you still know it, you haven’t forgotten it or anything?”
“No,” said Zack patiently, “but it’s not what I do, I can’t help you I’m afraid.”
“How about lunch?” said Jason eagerly, playing his trump card.
There was something about this boy that was vaguely appealing to Zack, his naivety maybe, his persistence? Zack softened, and Jason saw him soften. “You’re hungry are you, is that it?”
“I’m always hungry.”
“Well it’s too early for lunch,” said Zack, suddenly grateful for the distraction, “but we can grab a bite to eat somewhere and you can fill me in.”
Zack and Jason lounged on low leather sofas at the back of a coffee house on the corner of Fleet Street, both looking out of place, Zack in his running gear, Jason in a bundle of baggy rags.
“Okay,” said Zack, “what’s the problem?”
“Possession with intent to supply,” said Jason.
“How much are we talking about exactly?”
“A lot,” said Jason, “crack cocaine and they don’t like crack much these days do they?”
“No, you’re right there,” said Zack, “they don’t. I’m sorry I don’t know your name…”
“Jason,” he said, “Jason Heart.”
“Look, Jason, I’m a fully-fledged member of the capitalist classes now, the legal aid stuff I used to do is no more. I can recommend someone.”
“I don’t want them I want you.”
They held eye contact for a few moments.
“And what’s so special about me?”
“They say you’re the best, they say if anyone can get you off, Zack Fortune can.”
“Well that’s very kind of these people whoever they are but they’re a little behind the times.”
“So what’s this stuff you do now?”
“Contracts, property, leases, loan restructuring…”
“So why do it if you don’t like it? What’s the point?”
On the verge of justifying himself for some reason he didn’t, for some reason, he owned up.
“I’ve sold out,” said Zack, with a shrug.
“Then you should be ashamed of yourself, Zack Fortune,” said Jason.
Back at his flat Zack mulled over his conversation with Jason for some time, not exactly the comfort of strangers, but close. Within minutes, a street kid saw right through him, saw what Zack had been denying to himself for two years. He hated it at Nyman Holder and Drew, the only attraction being Sam Stein and he had 24 hour access to Sam anyway. The money was good but the work was dire. He loathed the acres of fine print he had to plough through, it bored him rigid, and all for the benefit of making very rich people a great deal richer.
He’d been happy at Kentish Town Advice Centre, probably the happiest he’d ever been, and at Bridgeman, Harter and Sachs with their never ending supply of armed robbers who slipped you wads of fifty pound notes in brown paper envelopes if you got them off.
Zack had told Jason to bring all the paperwork to his office and he would see what he could do. Why he had done that he did not know. Although there was nothing to stop him standing up in court and pleading for a 16 year old drug dealer, the likelihood of him actually doing so was remote.
Zack kept the news on all day, keen to hear about the suicide, but nothing came up. There had been a huge fire at a chemical plant in Hatfield and most of the coverage centred on that. At 12 o’clock he wandered down to the corner shop for the Evening Standard and scoured the pages, but nothing there either. Zack thought it strange, but then he decided that suicides had become so common place lately, maybe it no longer constituted news. Zack had been down occasionally in his adult life but never once had he contemplated suicide, and he couldn’t quite get on the same page with those that did. Generally speaking life was good. His childhood had been dire, no question, but from Cambridge on things had certainly looked up.
If nothing else, the girl’s suicide had put Susan and her broken heart into perspective. When he had left Susan last night he’d phoned Clarissa telling her that he just needed to get back, it had been one hell of a day. She understood and between them they decided to keep Susan’s identity secret. Carlo would be covered by his insurance, and what was the point of the Crown against Susan Wilmot? They’d give her a fine she’d struggle to pay and she’d have a criminal record. Poor Susan had enough on her plate without all that.
By the end of the day Zack felt recovered enough to call Sam.
“So… how’s things?” said Sam, pleased to hear from him.
“A lot better, thanks, mate.”
“You took my advice then?
This made Zack smile. How could he tell Sam that he’d resisted the idea of an afternoon nap? He’d have felt like an OAP if he’d done that.
“Absolutely, of course I did, which is why I’m raring to go.”
“Raring to go where?” asked Sam, a distinct note of caution in his voice.
“I thought you and me would take a tipple at The Mango Tree, 10ish…”
“I’m getting too old for midnight escapades at The Mango Tree.”
“No one is,” said Zack.
The Mango Tree was a pretty dodgy club down at the rough end of Portobello Road, not far from the flyover and Zack loved it there. The place was run by Rufus and his extended family from Somalia, boasting maverick doormen, an eccentric till on the bar that rarely opened, and a lot of boys who stood about on the stairs carrying brown paper carrier bags stuffed to the brim with God knows what.
Sam always felt a little uneasy in The Mango Tree, and after a little exploration one day noted that there was no real fire escape to speak of, at least he couldn’t find one, if disaster struck they’d be burnt to a crisp. Sam mentioned it to Zack in passing, hoping it would put him off but if anything he seemed buoyed up by the information. “Well what do you expect,” Zack said right back at him, “health and bloody safety?”
Zack arrived first and found a table, luckily, as the place was filling up, and a little while later he saw Sam walk in, managing to look both lost and shifty at the same time. Sam waved over, bobbed through the crowd, and slid himself along a bench to where a few glasses stood on the table between them.
“Nothing on the news, was there?” said Sam after a few moments.
“Not a sausage,” said Zack, catching Sam’s eye, convinced now that Sam thought he’d made the whole thing up.
“And you still can’t think who she might be?”
“A stranger,” said Zack, “that’s all I know, a stranger.”
A couple got up to dance. The woman, early thirties, danced despondently, like she was coping with some huge sadness. She was very much Zack’s type this woman, beautiful and interesting with long auburn curly hair, tight jeans, a silk shift, silver bangles, and high heels. Zack noticed that her toe nails were painted bright blue.
About ten minutes later Zack got up and moved in. He’d seen her heading for the bar alone and so he bumped into her, just slightly, but enough to make an apology the polite thing to do.
“Sorry,” he said, “clumsy of me.”
“How long are we expected to wait?” she said, glancing behind the bar at two young men deep in conversation, as though the waiting hoard of hopeful drinkers had nothing to do with them at all.
“What?” said Zack, leaning closer, and breathing in her perfume.
“To get served,” she replied, pitching her voice over the music, which had just been turned up a few decibels by the DJ, “unmotivated work force or what?”
“The first hour’s always the worst,” said Zack.
She smiled, displaying a fine set of teeth, although there was quite a gap between the top two.
“I’m Zachariah Fortune by the way, people call me Zack.”
“What a wonderful name,” she said brightly, as though it had instantly fired her imagination.
“It does me, and what wonderful teeth, a great gap, well done.”
She laughed, they both did, and suddenly they were alone, neither conscious of anyone else around them, then, for no reason that Zack could think of, he shivered.
“Do you have a name by any remote chance?”
“Yes, I do, funnily enough,” she said, cocking her head on one side.
“You don’t want me to guess, do you, because we might be here for some time?”
“Veronica, Veronica French.”
“The very same…”
“But of course, I should have known.”
Zack led her to the dance floor where they didn’t dance as such, just sort of held on, engrossed, mesmerized, unbelieving. Before long Veronica’s dreary boyfriend stormed up and grabbing her by the hand yanked her off, like a school girl who’d been dawdling and was due back on the bus. She turned to Zack with a blinding smile and a shrug. Zack remained where he was for a few moments until his view of Veronica was obliterated by a gang of students, off their heads on something and dancing like demons. He shot back to Sam, his eyes alive suddenly.
“Hell, Sam, did you see that woman?”
“Yes, I did, and I saw her boyfriend too.”
“Isn’t she beautiful? Did you see that gap in her teeth? Divine, mate, like a young Lauren Hutton… Veronica French her name is. Have you ever heard such a fantastic name in your life, it suits her don’t you think!”
“Yeah, and Peter Pan suits someone else I know.WhenI ask myself will Zack Fortune ever grow up? Answers on a post card please…”
“Come on, Sam, she’s sensational…”
“Another disaster in the offing, mate, trust me on this.”
Over the next hour, a little light headed as he’d been drinking on an empty stomach, Zack tried to hunt her down, but it looked like Veronica French had gone. This was common practice when Zack was around. Most blokes took one look at him, realised they were hopelessly outclassed and suddenly remembered they had to be elsewhere, dragging their girlfriends off with them. In many ways it was flattering, but in this case, bloody annoying. As Zack made his way to the gents, he began to wonder if he’d be reduced to looking her up in the phone book – if they still had such things.
The toilets were hidden away rather appropriately in the bowels of the building along winding corridors punctuated by mysterious locked doors. You didn’t dwell in the gents in The Mango Tree, you just got in and got out again, sharpish. Cokeheads often clogged the place up, sharing lines, their eyes as red as Mars, but not tonight, bizarrely, even though the place was packed, Zack was alone, at least… he thought he was alone.
He leant on the broken sink and gazed at his reflection in a cracked mirror, then he ran a tap, splashed a little water on his face, and flicked it off, no such thing as paper towels here - you were lucky to get toilet paper, but when he looked back, his eye caught a flicker of movement behind him. Zack swung round, alarmed, fear making him breathless, but there was no one, he was still alone.
As the door of the gents closed behind him, Zack turned off to the left. He had never gone this way before, the staircase back up to the club was the other way. He turned into another corridor, and another. The walls were painted uniformly red, and all the doors and their frames were painted with the same emulsion, as if to make doubly sure they didn’t open. Zack found himself wondering what lay behind them. After he had turned three corners he stopped. A very long corridor stretched out in front of him, exactly the same as the others, but unlike the others this one was not empty. Right at its end, propped up against the wall, a stout middle aged man sat on the floor, his legs splayed out wide, making him look like a toy left out of its box.
When Zack came to rest in front of the man, in an instant, he froze, his breathing suspended and like a butterfly pinned to a board all he could do was stare down at this puffy Buddha, grotesque and bloated in his helplessness. The man’s lips were pulled back, a spider of dark blood crawling out between them, his eyes like pure white marbles nestling loosely in his baggy sockets.
“Zachariah… you’re here, I knew you’d come. Help me.”
Despite the deadlock the man’s grin broadened momentarily and his face lit up like the target of a search light. Then, as though in response to a far off starting pistol, all at once he sagged, a squelching sounded in his throat and his head shrunk into his chest that deflated like a punctured beach ball, dispensing with procrastination once and for all, death was swift.
Zack’s body, still rigid, denied his brain’s command to flee, the horror that sped through him exacerbated by his inability to escape from it, and the very real possibility that he would die here, a reluctant waxwork, like a once living creature set in formaldehyde, doomed to be eternally inert.
Then, as decay crept steadily through the blackened corpse oozing at his feet, Zack slowly began freeing up, there were the stirrings of movement, and a thaw. First his lungs swung out, greedy for oxygen, then sweeping up from his feet his joints released until he could move again and he was able to run.
Free of his invisible restraints Zack raced off along more corridors than could ever exist in one building, all punctuated with those red doors that he knew would not open. He ran wildly through the labyrinth until his legs gave up on him, as desperate as a hare in a coursing circle to find his way out. But then, when panic had almost defeated him he turned into a different corridor, a big black door standing right at its end. As he raced towards it he noted that this door looked serviceable enough, as though it actually provided access in and out. Zack sent up a little prayer as he threw himself against it, and it gave, and he barged outside… hauling air inside him, luxuriating in the simple act of breathing. He darted along a back street to a connecting road where Veronica was waiting, as though at some point in the evening their meeting had been arranged.
“Come on,” she said, “we have to be quick.”
From a distance the boyfriend saw them and shouted out, which prompted Veronica and Zack to move faster. They jumped into a cab, engine running, door open. The cab did a U turn and as they drove past the boyfriend and their eyes met, Zack saw him recoil in shock, his eyes full of fear, then Veronica’s boyfriend crossed himself.CHAPTER 7
Under normal circumstances Zack would have regarded the presence of Veronica French in his flat enormously exciting, as it was he would have preferred it had she just left her phone number and gone.
He had tried to calm down in the cab, but he was still jumpy. Once or twice he caught the eye of the driver in his rear view mirror and this spooked him. Why had the cab been waiting there? Why was the engine running and the door standing open as though the driver knew they only had a few seconds to shake the boyfriend off? How did Veronica know he’d be racing along the alleyway and be there in exactly the right spot to meet him? Who was the old boy in the club, and most of all how come he was witness to another death of another stranger who seemed to know him?
“This is the most amazing view,” she said, turning to the window.
“Better than TV, certainly, but then, hey… what isn’t these days.”
She looked at him, wondering whether he regretted agreeing to this, it was as though he didn’t want her there at all.
“Listen, maybe I’d better leave you to it,” said Veronica, “I feel like I’m intruding.”
“Of course not, it’s good that you’re here,” he said, without conviction.
In the cab, Veronica had told him that she lived with her boyfriend, Jean-Paul, but he had become impossible lately. Zack had wanted to say well what do you expect, he’s French, they’re all bloody impossible, but he didn’t, he just listened to a litany of mistakes the poor sod had made, making a mental note of each one so as not to repeat them. All pretty minor Zack concluded, but then you could say that Susan’s were as well. What it boiled down to was this: that when someone really starts getting on your nerves for whatever reason, it’s time to get a quote from the removal guys because it sure won’t get any better.
As they stood across from each other it occurred to Zack that Veronica might think they’d be having sex, but Zack was very old fashioned in that respect, grabbing someone and screwing them a couple of hours after you’d met, even if you had every intention of seeing them again, to him, suggested a very serious lack of imagination. He was aware this marked him out as a wierdo because other blokes had told him so. Their attitude was ‘make hay while the sun shines because generally it’s pouring with rain’, but Zack was different. Not only was sex easy for him, which diminished its potency to some extent, but it had to mean something or he couldn’t be bothered.
As a child he had vowed never to have sex at all as it sounded so bloody painful, and for his mother of course it was. As he approached puberty, he was bewildered as to why his peers were so obsessed with all things sexual and decided it was probably because they knew nothing about it, but unfortunately for Zack, he did.
Once, he returned home from school to find his mother and the bloke from the corner shop in the front room, stark naked, straddled across their dining room table. Zack stood for a moment in the doorway gazing with clinical interest at this hairy, spotty arse going up and down as though it was digging something up, it was a gruesome sight, and not helped by his mother, legs akimbo, thrashing away beneath it. (Zack found himself wondering if the Irish family were listening to the shenanigans from next door.) He also thought his mother had to be out of her mind to agree to this ludicrous display of behaviour, even chimpanzees set about copulation with more finesse.
Now Zack enjoyed sex as much as the next man, but it had to be right, exactly right, or it was just a bore. When he unwisely mentioned this to a mate at university, he said that he thought Zack was in need of psychological help and pronto. Zack slammed that idea down straight away saying he felt lousy about himself enough as it was, he really didn’t need two very expensive years on the couch to provide him with more grist to the mill.
“I’ll sleep in here,” said Zack, “you can have the bed.”
“I couldn’t possibly take your bed.”
“The sofa is actually more comfortable,” said Zack, “and I’m the one that wakes up with the view.”
So there they were rattling around in their own separate rooms, their heads full of each other, and neither able to sleep.
The following morning Zack stood gazing out of the window at a sky that was reassuringly grey and unspectacular. Zack was not like Clarissa, finding omens here there and everywhere, but this ordinary sky cheered him up no end. Inevitably, Zack started thinking about the deaths and simply could make no sense of them at all. The last time he had been presented with a similar conundrum was during his chemical days and a reason if he should still need one to steer clear.
Zack had gone a bit overboard with LSD, at Cambridge. He’d read about Timothy Leary’s exploits and was curious to say the least, so one day, after struggling to get his local dealer interested in his request to track down a few tabs, Zack found himself nagging Justin Dunsmore, a brilliant psychology student to try his hand at rustling some up.
Armed with his chemistry A level Justin was prepared to give it a go because Justin was in love with Zack and if he could do anything to impress him, he would. The stuff turned out to be dynamite and as most of Zack’s friends and acquaintances were involved with other stimulants at the time, Zack found himself with what seemed like an endless supply.
Sam became increasingly concerned and told Zack he must have a death wish because he was dropping tabs of acid like Victory V’s, so one night when he was off being crazy somewhere, Sam took his entire stash and destroyed it. Zack had come very close to killing Sam when he found out and barged off confidently to find Justin to make him some more, but Justin refused to make him anymore, and surprised Zack by bursting into tears saying he had no intention of speaking to him ever again.
Only now, twenty years later did Zack admit that it was probably just as well because at the grand old age of 19 his brilliant mind was beginning to get a bit tangled.
Zack jumped when Veronica crept up behind him and swept a hand across his back, then turned to face her. They smiled a little shyly at each other.
“I can offer you coffee I’m afraid, but not much else…”
“Coffee as well?” said Veronica, straight faced, “goodness, I’ll come here again.”
“Promise me, promise me you will, Veronica,” said Zack.
“Of course I will,” she said, quite touched by the tone of his voice. “But we don’t know much about each other, do we?”
“I’d say we know everything we need to know,” said Zack, “but if you want to tell me how you finance your weekly shop in Waitrose, then go right ahead.”
“It can wait,” said Veronica.
“Yes,” said Zack, “it can.”
Patrick recognized Zack this morning in his usual Gucci suit and threw him an awkward smile, and Zack was in such a good mood that he forgave him for being so dim and unobservant yesterday, and so responded in kind.
“Oh, Mr Fortune this is for you,” said Betty, as Zack walked past, handing over a very dog-eared A4 envelope. “I’m not sure what it’s all about,” she said, when in fact the first thing she did when Jason gave it to her was to take a quick look inside, the envelope was in such a state, that coaxing back the once sticky tape and fixing it down again was simple.
“Okay, thanks Betty,” said Zack, as he started to move away.
“Er… Mr Fortune?” said Betty, popping out from behind the desk and catching him up, “I’m sorry to ask,” she said, dropping her voice to an emphatic whisper, “but this boy has been in here twice now, and to be honest, we’re not sure quite what to make of him.”
“Oh yes, in what way?”
“Well, the other day for instance, he told us he was your friend.”
“My friend?” said Zack.
“A client and a friend were his exact words. Well, he certainly doesn’t look like a client and neither does he look like a friend, so you can see our predicament.”
Zack threw Betty a tight little smile. “And you know what my friends look like, do you Betty?”
“Wellno…” said Betty, a bit flustered now, and worried that she might have put her foot in it, “of course not, it’s just for future reference that’s all, we don’t want to do the wrong thing.”
“Just put in a call to the office, Rose will know what to do,” said Zack, as he went off, leaving Betty none the wiser.
This wasn’t what Betty was expecting at all. She had wanted Zack to sympathise with her at least, telling her that the boy was lying when he said he was his friend, and giving her permission next time they saw him to call the police. But he didn’t do that, and he seemed a little put out that she had brought the subject up at all. The more Betty thought about it, the more she thought that really, she should have taken her misgivings to a higher level. Geoff Turner would not be happy about an ASBO kid being anywhere near the place, she knew that for a fact, and neither was she. They were not running a halfway house for delinquents, this was a well respected centre of commerce and drug dealers were not wanted on the premises, full stop.
It was only as Zack passed Sam’s open door that he remembered that in all the excitement of the night before he had left his old friend high and dry. As though waiting for his footfall, Sam shot out of his office and confronted him.
“Oh, you’rehere,” said Sam, “well, how good of you to drop in.Remember me, do you, by any remote chance?”
“Sam…I am so sorry, mate.”
“You have been led around by your cock for twenty five bloody years Zack Fortune and it’s beginning to look ridiculous. Grow up for fuck’s sake!”
Sam flew back into his office slamming the door behind him. He had made no attempt to keep his voice down and it was obvious by the silence that followed that he had been overheard. Rose popped out of Zack’s room but she didn’t engage eye contact, she just walked away.
Zack felt humiliated, not only because a fair amount of his work colleagues had obviously been privy to the dressing down, but because he knew Sam was right. He had an excuse last night, but he had often abandoned Sam in similar circumstances, chasing after some girl that he had fallen instantly in love with. Zack felt stupid, shallow and disloyal, and keen to make amends he took a deep breath and followed Sam inside.
Still flushed and grumpy, sifting through documents at his desk, Sam was expecting this. He knew Zack would start on the little boy offensive, but this time Sam told himself, he would make a stand.
“Let me tell you what happened.”
“I can imagine.”
“No you can’t.”
“I don’t want to know. I hate the place, it’s a dump, we only go there so you can pick up women.”
“That’s not true.”
“And there I am, surrounded by Muggers Anonymous waiting for some bastardwho never comes back!”
“Sam, listen to me, please… it happened again.”
“I know it happened again, you don’t have to tell me!”
“A stranger dying, and calling out my name…”
Wrong footed, Sam did a double take, took a moment then sank down into his chair, begrudgingly waiting for the explanation.
“I came out of the gents, and for some reason, I went the other way.”
“What other way?”
“I can’t explain it, but the staircase back up to the club is to the right, well you know that, but I went left.”
“So you ended up in Never Never Land is that it?”
“Then, the strange atmosphere again, heavy, airless, I could see something, way off, although at first I couldn’t make it out, but I couldn’t stop myself, or turn back, some old guy, calling out to me in such distress.”
Now Sam was looking at his friend as though he was seriously worried for his sanity.
“Just like before I felt my body seize, then it was like this guy was melting, right in front of me. After a while, I could breathe again, move again, but I was totally freaked out. Sam, I’m sorry mate, it wasn’t deliberate.”
Zack chose not to tell Sam about Veronica, there was no need, not here, not now. A silence fell and he could see Sam trying to make sense of what he had just said, Zack was still trying to make sense of it himself.
A sharp knock on the door made them jump. Rose stuck her head into the room. “The Wahlbergs are here, Geoff would like you to come in now.”
Geoff’s office was massive and doubled as a boardroom sometimes, because the original board room had now been split into four to accommodate more staff. Patrick and another security guard, Gus, were always called upon to set up the vast table here whenever it was required, and Patrick very much enjoyed the task. For a few moments, while he was grappling with the huge pieces of wood he felt indispensable to the organization. Geoff had often commended Patrick, telling him that he had never seen the boardroom table assembled with such speed and with such dexterity, assuring him that as long as he worked at Emerson Buildings it would always be his own special job.
This pleased Patrick no end and he often mentioned the accolade when writing to Genevieve in Awka Etiti. He also told his wife that setting up the table on the 9thfloor was not his job really, and by rights he could have refused to do it especially as Geoff Turner did not offer him a penny piece for his endeavours, but Patrick did not mind too much because it was another skill that he could list on his CV for future employment opportunities.
Geoff’s assistant, suburban, clumpy, super reliable Sharon Pearce, with droopy hemlines and droopy hair to match, checked the table for the tenth time: water, fruit, tissues, pens and paper, all present and correct. Coffee and pastries would arrive soon and she had ordered very elaborate sandwiches from the caterers in case things went on a bit, which they tended to do. Sharon smiled up at Zack and Sam as they took their seats opposite the Wahlbergs and their accountancy team, Jack and Simon Sugarman. They were ready to go.
The Wahlbergs were big guns in the city, and were Nyman’s most influential clients, recently poached from arch rivals, Standard Rich and Company. They had an extensive property portfolio, commercial and residential, and were intending to move into retail with the acquisition of a string of shopping malls in the States. They needed a restructuring package, and had approached Nyman’s to get them the best deal. Geoff had asked Zack to step up to the plate and had filled the Wahlbergs in on Zack’s myriad talents, confident they would be duly impressed by their star player. For their part the Wahlbergs were aware of Zack’s reputation and were happy to have him batting for their side, keen to hear what he could come up with.
The Wahlberg brothers, Francis and Clive, were in their fifties and had taken over the business from their father Aldo, who still took an interest in the company and who was here today just to see what Nyman’s had to offer. Aldo was nearly 80 now, but still sprightly with twinkling blue eyes that did not miss a trick. Francis was the intellectual, an opera buff and an expert on Japanese ceramics. Terminally pedantic and penny pinching, (he had been known to cross London on public transport to get a few pence off a pair of shoes). He had an assistant, Marjorie White, who had been with him for years, some said because she was actually too frightened to leave. Clive just rode roughshod over everyone. He prided himself on his ruthlessness, ruthlessness was next to Godliness in his book. He was always bragging about his hospitality boxes at Arsenal and Chelsea, but for the most part, he sat in them alone.
Both Francis and Clive were divorced. Francis despised women almost as much as he despised homosexuals so he preferred to remain solitary now with three standard poodles for company. Clive had an arrangement with an Austrian woman who had inherited a very chic mansion flat in Maida Vale, it suited them both. At least Aldo enjoyed his money. He owned race horses, gambled quite a bit and sometimes sailed around the Mediterranean in his catamaran. But his sons, despite being millionaires in their own right, always looked as though the bailiffs were about to move in.
Sam was distracted. After his conversation with Zack in his office he was finding it difficult to clear his head. Sam would go to the ends of the earth for Zack and Zack knew this, but he had always fought shy of weirdness and there was a time at Cambridge when Zack had become extremely weird, out of his head on LSD of all things, (trust Zack to dig up some fusty old drug like acid to get hooked on), but it fitted in with his super cool image, and the fact that he had got poor old Justin Dunsmore to provide him with a never ending supply only adding to Zack’s kudos.
Sam told Zack that he had gone too far telling Justin that he was on the verge of turning gay to get him to make the stuff. But Zack found it funny and milked the idea for all it was worth, until out of kindness to Justin, the same day he destroyed Zack’s stash, Sam told Justin that it was just Zack’s idea of a joke, and that he was not about to turn gay any time in the near future, he was a confirmed heterosexual and always would be. Devastated at Zack’s treachery, Justin cried for seven days flat rejecting all attempts by Zack to talk him round, and although Zack had threatened to kill Sam at the time, Sam knew he would thank him for it one day.
Sam glanced across at his old friend and inwardly smiled. Who would think it now? Who would think this stylish, professional, corporate lawyer could ever have been such a hopeless case? Sam was in no doubt that he had saved Zack’s sanity, if not his life, and although Zack had never said as much, he knew Zack thought so too. Sam often wondered if that was why Zack had remained so loyal to him through the years. And when Sam was feeling particularly fatalistic he wondered if that was why Zack had thrown him a lifeline all those years ago, knowing instinctively that at some point in the future, Sam, in his own way, would do the same for him. Sam prided himself on being the man responsible for Zack’s new found respectability at Nyman’s and on the surface – the boy done good - but deep down Sam knew that Zack was still capable of just about any kind of madness given half a chance.
Zack too was distracted. As Geoff stood up and welcomed the Wahlbergs, he found himself gazing out of the window at the dreary, but reassuring view. Geoff was speaking, but Zack was not taking in a word of it, it just sounded like a drone. Zack felt he had done a fairly decent job of keeping a lid on things with Veronica but when he saw the look in Sam’s eye just now, it threw him. Sam had picked him up more times that he cared to remember, but Zack knew that Sam was a little weary of it after twenty years, and who could blame him?
Zack could honestly say that even at the height of his drug dependency, he had never been part of anything so completely bewildering as dying strangers calling out to him and asking him for help. He just could not make head or tail of any of it.
“Would you agree, Zack?”
“Zack,” said Geoff, “can you help me out with this please?”
Then there was.
“No I can’t help you, you demon! KEEP AWAY FROM ME!”
Grabbing the water jug from the table Zack hurled it at Geoff, catching him on the forehead with a nasty clunk. Geoff staggered a little as water drenched him, then the jug fell and smashed against the corner of the table spraying glass all over the floor. Next came a deadly, crushing silence. Everyone round the table frozen in shock, their eyes fixed on Zack as though they were in the presence of a madman and frightened that if they made a move the same would happen to them.
“God, Geoff, I’m so sorry,” said Zack, breathless and mortified at what he had just done. “I thought you were… I thought… oh God, please forgive me.”
As the silence persisted, if anything getting louder, the atmosphere unbearable, Sam got up and without saying a word to anyone took Zack by the hand and led him from the room. Sharon Pearce was a little surprised to see Sam leading Zack out of Geoff’s office like this, glancing through the open doorway she stepped inside.
“Is everything all right, Mr Turner? The sandwiches have arrived…” she said, now noticing water all over the place, “oh dear, had a little bit of an accident have we?”
Downstairs, Betty and Patrick noticed Sam leading Zack by the hand out of the lift, across reception to the revolving doors and to the street outside and both, in their own way thought it quite peculiar.
Patrick had given up finding things in London surprising. He had told his wife Genevieve in his letters that things were so much more complicated in London. “A very different kettle of fish to Awka Etiti,” were his exact words. But he was still a practicing Christian, and he knew God understood that he was forced to engage in social intercourse with these heathens in order to make ends meet. He told Genevieve that during his prayers, God had said to him: “Unfortunately, because of pressing economic considerations there is nothing you can do about it for the time being, Patrick, you just have to go with the flow.”
For her part, Betty had always wondered about Mr Stein and Mr Fortune, and to see them like this, hand in hand, seemed to confirm it. It got Betty thinking about this Jason boy. He certainly looked like one of those rent boys come to think of it, and there was no telling what those characters got up to. Betty had thought she was immune from all that sort of unpleasantness here in the city, which was one of the reasons she worked as far away from her council estate in Essex Road as she could. She would have a word with Geoff Turner about all this because it was getting out of hand, Geoff Turner would know what to do.CHAPTER 8
In Zack’s bedroom Sam helped Zack get undressed, pulled back the covers and made him get into bed. Sam had done this many times before and he liked to think it had always worked a treat.
“Sam, I don’t want to get into bed, I don’t need to.”
“Shut up,” said Sam, pulling the duvet over him.
“Sam, this is madness, I’m not ill.”
“I’ve just committed professional suicide, I know that, but I’m not ill.”
Zack felt cooped up in bed and wanted to get out of it, but he knew Sam would not allow it because Sam had done this countless times before when Zack had been drunk, stoned, obsessing about some girl, or sometimes when he was just being a pain in the arse and driving everyone nuts. “Listen mate, you shoot off,” said Zack, keen to escape from his incarceration, “not a good idea for both of us to get fired.”
“No way, let’s talk this thing through,” said Sam, sinking into the little bedroom chair, his arms folded, looking like he was going nowhere. “So what’s your theory, come on, you first.”
“God, I don’t know,” said Zack, with a weary sigh. “Maybe Susan’s put a curse on me, or maybe she’s teamed up with my entire back catalogue and they’ve all put a curse on me.”
Sam found this explanation very touching. Zack had this weird contradiction when it came to women. Sam had once called him a romantic bastard which Zack agreed was just about right. He was very old fashioned in many ways, a gentleman in fact, until he wanted out of a relationship that is, then he became a monster, tossing women aside like old crisp packets.
“Remember that girl, what was her name?”
“I knew you were going to bring her up… Amber.”
“Writing ‘Zack Fortune is a fucking shit’ in large letters on the side of the science block, she must have been so thick.”
“Shewasthick,” said Zack.
“First thinking that she was telling anyone anything they didn’t already know…”
“Well thanks for that, I appreciate it…”
“And secondly, thinking it would destroy your reputation. As it was, your reputation shot off into the stratosphere from whence it never came down.”
This was absolutely true. Zack had always been mighty grateful to this girl especially as the janitors couldn’t get the paint off for two weeks. Every chemical they tried failed to budge Amber’s heartfelt message to the world, which meant that all the first year students, recently arrived, were wild with curiosity about this Zack Fortune, and consequently a complete pushover. (Justin Dunsmore told everyone that he could have knocked up a chemical that would have got the graffiti off in seconds flat but as he very much shared Amber’s sentiments at the time, he refused to do anything about it.)
The day before, when Sam had told Clarissa about Zack’s encounter with the suicide, she looked very anxious, although said nothing, then slipped off into the kitchen to start dinner. A few minutes later Sam went to find her and asked her what was up. Finally, Clarissa admitted to Sam that Zack had stormed out half way through their session which was absolutely the worst thing he could have done.
“So what does that mean exactly?” asked Sam, irritated at having to discuss this madness.
“I thought you didn’t believe in all this.”
“I don’t, it’s hogwash, but if my best friend has been knocked off course in some peculiar way with all this bunkum, I’d like to hear about it.”
“I knew you’d blame me,” said Clarissa.
“Listen, neither Zack nor I thought this regression thing a good idea…”
“Exactly, you didn’t believe in it, now suddenly you do.”
“I don’t. It was a question, that’s all. And if you are going around doing this to people, whatever it is, don’t you think you should have some kind of understanding of the risks involved?”
“But according to you and Zack, there canbeno risks,” yelled Clarissa, “because the whole thing is complete crap! I told Zack not to come out of the hypnosis himself and he did just that, so now I’m getting it in the neck.Typical!”
Clarissa let out a roar of frustration, flounced out and barged into her office making sure that even from the kitchen, Sam could hear her noisy dramatic sobs.
“Has Clarissa said anything?” said Zack, casually.
“Come on, what?”
“Well, what was the crack with that anyway? You looked quite… distracted when you got back to the office, Rose was a bit concerned.”
This surprised Zack. He thought he’d done a fair job of covering it up but perhaps he hadn’t. “So what did Clarissa say exactly?”
“Just that you freaked out a bit, barged off, and she told you not to do that or something…”
“That’s right, but with all due respect, mate, I find your flat a little claustrophobic at the best of times.”
“Pity me having to go back there every night. Anyway, look, let’s forget all that, it’s complete bollocks.”
“So what do you think it is? Or could be…”
“It could be a blowback to ‘The Third Way’.”
“I wondered about that. You think so?”
“It’s a possibility.”
Zack had never dwelt on life and death too deeply, he had tried to stuff it to the back of his mind because frequently on acid trips he found himself going off in the direction of God, creation and the universe and it spooked him. Once, after a particularly vicious trip he became obsessed with outer space. The human mind cannot conceive of absolute infinity he concluded, but neither can we imagine the universe ending or stopping suddenly, after all what would encase it? A brick wall? A giant fence? So, if neither explanation was feasible – what else? There had to be something else… The Third Way.
This terrified Zack for a while, and for ages he went round talking about ‘The Third Way’ at every opportunity, driving everyone mad. He would ask people all the time “What is The Third Way? Have you heard about it? Tell me if you have, I need to know.” It was about this time Sam destroyed his stash, and in many ways it was a relief, this ‘Third Way’ thing was beginning to dominate his waking hours and he was glad to be shot of it.
Did Zack think there was another dimension, another plane, another existence? Not really, but he had often thought that the thing about death and dying, the possibility of an afterlife, reincarnation and the whole nine yards was that by their very nature, these notions and their connotations extended way beyond our own quite restricted imagination, and just because they were outside our ken didn’t necessarily render them invalid. After all, the most eminent minds on the planet were still trying to work out exactly how black holes ate stars so it was hardly surprising that the common man had trouble with the concept of eternity.
A girl had once said to him that she thought life was just a random series of events, but because civilization could not function in a random way, we had to impose our organization onto it, and so it was with death, we had to put it into a context, thrash out theories of where exactly we all went off to in order for life to make any sense at all.
“These deaths actually happened, Sam, I didn’t imagine them.”
“Okay, but how about you conjured up a morepersonalconnection than there really was.”
“You mean these people died and I came across them but they didn’t call out my name? But why would I do that? Because of some remnant of an acid trip that hasn’t been flushed from the system? That’s just as weird, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it’s all over,” said Sam, cheerfully, “after all Geoff wasn’t dying, he wasn’t begging you to help him in any way… well he was, he wanted your report but let’s leave that to one side for a moment.”
Zack groaned. “The Wahlbergs as well, I certainly pick my moments.”
“Well yes, telling your boss in front of the biggest players in the city that he’s a demon and chucking a water jug at him is probably not the best way to further your career as a corporate lawyer, although hey… conventional behaviour is overrated in my book.”
The enormity of what Zack had done suddenly hit him. More than that, good old Sam had moved mountains to get him the job at Nyman’s - and how does he repay him? By assaulting the boss. “So what do I say Sam, I can’t think of how to explain it.”
Zack’s mobile rang out its Dambusters march from the other side of the bed. He snatched at it and rejected the call. Veronica would ring back again, but he was pleased that she was ringing at all.
“I’ll think of something,” said Sam, “leave it to me.”
“Yes but will he buy it?”
“We can but try, old mate, we can but try.”
As Sam made his way back from Zack’s flat to the office he mulled over his options, none of which inspired him with much confidence. The suggestion of mental health problems which was the most obvious explanation was not desperately helpful to a career in the city. Drug addiction, alcohol abuse? Perhaps, people were more sympathetic these days, but Geoff was as straight as they come and Sam knew the very idea would freak him.
Stress was a possibility although everyone knew Zack Fortune did not do stress, he’d said as much often enough so Sam realised he would have to be very inventive to dig Zack out of this particular hole. If he said the wrong thing it would be curtains (if it wasn’t already), and that would be disastrous. Sam knew what Zack was like with time on his hands and it was no exaggeration to say that the devil was writ large in that scenario. Zack needed the continuity and the discipline of work, especially now when for the first time in years it seemed that things had gone a little awry. Also, he had sold Zack very hard to Geoff, so anything untoward was likely to undermine his own position in the company and he really could do without that. Sam was a grafter and he certainly earned his money, but he struggled with all those things that Zack had in spades: enterprise, cunning, imagination, flair, instinct, originality, nerve. Sam was acutely aware of his own limitations, unlike Zack, Sam was one of many and therefore dispensable.
News of Zack’s ‘queer turn’ travelled mighty fast up and down the floors of Emerson Buildings. Despite Zack treating everyone from tea boy up with professional politeness people were jealous of him, of course they were. Women were jealous because they knew they were not beautiful enough for Zack Fortune, and men were jealous because the guy was just too good to be true - a freak of nature almost. So for Zack to blot his copy book like this was great news. Even people from the insurance company on the first floor were discussing it with relish. Good, they all thought, not so perfect after all, Zack Fortune.
As Sam stepped out of the lift on the 9thfloor and walked into Nyman’s reception area the atmosphere settled over him like a fog. People would not hold his gaze, walking past him swiftly with rather awkward smiles as he made his way to Geoff’s office. Patrick and Gus had taken the conference table down and stored it in the basement ready for next time, so when Sam knocked and walked in Geoff looked miles away, perched at his desk at one end of the room, and self-consciously, Sam had to cross the enormous gulf between them which seemed to take an age.
“Sit down, Sam,” said Geoff, managing to sound avuncular and threatening at the same time. “I presume you have come here with some sort of explanation and I’ll tell you now, it had better be good.”
Sam took his seat and cleared his throat, and looked up at Geoff levelly enough. “Zack has not been too well for the last few days, Geoff.”
“You don’t say.”
“You know about the suicide?” Geoff made the barest nod followed by a listless shrug. “Well, last night he was witness to another death.” Geoff’s eyes widened briefly indicating a sense of disbelief. “In both cases he felt he should have been able to help these people, and his inability to do that hit him hard.”
You have got to hand it to this guy, thought Geoff, he pulls out all the stops for this crony of his, every damn time.
Not long after Sam had come to work at Nyman’s, Geoff had become irritated by Sam pushing Zack’s name forward at every opportunity as someone Nyman’s could not live without. In the end, he found the whole thing embarrassing and decided not to have anything to do with this Zack Fortune whoever he was. He didn’t like to be told who he should employ anyway, and certainly not by a little work horse like Sam Stein who was competent, but not much else. Then, out of the blue, Zack was suggested by an old friend of Geoff’s, someone whose opinion he greatly respected, so finally, his curiosity got the better of him, although privately he had made the decision not to employ the man however well he presented himself, this Zack Fortune character sounded too clever by half.
But when they finally met up, Geoff was bowled over and although he tried extremely hard he was unable to come up with anything negative to say about the great Zack Fortune. Plus, in the two years he had worked for Nyman’s, Zack had been dynamic, achieving more than anyone else, effortlessly and entirely off his own bat.
“The two deaths, coming in two days, has made Zack very jumpy,” Sam continued.
“I noticed,” said Geoff gloomily, indicating the red mark on his brow, which made Sam want to burst out laughing.
“The thing that was quite strange about both these incidents, was that each of these people held their arms out to him in appeal almost, so when you did the very same, it freaked him out a bit.”
“Yes it did,” said Geoff, “and how.”
Sam decided not to say anything else. He had given Geoff a rational, honest appraisal of what had happened, and he could but hope that Geoff sensed this was the truth and in some way find it in his heart to forgive Zack. There was nothing else really Sam could do.
Geoff remained looking out of the window for a while. Then he turned back to Sam and shrugged. “So what the hell do we do about it?”
Sam was surprised by the question and it took him a while to answer. “I think he just maybe needs a break, you know how hard he works.”
“But he craves work, you’ve heard him, begging for more.”
“Maybe it’s caught up with him,” said Sam. “Maybe it’s all been too much. He would never admit to that, but clearly something has snapped.”
“You can say that again,” said Geoff, “I had the unenviable task of explaining his strange behaviour to the Wahlbergs who thought they had sat down in a mad house and who can blame them for that?”
Fuck the Wahlbergs, who gives a flying fuck about those three tossers thought Sam, but he didn’t say it. “I can imagine,” said Sam, instead.
Geoff got up and started to pace, examining each foot he put in front of the other. Sam did not have a clue what was coming next. He knew Geoff admired Zack, he was obviously the blue eyed boy in the company and he had never let anyone down, but thinking back to Zack’s mad moment, would it be too much for Geoff to keep him on?
“Maybe a psychiatrist’s report would be helpful,” said Geoff, vaguely.
Sodding hell, thought Sam, he’d hate that. Zack was always disparaging of shrinks and counsellors and had said on more than one occasion that people should dig themselves out of their own holes and not go around thinking that some jerk in a cream linen jacket, charging absurdly inflated fees for their dubious wisdom could do it for them.
“That’s a possibility,” said Sam, cautiously, hoping Geoff would drop the idea, “but to be honest, I think a few days off would do it. He just needs to relax,” said Sam, knowing full well that Zack found it impossible to relax, ever.
“Right, well, I need to speak with Leslie and Phil, but as you know they’re both away at the moment and I think this warrants a face to face… so let’s just say Zack takes two weeks off. Let this settle for a while. We probably all need a little distance from it.”
Sam was pleased with this, this was the best Zack could hope for. “I’ll call him shall I?”
“Well you can do,” said Geoff, “but employment protocol dictates we have to write to him, formally, just to be on the safe side. The letter will go out first class today.”
Sam stood up, smiled, and turned to leave. Geoff’s voice called him back.
“Meanwhile, you’ll have to take over the Wahlbergs for the time being. Zack has done a lot of the donkey work so it shouldn’t be too much of a chore.”
“Right, I’ll get onto it,” said Sam, feeling like he’d just been hauled in off the subs bench as a last resort. It’s an ill wind… thought Sam, as he left Geoff’s office and made his way through reception - the bloody old Wahlbergs no less.CHAPTER 9
As soon as the door had shut behind Sam, Zack called Veronica.
“Hi, this is Zack”
“Yes, I know.”
“The wonders of technology…”
“I called you a little while ago.”
“Sorry I couldn’t pick up… that meeting I told you about.”
“How did it go?”
“It could have gone better to be honest,” said Zack, “I called my boss a demon and chucked a jug of water at his head. Bulls eye.”
“Gosh, is there a job for me in your office? It sounds fun.”
“You wouldn’t last two minutes, you’d keel over with the boredom of it all,” said Zack. “And what are you doing?”
“Can I come and watch you frame your pictures?”
“No, you can’t.”
“Because you’d keel over with the boredom of it all.”
They laughed, and talked, and flirted and made a date for that night. Veronica told Zack that her sister had managed to remove all her belongings from Jean-Paul’s flat while he was out, so at least she had a change of clothes.
“So you’re homeless?”
“No, as romantic as that sounds my sister and I own a flat together, in Islington. I’ll just move back in. But oh my God, I just thought…”
“I can’t make it tonight, sorry, otherwise engaged.”
“A post mortem with the Frenchman?”
“No, no… but I’d completely forgotten. Dinner with my aunt, and I’m her favourite.”
“She’s got good taste then. But never mind,” said Zack, “another time.”
When they signed off, Veronica got the distinct impression that Zack thought she was making up an excuse for them not to meet. She wasn’t at all. In fact as she was breaking the bad news she wondered if Miriam could do the honours alone, but she knew that wasn’t fair either to her aunt or to her sister.
Zack did believe Veronica, but for some reason he found he was quite relieved that he wouldn’t be seeing her. They had met in very strange circumstances and the last couple of days had been so weird he felt he needed a little time to recover from it all to get back on track. He wanted to dazzle this new woman in his life and at the moment he felt incapable of dazzling next door’s cleaning lady. Zack was curious to know how Sam would get him off the hook at Nyman’s, but as he brewed himself a jug of coffee and tugged on a mashed up, long forgotten Marlboro he had dug out from a kitchen drawer, he reassured himself that if anyone could do it, Sam could. You knew where you were with Sam Stein, everyone said so.
At Cambridge, once all Zack’s super stylish friends had got over their initial misgivings of hanging out with a freak show, they found themselves actually seeking Sam out, not just for his jokes but for his even handed take on the world.
Zack had been furious when he found out that Sam had told Justin Dunsmore that he wasn’t about to turn gay, but he knew that Sam had told Justin to save him from more heartache, that’s all, which was why at the time Zack did not whack him over the head with his cricket bat although he really wanted to, and why when he had calmed down, Zack found himself begrudgingly admiring of Sam’s intervention. Plus it was brave, because although Sam had been accepted by the people that mattered, Zack could very easily have turned everyone against him just as he had with that stupid girl, Amber, who everyone hated in the end. Yes, thought Zack, if anyone can save him, Sam can.
A short time later, Zack’s phone rang.
“Padre,” said Sam.
“That’s me,” said Zack, already examining Sam’s voice for news.
“You’ve got a warning I think, they’re writing to you today, but Geoff suggested a fortnight off. I accepted on your behalf. He said he had to speak to the other two but they kowtow to Geoff anyway.”
“Pure genius,” said Zack, punching the air, “what the hell did you say?”
“Overwork… stress, punched up by witnessing two deaths in two days, so write a letter of apology, and email it to me before you send it, just in case it doesn’t fit in with what I said.”
“Thanks, mate,” said Zack, moved suddenly. He’d been a bastard to the guy over the years and yet he still came up trumps.
“You owe me, Fortune.”
“Get on a plane and sit by a pool somewhere, it will do you the world of good.”
“I just might do that,” said Zack.
“Yes, I bet,” said Sam, unconvinced.
Two weeks off thought Zack as he signed off from Sam, that sounded good. For the first time in years Zack felt he needed a break. All those sports events, all those books, and all those concerts… perfect. So what did Zack Fortune do next? He called up his old mate, Sid Johnson, an enormous Rastafarian who had introduced him to The Mango Tree in the first place.
“Sid, it’s Zack.”
“Mr Fortune, what gives?”
“You and me I hope…”
Sam did not like Sid Johnson. Sam did not like Sid Johnson one bit. Zack put it down to jealousy because Sam knew that Zack was extremely fond of this huge bear of a man with a wonderful lazy smile, waist length dreadlocks and six gold teeth. Jealousy certainly played its part but true to his roots, anything or anyone slightly dodgy made Sam feel anxious, and Sid fell into that category perfectly.
When asked what he did Sid would usually say: “Fairy Godmother.” At other times he would say “youth worker, import and export, community spokesperson, community liaison officer, entrepreneur, retail advisor, music producer, Notting Hill Carnival committee member, financial consultant, Jamaican in exile, man about town, steel band aficionado, cricket umpire, tour guide, expert on The Royal Family, parks and gardens, Caribbean cultural attaché,” the list went on and on, but if anyone mentioned drugs he would look fierce and rear back like he’d been winged.
“Why you demanding illegal substances from yours truly, huh?Because I’m black?”
Years ago, Sid had tried his hand at day to day dealing but didn’t like the aggravation it caused him, nor did he care for the calibre of his clientele. These days he preferred to think of himself as ‘Mr Fixit’ and had toyed with the idea of having the title printed on the side of his old red van, because if the price was right there was not much Sid could not get you, and if he couldn’t, he knew a man who could.
Zack had to be very careful of his links with anyone like Sid, but there were times when he wanted to put two fingers up to the world and couldn’t give a monkey’s if he was seen cruising along Ladbroke Grove in his Merc with the hood down, Sid beside him tugging on a big fat joint.
Sam had told Zack he was playing with fire hanging out with Sid, and if he wanted to walk away from a six figure salary and a brilliant career then go right ahead but leave him out of it. So Zack did leave Sam out of it for quite some time which Sam found unbearable. Finally, Sam stormed round to Zack’s flat and read him the riot act, telling him that if he insisted on hanging around with Sid Johnson he would have nothing more to do with him because he wasn’t prepared to stand by after all this time and watch him crash and burn.
Zack found Sam’s ultimatum extremely amusing but it worked and Zack fell back into line. So Sid had to take a back seat for a while, until eventually, Zack barely spent any time with him at all. Sid knew nothing of Sam’s ultimatum, but he guessed as much and it put him off the guy. Sid had always thought Zack to be his own man, but no, it seemed that his good friend Mr Fortune was under the thumb of some fucked up little Jewish troll with seriously suburban tendencies.
When Sam told Clarissa what he had done, she was amused too. “I don’t know you boys,why can’t you share?” she said tousling Sam’s hair, and waltzing off to read about Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, or cutlery or something. But Sam didn’t care because he had done what he had set out to do and that was yet again get Zack Fortune back in line, this time, away from the wiles of a twenty stone ‘Caribbean cultural attaché’ who scared the living daylights out of him.
On the way over to find Sid, Zack decided to pop into The Mango Tree to get the gen on the old boy from last night, but when he got there the building was cordoned off, with a convoy of police cars parked up outside blocking most of the road.
“What’s all this about?” he asked a couple of bystanders.
“Some guy died in there last night,” said one.
“Yeah, I heard about that…”
“They should close the place down,” said the other, “it’s trouble in there… always was.”
Zack had arranged to meet Sid in a dingy pub, The Vulture’s Perch, in Westbourne Grove, not far from Sid’s council flat. Usually lorded over by a bar maid called Maggie, who adored Zack, and who told anyone who would listen that if she had her way she’d get that man’s trousers down and show him what for. But it was Maggie’s night off tonight, and Zack was thankful for that because he found the perpetual sexual innuendos tedious.
Sid had already made his presence felt and managed to intimidate a group of geeky students off the pool table, even though it was their turn. The table was set up and waiting for Zack to arrive. When Zack walked in, he and Sid did the usual black man’s hand shake and Zack got in the drinks.
“Where you been, man?” asked Sid, as he took his first shot, sounding not a little hurt.
“Busy, mate,” said Zack.
“Is that right? Well, you’re looking good,” said Sid, who had a very strong sense of style and who had always admired Zack’s effortless glamour. “You still with that Italian bird?”
“Hell, no, she’s long gone.”
“Give us her number then, I liked her.”
“Too crazy for you, Sid, she’d eat you up.”
“Yeah… well… funny enough that’s what I had in mind… and anyway, all your birds are crazy, every last one,” said Sid, moving a ball slightly with his thumb and hoping Zack wouldn’t notice, but Zack did notice and it made him smile. “Why is that?” he said. “Why pick out all the head bangers?”
“I seem to attract them, for some reason,” said Zack.
“So… you been a good boy lately, have you? Keeping your nose to the grindstone, keeping away from me,” said Sid with a chuckle, flashing the gold in his mouth. “And how is the little troll? Still giving you a hard time?”
“He’s all right is Sam, just a bit straight, that’s all.”
“He’s like Napoleon, that geezer, you should send him away to sea,” said Sid, letting out a trickle of laughter, clearly taken with the idea.
A joint passed between Sid and Zack and it was so strong, it blew Zack’s head off. They didn’t care about things like that in this particular hostelry, if they had, they’d have been out of business in a week. Sid was like the Queen, he didn’t carry money and he could drink for England, Zack always struggled to keep up. A couple of hours and sixty quid later, Zack was swaying slightly, but Sid remained resolutely sober. Zack presumed it was Sid’s weight that soaked up the alcohol because something certainly did.
During the course of the evening, Sid admitted to Zack that he didn’t really do drugs anymore, he preferred vodka, (to which Zack had wanted to reply, ‘yes, I’ve noticed’), but what he did have, Sid told him, he could have.
Sid’s flat on the top floor of Soweto Towers was always packed out with Stuff. Sid didn’t know what half of it was anymore, it had just accumulated over the years and now the idea of sorting it out was too traumatic even to contemplate. “Life’s too short and that’s the truth,” said Sid, gazing mournfully across the avalanche. Everyone knew that when things were lost in Sid’s flat, usually they were lost for good.
Sid told Zack that once he’d gone off to the shops for a pork pie, brought it back and put it down somewhere never to be seen again.
“Never to be seen again,” said Sid, wide eyed, with the tone of someone describing an alien abduction, “how about that, man?” he said, incredulous, “how about that?”
Looking round now Zack could well believe it. Things had deteriorated rather since last he was here, and now Zack struggled to find anywhere to sit.
“Sit down there,” said Sid, pointing to a chair piled high with newspapers, “move all that, just tip it on the floor, here…” Sid took the newspapers and slung them, brushing down a small kitchen chair for Zack’s use.
“Now, where’d I put that stuff,” said Sid, vaguely, as he rambled off to search.
Zack let out a heartfelt sigh. Sid had given Zack the impression that the small quantity of uppers and downers he had in his possession were accessible, but if Sid had to sift through this lot to find them, Zack realised he could well be here for the duration. As Zack heard Sid rummaging around in another room, muttering to himself, and realising he might be in for a long wait, he curled up on the couch on top of clothes and books and empty take away containers, because suddenly Zack’s eyes were beginning to close.
Susan felt quite deflated after she broke the window at Bellinis, and now, two days later, she was plagued by regret. Zack was right, she could have hurt someone and that was just not on. She had been eaten up with jealousy when she saw Zack and Clarissa having dinner together and she was so angry with Zack, particularly at the way he had spoken to her that morning, but still, she had no right to do what she did.
Zack had taken her to Bellini’s once and she just loved it there. The waiters made a real fuss of her, despite the fact that she looked so scruffy when everyone else was so well dressed. She apologized to Zack, and he told her not to worry about it, but the following day he took her out and bought her masses and masses of clothes from expensive shops and it had made her so happy.
When Zack had finally caught up with her, she realised now that she should not have yelled at him or boxed him round the ears, all that negative energy and it had got her precisely nowhere. She just wanted his attention, to be attractive to him again, she just wanted him to say that he had made a terrible mistake, and most of all she wanted him to beg her to take him back. But breaking the window in his favourite restaurant was probably the wrong way to go about it and Susan realised that now.
She longed for them to make love again like they used to, with candles all round her bed, and afterwards she would recite to him her favourite poem from The Collected Works of John Keats. When she first met Zack he said he liked her reading Ode to a Nightingale but after a while though he didn’t seem so keen, in fact Susan suspected that he had taken her Collected Works of John Keats and for reasons of his own confiscated it, because she couldn’t find it and she’d searched everywhere. She would have to speak to him about that, although it didn’t matter that much because she knew most of Keats off by heart.
Susan’s friend, Hannah, had told her that it might have been ‘Jules et Jim’ that had precipitated their demise, after all, not all blokes liked French films she’d said. A film called ‘Claire’s Knee’ had sounded the death knell between Hannah and Darren, her boyfriend of two years, for reasons Hannah just could not fathom. “Blokes are funny about things like that,” she’d told Susan.
Susan felt that anyone who didn’t like ‘Jules et Jim’ was a philistine and not worth bothering with. But it’s true, Zack seemed less than impressed by the film and he was asleep by the end of it. In fact she had to nudge him to get him to wake up. Maybe next time she should get the DVD and they could watch it in his flat. Then she could point out all the things she knew he’d missed first time round. He was obviously tired and not in the mood when they went to the cinema in East Finchley, plus Bolton Wanderers were on in the pub as well which didn’t help.
Susan did not really know what to do with herself now. She had asked to have her hours increased at the juice bar so that she would be spared the long light nights when it seemed everyone was going out and having fun, and she was stuck in Stoke Newington watching repeats of Big Brother on some obscure cable channel. (Susan had applied to go on Big Brother once, but she didn’t get selected which was a huge disappointment to her at the time.)
Susan had always had trouble with relationships, she didn’t know why. She was very good looking, she knew she was, in fact men often stopped her in the street and she had gone on hundreds of dates, but for some reason things always fizzled out. It was the same at catering college, she just seemed to lurch from one doomed love affair to the next.
Originally she thought that it was because she was not very good at sex, but over the years Susan felt she had got better at sex. No it wasn’t sex, she was sure of that, it was something else. But what? What was it? Once, one guy told her not to try so hard, so she decided that meant she was probably a little bit too female and dependent. That’s when she learnt to open beer bottles with her teeth, and wore jeans, and went around looking like a boy, she started swearing as well. But when another bloke that she was keen on told her to leave him alone, he didn’t date dykes, she put a stop to most of that.
But being dumped by guys she met at college or in the street was nothing compared to how she felt now being rejected by Zack. She had been going out with him for ten weeks, ten whole weeks which was an age for her, and it was perfect, just perfect. Somehow, being with Zack told her who she was, he defined her. Now she was lost again, completely cut adrift. She knew deep down that Zack was right, that she should just accept his decision and move on, but she couldn’t.
Susan felt that if only he would tell her what had made him change his mind about her she could attend to it and put it right. She felt sure that if she explained all this, Zack would respond positively, provide her with the information she needed and she could adjust to how he wanted her to be, then they could be happy again. She had to give it one last try, she just had to. Susan still had a set of Zack’s keys. She gazed down at them and turned them over in her hand as though they were the most precious things in the world.
“Zack… Zack, wake up…”
Zack yelled with fright to see Sid’s massive face bang in front of him and his fright spooked Sid who let out a yell just as loud, stumbling back across the room in shock.
“Shit, why so jumpy?”
“Sorry, mate, I’ve been strung out a bit lately.”
“You could have fooled me, man, you could have fooled me,” said Sid, shaking his head and making his dreads dance around like lanterns.
“Here, I found them,” said Sid, handing over a grubby polythene envelope containing pink and white pills.
“So which is which?”
“Don’t ask me, I don’t take the stuff, it’s poison, I and I know better. You just have to embark on trial and error, Mr Fortune. You just have to take your fun finding out.”
“You’re a gentleman, Sid,” said Zack, scrambling to his feet.
“That not in question or dispute, I and I got me self-esteem.”
Zack liked it when Sid did his ‘I and I’ Rasta type stuff, it made him feel part of the clan.
In the cab on his way back home Zack shook the plastic envelope mixing up the pink and white pills into various patterns. He decided he needed to sleep, really sleep, 24 hours or something, so he was trying to decide which pills to take. If he got it wrong he would have to go somewhere or do something because he’d be up there on Nelson’s Column, but he hoped he wouldn’t get it wrong, white or pink, which could it be? As pink was associated with red, it had to be the livelier of the two, didn’t it? He swallowed three or four white ones, and stuffed the envelope into his pocket, now it was a matter of wait and see.
As the streets of West London flashed by, Zack sat back and allowed himself a little smile. He’d had the perfect opportunity this evening of taking it easy, of enjoying his own company and gradually winding down. So what does he do? He’d got together with Sid Johnson of all people, who could always be relied upon to lead him astray as a matter of principle. But he’d enjoyed his evening with Sid, and as much as he rated Sam, he felt quite liberated out on his own without him.
Sam had quietened down so much since Cambridge. Keen to impress Zack in those early years, Sam was as crazy as everyone else then, up for just about anything. Although Clarissa had once told Zack that even during their time at university Sam only pretended to take all those drugs. He was just a straight Jewish boy really, making himself out to be the court jester he knew Zack wanted him to be.
Zack had found it difficult after Cambridge. All his friends had settled down quite quickly into mundane jobs which left Zack out on a limb. He missed University life, certainlyhisUniversity life. He loved that complete anarchy, that feeling that he could do exactly what he liked and people would excuse it somehow because he was a student. It had taken Zack a long time to straighten himself out and settle down. Sam and Clarissa told him he had never really settled down and he never would, maybe they had a point.
Certainly it was true that Sam still kept him on a tight rein and secretly they both knew how far he could go before he was yanked back and brought to heel. This made Zack feel secure and frustrated in equal measure, and there were times when he wanted to take this damn rein and ring Sam’s neck with it. But Zack knew that without Sam’s influence he might well be dead by now, or in a funny farm somewhere howling at the moon, and because of that Zack put up with all his annoying little ways and deep down considered himself extremely lucky to have someone like Sam Stein watching over him.
Susan was not sure what to expect as she let herself into Zack’s flat. If anyone else was with him she would have to deal with it but Susan knew it was unlikely because Zack didn’t really like people in his area, which was why Susan considered it a privilege to be allowed to stay over as often as she did.
She crept into the hallway and stood very still. She could hear breathing from the bedroom so she crossed towards it, and peered round the door. Zack was crashed out in bed so Susan went in, picked up the quilt from the floor and laid it gently over him. She watched him for a while, examining the sweep of his shoulder, the muscular brown arms that had held her once, the hands that had brushed tears away from her face when she’d been crying. Then, after a minute or so, Susan started to get undressed.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Zack stirred. Still groggy, he did not wake immediately but gradually became more aware as gentle waves of consciousness flooded back. Then he opened his eyes. For a long moment he could not comprehend the image that confronted him: completely naked, and completely still, Susan was lying beside him, wide awake and smiling, and looking like she’d been there all night.
“Jesus Christ!” said Zack, falling out of bed with the shock.
“Surprise, surprise!” said Susan with a grin, leaning over the bed to find him.
Zack crawled over to his padded Victorian chair and climbed into it. He had always felt awkward sitting in this chair (it was a woman’s chair, after all, and too small for him) but right now he couldn’t have cared less.
“Zack, I’m sorry,” said Susan. “I’ll get it right this time, I promise I will, and I’m sorry about Bellini’s, I could pay them something back each month. Shall I? Would that be a good thing to do?”
Part of Zack wanted to grab hold of Susan and drop her from the window and be done with it. She was like one of those characters in a Moroccan market who will not leave you alone, but the kinder side of Zack hated himself for ever having had anything to do with this girl. He knew she was fragile, he knew that right from the start, and now here she was in a thousand pieces and he was entirely to blame.
She looked beautiful again tonight he decided, like a little fairy with her mysterious smile, she had a lovely body too, firm and slight and boyish.
“Don’t waste your time with me, Susan,” he said, “you need someone who can make you happy and I can’t make anyone happy, I wouldn’t know how. I don’t even make myself happy half the time.”
Susan didn’t believe this and so pretended she hadn’t heard. “Was it the film?” she said, as though keen to clear this up.
“Myfilm, in East Finchley,” said Susan, earnestly.
“No, it wasn’t the film,” said Zack, stifling a smile, “not at all.”
“I know you wanted to see the football and it was unfair of me to make you miss it,” said Susan, thinking this would be a step in the right direction.
“Susan, look… I’m not very nice to people,” said Zack, privately acknowledging the understatement.
“But you are,” said Susan, “you are to me.”
“Especially women, particularly women,” said Zack ignoring her, “I got screwed up pretty early on.”
“So let’s fix it,” she said, glad to have something to latch onto.
“It’s not that easy to fix, believe me, I’ve tried.”
“But I don’t understand why you don’t want to be with me anymore. What did I do?” said Susan, exasperated.
“Nothing, you did nothing at all. After a while, I just want to move on. That’s me I’m afraid, what can I tell you…”
“And will you be like this forever, till the day you die?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised… old habits and all that.”
What Susan wanted, thought Zack, was to be with someone for good, for someone to love her as much as she loved them, but she was one of those people who would never achieve what they most desired because she just did not know how to play the game. She was too much, too little, too open, too closed, too passive, too demanding, too manic and too dull, always too much, and always, always at the wrong time.
“Do you hate me?” asked Susan.
“Of course not, why would I hate you?”
Susan looked at him. “Do you hate yourself then, is that what this is all about?” she asked, surprising Zack with the insight.
“Probably,” said Zack, “probably.”
“I read somewhere that you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.”
“Who knows?” said Zack, unwilling to get into any kind of philosophical discussion here, “who knows?”
“So if it doesn’t make you happy being the way you are, why be like that?”
Interesting question thought Zack. “Well…” he said, trying to be as honest as he could for once, “it makes me happy for a while I guess, and maybe… being happy for a while is as good as it gets.”
“What can I do to get you back?” asked Susan, still with a tinge of optimism in her voice.
“Nothing,” said Zack, “when things like this die, there is no resurrection.” Zack allowed the sentiment to hang in the air for a moment, then he struggled up from the chair, took a couple of very uneven steps and chucked himself across the bed.
When Zack woke next time it was to the sound of frantic banging on his front door. It took him some time to remember where he was, who he was even, the pills having worked their magic. He heard shouting as well, and more banging, but it clearly had nothing to do with him this racket and Zack hoped whoever was responsible would just go away. Then the noises changed in nature. This was a new sound, like a battering ram smashing against his front door and what sounded like a small army setting siege to the place. As their clomping footsteps got louder invading his space, he looked up to see a bunch of uniformed policemen surrounding his bed, plus a rather handsome Alsatian straining on its lead.
“Are you Zack Fortune?” said the man in charge.
“Don’t tell me my road tax has expired.”
Not one of the policemen found this funny, not one.
“Get up out of bed sir, please,” the policeman continued.
Zack obliged, still very groggy, his legs not quite rigid enough at the moment, causing him to slap a hand on the wall for support. All of the policemen had gloves on Zack noticed, what was all that about? One of them gave him a white jump suit and indicated for him to put it on. As soon as Zack had obliged he was led away, most of the policemen remaining in his bedroom where they began to search.
Zack and the two more senior policemen ended up in the living room, standing awkwardly, a frosty formality between them. Zack could not think what they were doing here, he just hoped that when they realised their mistake they would at least replace his door, because doors like his did not come cheap.
“Mr Fortune…” said the policeman but just as he was about to continue, he spied the polythene envelope containing the pink and white pills on top of a stack of books. Shit, thought Zack, shit, shit, shit.
“What are these, sir?” said the policeman, whose lifeless eyes had lit up suddenly.
Zack thought for a moment. “Can I phone a friend?”
“It’s 3.15 you bastard… are you aware of that?”
“I’m in one heap of trouble, mate.”
Sam groaned. “What kind of trouble?”
“I’ve just been picked up by the cops…”
“On suspicion of rape.”CHAPTER 10
It was 5 o’clock on Saturday morning and Jason Heart was pacing up and down in his room. He had taken all his documents to Emerson Buildings yesterday, just as Zack had told him to but as he stepped inside reception he was met by the old black bloke, Patrick, who had seen him through the window crossing the road and had got up to meet him at the door. Already Miss Betty and he were ganging up, (or so it seemed to Jason), and despite saying he had permission to find Zack Fortune, wherever he was, the envelope was taken from him and he was asked to leave.
This bugged Jason. What if his stuff didn’t get to Zack Fortune? What if it was thrown in the bin? He said as much when he handed it over to Patrick, but Miss Betty shouting over from behind the desk promised she would make sure Zack Fortune got it. Jason didn’t believe her really, but what could he do? He had wanted to run home and get it for Zack when they’d left the coffee bar but Zack had told him that he was taking the rest of the day off. The only way he could be sure of his papers being handed over was to find out where Zack lived and to ask him directly, but he didn’t think that was a good idea, not after last time.
Kelly Jones was Jason’s probation officer and the best person he had ever met. She was always so friendly and went out of her way to help him. Jason refused to believe she was like that with anyone else, she just wouldn’t have had the time. He knew they had something special between them so it surprised Jason when Kelly screamed at him and pushed him across her office one day when all he had done was try and kiss her.
It didn’t take Jason that long to find out where she lived, and he was only standing outside her house for a few hours when he was carted off in a police car and given the news that Kelly would no longer be his probation officer but that someone else would.
This was a devastating blow to Jason. It was the first time anyone had shown any interest in him at all and now it seemed this person wanted nothing more to do with him. He loved Kelly, but it seemed that she did not love him because even after he had been told not to hang around outside her house he still found ways of seeing her, and that seemed to upset her even more. He would wait at the same bus stop in the morning and follow her home from work, until one day Kelly burst into tears and told him to stop following her because she didn’t love him, he had got that wrong, in fact she was beginning to hate him.
Later that day Jason decided to get drunk on gin and vodka and his foster family complained that they couldn’t cope with him anymore. He went into a new children’s home but there were too many crazy kids in there for Jason’s liking, so he smashed his room up and clouted one of the social workers and got into quite a bit of trouble because of it.
Jason realised that finding out where Zack lived and waiting around for him might cause similar problems. That would be like making the same mistake twice and he wasn’t stupid. No, he would leave it a few days, and then write to Zack asking him if he had received the bundle, and if he hadn’t he would get Miss Betty and the black bloke Patrick into serious trouble. Yes, in fact the more Jason thought about this idea the more he liked it. His new enemies would get sacked, and Zack would feel he had to work extra hard on Jason’s behalf because of it.
At the police station, Zack was put through the usual procedures, all very proper, all very correct. The forensic test was humiliating: scrapings and swabs, hair and nails, skin and groin. The nondescript middle aged man who collected these samples spoke only when he had to, as though vocabulary was a controlled substance. So, deprived of conversation, Zack found himself listening to the crumpling of the suits, the crinkling of the plastic envelopes, the screwing of tops on small bottles. He also found himself wondering if this was all this man did each day - collect very personal things in a very impersonal way, and what kind of satisfaction he could possibly derive from it. Finally the man seemed satisfied with Zack’s secretions, the harvesting was complete.
A duty solicitor arrived and introduced herself to Zack as Ms Tracy Bright. An unfortunate name for this girl, Zack decided, as her hair was mousy, her complexion was sallow, the whites of her eyes were dull, and her clothes were grey - a swot from a working class background.
Tracy had been disturbed from her slumbers by the phone call that had brought her here, so she had made no real attempt to impress, it was just too early for all that. When Tracy saw Zack she was thrown - a man with all this going for him, a rapist? Unlikely thought Tracy, unless of course he was completely messed up, and that was always a possibility these days. She really wished she had made more of an effort now, she couldn’t even remember combing her hair.
Tracy had suggested Zack make no comment at all for the time being, which would give them the opportunity to discuss things in more detail. Zack had often suggested the same thing himself so he knew the score. But it always set alarm bells ringing in his experience because it nearly always signified guilt, and Zack was not guilty. According to Tracy, Susan alleged Zack had attacked her in his flat and raped her, oh and she had the injuries to prove it, as well.
“She’s barmy,” said Zack, “a crackpot of the first order.”
“I’d guard against comments like that if I were you,” said Tracy, ice cold, “they’re not helpful, and you enjoyed a relationship with this woman after all.”
Oh blimey, thought Zack, a radical feminist. That lot wouldn’t know barmy if they fell over it.
In a small dingy interview room, Zack and Tracy sat on one side of an old table. Two policemen in plain clothes faced them. Detective Sergeant Brian Smith was early fifties, gaunt, haggard, with thinning hair and dead eyes, but his well-worn clothes had been cleaned and pressed with military precision. He wore a signet ring on his little finger and it was so at odds with this man - an affectation, that instead of indicating better breeding which was so obviously the intention, it served only to suggest the opposite.
The other was Detective Sergeant Josiah Cornfield, 35, chubby, black, baby faced, with popping eyes that swung restlessly round the room like they were sweeping for mines. The tape was set up and Brian Smith spoke briefly quoting the time and day. Zack barely paid attention to the formalities.
“Do you know someone called Susan Wilmot, Mr Fortune?”
“Yes, of course I do, she’s my ex-girlfriend.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“Not long before you lot smashed down my door.”
“Where was this?”
“In my flat,” said Zack, weary already, and wondering how long all this would take.
“You invited her into your flat, did you?”
“Okay, here’s what happened…” said Zack, keen to get this over with so he could get back to bed, “I was in bed asleep. A sound woke me, or something woke me and Susan was there lying beside me… oh and she’d taken her clothes off by the way. She suggested we reinstate our relationship, I turned her down, then I went back to sleep. That’s it, that’s what happened… the end.”
Brian and Josiah gazed at Zack levelly and he knew they didn’t believe him.
“She had no clothes on you say…”
“Why was that?”
“Did you take her clothes off?”
“I was asleep,” said Zack, stifling irritation, “I didn’t even know she was there.”
“So how did she get in?”
“With keys I imagine.”
“Yourkeys?” asked Brian, incredulous.
“Well obviously, I must have given her a set at some point, I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember handing out a set of keys?” asked Brian, as though this was a hanging offence, “not very security conscious, are we?”
Why were policemen always so damned predictable thought Zack. You can spot them and their narrow minded obsessions on a neighbouring galaxy.
“So what happened then?”
“You woke up and found Susan Wilmot in bed with you, so what did you do then?” said Brian, annoyed at having to repeat himself.
“We talked and I fell asleep, that’s it, I told you.”
“You’ve got scratches on your arms, can you explain them?”
Zack glanced down to his arms, two angry red streaks ran up them. “I don’t know,” said Zack, bewildered.
“Did you have sex with Susan Wilmot early this morning, Mr Fortune?”
“How about last night?” said Brian, reasonably, as though this was another valid possibility.
“I was out last night.”
“Oh yes, where?”
Hell, thought Zack. He couldn’t involve Sid in this, no way would he play ball with the law or even give a statement.
“Just here and there,” said Zack, evasively.
“And where is that exactly?” said Brian, “whereishere and there?”
“A pub in Westbourne Park, I just dropped in for a game of pool.”
“And would your pool partner be able to confirm that?”
“I don’t know the guy,” said Zack, aware that he had dug himself into a hole and was still digging.
“Ah, I see. A man in a pub, is that it?” said Brian as though he might just have heard this somewhere before.
“Yes, that’s right.”
In unison Brian and Josiah seemed to sag, a sense of disappointment shared between them that the suspect could not come up with anything more original than this.
“So you got home at what time?”
“Twelve… one, maybe, I was tired by then, I needed to sleep.”
“And so you went to bed?”
“Yes,” said Zack, pleased to have got away from Sid for a moment at least.
“Did you ask Susan to come to your flat?”
“No, I just told you. I finished with Susan on Wednesday. I told her I didn’t want to see her again. She found it difficult to accept my decision and she came round to change my mind.” Brian looked at him and he knew he still did not believe him. “She’s been trying to get into contact with me since, my phone is jammed full of messages, texts. You can check it if you like.”
“Thank you we will,” said Brian, “and you sent Susan no similar messages?”
“No, of course not,” said Zack.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Well that’s very strange,” said Brian, “because at 11.30 last night Susan Wilmot received a text message from your mobile phone which reads, “Susan, I have to see you, Zack.”
Tracy’s eyes flickered, but very briefly. She continued writing, curious now as to how Zack would answer this.
“That can’t have happened,” said Zack.
Brian waited, allowing a few moments to tick by before making his reply. “We don’t get that kind of thing wrong, Mr Fortune, I’m sure you are aware of that.”
Zack was sweating now, the after effects of the pills were kicking in. Sid was right when he said they were poison, he felt sick, clammy, and his throat was dry, like he’d just swallowed concrete. He regretted now not listening to Tracy, it was conceit. Tracy had given him the correct advice and he had ignored it because he thought he knew better. Well on this occasion he did not know better, and it was clear that everyone else in the room had just come to the same conclusion.
Brian was delighted to see how uncomfortable the suspect had become. It was obvious that this Fortune guy had led a charmed life, he was very handsome, wealthy, educated, a spoilt child no doubt, the apple of his mother’s eye. Clearly he thought he was above all this, speaking to them with contempt, arrogant enough to think that he could beat the rap no matter how much evidence was stacked against him. But like many before him he would see that the justice system is a great leveller, watch how the mighty fall! A lawyer too and all lawyers were iffy in Brian’s book. During his long and what he liked to think of as an illustrious career in the police service, Brian had come across more bent lawyers than you could shake a stick at. They were an abomination as far as he was concerned.
Secretly, Brian had always been extremely embarrassed by his own background, brought up in abject poverty by a woman so stressed by life and her four children, that at the age of 23 she stopped smiling and to his knowledge, never smiled again. Brian had always resented their threadbare existence and this resentment intensified when he began working as an errand boy for the local grocer, standing on steps, peeking round doors, glimpsing other people’s lives that seemed well-nigh idyllic compared with his own. Keen to escape the drudgery of his life in south London, Brian had applied to join the army but an injury to his hip had precluded that, so he ended up a simple copper, second best again, (another compromise), despite enjoying a measure of respect the job afforded him.
Brian knew he should pat himself on the back, after all, he owned his own home and his own car, had brought up two boys, albeit in a loveless marriage that he was glad to be rid of, but he still felt life had dealt him a lousy hand. It had made him sour this life that he had endured, and in many ways all these years later he still felt like that kid on the step, always looking in from the outside at exciting worlds he knew he would never be part of.
He didn’t see much of the boys these days, they had sided with their mother since the divorce and gone to ground. They had children of their own now apparently although he had never seen them. He would have liked to have seen them, but he was never very good with all that so maybe that’s why his sons kept them away. The loneliness that still dogged him was nothing new, Brian had been lonely all his life. He had his interests, his allotment, the darts team, the British Legion, but he dreaded retirement, what on earth would he do to fill his days?
Brian was well aware of his reputation amongst his peers: a throwback to the days of the ‘us and them’ mentality, a member of the non-pc brigade who refused point blank to embrace the new directives that rained down on their heads daily, urging a more compassionate and socially inclusive police force. Brian resolutely refused to pay lip service to it all. He had never once come out and said it was a load of old cobblers but he had no need to, one look at the man told you that he was old school and that nothing would persuade him otherwise. But no one else put in the hours that Brian did, or worked with such attention to detail, so for all his archaic nitpicking, he was the copper that got results, he was the one others reluctantly turned to when their sloppy investigations hit the skids.
But his modus operandi won him no accolades and it certainly won him no friends. In the nineties when so many of his contemporaries succumbed to bribes and the promise of untold riches to turn a blind eye, to ‘lose’ evidence and to incriminate the innocent, it was Brian’s dogged pursuit of these corrupt characters that put a string of them behind bars. Brian knew that in certain quarters he was secretly resented because of this even now, he’d turned against his own after all, but to Brian, right and wrong was set in stone, to Brian right and wrong was sacrosanct.
Zack needed some fresh air and a packet of Marlboro. He’d given up a year ago but he could feel that longing return with a vengeance. He didn’t want to ask for cigarettes here though amongst the enemy, it would make him look weak - wanting something always did. He said he didn’t feel too good and so the interview was terminated. Zack noted that Detective Brian Smith had suddenly started to look smug, as though he would have all this in the bag by lunch time.
Zack was angry with himself at getting so flustered and not beating this finicky little bastard at his own game, but clearly Susan had done a good job. After all, there was no telling what she had come up with. Zack had wanted to say, ‘look at me, mate, do I look like a guy who has trouble with that kind of thing?’ but he couldn’t of course he couldn’t. It would not have gone down too well withMsTracy Bright, either. Also, Zack had been told by Clarissa not that long ago that rape had nothing to do with sex really, and everything to do with control.
Zack was led out into a small yard at the back of the police station, there was a bench there that he sat on. There was no escape from this yard with its high walls, so why a young policeman stood across from him he could not fathom. Tracy and Zack had managed to share a few words before she said that she had to shoot off somewhere, but she would be back, and not to let them start without her. He decided that he would revert to the coward’s way next and say “no comment” until he could look at all the evidence in his own time. He would get bail, he knew that - that was a given. Allegations of rape are notoriously difficult to prove, and he took some comfort in that. Tracy told Zack that the pills would take some time to be analysed so at least a drugs charge was on hold for the time being.
Zack was desperate to see Sam. On the phone, he had asked him to bring a packet of fags, and despite Sam managing to register his disapproval in the few seconds of silence that followed the request, with a bit of luck, considering the circumstances, Zack was hoping that Sam might just turn up trumps.
Two hours later Brian Smith and Josiah Cornfield presided over another brief interview and everyone knew what would happen. Zack said “no comment” in response to every question, and after ten minutes or so Brian Smith became so irritated that he called a halt to the proceedings. Zack was granted bail, but his passport was confiscated as was his mobile phone, but he would at least now have time to consider Susan’s allegation at his leisure. He could barely remember their encounter and that was a serious problem. He was only guessing when he’d said he got back at twelve, it could have been earlier, in fact it had to be earlier, because the only way a message had gone from his phone to Susan’s was if she had sent the message herself.
As Zack started down a cheerless corridor he could see Sam looking anxious in the reception area, perched on the edge of an old plastic chair. This was nothing new for Sam, he always looked anxious these days, but Zack knew Sam’s varying degrees of anxiety and this was business class. Sam saw Zack heading towards him and stood at his approach. He patted him awkwardly on the back, then set off through double glass doors and down steps to the street outside, both of them desperate to be free of the place and to be together again.
“They wouldn’t let me see you, I tried, mate, I’ve been here for hours,” said Sam, passing Zack a pack of Marlboro and a cheap, see through lighter. Zack snatched at the neat little bundle and attacked it, frantic to get a bolt of nicotine into his lungs.
“I thought you were through with those things,” said Sam, trying hard not to sound too judgemental.
“Yeah, so did I,” said Zack, inhaling deeply and giddy now from the rush.
Sam led Zack to Clarissa’s Karmann Ghia, parked up over the street. Zack hated the thing. It was noisy and so low to the ground it felt like a dragster, but he’d have been happy on a tandem this morning, anything to get him back home. They got inside and closed the doors behind them. Sam started the engine and the car pulled off.
An emergency repair service had been called to provide Zack with a new front door, (at Zack’s expense), but they were still working on it, and Zack decided it was probably best to leave them to it, so Zack and Sam remained sitting in the Volkswagen outside. Zack had told Sam the basics on the short journey from the police station and Sam had listened intently to every word.
“If you didn’t have sex with her you’re in the clear,” said Sam, “without samples, she’s sunk.”
Zack didn’t look so sure. “You reckon?”
“Rapists don’t wear condoms, mate, but how the hell did she get in?”
“A gave her a set of keys I suppose.”
“And did they find this other set of keys, the cops.”
“No, and they made a thing about that. Plus there was a text message sent from my phone to Susan’s at 11.30 last night, asking her to come over,” said Zack, who was clearly still bugged by this.
“But you didn’t make it?”
“Of course I didn’t, she must have made it from the flat once she got in, but to be honest… I thought I’d got home later than that.”
Sam looked straight at him, his suspicions aroused now by Zack’s vagueness.
“I was out of it. I’d been drinking, I’d smoked some lethal weed, a few downers… I can’t even remember getting back at all, but I told the cops that it was after twelve. Big mistake.”
Yes and not the only mistake by the sounds of it, thought Sam. “And where did you get these pills exactly?” he said, knowing full well where Zack got them, knowing that the question was redundant.
Zack was going to lie, but he decided against it, there was no point, not when Sam was on red alert like this.
“Don’t tell me you were in Westbourne Grove?”
Zack did his little boy shrug which Sam loathed. It had got him out of endless trouble in his life, but Sam knew Zack too well for it to work its magic with him, and he was furious. He had pulled out all the stops to get Zack back in Geoff’s good books after he had made a complete arse of himself with the Wahlbergs, he’d even wangled him two week’s leave. So what does Peter Pan do next? He goes gadding around west London with Bob Marley’s grandad.
“You’ll end up on the scrap heap, mate, hanging out with him. How many times do I need to say this?”
Zack found it amusing this idea of Sam’s that the whole of London was on the lookout for Zack Fortune to come a cropper, then trumpets would sound, the sea would part and the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would whisk him off to Hades and eternal torment. It was bollocks and both of them knew it but Sam like to pretend otherwise because it kept Zack under his thumb.
“Yeah, well you’ve got a thing about Sid.”
“No I haven’t,” said Sam indignantly, annoyed that Zack had actually voiced this when it had been an unspoken truth between them for years. “I can see through him, that’s all. He’s a leach, and you’re the deluded sop who pays his bar bills and forks out exorbitant amounts for his crappy contraband, the same junk he picks up for coppers on the street.”
Actually, thought Zack, that was a pretty fair appraisal. Zack had often wondered what Sid really thought of him. In the same way that it boosted Zack’s bad boy image to hang out with Mr Dangerous, he wondered if it was just that Sid got off on the idea of skidding round West London in a Mercedes convertible with a flashy Cambridge educated lawyer by his side. Probably, thought Zack, probably it did.
Initially Zack was not going to mention the pills, but somehow he felt Sam should know, so after a few awkward moments, he owned up. “They found my stash, Sam.”
“The pills I got from Sid.”
Sam turned to him alarmed. “Shit, how many?”
“Forty, fifty, I’m not sure. They were a present, so we didn’t count them out,” said Zack pointedly, trying to improve Sid’s lowly standing in some small way.
“Christ that is seriously bad news.”
“I’ll have to say they were Susan’s”
“Are you mad? You can’t do that.”
“Why can’t I? No worse than what she’s done to me”.
There was a tension between them now that neither welcomed but it hung there disappointing them both. Zack hated incurring Sam’s disapproval, but he knew Sam would forgive him, he knew that in the end Sam would forgive him just about anything. Sam told Zack to go back up to his flat and this time to keep a low profile. He stopped short of recommending bed again as Zack seemed capable of getting into trouble even when asleep.
On his drive back home Sam sifted through the events of the last couple of days assessing the damage. With a bit of luck, Susan’s attempt to frame Zack would fail. To set up a completely fabricated scenario of this nature required an attention to detail that he felt Susan just did not possess.
Sam refused to believe Zack was a rapist. Zack had been a heel to all his women over the years, but he wasn’t violent, Sam would stake his life on that. In fact, he had seen Zack get knocked around on numerous occasions by disgruntled girlfriends, Amber included, and he had never once raised a hand in anger or to defend himself. But there was another possibility, and that was that Zack was lying and that he and Susan did have sex, consensual sex, and his DNA was all over her.
Sam was pissed off with Zack big time. Twelve hours out of his sight and he ends up in clink. While Zack could not be entirely blamed for Susan’s allegation, Sam had counselled against him getting involved with the woman in the first place. She was loopy and everyone knew she was loopy, but then Zack had a real weakness for loopy women. He had told Sam once that he just could not abide the mundane, the ploddingly reliable, so perhaps the attraction of his monstrous regiment was an attempt to keep mundane at bay.
And as for Sid, well… Sam had always thought Zack naïve to assume Sid thought of him as anything other than a neophyte, and Sid adored neophytes because he could charge them what the hell he liked for his ropey old drugs. But he also knew that Zack was in thrall to Sid’s outlaw reputation, a reputation that Zack himself had enjoyed at one time, and something Sam knew he very much missed. While the majority of people would be more than satisfied with the lifestyle from which Zack benefited, it was never enough for Zack. It wasn’t exciting enough, it wasn’t challenging enough and it certainly wasn’t dangerous enough. The truth was Zack had a self-destruct button and Sam was beginning to get mighty weary of preventing him from pushing it.
To operate successfully as a lawyer required honesty, integrity and discretion, and Zack was all of those things, but occasionally, when they stood in the way of the hedonistic lifestyle he craved, he would dump them unceremoniously onto the back burner and to hell with the consequences. His hanging out with Sid and his involvement with Susan notwithstanding, planning to lie to the police about the pills was another example of Zack’s recklessness, and it made Sam uneasy, how could he condone something like that?
They had had their fair share of disagreements over the years and once or twice it had got silly. One particular occasion was memorable. Sam thought back to Cambridge, about six months after they’d met, an early crisis in their relationship that had threatened to smother it at birth.
Zack was forthcoming about most things, girls, drugs, money, but when it came to mothers, fathers and families, he would clam up. Sam was curious about this, especially as he had opened up his entire life to Zack’s scrutiny within days of their becoming friends. There was nothing Zack did not know about Sam. The business with Michael and his parents, also the fact that Sam was still a virgin at eighteen, all quite important stuff, and stuff Sam had admitted to no one else. But Zack stayed uncharacteristically quiet about his childhood which began to rankle with Sam. Why? What was behind it? Then Sam got to thinking that Zack’s reluctance to fill him in on his childhood diminished their friendship, and that bothered him, it really did. So finally, one night when Sam was falling down drunk, and they were alone, Sam blurted all this out. There was a moment when it seemed like Sam was actually giving Zack an ultimatum - it was like he was saying: ‘speak up or else’.
For Zack’s part, he suddenly felt obliged to provide information that he had no wish to provide. Yes, Sam had documented the most intimate details of his life with the candour of a dying man to a priest, but what right did that give him to demand the low down on Zack? Zack had not forced Sam to open up, he had done it himself, willingly, eager, or so it seemed, to get it off his chest. So in response, Zack filled Sam in on a dull upbringing with dreary parents in suburban Leicester, uneventful, tedious, a life that he was mighty glad to be shot of, it didn’t take any time at all.
For a week Sam avoided Zack. He knew the whole stupid story was complete crap and it angered him. It saddened him too. First he felt insulted that Zack thought him dim enough to believe the hastily constructed shallow fabrication, second, that deep down Zack clearly had so little regard for him he thought it acceptable to fob him off with any old rubbish just to keep him quiet. Consequently, Sam felt their friendship had absorbed a mortal blow, was now in Critical Care, and had very little hope of survival. Sam was well aware that Zack had been instrumental in him finding any acceptance at all at Cambridge, but he had his pride, and he found Zack’s behaviour intolerable.
For both of them that week felt like a year, and despite being involved in all sorts of madness with assorted others they missed each other, Zack missing Sam the most. Finally, Zack cracked and sought Sam out in his sad little bedsit, the smallest attic room in a pretty grim lodging house on the outskirts of town. Sam refused to open up when he realised who it was kicking off outside his door, yelling at Zack to bugger off out of it and to leave him in peace. So Zack took matters into his own hands, booting said door clean off its hinges, it was as simple as that. Once Zack had made his dramatic entrance, they just looked at each other in silence for almost two minutes, then Zack started to cry. Surprised and moved by Zack’s distress, and aware that he had been responsible for it entirely, Sam patted him on the arm, an action so male in nature, and so ineffectual, but it was the olive branch Zack had been seeking. Zack grabbed Sam and hugged him, and Sam hugged him back.
Everyone heard about Zack kicking Sam’s door down, but the strange show of emotion that followed remained a secret between them, as did Zack’s subsequent confession. This is what Zack said:
Zack’s mother, Astrid, the only daughter of a wealthy property developer, and very beautiful, had dreadful taste in men. Zack’s father, Dan, was an alcoholic and barely able to look after himself, let alone a wife and child. Pretty soon he became an unwelcome fixture in the small town of Melton Mowbray, lurching down the main street, begging people for coppers for his next bottle of booze. In the end, Astrid blotted him out of their lives, and Zack, whenever asked, would say his father was a captain in the Navy and always away at sea. But unfortunately for Zack, the sorry legion of men Astrid found to take Dan’s place were just as needy and much more abusive. Every night, either from downstairs or through his bedroom walls, Zack was forced to listen to the mystifying and rather alarming sounds of his mother engaging in hours and hours of rough sex - it was the backdrop to his childhood.
Zack hated these men, every last one. They were all kind to him at first, then, as they became complacent, confident that Astrid knew her place, they would start their bullying and their baiting until Zack longed for the next one to arrive just to go through the short honeymoon period again. Zack began to hate his mother just as much. He loved her, because she loved him, or said she did, but he hated her too. He saw her as weak, vain, coquettish, unable to be alone with Zack, unable to enjoy being with him unless some bastard was in the background providing her with the romantic horseplay and sordid sex that made her feel alive. This made Zack wretched. How worthless he must be he decided for his mother to prefer the attentions of these cretins to him.
One day, Richard, Astrid’s latest, had insisted on taking Zack fishing. And Zack knew why as well. Richard had started sneaking into Zack’s bedroom at nights when Astrid was working at the call centre, telling Zack as he put his big grubby hand over his mouth that if anyone found out about them and what they were doing Richard would kill him. Consequently, Zack pleaded with Astrid not to send him on this so-called fishing trip, but Zack’s objections got him nowhere and off they went.
Zack could still recall the journey in some detail: the creaking of the leather seats when either of them moved, the hum of the engine, and the lingering smell of Richard’s cheroots that puffed out their exotic musty smoke. The Jag was years old, some relic Richard had been restoring, but it made short work of the motorway, and then ploughed on into the repetitiveness of the countryside: tall hedgerows, featureless fields, dirty green verges.
Once they were parked up in a winding scrubby road that led through a forest, Richard continued with the pretence by pulling out fishing rods and a wicker hamper from the boot. As they set off through the hostile trees, their feet crunching over layers of brittle leaves, Zack fought with a desolate foreboding, a sense that here in this alien landscape he was utterly alone, utterly without help.
A stroke at an early age had left Richard with some paralysis down his left side, so he walked with a stick, a stick Zack had often longed to kick away, maybe causing another stroke if he was lucky or better still, maybe causing his death. They had barely arrived at the end of the little wooden jetty that overhung the deep water of the lake by some 100 yards, when Richard had grabbed him. His large face pressed up to his, a gash of a smile exposing a gloomy graveyard of crooked, tombstone teeth, and a lizard of a white crowned tongue. At home, Richard’s assaults on Zack had at least been in private, but here, open to the elements, exposed, like sitting ducks, Zack was horrified that this was the proposed venue for Richard’s hateful actions. What if someone saw? Zack would be so ashamed. So for the first time he fought back, snatching Richard’s stick he lashed out with it, catching him hard across his forehead with a hollow clunk.
Richard looked stunned when the stick made contact, the force of it causing him to stagger backwards and fall into the water with a huge, untidy, comic splash. Moments later he bobbed up again and laboriously began wading towards the muddy bank and dry land. But Zack, anticipating, ran back along the jetty and as Richard struggled from the water, he hit him across his head with the stick again, then kicked him under his chin. Richard fell back, disoriented, splashing about in the water until the lake, like a huge black greedy kitten lapped him up and devoured him.
Richard surfaced briefly just once more, looking weakened, shocked, deathly pale, unable to find his footing on the shifting stones beneath him. He stretched out his hand to Zack, but Zack made no attempt to take it. Instead, he remained motionless, watching with childish curiosity as the swell of the water hauled Richard deeper, folding over him finally and dragging him down.
It occurred to Zack at that moment, that if he dived into the lake he could possibly pull Richard out and save his life. But Zack did not want to save Richard’s life, and as he was King of the Castle, Richard, dirty rascal that he was, did not have a hope.
Zack waited until the surface of the lake was tranquil again and without any hint of the drama that had just taken place. Then, he made his way back along the jetty, squatted there on the rough wooden boards, his legs swinging over the side and opened up the hamper. Zack knew that he would always remember the contents of that hamper: cheese and tomato sandwiches, Scotch eggs, apples, a couple of cartons of juice and Kit-Kats. He chomped his way through the food, guarding his quarry that he imagined wafting in and out of the weeds beneath him like a human submarine, just a few minutes dead. Ducks swam up and bobbed down, and Zack found himself wondering whether they were pecking at Richard already.Goodness, what a feast!He rather liked the idea of providing the mallards with their monster food supply, and wondered if, in their own little way they were thanking him for it as they squawked and circled.
Later, as a vapid sun started its descent beneath the sprawling squadron of inky black trees, Zack made his way back through the creepy forest, up towards the main road and flagged down a car. They weren’t sure at first, Geraldine and Kenneth McDonald as their classic Triumph Herald jolted to an uncertain stop. But as a tearful Zack raced up they knew they had done the right thing.
In the police station Zack made a pretty good fist of appearing upset, because he’d been upset often enough to know how to do it. Everyone was fooled. And anyway, who would believe this exquisite child could be capable of serious mischief or murder? He was questioned by a WPC who spoke very softly, careful, or so it seemed to Zack, not to say the wrong thing. Whenever she mentioned something a little awkward, like the marks on Richard’s head for instance and how he came by them, Zack started to cry, until Astrid pleaded with the woman to stop.
Zack knew enough about police investigations to know that never in a million years would they be able to pin Richard’s death on him. Left to his own devices while his mother was bouncing off the walls of her bedroom with her bunk-ups, he had watched hours and hours of television cop shows and knew all about evidence and the proof that was required to make charges stick.
Consequently, Zack knew that if he maintained his ‘traumatised child persona’ which he had been working on all afternoon, he was in the clear.
What was best of all about Richard’s death was that it seemed to bring Astrid to her senses for a while. She made a fuss of Zack, and when he pleaded with her not to bring any more boyfriends to the house, she’d agreed, saying that it was just the two of them from now on, forever. This arrangement lasted for all of three months, but it was the best three months Zack could remember. Then, another no-hoper moved in and it all began again.
There were lots of other things Zack could have told Sam but he reckoned this piece of information would probably stem his curiosity, and of course it did. Sam felt rather ashamed that he’d bullied Zack into revealing such momentous events, despite also feeling extremely honoured that he had done so. At the time, Sam could not have cared less about Richard and was hugely impressed at Zack’s enterprise at the age of nine in doing away with him. Now it was their own special secret and it served to fulfil many needs. Sam now knew why Zack was so reluctant to discuss his childhood, and so no longer felt their friendship compromised, and Zack felt that he had shared something with Sam he would never share with anyone else, safe in the knowledge that this bound them together even more, presenting as it did obligations on both sides.
As far as Sam was concerned, Zack may as well have handed him the crown jewels, he told Zack he would guard the information with his life.CHAPTER 11
Zack’s door had been replaced by another one which looked exactly the same, but of course there was a different lock, which meant that the keys Susan had taken off with her would be useless if it ever came into her head to try the same thing again.
All things considered, Zack conceded that it was surprising this kind of thing had not happened before. Barring a few crazy stunts like Amber and the graffiti on the science block, plus a couple of black eyes, a broken nose, a dislocated shoulder and two chipped incisors, he had come out of all his wild relationships unscathed. And now that he had put some distance on the humiliation of being dragged to the local cop shop and accused of rape, an activity he found abhorrent on every level, he was beginning to put the whole thing into perspective. There could be no concrete evidence that sex took place, because it didn’t, he felt sure it didn’t, so it was Susan’s word against his. On the basis that he had wanted out of the relationship and had told her so, why would he then change his mind and demand sex? It didn’t make sense. (Something else that didn’t make sense but Zack told himself not to dwell on that.) The pills were another matter. He decided to ring Sid to get the low down.
“How should I know what they are?” said Sid, sounding more than a little affronted by the question.
“Come on Sid, you must have some idea”.
“They been kicking around a long while I tell you. Why? You want some more?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I could probably get some more…”
“I just want to know what they are, that’s all.”
“I and I make myself busy on your account, Mr Fortune,” said Sid, picking up the tension in Zack’s voice, “Sid Johnson put himself about a bit and see what he can do.”
Zack took Sam’s advice and for the next few days laid low, but he felt cooped up in his flat and in the city for that matter, and although he didn’t subscribe to the theory that his life had gone out of kilter because of stress, he decided that a trip out of town might just confirm it one way or the other. He could deal with a rape charge, stemming as it did from the real world, even a drugs charge if needs be, but the suicide and the old boy were very different.
“Veronica, it’s Zack.”
“Well thanks for getting back to me,” said Veronica, miffed.
“I lost my phone,” he said, which was almost true.
“I’ve got a new one now, but never mind all that. Come away with me.”
“Where to?” said Veronica, surprised.
“Derbyshire,” he said, plucking a county from his head.
“What happens in Derbyshire?”
“Well… they breed sheep, and they make cheese.”
“Sounds like fun,” she said in a monotone.
“It will be with me, Derbyshire and Zack Fortune is a combination that is second to none.”
Yes I can believe that, thought Veronica but she didn’t say it. “Some of us have work to do you know,” she said instead, not prepared to make it easy for him just yet.
“Framing pictures, yes of course, I forgot about that.”
“I own a gallery and I paint, and it’s not a hobby. If the gallery is closed, my paintings don’t sell and nor do anyone else’s.”
“Get someone to take over for a few days.”
“And if I just can’t find anyone?”
“Then I go alone, and we forget all about it.”
Zack knew Veronica would agree in the end and he knew how to wangle it too. “Listen, forget it, I don’t want to come between a girl and her paintings, God forbid.”
“Well Imightbe able to make it work,” said Veronica, after the required silence.
“No sweat,” said Zack, and then with a sense of finality, “another time”.
Veronica told Zack that she would make a couple of calls. It didn’t take long for her to report back that her sister would help out, and so she was free to tag along. Zack pretended to be pleasantly surprised, but he’d known the outcome from the moment he’d called her, he was an expert on all this after all.
His father, drunk as usual, had once told him that if a woman ever said she was thinking of leaving, be sure to open up the door. Of course at the age of 6 Zack didn’t know what the hell he was on about, but it stayed with him and what good advice it turned out to be. The more he opened doors, the more all these women refused point blank to walk through them. It worked every time.
The plan was to pick Veronica up from her flat in Islington and for them to set off from there. Veronica told Zack that her sister Miriam would be around and that he could meet her. Zack was not remotely interested in meeting Veronica’s sister. He always avoided family get-togethers as a matter of course, usually just refusing to turn up, knowing full well that he was there simply to be given the once over no matter how much people pretended otherwise. Zack could not have cared less whether a wily old dad or a dumpy old aunt gave him the seal of approval, added to which, if he so desired, he could pass any test set him with flying colours so it was all pretty meaningless. He knew how to win people’s approval, it was second nature to Zack Fortune after all, but why the hell should he be put through it?
Zack realised he would have to pretend he knew something about Derbyshire, because he didn’t, he didn’t even know really where it was. But that was a good thing he decided, he had become bogged down in the city and its preoccupations and he needed a change of scene. He had no intention of becoming a sheep farmer or anything like that, but for a few days he was looking forward to the stimulation of pastures new.
So the following afternoon Zack pulled out of the underground parking lot in his Mercedes and set off. An oppressive heat met him at street level despite bloated black clouds that slung low in the sky blocking out the light. Zack drove automatically, he knew this route well.
He liked Islington, the restaurants, the bars. Years ago he used to hang out in a pub called The Island Queen in Noel Road, full of the wildest cross section of humanity: plasterers, lawyers, antique dealers, copy writers, students, builders, actors, drug dealers, pop stars and bouncers. He had picked up dozens of girls in there, in fact a dozen or so too many, the daggers thrown in his direction across the bar by a motley selection of peeved women became just too tiresome in the end, causing him to cast his net elsewhere.
Zack turned into Upper Street to find himself in a snarl of heavy traffic. A couple of cars in front of him edged forward optimistically, and then gave up. The street was gridlocked.
On the pavement opposite Zack’s eye was drawn to a small girl, her head crowned with a mass of dark ringlets, her rose bud lips set in a perfect smile. She ran along, carefree, a balloon held aloft in her right hand until, that is, an innocuous puff of wind snatched the balloon from her and sent it floating off over the road, way beyond her grasp. She stepped from the curb to try and retrieve it just as the queue of traffic bulged forward, the impact of the lorry that hit the child throwing her up into the air like a discarded puppet. She landed on the central white line where the back of her head hit the ground with a crack, blood seeping out beneath it as though impatient to be elsewhere.
Zack shoved open his door and stepped out onto the road as a blanket of airlessness settled over him, but he was there in one pace next to her, as all movement ceased.
“Zachariah,” she said very quietly looking up at him, “you’re here. Help me.”
The child’s eyes locked onto Zack’s in tragic longing, then, her soul in retreat, milky veils slid over the dulling orbs preparing them for defeat, until, in a final act of charity, calling a halt to the yearning once and for all, her eye lids fell shut for the very last time. As though touched by a malevolent wand a sweep of blackness crawled boldly through this imminent corpse, decimating her beauty, ripping it apart in its hands. Within seconds the grip of death was complete.
As people swarmed towards the child, the mother on her haunches beside her now and screaming, Zack waited for his release which this time seemed cruelly delayed. Then, as though a key had been turned in a very old rusty lock, Zack found he was able to move again, and although still hobbled, like a faltering clockwork toy he jolted off towards the sanctuary of his car, chucking himself headlong inside it. Grasping air into his lungs, trying to contain the wild panic that swept through him, Zack kicked at the pedals and in response the Mercedes gunned forward.
He caught a final glimpse of the public spirited as they surrounded the little girl, stooping down to see what they could do, but there was nothing they could do he wanted to tell them. It was an empty shell they tended now, its insides sucked out. As the car sped off, cutting through side streets, Zack listened out for the distant wail of sirens but heard nothing. Islington had fallen silent suddenly, as though everyone had stopped their noise and their clamour in deference to the dead.
Zack parked up in Thornhill Square, jumped out of the car and cast his eye along smart front doors. He leapt the steps of number 7 and hit a bell which said “French”. The door opened soon afterwards and Zack went inside.
Veronica’s flat was exactly as he had imagined it, dark wood floors, minimalist decor, but with paintings all over the walls, as though each frame was vying for position with its neighbour. It was actually a maisonette not a flat, and Veronica led Zack down into the basement where a huge kitchen opened out to a courtyard and a long garden, and where a pine table sat groaning in the corner under piles of books, papers, magazines, fruit and general clutter - girl’s clutter.
Zack needed to sit down. The journey from his car had exhausted him. It was like he had just run 5 miles. Veronica was chatting but he failed to decipher the words, he just guessed the appropriate demeanour from her tone. Then Miriam came in and they were introduced. He stood to greet her, managing a smile. She looked like Veronica he decided, but a plainer version, without Veronica’s wonderful selection of features that made you just want to grab her.
While Veronica was making coffee, Zack found the bathroom, locked the door and sat down on the side of the bath to regroup. He wanted to call Sam and was annoyed he hadn’t thought of it before. He tapped out the familiar number and waited for a response.
“Sam…” said Zack immediately. “Listen to me, I’m going away with Veronica.”
“Who the hell’s Veronica?”
“The girl from the club, the girl from The Mango Tree of course…”
“Oh butof course…”
“We’re going to Derbyshire.”
“What,willingly?” snorted Sam, who thought there was nothing more dull than these cruddy old Northern counties and had always presumed Zack thought the same.
“I thought you’d be pleased,” said Zack, intending irony but unable to prevent himself sounding a little deflated.
“I am pleased, it will do you good. You’ll be bored shitless within minutes, but it will do you good.”
“But guess what…” said Zack, almost in tears, “it’s just happened again.”
“A terrible accident this time, the most beautiful little girl… hit by a lorry, in Upper Street, and she knew me Sam, she called out my name. You have to speak to Clarissa and ask her what the hell we do about this.”
“Mate, you are seriously stressed out…”
“It happened, Sam, don’t tell me it didn’t happen.”
“Just go to Derbyshire and forget everything. Enjoy yourself, enjoy Veronica as I am sure you will, and come back next week a new man.”
This was a load of old tosh and they both knew it, but Zack decided to keep up the pretence because right at that moment he was incapable of anything else. “Okay, yes, good thinking,” said Zack, giving in, “speak soon.”
Back in the kitchen, over coffee, Zack launched a delayed charm offensive on Miriam who he noticed was shooting admiring glances in his direction whenever she thought it safe, but Zack didn’t miss much and he certainly didn’t miss this.
“So why Derbyshire?” she asked.
“Well, it’s beautiful there,” said Zack, aware as soon as he said it of the crass generalization. Actually, he’d heard that somewhere, so he hoped he wouldn’t be proved wrong by a landscape punctuated with slag heaps and peopled by wizened old men in cloth caps walking their whippets back and forth to the pub.
“You’ve been there before?”
“Well, a while ago, just passing through,” said Zack, sounding not terribly convincing.
“We’d better get going hadn’t we?” said Veronica.
“Indeed,” said Zack, keen to release himself from the sudden critical gaze of Miriam who he sensed did not buy his bland recommendation of Derbyshire for one minute, and who had picked up on the fact that he had never been near the damn place in his life.
As they took their leave of Miriam, Zack noticed Veronica now really for the first time. She was wearing a white tunic and black leggings, gold high heels, and today her toe nails were painted bright red. She had those silver bangles on again that made a terrible racket, and a large cross hung round her neck on a chunky chain. Her hair shone with various shades of red skimming through the lustrous dark mass and her eyes looked massive, but at their centre, those two little flints of coal. She was a fantastic woman, but there was something missing, and for a while Zack couldn’t work out what it was. Then he did and it genuinely shocked him. Veronica was not crazy, or weird, or odd, or zany, just plain gorgeous, and for a few moments this unnerved him, but as he was loading her case into the boot of the Mercedes he thought to himself that maybe at long last, despite Sam’s frequent outbursts to the contrary, Zack Fortune was actually growing up.
The journey to Derbyshire took no time. Zack didn’t have a clue where they were going but he pretended he did.
“So where are we going exactly?” asked Veronica.
“A secret,” said Zack, hoping they would stumble across somewhere picture perfect and he could pretend that had been his intention all along. In the end they did. A small town called Telper that squatted at the foot of the Derbyshire hills. A massive hotel dominated the town square and Zack parked up outside it.
“Wait here, I’ll see what it’s like,” he said, ducking out of the car, and sprinting up the steps. The place looked decent enough, with bellboys in uniform, and huge displays of flowers dotted around the honey oak panelled foyer. Zack asked for a special room, one that had a decent view, but then he changed his mind and asked for a suite of rooms, maybe a bedroom and living room arrangement if one was available. It was, and at the price Zack was asked to pay he wasn’t surprised. He booked it for one night only, thinking they could move on the following day and find somewhere else.
Veronica was impressed by the accommodation and curious too that Zack had seen fit to hire a suite of rooms, but she wasn’t complaining. They washed and changed and wandered down to the dining room which was sumptuous and vast, littered with myriad tables laid with white linen cloths and proper silver cutlery, (Clarissa would have been in her element). Young waitresses stood around looking gauche in their cheap clunking shoes, sporting traditional black and white, little caps perched uncertainly on their heads. Veronica had changed into a slinky green dress that hugged her, long sleeved but wide at the neck, revealing one shoulder, the most wonderful shoulder Zack thought he had ever seen.
In the car Veronica had talked of her family: mother, father, sister and a couple of aunts - they were close she said, although her parents had retired to Canada a while ago but hadn’t settled, and were thinking of coming back. Zack said nothing at the time but he did now.
“So, you’ve got no one to blame then.”
“Your family, being so supportive and your childhood so perfect, there’s no one to blame.”
“But you have, obviously… to make a comment like that.”
“Maybe that’s why you seem so…” Veronica looked at him waiting for the verdict, “well adjusted…”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Of course not, it’s just rare that’s all, don’t you think?”
“So was your childhood angst ridden then, is that it?”
Zack said: “It wasn’t a bundle of laughs, let’s just leave it that shall we?”
They didn’t have to wait too long for their first course, an over elaborate seafood concoction impaled on a throne of limp lettuce. It was average cooking for all the pomp of the place and Zack felt nervous suddenly, too nervous to swallow the stuff so he pushed his away. Veronica surprised him by tipping it onto her plate.
“You don’t mind do you?”
“Be my guest.”
“I love food. I eat macrobiotic stuff usually, at least I try to,” she said, with a little laugh, “but when I’m away like this it’s just too complicated, so I fall off the wagon for a bit and go mad.”
Well that makes a change thought Zack, women and their diets were just too dreary for words but none of that nonsense here he noted as he struggled to keep up.
Over dinner Veronica told Zack that she had trained at St Martins and had made a fair living painting portraits at one time. She still did the occasional commission, but recently she’d gone off in a different direction. She’d started painting huge canvasses - figurative abstracts, (whatever that was), and sold mainly to corporate clients or interior designers, the size of the pieces precluding them from average households. Veronica told Zack that she had set up the gallery as a venue to show her work and other people’s work, and had done quite well although the running costs were high. She was looking for a cheaper place and had considered a couple of units right out of town, but they were just so soulless she’d put the plan on ice for the time being.
An hour later they left the hotel to explore and found a tiny pub, like someone’s front room really, with very low ceilings, and an Inglenook fireplace, the kind of place that makes private conversations difficult. Veronica insisted that they played darts, something else that surprised him.
“I’m not that good,” she lied, beating Zack hands down in no time.
“Okay, so where did you learn to play like that?”
“My parents ran pubs, all six of them, so… hey… what else does an eight year old do?”
On the way back to the hotel, Zack realised he had drunk too much. He’d barely eaten so it was hardly surprising his head was swimming. Veronica had drunk a few gins but she seemed energized and raring to go.
In their hotel room Veronica fell on the bed and switched on the TV. Zack pulled off his shoes and went into the bathroom. He looked strange in this unforgiving light, gaunt, distracted. He washed, cleaned his teeth and went into the day area, curled up on the couch, and within seconds was spark out. When Veronica found him there a short time later, (unsure whether she felt insulted or amused by this), she decided to leave him to it and went back to bed.
In the early hours her own screams woke her, she was panicky and breathless but she calmed, relieved and reassured when she realised where she was.
“What was it?” said Zack, climbing in bed beside her, “a bad dream?”
They lay face to face staring at each other, illuminated by shafts of street light that sneaked in from the square.
“It’s been the same for a couple of nights now.”
“Ever since you met me…” he said, smiling, but his smile was short-lived because a strange chill seemed to settle over them and as though to deny it, Veronica seized him with an urgency, (a panic almost), that surprised them both. It was as though he was there for her to plunder Zack decided, finding bits of him that had never before been discovered, allowing him pleasure that he knew nothing of. Sex with Veronica was so unique and so overwhelming Zack found himself wondering if it was something else entirely, an extreme sport maybe with only a select few allowed to participate for fear of civil unrest.
They lay back finally, like star fish, trying to get their breath, but still he felt a rush each time she brushed against him, with her hand, her leg. Zack grabbed her and off they went again as though the satisfaction they felt already had to be compounded. At five o’clock they gave in to sleep as the sounds of chambermaids and trolleys began drifting in from the corridor outside, but they slept soundly now wrapped in each other’s arms. No nightmares this time, Veronica slept better than she had all week.
By the time they left their room it was mid-morning and the breakfast buffet had long since been cleared away. Hungry now after their exertions they checked out and went in search of a greasy spoon. Over breakfast Veronica insisted on their finding the hill path to Crag Moor Fell. She had picked up a leaflet about it from the hotel and it looked great fun she said. Zack wondered what on earth could be fun about a crag or a fell, but kept these thoughts to himself as Veronica was clearly fired up by the idea.
He loathed all this fresh air stuff and started praying for rain, then they could find another hotel and have sex again, which is all he could think of right now. Veronica looked up at him and smiled, and he smiled back, but it was a guarded smile, the smile of the defeated he decided, because Veronica was in the driving seat now and he hated it. Here was a woman who could destroy him at a stroke, simply by doing to him what he had done to so many others over the years, by leaving him to a flapping, gasping death and then chucking him back into the sea.
The route up to Crag Moor Fell was not for the faint hearted. And as they struggled on the ascent, Zack found himself wondering why on earth he had suggested the wilds of Derbyshire for their rest cure. If he’d had his passport he would have suggested Las Vegas – bed, booze and fruit machines, by far the better option. This hill climbing was not his thing at all. His very expensive handmade shoes were looking bedraggled now, and after the trials of the last few days when any kind of physical activity had been out of the question, he felt unfit, as though he’d spent the last few months holed up in a working men’s club and had just popped out for air.
Finally, they made it to the summit where self-satisfied groups of people in plastic anoraks, hiking boots and thick flecked socks admired the view – admittedly a rampant landscape that fell away dramatically beneath them. But they stood out amongst this crowd, Veronica, looking as she did like a Parisian model, and Zack looking like a matinee idol. It was as though they had taken a wrong turn somewhere and fetched up there by mistake.
“Well,” said Zack, eventually, “I suppose there’s nothing for it but to go back down again.”
That afternoon Zack’s prayer was answered and rain fell, so on Veronica’s recommendation, they dropped into a little cinema and watched some old black and white film that was one of her favourites. Zack was happy to oblige, despite acknowledging the fact that the archaic melodrama on offer was the usual load of tosh that women got enthused about.
It took him back some years to an endurance test of a film called ‘The Piano’. He’d got a bit sick of hearing women rave about it and so nagged by his then girlfriend he’d agreed to give it a try. Made by women for women no doubt, it was Zack’s idea of hell. It took ages to get to the sex scene, the precursor being this Maori character with long hair and a dodgy accent, hiding under a piano running his finger round holes in a mute’s stocking. More tedious a piece of drivel he had never come across, but to be fair, on the way home, his girlfriend said that if she was taken to see The Seven Samurai by a bloke once more, she’d turn gay.
For some reason, Veronica wanted to go to a small mill town called Renfield, 30 miles away. Zack made no objection, wondering how she knew so much about Derbyshire suddenly, until Veronica revealed a whole swathe of these damn tourist leaflets she had picked up along the way. Zack hoped that the next few days would not entirely be given to dragging around from one beauty spot to another with very little time for sex in between. So they set off. The half-hearted little showers that had sent them scurrying into the cinema looking like small fry now compared to the onslaught that was lashing against the car.
“I love the rain,” she said, her eyes alive with it all.
Zack loved it too. With a bit of luck it would remain like this for the duration, which meant they could stay in bed the whole time and not pretend that they were actually interested in any of this countryside bullshit which was already beginning to irritate the hell out of him.CHAPTER 12
It was nearly 7 when they found themselves a mile from their destination. The rain had got into its stride and was now torrential, causing Zack to reduce his speed in this winding country lane, high up on the side of a hill. The wipers barely able to cope, Zack was on the verge of suggesting they just pull up somewhere because the conditions were unnerving him. Then, through the deluge, Veronica saw a small road sign pointing left, ‘Renfield’ the sign read. The Mercedes screeched, halted, backed a little way, then Zack threw the steering wheel and they continued along a smaller road now, but thankfully away from the sheer drop of the hill face.
Just as they were about to drive under a small stone bridge clothed in scaffolding, the engine of the Mercedes cut out, light died, like someone had flicked a switch, then a crack of pure white lightning forked right across the sky.
“Hell,” said Zack.
“What’s happened?” said Veronica, “why so dark suddenly?”
Zack looked up to the bridge in front of them, and although the view was obscured by rain spattering the windscreen and the sudden loss of light, he saw something move.
“Get out of the car Veronica!”
“Get out of the bloody car!”
Like the arc of a javelin in flight, a scaffolding pole tipped free of its restraints fell from the bridge and punctured the windscreen of the Mercedes cleanly, ending up at the back of the passenger seat, shattered glass cascading into the car with it. The pole shifted a bit, as though getting comfortable, then came to rest, one end exactly where Veronica had been sitting, the other thrusting out over the bonnet like a fishing rod. Standing on either side of the car Zack and Veronica were drenched already, but it didn’t matter, they felt lucky, extremely lucky. Neither of their phones would work, so there was nothing else for it. They took one bag from the boot, stuffing in a change of clothes, and set off. Through the downpour, they saw sparse lights in the distance and continued walking towards them.
No one was out on the streets of Renfield, only Zack and Veronica, their shoes squelching, their clothes heavy with water making the simplest movement difficult. There was one real light in the town and that spelt out the words ‘Guest House’, although the ‘o’ was missing, a more welcoming sight Zack thought he had never seen. They struggled towards the slate grey building and pushed open the door, shaking themselves on the porch like Labradors and kicking off their shoes. Another door led them into a cosy reception area carpeted with red and gold swirls.
An obese middle aged woman sat behind a poorly constructed reception desk, watery blue eyes peering out from pebble glasses. A sign on the desk read “Proprietor: Mrs L. E. Fairweather”. The woman looked at Zack and Veronica as though they’d just dropped in from Mars.
“Yes?” she said, managing to sound completely disinterested in the possibility of a reply.
“Please say you have a room available,” said Zack, “car trouble, so we’re a bit stuck as you can see.”
Mrs Fairweather swapped one set of glasses for another then slid a large reservation book from the side of the desk until it was exactly in front of her. She took an inordinate amount of time to do this before opening up the book, glancing down at a page, and then turning it over. Zack noticed that there was nothing written anywhere on the page that was headed with that day’s date, nothing at all.
“How long would you require accommodation?”
Zack wanted to say for as little a time as possible love, but he resisted. “Just tonight would do us.”
Mrs Fairweather snapped her book shut and leant back. “Two night’s minimum,” she said.
“Fine,” said Zack, “we’ll take it.”
Mrs Fairweather, who found courtesy irksome at the best of times, made no attempt to disguise her contempt. She knew the kind of people these two were, people who would never in a million years stay in her guest house under normal circumstances, who would look down their noses at it in fact, but who were prepared to put up with it tonight because they were desperate and because they had nowhere else to go.
“We do not accept credit cards, debit cards only, or cash, and the bill has to be paid now in advance, and breakfast is included if you take it or not.”
“No problem,” said Zack.
Mrs Fairweather took her time digging out registration forms and changing her glasses once again, as though enjoying the delay, knowing she was causing them more discomfort than was necessary.
“We very much appreciate this, you’re a life saver, and such a lovely place,” said Veronica, glancing round at the seriously naff decor, hoping good old flattery would do the trick.
But Mrs Fairweather knew their game. People like this thought she was lower classed, ignorant and malleable, and that a few choice words would get her to perform like a seal, but she was no one’s fool and presuming otherwise was a mistake. She decided to double the fee to get her own back.
“Three hundred pounds then,” she said, expecting a flicker of dismay at least, but Zack refused to give her the satisfaction. The tariff was up on the wall and so he knew what she was doing, but right at that moment he would have paid anything to get warm and dry.
Mrs Fairweather was even more disgruntled now that the financial arrangements had not even raised a brow with these people who clearly had money to burn, and very much wishing she had had the nerve to go for four hundred and be done with it.
“Is there any food available?” asked Zack, knowing exactly what her reply would be even before he spoke.
“No, nothing till morning now,” she said, pleasantly, with a ghost of a smile.
“Toast or anything like that?”
“The kitchen is closed,” said Mrs Fairweather as though putting a lid on all this food nonsense once and for all.
Through an open door Zack could see the kitchen from where he stood and so it wasn’t closed obviously, and the toaster was there on the work surface as large as life but he knew it was hopeless, he knew this woman took great pleasure in denying people things, it was probably the only pleasure she had left.
Mrs Fairweather struggled on the stairs, out of breath within seconds and wheezing. She led them right to the top of the building to a tiny attic room with a sloping roof. They all knew this was the worst room in the house, and they also all knew that she had chosen it even though there were other, much better rooms lying empty on the floors below. Zack was on the verge of saying something but he caught Veronica’s eye which told him to leave it, that it was one night after all and it would do. Mrs Fairweather said nothing, tossing the keys on a chipped old plywood dressing table before lumbering off.
“Bloody hell,” said Zack tearing at his clothes and grabbing a thin, cheap towel from the shower cubicle, about to launch into a diatribe.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Veronica with a smile, “it’s fine.”
Zack grabbed Veronica and hugged her. He felt so lucky to be with this woman who had trudged across the Derbyshire hills in horrendous conditions, wet through, cold, miserable, without a single complaint, and once or twice in fits of laugher at their absurd predicament. Now here she was in this grotesque rabbit hutch of a place, and still she hadn’t lost her sense of humour, Veronica French had to be the best person on earth.
“You get in the shower first,” he said.
“Let’s live dangerously and both get in.”
So they climbed tentatively into the tiny plastic cubicle which creaked and groaned at their weight and stood beneath a feeble dribble of warm water, encased by grubby tiles and dingy, lime scaled enclosures.
“Oh this is ridiculous,” said Zack, struggling to get any power at all from the prehistoric shower unit.
Veronica burst out laughing, then Zack did, then they found themselves unable to stop and they became hysterical. It had been Veronica’s intention to make love to Zack in the shower but in the confined space it was uncomfortable and it didn’t work, so Zack left her to it, getting in himself a little later.
They were dry now and in fresh clothes, happy in their little room, although Zack kept hitting his head on the eaves, making Veronica laugh. They lounged on the bed, Veronica pulling out a soggy leaflet from her bag.
“What time is it?”
“8.15,” said Zack.
Veronica admitted that the main reason she had been keen to come to Renfield was because there was quite a well-known spiritualist church just off the main street, and there was a service there apparently, that night. She asked Zack casually if he’d heard of it. To say Zack looked crestfallen would be something of an understatement. He just stared at her and said nothing hoping she would pick up the vibes.
“A friend of mine died last year, I’d just like to know she’s okay, that’s all.”
Of course she’s okay Zack wanted to say, she’s dead and as okay as she ever will be so why waste time checking up on her, and anyway what will you do if she’s not? Climb up Jack’s beanstalk and sort it out? He was angry now thinking he’d been hoodwinked into coming to this blasted place. He’d just gone through enough spooky stuff to last a lifetime and here was the woman of his dreams suggesting more.
“You’re not serious are you?”
“Of course I am, and look,” she said, jumping up and peering out of the window, “the rain has stopped.”
It hadn’t stopped, Zack noted, but it was on the wane.
“Trying to contact the dead is a waste of time, Veronica. They can’t be contacted, and you know why they can’t be contacted? Because they just so happen to be dead, that’s why.”
“Well I don’t think so.”
“Well I do.”
A silence fell while they both considered their positions.
“Okay, so you stay here, I shouldn’t be long, an hour or so at the most.”
This annoyed Zack too. He didn’t want to stay in this poky little room that didn’t even have a television, what the hell could he do here? He could find a pub, but he knew exactly what that would entail, sitting surrounded by a bunch of geriatrics as they swapped dull tales of their dull lives and sipped the one pint of keg beer they treated themselves to at the end of another dull bloody day.
“Where is this place?” Zack snapped, grabbing the leaflet.
“Well I don’t know precisely but it can’t be far.”
“I’ll catch you up.”
“Okay, fine,” said Veronica on her way out.
He heard her footsteps as she ran downstairs and the sound of the glass door in reception rattling closed behind her.
Zack let out an irritated sigh and leant back on the bed in a strop. Ordinarily, he would have gone along with Veronica, but after the last few days he genuinely believed that another dose of weirdness would just about finish him off. However, he did feel guilty allowing her to track the place down on her own, he should at least have dropped her off there if nothing else. So now he was torn between remaining in their bloody awful room to sulk, or joining a bunch of delusional no-hopers in their quest for confirmation of eternal life. A rock and a hard place thought Zack, grimly.
Veronica found the little church easily enough. As she approached its dull squat exterior, (long ago a Baptist chapel), she noticed a dim light shining from inside and a few people scuttling towards its double wooden doors, keen to escape the rain. Veronica followed them, climbed a few stone steps and found herself in a spacious vestry, further doors leading inside to the chapel itself.
A makeshift poster was pinned on an easel and words were scrawled across it, which read: ‘RUSSELL GARRITY renowned spiritualist will lead our service on Sunday at 8.30 pm, everyone is welcome!’ Then as though an afterthought, in brackets the same hand had written ‘A collection will be made after the service for church upkeep.’
When Veronica pushed open the heavy doors leading from the vestry and entered the Spartan, broken down chapel, twelve pairs of eyes swung towards her. There were no pews. The congregation was sitting in a circle, on very old wooden school chairs, but there was one free, the thirteenth, and Veronica walked towards it.
“Okay if I sit here?” she said.
“It’s yours,” said Russell Garrity, with his back to her, “we were expecting you.”
The congregation swapped smug glances at this, content in the knowledge that with Russell they were in very good hands. A tubby, bespectacled middle aged woman, Barbara Quinn, wearing a hand knitted blue cardigan, a tartan kilt, and matching beret, smiled across at Veronica as though to welcome her to the group. A lanky woman with a bright red nose snuffled into a handkerchief which had the name ‘Violet’ embroidered close to its white lace border. A vacant young man with a moon face wearing a crinkly anorak hummed to himself and tapped his foot, impatient now for the show to begin. Finally, Russell turned to find the voice but when he saw Veronica, his face darkened.
Russell was 55 years old, with darting black eyes, long dark wavy hair that framed a big face, punctuated by swollen features. His clothes were ages old, threadbare and patched. Russell could not have cared less about clothes which was just as well as he had remained unemployed for eight years after being made redundant from the quarry up on Brigstock Moor. He had worked at the quarry for twenty years prior to that, and losing his job affected Russell very deeply. He had always thought he was a vital component of the place, but for some reason the owners took against him, preferring to employ kids, (louts Russell called them), from the neighbouring town.
Russell had never left home, but remained living with his mother, Elsie, 75 now and still, mercifully, in decent health. He had always been interested in psychic matters, and having so much more time on his hands since his redundancy had become completely immersed in spiritualism and the hereafter, revelling in the small time fame his dubious status afforded him, offering his services to radio talk shows, local community groups, and anyone else who would have him. Russell often said that he would not take his job back at the quarry now even if the owners went down on bended knee and implored him, after all, these days Russell had much bigger fish to fry.
Russell found himself gazing appreciatively at this beautiful woman, wondering if she knew. But he sensed that she did not know. Whatever was about to happen to her was a secret still and he was relieved at that, that was some consolation at least.
“Good,” said Russell, prowling round amongst them, very much in charge, “and so we shall begin. Hold hands, close your eyes and listen.”
And listen they did as the double doors creaked open and swung closed. This certainly wasn’t the sound Russell was expecting, he cocked his ear and frowned. When Russell’s eyes opened for a long moment he just stared, then gasped, then bursting with indignation he started to yell.
“Get out!” shrieked Russell, pointing at Zack with an accusing finger, causing him to stop dead in his tracks. “Did you hear me? Get out of here I said!”
The congregation looked horrified at Russell’s outburst then wildly curious as to what was behind it. Russell barged over to Zack, pushing him backwards.
“Get out for the last time! You’re not welcome here!”
“I’m going, okay… I’m going,” said Zack, completely mystified and not a little scared by the confrontation.
Russell lunged for Zack and grabbed him at the throat, dragging him out of the chapel and through the vestry to the front doors and onto the step. Veronica was there now, forcing her way between them, trying to intervene.
“Get off him, are you mad! Leave him I said! What’s wrong with you?”
Veronica managed to tug Zack free, but in the scuffle he lost his footing and sprawled down the steps onto the path. In one leap Veronica was there too, grabbing his arm, pulling him up to his feet and leading him out of the church grounds. At the top of the steps Russell stood like a sentinel. Only when they disappeared round the corner did Russell go back inside.
Sam and Clarissa sat beside each other on the Chesterfield, looking up at Susan who stood in front of them, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
“Please Susan… sit down,” said Clarissa.
Susan was not sure about sitting down, it made all of this a little too cosy for her liking, but finally she did, perching on the edge of Clarissa’s balloon backed chair. Susan was sporting a black eye, she also had cuts and scratches across one cheek and in their own way both Sam and Clarissa were unsettled by this.
Sam was furious with Clarissa for buzzing her up but he knew why she had done it. He knew that Clarissa felt rather sorry for Susan, and he also knew that on several occasions Clarissa had tried to warn her about Zack, but of course Susan didn’t listen, stumbling blindly on until disaster struck. Clarissa even made excuses for her following the incident at Bellini’s, which Sam thought ridiculous, in fact they had argued about it, Clarissa refusing to blame Susan for her actions, and Sam accusing her of condoning them.
“How are you?” asked Clarissa, awkwardly.
“How do you think I am?” said Susan.
“I’m not sure you should be here, actually,” said Sam not prepared to go through pleasantries with this nutcase.
“Yes, well, I might have known you’d say that.”
“How can we help?” asked Clarissa.
“By telling Zack to own up,” said Susan, as though it was obvious.
“Susan, listen to me,” said Sam, “I don’t know what happened between you two, but I do know it wasn’t rape.”
“Oh do you?”
“Yes, I do, so if you’ve come here to try to persuade us otherwise, you’re wasting your time.”
Susan smiled. It was a perky smile, as though she had all sorts of secrets hidden away that would blow Sam’s view of Zack right out of the water. “Well, a sure man is a dead man so they say.” Susan had heard that expression somewhere and it seemed very appropriate in the circumstances.
“Sam’s right you know,” said Clarissa, gently, “you shouldn’t be here, after all, we might be called as witnesses.”
“But you weren’t there.”
Susan let out a hoot of nasty laughter. “What character? He hasn’t got any.”
“This is revenge, pure and simple,” said Sam, on his feet now, right in front of her.
“No it is not.”
“Yes it is, and it won’t be long before the police work that out for themselves so I wouldn’t get too excited by your day in court if I were you.”
“We’ve got evidence,” said Susan, rather childishly.
“Entirely fabricated I imagine.”
“And what about this?” said Susan, pointing to her face “is this entirely fabricated?” This caused a hiatus and Susan knew it would. It was Clarissa who came back first.
“Look Susan, Zack is an absolute pig with women, I did tell you, but why waste your time on all this, you’d be much better off letting the whole thing drop.”
“Better for who?” said Susan.
“Better for whom…” said Sam.
“Better for both of you,” said Clarissa.
“I don’t want anything to be better for him, do I? I want it to be worse.”
“Okay right, that’s enough,” said Sam “this conversation is over with we’re all going round in circles here.”
“Clarissa offered me coffee a little while ago.”
“Well that offer has just been rescinded,” said Sam, over at the door now and holding it open, “time to leave.”
“How does it feel, Clarissa, having a rapist for your very best friend?”
“Right that’s it, come on, out.”
Sam grabbed Susan by the arm and yanked her up. He frogmarched her swiftly out of the living room and along the hall, but Susan pulled herself free at the front door and swiped at a pile of books on a shelf, causing them to scatter. It was a petulant gesture but she seemed to get satisfaction from it. Sam grabbed her again, pushed her out of the flat and slammed the door behind her.
“That bloody woman!” he said as he stormed back into the living room to confront Clarissa, “and don’t you start on all this ‘yes but…’ business, because she isn’t worth it, she’s round the twist.”
“But what about her face, Sam?”
“What about it?”
“A little bit worrying, don’t you think?”
Sam was waiting for this. Secretly Sam agreed that it didn’t look good, but he was still absolutely sure that Zack was not responsible for any of Susan’s injuries.
Zack had only mentioned his mother briefly on the night of his confession in Cambridge, but a few weeks later Zack told Sam that he had witnessed his mother getting beaten up on several occasions, once so badly that she ended up losing the sight in one eye. Zack said he hated his mother’s emotional weakness which made her accepting of the repetitive abuse, but that no one had the right to exploit her physical weakness, or anyone else’s for that matter. They were cowards, bastard cowards, and along with Richard he wished he could have drowned the whole fucking lot.
“Zack did not give her a black eye.”
“So what does that mean, she did it herself?”
“So how do you go about giving yourself a black eye?”
“Easy, you walk into a door.”
“And you really think she’s mad enough to do that?”
“Yes, I do.”
The conversation stopped for a short time.
“It’s just a game with Zack,” said Clarissa, quietly, “then when someone like Susan comes along and cries foul, he doesn’t like it. Everything has to be on his terms.”
Clarissa was right of course she was, but Sam would never admit it. “Hey, no one’s perfect,” he said instead.
“Some a lot less perfect than others.”
“Listen, he’s generous, he’s kind and he’s loyal…”
“And he saved your life at Cambridge.”
“And he saved my life at Cambridge on more than one occasion.”
“And he expects you to be grateful for how long exactly?”
“He doesn’texpectit, Clarissa, I justamgratefulokay,” said Sam turning on her, “and I alwayswillbe grateful,so stop using this crap with Susan as a stick to beat us with.”
Clarissa was about to come back but she thought better of it. Sam didn’t lose his temper very often, but when he did it was better to batten down the hatches and wait for calmer seas.
“Anyway, I’m going out, I need some air.”
“Okay,” said Clarissa, “you do that.”
Sam barged off and a few moments later Clarissa heard the front door slam.
Intermittently over the years Sam had accused Clarissa of trying to find reasons for him to dump Zack. He knew she felt threatened by him, but to Sam that was just madness. Zack was his best friend and Clarissa was his wife. They orbited in entirely different galaxies. He loved both of them deeply and he found it really difficult when Clarissa spoke ill of Zack. Zack had never said a word against Clarissa, nor would he, so it riled Sam that Clarissa always seemed to want to do Zack down.
But Clarissa never thought of it as ‘trying to do Zack down’. She would have liked a little space between them, that’s all. She wasn’t trying to expel Zack from their kingdom, on the contrary, she loved him almost as much as Sam, but a leave of absence now and then would have been appreciated. Clarissa knew however that Sam thought it more sinister than that. Sam was so defensive when it came to Zack that he seemed to think even a vaguely negative comment about the great Zack Fortune was an attempt by Clarissa to wield the axe.
So although she didn’t know it yet, Susan’s ruse had worked. She had managed to drive a stake between Sam and Clarissa and there were divisions now, divisions which would pre-empt a fall.
In their small attic room, back at the guest house, Zack and Veronica lay together naked in each other’s arms. Despite its shortcomings, the room was a port in the storm, (literally), and they were grateful for it.
Russell’s outburst had been so weird and although Zack had anticipated weirdness before setting off to find Veronica, he hadn’t bargained on anything quite so public or quite so humiliating. Zack had managed to convince Veronica that the whole thing was a case of mistaken identity, obviously Russell had got him mixed up with someone else. But if Russell’s attack on him had something to do with the deaths - and Zack knew instinctively that it had, Zack wondered if he should seek Russell out and ask him what was behind it.
They had made love as soon as they got back into their room, this time Zack taking the lead. It was more basic than last night but just as powerful. They knocked over a bedside table and a lamp in the process and Zack found himself wondering if Mrs Fairweather, alerted by the noise had crept up to eavesdrop on the other side of their door, simultaneously appalled and excited by an activity she had long since abandoned. Sex continued for hours. It was a reaction to something thought Zack, its intensity and their inability to stop. Maybe it was a reaction to all this death.
Finally Veronica’s eyes closed. Zack held her in his arms for a full five minutes before gently extricating himself and climbing up off the bed. He pulled on his still soggy clothes and tiptoed from the room. The house was silent and dark so Zack was careful of his footsteps on the stairs. He crept from the building and set off towards the church.
But Veronica was not asleep, not really, her eyes opened the moment Zack had closed the door.CHAPTER 13
Outside a storm had bedded itself in. Trees bent double with the force of the wind and rain was whipping and bouncing and flinging itself at the streets in temper. Zack was soaked by the time he got to the chapel. His collar was up, but still rain found its way down the neck of his shirt. Already his trousers were stuck to his legs, his expensive shoes unused to this kind of treatment had given up and leaked water into his socks which were squelching. A display board stood lopsided in the chapel grounds, a couple of notices pinned up under the glass. Zack had to rub away the rain to get any view at all, but he could just make out the name Russell Garrity and a phone number. After one ring he heard Russell’s voice.
“It’s me,” said Zack.
“Ah yes,” said Russell, with resignation, “I thought it might be.”
“You know don’t you?” was the only thing Zack could think of saying, “you know what all this is about.”
Russell’s breathing sounded tired, he noted, as though it was being drawn reluctantly through his lungs under sufferance.
“Did you hear me? Did you hear what I just said?”
“Yes I heard you.”
“And you don’t? You don’t know what all this is about?”
“No, of course I don’t.”
“So you’re asking me?”
“Yes, I’m asking you.”
“Then be prepared for the answers,” said Russell, quietly, “because you won’t like them.”
Zack made no reply for a moment, scared to pick up the gauntlet that had been thrown down. “Can we meet?” he said finally, “can we talk about this?”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Absolutely…” said Zack, but the word came out like a hesitation. “I’m positive…” he said, and this time he did sound sure.
Then, as though a die had been cast, Russell said: “The bridge over Grey Pike Fell, do you know it?”
“No, but I’ll find it.”
“We need to be over water.”
“Why, what for?”
“It’s safer,” he said.
“Yes,” said Russell, “safer for me.”
Zack battled against the storm to a small minicab office on the other side of the square. Russell had given him directions although Zack doubted the place would still be open on a night like this. But there was a reluctant light shining from inside the old caravan in the corner of a pub car park, and a handmade sign which read Moonlighting Mini Cabs stuck up with blue tack in its window. Even so, when Zack pushed against the door he was still surprised to find that it opened.
A chubby middle aged Asian man sat behind a high counter, a mute television flickering on the wall up over his head. He was humming ‘My Girl Lollipop’ as Zack walked in.
“Yes?” he said, pleasantly, his Derbyshire accent apparent after only one word.
“Grey Pike Fell?”
“Now?” said the man, as though he was in the company of a fool.
“No drivers I’m afraid,” he said with a shrug.
“You can take me can’t you?”
The man looked a little embarrassed at the request. “But I am Raashid Khan, the proprietor, and the controller,” he said, with the pride of a newly qualified brain surgeon.
“But with no drivers to control,” said Zack, “is that it?”
“No, you don’t understand,” said Raashid, speaking clearly and with emphasis, “there-are-drivers-but-they-are-not-here.”
“Yes, I get that, so where are they?”
Raashid beamed and threw his arms out wide as if to say ‘your guess is as good as mine’.
“So you take me,” said Zack.
“Unfortunately, my good friend, that is not how we operate at Moonlighting Mini Cabs,” said Raashid with a little chuckle, amused that this man appeared to have so little understanding of private hire protocol.
“Well, guess what, Raashid? Tonight it is.”
As the old Ford saloon sped through town, Zack hunched up on the back seat, Raashid singing along gaily this time to Amy Winehouse and Rehab on the car radio, Zack was beginning to have second thoughts. Here he was, driving across Derbyshire in a storm to meet some loopy old guy and what for exactly… to hear another load of nonsense about past lives, the afterlife and the undead, concepts that until a few days ago, Zack had given no credence to at all. And then he got to thinking that maybe that was the trouble, maybe he’d allowed the germs of belief in and now they were feeding off each other, breeding and proliferating. Maybe if he shut up shop and rejected the whole sorry mess once and for all, whatever it was would just slink away back into the ether, job done.
Raashid had difficulty understanding just where Zack wanted to be dropped off. He said the fell was 3 miles long and two bridges crossed it, but when Zack mentioned a river, he seemed to have a better idea.
“I can’t get you that close,” said Raashid, “it’s still a walk, but I’ll get you as close as I can.”
“Thanks,” said Zack, “I appreciate it.”
Raashid had been a mini cab driver for years before setting up his own business and had driven all over Derbyshire, often picking up hill walkers who had had enough, or bird watchers needing to get to a particular spot quickly where a rare bird had shown up, but he could not remember at any time delivering a fare in such bad weather to such a remote place in the middle of the night, this had to be a first.
He had wanted to ask Zack straight out, right from the moment he pushed those twenty pound notes into his hand, but he didn’t seem the sort who would welcome questions somehow, so Raashid respected his privacy. But when he caught his eye in the rear view mirror and his curiosity getting the better of him, he decided to give it a go.
“You’re not thinking of walking down to Skellfield Dyke are you?” asked Raashid, cheerily.
“No, no I’m not,” said Zack.
“Quite right too, don’t you know,” said Raashid, now sounding like a character from PG Wodehouse,“in these adverse weather conditions, it would be tempting providence!” Raashid chuckled, and allowed Zack a few moments to reply, but Zack didn’t reply, so Raashid continued. “Have you ever seen anything like this,” he said, with a grin, “the month of June as well… but it’s our own fault of course, incurring the wrath of Allah with our test tube beef burgers, British Gas emissions, agricultural fertiliser and Branson’s supersonic space ships, and unfortunately for all concerned in these matters, our destiny is in the hands offools… despots and fools!”
Raashid shook his head from side to side making clucking noises with his tongue.
“Talking of which…talking of which,” said Raashid, bashing the steering wheel with his hands, eyes popping, “the Rams! Blimey oh riley!” he exclaimed, “don’t start me off!”
But Raashid needed no encouragement to tell Zack all about his favourite football club, the difficulties they were experiencing with the ground, the manager, the players, the people who sold the programmes, and the price they charged for a cup of tea.
“Greed has done for football,” said Raashid, sadly, “like a many jewelled dagger through the heart, but what can we do in this mixed economy of ours, survival of the fittest is the preoccupation of our capitalist classes and no mistake.”
Raashid had got into his stride now and within the fifteen minutes it took them to reach Grey Pike Fell he covered quite a lot of ground: his membership of The Caravan Club, the returns policy at Argos, his continuing disappointment with the James Bond franchise, George’s kebab shop which had undergone major refurbishment recently, and not before time according to Raashid, but Zack was not really listening. He was gazing out of the window at the dark, dank landscape beyond, nervous now as the journey was about to come to an end.
Raashid finally pulled into a lay-by and dimmed his lights. He turned to Zack with a grin as rain clog danced on the roof of the car. “Here we are!” said Raashid with a flourish, “Grey Pike Fell. The pathway is through that gate, it goes right down to the river, turn left along the bank then about a quarter of a mile or so you’ll see some steps to the bridge, but be careful, the river has already broken its banks so the path will be treacherous in places… in fact, my advice to anyone in your situation would be this:do not under any circumstance throw caution to the wind!”
Raashid offered his hand which Zack shook. He liked this guy who had agreed to waive his much trumpeted position as proprietor and controller for half an hour or so and to deliver him into the wilds of Derbyshire with no questions asked.
“You want me to wait?” asked Raashid, sticking his head out of the window, just as he was about to drive away.
“No, you get back,” said Zack, “thanks, mate, I appreciate it.”
The Ford did a noisy three point turn, and as Raashid screeched off back onto the road, he sounded his horn a couple of times and then he was gone. With the sounds of Raashid’s engine fading, Zack turned to the open gate, flinging itself back and forth in the wind and began his descent towards the river.
All pretence of his clothes offering protection from the weather had now gone, if anything they were a hindrance. The weight of wet denim rubbed against his groin and the backs of his shoes were wearing the skin from his heels. Why on earth this venue? This was complete madness. The river had risen to such an extent that the wide paths on either side of it were flooded, so Zack had to walk right up against the foot of the hills, sometimes struggling up the sodden grass and mud to avoid the swell of the rapids, making progress slow.
Eventually, in the distance up ahead he saw a narrow wooden foot bridge straddled across the surging maelstrom beneath, and swaying precariously like a hammock. Even from here he could see that its hand rail was broken in a couple of places, and it was littered with broken branches from overhanging trees that tossed and pitched in the storm. In the middle of the bridge looking towards him he saw Russell, the whiteness of his face a guiding moon in the darkness.
When Zack reached the narrow, steep stone steps that led up the hillside he started to climb them, the weight of his sodden clothes making his legs heavy. He scrambled up, crawled up really, until he was standing cautiously on the hillside wiping his muddy hands on his clothes, brushing rain from his eyes. There were signs forbidding people to use the bridge and Zack could quite understand why.
“Are you sure this thing’s safe!” said Zack, lobbing his voice into the gale that was threatening at any minute to scoop the two of them up and fling them down into the river and be done with it. Russell just stared as though he hadn’t heard the question, so Zack stepped gingerly onto the bridge feeling its sway beneath his feet, clutching at the broken rail that straight away gave at his touch. A few feet away from Russell, Zack stopped.
“Why the endurance test? And why here of all places?” said Zack, rain cascading down his face and hardly able to concentrate in these conditions.
“A precaution, that’s all…”
“Look, I’m sure you believe absolutely in all this, whatever it is, but I’m… well, how can I put it?”
“A nonbeliever?” ventured Russell.
“A nonbeliever, yes, that’s about it.”
“It doesn’t matter because the outcome will be the same. But you had a question you said, let’s start with that.”
“Strangers keep dying right in front of me, they call out my name and ask me to help them, three times now, three strangers.”
“And your question is?”
“Why it’s happening of course and how the hell do I get it to stop,” said Zack, surprised to be asked.
“You can’t get it to stop, not in this lifetime.”
Zack wanted to hit him. “Are you crazy? Of course I can get it to stop.”
“Then go right ahead, you asked for my help but it seems you don’t need it.”
As Russell turned to walk away, Zack lunged forward and pulled him back. “I do, I do need it, I’m sorry…”
Russell gazed at Zack, hopelessly. He knew this man was desperate for a clean logical explanation but it didn’t work like that, and Russell also knew that as much as he tried to get Zack Fortune to accept this, he would not be able to accept it because he was not the accepting type.
“You’ve tried to regress to another life am I correct?”
“Well, maybe, yes…” said Zack, hugely embarrassed to have to admit to this.
“We forget our previous lives and deaths and that’s how it should be, sneaking glimpses as you have done is dangerous.”
“It wasn’t my idea,” said Zack, realising how pathetic this sounded, like a child blaming someone else.
“It doesn’t matter, what matters is that you have brought back information you should not have.”
“Only you know that.”
“So how do I get rid of it?” said Zack, more bewildered than ever.
“You can’t, you can’t unlearn things, no one can. You’ve invited chaos into your life and now you have to live with it.”
“Live with what?” said Zack, desperate to understand.
“People who have made this mistake are damned, and your life is about to reflect that if it hasn’t already. But there is some good news…”
“You are the sinner that God loves, the recurring task he has set you in the afterlife has put you on a very high plane, but that is the only grain of comfort I can offer you I’m afraid.”
“What the hell does all this mean?”
“You are trying to cheat fate, but you can’t cheat this, this is your destiny.”
“What is?” screamed Zack. “And what’s all this water business and why were you so frightened of me? Tell me, stop replying in bloody riddles.”
“I can’t tell you anymore, it’s not my place.”
“So whose place is it!” said Zack, stepping up right in front of him.
“Please, don’t threaten me like this…”
“Threaten you? Threaten you? I’ll do more than threaten you,” said Zack grabbing hold of him and starting to shake him.
As Russell tried to fight Zack off, they staggered across the bridge from side to side like dancing bears.
“Tell me everything! I won’t let go of you until you do!TELL ME!”
Managing to break free from Zack and pushing him over, Russell skidded off along the bridge and had gone a fair distance, when his foot got caught in one of the broken branches that lay across the bridge like booby traps. Unable to regain his balance, he pitched forward against the hand rail that snapped like a match with his weight and toppled from the bridge, arms flailing, plunging down headlong into the river with an indignant yell.
Straight away Zack jumped in after him allowing the freezing water to shock him first in a full body assault and deprive him of breath, then to propel him through the rapids in crazy pursuit. Two hundred yards from the bridge and Zack had almost reached him, close enough to see the desperation in his eyes, certainly.
“Grab my hand, grab it…” said Zack, but as he forced his body forward to reach him and scrabbled to grab his hand, the fierce waters excited at their catch and determined to deny Russell’s rescue, swirled him off triumphantly and took him for their own.
At the very same moment Zack was dragged down into a dark vortex, exhaustion and cold had kidnapped every limb, and it crossed his mind that maybe he should just give in to it, no decisions… no fear… no fight. But just as he prepared himself for death, and he knew at that moment he could make that choice, a primal desire for survival took over and with a reserve of strength he did not even recognize, he forced his head and body up over the water line, frantic to breathe again, frantic to live. But he was still being hurled relentlessly downstream by a river eager to trump its first deadly catch with a second. Sharp boulders jutting out caught him, one nearly knocking him out.
Then, from somewhere, Zack found the determination to fight the rapids that were conspiring to break his will and with sheer bloody mindedness he battled his way through the brutal currents towards the river bank making several attempts to grab at overhanging branches, close to despair, as each branch gave at his needy grasp. Then at last, when Zack thought he would have to travel the length of this river in his attempt to negotiate solid ground, one branch was strong enough not to break, but to remain a robust lifeline as he grabbed it, allowing him to tug himself along it towards the bank. With an emergency supply of will, dredged up from who knows where, he launched his body like an ungainly flopping seal at the river path, where water spewed still, lapping back and forth, but shallow and without threat, the threat to Zack had gone.
Veronica heard the door quietly open and managed to sneak a look at Zack, wet through and covered in mud as he crept into the shower room and pushed its door to behind him. Veronica found herself wondering if Zack would tell her what he had been doing. She decided not to ask, but wait until he volunteered the information and if he didn’t then she’d accept that whatever Russell had had to say was unhelpful, and not worth repeating, because she knew that Zack had gone to find him, she just knew it. Veronica fell asleep again, but woke as Zack slipped into bed beside her and snuggled up against her back. She was waiting for him to touch her, but he didn’t, almost as soon as his head hit the pillow he was asleep.
The following morning they missed breakfast which pleased Mrs Fairweather no end. She gave them a smirk as they came downstairs not much before 11, then just as they were leaving the building she shouted after them.
“You do know rooms have to be vacated by 10.15.”
Zack stopped and turned back, indicating for Veronica to continue and to wait for him outside.
“We paid for two nights,” Zack said, “so vacating will happen tomorrow, not today.”
“You said you wanted to stay for one night, but agreed to pay for two,” said Mrs Fairweather, pedantic to the last.
“Yes,” said Zack, really not in the mood for this today, “because you said we had to stay for two, so return us the extortionate fee you charged us for this bargain basement accommodation and you won’t see us for dust, in fact, you don’t know how happy that would actually make us.” Zack spoke with such sarcasm and glared at the woman with such contempt, she did not dare make a reply.
Getting nasty now, she thought, I knew it.
Zack made the barest nod then continued outside where Veronica stood waiting a little anxiously.
“Miserable old bat,” he said, as they walked away.
They found a nondescript coffee bar on the high street and during breakfast Zack organized help for his car. He told Veronica no need for her to come with him, more fun for her to mooch around town. A little later Zack was picked up by a young mechanic in a recovery truck and they made the short journey without saying much at all.
“Oh dear,” said the mechanic when he saw the damage. Yes, thought Zack, oh dear indeed. The mechanic jumped from the cabin and opening up the Mercedes perched himself on the driver’s seat and turned the key. The engine fired immediately, keen, ready for the off.
“Well that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about.”
But of course Zack did worry about it. “There was nothing there at all last night.”
“The rain I expect, the battery died.”
“And came back to life again?”
“Clever sods these Germans, eh?” said the mechanic with a grin.
“Too clever by half,” said Zack, quietly.
“So what happened exactly?”
“The engine died the car stopped and the scaffolding pole fell. That’s about it.”
“Was someone with you?”
“Yes, yes they were.”
“Bloody lucky then, freak accident eh… the pole must have worked its way loose in the storm.”
“You could get thousands for this,” he said, nodding at the bridge, “sue the bastards, I would.”
The mechanic seemed to think they could get a windscreen driven over from Derby later that day, at least that was what he told Zack he was trying to arrange.
“Follow me back, yeah?” he said a little later, once the car had been cleaned up and the pole dispensed with at the side of the road, out of harm’s way, so Zack did follow him back to a small garage just outside town.
On the way back to the hotel the night before, Zack had phoned the police from a call box telling them about a body in the river, but of course left no details. Russell’s intransigence and his refusal to enlighten him after dragging him to such a remote place on such a terrible night had infuriated Zack. Russell knew the score, and had he wanted to he could have shared that information, but Russell chose not to do that. Instead, he talked in riddles and spouted grandiose garbage, and Zack had lost it, big time.
For some reason Russell was more frightened of Zack than he was of that death trap of a bridge or the river beneath it and his insistence on standing over water had done for him in the end, which was ironic to say the least. This should have been enough for Zack to dismiss Russell and his crackpot theories out of hand, and he wanted to, he really did, but he couldn’t, because Russell got one important thing right, he knew about the regression although Zack had told him nothing about it.
Zack ran through the vision one more time and could find no startling revelation in fact nothing of any significance at all. He saw a dying man reach towards him and ask him for help. The amount of blood that came from inside this poor creature suggested that he was in his last moments, just as the suicide had been and just as the old boy had been and just as the child had been. Yes, Zack could see a connection but a connection to what?
And it was then that Zack decided to stop beating himself up about all this and to try and forget it. Here in this picturesque mill town the sun was up, the storm had blown itself out and tonight he would go to bed with Veronica French. Life had, for the most part been good to Zack Fortune and as Jason Heart had reminded him it was short, and he was damn well going to enjoy it.
Veronica enjoyed exploring small provincial towns with individual shops selling individual things, the antithesis of the American shopping mall that was threatening to take over the British way of life, selling chain store everything. She wandered up and down the streets of Renfield, in and out of gift shops, galleries, boutiques, chandlers and bakers. Finally she came across an old fashioned sweet shop and dropped in to browse.
“What was he doing up there at that time?” said the shop girl, wide eyed, to the larger of two woman up by till.
“It’s obvious isn’t it?”
“I don’t buy that,” said the other one, “he’s rock solid is Russell, at leasthe was… and not with Elsie the way she is. She’ll not be long on this earth now will Elsie, not with Russell gone.”
Veronica came to stillness, glanced over at the women then tentatively moved towards them. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing… it’s not… Russell Garrity you’re talking about, is it?”
“Yes, love, he died last night, poor thing.”
“He drowned at Grey Pike Fell although what he was doing up there no one knows. The whole thing is very peculiar if you ask me. I was just saying… I hope Elsie’s all right. She’s not that good on her feet these days is Elsie.”CHAPTER 14
Jason Heart had been in Chancery Street since 11.30 am. It was now 2.15 and he was fed up. He had remained on the opposite side of the street to Emerson Buildings, mesmerized by the doors as they went round and round drawing people in and turfing people out. Old Patrick hadn’t noticed him, because he’d made sure he didn’t, but from Jason’s vantage point, he could see him near the window, chatting to a couple of old guys and Miss Betty was up behind her desk as usual.
Jason decided that she looked like a Miss Betty but the old black guy didn’t look like a Patrick. Patricks were usually Irish, but as far as Jason knew there were no jungles in Ireland and Patrick looked like he had just walked out of one. Jason didn’t like black people. In fact Jason didn’t really like any foreigners much, however, Jason saved most of his vitriol for the English, because after all, it was the English who had ruined his life.
Jason had been planning to join Zack Fortune for lunch, but no show so far. Jason wondered if he could blag his way in and get up to the 9th floor to see him. Maybe, thought Jason, maybe he could. Jason got past Patrick easily enough as he was distracted by a motor bike delivery boy who had presented him with two huge parcels. He also managed to get past Betty, at least he thought he had, but she caught a glimpse of him, just as the lift doors shut. Jason saw her picking up a phone.
The receptionist, Karen, at Nyman Holder and Drew, two years older than Jason, did not know what to make of him at all. He obviously knew Zack worked at the company but what he wanted him for Karen could not imagine. She told Jason that Zack was away, but she could tell he didn’t believe her. Karen was relieved to see Sam Stein get out of the lift, and as he was about to disappear down towards the water cooler, she called him over.
“Sam? This gentleman is here for Zack Fortune, perhaps you could help him?” said Karen, keen to dump the responsibility onto someone else.
Sam turned back and took Jason in, peering out from under his hood with jaded eyes. He noticed the holes in his jeans and his beaten up trainers and his dirty fingernails but Sam did not miss a beat.
“Of course,” said Sam, “if you would like to come with me.”
Jason followed Sam to his office and they went inside, Sam closing the door quickly behind them.
“So you’ve come to see Zack Fortune?”
“Yes, I’m his client.”
“His client?” said Sam after a hesitation, “what kind of client?”
“Possession with intent to supply,” said Jason, “that kind of client.”
Sam looked thrown. “But Zack doesn’t do criminal defence anymore.”
“He does for me.”
“So he said he’d take the case?”
“Yes, because he hates it here.”
“Does he?” said Sam, surprised that a street kid should know more about his best friend than he did.
“He told me he’d sold out.”
Sam could see Zack making these claims but it bugged Sam to have them reported back to him by this boy all the same.
“I told him that life was short and he should enjoy it while he could,” said Jason, hoping this would impress Sam.
“Did you indeed?”
“And he agreed with me.”
“Yes,” said Sam, with a little smile, “I bet he did.”
“I dropped the bundle off with Miss Betty. I just wondered if she’d passed it over, that’s all.”
“Well I can’t answer that I’m afraid. Zack is away at the moment but he’ll be back next week so you can ask him yourself.”
Jason knew Sam wanted him to leave so he crossed to a chair, sank into it and folded his arms. Jason was going nowhere.
Betty had got no reply on Geoff’s phone from reception and so decided that drastic measures were called for and followed Jason up in the lift.
“Is Geoff around, Karen?” asked Betty.
“Yes, somewhere, try Phil’s room down on the left.”
Betty followed Karen’s instructions and at the end of the passageway stopped at an open door. Geoff and Phil, distinguished and soon to retire, looked at Betty a little taken aback, this was not her usual stamping ground after all.
“Geoff, I’mso sorry, but Idoneed to have a word,” said Betty.
“Come on in, Betty,” said Geoff, grandly, “come on in.”
Geoff indicated a chair as Phil went off and left them to it, not wanting to waste his time with Betty or the inconsequential world that she inhabited.
“This is very awkward, Geoff, but I really feel you should know.”
Geoff was curious now as he leant up against Phil’s desk arms folded. “Then fire away, Betty,” he said with a patronizing grin, “fire away.”
“A boy keeps coming to the building. He’s here now, I saw him get into the lift.”
“Aboy,” said Geoff, “what boy?”
“Well now that’s the thing,” said Betty, as though the implications were grave, “some street kid, a hoodie.”
“So what does he want?”
“Apparently, Mr Fortune is defending him in a court action. A drugs charge, although that piece of information is confidential and between you and me.”
“But he doesn’t work in criminal defence anymore, he works for us.”
“That’s what I said on day one but he wouldn’t have it. He became aggressive with both Patrick and myself and started shouting and throwing things. I mentioned it to Mr Fortune but he seemed unperturbed as though I was speaking out of turn and in fact he more or less told me that it was none of my business, but itismy business Geoff, as well you know. My job is to make sure this wheel of commerce turns efficiently, but how can I when there’s a drug dealer on the rampage, causing havoc?”
Geoff smiled across at Betty, flushed with her little speech, hoping it would put her into his good books no doubt, but Geoff had an innate dislike of snitchers so Betty was on a losing wicket there. Geoff hoped that Zack was not having some kind of breakdown. He had given him the benefit of the doubt after the extraordinary episode with the Wahlbergs because people as gifted as Zack Fortune were a rarity, but if all this business was true, his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic and it was worrying.
“He’s with us now, you say,” said Geoff, “he’s in the building?”
“Yes, but goodness knows where. I presumed he’d come straight up here, but you haven’t seen him I take it?”
“Not that I am aware,” said Geoff, archly.
“You’d know if you had,” said Betty, “believe me.”
But Sam had seen Jason, in fact he’d seen a little too much of Jason because Jason was refusing to leave.
“He might come back.”
“He won’t come back, he’s in Derbyshire.”
“What’s he doing there?”
“Very important things…”
“For a week?” said Sam, annoyed now and just wanting this boy to make himself scarce, without Geoff seeing him or anyone else for that matter.
“He might come back earlier, he might come back today.”
“No he won’t, he can’t, it’s not allowed.”
Jason thought about this. It could be a rule here that you have to go to Derbyshire for a week every so often, but he didn’t think so. The way this guy mentioned Derbyshire with a smirk on his face made Jason suspicious.
“Now, I’ve got work to do, so let me bid you farewell.”
Sam smiled, walked over to the door and opened it revealing Betty and Geoff who had his hand up and was about to knock.
“Ah!” bellowed Geoff with the look of a man who had just discovered the secret of Atlantis. “And this is?” he asked airily to no one in particular, swiftly homing in on Jason and gazing down at him, like he was an exhibit under glass.
“I’m a client. Zack Fortune looks after me.”
“Does he indeed?”
“I’m here to discuss my case.”
“Well unfortunately Mr Fortune is not here at the moment so your plan has been thwarted, young man.”
Jason glanced up at Geoff with his stupid red braces, his smarmy smile and his idiotic old words that no one had ever heard of.Lean down any further you wanker and I’ll bite your fucking nose off.
“So probably time for you to leave,” said Geoff, pleasantly enough.
“No I’ll wait… thanks all the same.”
“Don’t be so ridiculous!” said Betty, swinging into action, “you shouldn’t even be here in the first place as well you know! Now… do you want me to get Patrick up here to sort this out, because I will…” said Betty, as though she was about to call on the services of Attila the Hun.
“Right… I’ll call Patrick and we’ll see about this!” said Betty bustling across to Sam’s phone.
“I think we might be better calling the police,” said Geoff, who had very little confidence in Patrick at the best of times.
Sam bent down and whispered in Jason’s ear.
“Listen, mate,” said Sam, “you drop Zack in the shit with the boss here and he’ll ditch you, he’ll want nothing more to do with you at all.”
Jason did not like the sound of this. He did not like the sound of this one bit, in fact the more he pulled the idea back and forth in his head, the more he was beginning to panic. Perhaps he’d got this wrong, like he had with Kelly, after all, she stopped speaking to him, what if Zack did too? Jason was on his feet now, and backing towards the door.
“I’m sorry!” he shouted to Geoff. “I’m sorry, Miss Betty. It wasn’t Zack Fortune’s fault, it was mine. He told me to keep away, but I wouldn’t listen. I’m going now and I won’t be back!”
Jason dived out of Sam’s office and finding the staircase, flew down all 18 flights and through the fire door to the mews outside. Jason ran, and he didn’t stop running until he got back to the Holloway Road.
Sam reassured Geoff as best he could, telling him that Jason, who clearly had some mental health issues, had got it wrong. Zack would not have agreed to defend him in court so the whole thing must be wishful thinking. He said that he felt it unlikely that they would see Jason again after today, so they could consider the matter closed.
However, in private, both men wondered if it was quite as simple as Sam had made out. It didn’t help when Betty spoke to Geoff again at some length later on that day, insisting that Zack must have known about the boy and his impending court case, otherwise, why take the bundle, and why be so blasé about him turning up on the premises in the first place. Eventually, Geoff decided to leave it until Zack’s return and try to get to the bottom of it all himself.
Sam hoped he’d got away with it with Geoff. He seemed happy enough with his explanation, much happier in fact than Sam had been. Sam was still brooding on the implications when he received a phone call that took him by surprise.
“Tracy Bright speaking, Zack Fortune’s solicitor.”
“Yes, he’s mentioned you,” said Sam.
“Where is he? Do you know?”
“Yes, he left me a message to that effect, but where in Derbyshire?” snapped Tracy.
“Well if you hear from him tell him to call me straight away.”
“That sounds like bad news.”
“It is,” said Tracy, after a hesitation, “it really is.”
Sam knew there was no point asking Tracy exactly how bad, because he knew she would refuse to tell him. Sam hung up and immediately phoned Zack but nothing, no message service, nothing, surely even in Derbyshire they have mobile phone masts don’t they? But there were hills and there were dales, Sam did know that, so maybe Zack was just too high or too low or behind some God forsaken mountain or something and therefore off radar. Then as though in answer to his little prayer, ten minutes later, Zack called.
“Mate,” said Sam, relieved to hear his voice, “how goes it?”
“Like the curate’s egg if you must know,” said Zack, sounding more than a little subdued.
“Another new phone…”
“Indeed, but let’s not go there.”
“Not girl trouble already?”
“No, not yet…”
“Good to hear it, listen, your solicitor has been on the phone.”
“To you?” said Zack after a hesitation, “what the hell for?”
“You’d better call her,” said Sam, “and pronto… something’s up.”
“Shit,” said Zack. “Must be the pills, Sid didn’t know what they were, did I tell you?”
“Of course he bloody did!” said Sam, finding himself angry suddenly at the thought of the man, “just call her, and report back to me straight away.”
But Zack did not report back to Sam straight away, and despite many attempts to raise him on his new phone Sam failed to make contact with Zack for the rest of the day. Zack saw the logged messages and emails, but did not respond, he was in the car now with Veronica and driving back to London, his head still swimming with the conversation he’d had earlier with Tracy Bright.
“Hi Tracy…” he’d said, trying to sound upbeat.
“Look, Zack, you really must not do this. You should have spoken to me first before even considering a trip out of town, it was a mistake and I am hugely surprised you made it.”
“Well there we are,” said Zack, “you’re not the first woman I’ve disappointed, Tracy, and I don’t suppose you’ll be the last. So, anyway, what the hell were those pills?” said Zack, trying to get them back on more neutral territory.
“It’s not the pills,” said Tracy, her words fading to silence.
“Oh I see, you want me to guess.”
“The samples taken from Susan have tested positive, I’m afraid.”
“Sorry… what was that you said?”
“You want me to spell it out?”
“Yes, I think you better had.”
“Semen taken from Susan’s vagina on the night of the alleged assault has been checked against your DNA profile and the conclusion is that it is yours, so, what I think we should do is this…”
Tracy continued speaking, but Zack had cut off, thoughts were racing through his head, plus a million questions. He knew Tracy could not answer any of them, and neither could he. Suddenly it was like he was on another planet that looked exactly like earth but which had its own set of rules, none of which made sense.
The last time he had seen Susan he remembered thinking how beautiful she looked, lying in his bed completely naked, finding her strange features attractive again, appealing even, after having thought exactly the opposite a couple of days earlier, but he remembered nothing else. There was a vague recollection of her touching him when he fell back into bed but it was just a fragment of memory, nothing concrete. Maybe Susan had instigated sex and he had gone along with it. Would he really have agreed to that? And more to the point, in the state he was in, would he have been capable of it? But this was damning evidence and Zack knew it. He remembered nothing after falling asleep on the bed, and had he taken Tracy’s advice he would have thought long and hard before saying what he did or did not do because the truth was he couldn’t remember a damn thing.
For the first time since he had known Sid, Zack found himself cursing the guy. He had asked for a few uppers and downers that’s all, nothing heavy duty, but whatever the white pills were they had delivered a hammer blow that had disabled his memory and rendered him unconscious. He could hear Sam complaining to Clarissa that it was his own stupid fault having anything to do with Sid Johnson, the reprobate, who promised fun but delivered chaos, and this time, Sam was right.
Zack told Veronica that there had been some crisis at work and unfortunately he had to get back to town. Veronica didn’t object and was very quiet in the car as they set off.
“You know Russell Garritty died last night,” she said, her head turned away from him, gazing out of the window, not long after they hit the M1.
“The guy that threw me out of the hall?” he said, managing to sound almost neutral.
“The very same,” she replied.
“They think he might have committed suicide, they don’t know. He drowned in a river, at least… that’s what I heard anyway.”
“Who told you all this?”
“A woman in a sweet shop,” she said.
“What woman in what sweet shop?”
“I overheard a conversation,” said Veronica, turning to look at him, “strange don’t you think?” A silence fell, but when Veronica thought enough time had elapsed, she continued. “Where did you get to last night?”
“I found a half decent pub,” said Zack vaguely, “there was a lock-in, quite fun in a way.”
“You didn’t see Russell on your travels?”
“No. Why? Should I have done?” said Zack unable to keep the tension from his voice.
“I thought you might have been curious, that’s all… and tracked him down.”
“Oh you know what I mean,” she said, annoyed they were keeping up this pretence.
“I told you, I’m not interested in people like that, they’re parasites.”
“Really, and you city boys are not?” said Veronica looking straight at him.
“I don’t make money from other people’s misfortune if that’s what you mean, no I don’t.”
“I thought that’s all you guys did, actually,” said Veronica, turning back to gaze out of the window again, “exploit labour to increase profit… so I’d say you were exactly the same in that respect.”
They barely spoke after that, neither liking the fact that a rift had developed between them, but neither quite knowing what to do about it.
Once the Mercedes had pulled up in Thornhill Square, Veronica grabbed her bag from the back seat and refusing Zack’s offer of help, jumped from the car.
“I’ll call you,” said Zack.
Veronica shrugged and threw him a dismissive glance, as though she wasn’t particularly bothered one way or another.
Zack watched her for a moment or two heaving her case up the steps, then as Veronica’s door closed behind her, he drove off. Half an hour later Zack was sprawled on Sam’s Chesterfield in Baker Street tugging on a Marlboro. Luckily Clarissa was out at one of her new age get-togethers, so they had the place to themselves. Sam was pleased to see Zack and keen to hear the latest, but when he did hear the latest, the news hit him like a blow.
“So you did have sex? Is that it?”
“Christ, surely you’d have remembered?” said Sam with a burst of impatience.
“I do remember thinking how lovely she looked.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“Look Sam, hand on heart I don’t know what happened, I don’t think we had sex but I couldn’t swear to it. When I woke up she was sitting on my bed with no clothes on. I got up, sat across from her in the little boudoir chair, the one that crazy Italian girl got me to buy, she said she would change, I said I wouldn’t, the usual garbage. I fell back into bed and as far as I am aware I passed out.”
They gazed across at each other for a few moments.
“She came here by the way, did I tell you? Clarissa let her in.”
“Here? Susan?Why? What the hell for?”
“She wanted us to persuade you to confess.”
“Hell, I hope you kicked her out.”
“In the end,” said Sam.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Sam shrugged, about to speak, then looking awkward, he clammed up suddenly.
“She had one hell of a black eye, mate,” said Sam finally, with a tense shrug.
“Oh Christ,and there was me thinking you were on my side.”
“I am, of course I am,” said Sam, rather lamely.
“Well, she feels sorry for Susan, she always has… a girl’s thing I guess.”
“And we go backhow long?” said Zack, looking hurt.
“It just doesn’t look too good, mate, that’s all… and now this…”
“Okay, right now listen to me… Susan was sitting on my bed naked having let herself into my flat, desperate for me to take her back. Had I wanted sex with the girl I only had to ask. So what exactly is she saying? I instigated sex and shedeclined? She would have denied me nothing at that moment, nothing on this earth. And you know what? Call me old fashioned but I don’t thump women, it’s not what I do.”
“I know you don’t mate, I know that,” said Sam, looking sheepish.
“How about some more bad news?” said Sam after a brief silence, making Zack groan. “Your little friend Jason Heart blagged his way into the office today ruffling the usual feathers.”
“Some foot soldier who seemed to think you were his brief.”
“Oh God,him…” said Zack, remembering, “and what did he want?”
“To meet up with you of course…”
“Brilliant, that’s all I need.”
“So who is this Mr Heart?”
“He wants me to defend him on a drugs charge.”
“Yes, so I gather, but why you?”
“God knows, he seems to think I’m the only man for the job although where he got that from I do not know.”
“But you’re otherwise engaged, did you tell him that?”
“I did, but he got me on a bad day.”
“Well it didn’t go down terribly well as you might imagine.”
“Another nail in the coffin, eh?” said Zack, glancing at Sam, uncertainly.
Sam thought about this and Zack watched him think about it. “The timing could have been better, that’s all,” he said.
Zack put out his cigarette and lit another one, ignoring Sam’s glare of disapproval.
“It seems crazy now, but a couple of weeks ago I remember hankering after the old days. There I was lamenting how dull my life had become…”
“You spoke too soon, mate,” said Sam, with feeling, “you really spoke too soon.”
The following day saw Zack and Tracy back at the police station where gloominess prevailed.
“Look,” said Zack with resignation, “I understand the evidence now is rather damning…”
“Rather?” said Tracy, eyes open wide at the understatement.
“Okay, right… this girl came round to my flat to convince me to take her back and I refused…”
“You told me this before.”
“Why rape her when she was happy to oblige?”
“Because you prefer it that way,” said Tracy, looking straight at him.
“No, I don’t prefer it that way, I find the whole idea repulsive. I have never felt the need to force sex on anyone, because, hey, guess what? For me anyway,sex has never been that difficult to get.”
Tracy took the point, and realising she had possibly gone too far, reverted to professional mode.
“You said you returned to your flat between 12 and 1, and yet at 11.30…”
“I made a mistake,” said Zack, aware just how feeble this sounded now. “Susan must have sent that text from my phone in my flat, it’s the only explanation.”
“You didn’t drive back home I take it.”
“No, I’m not quite that reckless.”
“So who took you?”
“A cab driver,” said Zack, following her reasoning.
“Well I think we need to speak to this cab driver, don’t you?”
Good idea thought Zack, although he didn’t say it.
Zack knew he could sack Tracy Bright at any time. He could hire someone else entirely, and occasionally, the woman irritated him so much Zack wondered what was stopping him, but actually he knew what it was. For some bizarre reason he needed to convince Tracy along with everyone else that he was innocent, and as Zack suspected that Tracy doubted him, it made him doubly keen to convince her otherwise. He knew that Tracy Bright would bridle at any preconceived notion of being labelled a female chauvinist yet here she was subscribing to the view that all men were bastards, him very much included, which led him to question what the hell she was doing defending an alleged rapist anyway.
“I’ll try and track down the cabbie,” said Zack, a note of conciliation in his voice, “although whether he’ll be prepared to play ball is another matter”
“Ifyou get bail,” said Tracy, a little too eagerly he thought. “That’s not a given, so don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves just yet.”
Zack did get bail, although the formal charge of Susan’s rape hung over him like a tarnished halo as he left the police station and made his way to his car. He was due in court for preliminary proceedings at the end of week, although in his experience that could be postponed for months because of backlogs and delays.
He desperately wanted to see Veronica, but she had gone to Venice of all places to meet with some brooding sculptor who sounded too charismatic and glamorous by half. Threatened by her meeting with this Italian god, Zack had done his best to persuade her not to go, but she was set on the idea. So here he was, for the first time in his life completely at the whim of this bloody woman who could render his life empty and meaningless just by plumping for some bastard Italian pseudo-intellectual over him.
Under normal circumstances he would have bombed over to Sid’s and got out of his skull, and although tempted, he thought maybe this time he should err on the side of caution. Mooching around his flat an hour later, Zack came across Jason’s bundle and sat down to give it the once over.
From what he could glean, even allowing for his tender age Jason was looking at two to three years minimum as he had agreed to supply undercover police officers with a large amount of crack cocaine, telling them he could get more where that came from and suggesting another deal that would net him roughly 50 grand. Something was not quite right with all this Jason business, but for the moment Zack couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Bored with the pages of small print, Zack decided to shoot over to The Mango Tree for a couple of drinks, calling in on Sid’s mini cab office maybe on the way home.
The Mango Tree was quiet. News of the police raid had gone round the neighbourhood like bush telegraph and most of the more colourful clientele were lying low. A girl came over and started talking to Zack almost as soon as he’d stepped up to the bar, but she was out of it, and although once attractive and possibly charming too, heavy duty drugs had put paid to all that. She told Zack she was an aristocrat, and Zack had no reason to disbelieve her, she had that detached superiority that only the best of stock possess. Rake thin, gaunt, tossing back mousy hair that hung dull and lank over bony shoulders, she bummed a fag and asked Zack if he wanted to ‘come back’.
“No thanks, love, thanks all the same,” he said, not remotely interested, and well aware that she expected him to pay for it anyway.
“Don’t call me love, I’m not your love, I’m no one’s love,” she spat out.
“Yeah, you know somehow I can believe that.”
The girl glared at him for a moment, but realising it was a lost cause, slid off with a nasty snarl of her crooked red mouth.
Just then Sid walked in. He saw Zack straight away and a little sheepishly came over asking Zack what he was drinking, which was a first. Zack accepted the drink, and waited until Sid had pocketed his change before indicating his favourite table barely visible in a very dark corner. As they sat down, Sid took out a scruffy piece of paper from an old wallet and handed it over.
“That drug you ask me about. No way could I pronounce it so me write it for you, handy you turn up, now I can fulfil me obligation face to face.”
Zack gazed down at Sid’s large uneven hand and tried to pronounce the word.
“Amyltrifloraltriptamine, is that it?”
“Something like that, something like that…”
“Well is it or not?”
“I and I do me best,” said Sid, his voice going up an octave, “but English not me first language, you know that.”
“So what is your first language then? Remind me.”
“Jamaican… really? Well that’s a language I don’t know too much about.”
“You taking the Herbert, man,” said Sid, “when me struggle duty bound in this regard.”
“I got busted, Sid, damage limitation that’s all,” said Zack, causing Sid’s eyes to widen in alarm, making him look curiously vulnerable suddenly. “Don’t worry, I gave them the usual bullshit, the trail won’t lead to you.”
“Give it all up, man, it’s a mug’s game,” said Sid, expansively. “Me had to cast me eye over the wreckage too many a time. Why compromise survival in any bad ass circumstance? Be thankful God’s good grace give you more than one chance to fuck up and celebrate the fact,” said Sid, with his usual baffling logic.
Sid downed his drink in one go, stood up and offered his hand. Zack stood up to take it and remained holding it a few moments too long. “Be lucky as they say, Mr Fortune.”
And for some strange reason both men knew at that moment that they would never see each other again, not in this lifetime anyway.CHAPTER 15
Westline Mini Cab office stood at the end of a row of shops, its back entrance opening onto an alleyway that ran parallel to the street. Three cabs waited outside. Zack glanced at each driver in turn as they leant up against their chariots, but none of the faces that turned towards him rang a bell. He crossed the pavement to the office and stepped inside. There was the usual kitchen work surface that doubled as a counter, and behind it, controllers wearing headsets sat at wonky old desks right round the perimeter of the room. Up on the wall was a blown up photograph of Boris Johnson with his arm round a large man, and underneath someone had written the caption: ‘Charlie and Boris talk turkey!’
“Yes?” said the man himself, lumbering out from the wings towards him.
“I wonder if you can help me,” said Zack with an uncertain grin.
Charlie Manifold reckoned he had seen and heard just about everything in his sixty two years living in Westbourne Grove, consequently, his usual response to a request for help was to refuse as a matter of course.
They suffered the usual stream of life’s disasters in here: druggies, drunks, psychos, but Charlie found it in his heart to forgive anyone just about anything provided they didn’t throw up in his office and they had the right fare clutched in their sweaty palm. Failure to meet these conditions however meant that they were dispatched in no uncertain terms with the threat of Charlie’s chunky bull terrier, Kylie, to hasten them on their way. Money was the only language Charlie spoke.
“Depends,” said Charlie, warily.
Zack filled him in, asking if there would be any logged call or a way for him to track down the driver who took him back home last Friday, he jotted down his phone number and handed it over but Charlie was looking increasingly suspicious. There was a distinct possibility this guy could be some sort of official checking up on them and if he said the wrong thing now it could bring all sorts of lumber down on their heads so Charlie was careful in his reply.
“No telling who picked you up, pal, we don’t keep tabs on things like that.”
“He was a Muslim, I think,” said Zack, hoping this would narrow it down a bit.
“Oh yeah?” said Charlie, feigning interest.
“There was a sticker on his windshield quoting the Koran…” said Zack with a shrug, curious himself as to why he remembered that.
“Take your pick,” said Charlie, nodding outside to the group of drivers that had expanded their ranks and who were milling about outside now, flicking through tabloids and sharing jokes.
“He was very young if I remember, a student maybe?”
One of the controllers, a gaunt Somali looked up, and by his response was ahead of Charlie, although debating whether or not it was his place to jump in. Zack noticed the reaction, and changed focus.
“Thin, goatee beard, black anorak…”
A look from Charlie warned the man not to get involved, so he took the advice, and head down, got back to work.
“Look,” said Zack to Charlie again, “it’s no big deal I just need to know the time he dropped me back home, that’s all.”
“And you can’t remember that yourself?”
“Not with any degree of accuracy I can’t, no.”
Another pisshead thought Charlie, why am I not surprised.
“And better to talk to me than to the police, surely.”
“Why the police?” said Charlie, looking serious suddenly.
“It’s a police matter, that’s all… and for you, well, it could become quite intrusive.”
Less than three minutes later Charlie came back shaking his head.
“You’ve got the wrong place, pal.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You have. We don’t keep much information, but every number does get logged with the pick up address and this number has not shown up at all.”
“Are you sure?”
“What about computer failure?”
“What about it?”
“Maybe it just dropped off the system.”
“It can’t just drop off the system, my old china, the call wasn’t made.”
Zack considered the possibilities. Maybe this guy was fobbing him off, keen for him to get the hell out of his cab office and to leave him in peace. Or maybe Charlie had spent those few minutes making sure that Zack’s number was deleted from his computer’s memory putting paid to any prospective police enquiry once and for all. Whatever, Zack was well aware that he had hit the proverbial brick wall.
Through the window, Zack noticed that all the cabs and their drivers had gone, every last one, as though they had never been there at all. Zack needed transport home but he didn’t feel particularly encouraged to ask Charlie for assistance and so mumbling some semblance of thanks, he left the building and set off, hoping to pick up a black cab on the Harrow Road. He turned left, another left, and left again. The Harrow Road was in the opposite direction and Zack knew that, and that could only mean one thing.
There was a drone from somewhere, like a thousand flies swarming over decay, excitedly waiting their turn to feed off decomposed flesh and in the distance, movement amongst the bins and crates that dotted along the tunnel of grey concrete that stretched out before him. Zack hoped it might be a fox or a cat foraging for food but he knew really what it was. He noticed moonlight first of all reflected in glossy deep red blood, seeping out of this young black teenager who sat slouched against a wall, almost prostrate, a hopeful hand over his worst wound that gaped and oozed. He gazed towards Zack with fateful eyes, willing him on, following his slow progress.
The drone had stopped now and the usual muffled silence fell as though layers of cotton wool had floated down and settled over them. No sounds of cars or the rumblings of tube trains underfoot, just this stifling, vacuum packed insulation that Zack waded through, and when in the end he reached his destination and looked down at the boy, he felt a strange sense of accomplishment to have got there at all.
“Zachariah! I thought you’d never come, help me…”
Zack made a desperate effort now to meet the hand that was reaching up to him, its bony black fingers fluttering like the dishevelled wings of a crow, but as hard as he tried Zack was unable to. He was just a conscious monument, gazing down as this weird thing called life reached its humdrum conclusion. It didn’t seem to matter, relief swept through the boy, who remained looking up at Zack in ecstasy. A smile spread across his face, his lips parting to display a flash of perfect teeth. Then the whites of his eyes washed with blood and his last breath left his body with a jerk, but his body didn’t sag or deflate, it remained taut, defying defeat, refusing to accept its uselessness.
Zack’s movement came back just as a young black girl, her face contorted with tragedy flew towards them, her screams, like the wail of fireworks, weird, alarmed, inhuman. She threw herself at the boy and grabbed him, pawing at his body with greedy fingers, plastic talons at their tips, little gem stones on each one, catching the light. Zack turned away and left them to their final commune, but at the end of the alleyway he looked back as the distant sounds of emergency vehicles came closer, invading the night with their mournful fanfare. She had lain down next to him as though they were about to make love side by side, holding his face gently in her hands for fear it might break. Too late, Zack thought, too late for all that now.
“What the hell?” said Sam woken by the relentless buzzing from the intercom.
“Don’t answer it,” said Clarissa lazily, unwilling to allow anything to permeate their little world, even Zack Fortune, but the buzzer was insistent.
Sam jumped out of bed and padded along the hall to the door. He pressed a button, shouting into the mouthpiece. “Who the hell is this I wonder?”
“Come on, Sam, let me in.”
Sam knew that this did not bode well. Zack used to turn up at all hours of the day and night until Clarissa put her foot down, now here he was back to his old ways.
“You know what time it is?” asked Sam, as Zack pushed past him into the hall.
“I presume that’s a rhetorical question. Where’s Clarissa?”
“Where in God’s name do you think she is?”
Clarissa was sitting up in bed now ready to read Zack the riot act, but when she saw him, she lost steam.
“God, Zack… are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay, Clarissa, I’m anything but okay.”
Sam joined them less than a minute later with a bottle of Jack Daniels. He handed out glasses and perched opposite Zack on the other side of the bed, while everyone waited for the conversation to begin.
“Against my better judgement,” said Zack, with the attitude of someone embarking on a long story, “I agreed to take part in some dubious claptrap you call past life regression, maybe you remember that? Well, things have gone steadily downhill since, and as you seemed so hell bent on getting me involved with all this baloney, perhaps you can advise me as to what I do now, Clarissa, because suddenly my life is not my own.”
Clarissa knew that she had had her head stuck firmly in the sand since learning something of Zack’s trauma. She’d just been hoping for the best, hoping that the hushed warnings from her tutors had been an exaggeration, but seeing Zack here like this, she realised they were anything but.
“Okay,” she said, “tell me.”
“I keep coming across dead people, at least not quite dead, but almost. They call out my name and reach out to me as though I can do something, actually, as though I can save them. Usually they seem pleased to see me, then they die. It’s just happened again, so that’s four times now. I don’t want to know the whys and the wherefores, I couldn’t be less interested,just stop the damn things.”
“Before the regression, I told you not to come out of it yourself, do you remember me saying that?”
“So it’s my fault now, is that what you’re saying?”
“You never told me what frightened you so much, what was it?”
“Okay, here it is, I’ll tell you. A man was in bed in a cottage or somewhere and I was standing over him. He clutched onto me and asked me to help him, then his mouth opened and he spewed blood all over me. I could feel it behind my eyes, I could taste it in the back of my throat even, actually it was like I was drowning in the stuff… so I did what anyone would do, I jumped up from the famous Chesterfield and I scarpered.”
Sam was gazing at Zack now, disconsolate. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Zack, or at least believe thathebelieved all this, but Sam had thought long and hard about these encounters and he found it difficult to accept that any of Clarissa’s absurd contrivances would lead Zack to end up like this.
“I met someone in Derbyshire,” said Zack, “who more or less said I’d asked for it.” Clarissa looked at him, unsure now where this was leading. “He said I’d brought it on myself because aspects of previous lives were best left where they were.”
“It can be beneficial, but if you break back into your current life suddenly and without warning, your psychic memory can become confused,” said Clarissa, “events can break through into this life which have no business being here.”
“So what are you saying exactly?”
“Well it could be that you knew these people from a previous life, although… I’m no expert.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” said Sam, under his breath.
“So why go around helping people remember all this stuff if the results are so unpredictable?”
“Usually it’s very helpful…”
“Oh yes? In what way?” said Zack, with exaggerated politeness, “please, I’m all ears.”
“Sometimes… solutions to recurring problems become clearer. We often struggle with the same problems in each of our lives, and by picking up on a solution from a previous life we can bring it into the present and use that knowledge to our advantage.”
“But for some reason all these noble sentiments were lost on me, is that it?”
Clarissa made no reply. She was stumped, and both Zack and Sam knew she was.
“So what the hell do we do about it?”
“Well that depends on what you believe causes these things.”
“Clarissa, please… watch my lips, I haven’t got a clue what causes them that’s why I’m asking you.”
“Look,” said Clarissa, “if you genuinely think the regression sparked all this and you are prepared to give it one more go…”
Sam leapt to his feet, flushed and angry, making Zack jump. “Are you mad, Clarissa? Don’t you think you’ve done enough? Drop this whole thing for God’s sake it’s dangerous trash!”
Sam’s outburst surprised them all, but especially Zack who had always thought Sam would defend Clarissa to the hilt, whatever she’d done.
“You’d be better off conjuring up the tooth fairy, mate,” said Sam, “rather than having all this junk rammed down your throat. Listen, take my advice, do what normal people do under these circumstances, try the medical profession first before agreeing to another session with the bloody witch doctor.”
A silence fell. Zack was looking at Sam, Sam was looking at no one in particular, and Clarissa just looked betrayed. Eventually, she got up out of bed and left the room. They heard her going into her office and the door closing quietly behind her. For some moments neither of them spoke.
Zack suddenly felt stupid turning up in the middle of the night demanding explanations, and the last thing he wanted was for Sam and Clarissa to fall out over it, things were difficult enough between them as it was. “I’m sorry, Sam,” he said, “but who else can I talk to about this?”
Sam lumbered over to Zack, plonked himself down next to him and threw a weary arm round his shoulder, his usual show of solidarity. “Past life regression is garbage, mate, you know it, I know it, and before long hopefully Clarissa will know it. Let’s move on shall we? Let’s rediscover common sense.”
“But the thing is though, Sam…” the wary look Sam shot Zack caused him to stop mid-sentence. Possibly now was not the time to talk of Russell and the bridge and the river, possibly it was wiser just to keep all that to himself.
Zack’s phone jumped into life, for some reason the familiar Dambusters march even more incongruous here in Sam’s bedroom.
“Oh Christ, what does she want?” Then, bracing himself and trying to sound positive, he answered the call. “Tracy? What’s up now?”
Sam dropped Zack at the police station and wished him well. They had barely spoken in Sam’s car, both of them desperately worried by the early morning communication from Tracy who had said very little on the phone. Thinking Susan had made further allegations, Zack had asked Tracy to fill him in, but all Tracy would say was that it had nothing to do with Susan, it was another matter entirely.
Tracy had managed a few minutes with Zack before they were called into the interview room, asking him if he knew a man called Russell Garrity. Zack’s reaction rendered his reply unnecessary.
“He’s dead are you aware of that?”
“Yes,” said Zack, his head swimming with the consequences of him being called in to discuss Russell’s death, “I heard.”
Brian Smith had come in specifically to interview Zack. He very much enjoyed the idea of adding to Zack’s woes, so when news of the Renfield enquiry reached him he volunteered to do the honours.
Something inside Zack said that he should just come clean and admit to being on the bridge with Russell, but nothing else. In truth, there was nothing much else to admit to, but how could he? Had it been that simple, why didn’t he go straight to the police station in Renfield and explain what had happened? But then Zack got to thinking that in the same way no one was able to pin Richard’s death on him when he was 9 years old how could they pin Russell’s death on him now? There were no witnesses and he had no axe to grind with Russell. Although there were people who had seen Russell eject him from the chapel it was hardly the motivation for murder.
With a heavy heart, Zack entered the interview room to find Brian Smith and Josiah sitting on one side of the usual clapped out table. Zack and Tracy took their seats as Brian cleared his throat with the drama of an opera singer and gazed across at Zack with studied disdain, before setting up the tape and reciting the formalities.
“You went away last week, you left town.”
“No comment,” said Zack, wary of the traps he knew Brian was setting him.
“Well, we don’t necessarily need your comment, because we have evidence of your debit card being used in two hotels,” Brian glanced at his notes, “Carrickmore Hotel, Telper, and Glenoak Guest House, Renfield.”
Brian looked up at Zack agreeably, his eyes eliciting a reply. Zack shrugged, and thought a moment before replying. “So what?”
“Did you come across a local character during your time in Renfield, a Mr Russell Garrity?”
Tracy again had warned against Zack saying anything for the time being but he found it difficult.
“No comment,” said Zack, realising how shifty he looked, realising he had ‘Guilty’ stamped in big letters across his forehead.
“Your gym membership card was found next to the telephone in Russell Garrity’s house the morning he was found drowned in a swollen river 8 miles out of town. How do you think it got there?”
“I haven’t got a clue,” said Zack, honestly.
“His mother has made a statement to the effect that Russell had arranged to meet someone the night before, and had set off at about 11 o’clock so to do.” Brian Smith leant back after making his little speech, rather pleased at the way things were panning out.
At his first interview with Zack Fortune he was rather perturbed that he did not display any give away signs of guilt until mention of the text message stopped him in his tracks, but this time, Brian did not need to do a refresher course in body language to tell him what he already knew, that Zack Fortune was as guilty as hell, it was written all over him.
“Would you know anything about that meeting?”
“No comment,” said Zack, his mind racing.
“Well perhaps this might jog your memory,” said Brian.
From some contraption somewhere came a recorded telephone conversation, between a police controller and a breathless Zack. It went like this:
“Emergency… which service do you require?”
“Ambulance… someone’s drowned in the river at Grey Pike Fell.”
“Where exactly are they?”
“There’s er… there’s a group of rocks sticking up, like… a bit like a dam, he’s there, wedged between them.”
“Can I have your name please, sir?”
Everyone waited for the reply which did not come. Three seconds later the phone disconnected. Josiah leant forward and flicked a switch as silence settled. Zack looked defeated which made Brian smile.
“I need time to consult with my client,” said Tracy, “we will make no further comment until we do.”
Brian loathed defence lawyers, every last one, but female defence lawyers he loathed the most. What sort of woman earned a living defending the rights of killers and rapists? This kind, that’s who, a fully paid up member of the pc brigade who banged on about the civil liberties of the very people who so readily deprived others of theirs, but he had dealt with Ms Tracy Bright before and once had made the mistake of underestimating her - never again. Begrudgingly, Brian agreed to move their interview, managing to imply that the postponement would do Zack no good at all.
On the way out of the police station Tracy advised Zack to consider his position very carefully before he spoke with her. Zack knew the score. If he admitted to being with Russell on the bridge that night she would have to inform the cops, he hadn’t forgotten all his criminal law.
“Thanks Tracy,” said Zack, just before she turned to walk away.
“Oh I don’t know… just being there I suppose…”
Zack’s sudden show of humility took Tracy completely by surprise. “It never rains but it pours, eh?” she said, flustered, and clutching at the first inanity that popped into her head, but touched none the less by what Zack had said.
Back home Zack fell asleep on the couch fully dressed. A few hours later the Dambusters march sounded from his top pocket. He snatched at his phone and answered straight away, hoping it might be Veronica.
“Zack? It’s Geoff. How goes it?”
“Oh… Geoff… yes, fine thanks.”
“Couldn’t pop in to see me could you, tomorrow at 2 would be good for me.”
Zack agreed to the request, managing to sound fully recovered and raring to get back into the saddle, but the thought of sitting across from Geoff and meeting his piercing gaze filled him with dread. Geoff Turner missed nothing, despite drifting around the office making out the modern world and all its accoutrements defeated him it was a façade. Geoff possessed a fearsome intellect that could pick up inconsistency and pretence at twenty paces.
Zack was curious as to why he had brought their meeting forward, but getting back to work would be no bad thing, he decided, if that was what Geoff had in mind. “The devil makes work for idle hands,” Sam had said to him archly at Cambridge once, when, within a couple of hours between lectures, Zack had managed to dump his girlfriend, down a handful of amphetamines, break into Justin’s flat and write ‘Sad Poofter’ across his bedroom wall in red paint. “He asked for it,” was all Zack would say about the incident, which followed Justin’s refusal to make him any more acid, but Zack took the point. Historically, Zack could remain on the straight and narrow only providing he stayed focused on tasks in hand, so working long hours for Nyman’s was helpful in that if nothing else.
The next day, on the way in to see Geoff, Zack tried calling Veronica again, but as usual it went to voice mail. He had one image in his mind that he could not shake off, and that was of a brooding, half naked Italian god flinging Veronica round his chichi Venetian villa in an orgy of rough sex and it just would not go away. Why else couldn’t he get through to her? Why else hadn’t she responded to the messages he’d left? But no more, he’d rung her seven times now, and that was enough. If she couldn’t be bothered to return his calls then he couldn’t be bothered to keep making them.
At Nyman’s, Sam was surprised to see Zack crossing reception and heading down the passageway towards Geoff’s office.
“Padre?” called Sam, a little bewildered.
Zack turned to face him and shrugged. “An audience with the king,” he said, “fingers crossed, huh?”
Sam put up both hands and crossed as many fingers as he was able. He remained looking after Zack as he continued to the end of the passageway and as he knocked on Geoff’s door. When Zack disappeared inside, Sam turned away, worried now at this new development. He hoped it wasn’t bad news, but the way things were panning out for Zack lately he couldn’t bank on it.
“Come on in,” Geoff said as Zack stuck his head round the door, “come on in and pull up a pew.”
Zack did as he was told and waited as Geoff took his seat opposite, his vast desk littered with adult toys and gadgets, always Geoff’s thing.
“So, how goes it?”
“I’m okay, rested, keen to get back to work.”
Zack saw Geoff pick up on the lie straight away. He had done his best, but when the hollow words came out he knew that he had failed. He decided to try again. “I’m really sorry, Geoff, I appreciate your patience with all this. I guess I went into overload or something,” said Zack, wondering if he had said enough.
“Not like you, I thought you thrived on stress.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought too.”
Geoff took his time before coming back. “Read much do you?” he said.
“Not as much as I should.”
“Join the club,” said Geoff, with an indulgent chuckle, “join the club… but I was reading this book the other day about human behaviour… about how we devise apersonafor ourselves which is often far removed from who we really are, and what’s more we go to elaborate lengths to conceal this deception not only from others but essentially,from ourselves, with all the anxieties that involves.”
Zack brooded on this for a moment. It wasn’t small talk, Geoff didn’t do small talk, it had a very specific meaning or he would not have made mention of it at all.
“Sure, we delude ourselves all the time, and you’re right, it is curious… although….” Geoff looked up, interested now at the hesitation. “Maybe not,” said Zack.
“Well, civilization has a vested interest in those who… succeed for instance, so it’s understandable for us to make out we are actually better than we really are.”
“But I would never have said it exercised you too much… fear of failure, that is.” Geoff stopped speaking suddenly and looked at him. “Am I right?”
“It’s never been a particular preoccupation, no.”
“But it’s not just that, apparently there are many morebewildering aspectsto the theory… the compassionate man who makes out he’s a tyrant, the organized who make out that they’re anything but… curious don’t you think this self-deception?”
“I suppose it is,” said Zack eventually, looking straight at him, longing for the abrupt silence to end.
“So, young man, are weready to rumble?” said Geoff, changing gear and gazing across at Zack now with a tight, rather condescending grin.
“Yes, I think we are,” said Zack, with much more conviction this time.
“Good. I’ve spoken with the Wahlbergs and they are as keen as mustard to get the show on the road, so we’ll say Monday next, shall we, as per…”
“Monday it is.”
Zack knew Geoff still had something else to say, it hung in the air and was palpable almost.
“We had a visitor here the other day, a young man by the name of Jason Heart,” said Geoff, trying to sound unfazed by the event and almost pulling it off.
“Yes I heard, I’m sorry about that, it was a mistake.”
“A word of advice, Zack…” said Geoff, coming round his desk now and leaning on it, “if you run with the haresandthe hounds… you end up alienating just about everyone in both camps.”
Zack knew he wouldn’t get away completely unscathed and so was not surprised to hear Geoff’s warning. It wasn’t so much what he said, it was the look in his eye when he said it, and Zack was under no illusion that it was just an empty threat.
Zack was keen to find Sam and so made his way to his office as soon as Geoff’s door closed behind him. Sam too was itching to get the low down, so when he appeared at Sam’s open doorway, Sam led him off towards the lift without saying a word.CHAPTER 16
Zack and Sam’s favourite haunt in Fleet Street, The Two Bells, had stood on the same spot since about the time Dick Turpin embarked on his career as a highwayman. Tall people had to stoop to prevent them hitting their heads on oak beams that supported the sagging ceilings, and the 60 year old eccentric landlord, William Brocklebank, who ran the place like a boot camp, would only serve beer in half pint glasses, so The Two Bells was not for the casual drinker, or tourist, in fact anyone without an English pedigree was made very unwelcome indeed. However, Zack and Sam ticked all the right boxes with William who admired Zack’s insouciance and who had a soft spot for Sam, in thrall to his handsome friend and who, in comparison, looked even more like a fair ground attraction than he really was.
William shouted over to Zack and Sam from the other side of the bar and made the appropriate welcoming signs. He hadn’t seen them in a while and had wondered whether they had shifted their allegiance elsewhere. William would have been sorely disappointed had that been the case. It was not their money he was after, William was so wealthy money had long since lost its meaning, he just could not abide flakes and had these two turned out to be duplicitous in their drinking habits, not only would he have questioned his judgement, he would have considered it a personal slight.
Zack and Sam perched in their usual corner and contemplated their drinks for a few moments before speaking. “So how did it go?” said Sam who had agreed to wait until they were settled and with alcohol in front of them before getting the gen.
“Third strike and I’m out,” said Zack, “that’s the bottom line.”
Zack watched Sam’s brow furrow a little, like it always did when he hit him with bad news.
“Did he mention our friend, Jason Heart?”
“Oh yes, made it clear he didn’t think it a good idea to be involved with anyone or anything other than Nyman’s.”
“Which is fair enough,” said Sam.
“Listen, Sam, I’m sorry about last night,” said Zack, “I had no right to barge in on you like that… is Clarissa okay?”
Sam shrugged, but the look on his face told Zack he really didn’t want to talk about Clarissa. “What did Tracy want?” he said, trying to sound casual.
Zack was debating whether to tell Sam about Russell. He had never kept anything vaguely important from his old friend but he felt that maybe it was expecting too much of Sam to support him on a possible murder charge along with everything else. “Oh, nothing really,” said Zack, aware as he said it that he wouldn’t fool the village idiot with such a response, let alone his best friend.
Sam smiled. He knew Zack would tell him eventually, he always did, so why he even bothered pretending otherwise remained a mystery.
“I can take it you know… I’m a big boy now,” said Sam with a grin, “metaphorically speaking anyway.”
Zack looked at him for a moment then across at William who was being extremely rude to a couple of unwitting Germans, struggling to make themselves understood up at the bar. “Something happened when we were away,” said Zack tentatively, “more weirdness actually, and it ended in someone’s death.”
“Whose death?” asked Sam, alarmed.
“A medium, an old guy called Russell Garrity.”
“Okay, mate, probably best to start on page one.”
So Zack told Sam everything. It took quite some time but he soldiered on, refusing to answer Sam’s questions until he had finished.
“Ye gods,” said Sam, finally, not knowing quite what else to say.
Nodding over to the bar and breaking a rather depressed silence, Zack said: “The Japs had better watch out, those Germans have got his blood up by the looks of it.”
A party of Japanese students had foolishly ventured into the snug, keen to experience the pub’s special ambience and experience it they did. William told them that the bar was “full” and herded them out again in seconds flat.
“So how come he had your gym card?” asked Sam.
“I must have dropped it I suppose in the scuffle outside the church, I can’t think how else he got hold of it.”
“So why kick you out like that?”
“He was scared of me, Sam, terrified would be more accurate. Look, the guy was probably a con artist, they all are… but how come he knew about the regression without me saying a word about it?”
“But he didn’t provide any answers, did he, this know-all?”
“No, he didn’t, not one.”
“You know what I think?”
“I think it’s the drugs, mate,” said Sam, simply, “the acid in particular.”
“Yeah, well we’ve been through that, plus I haven’t had acid in fifteen years…”
“Three years ago, your birthday, remember? And anyway, apparently it doesn’t matter how much time has elapsed it can all come back with stress, or maybe in this case the hypnosis… hell I don’t know, but this is somethingwithin you, I’m convinced of it, not something that’s happeningto you.”
“Please God you’re right,” said Zack quietly.
“You thought about a shrink?”
“A shrink? Ha!I never thought I’d hear you say that.”
“Me neither, but it’s worth a shot. You never know… there might even be a self-help group somewhere.”
They shared a grim smile, then a text appeared on Zack’s mobile from Tracy reminding him that he had more immediate problems.
Tracy Bright lived over shops on a main road in Dalston and a less prepossessing building you would struggle to find Zack decided as he pushed open the front door, crossed a litter strewn hall and climbed a dirty, rickety staircase to the second floor. Tracy was waiting for him on the top landing, leaning over the banister like a child. Zack was surprised to see her like this, wearing make-up and jewellery, her hair brushed and shining, looking like she’d made an effort for once. What was all this about he thought.
He followed her into a small lobby area crammed with old coats, carrier bags, and a collection of rather sad shoes, then continued into a very small living room which was sparsely furnished but piled high with towers of books and papers and bundles. Despite their distance from the road, they had to pitch their voices over the roar of traffic from below.
“I’ve got a bottle of plonk on the go if you’re interested,” she said, cheerfully.
“A small one, I’ve got the car outside.”
Tracy filled a glass and handed it to him. “Cheers,” she said.
“Cheers,” he replied. “So how long have you lived here?” asked Zack, thinking a couple of hours would be enough for him.
“Oh, forever… I couldn’t contemplate moving now, although it’s cramped, as you can see. Just the thought of it…” she said with a shrug, glancing round the room, “to be honest, it does me, it’s dirt cheap, and any money over goes into the escape fund.”
“Don’t tell me you’re thinking of dropping out.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“Well yes, I suppose it does. You’ve always struck me as quite driven, but maybe I got that wrong.”
“When I started out I was.”
“But not anymore?”
“Not really, the chip on my shoulder has worn off.”
God, what was it like originally, thought Zack. “So tell me,” he said, “what do you do with your time off?”
“I don’t have any time off.”
“And is that deliberate?”
“Oh, I expect so.”
The Dambusters march burst out from Zack’s top pocket making Tracy smile.
“Excuse me,” he said, heading to the kitchen to take the call.
Immediately Tracy knew it was a girl, a girl he was sleeping with too and she could not believe how much the information deflated her.
“Only the seven,” she heard Zack say, “so I wouldn’t worry about it… well there we are, that’s the Eurozone for you… lousy phone reception. And our sculptor friend, how is he? Well good for him. Yes, I am with someone so I’ll catch you later if that’s okay… thanks for calling… yeah, me too.”
Zack rang off, walked back into the living room a little awkwardly and sat down, throwing Tracy a swift smile.
“The girlfriend,” said Zack, then after a jagged pause, “who just so happens to be swanning around Venice as we speak with some Italian sculptor guy.”
“And how do you feel about that?” asked Tracy, sitting on the couch next to him, but still managing to sound like she was cross examining him in court.
“Pissed off, actually, thanks for asking.”
“Well, we’d better show willing I suppose,” said Tracy, hauling a mound of papers onto her lap.
“By the way, I’m not a rapist, Tracy, I was a bastard to Susan, like I was a bastard to a lot of women, but I didn’t rape her, or give her a black eye. I was witness to all that throughout my childhood with my mother and believe me when I say that I would never inflict that on anyone.”
Tracy was completely thrown by this and unsure how to respond. All she could think of was diversionary tactics. “Right, so let’s start with Russell Garrity, shall we?”
A couple of hours later as Zack drove home he thought about Tracy. He had clocked her disappointment when he’d turned down her invitation to join her in another bottle of wine and get a taxi home. The bleakness of her existence in her grim flat surrounded by those stacks of legal bundles was disconcerting. But she was human to him now, and not just a humourless harpy spouting legalese and ready to jump down his throat if he so much as threatened to say the wrong thing. And as he had warmed to her, Zack got the impression that Tracy had allowed herself to see past the handsome man’s veneer, giving herself permission actually to like him too. Nothing would come of it of course, but he found it reassuring that even the formidableMsTracy Bright was not immune to his charms. All in all, if nothing else, he felt he could cross one battle off his list.
Sam, however, could not. Clarissa and he were barely speaking since Zack’s visit and now news of this guy’s death in Derbyshire had left Sam unable to sleep. Whichever way you looked at it Zack’s life was in crisis and consequently, Sam did not know what to worry about first.
Zack had had various problems with women over the years but nothing like Susan and her enterprising saga of revenge. Clarissa had said that Zack had had it coming and Sam knew there was some truth in that. Sam had glossed over Zack’s darker side more times than he cared to remember because he refused to think ill of a guy who had been nothing but rock solid since the day they’d first met, but how long could Sam keep picking him up from his assorted mires? And more to the point, when would Zack Fortune start dragging Sam down into these mires with him?
The city had been decimated by the recession that had hit the British Isles with a vengeance earlier in the year and showed no sign of letting up. Some companies had been culling their workforce to such an extent that no one in the Square Mile felt safe. At Nyman’s, Sam had always tagged along in the wake of Zack’s success, but the way things were going there was a danger that his involvement with Zack Fortune would turn out to be a liability rather than a smart career move. Unlike Zack, Sam loved everything about his job and he was beginning to worry that if Geoff even so much as got a sniff of what had been going on, Sam would be putting his own future in jeopardy.
As for the continuing problem with the dead and the dying, Sam was convinced that the answer lay in Zack’s mental health, probably connected to his years of drug abuse and sparked off by Clarissa’s ham fisted attempt at hypnosis. Sam refused to accept theories of spiritual mischief or past lives resurfacing, or of Zack being caught up in some kind of hallucinatory purgatory, that was just bollocks of the first order. No, Sam was convinced that it was Zack’s own colourful past catching up with him – a belated, acid induced kick in the teeth.
Standing at the window, gazing down to the stream of traffic on the Marylebone Road that never let up even at 2am, he heard Clarissa come into the room and stop. He knew she was looking at him, unsure what to say or do. Even with his back to her he could hear her mind churning. Finally, she came over, took his hand, and led him to the Chesterfield where they sat beside each other like strangers.
“You blame me for everything, don’t you?” said Clarissa, quietly.
“Of course I do… the diminishing population of polar bears, the abolition of local post offices, the continuing mystery of Lord Lucan…”
“I’ve made a few phone calls,” said Clarissa, cautiously.
“Oh God, here we go…”
“Sam, listen, there is only one way Zack can ever be free of this and that is to take this stuff back where it belongs…”
“And how do you propose he does that, Clarissa?” said Sam, “have Virgin started packages by any chance?”
“I’m being serious, Sam.”
“Yes, that’s what’s so sad,” he said, up on his feet again and agitated, “that you and all the other misguided twerps you hang round with give this trash the time of day.”
“Zack came to me and asked me for help…”
“Yes, because whatever you did has set something off in his drug addled brain. Itoldyou he was easily broken… but he doesn’t actuallybelievehe knew all these dying people in a previous life and neither do I, and neither would you if you took your bloody blinkers off.”
“I’m trying to help here,” said Clarissa, “that’s all.”
“And that’s your idea of help is it?Christ almighty! He’ll be jumping off a roof himself soon with me right behind him at this rate.”
Clarissa was close to tears but she fought them. She didn’t want Sam to think she was playing for sympathy because she wasn’t. Clarissa knew that Sam thought either she had caused all this trouble deliberately as a way of getting back at his best friend, or that she was a complete incompetent, peddling dangerous practices that she knew nothing about. Either way she hated how Sam had turned against her because of it.
Not that long ago Clarissa would have said that the three of them could triumph over just about anything, but clearly they were struggling to triumph over this. And it wasn’t just blame for the regression Clarissa had to contend with, but an overriding responsibility that she knew Sam had lain at her door, for taking the very special relationship the three of them had enjoyed for twenty odd years and beating it unceremoniously to death.
Tracy had informed Brian Smith that Zack was now prepared to make a statement. So at 10 am the following morning, they all sat as usual in the tiny interview room huddled round the old table. They were joined this time by a senior officer from Renfield, Detective Sergeant Malcolm Braithwaite, a bluff Derbyshire man, who knew Russell Garrity well. They had once both worshipped at St Frances of Xavier’s, and as any good Catholic will tell you, (even a lapsed Catholic for that matter), however tough life becomes, suicide is verboten.
The formalities over with, Zack gave his statement under caution. This is what he said:
“I met Russell Garrity at the spiritualist church in Renfield on the evening of June 13th. For some reason he was unhappy about me joining the meeting and asked me to leave. Later I phoned him and I asked him to explain his actions. He agreed to meet me on the bridge over Grey Pike Fell. I met him there at about 11.30 p.m. The bridge was unstable, and after our conversation when he turned to leave, he lost his footing and fell into the river. I jumped in to try and help him but Russell was swept away. As I was making my way back to Renfield along the river path, I saw him wedged between rocks. I called 999 from a phone box so that his body could be recovered.”
Zack stopped speaking and leaned back, fully aware that the three people on the other side of the table expected more, much more, they looked thrown by his brevity.
Brian Smith cleared his throat. “Is this yours, Mr Fortune, this gym membership card?” Brian continued to explain the card to the tape, evidence reference and history, while Zack looked at the small plastic card placed on the table between them.
“Well, it’s got my name on.”
“So it is yours?”
Tracy glanced at Zack, and he knew she was warning him, but how could he deny it?
“Take a wild guess,” said Zack, irritated by Brian’s pedantic questioning already.
“How many of these cards are in your possession?”
“God, I don’t know… I lost one, so there’s probably two kicking around.”
“So you had two to begin with did you?”
“Not to begin with no,” said Zack, wearily, “I lost one, then I got another one, then I found the first and lost the second.”
“Goodness, quite a saga,” said Brian, with a rather stupid grin. “And how did it come to be in Russell Garrity’s possession - any ideas?”
“I can only think I dropped it in the chapel or maybe on the steps when he threw me out.”
“Had you met Russell Garrity before that evening?”
“So what happened exactly at the church?”
“He chased me outside and there was a bit of a scuffle.”
“Why did he do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you provoke him in any way?”
“No, I’d just turned up. There’s a bunch of people there who can verify this, you’ve only got to track them down.”
“So you continued the fight on the bridge, is that it?”
“How did he fall? Did you push him?”
“No, I did not push him. The handrail had weathered, and was broken in places. The gale was at its worst, and there was debris on the bridge… branches broken off from trees… he either tripped over one or caught his foot in one… whatever, he fell hard against the rail and it snapped with his weight, he was quite a big man.“
The three policemen stared at him, searching for a crack in the armour they knew Zack had been busy constructing. The story was preposterous, they knew it and they knew he knew it as well.
“He tripped and fell, is that it?” asked Brian, with a withering look.
“Exactly,” said Zack.
“Why pick a place like that in a storm, what on earth for?” said Brian.
“It was his choice, not mine.”
“So you drove there, did you?” asked Brian, casually.
“No, my car had broken down a couple of miles out of town. I hired a cab, and got dropped by an old gate, walked down the hill and along the path.”
“Did you ask the cabbie to wait?”
“No, I told him to get back.”
“Why did you do that?” asked Brian, thinking he might have hit on something.
“Because I didn’t know how long I’d be.”
“Or was it that you didn’t want anyone to witness your meeting, maybe that was it.”
“He wouldn’t have witnessed it anyway from the gate to the bridge was quite a hike.”
“Weren’t you concerned about how you’d get back?”
“It wasn’t a priority, no…”
“No? Even in a storm, eight or nine miles out of town?”
“I intended to phone for a cab when I was through.”
“When you were through?” said Brian, interested in the turn of phrase.
“When our meeting was over,” said Zack, evenly.
“All right, so what was Russell Garrity’s explanation, why did he eject you from the meeting?”
“He didn’t have one,” he said, aware now that things were about to get sticky.
“So Russell Garrity, a complete stranger, arranged to meet you on a dangerous bridge in a storm to tell you precisely nothing is that it?”