This is the first part in a serialisation of One Good Deed, a thriller I wrote in 2010, and which I am making available for subscribers to my newsletter.
Please be aware that while this is a finished draft, it has not been professionally edited, or been through a copy and proof edit process. If you like what you read (or even if you don’t!) you can let me know via the contact form on this site. You’ll find links to my published works here too.
Christ but it hurts.
He clutches at the wound in his belly, trying to stop his guts from leaking out onto the pavement. Isn’t shock supposed to dull the pain or something? He’d read somewhere that a knife wound was supposed to be painless; well, whoever wrote that was talking shite. Warm, sticky blood dribbles between his fingers where the thin one sunk his knife. Evil bastard played him along, didn’t he. Knew damn well what he was doing and let him get away with it, just for long enough. Like an angler playing the fish on the line.
But how the fuck had he known? The cover was good. The best. Someone had to have told them. Someone on the team. Shit.
Don’t think about that now. Can’t think about that now. Got to find safety. Get away from the thin bastard and his idiot friend. Every step is a good one, but his legs feel like jelly. And he’s cold, so cold. Lost too much blood.
The alley opens onto noise, motion, people. At first it’s too much, but then his brain catches up. A crowded park; he knows the name of the place, just can’t think of it right now. But crowds are good. People. Lots of people. He can lose himself here, if he’s not leaving too much of a trail. Stop them following and finishing off the job.
He looks around, scanning faces, trying to see his attackers. It’s hard to focus; everyone looks the same. Heads down, avoiding eye-contact, avoiding him. Steps down to the park send little stabs of white hot pain through his stomach. It feels like his insides are on fire, loops of entrails spilling around his feet. Stay on your feet Tim. You can do this.
A bench just ten yards away. There’s someone sitting on it, staring at a sandwich. Something familiar about that face. So hard to concentrate, but he knows this man. At the office, but not part of the team. Some committee. A civilian. Can he be trusted? Can anyone be trusted?
He hits the bench harder than he meant to, slides up too close. The sudden jab of pain almost makes him throw up, his throat gagging on the words as he tries to speak.
‘Elinor. Give this to Elinor.’ It comes out as little more than a grunt. He fumbles the envelope into the man’s jacket pocket, then lurches to his feet before his pursuers see him, see who he’s spoken to.
For an instant, he wonders if Elinor is the one who has blown his cover, but he dismisses the idea just as quickly. He knows her. Perhaps not as well as he’d like to, but he knows she’d never do anything like that. So who then? Jonas? The laugh hurts, and brings with it a hot taste of blood. Jonas would sooner cut his own throat than work with the scum he’s spent a career bringing down.
But if not him, then who? The team’s small, kept that way deliberately to avoid just this sort of thing happening. Maybe there’s no-one. Maybe it was something he did, or said. Christ, he can’t think with the pain and all this noise. Could they not just shut the fuck up for a second. Turn off that bloody horn.
He looks up, sees the startled expression on the face of the bus driver. Too late to brake, too late to do anything. Poor sod. He’s just doing his job. Shouldn’t have to have this death on his conscience. No-one deserves to have that happen to them.
I seem to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was that time when I was a kid, wandering innocently into the kitchen for a drink. How was I to know my big sister and her friends were all in there? Christ, I was only ten. I didn’t know you could compare the size of your breasts by weighing them on the kitchen scales. You’d think by the shouting I’d done it on purpose. That’s what Mum thought anyway, when she took her hand to my backside.
It was worse at school. I’m not a troublemaker, really. Just like to keep my head down, not be noticed too much. But I spent most of my secondary education in detention. Least it seems like that sometimes. The thing is though, I never actually did anything wrong, or at least I never set out to do anything wrong. I just happened to be hanging around when something kicked off. Searching round the back of the bike shed for the saddle someone had nicked just in time to be caught with all the smokers, that kind of thing.
Then there was Janice. Who’d have thought someone like her would have been interested in a loser like me? Well, stranger things have happened. We’d been an item nearly two years and everything seemed to be going great. I was happy, she was happy, we were building a life together. I thought it would be, I don’t know, romantic or something soppy like that, to take her off on a wild weekend in Paris and propose. Not let her know beforehand, just spring it on her like a surprise. So I came home an hour earlier than normal that Friday, and found her in bed with her Yoga instructor. And not just lying there together asleep or anything. I mean, they were going at it hammer and tongs. Janice was so busy screaming she didn’t even notice I was there. She never made noise like that when we were making love. Never made any noise at all.
Wrong time, wrong place. Which I guess is how I ended up in that little park around the back of Shell Mex House on the Strand. I didn’t even know it was there until I stumbled on the place. It’s not as if I get to London all that much anyway; the occasional works junket, supporting the boss when she has to meet with some junior minister or something. This time it was a strategy meeting with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, part of some new joined up government initiative or other. I wasn’t even needed, really. Just along to carry the laptop and set up the presentation. A special trip out of the office for good behaviour. An hour getting photographed by security, five minutes finding an extension cord for the projector, then bugger off.
‘Why don’t you have the rest of the day off, Sam. Go shopping or something.’ That’s my boss, Glenda, to a tee. She thinks she’s being nice, giving her staff a little perk. A pat on the head for being a good boy. Frankly I can think of a lot better things to do with my time than wandering around London waiting for the train home. Getting on with the stack of reports she’ll be demanding are on her desk by Friday for a start.
But Glenda wouldn’t be finished strategising for another four hours, and heaven forbid she could carry the laptop home on her own. So I bought a ridiculously expensive sandwich and a bottle of water that cost more than I’d be happy paying for a pint of beer, then went for a wander in search of somewhere to sit and eat. And found myself in this little park that I never knew existed, overlooking the embankment and the river.
Plenty of other people knew about it, of course. That’s why all the park benches were already full of lunchtime workers grabbing a bite to eat and a rare glimpse of the sun. Not a seat to be had until I was right at the end of the park, in the shade of an enormous oak tree and too close to the giant metal wheelie-bins to be really comfortable.
When the bloke slumped down on the bench, I thought he was being a bit over-familiar, bumping up against me like that. Well, to be honest I thought he was a bit pissed. I certainly couldn’t make head or tail of what he was saying. It sounded like ‘Tell Laura,’ or ‘Hell’s burning.’ Too quick, too slurred. And then he was off again, staggering down the path and into the road. I was watching him go, and I really would have said something, but it all happened so fast. Instead of stopping at the kerb, he just carried straight on into the path of a bus. That’s not a noise I want to hear again in a hurry.
Well, you can imagine it quite put me off my sandwich. I chucked the thing in the bin beside the bench, and that was when I saw the red smears all over the plastic seat. They couldn’t have been there before I sat down; I’d have noticed that and stayed standing. So they must have come from the man. I checked my jacket and trousers, but none of it seemed to have got on me, whatever it was. People were running towards the scene of the accident now, and someone was screaming too. I knew I was a witness, and should have stayed there until the police showed up. Told them what I’d seen. But wrong place at the wrong time, remember. I’ve had a lifetime of getting the blame for things that aren’t my fault, so I grabbed my coat and walked the other way. Up onto the Strand, hailed a cab and straight to Liverpool Street Station. I phoned Glenda on the way, left her a message saying I’d decided to catch the earlier train. I knew she’d be mad at me for making her carry the laptop back to the office, but right then I didn’t care. I’d had enough of London. I just wanted to go home.
You get a different kind of passenger on the afternoon trains. I’m more used to travelling with the commuters; grey suits, grey faces and avoidance of eye-contact at all costs. Everyone has something to hide behind, be it a tightly folded newspaper, the latest Dan Brown or some fascinating image on the tiny screen of a smartphone. At two in the afternoon people were actually talking to each other as we all juddered and squealed our way past Seven Sisters and north out of the city. Not me, of course. I was staring out the window at the backs of abandoned industrial units, reading the graffiti and trying not to hear that sickening crunch as twenty tons of bus hit twelve stone of flesh.
I must have dozed off after a while, the image still repeating in my mind. I near enough jumped out of my skin when a rough hand shook my shoulder.
‘I said tickets, please.’
‘Oh, right.’ I wiped the drool off my chin with one hand as I fished in my pocket for the ticket with the other. It came out, along with another piece of paper, an envelope I didn’t recognise. Something Glenda wanted posted yesterday, probably. I would have examined it more closely, but the scowl from the ticket collector put me off. I shoved it back where it had come and handed over the ticket.
‘This is for Bishops Stortford.’
‘That’s right. We nearly there yet?’
‘We passed it half an hour ago. Next stop’s Cambridge.’
I looked out the window again, and realised that the grim industrial units had given way to wheat fields and copses. Had I really slept through half a dozen stations? It seemed like I’d barely closed my eyes.
‘That’s thirty-seven pound fifty,’ the ticket collector said.
‘Single from Liverpool Street to Cambridge. Thirty-seven pound fifty. Unless you want to go all the way to Peterborough, then it’s fifty quid.’
‘But I’ve got a ticket.’ I held it up, just in case he didn’t know what one looked like.
‘That’s for Bishops Stortford. You should’ve got off there.’
‘I know that. I fell asleep.’
The ticket collector looked at me as if I were retarded, but eventually seemed to make up his mind. He tapped his hand-held ticket machine a couple of times.
‘Twenty-one quid. That’s the cheapest day return from Bishop’s Stortford to Cambridge. You can pay that, or it’s a four hundred quid fine for travelling without a valid ticket. Your choice mate.’
I paid the money and watched the ticket collector saunter off to hassle some other poor innocent traveller. The rest of the journey trundled past, eventually depositing me at Cambridge, where I discovered that I’d just missed the return train and there wouldn’t be another one for over an hour. I’d hoped that I might be able to avoid it, never really liked going anyway, but since I was stuck here, there was no way I could put it off. I was going to have to go and visit my mother.
‘Where the fuck is the little fucker?’
Jonno paused for a moment, then set back to the task of destroying the living room. He’d already turned all the chairs upside down and smashed the glass-topped coffee table. What self-respecting bachelor had a fucking glass-topped coffee table anyway? What was he, gay or something?
‘You know, you could just sit quietly and wait. Barnes is bound to be home soon.’
Mr Crisp stood by the open door, keeping away from the mayhem. He’d taken out his knife and was idly twining it around his long, leather-gloved fingers. Jonno stopped for long enough to give him a sour look and then shoved a broken chair leg through the ostentatiously large flat telly screen. It didn’t shatter in quite as satisfying a manner as he’d hoped, which just made him even more angry.
‘He should’ve been here hours ago. I don’t like waiting. The cops could be here any moment.’
‘You know as well as I do that we’d know about it long before they arrived. Patience, Jonno. He’s probably stopped off to do the shopping or something. He’ll be home soon.
As if on cue, the doorbell rang, sounding out an irritating electronic version of Big Ben’s chimes. Jonno took a step towards the door, but Mr Crisp stopped him, holding a finger up to his lips.
‘What? We’ve been waiting long enough for the silly cunt.’
‘Think, Jonno. Why would Barnes ring his own doorbell?’
Jonno frowned. ‘Oh, yeah. Right.’
‘Give me a minute, then answer it.’ Mr Crisp slipped his knife up his sleeve, picked his way carefully around the detritus strewn over the living room floor, and then let himself out the French Windows. As he slid them closed behind him, the doorbell rang once more.
‘Coming.’ Jonno had no idea what Barnes sounded like, so affected a John Inman camp accent as he hopped over the upturned bookcase in the hall. When he swung open the front door, it was to be greeted by the sight of a uniformed policeman with a very sharp knife pressed to his throat and Mr Crisp breathing down his neck. Poor bugger.
‘Come in, please.’ Jonno swept an arm around in a welcoming gesture as Mr Crisp marched the cop into the hall. He caught his colleague’s eye as he passed.
‘Bathroom?’ Mr Crisp raised his eyes up towards the ceiling.
‘Probably the best bet,’ Jonno said. ‘Blood’s such difficult stain to get out of carpet.’
Abbey House doesn’t really have a lot going for it. Perhaps fifty years ago it was a nice place, probably a wealthy farmer’s house or something, set in rolling countryside. As far as I know there was never an actual abbey associated with it, but even if there was, it long ago succumbed to the creeping urban sprawl of Cambridge. Now the house is surrounded by twee semis and unpleasant seventies council housing estates. Its once large garden has been reduced to a tiny patch of mossy grass and a few hardy bushes. That and a large tarmac car park at the front. At least there’s a high wall to cut off some of the constant traffic noise, but it also gives the place a horrible institutional feel.
I’ve never liked visiting, which is probably why I hardly ever come these days. It’s been five years since Mum was first admitted, and she’s been going steadily downhill ever since. I tried at first, coming regularly, phoning the nurses to see how she was getting on, but slowly the gaps between visits grew. And then I’d feel guilty, and associate the guilt with the house. So I’d stay away longer. It had been two months since my last visit; three between that one and the time before. Which is probably why the duty nurse was surprised to see me.
‘Mr Barnes, what a pleasant surprise. Hetty will be pleased.’
I doubted that, but smiled anyway. ‘She’s awake, then?’
The nurse nodded her head. Janet, I think she was called. Either that or Claire; I tended to get them muddled up, and their name badges were so small you had to stare at their breasts to read them, which made me feel awkward.
‘She’s in her room. I’ll just get someone to take you through.’ She picked up the phone and dialled. Whilst I waited, I looked around the reception area, seeing the notice board, the wilting potted plants, the mismatched collections of chairs and strange assortment of random magazine titles. The faint smell of boiled vegetables hung in the air, competing with the reek of industrial cleaner and the horrible chemical tang of air freshener to smother the ever-present odour of stale urine. If ever a place was designed to make you feel hopeless, then this was it.
‘Claire will take you through now, Mr Barnes,’ the duty nurse said. Which meant she was Janet. As if on cue, an electric door lock buzzed and another nurse pushed through into the waiting room.
‘Thanks,’ I muttered, really not sure whether I meant it. At that moment I couldn’t think why I’d come. The trauma of watching a man die in London was bad enough; why the hell was I putting myself through this too?
‘It’s good that you come and visit. Your sister too.’ Nurse Claire spoke to me as if I were some kind of child. I guess she was used to dealing that way with the inmates. ‘Hetty’s been doing ever so well recently. I think the new therapy’s working well.’
That was probably a cue for me to ask what new therapy, but I resisted. We made the rest of the journey through the corridors and stairs of Abbey House to mum’s room’s in silence. Nurse Claire knocked, then opened the door without waiting for an answer.
Inside was a spacious room with a large window overlooking the car park. The paintings on the walls were probably meant to be calming or something, much like the colour scheme, but I found it depressingly bland and beige. Then again, this was a mental institution of sorts, so it probably couldn’t help itself. We were lucky in many ways, my sister and I. Round the clock care doesn’t come cheap, but both of us were single professionals, earning a decent wage. And even though I could never quite shake the guilt that came with putting my mum in a nursing home, I couldn’t help thinking this had been the best thing for her.
Slumped on the sofa like a teenager, she’d put on a little weight since my last visit, but didn’t look any healthier. Her eyes were fixed on the screen of a small television bolted to the wall and hadn’t registered us entering the room at all.
‘Hetty?’ Nurse Claire said. ‘There’s someone here to see you.’
By way of response, my mother let out a long, wet fart and then absentmindedly started scratching at her crotch. The nurses had dressed her in loose jogging pants and a hoodie; clothes she wouldn’t have been seen dead wearing before the disease took her mind. They were dark grey in colour, but there was no disguising the darker stain where she’d wet herself. I looked up at the television. It was some fast-paced cartoon, with strange creatures chasing each other around a fantastical landscape. Even if I’d started watching from the beginning I’d probably have had no idea what it was about, but mum seemed to like it.
‘I’ll just go and get some help,’ Nurse Claire said. ‘It looks like her nappy’s slipped again. She just won’t stop playing with it. You OK here for now?’
It wasn’t a question that expected an answer, and before I had time to say that actually I was just leaving anyway, she was gone.
It took me a moment to realise who had spoken. The last three times I’d been here, mum hadn’t said a word. Now she was looking at me with a curiously annoyed expression on her face.
I shuffled across to an armchair opposite her, looked as closely as I could at it to see whether it was safe, then sat down.
‘How have you been, mum?’ I asked, but she seemed to have used up her vocabulary quota for the day. Then it occurred to me that where I’d chosen to stand had partially blocked her view of the screen.
‘The nurses say you’ve had some new therapy.’ I tried not to raise my voice, not to sound like I was talking to an elderly imbecile. In response mum merely frowned, like a little girl who thinks if she concentrates really hard, the nasty man will go away.
‘I spoke to Alice last week. She said she’d try and visit you soon. It sounds like she’s very busy right now, what with the promotion and the move.’
Mum’s frown deepened, her lips pursing into a tight little pout.
‘I was in London this morning. A man got hit by a truck. Splat, dead. Just like that. He’d been talking to me a moment before.’
Mum started to shake her head, eyes still fixed on the television. I don’t know why I told her about the accident; it wasn’t as if it meant anything to her. Nothing meant anything to her anymore. Not me, not my sister. Only the crazy cat-like creature rushing around the vibrant screen. There was nothing of Heather Barnes left, nothing but an empty shell.
A light knocking and then the door opened again. Nurse Claire came in with another nurse in tow. She had a bundle of towels draped over her arm. Mum ignored them at first, but I could see her face change and knew what was coming.
‘Hetty. It’s time for a wash.’ Nurse Claire’s voice wasn’t unkind, but it was a tone used to being heard and obeyed. Mum screwed up her eyes, her whole body tensed and then a foul stench filled the room.
‘Don’t wanna,’ she said.
‘Now, now Hetty. Don’t be like that. Look, Sam’s here to see you.’
For the first time since I’d arrived, my mother looked at me properly. I thought for a moment that she might have recognised me, that there was some tiny spark of the woman who had raised me and my sister still in there. But then her expression glazed over again and she started to wail like a cat with its tail jammed in a car door. It wasn’t something I’d heard before, but obviously Nurse Claire had. In an instant she was kneeling beside the sofa, whilst the other nurse came round to the other side.
‘There, there Hetty. It’s all right. We’ll just take you off to the bathroom and clean you up, shall we?’
‘I… I think I should be going.’ I stood up, edged around the room, half expecting to be dragooned in to help. But the nurses were fixated on my mother, and she was curled up into a little grey-haired ball on the sofa, wailing that strangely animal sound.
I slipped through the door and ran.
By the time I’d waited for my train, waited on the train as it juddered between every single stop on the way, and then walked over the bridge at Bishop’s Stortford station into the Three Tuns car park, it was getting on for seven o’clock. Still I wasn’t in any hurry as I sauntered up London road to Hockerill and on towards home. It was a fine summer’s evening, warm and with a light breeze. My head was full of idle thoughts: of how to avoid the policy report that was hanging around the office waiting for someone to adopt it; whether I had the nerve to ask Caroline from accounts out on a date, and if so where I’d take her; how bad I felt that I’d run out on visiting mum, not that she recognised me any more; ditto that I’d not phoned my sister in over a month. I think I was trying to remember what was on at the cinema when I entered the cul-de-sac of ex-council houses that I’ve called home all my life. Which is probably how I managed to miss the cracked doorframe and broken glass until I pushed the key into the front door. It swung open before I’d unlocked it.
The hall was a mess. More so even than usual. Someone had knocked over the bookshelf where the telephone sits and trampled over the address books, directories and trashy paperbacks that have nowhere else to live. The telephone itself had been pulled from the wall and thrown against the kitchen door at the far end of the hallway, shattering the glass into long, frosted shards. I stepped carefully over the detritus and peered into the lounge. The door was lying across the settee and coffee table. My pride and joy fifty inch plasma telly hung from the wall at a crazy angle, a broken chair leg protruding from its screen. The rest of the chair had been slashed wide open, spilling horse hair all over the carpet. The whole situation was unreal.
I moved about the house in some kind of trance, noting almost absentmindedly that whoever had trashed the place had been thorough. Or had needed to vent a lot of anger. Upstairs was mostly tidy, as if they had been interrupted before getting there, but the bathroom door had a crack in it where it had been kicked open hard.
The first thing I saw, as I pushed the door open with a gentle foot, was that the toilet opposite had been broken in two, spilling water all over the floor. Then I noticed the smell, and at first I thought whoever had smashed it had forgotten to flush first. Then I saw the dark mound in the bath, heaped up like a pile of manure. It took a while for my brain to process what my eyes were seeing, but the dark red spray on the white tiles and plastic glittered as if it were peppered with tiny jewels, glinting in the evening sunlight through the window.
He was face down, his head squashed into the bath below the taps, hands tucked in underneath his belly, arse pointing into the air. Black trousers, heavy black shoes, black, short-sleeved shirt with some kind of utility waistcoat. The silver shoulder buttons gave it away before I saw the chequerboard pattern around the rim of a peaked cap lying by his side. He was clearly dead; you couldn’t lose that much blood and stay alive.
‘Fuck,’ I said, sinking to my knees, hardly noticing the damp. ‘You’re a policeman.’