Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts

Hellraiser

A K Benedict writes crime and speculative fiction in a study filled with mannequins, clowns and strange perfumes. She read English at King’s College, Cambridge and University of Sussex, became an indie-rock singer and composer and now writes full-time. Her fiction and poetry have been featured in journals and anthologies including The Best British Short Stories 2012 and the recent Scaremongrel. Her first novel, The Beauty of Murder (Orion), was shortlisted for the eDunnit award and is in development for an 8-part TV series. Jonathan Dark or The Evidence of Ghosts is her second novel and is out on February 25th. 

 

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Prologue

 

The prostitutes on the flyers stir as he enters the phone box, whispering like a naked jury. Finnegan scans the street. Soho flows around him in a high tide of tourists and commuters. Sunglasses turn faces into one-way mirrors. He checks his watch. One o’clock. They’re coming for him, ready or not. He dials her number, finger trembling. ‘Pick up, baby,’ he says.

‘You have reached Rosa Finch. I’m busy at the moment but please call back . . .’ Answerphone – they’ve got her already. He closes his eyes on images of Rosa with a hand clamped over her mouth, her hands tied behind her back. This is the game they play when people disobey.

Getting out of London will be nearly impossible. No one has outrun them. Yet. They took everything except his Oyster card, watch, a cigarette, the coins in his pocket and an hour’s head start. Any journey he makes using the card will be clocked within seconds and, when the hour is up, they’ll swoop like the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Delaney is his only chance. He’ll be in the Doggett’s Coat, watching the match. The last of Finnegan’s coins clunks down. ‘All right, mate?’ Delaney answers. In the background, a partisan crowd roars.

‘Pick-up point,’ Finnegan says. ‘Fifteen minutes.’ He drops the receiver and barges through the door. A flyer floats down to the pavement, turning her back on him. He runs: down Greek Street, up Dean Street, through an island of tourists outside the Dominion, by a reclining Oscar Wilde, across the Strand, between cars and along Villiers Street into Embankment Station.

At the machines, a bloke in a baseball cap feeds a fiver to his Oyster card. Chest tight, Finnegan walks up to him. ‘I’ll swap you,’ he says, holding out his own card. He wipes his forehead – sweat makes you look guilty. ‘There’s more than fifty quid on it.’

‘I’ve got less than a tenner on mine,’ the man says. He grips his card tighter.

‘That’s plenty for me. All I ask is that you move around the city for an hour: hop from one line to another, double back on yourself, get on a bus if you can.’

‘I don’t know, mate,’ he says, slipping his hand into his pocket.

Finnegan presses his card against the yellow circle: £50 available.

A seed of greed shows in the man’s eyes. Finnegan recognises it: he sees it in the mirror every day.

They exchange the cards and, for one moment, Finnegan wants to reach out and ask for help. But what would he say? That he’s a murderer and doesn’t want to be any more? The moment goes. ‘Don’t suppose I could have your cap as well?’ Finnegan asks.

Finnegan sprints through the station and up the steps to the bridge, pulling on the baseball cap. In ten minutes he’ll be in  Delaney’s car, headed for Ramsgate and the ferry. He’ll find out where Rosa is and send for her, somehow. If she’s still alive. Rosa. She’s the one he’s let down. He looks at the yellow diamond ring on his right hand. He fought, killed and lied for that ring. He valued it above the one she gave him.

He tugs at the ring. He’ll get rid of it, throw it in the river and leave it to the tide. The ring doesn’t budge. He has grown fat around it and it has sunk into the skin. The diamond glints.

Above him, the London Eye takes everything in. He prays to it – wishing on the capsules like rosary beads: ‘Don’t let them find me’, ‘Keep Rosa safe and I’ll, I’ll . . .’ He’ll what? The promises he makes are as empty as some of the coffi ns he burns.

The South Bank bustles. Skateboarders roll, drinkers clink in the sun as if nothing is chasing them. He’s never wished to be anyone else before, now he’d do anything to swap lives with the man on the bench with the Evening Standard: he looks as if he’s going to stay alive for the next few days. Finnegan had thought he’d be the sort to face death with a wry smile, to drink his way through a bottle till he lay on the floor like a mescal worm, then, as the gun was cocked, grin at his killers and swig the last drop. But he’s not. Sweat betrays him, kissing his back.

Landmarks pass on either side: St Paul’s over the river, the Oxo Tower ahead. His lungs blaze, his legs feel as heavy as if they’re already in the concrete cast they’ll give him if he’s found.

The Tate Modern comes into view. He never thought he’d be glad to see it. Slipping round the back to the delivery point, Finnegan collapses on the low wall. Delaney will be here in minutes. He tries a deep breath. It comes out as a rasp. He digs in his pocket for the cigarette. It has a kink in the middle but who doesn’t?

He pats his pockets. Shit. They took his lighter, the bastards, those are the arseholes he’s been working with – people who give a man a cigarette and steal his fire. A woman walks out of the corner shop. She is thin, busy-looking. ‘You got a light?’ he asks.

She rootles through her handbag, pulls out a box of matches.

‘You’re a lifesaver,’ he says. She walks over and strikes the match. He leans in, cigarette to his lips. She cups her hand round the flame. It lights up the yellow diamond on her ring finger.

As he turns, something hits his head. Hard. His knees sink. His vision fades. He feels sound leave his mouth but never hears it.

In the basement of a house in Hackney, a man swipes through his photo gallery. He stops on his favourite picture. There she is, there’s his girl, the one who will make up for all the bitches. He captured her on the way out of the hospital, her hand pressed against her blind­fold. Her other hand fixes a hairgrip in place. Two shots later and the lock of hair is free again, bouncing in an auburn curl.

Something falls in the kitchen. He places his tablet on the table and walks through to the back of the flat. The kitchen is chilly throughout the year, even with the underfloor heating, but it is even colder than usual, as if an iced hand grips his neck. A mug has tumbled from the draining board to the floor and rolled against the fridge. It is cracked down one side. How did it get there? The window is gummed shut so it can’t be a breeze and, anyway, there was a glass and a bowl on the board and they haven’t fallen. It’s not the first time this has happened; things keep falling or moving. He was woken last night by a splintering crash and stumbled out of bed, heart held in a frozen fist, to find the Venetian blind on the floor. Its slats were broken like his last girlfriend’s bones.

It will be better when he has her with him, when Maria is his. He will see the incidents for the nonsense they are: buses passing, road works, the rumbling of the Overground. There will be some logical explanation. There are no such things as ghosts.

 

1


Day One


i

 

Three girls giggle as they pass Maria. She must look a sight, groping her way along Jamaica Street in waders, wellies and blindfold. A bucket is hardly the latest in handbags. ‘You’ll all be dressed like this next week,’ she calls after them.

Fingertips trailing along the railings in King’s Stairs Gardens, she finds the place where ‘I ❤ M’ is scraped into the paint. Lucky M. Unlucky I. Grasping the handrail, she climbs down the steps. Her feet crunch onto Bermondsey’s foreshore; gulls scatter and squawk. ‘Hello?’ she calls out. No reply. The stretch of beach is hers.

Sitting down on her rock, she scans the sand with her fingers. Pebbles; old clay pipes; bottle tops. The Thames has pulled back its covers to tell the tales of nights before. Soon the beach will be tucked back in again but she’ll hear when the tide has turned by the way the river strokes the stones. She feels for regular shapes, squares and circles – nature does not make things perfect.

Touching something smooth and cool, she eases it out of the mud with her trowel. A fragment of porcelain. Very thin, curved at the edges. Part of a plate? She places it in the bucket and breathes deeply. This is the only time she is at peace, when teasing out mysteries from the earth.

Clank of metal against stone. Someone is coming down the steps. Slow and heavy, unsteady as they move onto the beach, breathing laboured.

‘Morning, Martin,’ she says. The smell of his aftershave, pine cones and patchouli, barrels down the beach towards her. His metal detector whirs, sweeping for coins. ‘No Billy today?’ he asks.

‘He hurt his leg down here the other day,’ she replies. ‘I left him pawing at the front door. Haven’t seen you since the conference.’

‘I’ve been around,’ he says. Martin is trying to be enigmatic and failing. ‘Didn’t the doctor tell you to remove the blindfold while mudlarking? It would be less dangerous. I wouldn’t have to worry about you as much.’

Maria hopes he can’t see her flushing. Before she lost her blindness, she never thought about people looking at her, now she feels eyes on her at all times. The city is full of windows and people looking out of them. The blindfold is her idea. Iain, the psychologist assigned to help her ‘cope’ with becoming sighted, told her to remove it for at least a few hours a day. She refuses. Her world is complete, she doesn’t need to see: her city gleams like the notes on a glockenspiel; her Thames is the colour of the way plums taste and she wants it to stay that way. She’ll take the blindfold off and see the river one day. Not today. ‘The only person who need worry about me, is me,’ she says.

Martin murmurs, shuffles on the stones. She’s embarrassed him. She should say something, make him feel better, but it will only make him ask her out and then she’ll have to say no, again. His metal detector beeps as if trying to fill the silence.

Maria settles further back on the rock and, crossing her legs, knocks something onto the sand. Reaching down, her fingers flit, pickpocket-quick,, and find a long rectangular box. Opening the lid, she touches a large gemstone, cold and faceted, on a metal band. The ring rests on a cushion. The stories float up – it’s dropped out of someone’s pocket, and they won’t be able to propose, both parties going through life not knowing what the other would have said; or perhaps the proposal was turned down and the night ended with an overarm throw from the riverside.

Maria freezes. The ring isn’t embedded in a cushion. A cushion wouldn’t be so hard. Or cold. Or have a fingernail.

She cries out.

‘What is it?’ Martin says, worry creasing his voice. He takes the box and makes a noise as if being punched in the stomach. ‘I’ll call the police,’ he says. Maria reaches for his arm as he searches his coat pockets. He’s trembling. ‘There’s something in Braille in the lid,’ Martin says. He places a small piece of card in her hand. He once asked her, completely pissed in the union bar, to touch him the way that she strokes the raised dots. She laughed but locked her door that night. Stupid to think of that now.

She reads the writing: ‘MARRY ME, MARIA,’ it says.


Across the river, in the 24-hour café, his cappuccino cools in its cup. The mudlarks look like monkeys, picking at and grooming the beach. Replacing the binoculars in his bag, he holds up his phone and films through the open window. Maria and her mates are flotsam on the screen. He does not need to see her in detail. He could paint her face from memory. No, it’s enough to have seen her holding the ring, knowing that she knows she is loved. Soon she will realise that he has been watching over her all this time, that he has left love notes to her all over London. She will understand the engagement gift and understand him as has no other woman. And she will love him. It won’t be like the other times, the other ones. He has learned.

But he won’t reveal himself. Not yet.

Maria’s yellow pixel moves out of sight. The screen goes black, battery dead. He slams the phone down on the table. The cup jumps. The waitress glances over from the counter. Brown make-up smudges circle her eyes. It is nearly the end of her shift, she has been serving burgers to clubbers and lattes to losers all night. Swiping at the cappuccino foam, he slips his finger into his mouth and sucks, staring at her. She blushes, turns away and concentrates on the ketchup bottles that she is arranging in lines. Coy bitch. There are stains on her apron where she wipes her hands on her hips. He follows her, sometimes, back to her shabby flat in Pimlico. But no more than that. His girl is Maria. And she is perfect. At least she will be soon enough.

 

 

(C) A.K. Benedict 2016

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.