The cab took me to Uptown by the north loop. Once through the toll booth (I had to pay the five pounds access fee), it took about five minutes to reach the address on the business card, which turned out to be nominally above Peace of Mind Insurance: one of our direct competitors. Life is full of these little twists, isn’t it?
‘Do you want me to wait?’
I told the cabbie that I didn’t, and gave him slightly more money than the straight fare, which was slightly less than I had in my pocket. I peeled it off through the window, and he took it from me with a quick hand and drove away. He left me at the end of a long gravel drive leading up to a sprawling, two-storey mansion. Between me and the front door was a black metal gate with an intercom beside it. Above all of this was a video camera on a pole, like some kind of severed head on a pike.
I wandered over, my feet crunching across the wet gravel. It was very quiet here, and I guess I could understand the appeal – especially as the sky now seemed to have settled down to an over-reaching blue, smeared with still grey cloud. There was a slight breeze, but it was far from unpleasant. It was like being on a cliff-top.
I held down the red button for a full ten seconds, and then stepped back in time to see the video camera whirring around to focus on me. Nothing happened for a moment, and then the gate jerked into life. A bland voice crackled out of the intercom.
‘Approach the house.’
I made my way up the drive. The gate jittered back across behind me like an old lady crossing the street, and buzzed in celebration when it finally re-established contact. The front door of the house had opened up, and a figure dressed in a black suit – incongruous in the mild sunshine – stepped out onto the spread of the porch and waited for me, his hands clasped almost protectively in front of his groin. I could see his half-bald head gleaming from here, and recognised him as the man with the gun from my house the night before.
‘Mr Klein,’ he said, shaking my hand when I reached him, and looking me over as though I was a series of targets for him to punch.
I returned both compliments. Mentally, I was striking him in the throat, kicking him on the inside of one knee, slamming a punch into his solar plexus.
‘Nice to see you again,’ I said.
‘Mr Hughes will see you immediately.’
He beckoned me inside, and then followed after me, closing the door behind us. I found myself standing at the end of a hallway, which seemed very dark and baroque in comparison to the easy freshness of the outside world. The air smelled of old wood and furniture polish. A grandfather clock was standing to attention halfway along, and there was no reason to believe it was anything other than properly real. Beyond that, there were a handful of ornate doors off to either side, and then red carpeted steps leading up to a windowed half-landing above, where a table was supporting some delicately arranged flowers in a crystal vase. I don’t think they were real. Between the front door and the stairs, there were various pictures hanging on the walls, and a small golden chandelier was suspended above.
The house wasn’t as big as it looked from the outside, which was probably a good thing. I had the other two men from last night pegged down as hired help – probably techies from Hughes’ company, brought in to search for the Schio file without even knowing, really, what they were looking for. I didn’t think they’d be here right now, and the relatively small size of the house made me think the only two people I needed to worry about were Hughes and his main bodyguard-cum-butler.
And, of course, his gun. Nowhere – as yet – in evidence.
I followed him down the corridor to the last room on the right. On the way, I glanced at some of the pictures on the walls. They were strange to say the least: not so much pictures as some weird form of conceptual art. Each large frame surrounded an almost entirely empty canvas containing – pinned at the centre – a thin strip of paper. On each of these strips, someone had jotted a sentence down in a looping blue freehand. In fact, it was such an untidy scrawl that I couldn’t even make out the words as we went past: just the impression that a busy hand had been at work.
As far as I could tell, all the pictures on the wall were like that.
Sentences: framed and hung.
‘In here, please.’
Well, this was nice: the study, undeniably, was an elegant room, furnished entirely in browns, dark purples and greens, and was edged by several towering bookcases, which, with the shelves crammed from one side to the other, gave the room an impression of pleasing closeness. Of course, in this day and age, there was no guarantee that Hughes had collected the titles himself, but I was actually willing to bet that he had. The only other items in the room were two massive, swollen-hard leather couches, and a flat wooden table, which had a delicate-looking antiquated map pressed like a butterfly beneath the glass surface. On top of this there was a silver platter, with tumblers huddling around a crystal decanter full of what appeared to be whisky or brandy. Beyond, a dozen small windows looked out over a side lawn, and in what little wall space remained there were more of the odd pictures from the hallway. Except these ones were larger – the smallest was a5 – and they seemed to contain a lot more than just one sentence.
‘Mr Hughes will be with you in a moment.’
The bodyguard left.
While I was waiting for Mr Hughes to arrive, I wandered over to have a closer look at one of the pictures.
I was standing outside the Colosseum in Rome, and it had taken me a while to find. It’s not a small thing, of course, and there were occasional streetmaps posted on signs that made it seem easy: a snail shell of rock, curled under the heart of the city like trapped wind. How could you miss it? But I’d wandered the tall streets for what felt like hours without success, and then finally succumbed to the heat, unfolding a curl of Euros to buy a ham cheese panini and a can of Coke. The can had looked out of place: as red as sunburn against the drained, dirty tones of the buildings. Those two things together cost the equivalent of eight pounds. I mean, fuck this city.
Dull traffic lights blinked yes and no as I walked, attempting to regulate the cars and mopeds whooshing past. My rucksack was stuck to my back with sweat, and I ate and drank as I wandered, my head held down over the backpacker’s shuffle. Finally, after an age of walking, the city had unfolded itself like a flower and I’d seen it.
It wasn’t as big as I’d expected. It seemed tall and wide – as though it was something tired that had lain down there rather than been built – but still: not as big as you’d think. For one thing, only half of it was actually complete, with white plaster patches giving only a general illusion of the original form. At the base, shops had been structured into its circumference. There was a McDonald’s, a Disney and a few others I didn’t recognise. They seemed to detract from the size and scale of it. Just another shopping centre. A man in a yellow boiler suit was trawling the sunny square in front of it, picking up litter with electronic clippers.
I watched from above, where the Colosseum seemed very still, like a painting, or maybe a mountain in the distance. There were small people moving around it: tubby tourists in garish outfits, wearing cameras like bulky black medallions; stick-thin, burnt-brown locals swinging around on high-stepping pedal-bikes; couples, merging at the arm; old men, their walnut-textured skin cooking slowly in the sun. The sounds all reached me late, and seemed to come from nowhere: noises abstracted from their source. Behind me, the nasal buzz of a scooter was more located and real.
I tapped my way down the steps and crossed the square.
Closer to, the Colosseum became physically more impressive, but also seemed more brow-beaten and weathered. The shops looked even more out of place, like stalls set up around a beached, dying whale, but they had become integral to its structure. Red and purple graffiti tags looped across the remaining stone of the surface. In fact, almost every spare inch, to a height of around seven feet, was filled with names and pictures. Above the graffiti, the Colosseum began properly: brown and crumbly as tilled soil. It looked like a breeze would damage it; as though a heavy wind might redistribute two thousand years of history as dust across the old city around it.
I paid the entrance fee, peeling off more notes from my thinning bundle, and was allowed through a clicking turnstile onto a stone walkway, overlooking the skeletal, overgrown remains of the Colosseum’s guts. It was like looking into an old beehive, with most of the middle scooped out to reveal the layers of honeycombs inside: a husk of a place. A great ellipse of stone terraces curled around the central floor of the arena, which had been stripped away over time to uncover underground cells, tunnels and passageways. Grass was stuttering out of the rock. Nature seemed to be reclaiming the place, even as it was being branded, franchised and hollowed out: robbed of its original meaning even as it was traded on. And all the time, the sun was pressing down hard upon it, like a hot amber palm. Tourists were taking whirring, flashing snapshots. There was the trudge of feet, and the sucking, scratching sound of bored straws exploring the bottom of cardboard cartons.
Half the people in the world: if you told them to take a pilgrimage to a public toilet, they would – cameras and fat fucking children and all. The other half would go and daub graffiti on it when they thought nobody was looking. And all of them would imagine it meant something.
I found a place by the barrier and slid my backpack off with a mixture of relief and revulsion. The air – although warm – instantly chilled the back of my T-shirt, which had been stained beige by a mixture of sweat and dust. At least I was clean. The night before, I’d bedded down at a campsite two bus journeys out of the city centre, and I’d managed to get a shower and tidy that morning. But I’d last washed a T-shirt a few weeks ago, if you could call that a wash: standing at a dirty outdoor sink, squinting in the sun, mashing it up in grey, foamy water.
Now, uncaring of my appearance, I unclipped the side pocket of the backpack and drew out my notebook. The stone barrier, although rough on my elbows, provided a good place to lean as I took the top off the pen, opened the notepad at the scribble page and tested the nib with a few blue curls of ink. It was working fine. I flipped back to the first free page in the pad.
And then I looked up at the Colosseum – which had once held fifty thousand Romans, screaming for blood – and I started to write.
‘Impressive piece, isn’t it?’
I turned away from the picture to see Walter Hughes, moving into the room. Once again, I was surprised by how easily he got around for such an old man – carrying his cane with a swing, like some kind of dapper toff, but not really requiring it. His bodyguard followed him in, closing the door behind. I wondered if he’d gone to a school where they taught you to do that. Not really.
Hughes poured himself a brandy, or whatever the fuck it was.
‘In fact, it’s one of my favourites. Would you like a drink?’
‘No,’ I said, feeling confused. ‘What the hell is that?’
I looked at the writing again. When I didn’t try to take in the words, it just seemed like a sheet of paper with some text scrawled upon it. But the moment my eye caught a sentence and started to follow it, my head was filled with images of the Colosseum. The heat on my skin and the sweat on my back. Hughes moved over beside me, appraising the picture. I forced myself to look at him instead, but he remained focused on the writing.
‘I particularly like this bit, here.’ He gestured with his drinks hand; the brandy rocked in the glass. ‘The attention to detail.’
I looked where he was pointing, and could immediately see a fuzzy spray of red graffiti over rough brown rock. The right-hand side of my face felt warm, and I could hear somebody saying something in Italian behind me.
Hughes’ voice pulled me back into the study.
‘The graffiti adds such an unexpected element, don’t you think? There’s contrast between the old building and the new shops – obviously – and then somewhere in-between you have this graffiti. This vandalism of both, with the youth of the city claiming the space as their own. I find it poetic.’
I didn’t say anything; I just looked at him. He was one of those men who looked thoughtful by looking blank.
After a second, he turned to me and smiled.
‘You’ve never seen anything like this before, I take it?’
I shook my head.
‘What is it?’
‘Come and sit down.’
He gestured over to the seats in the centre of the room, and we moved across. Before I could sit down, however, he picked up a towel from the side of the nearest chair, unfolded it and laid it out over my seat.
‘Thanks,’ I said. I’d never realised that my ass was potentially that damaging.
‘You’re sure you won’t have a drink?’
‘No. Thanks anyway.’
I glanced back over at the picture, almost nervously, and saw Hughes smile, his face creasing quickly from one position to the other.
‘You’re stunned, aren’t you? Obviously, you are. It happened to me the first time I encountered his work. I have been addicted ever since.’
Summing things up to perfection for once, I said:
‘I don’t understand what just happened.’
‘Neither do I,’ Hughes admitted, ‘in that I can’t explain it. All I know of the artist in question is that he is a man of genuine talent, which isn’t anything you don’t now know for yourself. I was first exposed to his work some time ago – by chance – and I’ve spent the intervening years collecting all I can find.’
I shook my head, still feeling strange.
‘It was like I was there.’
It had been, too. The words had seemed to turn into sights, sounds and smells as they passed through my eyes. My mind had flipped them over, moulding them into what had felt like an actual experience. I could still feel the sun on my face, and hear the sounds of the city; the sensations were fading, but my skin was still tingling.
‘It’s incredible, isn’t it?’ Hughes said. ‘They say a picture paints a thousand words, but in this young man’s case, his words paint a thousand pictures. And he is young, from what I can gather.’
He swirled the brandy around in his glass thoughtfully, and then looked back up at me.
‘You must excuse me. My passion for art – I will speak for hours if people let me. And of course-’ he glanced at his bodyguard, who had positioned himself by the door, ‘- people tend to. What brings you here, Mr Klein? What is it that you imagine we can do for each other? Interest me quickly, or I might talk about art again.’
I said, ‘I might have what you are looking for.’
He paused, and then took a sip of brandy.
‘I see.’ The glass went around once between his fingers. He studied it, and then frowned. ‘You didn’t think that last night, though, did you?’
‘I didn’t have it then. But I think I may have it now. It depends.’
He still wasn’t looking at me.
‘What does it depend on? Whether I let you out of this room alive?’
He glanced up at his bodyguard, who eased himself away from the wall, his eyes fixed on me. Startled by the speed in which the encounter had flipped, I still managed to stand up pretty quickly, moving into the centre of the room to gather some space around me. All the training I’d done felt like nothing.
The man circled me slightly, relaxed, and I took him in again, trying to strip away that intimidating glare – and the sheer fucking size of him – leaving only a bunch of areas I wanted to either hit or avoid.
But before we could do anything, Hughes held up a hand.
‘This is such a nice room,’ he said, peering at his glass intently. ‘And I would hate to see anything get broken. Books dislodged – anything like that. Furniture overturned.’ Finally, he looked up. ‘So perhaps you should tell me what’s on your mind.’
I didn’t take my eyes off Hughes’ bodyguard. He paid me the compliment in return.
‘You killed Claire Warner, didn’t you?’
‘Because she stole something from me.’ Hughes sounded bored. ‘It took us a while to find her, but we did in the end. And then she wouldn’t tell me where she’d put it. You might recall: she was very wilful.’
I didn’t say anything, but I remembered all right.
‘In truth,’ he said, ‘it was an accident. I don’t think she actually believed we were going to hurt her until we did, and the surprise made her fight back.’
I glanced at the cut above the bodyguard’s eye, and pictured Claire’s slim, ringed hand punching him as she kicked loose and ran for her life.
He saw me looking and I smiled at him. If Claire could hit him then so could I. And I hit harder than Claire did. I hit hard enough to put people on their backs.
That was when he reached inside his neat black jacket and produced the pistol I’d seen last night.
He smiled back.
‘She almost got away,’ Hughes said, ‘and – regrettably – she had to be shot. It was most unfortunate. But it had taken us such a long time to find her again that there was no way we were going to let her leave so easily.’
‘I can imagine.’
Even to me, my voice sounded empty and beaten. What the fuck was I doing here? I’d had ideas about confronting Hughes, taking charge of the situation, but they’d been vague at best, and what had really driven me here – taxi aside – were thoughts of Amy, and the contents of the text that Hughes had been searching for. Pale blue blouse.
The same thoughts pushed the next thing out of my mouth before I’d had a chance to okay the words.
‘It was a snuff text, wasn’t it?’ I said. Two and two clicked together in my mind, and I glanced up at the pictures on the walls. ‘And it was by the man who wrote these things. It was a description of somebody dying.’
Suddenly, it made perfect sense. I remembered what Graham had told me:
I felt myself growing blank.
‘That’s how it was sold to me, yes.’ Hughes sounded as bored as ever. ‘However, I have no way of knowing whether it was genuine or not. In fact, I never even got the chance to read it before it was stolen from me by that whore.’
I looked back at the bodyguard – or through him. He was smiling but I didn’t even see it properly. He was holding the gun badly, I noticed: pointing it half at the floor.
Maybe two and a half metres between us.
‘And you’re telling me now that you have this text?’ Hughes said. ‘If so, just produce it, and then you can be on your way.’
‘I don’t have it here.’
It felt like the words were falling out of me.
Impatience, but also an air of concession – as though a trivial wish might be granted to save him the bother of redecorating the wall behind me. So this was the key moment. And what I should have said was: I want you to get me access to the cameras at the train station. I want you to tell me where I can find this artist. I want you to tell me where and how I can find the people who did whatever it was they did to Amy – if it even
That’s what I should have said.
But I was thinking:
I was thinking:
‘Mr Klein?’ Hughes said. ‘What is it that you want for the safe return of my property?’
When you box, they teach you how to move. You don’t actually take steps so much as glide from place to place, the idea being to lift your feet off the canvas only as much as you need to in order to move. Once you get used to it, it’s quicker – and it’s also far more efficient. Many boxers use their opponent’s foot movements as guides to what’s about to be flung their way, the same way a dancer might. The less movement you make, and the quicker and smoother you do it, the more unpredictable the attack is when you send it out.
I’d practised this gliding step on the Scream every night for months, usually with a hard left jab to the head or abdomen. It had become instinctive; I didn’t have to think. Hughes’ bodyguard moved quicker than the Scream, and he managed to get the gun up to meet me, but my jab turned into a grab and I found myself with a two handed grip on the top of his wrist, pushing the gun away in a wheeling, straight-armed circle.
I head-butted him, but not well – a desperate thing, really – all the time moving my fingers around the gun. We began wrestling over it back and forth. Our arms swung, fighting for purchase, and I stumbled back a little, realising how strong the man was, and how I was going to die if I let go. I was terrified.
Hughes sounded bored and disinterested, even as my adrenalin kicked in and sent my heart skyward.
The bodyguard gritted his teeth as we fought. I felt like I was about to – and just like that, the resistance gave somewhere and the gun went turning upwards and
‘Jesus,’ I said.
Hughes cried out in genuine alarm.
‘Oh my god!’
His bodyguard was lying face-up on the floor, with blood flowing out of his nose in a dark-red stream. Literally pouring out, painting stripes down the sides of his blank face and pooling under his ears: it looked like all the blood in his body was leaving him. His eyes slowly closed.
And even more blood was simply
Well, Hughes was out of his chair, moving over. After a blank second, I scrambled for the gun – and got it – but the old man wasn’t interested in me. We crossed paths awkwardly: me trying to point the gun at him defensively and failing, him falling to his knees beside the corpse.
‘Call an ambulance!’ he said. ‘Now!’
I was so shocked that I almost did – probably would have done if I’d been physically able. Instead, I just stood there, eyes wide, staring at the pair of them. Hughes had taken his bodyguard’s limp hand in his own, and was crying.
‘Paul.’ He turned to me without looking at me, as though I was bright like the sun. Told the chair to my left: ‘Call for an ambulance!’
‘He’s dead, Hughes,’ I said.
‘Calm down.’ I took a step back and levelled the gun at him. ‘Just calm down.’
‘Call an ambulance.’
‘He’s dead. Look: it was an accident. The gun just fucking went off.’
And then I shook my head, realising how ridiculous this was. Hughes was staring at me – actually me, now – with unconcealed hatred, tears streaming down his face. Not five minutes ago he’d been threatening to kill me, and here I was: apologising and making excuses.
‘Just get over there.’ A tired gesture with the gun. I picked the towel off the chair and tossed it to him. ‘I guess you can sit on that if you’re worried about your furniture.’
The old man did as he was told, leaving the body and returning to his armchair. Once there, he leant forward, elbows on knees and face in hands, and simply wept. I found the whole thing suddenly revolting on every conceivable level.
A brandy sounded like a good idea, and so I retrieved a second glass and poured myself a good measure from the decanter. My hands were shaking slightly, but doing something as normal as this made me feel more in control. Not that I usually pour brandy out of anything fancier than a bottle, but the point stands: here was Hughes, in pieces, sobbing like a girl; and then here I was, acting as though nothing had happened, and pouring myself a goddamn drink. Like I killed people every day and sometimes – when the mood took me – more than one.
The brandy tasted good.
‘Come on, Hughes. Get yourself together.’
He looked up.
‘You’re a dead man for this, Klein. You realise that, don’t you?’
‘That’s more like it,’ I said. ‘Keep up the image.’
I sat down in the chair opposite, keeping tight hold of the gun even though I could probably have beaten him to death with one hand behind my back.
‘You won’t get away with this.’ He shook his head and looked over at Paul’s corpse. At least he’d stopped crying: he was more in control of himself. ‘You won’t get away with what you’ve done here.’
I glanced over at the body, figuring that Hughes was probably right.
‘How did you meet Claire Warner?’ I said.
‘I told you. She was a whore.’
‘What?’ I was surprised. ‘You mean literally?’
Hughes nodded, looking at me with what – to a business rival – was probably an intimidating stare. It didn’t work so well because he’d been crying, but still made me feel like the passenger here, rather than the pilot.
I tried to picture Claire as a prostitute and didn’t know whether I could. She was a very sexual person, certainly, and I was sure she wouldn’t have had a moral objection to it. I’d just never anticipated it as a career path she would have chosen, or been forced into. But I supposed I didn’t know her that well, really. A lot could have changed since I met her in Schio.
‘What happened?’ I said. ‘What does that mean, you “didn’t get on”?’
‘As I said before, she was very wilful. And that element of her character was entirely at odds with some of the things I wished her to do.’ He looked slightly downcast. ‘To my discredit, I reacted badly. To her discredit, though, she retaliated by stealing a disk from me on her way out of my property. The disk which you now have in your possession.’
Well, not quite – but there was no need for Walter Hughes to know that. My guess was that Claire had destroyed the disk when she found out what was on it and then dropped out of circulation for a while. But first, she’d saved a copy on the server in Asiago and given me the password to find it. Just in case.
And what had been on the disk to scare her so badly?
‘Where did you get the text from?’
‘I know people who know people.’
‘Let’s start with the people you know, then.’ I gestured with the gun. ‘And from them, I can work my way along.’
Hughes nodded over at his bodyguard’s dead body.
‘Paul arranged the contacts. He also picked up the package. I have no idea of the names, addresses or availability of the men he obtained it from, and they had no knowledge of me.’
‘Bullshit!’ I said, standing up and moving over to Paul’s corpse.
‘No, it’s true.’ Hughes stood up and moved after me, stick in hand. I turned around and pointed the gun at him, suddenly panicked by his speed and closeness. The intent in his eyes.
He was raising the cane as though to strike me. I saw the end third had slipped off to reveal a glinting blade. I had about a second.
I fumbled the gun out in front of me, and –
‘Jesus,’ I said again, falling to my knees.
He was twitching spasmodically, but it was obvious that he was dead. I could smell the wound burning.
That morning, I’d been anticipating killing a man – a paedophile and rapist – and reassuring myself that I could. Now I’d killed three.
And I thought: no – I won’t.
Inside or out.
But when you have a tiger by the tail, you don’t let go – just like I’d told Charlie before I abandoned her in the Bridge. You grit your teeth and hold on, all the way to the bitter fucking end. So I might not get away with it but that wasn’t important.
I thought about Amy as I clambered to my feet and stumbled out of the study. The air in the hallway smelled so fresh in comparison to the gunsmoke inside.
All that mattered was that I got away with it for long enough.
The first thing I did was latch the front door and check that there was nobody else in the house, which I did quickly and carelessly, figuring that – if there was – they might have made themselves known by now. I checked the remaining downstairs rooms to begin with – a kitchen, lounge and dining-room, and then headed upstairs, finding a bathroom, two bedrooms, an office and a guest room. But no people. Just as I’d hoped, and fucking good job, too.
Back downstairs, I checked Hughes and he was now very much dead. I dealt myself another brandy and went into the hallway to sit on the stairs, putting the gun on the floor between my feet. My hand started shaking, like the air in a room rings when loud people stop speaking.
I didn’t know how to feel about what I’d just done. My natural inclination – bizarrely – was to feel apathetic about it, but I knew that was wrong. There were two dead people in the room to my left, and that was only the tail end of the shit I’d done today. Kareem was dead in a stream because of me, and if Hughes had been self-defence and his bodyguard an accident, then I still couldn’t avoid the fact that Kareem had been cold-blooded murder.
My motto. It had been tattooed into my brain over the past few months, a before and after mantra of justification intended for one purpose and one purpose only. Not to be a good guy or to be found innocent in a court of law. Just methodically to sweep away the moral, legal and personal debris that littered the path between me and Amy, wherever she might be. I was going to get to her as the crow flies, moving whatever I needed to out of the way: convention; morality; whatever.
I closed my eyes, suddenly wanting nothing more than to hold her and have her back. I never realised how beautiful holding her felt: how much I’d taken little things like that for granted. I wanted her here with me; wanted our miserable, boring, little life back. Just wanted her so fucking badly that I couldn’t even feel the house around me anymore.
Before I could cry, my mind stepped in: cold and rational.
So I did.
I wiped away non-existent tears with the back of my hand, picked up the gun and began to search the house. There must be something here: some clue or piece of evidence that would give me an idea of where to go when I left. Something that would take me to her, or – if not – then at least to the next step along the way.
I worked quickly, but it was still nearly half-past eight by the time I was ready to leave. In the meantime, I plundered every drawer, cabinet and shoebox full of letters I could find, searching for anything that might salvage the day and lead me closer to the source of that scrambled text. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I figured maybe that was good. Gray had told me that his first rule of holistic internet searches was this: if you’re trying to find one particular piece of information then you’re likely to be disappointed, because there are a billion pieces of information to search through, and so – inevitably – the odds are against you. But if you search in general, with an open mind, then those odds flip over and work in your favour. Because you’re always likely to find something.
General principle, then: when you don’t know the lay of the land, a path of some kind is always better than a field or the middle of a wood, even if it turns out to be going in the wrong direction. Sooner or later, you’ll find a signpost and learn whether you want to go forward, backward or side to fucking side.
Searching the house, I found a hell of a lot of signposts that didn’t say Amy on them, and so at least I knew quite quickly that I was on the wrong track.
The butler’s bedroom yielded secrets like barren waste-ground yields watermelons. There were a few letters and scribbled invoices that got my hopes up for about a second, but they didn’t lead anywhere, and I found no documentation relating to Marley, or any indication of the contacts the man must have used to buy the snuff text for Hughes. I hadn’t really expected him to keep explicit records, but it was still disappointing. Dead end.
Hughes’ bedroom was the same. There were more framed texts on the wall. I read one of them and found myself sitting in the early morning sun outside a tent in Perugia, Italy. There was nobody else around and – although I was on a campsite – there wasn’t even another tent on my row. I knew it was a half-derelict site up in the mountains, and I was staring out at this peak in the distance, green trees and mist blending into a strangely spiritual whole that I was trying to make sense of.
Another picture put me on my back beneath a tree. It was the same campsite, but later in the day, and I was looking up at the underside of a hundred branches and, beyond that, the deep, bright sea of the sky above. It was pure blue – a wonderful, cloudless shade of pale colour – and I was imagining that at any moment I might fall upwards towards it, snapping the branches between with the weight of my plummeting body, rushing up and splashing into the cold, faraway depths of this beautiful sky. At that moment, even the earth at my back felt tenuous.
I stopped reading the texts and started looking for clues, smashing open the frames and examining the backs of the paper for any signs as to where they might have come from. But they were blank.
I gave up and started searching the office instead. There were a million and one files, and most of them seemed to be insurance related, with the majority being on Peace of Mind headed paper. Certainly not what I was looking for. I made a mental note to tell Gray that his precious first rule of searching lacked something in practice: the filing cabinets and desks were so brimful with records, invoices and other accounting information that I could barely make head or tail of them, never mind find a nugget of gold. I was despairing, and about to give up the search altogether, when I saw the envelope on the desk.
Occasionally in life, things just click. Sometimes you just get that feeling, and I got it in spades as I walked over to the desk and picked up that unopened envelope.
It was addressed to Walter Hughes.
I flipped it over and found the return address on the back.
Jim Thornton, O’Reilly’s Bar.
I’d heard of O’Reilly’s, but never been. From what I could remember, it was a downtown dive, an old Irish place, but there were so many of them that they all merged into one. I was quite sure that Walter Hughes would never have been in there, though – the world didn’t hold enough towels to separate that man’s ass from a barstool in a joint like that. The name Thornton rang a bell, but I wasn’t sure where I knew it from. I tore open the envelope.
Inside, there was one of the smaller scraps of paper that Hughes had decorated his entrance hall with: one short sentence. I read it quickly, taking in the aroma of hops and malt and sugar, and feeling a waft of hot steam in my face, only barely distinguishable from the warm breeze. Around me, there was a gabble of foreign language. The title at the top of the page said:
Bingo times a thousand.
I folded the sheet of paper carefully and slipped it into my trouser pocket. It was half-past-eight: a good time to visit a bar on a Saturday night under other circumstances, but far from ideal on a night like tonight. There’d be a taxi rank somewhere near here, but I still wouldn’t make it to the bar for a good hour or so. Half-nine was a bad time to walk into a rough, city-centre bar with a gun and start asking questions.
But really, I didn’t have anywhere else to be right now.
I picked up the gun and made my way downstairs. I looked briefly into the room, almost expecting Hughes and his butler to have moved. But they hadn’t, of course. Not even a little.
I closed the door over on them, inside and out, and made my way into the early evening gloom.