big boat

Chapter 1

Gatsby's Smile

There was a time when I would've called Harry a minute or two after I'd seen the body. While I was still seeing, in fact.

I'd be stood there, staring down at tonight's shade of death. Absorbing the scene. Disorganized killings, mainly. Crimes of anger; crimes of passion. The same thing, in the end. Ordinary, regular murder. Men who snap. Women who smoulder.

I'd take a moment. Pull out the 'phone. Then call him. And in that long silent open moment - the moment just after you've pressed the button but just before the first bell tolls - I'd get a vision of Harry and what he was doing, right then, when he got the call.

Another call.

From another crime scene.

From another me.

He'd be stood there, staring down into a skillet - or a sauté pan, maybe - with a le Creuset spatula in one hand and a cold beer in the other. He'd flip his steak, taste his beer and his mobile would ring. It'd be in his overcoat pocket. Or re-charging, perhaps, by his exclusive wine rack in a dark walk-in cellar-type space just off the kitchen. He'd take the skillet off the heat and go answer the 'phone. Maybe he'd be hoping it wasn't me. Or was me. Though more probably he had no notion at all of whom it might be.

Harry wasn't waiting on anything. Or anyone.

'Hey,' I'd say. There'd be a beat. Maybe he'd flip. Or taste. Then, 'What've we got?' he'd reply.

I used to wonder whether Harry ever did the things I imagined. I'd never seen him in his home. I'd never seen him eat.

But I knew he drank.

Nowadays he's waiting, I suspect, to feel safe. To forget that he'll ever have to answer the 'phone to me again. On account of what I'd done. On account of him never being able to forgive me.

Harry has eyes like Gatsby's smile.

And it's putting me off.

I felt my fingers release the mobile - that I hadn't called him with - back into the pocket of the rumpled wash-worthy cargos that were hanging off of me and I, instead, stared down into the dead girl's astonished eyes.

Her perfect breast bloomed pale pink but didn't yield beneath the gentle pressure of two latexed fingers. Rigor had set in. She'd been dead, therefore, at least eight hours. Killed when Corrie was on. When Staff and Old Folk alike were riveted.

Well timed.

Twenty minutes later, the girl's eyes still stared into mine - though now from the base of a twenty foot vertical drop as, eyebrows raised, mimicking her frozen surprise, I gazed back down at her from the open window of a viciously miserable old woman's Nursing Home room.

It'd been a soft kill. He - her murderer was most likely a he - hadn't hurt her. Hadn't wanted to. Hadn't needed to. So she hadn't suffered. She was, simply, dead. That's what he'd done to her.

That's all.

What he'd done to her corpse, though, was a different matter.

"You hate me, don't you?" the old woman moaned.

If I gave it an inch, I might - but I was busy stinking up the place. Stale cigarettes and, secretly, staler sweat. The cigarettes I couldn't fathom. Hadn't touched one in four months. But the sweat, that was me all right. Kept meaning to edge under the shower on a night - or a morning - but kept meandering by it somehow. Figured it'd be too hot. Or too cold. And I had a pain. Deep in my belly.

Locked into that eerie exchange of dead stares with the dead girl, I answered the bitter old bat folded haphazardly into the military Parker Knoll behind me,

"I don't hate you, Mrs Nett."

"You think you've found me out to be a liar," she said.

I know I've found you out to be a liar. You've been a liar all your life.

So have I,

"You're not a liar."

"Then what d'you think I am?"

I couldn't let go the dead girl's eyes and drooped against the casement, peculiarly roasting, all of a sudden, despite a wholesome Manchester chill. And acute apathy let a thought catch me up. This chuntering old cow at my back had spent the last three decades making everyone she came into contact with feel miserable. Her son in particular. It was a waste of her life. And his. Not that it was any business of mine what they did with their lives. But she probably figured she'd hard-earned a Masters.

And now she was teaching the little ones.

"Why should I care what you are? There's a dead girl down there," I turned, at last, to face her. That long miserable old façade. "I think I care more about who she is," I paused, wondering whether I really did care, "And why she's down there. Like that…"

"Like what?"

"All bare."

Mrs Nett's jaw snapped shut and she looked me square in the eye. Her trembling, liver-spotted old-woman hand might've liked to smack my chops.

"I knew you hated me," she said.

She thought I gave a damn.

I took a last look at the dead girl. She, her body, was perfect. Flawless.

Shaved.

That's what he'd done. Post mortem, he'd shaved her pubic hair right off. That's all. No lacerations, contusions, ligature marks, stabs or gunshots. Nothing ordinary. And nothing weird. No disfiguration, evisceration, decapitation, hand loss, foot loss, eye gouging, breast slicing, vagina mutilation; no drawing on her, peeing, defecating or masturbating. No signs, symbols or serial signatures.

She might've been raped. But it didn't look like it.

Simply, dead. Pubic hair, shaved.

Why? There's the rub. He'd needed her dead to do it. And he wouldn't've looked into her eyes. When he killed her. He would've closed his own eyes. Or looked away. When she died. When her young life slipped out of her.

When her life slipped out.

And his razor slipped down.

The old woman blew her nose.

I drifted to the door and pulled it open. The near-aways granddaughter stood frozen to the threshold too stricken to cloak she'd been listening in. Tears had sprung into her eyes - again. She really ought to get a grip. Helping her father off the thirty-year merry-go-round of a guilt-fest might do for a start.

"You're braver than me," Near-Aways whispered.

"No, I'm not."

"Well, you'll have to be…"

"Why's that?"

"There's a man here to see you. I think he's with the police."

Is that so? I gazed past her shoulder along the corridor. Nothing. I glanced back beyond the window of the old woman's room. A room barely distinguishable from all the other little prisons along that corridor. Barely distinguishable from all the other tawdry corridors - ground floor, first floor, any floor anywhere - in that old folks' home. Barely distinguishable, still, from all the other indifferent Shady Pines that sometimes stink of piss and shit - but don't always. Not if someone cracks a window.

"There's a whole squeeze of policemen down there," I said. "A nude woman fell past your granny's window. They're worried about it."

Her pale green eyes didn't flicker as she stared at me, then past me. Past the same pale green vinyl wipe-down walls to the open window two floors up from the broken, bare body. A camera flash from below startled her. Her eyes darted fearfully to Granny. Maybe she thought the flash had revealed her secret. Granny could look inside her now and see how she really felt about the interminable misery of being a dutiful granddaughter. How right she was. Granny could see. Granny knew. Granny had time enough to develop a sixth or seventh sense. What else was she to do all day and night, in that wash-wipe oubliette distinguished, today, only by the dead girl beneath the sill?

The dead girl.

A first kill. Perhaps. Probably.

A last kill? No. He'd flung her lifeless corpse out the window. He either had no remorse for what he'd done and was throwing her away like a piece of junk. Or he'd been disturbed. The latter. The benevolence of the actual taking of her life seemed to preclude the former.

So he'd not finished it. His thing. The thing he was doing. The thing he would do. The thing that would become his ritual. The thing his tormented, demented, segmented subconscious figured he had to do. Refraction. Action. He'd finish it. He'd practice. Practice. Practice. Out loud. In the real world. Killing them 'til he got it right. Killing them 'til he got it perfect. Killing them all if he had to.

There'd be more dead girls.

Soon.

Behind Near-Aways a couple of doors down, a bowl flushed, a door opened and a gangly, spiritedly expensive crumple of a man emerged and shambled toward us - finishing up his flies, for Godsakes.

"You," he glinted at me, always amused, "are under arrest."

"Is that so?"

With characteristic legerdemain, he conjured a pair of handcuffs,

"Shall I read you your rights?"

"Give it a rest, Robert." I reached for the cuffs - but he whipped them out of my reach and smiled.

"'Bobby,'" he emphasised, very gently.

And a sudden rare stillness was upon us. My idiot hand hanging there, mid-air, as Near-Aways melted beyond our ken and Robert and I, all alone, became strangers again. Like we'd never known one another and we never would. No matter how long or short our inevitably passing acquaintance would be, we'd be forever, under the skin and the flesh and the bone, strangers. And in that uncommon, unnatural moment when nothing and no one provoked our senses, we each secretly cherished the confusion the silence left us with and sourced comfort in the knowledge that, always, we'd be alone.

Until, a few feet over, a few feet down, another camera flash bounced of the corpse's solidified flesh.

"Only my mother calls me Robert."

Another camera flash.

"How is she?" I remembered to enquire.

Robert looked toward the corpse's window,

"Dead."

"Your mother, I meant."

He looked steadily back at me,

"The same…"

What, 'dead?', I thought to ask.

"…as always," he smiled thoughtfully then murmured, "Sometimes I think she's better off dead and done with it."

"You can't mean that!" Near-Aways morphed back into perspective and spoke up, feigning horror. And another camera flash prompted the thought that maybe she was right. Being dead, perhaps, wasn't a circumstance all these frail, failing internees around us might relish. Maybe because they knew no better but, better still, maybe because this inconsequential, lacklustre Life was all they knew.

And better the devil you know.

Dear.

"Can I have the cuffs back?" I asked Robert a straightforward question and steeled a woolly brain for a convoluted response.

"If Happy catches you with these…" - what with me not being an actual police officer, he meant, and me having effectively stolen the cuffs from a superbly stoned twelve-year-old Detective Sergeant on a bungled arrest in the Police Mortuary two nights ago - "he'll get you disqualified or disbarred or, what would it be?, disassociated?"

Disassociated from the Police Force. I was that already. In Happy Harry's eyes. And in Harry's mind and in Harry's heart. Near-Aways looked to me,

"You're a policeman?" She sounded astounded. Had I half an inclination I might've been offended. It wasn't that remote a proposition, was it?

"No," I responded truthfully.

"Although she helps the Police with their enquiries," Robert, grinning, pocketed the cuffs then whispered conspiratorially to Near-Aways, "Don't stand too close to her," he patted his pocket and sassed his eyebrows at me - as if I was at all likely to go fishing around anywhere near his crotch - "…she knows what you're thinking."

Near-Aways looked to me all askew,

"You're a psychic?"

For God's sake.

"I'm a psychologist." I dragged my eyes from Robert's crotch and looked to Near-Aways, "And he's the Police Coroner," I tilted half a brain in Robert's direction.

"You're here for all the old folk, then?" Near-Aways ignored the latter part of my in-depth analysis of all our raisons d'etre, and gazed at me with half-interested wonderment.

And I took her in. And her innocent question. Being in a certain place at a certain time precipitates specific presumptions about a person. A murder victim beneath Granny's window, Granny's house of coercion awash with Her Majesty's Finest and me bantering not so merrily with the Police Coroner - and Near-Aways' primary assumption was that I was here for the Old Folk.

Do I not seem to be who I am?

For the murdered girl? Or the granny?

"What's your name?" I asked her.

"I'm Mrs Nett's granddaughter."

So no name then, worth mentioning. And no inkling that, ordinarily, she'd be wrong about why I was here but, as it happened, today she was right.

So I had to lie to her.

"I'm with the police."

"Thought you were in Happy's Big Black Book of Bad People," Robert simulated intrigue.

"Why?" Like Harry'd ever tell anyone what I'd done to him.

"You blacked Doc's eye…"

Oh.

Robert chuckled, thinking he was teasing me, thinking he was reaching through the gravity and apparent disgrace of it all to a mutual oasis of shared light humour. But there was nothing mutual - or shared - between us. Real or imagined.

And I wasn't smiling.

"Doc should keep his filthy paws to himself," I murmured, wondering whether Robert had a cigarette anywhere about his irritating person.

"That might well be so - but Happy's not impressed."

If he did have a cigarette, I wondered whether he might give it to me.

"Professor Beck?!"

I fell over.

Peculiarly, as I twisted toward the query from along the corridor, a curious disorientation sprang from… where? The malevolent under-carpet vortex that stalks the Old Folk by day and by night? Who'd ever know? Wickedness, then, got a grip of an ankle, scrambled any ability to put one foot in front of the other and, as feet and knees collided, wheeled me sideways and backward.

I took a trip out of a bewildered mortal shell and, soul disassociated, watched, head a little atilt with misplaced curiosity, as that body of mine staggered over its own feet and plunged toward the skirting.

At least I didn't break a hip.

Robert stood there, four feet away, looking down, momentarily stunned. Near-Aways stood there, six feet away, looking down with her hand clamped over her mouth. And a young DS - hey, it's the psychotropic twelve-year-old from the Mortuary arrest two nights ago - bolted along the corridor and from his great height - my, he's tall - swung low and, somehow back inside myself, when I refocused upon his face, was already reaching past my ear and gently feeling the back of my head.

"I'll bet that hurt," he frowned. "You'll have a bump."

My, he's blonde.

And handsome.

"Want to sit up?" he gently took my hand.

"Lean on me," he eased me into a sitting position, "Professor Beck…?" he enquired softly.

I paused. Then raised a feeble hand and pointed to Robert. The tall blonde handsome DS looked to Bobby,

"The Chief's downstairs. Wants your opinion in person."

Christ. Harry. Downstairs. Wanting Lithium Bob's opinion. In person. If Lithium didn't get down there in five seconds flat, Harry would come and find him. Then he'd be even less happy. What with my faux innocent face springing into his unsuspecting field of vision.

"You stole my cuffs," Handsome suddenly looked to me, frowning a little, unsure. "And the key."

"You cuffed me," I interrupted, far too close to the DS's gentle ear.

"I didn't know who you were."

"Did I look like a fetishist prostitute on a work night?"

Robert, belatedly driven to kneel at my side, and the DS simultaneously halted, obviously struggling to not raise an amused eyebrow between them. I glanced to Near-Aways for moral support.

"You're too old," she said.

The urge to close my eyes and lie back down was almost overwhelming. Should've just done it. Maybe, then, they'd all go away and leave me be. Lying there, dying there. Doing nothing to no one. Not up to no good, not up to any good. And so, so… hot. Then I remembered Harry might be on his way up.

I could feel him.

Downstairs.

"I'm late-thirty something," I lied. "And you were stoned," I quietly reminded Handsome, just between the two of us. He indiscreetly darkened,

"I was undercover," he said, helping me to my feet as Robert suddenly handed him the cuffs.

"Here they are. I took them off her…" Robert said simply, "and took her home."

"Yeah," said DS Handsome to me, adroitly untwisting my jacket, tweaking my collar and carefully leaning me against the wall, "What sort of state were you in?"

I didn't know what he meant.

And I didn't remember Robert removing the cuffs.

I looked to Robert. And frowned.

He froze.

One knee still paused on the evil carpet, Robert's time stood still. Mine carried on. When did he release me from the cuffs? I couldn't quite remember. Quite. And he was wondering whether I should've remembered. Whether I could've remembered. Whether I should've, could've, known at all. Whether he'd have to actually 'fess up. Or needn't. Because I didn't remember. And I hadn't caught him at it. Holding my hand, turning the key, releasing me, lifting me up, carrying me to his car, fishing about in my pockets for door keys, feeling his nimble-fingered way through all my… trouser pockets. 'Did you steal anything else from me?' I thought at the shuttered windows of the Police Coroner's soul.

And Robert shot back into the land of the semi-living,

"You fainted," he explained. "You looked so… lost. Then you passed out."

Two nights ago. The Mortuary arrest. I threw a punch at Doc - and then I...

Robert, rising at last, kindly knitted his brow,

"You must remember me taking you home?"

Home. And suddenly I couldn't remember a thing. Because all I could feel was Harry.

Downstairs.

Somewhere.

His irritation rising. And his edging toward the first step on the first stair.

"Harry wants you," I reminded Robert.

"And whatever Happy wants…" he muttered, simultaneously dusting down his pants and heading toward the stairs.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" Near-Aways blurted at Handsome.

Handsome grinned. Near-Aways blushed.

"They'll make us a cup in the dining room," she hurriedly drew him after the Professor as if she didn't want to be alone with me. Not for one psychic second. "Anytime. And if no one's there, you can just help yourself. Day or night. Nobody minds. You can do as you please."

Poor, dear Near-Aways. She hadn't a clue.

Somebody always minds.

And no one can do as they please.

"Well, that sounds marvellous," Handsome sparkled at her without sounding the least bit patronising. Then winked at me. Christ Almighty.

"There's a tin of Family Circle, too," Near-Aways recommended.

"How very 'Alan Bennett'," Handsome let her manoeuvre him toward the stairs. See, she had gumption in her somewhere. I just hadn't spotted it.

"What's your name?" he asked her.

"Elaine."

"What's yours?" I asked after him and he paused, Near-Aways Elaine delicately hanging off of his arm.

"Young. Kris. DS." He smiled briefly, an ancient soul momentarily twinkling at me through those Young blue-grey eyes. And as Near-Aways guided her man toward and down the stairs, I sadly became alone again.

With Mrs Nett.

Bent over her hooked knobbled walking stick. Staring at me. Just staring. There. Leaning half around the doorjamb. How long had she been there?

All her life.

And the rest of it.

We let precious moments pass as an uncertain Something glided through the corridor space between us. A restless spirit, perhaps, heading Home at last. Or not. Then Mrs Nett slowly let loose her piteous salvo,

"You haven't the guts to tell me what you really think."

"I think you're a misguided old woman whose only reason to stay alive is to watch her family, her son and granddaughter in particular, brace and sweat with guilt and regret at every turn. Thirty-five years ago you were what? Forty? Forty-five? You were vibrant, almost. The prime of your life all laid out ahead of you, all neat and plush and pretty - there for the experiencing. But somewhere between the prime and the pill shop, you took a turn. You dived down Poor Me Alley. And never came back out."

I took a sore breath.

"Your granddaughter reckons to know all about pills and depression and what they've done to you. She's seen it all before, she says, and that's all just well and fine but she can't possibly be happy seeing her father having each and every last living drop of affection he ever had for his mother being bled from him by a hateful harridan who hasn't half an ounce of shrivelled up compassion within half a mile of her bleeding heart."

I wondered whether I'd actually said that out loud.

I'd only been thinking it, surely.

I imagined the dead girl's eyes and figured I found more expression in her lifeless surprise than this old misery could ever muster in her rheumy black orbs - but I was horribly wrong. Misery was gawking at me, wide-eyed, open-mouthed.

Evidentially, I'd actually been speaking.

And she didn't like it.

She didn't like me.

And I didn't care. After all these years, I couldn't. It wasn't sensible.

I swayed in the heat. Internal heat. Then plundered a jacket pocket and retrieved a bottle of Prozac - unopened.

"Here," I held them up, "I self-prescribed them."

I shouldn't start something I wasn't going to finish.

And I should stop talking to myself.

Violet veins throbbed beneath the translucent, atom-thin skin on the back of the old woman's hand as I pushed the pills into her scraggy fingers,

"Knock yourself out."

And crack a window.

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