Harmless Escapism: The Unravelling

Something was very clearly wrong. It was obviously Thomas Fairfax.

Solutions were not immediately presenting themselves.

Except for one. Flight.

The lurking apathy I had battled with so un-apathetically my entire life seemed finally to be winning. Smug in its self-justifications, trending events had been indicating that direction for a while. Presently, I had very little inspiration to engage with the world. Which was absolutely fine, and precisely the reason for my living so remotely. Though I appreciated the thinking time my long commute facilitated, it was unnecessarily arduous save for affording this high-level seclusion. I did it all for one sole purpose. These past months nestled in the woods, overlooking my house from a few miles away, had been decidedly blissful.

My house was evidently not safe, despite my abundance of caution. Which I first met with crushing disappointment, before quickly resolving to take one, additional step. Into the wilderness, that was. A literal step, too.

I rocked slightly, perched in a hammock that swayed with the trees. The rich scent of earth after rain was magical, dancing through my nostrils and inflaming my senses with the gorgeous fragrance of untouched nature. Carefree birdsong broke out casually and intermittently, as the leaves brushed and caressed each other at the wind’s invitation. I would have shivered, if not for the multiple sleeping bags ensconcing me in a toasty bubble. My tent in last night’s downpour had been a perfect, fabric cocoon against the pattering that was my lullaby. Everything was perfect.

It was impossible to feel lonely when alone. It was only ever eventual boredom that sucked me back into a world wracked by pain of its own creation.

For as much as I pitied and despised those bumbling organisms, though only for fleeting seconds before overarching ambivalence returned, it was at least amusing to indulge in their petty struggles. Humour was their last, true mouthpiece. Any other expression of trauma was invariably ridiculed as overly-sensitive.

Too often, I found it impossibly frustration, devoid of recourse besides ceasing to care. It was the only method I subscribed to in the conflict between kindness and ignorance pervading the world. Well, not entirely true. I cared for myself.

That sentiment had driven me into a tree. I had an impeccable vantage over my house, whilst being invisible myself. My month of surveillance was proving to be an over-abundance of caution, however. I had received no further visitors, which I struggled to understand. Not logically, but for the more worrying implications. I had to imagine my antagonist’s actions could be interpreted by appreciating they were monitoring my actions, harbouring an ulterior plan that did not involve simply delivering me to harm. Something more sinister than blunt, lethal force was ingratiated in their plan.

Effectively, they already knew exactly when I was ‘home’ or not, and were currently choosing to leave me undisturbed. For all their cryptic efforts, pure violence would have been thoroughly underwhelming.

My simultaneous aim in retreating, though I had failed to glimpse anyone attempting a break-in, had been achieved. It was an effective method of gauging their patience. A month of inactivity was surely testing.

It had been for me.

Even as I returned, I couldn’t exactly pin-point the elusive motivation compelling me back into society, it fell somewhere between my destructive curiosity and extreme aversion to tedium. I knew not what I yearned for, nor what I sought to gain, only what I hoped to escape: tiring of my own company. It was happening now, which was unfortunate in two respects. Firstly, I would have to talk to people again. Which was not preferable. Secondly, I had lost. I had been outlasted. Whomever was toying with me had succeeded. My impatience might just be fatal.

Once, as theoretical therapy, I had attempted to grow a vegetable garden. It was a misguided experiment in just how self-sustainable I could become. I was not a gardener, nor did I have genetically modified crops at my disposal. I also discovered that January is not the peak growing month.

The garden, a small plot in these very woods, had now been converted into a bank. Rolls of vacuum-sealed notes, half in pounds, half in US dollars, rested in a sealed container four meters below my tent, which had become a permanent fixture. There was never any cause to remove it. Yet.

It was still time for me to leave. Abandoning my hammock and tent, I paced back towards my house whilst hidden just inside the wooded enclave, since it stretched towards the hill up which I regularly sprinted. There were concerns to be attended to, mysteries to be unravelled. I doubted I could survive without knowing why the spot I had just passed was still stained with Fairfax’s blood. It was eerie, knowing he had travelled through this section. Or a part of him had, at least.

Crawling up the muddy slope, I realised how difficult the uncertainty had been. With each step I felt myself rise from the vague and murky depths, longing for a breath at a surface still laced with dense fog, but at least providing air. Still impenetrable for now, I could begin to drag my weary and sodden limbs towards enlightenment at the shore. Metaphorically. Literally speaking, I passed through the sliding glass doors. It was cold inside.

I was energy-conscious. Obviously, I wasn’t about to heat an empty house. But, awakening from the remote depression into which I had been stunned, I really wished it were warm.

I opted for a shower to compensate for my dormant abode by mustering some activity. I seared the grime from my skin and rinsed the sweat from my overgrown hair. Figuratively, I was still gasping blindly against the perils of fatigue and discarded hope. The latter had been shed as some foolish layer of external clothing, prior to my entering those deceptively dangerous waters, the initial coolness deadening rather than soothing. Physically, I was burning the untarnished wilderness into the drain, preparing once more for human contact.

Somewhere distant, I suppose I had dreamt of fresh and uninhabited worlds. Of myself their powerful and infallible ruler. It was pointless, but harmless escapism all the same.

Absently, I gazed at my feet, and the blackened water swirling around them. I noticed a pine needle, approximately two inches in length, protruding from my second toe in. My index toe? That didn’t really apply, I didn’t think. Not like index finger. Tugging the needle free, I watched a steady stream of crimson begin percolating towards the drain. Was I completely losing my edge? Now was not the time for such reflections. It was the time for assured action. Come on Vance.

Was it unhealthy to leave my tent outside? Not for the animals, but for my psyche. Waiting, anticipating my imminent return. As if another break from those around me was inevitable. As if it would be a short time before I succumbed to the appeals of solitude once more. Perhaps it fuelled my detachment. A permanent scar ingrained across my mind, like a floating blemish I couldn’t shake from my vision as I viewed the world. That tent was accessible freedom.

Climbing out of the shower and drying myself, I could hear my phone vibrating. A familiar and unavoidable curse. Well, evidently avoidable for long periods. Just not now. Oh well. Hurrying towards its charging point, I answered with fading reluctance to a familiar voice.

               “Howler?”

               “Always.”

               “Relieved to hear. Missed you. Could do with your help, really. Mind meeting me?”

               “I do not. Just tell me where and when.” I hung up.

Adventure called. On y vas, mi amigos.

Just a bit of German for you, to spice things up. I set off driving, my car rumbling into life as if it hadn’t languished for an idle month. I listened to downloaded music and fixed my eyes on the road. Wherever possible, my speedometer remained glued to the limit. After an eternal hour, I pulled into a street that unusually seemed to blend suburbia and business district. The buildings alternated between residential properties in oppressive tower blocks and chain shops and cafes. I was ultimately forced to park two streets away.

I dutifully climbed the stairs inside an apartment building, towards the number I had been given. On the third floor, I finally reached the low mumbling that had echoed through the quiet ambiance. A few of the forensics team nodded at my approach, and insisted I wear a fully-protective suit. Crime scene time.

Only the chief, and another detective whose face was familiar but whose name was distant, were inside. Well, and a third, if you included the body.

A man, probably somewhere in his thirties. Long black hair unstylishly kept, skinny build masked by a baggy hoody, but exposed by his wearing only boxers, a crater missing from his head, likely average height, but concealed by his slumped posture. At his feet lay a tattered pillow and heavy revolver. Maybe the head wound should have been the punchline. But I was also fascinated by the diamond earrings he wore. Not to appropriate, but they were intended for women. There was at least one question there.

               “Hello.” They both looked up.

               “Howler. Glad you could make it.”

               “Wouldn’t miss it. This looks like fun.”

               “Everything’s untouched. We wanted your opinion before forensics started bagging.”

               “My pleasure. Give me the basics.”

               “It’s undisturbed, so we walked in on exactly this.”

               “Not quite. Minus you two, of course. Though that would be interesting, to have walked in on yourselves already here, as yourself.”

               “Yes. Apartment’s registered to a Felix Malwell. We assume accounted for here. A neighbour called one-oh-one reporting a bad smell and noted she hadn’t seen Malwell for a while.”

The putrid stench of rotting meat had been detectable from the hallway but was indeed now verging on overwhelming. I had to imagine he had been killed outside of the last twenty-four hours. A greenish hue had overtaken his skin, especially surrounding the gaping head wound, spreading down his neck and creeping out of his sleeves towards his fingers. There were puckers spread across the upper thighs, but bloating was not severe. In my severely unexpert opinion, days had not yet passed.

               “Any indications as to cause of death? Besides the immediate?”

               “Post-mortem will assess other possible wounds or areas of bruising. Alongside a toxicology report. As I mentioned, we have touched nothing.”

               “Mr. Howler, if I may? I would theorise that Malwell was more than likely inebriating during the passage of time that unfortunately resulting in his premature demise.” They might just have been the first words I’d ever heard from the unnamed detective. He sounded almost sheepish.

               “How might you deduce that?”

               “I took the initiative of conducting a preliminary, if slightly crude, form of toxicology assessment myself such as to henceforth ascertain–

               “He sniffed Malwell’s pee.”

               “I’m sorry?” It explained the sheepishness.

               “Well, his urine imparts a distinct odour of spirits.”

               “Yikes. So, this Malwell hadn’t been seen for a while. Strikes me as reclusive. Somehow, he’s obtained a gun for himself. One night, he gets drunk, shoots himself in the head. Suicide, right?” I purposefully addressed only the chief with these remarks. My business with this other detective was concluded. Thankfully, he’d never been given a name. Not that I was especially attached to him.

               “That was our initial theory, but we called you because it seems more complicated. Question one, these walls are paper thin. No-one heard a gunshot?”

               “The pillow at his feet, torn apart and splattered with gunpowder residue might indicate he held it to his head and muffled the blast. Very considerate of him, not to inconvenience anyone unnecessarily.”

               “Except us,” the unnamed detective volunteered rather insensitively. The chief ignored him.

               “Unusual, especially if he was drunk. Also, look at the shot placement.”

               “Through the pterion?”

               “Exactly. Just behind the left temple, slightly above the left ear. He perfectly penetrated the weakest part of the skull.”

               “Lucky shot?”

               “That kind of angling would be difficult to achieve through the blindness of the padding alone, even without the likely impaired coordination. Implying the presence of a gunman. Leading to question two. Why is the gun still here?”

I let that question rest for a moment, whilst I properly examined the apartment. The most prominent details were distractingly absorbing. Almost in the direct centre of the room, Felix Malwell had collapsed forward onto his desk, head and neck minutely tilted from the force of the gunshot. The pillow now ragged at his feet had been inadequate protection against the bullet still in his skull, which had smacked the left side of his head. A gun had been discarded next to the pillow by a now-stiffened left hand. That cocktail of evidence conspired to suggest suicide.

Other points also deserved contemplation. On his desk, a mug, a glass, a notepad with pens, all oriented to his left. But it was clearly a murder. Stranger than that, it was a murder-staged-as-suicide-staged-as-murder.

I quickly sniffed the contents of his glass. Definitely vodka. Mine was a less invasive method of detection.

               “Chief, I might never have said this before in my entire life. But I think you’re right.” He only raised an eyebrow. “Malwell was murdered, by someone seemingly competent, no less. No signs of forced entry, perfect shot placement. By the manner of execution, and the manipulation of certain objects, it was intended to exhibit the scene of a suicide. But, I believe a deliberately unconvincing one.”

               “What do you mean?”

               “For this to be a plausible suicide, we have to assume Malwell is left-handed. He used his left hand to shoot the left side of his head. Not inherently suspicious, but an unusual choice. Nothing about this strikes me as rushed. Each stage has been meticulously orchestrated. Our killer made a conscious choice to shoot from the left side. Bizarre, considering that, not only are most people automatically assumed right-handed, Malwell was clearly right-handed too.”

               “Actually, we assumed he was a leftie. All his stuff is assembled to support that.” Detective no-name was a nuisance.

               “Precisely what’s so striking here. Our murderer rearranged an entire apartment. Why?”

               “They didn’t.”

               “The coffee mug and the handle might be set to the left, but the smears on the rim illustrate that he was lifting right-handed and drinking from the other side. I noticed a callous on his right index finger. The TV remote is still on the right arm of that chair, and are you suggesting that a leftie, using a fountain pen, managed to cover an entire notebook page of writing without leaving a single smudge? Given that Malwell is already right-handed, why expend this extra effort, especially if to be lazy in the most crucial areas?”

               “Wandering attention?”

               “Why concoct the charade in the first place? Why not just shoot him from the other side? This was to prove some kind of point.”

               “I won’t disagree. It’s strange. It’s why you’re here.”

               “Do we know who this guy was, or why anyone would want him murdered?”

As both detectives shrugged, I turned my attention towards his notebook. Skimming through what transpired as a story, I quickly gathered another unique element. It seemed Malwell had been devising a murder-mystery novel, in which a tortured writer inadvertently stumbled onto a real-world conspiracy for which he met a grisly end.

Huh.

               “Either of you perused his work? I would hazard our friend was something of a writer, alongside amateur sleuth.”

With a furrowed brow, the chief read through the same section.

               “What do we do with this?”

               “Bring in forensics. Search for clues. Keep me updated. I’m going to visit some other characters.”

The chief had been stop one on my reintegration tour.

I didn’t readily distribute my phone number. Checking my phone after disappearing for a month, I didn’t have many notifications. Not the millions I imagined some would have, certainly. Few had been of any importance. Only one even required returning any response. A single message from Matt, dispatched eleven days prior. One word. ‘Urgent’.

Our code was self-explanatory. Ironically, given the subject matter, he had been remarkably patient. Through ‘acknowledged. 12’ I confirmed both my reception and our meeting time. Ample warning for Matt to clear anything he might have planned. Much as I wanted to engross myself in Felix Malwell, something had probably gone catastrophically wrong.

I arrived a few minutes early to Matt’s gym, stepping towards his office, but he was already prepared and opened without hesitation.

               “The Hart brothers are out. And talking.”

               “What?”

               “Threatening to, at least. You promised they wouldn’t dare. Except, twelve days ago, they walked in, brazen as bulls, and told me they wanted to expose you.”

               “Why not approach me?”

               “Where the fuck have you been?”

               “Good point. What do they want?”

               “Our help, apparently. Seems they’re running a job. All they told me is that they scouted a potential target but need assistance in the planning and execution. Since they’ve got the initiative here and know it, we’ll operate from the front and donate to them all of the proceeds. Otherwise, the alternative is them telling Marky Grincher that we left because we turned. Which, from their perspective, is accurate. From our perspective, it cannot happen.”

               “I’m surprised they’re still alive.”

               “That would have been my first choice. I guessed you wouldn’t want that anymore.”

               “You didn’t have to tell me. If they’d vanished, I’d have never known. We could both rest easy.”

               “Your awkward morality seems to offer some pretty convenient and exclusive loopholes.”

               “Well, we aren’t killing them now. We obviously aren’t helping with whatever stupid plan they concocted. Personally, I don’t understand why they came to us, especially if they know we betrayed them. What are our options?”

               “I’m glad you finally understand the urgency.”

               “First we seize the narrative. We have to go to Grincher ourselves, reclaim the initiative. Discredit them.”

               “Absolutely. It won’t look suspicious if we, with no warning, randomly reappear to abruptly deliver the message ‘Hey, don’t trust these guys. They’re lying’. That won’t guarantee he’ll believe everything they say and ensure he’s immediately suspicious of us.”

               “Okay. So, we need a pretence. Anything will do. We’ve been down for what, just over a year now. Let’s tell him we’ve grown bored. We approach him from the stance of leading our own operation and ask if he can connect us. Or if we still need approval. I genuinely don’t know who the top players are anymore. Then, we offhandedly mention the Harts, to the effect of how brash and simple they are. Mention a random encounter, where they tried to incite something with us, we didn’t buy it. That would justify to him them retrospectively lying in retaliation against us. He won’t care anyway.”

               “Honestly, Vance, why don’t we just do it? You’re right. They’re nothing. They just want a small little hit; we can deliver. Plus, they’re blunt instruments. If we’re involved, there’s less chance of anyone getting hurt.”

               “I’m out. I meant it then, I mean it now. If you care about anything, you are too.”

               “I let you make that decision for me, even though it was your morals and your mistake. Your mistake’s circled back around, I’m not doing it again. For you to ask is disrespectful.”

               “But you know accepting their job is appeasement. We have to quash this flame.” Matt frowned.

He knew I knew he knew I was right. Helping our enemies would only be detrimental to our own success. He was stubborn, and would, naturally, press the issue later. The underlying driver of conflict in this instance had yet to be settled, for which I truly did have no defence. I took responsibility, but simultaneously delivered Matt an ultimatum. He was good enough to oblige. Here we were.

I wasn’t especially eager to revisit Grincher, though it made sense. I had been foolish to ever involve myself with the police. Each time I visited the station had risked my own safety and Matt’s. One conversation could rid all of those worries from our respective minds, reasserting our safety through our supposed commitment. It would be temporary, but short-sightedly sufficient.

We left together. Traditionally, Matt enjoyed a practical responsibility in his gym’s daily classes, but fully trusted his staff to perform in his absence. Taking his car, we drove in tense silence to an innocuous tyre repair shop and parked outside. We saw only one other vehicle, empty in a spot in the far corner. Matt switched off the ignition, and we waited.

Roughly ten minutes later, Matt’s phone rang. He answered, but before he could respond to the one-word command, the call was ended. That was the system.

Effectively, Marky Grincher worked in an HR capacity. He was involved in recruitment processes, but also firing disputes, and was frequently responsible for managing internal conflict without evidence spilling into the outside world. I had never inquired as to his rise into a seat of such astronomical power, but any prospective freelancer was compelled to register their interest with him. It was a reasonable idea to at least enter his radar for some semblance of protection. Not against the law itself, unless you found yourself much more intimately connected with him, but would assist you in other affairs should you be wronged by a fellow criminal.

His opinion of me or Matt was an eternal mystery. Whatever the situation, he was continuous bundle of effusive, bubbling energy ricocheting from every direction and overwhelming you in a tsunami of menacing positivity. His way was handshakes, and chuckles, and extreme familiarity. He could have been a motivational speaker, or late-night comedian. Except there was nothing behind the eyes. It was harrowing. He would have been a perfect children’s entertainer.

Matt and I left the car and crossed the street for our third ever meeting with him. Once referred to his services, we had been inducted into his private underworld with a full on-boarding briefing. More recently, we had performed the equivalent of tendering our joint resignations, relinquishing ourselves of criminal sin but also shedding his protections. Though it left us exposed, we had requisitely vanished off the grid. Until now, of course.

By necessity we were forced to re-join, for appearances at least. It also meant we had to offer a signing package, financial or otherwise. Previously, we had relied on the former. We hoped now he could be bought with information.

I was relatively confident he conducted business in his home. A two-storey, Victorian-era building situated at the end of a terraced row. The front door was always unlocked. He owned the opposite shop, demanding only that visitors identify themselves on the cameras that monitored the car park and waited until they were summoned.

               “Vance Howler and Matthew Hughes, my absolute favourites. In my wildest fantasies I could never have pictured your gorgeous faces here again!”

Our congested and uncoordinated mixture of ‘Hello’ and ‘Good to see you’ jumbled together. He laughed.

               “All business, or a little pleasure today?”

               “Whichever you’re in the mood for.”

               “Well, I hate to disappoint, but I’ve had my fill of pleasure this morning” winking, nudging his head towards the empty car outside, “And I can only imagine you’re here for the former.”

               “Why’s that? We can’t catch up with an old friend?”

               “Truth be told, Howler, I’m surprised to see you alive.”

Neither Matt nor I spoke, waiting for him to elaborate. Thankfully, he was always conversationally forthcoming.

               “I was genuinely sorry to see you two go. You were inspired little operators. Magnificent work. I really did worry for you when you left. That level of success can evoke some pretty serious jealousy. Seems your reputations defended you for a while. But, well, as they say, nothing lasts forever.”

               “Has someone put a target on me?”

               “Not as such. Rather less concise, but there’s been a lot of activity. Most of my best clients have been receiving some lucrative offers.”

               “Do you remember the Hart brothers? They paid a visit recently, making some heinous threats and accusations.”

               “The name is familiar. Morons, as I recall.” He leaned forwards, with an enormous grin. “Howler, from what I’m hearing, you’ve got an awful lot more to worry about that the Harts.”

               “Why’s that?”

               “Someone is building an army.”

               “What for?” He laughed aggressively, with no hint of humour.

               “You.”

He fell back again, chuckling maniacally. I was stunned. Matt grabbed my attention, touching my shoulder and through a flicker of his eyebrows tried to prompt me. Grincher was absorbed by his own uproarious joke. It wasn’t quite so funny to me. Despite the threat, here was our chance. It seemed Matt had been right. We only had to mention the upcoming job we would never enact, enlist his protection, trade the information we had collected and, almost instantaneously, the danger against me could never materialise.

Something about it didn’t feel right.

               “Thanks. That’s invaluable insight, and I think you’ll understand that we might have to excuse ourselves. It sounds like preparations are in order.”

               “I would expect nothing less from my greatest, infamous duo.”

Matt retained a passive, neutral expression until we were in the car and driving back to the gym. I was drowning in tumultuous, erratic thoughts. The pattern of escalation made no sense. First, a ridiculously convoluted note, followed by an apparent threat against my life seeming to implicate Fairfax. Was it connected to Matt’s burglary, where nothing of value was stolen? It was sporadic disruption, with no discernible objective. Yet now they had amassed an army? Why ever alert me if all they intended was to injure or kill me? Had their motivations been altered, or was there ever a plan from the beginning? Was it simply evolving on a whim? There surely had to be some underlying purpose. I could understand none of it, whether the entirety or the individual acts.

               “Vance, you said it yourself. We have to be proactive. There’s ground to make up. You have to seriously consider the possibility that some, nefarious weirdo leaving strange notes and breaking in for no reason is actually a threat.” He had pulled into the gym and parked. Neither of us motioned to leave the car. I turned to face him.

               “There’s a chance Fairfax is involved somehow.”

               “What?”

               “I found his blood outside my house.”

               “That’s even more reason to get support. Marky can help us. We should have given him something.”

               “It doesn’t make sense. I could maybe understand his involvement when separated from this development, but not contextualised by his involvement with recruiting through Grincher.” Matt winced.

               “I’ll concede that much. I’m amazed he told us. It’s not in his nature to reveal secrets for free.”

               “I guess we finally know where we stand. He must like us after all.”

               “Again, even more reason to seek help.”

“I won’t be bullied back into it. When have we ever responded to external force by backing down?”

“Of late, Vance, there’s been an awful lot more of ‘you’ than ‘we’.”

“You’ve always been welcome to join me.”

“I don’t need to explain again where I stand regarding the police.”

With impeccable timing, the chief rang at that precise moment. I glanced at Matt, his face a picture of anguished frustration, before directing the call to speakerphone. I had always wanted Matt involved, though he had consistently declined. A hint of the flavours he was missing might encourage a change in attitude.

               “Howler?”

               “Always.”

               “I can provide relevant updates. Victim’s name was indeed one Felix Malwell. Aged thirty-two, retired drama teacher. Widower, after a car accident in which his partner was driving alone. As next of kin, we’ve located and contacted two parents and a brother. Parents too distraught for comment, brother described victim as reclusive, a bit mad since the death of his wife. Described, and I quote, ‘constant fear of suicide’ over Malwell. The brother, that is. We’ve also contacted a law firm over the existence of a will.”

Matt’s gazed was fixed out of the window, feigning complete ignorance, which I couldn’t help but think petty.

               “Plan of action moving forwards?”

               “We’ve requested his financials, and were hoping you could speak to the parents?”

               “The distraught ones?”

               “Yep. Completely inconsolable. You’ll figure it out.”

               “Brilliant.”

I recorded the address, and looked at Matt, who simply left the car and walked inside, unaccompanied. He knew where I was going next. He was deliberately expressing a profound disinterest.

Exiting myself, I opted to walk, so as to stay on the line with the chief.

               “Something else we’ve noticed, Howler. Forensics took in his laptop. It had been charging, so a document was left open. He was writing a manuscript.”

               “Saved or unsaved?”

               “I’d have to check. In the story, his hero is executed when uncovering a conspiracy.”

               “I got that from the notebook.”

               “It’s staged as a suicide, too. Could be coincidence, right? Still would be pretty crazy. But it gets crazier. In the story, a detective is assigned the case. In the last lines Malwell wrote, that detective and his buddy are ambushed and killed too.”

               “How is that crazier?”

               “Seriously? Howler, this guy was evidently involved in something. He predicted his own death, now he’s predicted one of our own.”

               “They aren’t the depressed ramblings of a loner?”

               “What’s your book, then?”

               “Ouch. I’ll ask the parents if they knew anything of his company. Did the brother allude to anything suspicious?”

               “All he mentioned is Malwell, in becoming increasingly reclusive, appears to have developed a bond with some unsavoury characters.”

               “Perhaps that lends credence. It still doesn’t help explain why his murderer left these incriminating notes behind.”

               “Oversight. He never bothered to read any of it.”

               “Seems like an absolutely colossal oversight to me.”

On reflection, that phrase was a second slice of fantastic irony in my day. I had been walking through increasingly residential streets, with buildings transformed into larger homes from scattered apartments and independent shops. Turning onto a long terrace, I was only two roads from Malwell’s parent’s house. I passed a woman, who had stopped, crouching over a pram-bound baby ostensibly checking its health. She raised her head and smiled at me. At five house intervals, the terrace was broken by narrow alleyways presumable snaking into minute, rear gardens. With one approaching on my right, I afforded the man seated opposite little more than a cursory glance.

I should have noticed the discrepancies. The inconsistency should have sparked alarm. Something was wrong, but it was through colossal oversight I failed to take heed.

They were too perfectly triangulated. The woman hadn’t been speaking. Not impossible, but I should have glanced to confirm the baby’s existence. Her presence had forced me to swing wide around the corner, granting her perfect opportunity to examine my face and approve my identity. The man was seated on steps into an entrance, but his limbs were tensed. Unusual. The two were at a precise forty-five-degree angle, indicating a concealed third, for whom the other two had served as watchmen. As my right foot, still in stride, was about to be planted in line with the alleyway, I barely glimpsed movement in my periphery.

The ambush was so obvious, I should have unearthed it sooner. It should have triggered a faster response. Still, I had a second’s advantage. Hopefully enough.

As promised, another man erupted low from the alleyway, completing their synchronised attack by swinging a cricket bat towards my knee-cap. Breathing out that final word to the chief, I diverted the path of my right leg, intercepting the bat with my heel. Stumbling forwards, I seized that mis-placed momentum to contort right, twisting and thrusting my left knee into the man’s head. I felt the dull reverberation and watched with grim satisfaction as his skull cracked against the pointed edge of a brick.

No sooner that a single breath later, I felt myself battered from behind, keeping me off-balance. Splaying my arms wide, I fortuitously struck the second man in his nose, postponing the onslaught, but watched my phone skitter away. They had been foolish. Turning to properly face them, man and woman were should have approached from both sides, trapping me between the densely parked cars and row of houses. I would struggle immensely to cover front and back. Actually, maybe they were unfoolish.

Aware that I was spinning and wheeling like an excitable puppy, I had to check my rear. In a bizarre, frozen tableau, I was transfixed, watching a fourth assailant travel towards me. Mid-air, poised to deliver a flying karate kick, he would have snapped my back in half.

Opting to remain intact, I stepped aside, swiping at his face as he swept harmlessly past and emitted a crushed grunt upon impact with the pavement.

My eyes darted about for a fifth, who dutifully emerged from the same alleyway in front of me. For only a couple of precious moments, what ensued was a surreal stand-off. They, forced to calculate this unexpected transition, factoring my non-incapacitated knees, had to consider a novel manoeuvre. I, having sustained no such disrupted plans, would have actually delighted in exchanging a few questions and answers. But I had to imagine they wouldn’t be especially friendly, and was unwilling to tackle three, if not four people.

To reiterate the decision I was gravitating towards, those three still standing unsheathed knives in unison.

There was no cowardice in tactical retreat. I set off sprinting in the other direction.

It was difficult to evaluate any potential injuries with adrenaline still soaring through my veins. That would have to come later. It would be a blessing if only my previous shoulder injury were not reignited. For now, only my phone had been sacrificed.

The chief would undoubtedly have determined something was wrong, but there was little he was positioned to do. After triangulating my phone, his only information would an empty street unyielding of any camera footage. Fortune might gift witness descriptions, but piecing events together would be painfully slow. Without my account, any reaction would be hazy, and far too slow.

Which consolidated my opinion on a wider decision I had been balancing for the previous month.

This was it. I was out. Completely, this time.

This had been my longest commitment to any particular character. It was time now for him to vanish. There could be no goodbyes, which left me sad regarding only two individuals. The others would be lost to the swirling mass of humanity cascading across the earth in meaningless ebbs and flows. In a perverse sense, I truly hoped Vance Howler would be missed. Otherwise, his time would be nothing worth. I would never know.

At the corner, I had continued sprinting right, turning immediately down the next right and doubling-back on my earlier progress. I was at Matt’s gym and in my car in two minutes. Checking only once behind me, I noticed nothing. Evidently, the team had abandoned their attempt on me. The specific nature of their intentions was still unknown, but one had to assume the worst.

I started driving, and planning, formulating a list of various destinations, calculated an optimised trajectory. First had to be home.

For absolute emergencies, this vehicle was a sufficient get-away, enabling me to survive weeks off its resources alone. A further two-hundred pounds had long-since replaced wiper fluid in the same compartment, as an immediate source of undetectable cash. Who used wiper fluid anyway? The errant flecks of dusk awkwardly attracting the gleaming sun were a suitable answer, but it was a worthy trade. Security over eyesight. I wondered if Fairfax would appreciate that outlook. Either way, I couldn’t initiate an entirely new life from those meagre funds. Hence the return home.

Well, that was imprecise phrasing. I was not so naïve as to believe home was plausibly safe. That would be blatantly ignoring the obvious. The attacks had to be connected. Whether meticulous or sporadic, since their method of organisation remained infuriatingly elusive, it was impossible not to believe a sole orchestrator had perpetrated them, finally arranging an army. Intent was now irrelevant.

That first warning against me, the implicit threat through Fairfax. The direct attack against Matt followed by this assault levied against me. It could only be interpreted as escalating danger culminating in a final ambush situated in my home.

I could sympathise with Felix Malwell. Inadvertently stumbling into some nefarious conspiracy, of which I wanted nor knew no part yet was compelled by a mysterious enemy’s dictates to respond.

               “I live with my head perched over a shoulder. A moment is all-consumed by fateful possibilities of which I dare not fathom, lest I be sucked into that disease of madness to which I am painfully succumbing. A moment is a triumph, to have staved off those pernicious advances, only it is followed inevitably by another. A moment is not that but an interminable trial from which I can scarcely recover for the next.

His closing remarks had remained with me. Perhaps the last thoughts of a talented mind. Well, nothing on Shakespeare, but I thought relatively talented. He was damaged and trapped. Ultimately, he was shot in the back of the head.

I could certainly sympathise. I had lived similarly, much of my life haunted by the demons of past existence. Until, I supposed, my latest incarnation. It had been pleasant, falling out of vicious routines of narrow escapes and frantic battles. Now I had Matt, and Fairfax, and the chief. I stopped the car. Something was starting to become clear. I had a fresh target in mind. What was more intriguing than an unsolvable mystery?

A chorus of understandably perplexed and aggravated horns erupted behind me. I was blocking the road, after all. But they couldn’t expect me to consult my atlas whilst on the move. Using this paper model was another compromise with signal-blocking from my car. Ultimately, the restless drivers would be thankful to know I had taken this precaution. Giving a friendly wave upon growing confident with the necessary directions, I received some slightly ruder gestures from the car behind. He must have had somewhere very important to be.

I could guarantee it was not as important as my destination. I was to visit the Malwell’s with a burgeoning theory that might be disproved as ludicrous, but yet had to be verified.

Upon arriving and quickly surveying the road, I deemed there no suspicious characters present, but still chose to trot quickly up to the front door.

I wasn’t leaving. I wasn’t running, that is. A roller-coaster of emotions. I refused to die trapped and shot in the back of the head. It was time to keep my friends close. As for my enemies, that would have to come later.

I also wanted to appropriately honour Felix. I understood him. He might not have cared for his legacy, but I did.

 With each passing second at his parent’s doorstep, I felt increasingly jittery. I could well envisage both parents dead, victim to their son’s murderer. Now that I suspected I knew who he was, anything was possible.

Mercifully, the door was answered within a minute after I knocked. Both Malwell’s were revealed, sheltering behind the door for support. I had arrived with the wrong energy.

Faces completed stained from tears, flushed and heavy beneath the eyes, I suddenly remembered their inconsolable state. I was prancing lightly from each foot, eager to begin but had to restrain myself in light of this development.

               “Mr and Mrs Malwell? I hate to intrude, but I’m Detective Howler. I was so sorry to hear the news about your son. If you could spare just a few moments, I’d love to ask just a few questions.”

               “What? We’ve already told your officers everything we know.”

               “I can appreciate that, but in light of a fresh perspective, we have just a couple of extra questions. If you don’t mind?”

               “There just doesn’t seem anymore to say.”

They did, however, invite me inside. Their interior boasted little of worthy note. Indeed, there was an abundance of entirely average items. Chairs, tables, a TV, even four walls completing each room. Reduced to the essentials, it was effectively identical to every other home.

               “Can I get you anything? Tea, or coffee?”

               “I would love a coffee. But, sadly, it’s already late in the day. So, no thanks. I’ll settle for answers.”

               “Right. Well, what more do you need?”

               “Forgive me, but interdepartmental cooperation is notoriously indolent. Perhaps, could you briefly refresh our collective memory?”

               “You don’t know the people who were here earlier? Were they not police?”

               “The truth is, I assumed they were merely from another unit. But, honestly, Mrs Malwell, in horrible instances, certain disgusting individuals do manipulate grievers in their vulnerable state. Leave me with a description of your earlier visitors before I depart. I’m almost positive that would not be the case here.”

               “How can you be sure?”

               “Well, forgive my callous approach, but what material gain is at stake? Are you secretly rich?”

They looked deeply offended.

               “We’re doing alright.”

               “Apologies. Allow me to be more specific: was Felix hoarding a valuable fortune?”

               “No. He’s been out of work a while now. Had been, I suppose. Won’t be headed back into an office now.”

               “We’d hope not.”

               “Right. Before that, he was a drama teacher at his old school. Meghan, his wife, was a trader. But it wasn’t infinite. That’s part of the reason we were growing worried. His money was running out.”

               “I see.”

               “He had his writing.” Mr Malwell spoke for the first time. “He was brilliant. I loved his writing. Could have made a fortune. I would know.”

               “Ian used to work for a publisher.”

               “It was always a hobby for him. Felix was adamant. Never wanted to ‘sell out’.”

               “These last six months. Have you noticed any behavioural changes? Any unusual activities? Any strange friendships?”

               “As I said, I honestly wish there had been. I’ve longed for any change at all, no matter how remote. There was simply nothing we could do. For the past two years, it’s just been this sadness.”

               “It must have been unfathomably tough.”

               “It really was. We always felt so helpless.”

               “Did you ever try and encourage him back into the world?”

               “We tried to have Felix sectioned a few months ago. We were worried something like this would happen. Apparently, there just wasn’t enough evidence of his being suicidal.”

               “But you were sufficiently concerned?”

               “Well, Ian was never on board. I just knew it would be best for him. Something had to change.”

               “I see.”

               “There was never anything simple about Felix. I know he was my son, but he was the most brilliant person I’ve ever met. I say that without a shred of favouritism. He was spectacular. But he could never bear to confront that reality. More than anything, I think he longed to be ordinary. It will sound strange. Who doesn’t want to be a hero? Well, Felix. He wanted to inspire his kids and raise a family with a wonderful woman. After she died, he felt so much pressure for it to mean something. To tap into his anguish, to channel the gift he had happily abandoned. At the same time, I think he hated himself for moving on from his first dream. He despised every magical word poured across those pages.”

               “That’s very perceptive. And I don’t think there was anything ordinary about his first vision.” I was growing increasingly dedicated towards preserving his legacy.

               “He just had to do it all himself.”

Mrs Malwell sighed at her husband.

               “He really did.”

I believed them. My theory was still farfetched, but I believed in myself, too. Their story, whilst not revealing anything new, corroborated my assumptions.

With the murderer established, to my mind at least, it was time to resolve my other issues. I still had a number of stops to make but, with a bounty evidently rested atop my crown, Grincher would be the easiest man to obtain protection from. I wasn’t joining again, nor would I even pretend. All I needed was information, and I had a pretty valuable secret to trade for his. I rose to leave.

               “Detective?”

               “The men who stopped by earlier; did you not want a description?”

               “Oh, I have no affiliation with the police, so I’m not really interested.”

Shrugging, I watched myself out of their house and back into my car.

Still no sign of nefarious figures outside, but I had to imagine my interactions were being monitored. The ambush had been hastily improvised. That’s why it was deeply unsuccessful, despite my inadequate focus. It still spoke to an intimate knowledge of my movements. By anticipating the exact street required to intercept my passage, the only reasonable solution was near-constant surveillance. It was a dedicated operation.

That, or they knew my destination. A number of people had access to that information, the vast majority being police officers. Exactly like Fairfax.

A number of stern words would be required during our next encounter. Maybe, if I was feeling especially bold, and he particularly uncooperative, I might resort to fisticuffs. I had always assumed I could best my nemesis in any physical altercation, which would be easier if he were blind.

Turning into the tyre repair shop, I parked in the same spot as hours earlier. Different car, same plan. I reclined for approximately ten minutes, before departing the vehicle. It was technically breaching protocol, but I hoped he was aware my phone wouldn’t work inside. I strolled to the far wall of the now-empty space. The model resting here before would never be seen again. Nor would its owner. Here, I was undoubtedly being watched, so sauntered casually to mask my impatience. Betraying my agitation would not be conducive to garnering a solicitous audience. As the wait time exceeded twenty minutes, however, I grew more anxious. I had never waited longer than fifteen, not least when the car park was empty of other visitors. Not that I had an extensive history to draw from. It still felt unusual. At the half-hour mark, I was compelled to acknowledge something was blatantly wrong.

I had to go inside. I needed to uncover what had happened. I was also certain I did not possess the element of surprise, nor could I ever. Heading through the front doors would be voluntarily ensnaring myself in yet another ambush. Why not just leave? That I could do. That would presumably force the issue.

Except, of course, nuanced as they might be, my nemesis appeared infinitely patient. More so than me. Driving away would be an admission of my own defeat. I would have no more answers, and one fewer ally.

I equally doubted any scheme to lull them into sloppiness by staging my departure would be successful. Were I feeling more patient, I might have concocted a façade of despondently leaving, before circling back.

Crossing the road, I entered through the front door.

It was completely deserted, that much became immediately obvious. It was too still. There was no scent of human life. A recent occurrence, however. Wafts of dissipating energy lingered on the air currents, minutely entrained to ebb into my nostrils. All with an unmistakable shade of violence painted over the walls.

There was no other indication of anything amiss. It was only as I strolled upstairs, hands in pockets, that I stumbled onto anything that might be considered quantifiable evidence of wrongdoing. My innate sense of some disturbance wouldn’t convince an impartial jury, but the tableau across Grincher’s top floor likely would.

He was seated almost peacefully, as if unmoved in that same chair from our morning conversation. His eyes were wide, his lips parted, his head tilted to the left. Grincher seldom found himself positioned thus where it wasn’t deeply embroiled in laughter. This time, however, it was because of a hole in the front of his head. A large volume of blood had also trickled and congealed in his right eyebrow, though he was otherwise untouched. Even more problematically, he was not alone.

The remnants of what seemed to have been two bodies formed a sticky mess in the seats Matt and I had occupied. ‘Remnants’ was generous. It was little more than two stains. They had quite literally been plastered against the wall, like some grotesque representation of modern art. Entrails and viscera were splattered in lazy strokes by an imperfect artist, conjuring an abstract mural with little balance or variation in colour palette. I was not the most distinguished critic, but could recognise the immature, hasty brushstrokes altogether displaying a haphazard work. Still, it was impressive given the materials at hand. Neatly bundled into one corner where two rounded objects I quickly uncovered as heads. I had my victims.

Who else, but the Hart brothers.

Perhaps I was self-absorbed, but I couldn’t help but perceive the entire exhibition as orchestrated for me. It was my world. There was also a note on Grincher’s desk.

               Playtime is over. It’s just you and me.

Wonderful.

Concise, straight-forward, reinforced by a brutal indication of their unfaltering dominance and ruthlessness. I was suitably terrified. Turning a slow circle, I delivered three, slow claps. Maybe they weren’t watching. I felt like they would be.

My phone rang.

               “Howler?”

               “Always.”

               “I’ve got a little update for you.”

               “Ooh, pray share.”

               “Okay. Malwell had no regular income. Haemorrhaging money the last few years, was dangerously close to breaching his savings. That said, no unusual expenses. Just food and rent. No travel, no days out. Surprisingly, he actually had a will. Bequeathed a private note that I do not have available to his parents, all his creative enterprises to his brother and, this one’s funny, his rented flat back to his landlord.”

               “Yep, that’s a good one.”

               “I also received a very distressed call from Malwell’s parents. Did you break into their home?”

               “No, I imparted a valuable lesson on the dangers of blindly trusting authority figures. Hopefully, they’ll now think twice about the people they willingly invite into their home.”

               “Howler, they just lost their son.”

               “And I even tried to warn them about their grief-stricken vulnerabilities.”

               “You don’t have that right.”

               “Neither do you. All justifications for your power come from a collective agreement of implicit trust within the community that you wantonly break every day.”

               “We might be straying off-topic.”

               “Yeah. I’ll see you in a bit, with murderer in tow. I’m going to pick them up now.”

               “Who is it?”

               “As it so often seems in these instances, it’s the person who took out a hefty life-insurance policy on our victim just before they died.”

               “Which is?”

               “You’ll see.”

Someone would regale the chief with details of the crime scene I was wading through soon enough. My job was not to inform uninvited, but to instruct wherever convenient. Now was inconvenient.

I would also have to draft a suitable excuse for traces of my DNA being present, but that could wait.

Rather perversely, this meeting had yielded positive results. It exposed an awful lot. They were well connected, my nemesis. They could be simultaneously surgical and volatile. Yet, even when inflicting utter annihilation, there was a meticulous calculation involved that weakened my stomach.

It also meant I was safe. For now.

The blunt instruments dispatched against me were never intended as anything more than a minor test. A symbolic declaration of war, pitting my worth against five of theirs. I suppose it was also intended convey their personal superiority over five pawns. Either way, relying on others could be unpredictable. They had the reins. I would be harassed by underlings no more.

I climbed back into my car and drove to a new location. My destination was obvious. The chief had imparted one final piece of vital evidence. The clues all consistently telegraphed one individual. There was no need to overthink a simple formula. The Malwells were a forgettable side-quest amidst higher stakes.

I arrived on a street far from the understated comfort of the Malwell parent’s residence. Closer to the central business district, where private accommodations ceded the space to small businesses and shops, all struggling to gain traction. An anguished disrepair mingled with saddened, inevitable defeat coated the peeling, grey facades. The slow decline into total irrelevance was spectated by soulless apartment blocks emanating little but bleak sterility. Human warmth was entirely absent. In their quest to become homes, these houses could evict all their tenants without even noticing the difference between new inhabitants. Parking was, relatively speaking, not an issue. Glass-half-full thinking.

Once the building I needed had been confirmed, I pressed all of the intercom buttons and barked the name of the exact delivery company responsible for outcompeting all of these shops. Two people responded and I was granted entry without question, bouncing up the stairs to reach the fourth and uppermost floor.

In response to my knocking, the door was opened far sooner than in comparison to his parents. He had the cold glint of murder in his eyes. Or he was hungry.

               “Dennis Malwell?”

               “Who’s asking?”

               “Detective Sharp. My condolences for the loss of your brother this morning.”

               “Listen, I’m going to need some identification. Apparently, some freak visited my parents earlier and lied about being a police officer.”

               “That’s precisely why I’m here. As the chief, I take the impersonation of my officers immensely seriously. Perhaps your parents also mentioned I had invited them into the station? I was hoping we might develop a preliminary impression of this fraudster’s appearance. Sadly, I believe they found themselves overwhelmed by the occasion, and I advised them not to drive themselves home. I thought you might be of some assistance.”

               “Okay. You want me to drive them home?”

               “Absolutely. I think that would be best.”

               “Why couldn’t you?”

               “I’m sorry?”

               “You drove here just to tell me to drive them home?”

               “I’ll admit it seems to make little sense but the truth, Dennis, is that your parents really need you. During such trying moments, it’s best family units remain as intact as possible. I think your parents would appreciate your support.”

               “Right. Yeah, I understand, it’s just, now isn’t a great time, you know? Plus, if I drove them home, whose car would we use? The logistics just get very muddled.”

               “I see. Well, I was rather anticipating you’d stay with them for the foreseeable future. I can replicate a chauffeur, but can do nothing with regards to the human comfort you are capable of providing.”

               “Are they really that bad?”

               “Completely inconsolable.”

               “Fine. Let me grab a few things.”

Slamming the door shut, he re-emerged within a few minutes. I was hoping for an unadulterated view into his apartment. Not that I hadn’t already seen enough.

Grunting with frustration, he led us downstairs where I directed him towards my car. From the various notes of disapproval and disgruntled re-shuffling, it was clear the entire predicament was beneath him.

I was beginning to think he might not have been a great person.

               “Whilst I have you captive here, would you mind my asking a few questions about your brother?”

               “I guess. Unless you want to discuss the weather.”

               “Either’s fine with me. Pretty chilly today.”

               “Yep. That’s winter for you,” he remarked pointedly, with all the authority of a man who knew how the seasons worked.

               “Who do you think killed your brother?”

               “Really? No easing into it?”

               “The weather stuff was our foreplay. I want to know your real thoughts.”

               “Look, I don’t really know everything Felix was up to. We didn’t talk all that much. I don’t know who he was hanging around with, but evidently they were bad news.”

               “You think there were suspicious characters involved?”

               “Pretty sure that on you to figure out, but yeah. If you’re asking me, this was planned by some bad guys.”

               “Did you know he was writing a book?”

               “Oh yeah. My dad never shut up about it. Reckons it’ll be the next hit thriller.”

               “You weren’t proud of him?”

               “Felix would never have done anything with it. Truth be told, he was searching for something impossible. Mum tell you she tried to have him sectioned?”

               “She did. What did you think?”

               “They were both nutters. This is one of those rare cases where Felix truly is in a better place, or whatever.”

               “Well, here we are, at any rate.”

               “Awesome, where are the ol’ ‘rents?”

               “They’re in our reception area.”

               “Cool.”

               “It would probably be best if you greeted them inside and escorted them out. They were completely distraught.”

Apparently, it would always take emotional blackmail to prompt him into action, since he had been content to wait in the car. I felt absolutely no qualms about manipulating him. Once inside, however, he merely shrugged as I pointed to the stairs, and we continued to the second level. Though it had been a while since my last visit, everything was unchanged. I nodded to the chief and raised a quick finger to my lips, before guiding Dennis into one of our interrogation rooms. He spluttered a startled complaint as I pushed him into the empty room and locked the door.

The main floor had descended into a raptured silence. Equal surprise and alarm were carved into the chief’s features.

               “You’ve brought somebody in?”

               “Yep. That’s your guy.”

               “Care to explain why?”

               “It would quite literally be my absolute pleasure. Almost the very thing I live for. You know very well the only thing I enjoy more than talking about nothing, is talking about something, and right now, I have something to talk about.”

               “Christ, he’s in monologue mode.”

               “Why else do you keep coming back for me, if not to enjoy these meandering speeches unravelling the very essence of your souls. I clutch within the palm of my hand the mysteries of the universe and you, my blessed children, will be the first to receive them. Now, I will be honest, for honesty is truly my only rule. I was expecting, or not so much expecting as expectantly anticipating a more gracious indication of approval. I’m doing your jobs for free, after all. No matter, for it simply means the festivities have yet to possess you. In but a short period I can guarantee we will all be having the times of our lives. Except, of course, for our friend-slash-not-so-much-a-friend Dennis.”

               “Howler.”

               “Always. Yes. Always on good form. Remember how I described the crime scene as a murder-staged-as-suicide-staged-as-murder? It was, ultimately, a murder, disguised deliberately poorly as a suicide, to ensure the most discerning investigators would conclude a murder had indeed transpired.”

               “Why?”

               “For the same reasons as the theme of this speech. Showmanship!”

               “We just aren’t enjoying this. Give us the answer.”

               “The man in that room, Dennis Malwell, committed the murder. Potentially with his brother’s consent. Illegal either way. We know Felix had been clinically depressed, verging on deeply suicidal, for a few years. It’s a cruel world, but even crueller still was the ramifications of his lifestyle were about to inflict even more misery. Debilitating depression such that he could not bear to work, or even leave his house, was incompatible with affording the upkeep of staying alive. Felix had three options. Work to overcome his pain, thereby effectively abandoning the memory of his wife. Accept defeat and watch the days expire until his eviction. Or end it all. I believe he was coerced towards that final decision with the aid of his brother.”

               “Why implicate himself? I don’t understand the brother’s motivation for getting involved. None of the staging makes sense either. There were ways to ensure would determine a suicide.”

               “Felix wouldn’t have cared, but Dennis’ plans required us identifying a murder.”

               “I still don’t understand why.”

               “Showmanship. Dennis wants to sell his brother’s book.”

               “What?”

               “It’s virtually a family obsession. They were all convinced it was a masterpiece. Now a tortured genius has been struck down upon penning the closing words to his manuscript – it’s like Hemingway with a twist. That is a book that will sell, particularly once speculation arises over the subject matter. All a publisher has to do is half-heartedly claim it was not inspired by real events, and the world will begin clamouring to the opposite effect. The parents actually respected their son. They wouldn’t exploit his life for monetary gain. They knew his wishes and I’d imagine they’d preserve his life’s work as a family heirloom. A cash-strapped Dennis, on the other hand, didn’t seem quite so empathetic to his brother’s cause.”

               “You’re suggesting that’s behind the will?”

               “Precisely. A thirty-something-year-old writes a will? He knew he was dying, and entrusted a suicide note to his lawyer. All Dennis cared about was creative licencing.”

               “One issue, Howler, is how speculative this all sounds. We won’t be able to prove any of this. DNA matches will be pointless, as Dennis will claim he simply visited his brother’s property.”

               “Contact the lawyer to verify that both brothers were present.”

               “You’ve never heard of attorney-client privilege? Plus, now that you’ve brought him in, we’re under pressure to bring charges or release him.”

               “How so?”

               “He’s sitting in an interrogation room.”

               “Well, firstly, that gives you up to ninety-six hours. That’s ample time to concoct some reasonable evidence. Secondly, that only applies once he’s been formally detained in police custody. Which is not something I ever remember occurring. He voluntarily entered a private citizen’s vehicle, permitting himself to be escorted into a police station and into a room where he happens to currently reside. Your only fault is negligence, but I’m sure you’ll make a routine check of your interrogation rooms at some stage.”

               “That’s not how it works. Especially since I know you’ve been impersonating police offers.”

               “You can speculate, but you can’t know.”

               “Why, Howler?”

               “Justice.”

               “You cannot keep tricking the bereft.”

               “That man is just about as far from grieving as humanly possible. You haven’t noticed the glaring holes in his story? You told me earlier, as he confided to me, that he believed his brother was murdered. Suspicious characters? They don’t exist. He’s basically already confessed. And do you really think, in the wake of perceiving a murder against a family member, after his parents were harassed, he would climb into a stranger’s car without asking for proof they were genuine? He would have been scared. He would have been even the slightest bit sad, if this weren’t playing exactly as he’d intended.”

               “Howler–

                              “That is a man sickeningly manipulating a former widower. You need final proof? Call Malwell & Best, his dad’s old publishing firm. Their business card was on Dennis’ sideboard. I guarantee he’s arranged a meeting pitch with them later today.”

The ensuing silence was awkward. The gathered crowd had generally diverted its collection of faces, either to the floor, or absently towards the windows. Well, I had broken into a police station with a kidnapped victim to demand the police accept him into their custody. Now, various eyes slowly returned to us, frantically split between me and the chief.

               “Okay, Howler. He’s here. We’ll look into it.”

I nodded. Gradually, the crowd began to disperse to respective desks.

Glancing around, I noted Fairfax’s absence through a cocktail of trepidation, anger, and relief. I was intensely desirous our next encounter be private. There was so much to be said. Here, all that could be done was done. I turned and walked into Fairfax.

Everything erupted inside me. I could not possibly quantify in rational articulation all that needed to be addressed. Staring at those impassive eyes, I could hardly envisage the same betrayal of which I had been convinced for so long.

               “Inspired performance, my friend. Competitively ranked amongst your others.”

               “I need your help.”


Thanks for reading! Hopefully you’re still enjoying the Harmless Escapism series. If you need to catch up, check out Part I, or read some other short stories! I also post travel blogs and contemporary commentaries, so explore more.

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Where does football's virtue signalling end

Where does football’s virtue signalling end?

Forgive the deliberately provocative title, though it is at least relevant. Many have attributed the rise in players ‘taking a knee’ to nothing more than virtue signalling. I’ve always optimistically assumed that claim to be false, but big decisions are on the horizon. The key factor is determining whether substance exists in football’s virtue signalling…. Continue Reading →

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