***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Flynn Berry
A man comes around the bend in the path. I stop short when he appears. We’re alone. The heath has been quiet today, under dark snow clouds, and we’re on the part of the path where the oak trees form a tunnel.
The man is wearing a hat and a wool overcoat with the collar turned up. When he stops to light a cigarette, I’m close enough to see his knuckles rising under his gloves, but his face is hidden by the brim of his hat.
The dog is somewhere behind me. I don’t call for him, I don’t want the man to hear. Sparrows fly over our heads to the oaks, drawn into the branches like filings to a magnet. His lighter won’t catch, and the metal rasps as he tries again.
Jasper brushes past me. I reach for his collar but miss, almost losing my balance. The lighter flares and the man tips his head to hold the cigarette in the flame. Then he drops the lighter in his pocket and holds out his fist for the dog to smell. Jasper whines, and for the first time the man looks down the path at me.
It isn’t him. I call the dog, I say sorry in a strained voice. The path is narrow here, we have to pass within a few inches of each other, and I look at him again, to be sure. Then I clip the dog’s leash and hurry towards the houses and people on Well Walk. I wish it had been him, and that instead I was searching the ground for a heavy branch, and following him into the woods.
It’s been like this for the past three days, since the detective’s visit. I’ve been seeing him everywhere.
Last Thursday night, I came home from work and ran a bath before taking off my coat. While water filled the tub, I said hello to Jasper, kissing the crown of his head. His fur always smells like clean smoke, like he’s recently been near a campfire. I poured a glass of wine and drank it standing at the counter.
In the bathroom, I filled a small wooden shovel with Epsom salts and tipped them into the water. My friend Nell had sent me the salts because they help with aches, she said, and I’m always sore after work. I undressed, listening to the tap dripping in the quiet flat. I left the bathroom open, since the dog sometimes likes to come and sit next to the tub.
I dropped under the surface, feeling the water slide along the length of my body. I need to ask Agnes to try massage for her arthritis, I thought, then tried to stop thinking about patients. It would help her loneliness, too. Her shoulders relaxed when I checked her heart and she went still, like she was absorbing the touch.
I lay with just enough of my face above the surface to breathe, the water slipping over my chin. Pasta with pesto for dinner, I thought. A sound came through the liquid, and I raised my head to listen as water spilled from my ears. Someone was ringing the buzzer.
My order, finally, I thought. The book was meant to be delivered two days earlier. I pulled a sweatshirt and tracksuit bottoms on over my wet skin, nudged Jasper back from the door, and ran down the stairs.
There are two doors before the street, and I was in the icy space between them when I saw who it was. Not a courier. The inner door closed behind me. As I opened the next one, the woman lifted her badge. “Do you have a moment to talk, Claire?”
She followed me up the stairs, which seemed to take a long time. My fingers were stiff and I had trouble with the keys. Jasper greeted her, offering her a stick from the towpath. My chest was bare under the sweatshirt, and I left her on the sofa to find a bra.
When I came back, her expression was neutral, but I could tell she’d been studying the room. I wondered what she made of it, and if she’d expected worse, considering my background. It was warm and the lamps were lit. There were books on the shelves, invitations on the fridge, a holly wreath above the mantle. She might have thought I’d made the best of a bad hand.
Or she noticed the open bottle of wine on the counter. The dog, who is half German shepherd, and the number of bolts on the door. It’s only at home, I wanted to tell her. I’m not that careful outside. I walk around at night in headphones. I sometimes fall asleep in minicabs, though not often, if I’m honest.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“DI Louisa Tiernan,” she said, unwinding her scarf. Her voice was clear and composed, with an Irish accent. The pipes squeaked as the man upstairs turned off a tap. She said, “There’s been a sighting.”
“In Namibia.” DI Tiernan clasped her hands on her knees, but she didn’t continue. I didn’t understand why she had come. This wasn’t news, there have been thousands of sightings.
“Why do you believe this one?”
She handed me an old photograph of my father holding a silver flask engraved with a crest. “Your father bought it at a shop in Mayfair forty years ago. A man has been seen carrying it in Windhoek. He’s in his sixties, about six feet tall, and speaks English without an accent.”
“Has he been arrested?”
“We’re coordinating with Interpol,” she said. She looked to be in her forties, which meant she was a teenager when it happened. She must have heard about the case, it was in the news for weeks, and since then has only become more famous. He was the first lord accused of murder since the eighteenth century.
“When will they arrest him?”
“You’ll be notified if charges are filed,” she said. I wondered if she was surprised to find herself investigating him, after all this time.
“Why are they waiting?”
“I can’t share those details.”
“Who told you about the flask?”
“Our source wants to remain anonymous,” she said. To avoid the embarrassment, I thought, when he turns out to be wrong. My father has been missing for twenty-six years. People have claimed to see him in almost every country in the world, posting long descriptions of their encounters in the forums about him.
“We hope that you’ll be able to help us confirm if it is him,” she said. They needed a DNA sample from me. The detective started to explain the process, while my wet hair dripped onto my sweatshirt. I thought of the full bathtub in the other room. I hadn’t been out of it for very long, the water would still be warm, the surface perfectly smooth.
The detective put on a pair of surgical gloves. I opened my mouth and she ran the swab against the inside of my cheek, then screwed it into a sterile plastic vial.
“I’m sorry to have to ask,” she said, “but has your father ever contacted you?”
“No. Of course not.” The curtains were open behind her, and I could see a Christmas tree in the flat across the road. My mouth still tasted like rubber from the glove. I wanted to ask what she would do next, what else she needed to prepare.
After she left, I pulled the drain from the tub, dried my hair, and changed into warm clothes. I boiled water for pasta and opened a jar of good pesto. There was no reason not to eat well, not to watch a show, not to sleep. I didn’t need to change my plans, because it wasn’t him, it hadn’t been any of the other times.
Though the flask is the sort of thing he’d keep, to remind him of the Clermont Club. The click of the lighter, bending his head with a cigarette in his mouth, betting on hands of chemin de fer.
He is a hedonist. That’s part of my fury—during all of this, even now, he’s somewhere enjoying himself.
The last time I saw my father was the weekend before the attack. He’d taken me to Luxardo’s in Notting Hill. I had a scoop of ice cream covered in coconut, so it looked like a snowball, and my father ordered a peppermint ice cream. It came with a stick of red- and-white candy, which he gave to me.
Someone was angry with me that day, a friend of mine from school. I can’t remember why now, but I remember how heavily it weighed on me, how bruising it seemed, and I remember how reassuring it was to be with my father.
I’ve gone over this visit so many times. Him in a dark suit, against the parlor’s striped green walls. He had a scratch on the back of his hand, how did that happen? Did he get it during his preparations? I know from one of the forums that the police found a pulped melon at his flat. Since reading that, I’ve had the idea of him setting a melon on the counter and bringing the pipe down on it again and again, working out how hard he’d need to swing. The idea seems absurd, but no more than the rest of it. Was there a moment—while he was scooping the melon pulp into a bin, maybe, or walking to our house—when he realized what he was doing? Did he almost change his mind?
I’ve been over all of it, his work and his hobbies and interests, looking for the warnings. He liked bullfights, he brought Mum to one in Madrid once. Should that have been a cause for alarm?
He also watched horror films sometimes, but only the ones with good reviews, the ones most people ended up seeing. He didn’t seek them out, as far as I know. He said that I didn’t need to be afraid of them, he explained the different special effects, he told me it wasn’t real blood.
Now everything seems like a warning, but you could do this for anyone. Pick out a few odd interests, a few bad days, and build a theory around it. You could do it for me. You could consider the fact that I haven’t moved on as proof of something wrong with me. I’m thirty-four years old and a doctor at a practice in Archway. This shouldn’t still consume me. It never goes away. It’s like living in a country where there’s been a war. Sometimes you forget; sometimes, on a normal road, in daylight, you’re too frightened to breathe; sometimes you’re furious that it’s fallen to you now to understand what happened, to clean it up.
But he planned it. He came to our house that night wearing gloves and carrying a length of steel pipe. He’d used a saw to cut the pipe down to the right size, and he’d wrapped gaffer’s tape around its base so his hand wouldn’t slip.
He might have already made the weapon before we sat together in a booth at Luxardo’s. It’s difficult for me to think about that visit. Not because I could have stopped him, exactly. I was eight years old. But the scene seems grotesque. The little girl, accepting a stick of red-and-white candy from him. It’s like he made me complicit.