I find Axel Nelke's Skoda less than half a mile past the gate, parked in the shade of a tree. I check both sides of the street for signs of life. Observing none, I pull on an old pair of the Turk's driving gloves which Andeanna found for me - I don't want to leave any fingerprints - open the driver's door, sit in and try to start it up, anticipating problems.
The engine kicks into life immediately. I let it turn over for a few seconds, then complete a U-turn and head for the mansion, where Andeanna is waiting with Nelke inside the front door. He's wrapped in dark sheets and black plastic bags. We dragged him there after I'd taken off his trousers and cleaned him up, so that his death stench wouldn't foul up the air of the car.
I leave the engine running - I don't want to risk not being able to restart it - and duck inside. Andeanna is pale-faced. We haven't said much since I told her of my true past. I will explain everything, but not while there's work to be done. It's better to operate in silence and save the biography for later.
'Where will you take him?' Andeanna asks.
'I haven't decided. Any suggestions?' I'm not being sarcastic.
She shakes her head hopelessly. 'I don't know.'
I flash her a confident smile, trying to put her at ease. 'Don't worry. I'll sort it out.' She nods, but there's no warmth or thanks in the gesture, merely a cool acknowledgement that she trusts me to handle things. 'Can you drive?' I ask.
She frowns. 'Of course. I passed my test years ago.'
'I mean can you drive now? Are your nerves up to it?'
'Oh.' She looks at the bagged body and gulps. 'Why do you need a driver?'
'My car,' I explain patiently. 'Somebody has to drive it back to the Royal Munster. If you can't, I'll have to call Joe.'
'No,' she says quickly. 'I don't want to involve anyone else. I'll do it. It won't be easy, but I'll manage.'
'The keys are in the ignition. There's a car park beneath the hotel. Get a cab back here, but get it to drop you nearby, not at the house.'
'What about the keys? How will I return them to you?'
'Leave them under the seat. Don't lock the door.'
'But someone could steal it.'
A time like this and she's worried about motor theft! 'Let them,' I snap. 'It's a rental. It doesn't matter. And don't forget to wipe the CCTV hard drive when you get back.'
'God, yes. I'd forgotten.' She glances at the bag again. 'Will you come back when you're finished?'
'You're fucking joking, aren't you?' She blinks, stung by my sharp tone, and I sigh. 'We won't be able to see one another for a while. I doubt the Turk will connect his guard's disappearance with you, but let's not take any chances. I want you to phone him when you return. Tell him Axel took a call and bailed. Act annoyed. Let the Turk worry about it after that.'
I pick up the body by the shoulders. Andeanna takes the legs. I expect her to struggle with the weight, but she must be stronger than she looks, as she carries it with ease. We heave Nelke's corpse outside and into the trunk. I'm about to close it when I stop and take out the jack, the bag of tools and the spare tyre, which I lump into the back seat. This way, if I get a puncture and have to stop by the side of the road, I needn't open the trunk, baring the body bag to the eyes of curious passers-by.
I gaze at the mansion, wondering if I've forgotten anything. I quickly go over the events of the night. Phone cable in place. Floor cleaned. No garments left behind. Fingerprints wiped clean. I could go back and deal personally with the CCTV, but I'm keen to be out of here ASAP. I'll leave that to Andeanna, hope she doesn't forget again or screw it up.
'I'll keep out of London for a few days,' I tell her. 'It's best I don't ring while I'm gone. Will you call me on my cell - my mobile - three days from now, if you're sure it's safe?'
Hard to tell if she means it. 'Andeanna.' She looks at me, slightly unfocused. 'I love you.'
'You'll call me when I get back?'
'I had to kill him. It was for us. If he - '
'Just go, Ed. Do whatever you have to. I don't want to discuss it. I'll call you. Maybe not in three days, maybe not for a week, but eventually, when I've got my head around what happened tonight.'
I want to kiss her, one last kiss in case things go to hell and I never see her again. But I'm sure she'd pull away from me if I tried.
I run through the checklist. Body bagged and trunked. Nelke's personal effects in a small plastic bag on the passenger seat. His gun tucked into the waist of my trousers - I'll slide it under the seat and hold on to it until I've got rid of the body. Andeanna's been told what to do. I'm not sure she won't crack when I leave - she looks composed now, but once she has time to dwell on the last hour, who knows how she'll react - but I have to trust her.
'See you soon,' I mutter.
'Soon,' she agrees, and turns back into the house.
Getting into the car, closing the door, I face the driveway with the calm of a professional, blank the ghoulishly giggling ghosts who have spread across the back seat like revellers on their way to a party, switch on the air-con and go.
I'm not familiar with this country's road network, but I've done a lot of driving around London, so I know enough to head north for the nearest freeway (they call them motorways here). On the M25, I circle west and south until I hit the road to a town called Southampton. It's quiet at this time of the day. If I wasn't afraid of being stopped, I'd floor the accelerator. But a run-in with the police is the last thing I want, so I keep within the speed limit.
I turn off before Southampton, into a gas station to fill up. I don't want to stop, in case the car dies, but the tank is almost empty. I'm not sure what I'll do if I can't restart the engine. I think about my options as I'm filling up. Push it out of the way, hire or steal another car, transfer the body? Just leave the corpse in the car and run, hope my face isn't captured on CCTV?
Thankfully it's not a bridge I have to cross. The engine kicks in smoothly when I get back in and turn the key - the gods seem to be on my side - and I carry on. I continue in a westerly direction. I came this way when I visited Devon, so it seems as sensible a place as any to bolt for now.
I stop off at a services restaurant an hour later. Park the car, leave the body in the trunk, pocket the gloves, go and order a full English breakfast. I find a window with a view of the car and eat in glum silence.
Next I explore a newsagent's beside the restaurant and pick up a map and a booklet on the local area. I spend a long time leafing through both, searching for a quiet village or town on the coast. When I find one that fits the criteria, I head off, leaving the map open on the seat beside me so that I can check directions. (Nelke must have been old-school because he didn't have satnav. I suppose, given the car's age, I should be grateful even for the air-con.)
I take my time, not wanting to arrive too early. I drive up and down the coast, enjoying the scenery, listening to the radio, forcing myself to slip into tourist mode, so that I don't stand out and draw attention. I don't make for the town until eleven. I'm pleased with my choice when I arrive - a sleepy place, yet busy enough for nobody to take any notice of a stranger. It's littered with B&B signs, but I make for a hotel on the outskirts.
The girl at the registration desk pays no interest as I sign in, only smiles mechanically and wishes me a nice stay. Leaving the car parked in the nearby lot, I retire to my bedroom, undress and fall asleep as soon as I'm under the covers. I sleep dreamlessly, until four in the afternoon, when my alarm goes off.
After I'm done on the toilet, I study myself in the bathroom mirror, silently, thoughtfully, not liking what I see but glad of it at the same time. I thought I'd left the killing behind, but now I'm back in the middle of bloodshed and it's like I've never been away. Already I can see that ice-cold look I've been trying to work out of my repertoire. It's scary how swiftly the past can catch up with you.
The ghosts don't like my calm expression. They thought I'd be more shaken. They stare at me sullenly, their hopes that I'd suffer a mental breakdown fading away swiftly, exposed as wishful thinking on their part. I cracked before under the pressure and guilt, but this time it's different. This time I have the love of a good woman to fight for. That helps me hold my shape.
I take dinner in my room, then go for a walk. I visit a couple of pubs and fall into conversation with crusty old-timers. I let them bore me with their tales and pretend to be interested. When they ask, I tell them I'm in the computer business, but on holiday, taking things easy, doctor's orders. I enquire about boats and if it's possible to rent one and take it out by myself. An old guy called Jock asks if I have experience. I've sailed solo before - I'm fine on the sea as long as I'm sober - and it doesn't take long to convince him that I'm a confident skipper. I tell him I want something easy to handle, between eighteen and twenty-five feet.
'Well,' he drawls, 'I know a man who might let you have a wee gem of a boat for a day or two, assuming the price is right.'
Jock takes me to see his friend, Peter, and we spend the tail-end of the evening on the bay, where I prove I can handle the patched-up, weather-beaten boat. A deal is struck over drinks in a pub, and I agree to leave my car keys as collateral before setting sail each day.
After another consultation with the map and booklet, I drive to a town half an hour away - in case anyone is tracking my credit cards - and withdraw cash from an ATM. The next morning I head to the quay, buying a bale of rope along the way. I give Peter his money and the keys, then hit the waves. I'd like to take the body out and dump it today, but I want to cast an eye over the terrain first. I check that the boat is equipped with binoculars, then set off up the coastline.
I putter along, keeping close to the shore, faking an interest in the countryside. In reality I'm clocking houses, scanning roads, searching for an isolated area, out of view of land, where nobody will see what I'm up to. I discover the ideal place before midday. Cliffs shade the stretch of water, there are no nearby houses, the only road is shielded from the bay by a forest.
Happy with my choice, I move on and devote the rest of the day to rest. I drift with the currents and watch fish flitting by, drop anchor in a secluded spot and pop in for a swim, naked as an eel. Later, I moor and enjoy a slap-up lunch in a pub. I get back about six, track down Peter, agree to take the yacht out again tomorrow, and collect my keys.
I catch a few hours of sleep at the hotel, then head out late, having asked the clerk about the local nightlife. I drive to the quay, where I park and leave my car. I find a pub, have a couple of pints, return to the car and sit in darkness until I'm sure I'm alone. Getting out, I pop the trunk, extricate the wrapped corpse, toss him over my shoulder and take him to the boat, where I stash him, covered in burlap sacks and the rope I bought yesterday. I don't like leaving the body on the boat overnight, worried in case Peter pops back for some reason, but this is better than trying to move it in the morning, when people are at large.
I'm back at the hotel by two, asleep five minutes later, and again I sleep like an innocent child.
Up early. I hurry to the boat. Peter isn't around, so I leave the keys and cash with one of his friends, then ease out on to the bay and retrace yesterday's route. I pull in to load up with stones from a rocky beach before heading for the drop-off point.
Once I'm in place, I unwrap the body and attach the stones with the rope. As the boat drifts, I raise the binoculars and study the coastline. When I'm sure it's safe, I haul up the body and position it by the side of the deck. One last check, then I bend over and send Axel Nelke to a watery grave, sparing him neither a prayer nor a curse. His personal belongings follow, except for his gun, which I've left under the seat in the car. I'm holding on to that, in case I need it later. I scan the coast again - clear - then head out into the Channel, where I idle away the rest of the day, shedding the sheets and plastic bags as I go, in different places.
With night drawing in, I meet up with Peter, make sure he got the money and thank him for the loan of the boat. He tries persuading me to stay another day, but I say that I have to move on. I buy him a couple of whiskies, then trudge back to the hotel, where I shower the scent of salt out of my hair.
I'm anxious to return to London, but it's late. Better to leave it until morning. Too many bad things can happen in the dark.
The hotel's Wi-Fi is no good to me, since my laptop's in London and I don't own a smartphone, but there's a small business centre. I go online before I check out and investigate long-term parking options in London. I want to keep things straightforward, so I settle on the car park at Heathrow. I can see from their site that there's a twenty-five-day parking rate, so nobody should bother with the car for a month, by which time I'll hopefully be long gone.
I also research shopping malls and choose WestQuay in Southampton, since it's on my way back. When I get there after an uneventful drive - I've had far more luck with the Skoda than poor Axel Nelke - I buy a suitcase, a wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses, a pack of Handi Wipes, new shoes and a jacket. I remove all the labels on my way to the car and dump them. Slip on the shoes, stick the case in the trunk, lay the rest of the gear on the passenger seat, and I'm set.
With the help of the map I make Heathrow early in the afternoon, collect my ticket at the barrier and find a quiet parking spot. Opening the wipes, I quickly clean inside the car, wheel, handles, switches, anywhere I might have touched. I've worn gloves all the time, but I'm paranoid, worried that I maybe took them off for a few seconds at some point and forgot about it. When it comes to prints, you can't be too cautious, not in this day and age.
Pulling on the hat, glasses and jacket, I get out - carefully wiping the side of the door and the outside handle as I go - and pull the suitcase out of the trunk, again taking the time to erase any prints as I close it.
I think about taking the keys with me, but I don't want to be caught with them on my person, so I open the driver's door and stash them under the dashboard, leaving the door unlocked. Not the best way to dispose of a car, but it will suffice. If I need to, I can collect it later and lose it for good. Right now, I just want rid of the damn thing.
I also leave the gun under the seat. I considered ditching it en route, but figured it might be useful to have a weapon where I can lay hands on it if things get messy.
Taking off the gloves and pocketing them, I lug the case to the bus stop, acting as if it's packed with clothes, in case an eagle-eyed guard happens to be watching and thinks it strange that someone would park in long-term without a suitcase. This makes me look like just another tourist heading off to catch a flight to the sun.
After a short wait, a bus takes me from the car park to the terminal. I keep the hat and glasses on the whole way, and my head down, all too conscious of the British predilection for CCTV - they have security cameras everywhere in this most watchful of countries. I wander around the airport a while, then catch the Tube into central London.
It's crazy, returning like this. I should have paid someone to fetch my passport from the hotel - you can always find a willing gopher at an airport, backpackers who are happy to ask no questions if you flash enough cash - then caught the first flight out. But I can't run, not while there's hope that Andeanna still loves me.
I think about her all the way in, staring down at my hands, wondering what the future holds in store for us.
I have to change lines at Hammersmith. I get off and cross the platform to the District Line. As a train approaches, my attention is drawn to a man and his son. The boy can't be more than four or five. He's white-faced and crying - he seems to be scared of the incoming train. As his father tries to comfort him, the boy throws up.
Feeling sorry for the child, I glance aside, wanting to afford the pair some privacy. As my head turns, I catch sight of someone rushing towards me. Before I can react, a man throws himself at me, hands waving furiously, eyes wide, mouth opened in a grotesque grimace.
Instinct kicks in and I jerk away from my mad-looking assailant. My left heel catches and I start to topple backwards, on to the track, in front of the incoming train. It's slowing down, but won't be able to stop before it smashes into me. My arms flail as I try to regain my balance, but I can tell it's too late. I'm done for.
Then, as I'm falling, a lost cause, a station guard grabs my arm and wheels me back on to my feet. 'Easy, sir,' he chuckles, as if it's no big thing, as if he hasn't just saved my life. 'Don't want to give the boy any more of a fright, do we?'
'Thank you,' I gasp, heart pounding, legs trembling as the train screeches past. I extend a hand, but the guard has already moved on. He doesn't have time to shake hands with stupid Americans who can't obey the simplest and most repeated of orders on the underground - stand away from the edge of the platform.
I look around, searching for the man who almost sent me reeling to my doom. He's in front of me, glaring. Axel Nelke's ghost.
'Didn't take you long to make your presence known,' I mutter, glaring back at the real or imagined ghost as it's surrounded by the other shades, all seven bunching together to subject me to their combined blistering gaze. How happy the rest would have been if Axel's sneaky ploy had worked! Though I think there would have been an element of jealousy there too. The six of them have spent the last several years trying to drive me mad or shock me at a critical moment, to no avail. How small would they have felt if Nelke had swaggered on to the scene and got rid of me at the first attempt?
'Better luck next time,' I sneer, then board the train and head for home.
Back in my room, I drop the jacket, shoes, hat, glasses and gloves into the suitcase - I'll get rid of it later - and head for the shower, where I soak for twenty minutes, then dry off and lie naked on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
The phone rings as I'm scratching an elbow. Not my cell, which I've kept switched off the entire time I was away. The room phone. I stare at it suspiciously. Andeanna? Surely it's too soon for her to be calling.
'Hello?' I answer cautiously.
I breathe easily. 'Hi, Joe. How's tricks?'
'You son of a bitch!' He shouts down the line at me for a full minute. I hold the phone away from my ear, letting him blow off steam. When he pauses for breath, I ask if he's finished. 'Finished? I'm only getting started! I was worried sick. I thought you'd been in an accident. I rang the hospitals and police to find out if - '
'What did you say to the police?' I interrupt sharply.
'Nothing much. I just asked if they could tell me if you'd been in a car crash or anything like that.'
'Did you file a missing-person report?'
'I was tempted to.'
'But you didn't?' Relaxing a little.
'No,' he grumbles. 'I thought it might have something to do with Andeanna.'
Wise little Joe. 'Did you ring her?' I ask, trying to sound casual.
'I don't have her number. I looked in the directory but she isn't listed and you never told me the name of her husband.'
'Just as well. I can imagine you phoning to ask if his wife's lover was OK.'
'Please!' Joe snaps. 'Credit me with some common sense.'
'I credit you with a lot more than that.' I claim that I did leave on account of Andeanna, that I went to see her and we had a blazing row, after which I stormed out of London in a huff, not thinking about Joe, the book or anything else, even forgetting about my flight home. 'I should have called,' I admit humbly. 'It was wrong to leave you hanging. But my thoughts were all over the place. I just drove, slept in the car and ate when hunger dictated.'
'Is it really over?' Joe asks.
'I don't know. I'll wait for her to ring. If she doesn't . . . '
Joe says he came to the hotel the morning of my scheduled return to America, to see me off. Thinking he'd missed me, he hurried to the airport, but there was no sign of me and I hadn't checked in. When the flight took off and I failed to show at the hotel, he started to worry.
'Where'd you go?' he asks.
'I'm not really sure,' I lie, trying to picture a map of the British Isles. 'I wandered randomly. I passed Birmingham on my way back, so I guess I must have gone north.'
'You should have taken me with you,' he says. 'I could have introduced you to my family. Some of them don't believe I'm working with you on the book. They think I'm making it up.'
Talk turns to Spirit of the Fire and my future plans. Joe wants to know if I'm still going back to the States. I tell him I'm not sure.
'And the book?' he presses.
'I can't focus on that now. I'm going to leave it for a while. Later, when I'm thinking straight, I'll tackle it again.'
'OK,' Joe sighs. 'If that's the way you want it.'
'It's not what I want, but I'm in no state of mind to deal with all the complications of a novel. We'll get round to it, I promise. I just don't know when.'
He asks if I'd like him to come over. I tell him I'm a mess, tired, confused. I say I'll ring in a day or two and we'll meet up, sit down and discuss the matter over a bottle of wine, but for now I just want to be on my own. He wishes me well, makes me promise not to flee the city again, then hangs up and leaves me sitting naked on the edge of the bed. After a few minutes I switch on my cell phone and stare at it glumly, waiting for Andeanna to call, yearning to hear her voice, but dreading what she might have to say.
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