Absolutely thrilled to bits and over-the-moon to have Douglas Skelton as my #PartnerInCrime today! I am even more excited that I have TWO short stories to share with you all! EEEEEEK!!
It will be like a Douglas Skelton bonanza this weekend as I will be sharing my review for Open Wounds tomorrow along with a fab guest post from Mr Skelton! And he has a new book out at the moment, with some great reviews, so why not check it out! If you are not sure, Part 1 today is a taster of what to expect from #DominicQueste in #TheDeadDontBoogie….
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Grab a cuppa, sit back and enjoy my Partner In Crime’s first of two stories!
THE DEAD OF NIGHT
By Douglas Skelton
‘There’s a madman in my brain. He gibbers between my thoughts.’
As a conversation opener it registers high on the attention grabbing scale. Add the fact that it was the middle of the night and I’d opened my eyes to find the man who said the words sitting beside my bed and it’s pretty bloody startling. Now I know how the Queen felt when that guy played Midnight Caller in her Buck House bedroom back in the 1980s.
I sat up, for some reason clutching the duvet to my chest as if I was covering my modesty. I stammered something incoherent, even to me, but he stared back at me impassively.
I knew him, of course. Mr James, lived downstairs from me. Strange old guy, even when he wasn’t slinking into his neighbour’s bedroom and making creepy pronouncements. He always had an other-worldy sense about him. A vague feeling that he wasn’t quite with us. Of course, the kids in the street told all sorts of tales about him. That he was a vampire. That he didn’t leave tracks in the snow. That when he came near they felt something cold and of the grave pass by. I didn’t accept any of that, of course, because I’m a hard-nosed Scot from the hardest-nosed city in the country. But even so, whenever I passed him I let my pace quicken just a little. You can’t be too careful.
I felt that chill, too, right then. He looked back at me, his pale blue eyes clear and calm, his voice modulated. He spoke like a gent, like something from a Victorian ghost story. That didn’t help my mood.
‘What the f….’ I began but he waved a bony hand, as if batting away any objections to my home being invaded.
‘You are Mister Dominic Queste. You are the detective, am I correct?’ He said, his voice like Ian McKellen doing Death in ‘The Last Action Hero.’
‘Sort of,’ I said, automatically.
‘Sort of is not a response,’ he said. ‘You either are or you are not.’
‘I do some work for solicitors, that sort of thing. Wouldn’t say I was a detective.’
He cocked his head to one side, thought about this for a moment, then nodded as if I’d passed some sort of test. ‘You will suffice.’
‘Mr James,’ I said, feeling my usual Steve McQueen cool being tested, ‘what the hell are you doing here? Do you know what time it is?’
He pulled a gold pocket watch from the fob of his waistcoat. Yes, he was wearing a waistcoat. And a dark suit. And he had a pocket watch. I almost looked over the side of the bed for a top hat.
‘It’s 3.15am,’ he said, without any trace of irony. ‘Why? Do you have an appointment?’
I sighed, rubbed my eyes. ‘What…?’ I began, then changed tack. ‘How the hell did you get in?’
‘How does anyone gain access to a gentleman’s apartments? I used the front door.’
‘But it was locked.’
He shook his head. ‘It was not.’
I was about to argue but caught myself as I cast my mind back to the previous night. The Sutherland Brothers had been over, discussing their Christmas menu. For a pair of bone breakers – albeit bone breakers who were going straightish – they fancied themselves as chefs worthy of a clutch of Michelin stars. We were being told that we were facing the warmest Christmas in memory and so naturally their minds had turned to thoughts of barbecue. Frankly, the notion of Duncan and Hamish Sutherland in floral shirts and shorts, flame-burning the turkey didn’t add up to the Festive Season for me. They also didn’t factor in the incessant rain that had shown no sign of abating. As the menu grew ever more ambitious and, for me, disgusting (there was talk of shrimp), the lure of Laphroig became impossible to ignore. I may have drunk just a little too much because I didn’t remember the boys leaving. Maybe I didn’t lock the door.
I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. ‘Mr James,’ I said, summoning up as much patience as I could muster given he’d snatched me from a dream in which Eliza Dushku, in character as Faith in ‘Buffy’, was about to instruct me in the secret ways of the flesh. That would’ve been five-by-five with me. ‘What do you want?’
He looked flustered for the first time. No, scratch that, he looked hunted.
‘I require your assistance.’
‘At quarter past three in the morning? What kind of assistance could you possibly need at quarter past three in the morning?’ It occurred to me he was an old guy. I hoped it wasn’t something toilet related.
‘The madman in my head,’ he said. ‘He needs to be heard.’
Okay, that made something inside me quiver, I’ll admit. I’d forgotten all about his opening gambit. When a strange old codger breaks into your home – okay, the door may have been open – and starts talking about madmen in his head, it’s really not conducive to a settled stomach.
‘I would like to invite you into my apartments,’ he said.
I didn’t fancy that much. ‘Can’t I hear the madman just as well here?’
He shook his head in a solemn fashion. ‘I have a story to tell and something to show you.’
Now, my mother, wherever she is, only gave me three bits of advice that I heeded. One was never to run with the pack. The second was don’t go anywhere with strange men. The third was about not eating yellow snow but it was number two that applied here. Let me admit something, I was somewhat on edge. Frankly, I couldn’t have been more freaked if Mr James had stripped off his face to reveal a grinning Katie Hopkins.
Mr James sensed my discomfort. ‘You have nothing to fear, Mister Queste. You are young, fit, in rude health. What harm can an old man do you?’
My mind told me quite a lot – I’m not so young and usually fit to drop and he may have been getting on in years but he still looked pretty powerful to me – but his goading of my machismo was enough to get me out of bed and into a pair of jeans and my Star Wars hoodie. I figured I needed the Force with me.
I live in a Victorian red sandstone tenement on the south side of Glasgow and our footsteps seemed to echo up and down the stairway even though I was trying to be stealthy. When I say ours, I meant mine, for Mr James didn’t make any noise at all. He was strapping, you might say, and his noiseless descent from my first floor flat would’ve been unnerving if I wasn’t already as skittish as a pig near a bucket of apple sauce. Maybe the kids were right, maybe he didn’t leave footprints in the snow. Outside, the rain was really giving it some wellie. I could hear it thundering off the pavement and drumming against the cars. On the ground floor landing I could see someone had tracked in some mud. Mr James’ downstairs neighbour, Mrs Dempster, would go batshit crazy when she saw that. She insisted that the landing be kept immaculate.
The door to his flat was one of those big heavy black numbers which I presume are original to the building. It had a large brass letterbox and a huge knocker. I must’ve been pretty nervous because I didn’t make a crack about my liking huge knockers. Anyway, something told me Mr James wasn’t a Carry On fan.
He motioned me into the hall and closed the door behind us. The sound and fury of the winter weather was blocked by the heavy barrier. There was just me, the old guy and a dark hallway. Somewhere I could hear a clock ticking loud enough to waken the dead. I didn’t much like that analogy. I wondered what the hell I thought I was doing down here with a strange old guy in a dark flat and only my razor sharp wit to defend me.
‘Would you care for a cup of tea?’ He asked. ‘I have Earl Grey. Or a sherry perhaps?’
His manners were impeccable, I’ll give him that. However, I’m not a fan of fancy tea – give me a mug of Tetley anytime – and it was either too late or too early for alcohol so I declined.
‘As you wish,’ he said and motioned me into the first room on the left, which I knew to be his sitting room, because his flat had an identical layout to mine above. ‘This is the parlour,’ he said, making me out to be a liar. The room was lit by four candles, two on a high dark wooden mantelpiece and two on a low table made of similar wood. ‘Forgive me,’ he said, ‘but electric light hurts my eyes.’
The candles must’ve been scented because the air was heavy with the odour of strawberries. There was something else, underneath, too. Dampness, maybe. Between the two on the table was a long box made of polished wood. It looked old, way older than Mr James.
I should’ve fled right then but to be honest, my curiosity was piqued. If I’d been a cat it might’ve worried me but I’m a tough Glasgow boy who’s been down the town more than once. I could take care of myself. Still, I wished I’d brought something heavier with me than the bags below my eyes.
He motioned me to sit in an overly stuffed armchair that would’ve been new when Queen Victoria was a good looking young girl, then fetched a thick crystal decanter and two small glasses from a heavy wooden sideboard that looked old enough to be part of an antique dealer’s pension plan. He placed them on the table beside the box. ‘In case you change your mind,’ he explained as he settled himself into another armchair.
I waited for him to speak again but he sat back and closed his eyes. At first I thought he was gathering his thoughts but as the silence continued, broken only by the sonorous ticking of the clock, I wondered if he’d dropped off.
‘Mr James…’ I said and his eyes snapped open once again.
‘I do apologise, Mister Queste,’ he said. ‘Now that I have you here, I was wondering how to begin.’ He paused again, his hand resting on the box between us. ‘Mister Queste, are you familiar with the term Tontine?’
‘He palled around with the Lone Ranger, right?’ I was nervous, okay? And when I’m nervous I crack wise, as they never say in Glasgow. Mr James gave me a look that told me he was beginning to wonder if waking me up had been one of his best decisions. Didn’t bother me, I was hoping Eliza/Faith was still waiting for me in dreamland.
‘A Tontine is an agreement between friends,’ he said, as if I hadn’t said a word. ‘Usually it’s a financial arrangement – they can benefit from it during the life of the agreement but the last of the friends to remain alive reaps the full reward.’
I nodded. It seemed the thing to do.
‘In the case of my friends and I, the Tontine was an item of great value, which was passed to each of us in order of seniority. I was the second youngest.’
I glanced at the box and his hand resting upon it. Whatever he was talking about was in that box. Just call me Sherlock.
‘There was six of us originally. We were all what you might call well-to-do…’
I wouldn’t ever use that term. I’d just say rich bastards and be done with it. But I didn’t say that out loud. Rich bastards can get tetchy and I still wasn’t convinced Mr James was playing with a full deck. Mind you, if Mr James was well-to-do, as he put it, why the hell was he living in my street?
The ghost of a smile made his mouth twitch. ‘You may be wondering why I’m living here if I were well-to-do,’ he said, making me think I’d spoken out loud. Or perhaps he was telepathic. ‘My family fell on hard times, I’m afraid. Recessions are not the sole domain of the 21st Century. But when we were young, we were inseparable. Friendship, Mr Queste, companionship, fellowship. When you are children you believe it will last forever, do you not? I even married one of them. Dear Catriona and I had 45 years together and we were happy…’ He paused again as a catch in his voice brought tears to his eyes. His wife had died the previous year, I recalled. She’d been bedridden since I’d moved to the building and I’d never met her.
‘I had always believed we would enjoy the fruits of the precious gift, as we called it, together. But alas, that was not to be.’
‘Mr James, what was the precious gift?’
‘It was a pendant, Mister Queste, a diamond-studded pendant. Not overly large but quite valuable, really. It had been left to the eldest of our circle by a grandmother. Gerald was a generous soul and it was he who came up with the idea of the Tontine. He was such an avid reader and he had an abiding affection for the works of Mr Robert Louis Stevenson. Have you read “The Wrong Box”?’
‘I’ve seen the film,’ I said and I swear he winced.
‘Well,’ he said, and how he made that one word sound like a rebuke I’ll never know, ‘certainly the novel is far from Mr Stevenson’s best.’
The film wasn’t great either, but I didn’t say that.
‘As I said, it wasn’t a Tontine in the strictest sense but we were little more than children and foolish and Gerald was adamant that we should all six agree to the pact. Gerald, Catriona, Lester, Phillip, Graham and myself. Six friends from childhood, bound together until old age by an oath and a promise. There were times, though, when I wished I could lay my hands on the pendant to relieve my often straitened financial affairs but an agreement is an agreement and I had to wait my turn. Catrina and I both agreed that, when our time came, we would sell the pendant and ease our burden. It was worth a considerable sum, Mr Queste, and it appreciated over the years.’
He watched his own hand caress the lid of the box for a moment. That big clock continued to mark the passing of the night somewhere in the flat. I waited. ‘It became an obsession, Mr Queste. That pendant was the answer to all my financial woes. Yet I was bound by the code of childhood.’
I was beginning to sense where he was heading with his story. ‘What did you do, Mr James?’
He held my gaze for a moment and then looked away. ‘I wished them all dead. The companions of youth, the people with whom I had shared the beginnings of life and the hope of the future. I wished them dead. All of them.’
He swallowed and he removed his hand from the box, folded it into his lap. ‘Gerald died first, a motor car accident. Phillip was next, heart failure, he had never been the sturdiest of souls. Graham, though, was murdered…’
I knew that was coming. ‘What happened? And who did it?’
‘The police said it was a robbery that went wrong. He was bludgeoned to death in his home. Nothing of real value was taken.’
‘It was in a safe deposit box, under lock and key. That was part of the agreement, it had to always be kept secure. As to who was responsible, that was never ascertained.’
He lapsed into silence again, stared into the darkness at his feet, his aged face rippling in the candlelight. I thought I saw guilt in the crevices in his skin, in the dark of his eyes.
‘And so it passed to Lester. He had been the brightest of us, you know. A gregarious, witty, generous boy. But life changes us, Mr Queste, and makes a liar of our younger selves. Lester as an adult had none of those attributes. He became grasping, malicious, selfish. I voiced my concern to Catriona that he may try to deny us the Tontine should he pass before us. I did not know how he would have managed it but I am certain there are lawyers extant who would know how to circumvent our rather crude agreement, just as I am certain Lester would have used them, had he been allowed to do so.’
‘What happened to Lester, Mr James?’
‘He died, Mr Queste. Cancer. It was a slow, lingering, wasteful death. He had been a petty and spiteful man and he fell victim to a petty and spiteful disease and I regretted ever wishing him ill.’
Not murdered then, which was what I half expected. Just one suspicious death in the bunch, then, unless someone purposely left tyre tracks on old Gerald. Maybe this story wasn’t going the way I thought.
‘So you finally inherited the pendant?’
‘It took some time, there were legalities to be observed and Lester had a family that was just as greedy as he but yes, the matter was finally resolved.’ His voice caught again. ‘Alas, it had proved too late for my Catriona. I lost her six months ago. She died in this very apartment, in her own bed. She died believing that with the pendant at last falling to me that my own final years would be somewhat more secure. This was the box in which the pendant was kept.’ He patted the polished wooden lid but made no attempt to open it. There was clearly more to say.
‘I must unburden myself, Mr Queste, for I believe this pendant carries with it a curse. Death and madness seem to follow this box.’
‘Unburden yourself about what, Mr James? Graham’s death?’
His pale eyes fixed on me, ‘What do you suspect, Mr Queste?’
I shrugged. ‘Bluntly? I think you killed him, Mr James, to speed up the process. I think you might’ve gone after Lester, too, if cancer hadn’t got to him first.’
That strange little smile flitted again. ‘Is that what you think?’
‘That’s what I think.’
He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes again, made a tent with his fingers in front of his face. ‘I did not harm Graham. Someone got to him first.’
‘No, he was mean-spirited but not violent, nor a man of action.’
‘So was Graham’s death random?’
He opened his eyes and stared at me again. ‘There was another person in our agreement, Mr Queste…’
And then it hit me.
He nodded. ‘Yes. The female of the species is more deadly than the male. Do you know your Mr Kipling?’
I was too speechless to say anything about exceedingly good cakes, which really isn’t like me. I stared at him for a long moment and he looked away, as if ashamed.
‘She waited for him in his home, then struck him from behind with a metal ornament. How she was able to heft the heavy piece I do not know but madness has its own strength. I believe she would have taken Lester, too, if she herself had not fallen ill.’ He looked back at me. ‘Would you like that sherry now?’
I’d’ve preferred something more Highland but I nodded. He poured a stiff belt into the glass closest to me and I quaffed it in one gulp. Quaffed. I was even beginning to think like him.
I laid the glass back on the table, gazed at the box. ‘So you finally got the pendant?’
A little smile. ‘I told you madness followed this pendant. Catriona had it, much as I loved her. Lester had it, although how deep it ran I did not fathom until I opened that box.’
I could tell he wasn’t going to explain himself so I motioned towards the box. ‘May I?’
He inclined his head and I picked it up, rested it on my lap. It was nicely polished, heavy, a fine piece of craftsmanship. It had a little silver snib on the front which Ioosened then swung the lid back.
The box was empty, apart from a heavy silk scarf and a piece of paper. I darted a look in Mr James’ direction but he was staring into space again. I took out the sheet, unfolded it and read.
‘He couldn’t bear to part with it,’ said Mr James. ‘It had consumed him utterly. Perhaps Gerald and Philip and Graham were immune to it, perhaps not, for as we all reached our majority we drifted apart, bonded only by the Tontine and its promise. But its power infected Lester and it infected my dear Catriona. She murdered for it and he took it to his grave.’
I can’t recall the exact wording of the note but the upshot was that old Lester had decided that he was, in fact, going to take it with him. He knew he was at death’s door so he’d taken the pendant from wherever he’d stored it and, having organised his own funeral, paid the undertaker extra to bury it with him. The note had a gloating quality to it, as if he was glad he’d denied Mr James and his wife the security they’d longed for.
‘Madness,’ I said, still staring at the handwritten note.
‘Indeed. Lester always loved Catriona,’ said Mr James. ‘He could never accept that she had chosen me over him. It contributed to his bitterness and this was his way of punishing us both. Madness, Mr Queste. And it did not end with him.’
He reached into his pocket and laid something on the table. Something bright shone in the candlelight, something glittered. I simply stared at it without picking it up. I didn’t want to touch it.
‘I had to possess it,’ said Mr James. ‘Catriona had lost her soul for want of that pendant. We had dreamed of the day when it was in our grasp, when all the ills of our life would be cured. I had to possess it.’
‘You robbed his grave?’
He nodded. ‘This very night. The ground was soft, thanks to the rain, it did not require too much effort and I am yet strong, Mr Queste. It nestled on his chest, his bony fingers wrapped around it like a lover. I took it from him and I left his grave open for the world to see what a hideous creature he had become.’
The rain pounded at the windows as I struggled to comprehend what this old man had done. To be honest I couldn’t quite believe it. He’d actually gone to a graveyard and dug out a grave, like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in ‘The Bodysnatchers.’ It occurred to me that was based on another Robert Louis Stevenson story and I wondered if Mr James knew that. I felt the room beginning to spin a little and the scent from the candles became overpowering.
‘But it did not end there, for the madness had consumed me completely. As I held the pendant in my hand at last I realised that the moment was not complete. My dear Catriona and I had long yearned to hold the precious gift together but Lester’s greed and hatred had deprived us of that. But as I stood there in the dead of the night, with the rain streaming about me, and the open grave beneath me, the madman began to speak to me. You can be together once more, he told me. You two can be one again. The madman in my mind was strong, Mr Queste, and he would not be denied.’
The room was beginning to tilt now and as he looked at me the perspective shifted, as if the background was zooming away with dizzying speed and yet he remained in position. Think Roy Scheider in ‘Jaws’, on a beach, and there’s a shark attack.
‘What did you do?’ My voice echoed, folded back on itself. Something wasn’t right here.
‘My dear Catriona was buried in the same graveyard…’
‘Oh Christ, man – what did you do?’
He didn’t answer. He just sat there, that little half smile on his face. He wasn’t going to tell me, I knew that, but I had to know. I don’t know what the crazy old bastard had put in that sherry but I knew I didn’t have long. I hauled myself to my feet, staggered to the door. He let me go. He wanted me to know. He wanted me to see.
The hallway was dark and that bloody clock was still ticking away like the world hadn’t gone mad. I stumbled towards the bedroom because I knew then that was where the answer lay. After all, that was where the earthy smell was coming from.
I threw open the door and leaned against the frame, because to be honest my legs weren’t going to take me any further.
There were candles all around the room but that wasn’t what my eyes fell upon immediately.
‘The madman spoke the truth,’ said Mr James from behind me. ‘We could be together again, one final time. We could at last enjoy the precious gift.’
She was lying on the bed, propped up against the pillows but her head slumped slightly to the side, as if she was asking a question. Her mouth lay open, her jaw loose. Her grey hair dangled over her shoulders, her flesh rotting and peeling, her eyes open – I suppose he’d opened them – but sightless. The candlelight cast flickering shadows over the sight, sometimes making it look as if the flesh was moving and the lips were tightening into a hideous grin.
And just as I began to slip to the floor, I swear I saw the head begin to raise, as if she wanted to have a better look at me…
When I woke up I was in my own bed. I wondered if I’d dreamed it but that would be an anti-climax. Anyway, I was still dressed in my Star Wars hoodie and jeans. I could hear lots of movement on the stairways and I knew right away what it was about.
He must’ve contacted the police after he’d carried me back up the stairs. He was a pensioner but I wouldn’t have arm-wrestled with him. They found him on the bed with the corpse of his wife, his head on her chest, their hands clasped together around the pendant. He’d taken an overdose, they said. Sleeping pills. Part of him, the part of his mind that wasn’t inhabited by the madman he spoke of, wanted someone to know what it was all about before he went. That was where I came in. He’d always intended finishing it and I guess I was the suicide note, except I’ve never told anyone. I don’t think that mattered to him. He was alone, he had no-one. He just wanted someone to know.
In the end Mr James and his dear Catriona were together again, just the way he’d wanted. Just the way that madman in his mind had told him. I suppose, if you look at it one way, it was romantic, touching even. They’d been together all their life and they’d ended together. But she was a killer and he was a graverobber and a bodysnatcher and as a love story it could’ve been written by Nicholas Sparks, if his name was really Stephen King.
But I’ll tell you this – I’ll never watch the ending of ‘Psycho’ again.
How good was that!?!?! Don’t forget to pop back later today for Part 2 ~ another short story…and it is great!! Thanks Douglas! ?