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Authors: Josephine Myles

Junk

BOOK: Junk
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Dedication

For everyone who’s ever bought a book they know they’ll probably never get around to reading…

I had an awful lot of feedback on the second draft of this story, and those fearless pre-readers have helped me shape the final novel into something I’m really proud of. Thank you so much to Jennifer, Stella, Kristin, Tavdy, Shelagh, Lillian Francis, Kira Delaney, Prue Tremayne and Susan Sorrentino: you’re all stars!

And finally, as always, my heartfelt thanks to JL Merrow and Lou Harper: great friends and fantastic crit partners. And to my editor, Linda. Working with you is a true pleasure.

Chapter One

There was still an area of clear space left in the middle of his kitchen, but even that was gradually being encroached on.

Jasper dropped his bag onto the uncluttered section at the end of his dining table and pulled out his latest acquisitions: a book on postmodern film theory and the latest editions of the
New York Times
and
Engineering Monthly
. The newspaper was easy to file, and it joined the stack over by the breakfast bar. That particular pile had almost reached the top of the work surface, so soon he’d have a wall developing between the cooking and dining sides of the room. Would that constitute a fire hazard?

He should move the stack somewhere. Fire and paper most definitely didn’t mix. Well, they did. Too well, actually; that was the problem. But after looking around the crowded room, Jasper had to admit defeat. There weren’t any other stacks he was willing to add to right now. Some of them were looking decidedly unstable. No. Safer to stick to these lower ones over by the breakfast bar. What he’d do when those reached the ceiling, he had no idea. Call that clutter-clearing company? The very thought of someone else seeing what a mess he’d made of the place was enough to make him queasy with nerves. Besides, they’d want to throw things away, and everything he’d collected was important. They’d never understand that, would they?

More to the point, no matter how many times he read their advert, he’d never pigging well pluck up the courage to call them.

Jasper sighed and picked up the magazine.
Engineering Monthly
was more problematic than the newspapers. Since he’d filled the dining room, finding spaces to fit magazines was increasingly challenging. In the end, he’d started some new piles by the back door, but they were already making it difficult to get outside. Still, he added it to the neat tower, then shuffled carefully back to the oasis of space around the table.

The book. Jasper fondled the cover lovingly. He wasn’t actually planning to read it, of course. He’d already determined that fact back at the library during his tea break. But he couldn’t have left it languishing there on the sale trolley, unwanted and unloved. He knew just the place for it.

Jasper trod carefully through the hallway, turning sideways between walls of books piled three or four deep, until he reached the lounge door. It didn’t open all the way anymore, but there was enough room for him to slip through. He flicked on the overhead bulb—a small amount of light still filtered in at the top of the window, but it didn’t reach far into the room—then followed the pathway between towers of books on gardening and crafts, history and philosophy.

Cultural theory was located behind his sofa, and recently over the seat too. Jasper added the new find to the growing pile on the end cushion. He couldn’t lie down anymore to watch TV, but that was okay. He couldn’t watch TV anymore anyway—not since the extension cord had blown a fuse. Theoretically, he could replace it if he could ever remember where the wall socket was behind all the books.

But who needed television when you had a whole library at your fingertips?

On his way out, Jasper ran his fingers up the spines of a stack near the door. So much knowledge buried within. Far more than one person could ever hope to learn in a whole lifetime of reading. The thought made him smile, made him push against the books ever so slightly, the better to feel the friendly comfort they offered. Their solid presence.

Maybe not so solid in this case, as the whole stack shifted. Jasper exited hastily, closing the door behind him with more force than usual. And that’s when he heard it. The unmistakable sound of an avalanche of books.

Oh God. Not again.

Jasper tried the door. He rattled the handle and pushed against the weight of all those words. But it was no use. Another room cut off from use. All those books, out of bounds forever.

He leaned his forehead against the door and held back the tears until his eyes stung. What a stupid bloody loser. Not even able to enter half the rooms in his house anymore. Too embarrassed to invite anyone around. His entire social life reduced to the interactions at work and his occasional Internet hook-ups.

No, this was no use. He couldn’t carry on like this.

He pulled out his phone with shaking hands and called up the number for the clutter-clearing company. Could they really help him overcome his hoarding issues like their advert promised? It sounded too good to be true.

It sounded…challenging.

Before he could chicken out yet again, Jasper pressed dial.

“Wonderland Clutter Clearing. Carroll Miller here,” a chirpy voice announced.

“Oh, I uh…” The words dried up somewhere between Jasper’s larynx and his mouth.

“What can I do you for, love?”

“I’m so sorry to trouble you,” he said, “but I think I might need a little bit of help.”

Chapter Two

“Here we are,” Carroll said as she pulled up outside the house. “And what a fine example of a standard hoarder hedge.”

Lewis stared up at the overgrown, shaggy monstrosity, which all but shielded the house from onlookers. He could only see one of the upstairs windows, a large bay one, but there was a telltale bulge of stuff piled up behind the closed curtains. Oh yes. Once you knew what to look for, you could spot a hoarder’s house from the street. You could even pinpoint them on Google Maps sometimes, by looking for gardens piled with rubbish. Every town had them, and a city the size of Bristol had enough to keep him and his twin sister in business all year round. Not that you could cold-call on hoarders you’d spotted via satellite. No. Frustratingly enough, you had to wait for them to come to you. Maybe they should try leafleting them, though. Lewis made a mental note to suggest it to Carroll after they’d finished with the client.

“Can you check his name?” Lewis asked. Carroll had taken the call yesterday afternoon, only filling him in on the bare bones on the drive over from Ms. Priddy’s place. She hadn’t been able to remember the potential client’s name—typical Carroll fashion—but he’d learned that the man had lived in the house all his life and had said he needed “a little bit of assistance with keeping the place tidy”. Words to that effect usually meant they’d need to hire a skip for a whole week to empty the house, but you never knew. One person’s terrible mess was another’s cosy and lived-in.

Carroll thumbed at her phone. “Jasper, that’s it. Jasper Richardson.”

Lewis’s stomach gave a funny lurch. “Couldn’t be, could it?”

“Couldn’t be who?”

“The Jasper Richardson we went to school with.”

Carroll scrunched up her nose like a demented rabbit. “What Jasper Richardson? The name doesn’t ring any bells. Jog my memory?”

“I don’t know if you’d have noticed him. He was kind of…nerdy, I suppose. Tall, skinny, big nose. Wore thick glasses, messy black hair.” Hair that the fifteen-year-old Lewis had yearned to run his fingers through almost as much as he’d craved kissing those sensual lips. When he hadn’t been mooning over his drama teacher, anyway.

“I dunno. Doesn’t sound like my type. This Jasper’s thirty-three, I think. That the right age?”

“Sounds like it. He was three years above us.”

“Was he fit? Must’ve been. Yeah, you’ve got that look on your face.”

Lewis pursed his lips.

“Nah, now you just look constipated. I prefer the dreamy look. You used to get it whenever Mr. Blewitt over the road mowed his front lawn without a shirt on. Don’t you dare try and deny it.”

Lewis tried to give Carroll a forbidding look, but the trouble with having a twin was they knew you back to front. Carroll just laughed, kissed him on the nose and opened the door of the van. “Come on. Let’s go see if your teenage hottie’s aged well, or if it’s all just a horrible coincidence.”

Lewis slammed the door of their van, giving it that special wiggle it needed to engage the lock properly. One of these days they’d be able to afford a new van, but for now the garishly painted “Wonderland Clutter Clearing” vehicle would have to remain.

The houses in this up-and-coming part of Southville were turn-of-the-century stone semis. It had been gentrified, but Weston Road still sat right on the border with the more multicultural and down-at-heel Bedminster. The houses sat back from the street behind what were mostly well-tended front gardens. Number sixty-four was another matter, though. Vegetation exploded out of its confines, leafy trees dangling their branches possessively over neighbouring gardens and all but blocking half of the pavement. There was a low stone wall with a peeling gate set in the front, and Carroll pushed it open.

“Oops.” The gate crashed onto the ground, and Carroll picked it up, showing the rusted hinges to Lewis before propping it against a tree trunk.

“God, I kind of hope it isn’t him, you know,” Lewis murmured, looking around at the junk accumulated in the gloom under the trees. Piles of broken hand tools rusted away next to heaps of cracked terracotta pots. Somewhere at the back lurked what looked like a kiddie’s plastic slide, but the colours were muted by the greenish mould covering everything. At least it was all garden-type stuff, though. Lewis always held out hope for the clients who could at least categorise their hoard and store it appropriately. Ah, to hell with it. He held out hope for all hoarders. It might be tough, but nearly all of them could be helped. The selective combination of Lewis’s gentle approach and Carroll’s perky energy and wit usually sorted them out.

Carroll was already up on the front step, knocking on the door, so Lewis hurried after her. The house itself could be attractive if cleaned up a bit, what with the large bay windows and the stained glass around the door. The sheltered porch, however, was a more worrying indication of what they might find inside, seeing as both sides were stuffed with newspapers. Newspaper hoarders were some of the worst, their teetering piles of junk paper giving Lewis nightmares of being buried under them.

“Coming!” a voice called from inside the house. “Might take me a minute.”

“Sounds like he’s got goat trails,” Carroll whispered as they listened to the sound of shuffling footsteps followed by scrabbling around on the other side of the scuffed and peeling paintwork.

“Sorry. It’s not usually this hard to open the door,” the voice continued. Despite the nervous quaver, Jasper’s voice had a cultured accent and a pleasant timbre, but Lewis couldn’t for the life of him tell if it was
his
Jasper. He’d barely heard him utter a word back at school.

The door cracked open, and a dark eye peered out at them from the gloom within. “Carroll?”

“That’s right.” Carroll stepped forward, smiling in that dimpled, close-mouthed way that seemed to put everyone at ease. “And this is my brother, Lewis Miller. We work together.”

“Oh! I…umm, I didn’t realise.” The eye winked.

Winked? Was Jasper flirting? He sounded too nervous to flirt.

“I did mention I’d be bringing my partner,” Carroll said.

“You did?”

Carroll nodded.

“Buggeration. I should have remembered. I’m so bloody forgetful sometimes.” Jasper winked again, and now Lewis saw the movement for what it was, a nervous tic. As tics went, it was a pretty cute one, but he’d far rather get Jasper to relax.

Lewis moved forward, trying to get a better look at the owner of the voice and the eye. “Hi, Jasper. And don’t worry about it. I find it difficult to remember things when I’m feeling stressed.”

“I was a bit anxious. Haven’t had anyone else in here since… Well,
since
. I’m not sure there’s going to be room for everyone inside.”

Lewis and Carroll exchanged a glance. “It’s useful for us to see your home first,” Lewis began, before Carroll butted in to finish his sentence.

“But if you’d rather we go somewhere else and talk, that’s fine, too.”

BOOK: Junk
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