Authors: Sue Welfare
Next of Kin
Copyright © Sue Welfare 2015
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any form of storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
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All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Published by Castle Yard Publishing 2015
“ … the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”
For Phil, Jake and Daisy-Dog
The detective hands me a photograph and I turn it towards the light so I can see it more clearly. I can feel him watching me, watching my reaction. He wants me to be shocked, but I’m not shocked I’m relieved.
The image is brutal. Raw. I know what it is straight away; he is looking out of the photo, eyes wide, but what catches my attention are the things around him. My marriage certificate under an outstretched hand. There’s a stain on it, the same size as my fist, shaped like a flower. It’s mahogany brown, although I don’t remember spilling anything on it. It takes me a moment or two to realise that it has to be blood. And now, looking more closely, I can see that there is blood on everything, little droplets on letters, splashes on the papers, and smeared over the receipts and the bills and the dark stain under his head is not a shadow.
I hand the photograph back and the detective slides it into the folder amongst the others, back where it came from, carefully, and then back on the table, back in its place. I’ve looked through them all: photographs of the house, the box file and the biscuit tin and then alongside each one, the contents all set out inside evidence bags, all numbered, all neatly arranged, evenly spaced: passports, photographs, letters and bills. Lots of envelopes and my mobile phone.
Inside the room it is very quiet and still. There are windows running all along the wall, high up, so that you can’t see out, but I can hear the muted voices of children playing in a school somewhere close by. Dust motes spin in a shaft of afternoon sunlight. The lights on the recorder glow red. Time seems to have slowed in here. I’m tired and my eyes feel heavy.
‘Did you plan to kill him, Sarah?’ the detective asks. He sounds as tired as I feel. There is a woman beside him, another detective I think, but she just sits there and says nothing.
I look up, surprised by his voice, and I’m about to say no, to deny it, but the words catch in my throat.
They are both listening now. Both waiting.
Sarah pushed open the door to the sitting room and peered into the gloom. Turning her head, she shouted. ‘Ryan, how many times have I told you not to smoke in the house? It reeks in here. Can you get yourself down here and help me get tidied up? That woman is coming to look round at half ten.’
She was across the sitting room in half a dozen strides, padding over the bare boards and the colourful rugs, pulling open the faded velvet curtains and pushing up the sash window to let in a trickle of colder, damper air. Turning she could see the remnants of a long evening in scattered around the room, empty pizza boxes on the coffee table, controllers for the Xbox, dirty mugs, empty beer cans and discarded trainers. Someone had used one of the mugs as an ashtray; it was full almost to the top – but what stopped Sarah mid-stride was an awareness that there was someone else in the room, someone asleep on the sofa under a duvet.
‘Ryan,’ Sarah shouted, her eyes fixed on the shape on the sofa. She recognised the duvet, it was the one from the bedroom upstairs that she was hoping to let to the girl who was coming round for a viewing. It was new. There was a damp looking brown stain that had spread up from the floor and made its way across one of the corners.
‘Get in here,
She heard his footsteps and started speaking before he was in the room. ‘What the hell do you think you’re playing at? I spent all day yesterday cleaning the whole place from top to bottom. On my day off. That’s the new duvet, Ryan.’
‘I know, it’s all right, I can explain,’ he said, holding his hands up in a show of surrender. ‘Keep your hair on. It won’t take long to clear up. Ten minutes—’
‘You promised me, Ryan. And who the hell is that?’
The sleeper stirred and grunted.
‘Woody, he’s sound as a pound,’ said Ryan, scratching his head with both hands.
‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’
‘I was going to tell you about him.’
‘Tell me what? I’m out working and you’ve got your friends round here drinking and messing the place up? Do you take me for a complete idiot?’
‘Of course not. He’s a good guy – he’s—’
Sarah’s voice cut across his. ‘I don’t care what he is. I don’t want your mates crashing round here, do you understand?’
‘Yeah, all right, just slow down, will you. I thought you wanted to rent the spare rooms out.’
When Sarah didn’t answer Ryan nodded towards the figure on the sofa. ‘There you are then. Woody’s your man; he’s got money.’ He made a gesture, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. ‘Minted,’ he mouthed.
‘Really? In that case why is he sleeping on our sofa?’ Sarah said, making a show of gathering up the rubbish.
‘He’s a student.’
Sarah rolled her eyes.
‘No, hang on, wait a minute. He’s doing his MBA.’ Ryan lowered his voice. ‘Listen, Sarah, he gets an allowance from his old man. He’s rolling in it and he really needs somewhere to stay, like yesterday.’
The figure under the duvet stretched, making sounds of waking and then very slowly Ryan’s friend pushed the cover down. Woody wasn’t at all what Sarah was expecting. He was Asian, nice looking, bare-chested and probably in his late twenties. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. For the first time Sarah took in the pile of neatly folded clothes on one of the side tables, the brogues paired and parallel together on the floor, the sports jacket hung over the back of a chair.
Ryan grinned. ‘Woody. You old dog, how’re you feeling, mate?’
Woody grimaced. ‘A little delicate.’ And then, seeing Sarah, he said, ‘I’m so sorry. It was late and—’ his voice was low and even and without any discernible accent.
Ryan’s grin held. ‘And you were slaughtered, man. The Woodster is new to the demon drink, aren’t you, mate?’
‘Do you have to talk like that?’ snapped Sarah.
‘For god’s sake lighten up, will you?’ Ryan pulled a face, and when she didn’t reply, snapped right back. ‘What? We just had a few beers, that’s all. There’s no law against it. And Woody needs a place to stay, don’t you?’
The young man nodded and sat up. He was nicely made, muscular with a hairy chest and broad shoulders; Sarah made the effort to look away.
‘Ryan told me that you have a room to let?’ he said.
‘That’s right we do,’ Sarah said.
‘I would be interested, seriously and Ryan is right. I can afford the rent,’ he said and then, as if suddenly aware of his bare chest, gathered the duvet up around himself.
‘Why don’t Ryan and I go in the kitchen and you can get yourself sorted out,’ said Sarah, waving towards his clothes. ‘Come through and we can discuss the room when you’re ready. It’ll be easier to talk in there.’
Woody nodded. ‘Thank you,’ he said, his voice smooth as silk. ‘I won’t be a minute.’
‘Take your time,’ Sarah said and closed the door behind them.
Ryan and Woody
While there was no one up on their feet cheering the nag on, there was a sense of growing anticipation and tension in the room. Almost all eyes in the betting shop were fixed on the bank of screens that ran along the back wall and the images of a phalanx of horses careering around the racecourse at full stretch, their great necks working, their long legs eating up the distance, mouths straining against the bits, the jockeys up in the stirrups, heads down, backsides skyward.
The sound was turned down; on other screens there was football and other races but the main event was this horse race; two furlongs from home and the favourite was being hunted down by the 100-1 outsider.
There was a warm, anxious, excited, sick feeling in the pit of Ryan’s stomach. He tried hard to control his breathing, stay still and stay calm, but he couldn’t stop himself from chewing on his bottom lip, his fists clenching and unclenching as the horses thundered on towards the finish line. The betting slip for this race was tucked into the top pocket of his tee shirt. Out of sight but not out of mind.
In the last few hundred yards the two horses tore themselves away from the pack, legs a blur.
‘C’mon, c’mon,’ Ryan murmured under his breath; they were so close, so
close now. It looked as if the favourite might just hang on and take it. Fleetingly, Ryan thought that he should have taken the teller’s advice and backed the outsider each way, not used his last fifty quid for an on the nose bet, first past the post. But where was the fun in that? Where was the buzz? He’d got a solid tip and this meant that when his horse came home he could pay Darryl off and Neil too, have a few beers, sort out his bills with maybe a bit over to give Sarah. A little something to keep her off his back. If it came in. No, when it came in,
The outsider dug in and was still coming on strong, still closing. Ryan’s instinct was to close his eyes but he fought it with every breath. He needed this horse to win and it would; it would. If he could just keep his nerve. He knew it. He could feel it in his gut. This was the moment that things changed. The point where things turned around. He just needed to see that horse cross the finish line, after all this was a rock solid tip. Rock solid. The rush of the adrenaline coursing through his bloodstream was making him dizzy.
The favourite was still just holding the outsider off, fighting back, digging deep. The contender dug deeper, deeper – they were neck and neck now. The breath was caught up in Ryan’s throat, hard and dense like cotton wool.
The outsider suddenly seemed to find a renewed vigour, an extra something and pressed for home, but the favourite wasn’t done yet and hung on in there, and seemed to stretch out, struggling to find a little more, a little more. Ryan hung on to his breath as the two horses raced full bore down towards the line, not a hair’s breadth between them. The yards vanished under the unheard thunder of their pounding hooves. Fifty yards out, forty – the outsider gave one final push for home.
‘Come on, come on,’ Ryan called, oblivious now to the men around him. The camera had moved in for a close-up of the two horses. ‘C’mon,’ he said again, on an outward breath. ’Don’t let me down, don’t you dare–’
It was almost as if the horse heard him. It flicked its ears and a split second later stumbled, cartwheeling the jockey off over the top of its head and onto the grass.
’ gasped Ryan, the win and the money slipping through his fingers. His gut clenched as the favourite crossed the line without his rider, the 100-1 shot was close behind him, while the rest of the field came up thundering in behind.
There was a moment’s beat, a moment’s taking stock and then Ryan pulled the betting slip out of his top pocket, crumpled it into a ball and dropped it into the bin.
No one else moved. He breathed out hard, trying to suppress the desire to punch something. Five grand, five fucking grand. Gone. Lost. It would have seen him good, seen him home clear, seen him ahead for the first time in weeks, months.
Ryan let his shoulders slump forward, no point in hanging around now, probably better to go home just in case Darryl or Neil dropped in on their way home from work wanting to know if he had their money. They wouldn’t be chuffed to find out he had spent what he owed them and more beside on half a dozen bad bets.
As Ryan turned, an Asian guy playing the slots close to where he was standing, raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, nodding his head in little gesture of solidarity, or maybe commiseration. The guy was in his late twenties, maybe a bit older, and looked out of place in the bookies in his tweed jacket, button down shirt, corduroy trousers and Buddy Holly glasses. As their eyes met, all his ducks lined up and the machine started to play a metallic fanfare and punch out pound coins into the tray, the word
flashing on and off the screen in garish lights.
Ryan smiled grimly and shook his head while the machine kept on churning the coins out with steady a chunk, chunk, chunk. At least someone was winning.
The guy, bending down now to stem the tide, looked up and flipped him a pound coin. ‘There you go. You look like you could use a beer,’ he said.
Ryan looked down at the coin in his palm and laughed; a pound wasn’t going to get him very far. He’d seen the man there before, feeding the machines, which sat in a line in the bookies’ window. He always seemed to be in a little world of his own, pound coin in, press the button, hold and nudge, and nudge again, the play accompanied by the annoying quack-quack-oops of failure and the little fanfares of triumph. They had never spoken before.
‘Cheers, man, but it’s not a beer I need so much as a horse with four good legs,’ he said, and reached over to hand back the coin. ‘Thanks anyway.’
The man waved him away. ‘Keep it, it might bring you some luck.’
Ryan snorted but pocketed the money. ‘Let’s hope so. I need to be getting back. I said I’d help clear the house up.’ Usually Ryan wouldn’t have said anything and wondered why he was now, maybe it was the pound, maybe it was that the guy seemed kind. Maybe it was because it was raining outside and he’d be soaked to the skin the minute he stepped through the door. Maybe because his luck was shit and for a moment he wanted it all to stop.
Ryan looked at the rain coursing down the betting shop window. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed it before, and hesitated. It was tipping down, water running down the gutter like a river. Perfect; soaked, cold, broke and with a long walk home.
The machine was still spewing coins. ‘Nagging wife?’ the man asked.
Ryan shook his head, still staring out into the rain. ’No, it’s my sister. We’ve got someone coming round tomorrow to see about renting a room. I said I’d give her a hand to clear the place up.’
The man from behind the counter was heading their way with a plastic tub. ‘You want to put the coins in here? I can change them up for you if you like. We can always do with change,’ he said.
The Asian man nodded and started scooping piles of coins into the little bucket. Ryan watched idly; it was something to do rather than head off into the rain.
‘I’m looking for a room,’ the man said, without looking up
Ryan nodded. ‘Right.’
‘No, really. The sooner the better really. I need to get out of the place I’m in.’
Ryan nodded again. ‘Maybe I can help you. You like the machines?’ he asked casually.
‘I do today. But I’m not much of a gambler really. They’re fixed odds. I’m in it for the long game,’ he said.
Ryan had no idea what the man meant. ‘Slot machines?’ Ryan asked.
‘No, that’s a side-line. I’m just passing the time. Picking my moment. I’m planning bigger things.’
‘Me too,’ said Ryan, half-heartedly.
He had come in to the betting shop with two hundred and fifty quid burning a hole in his pocket, a clutch of solid tips and a plan to be sensible and bet each way right up until the last horse. The 100-1 shot had just been too much of a temptation to resist, after what had proved to be a shit afternoon and a run of losers. He’d been convinced the outsider was going to be the one that turned his luck around.
‘Most of my friends call me Woody,’ the man was saying, extending a hand.