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Authors: Gary McMahon

Tags: #Horror

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BOOK: Silent Voices
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Simon felt his mobile phone vibrating in his inside jacket pocket. He retrieved the phone and glanced at the screen. Natasha was trying to call him. He made no move to answer the call. He didn’t want to see her, not tonight. He needed to clear his head, not muddy it by having to deal with her demands and recriminations. Things had been strained lately, because of his fuzzy plans to return to the estate of his youth, and the fact that he had not invited her along for the ride had irked her, making her angry and paranoid. For reasons of her own, Natasha was unable to fully trust any man.

“Sorry, darling,” he muttered, and put the handset back in his pocket. Before he reached the ground floor, the vibrations ceased. Then, as if on cue, the lift doors opened. Simon stepped out into the lobby and walked towards the main doors. Norman, the aged security guard, was sitting at the front desk reading a slim paperback and ignoring the flickering bank of CCTV monitors to his left.

“Going back out, then?” He smiled and lowered his book.

“Yeah, I fancied a few pints. I couldn’t settle up there on my own... not tonight.” Simon liked the old man. He had a good face: all lines and creases, but with sharp bones underneath.

The security guard smiled and nodded, as if they were sharing a private joke. “Enjoy,” he said, and raised a hand, palm open, fingers splayed. “Have one for me, would you?” He made a slow fist, the sight of which set off tremors inside Simon’s mind.

“You bet. See you later, Norm.” Simon went through the sliding doors and stepped out onto the footpath, aware of an obscure fear dogging his heels. The night was warm; there was no breeze. It was going to be a hot summer. Part of him was glad that he’d be in the milder climate of Northumberland, while the rest of him was beginning to yearn for London before he’d even stepped outside her borders.

London
, he thought,
becomes a part of you. It slips under your skin without you knowing, and before long you ache at even the thought of leaving.

He headed southwest, in the direction of Caledonian Road, where his friend Mike owned a small bar called The Halo. An odd place, never quite full but rarely what would be called empty, and the rough-edged clientele made for an interesting and varied bunch. Simon felt safe there; he found himself drinking at The Halo more and more these days, as if it offered something he craved but could never quite identify.

Cranes dotted the skyline, rearing against the darkness like strange prehistoric beasts. The area was being renovated, cleaned up and made into a tourist-friendly location: the word was that the Borough of London wanted King’s Cross to be a destination itself rather than simply a way station for weary travellers on their way to somewhere else. The old porn shops and stripper bars were slowly being forced out of business, and in their place had sprouted chain sandwich bars and coffee shops. Simon knew this was a good thing, and that it could only raise the profile of the area, but he would miss the seediness he had always associated with the streets around the station.

The Halo was situated on the corner of Caledonian and All Saints Street – a street name he’d always found amusingly inappropriate. The windows bled light, and music and the buzz of conversation drifted from the open doorway. The jukebox was playing Bowie, which meant that Mike was back behind the bar after his trip to Dublin.

Simon walked into the bar, feeling a sensation of belonging. Mike was the closest thing he had to a real friend, and he was glad that he’d get the chance to say goodbye. He wasn’t sure why this was important, but he knew that it was.

“Hey, Simon! Good to see you.” Mike started pulling a pint of Guinness. By the time Simon reached his usual stool at the bar, the glass was being put down on the scarred bar top to settle.

“How was Dublin?”

Mike shook his head. His tousled blond hair was a mess, as usual, and his blue eyes glistened. “Not bad. The stag couldn’t hold his drink, the best man was pick-pocketed by a stripper, and half of us ended up going for an Indian meal instead of to the nightclub.” He smiled. “I think I must be getting old.”

“You and me both, brother. That Guinness settled yet?”

Mike topped up the glass and pushed it towards Simon, his eyes scanning the bar. It wasn’t packed, but there were enough customers in there to keep him busy, especially if they all wanted serving at once. Robert, a tall, thin transvestite who drank there every night, stood by the jukebox idly flicking through the playlist. He turned and nodded at Simon, then returned his attention to the music.

“On your own tonight?” Simon took a sip of his drink, closed his eyes and savoured the cold iron taste on his tongue. It wasn’t the best pint of Guinness to be found in London, but it was good enough.

“The girl’s meant to be here, but she hasn’t arrived yet. I haven’t even had a call to tell me she’s running late.” ‘The girl’ was a short, dark-haired Goth named Betty who helped out at The Halo three or four nights a week, and more often when the place got busy. Mike had a crush on her but had never got up the nerve to make a move.

“She’ll be here. She can’t keep away from you, man.” Simon grinned.

“Fuck you, rich boy.” Mike grabbed a rag and started wiping down the bar. He moved away for a moment to serve three middle-aged men double whiskies, and then returned to stand opposite Simon.

“I’m going away, mate.” Simon put down his glass. “Tonight.”

“Prison? I told you not to shag that girl – she only looked about twelve.”

Simon stared at his friend. “I’m serious. I might be gone... for a while.”

“Is anything wrong? Can I help?” Mike leaned across the bar, falling short of grabbing Simon’s arm but clearly thinking about it.

“No, no. It’s nothing like that. No trouble. Just some stuff from my past that I need to confront.” Simon tried to smile but he didn’t quite manage a convincing attempt. “I’m going home.”

“Northumberland? I thought you’d turned your back on that place for good. Didn’t think you’d ever go back.” Mike’s eyes were hard, like chips of ice. He was worried, and that made Simon feel sad. It was nice to have someone who cared, but in truth he’d always found this kind of close personal attachment difficult to deal with.

“Nor did I, but sometimes you have to go back just so you can move forward.”

“Ah, Confucius say, ‘you pretentious prick’.”

Simon laughed; the moment was broken. The tension vanished.

“What about Natasha?” Mike raised one eyebrow. It was a comical gesture, but hidden behind it was a serious question.

“I don’t know. I really don’t. One minute I can’t get enough of her, the next I wish she’d just leave me alone.”

“Nice problem to have, that. A Russian supermodel hassling you for sex.”

“Please. I know I sound like a complete tosser, but seriously it isn’t as neat and tidy as it sounds.”

“But is it as good as it looks?” Mike threw the rag at Simon, and then stalked the length of the bar to serve a heavily tattooed young woman in a low-cut vest top. He took longer than was necessary, revelling in the attention, and Simon smiled as the woman wrote something down – probably her telephone number – on a piece of paper before handing it to him, smiling, and walking away. When she sat back down at her table, her friends let out a muted cheer.

“Jesus, mate,” said Simon, when Mike returned to his spot behind the bar. “I’ve seen you do that with at least two or three women a week ever since I’ve known you, and still you’re too scared to ask Betty out on a date.”

“Tell me about it,” said Mike, shaking his head. “I’m an idiot. But what can I do? The girl brings out my inner awkward teenager.”

Simon had almost finished his pint. He drained the glass, listening to the comforting throb of noise in the bar. “Do me a favour?” he said, finally. “Keep an eye out for Natasha while I’m away. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone or what’ll happen while I’m there, but I’d like to know that someone I trust has her back.”

Mike nodded. “It goes without saying, mate. When she and all her model friends decide to pop in here for a few pints of bitter, I’ll make sure she keeps her hands out of Robert’s fishnets.”

“I’m serious. I have a bad feeling, a
weird
feeling about things. Just let me know if you hear anything. Or even if you don’t hear anything and just have a suspicion that something’s wrong. Just call me. You have my number, so use it.”

Mike nodded. “Okay, man. Don’t get so heavy.”

“Sorry. Things on my mind; I’m under a lot of pressure.”

“Yeah, it must be tough being a millionaire.”

A few minutes later, after exchanging several more insults and shaking hands, the two men parted. Simon left The Halo, feeling as if he were leaving a part of himself behind, lost in the beer-smelling shadows. He glanced over his shoulder as he walked out the door, and saw Mike staring at him, a strange expression on his face. When he realised that he’d been spotted, Mike did not smile; he did nothing but raise one hand in farewell.

Simon gave the thumbs-up sign and stepped out into the night, wishing that he could turn back and order another drink, then another, and another, until he was more drunk than he’d ever been in his life. But even then, he knew, he would be unable to cut the shackles and let himself loose from the ties that bound him, the invisible chains and ropes connecting him to a past he could barely even remember.

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

S
IMON LIKED TO
drive at night, especially if he was going a long way. The darkness soothed him, and he had trouble sleeping anyway so the constant motion of the motorway held a strange kind of appeal. Less traffic meant that he could open up the engine and get where he was going a lot quicker than during the day, and most of the night traffic was made up of long-distance heavy-goods vehicles, hauling God-knew-what to God-knew-where, so he got to sit in the fast lane and cruise past them all.

It took him a while to get out of London, but he made good time along the A1. By the time he passed Scotch Corner and the road turned into the A1(M) it was almost two in the morning. The dual carriageway was deserted; there weren’t even vans and trucks on this stretch of road. He felt sober now. Parts of the road were badly lit, so he drove through entire stretches of darkness, glancing at the flat black fields and the occasional stunted buildings.

He began to crave coffee, so decided to stop at an all-night service station with an annexe that was done up like an American diner from the 1950s. Chrome sides, signs proclaiming
24-Hour Eats!
and a large pool of yellow light in which were parked a few cars and a motorbike.

Simon sat in the car until the song playing on the radio ended. It was one of his favourites: ‘No Alarms’, by Radiohead. When the song faded he reached out and turned off the engine. Silence rushed in to swallow the retreating sound.

He got out of the car and walked across the gravel car park, feeling oddly exposed in all that open space. He glimpsed a man sitting in the window seat of the diner, drinking Coke directly from the bottle and reading from a Kindle. There was a crash helmet on the table next to him; this must be the owner of the Kawasaki he’d parked next to. Simon paused at the door and looked up. The moon seemed impossibly distant, and the sky was sharp and clear, as if it were waiting to be filled. All the Hollywood alien invasion films he’d ever seen started with a sky like this one.

He grinned to himself and went inside the diner.

A skinny woman with dyed blonde hair stood behind the counter. She could have been anywhere between thirty-five and sixty. Her hair was dry, like straw, and the lines around her eyes and her mouth were as deep as stab wounds.

“Evening,” she said as Simon bellied up to the counter, grabbed a stool and settled in. “What can I get you?”

“I’ll have a coffee, thanks. No milk. No sugar.” He smiled at her and took out his phone, checked it for text messages. There was one from Natasha, just as he’d expected. He opened the message and read it:
miss u already. call me when u can. x.
He fucking hated it when she used text-speak. Simon was the kind of person who properly punctuated his texts, even to the point of using semicolons. He deleted the message and placed the phone on the counter.

“One coffee,” said the woman behind the counter. “No milk. No sugar.”

“Thanks,” he said, and grabbed the cup. It was almost too hot to hold. “That’s lovely.”

“Anything else?”

He took a sip, burning his lips. “Lovely,” he said again. “Yes, I suppose I could use a bite to eat. Do you have a sandwich, or something?”

“Whatever you like, love. We serve food 24-hours here. Hot and cold. Sweet and savoury.”

“How about a tuna salad baguette?”

“Speciality of the house.” She winked, and it was a grotesque sight. The eyelid moved slowly, as if it had been damaged. The motion reminded Simon of a faulty roller blind going down over a dirty window.

“Thanks,” he said, and spun around on his stool.

The motorcyclist in the window seat was still absorbed in his Kindle. A young couple sat at a table by the toilet door, holding hands across the tablecloth. They were staring into each other’s eyes but not saying much. The woman had been crying; her cheeks were grubby from the tears. The man was biting his bottom lip.

BOOK: Silent Voices
2.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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