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  • Simon Howard

SOFT MURDER a short novel by Simon Howard

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Chapter One

Moonlight. And a harsh wind blowing in from the North Sea. Stiff with frost, the tall grass hardly moves. No trees are visible. A desolate place, with nothing to hide behind – not even a solitary bush. No way of judging perspective. Nothing.

Suddenly, a pair of headlights appear on the moor, like an animal’s eyes. They scan the bleak landscape as the car makes its way slowly along the winding road. At last it stops. Inside the car are two men and a dog. Opening his door, the driver produces a gun and says to the passenger:

‘Get out…’

Trembling, the passenger steps out of the car at the same time as the driver. The Irish Wolfhound follows, leaping about joyfully on the road beside him. The driver takes aim and sends a bullet through its skull. The dog stops mid-leap, for a moment a frozen silhouette against the moon. Then it crashes onto the frosted ground – stiff, like the grass.

The gunman turns his revolver on the trembling passenger. He aims, pulls the trigger and waits for his victim’s look of terror to become frozen as well. He has seen this look several times before. He has despatched many people in this way. The memory of the look will stay with him until the next time, as confirmation of his art. It reminds him of what a consummate professional he is: the look of terror on a victim’s face, and the absolute certainty that it will never change until the undertaker has twisted it back to artificial tranquillity.

***

He points the gun and pulls the trigger. Something’s wrong. The look of terror remains, but the face doesn’t move: the victim isn’t falling. By this point they are always falling, the face a terrified mask dropping towards the ground. This one is just standing there, terrified and trembling, but not falling.

Momentarily, the gunman lets his eyes wander from his victim to the gun. It’s unprofessional, he knows, but something is definitely wrong. There’s no curl of smoke trickling from the barrel, no residue of motion from its having been fired, no sense of murder clinging to the blackened steel. And now, he realizes, of course, no sound

In a flash, he knows that his most dread fear has visited him at last…that here, on the moonlit moor, he has become the victim of impotence. He has lived the assassin’s nightmare: his gun has jammed, and his target is alive.

***

SWEN MOOR, it read behind the frosted glass. SWEN MOOR… It sounded like somewhere in the Westcountry rather than here in the North. He often found himself thinking about it as he sat behind his desk. Really it read MOOR SWEN, but he liked to fantasize about a place called Swen Moor. Or even Swan Moor – that sounded to him like somewhere in County Durham. Yet every time he entered the room, the magic was killed because he saw the words on the door: NEWS ROOM. For the moment, though, he couldn’t take his eyes off them. Swen Moor… And he knew why. Singer and the dog…

The room was large, and pools of light caught the desks with their papers and files and telephones. Most of the computer keyboards had been pushed back, to increase the space on each desk.

Roland himself was seated in one of the pools of light, leaning forward to speak quietly into his telephone. He was entirely alone in the room which had buzzed with life that morning. He looked tired and pale, and his jacket was slung clumsily over the back of his chair.

‘Yes, I know,’ he was saying, ‘but he’s very neurotic. The bloke shot his dog and then tried to kill him, but the gun jammed… What? Yes, exactly – where have we heard that before? 1975, was it? Exmoor…? Anyway, he’s been in hiding for two days, and he won’t talk to the police anymore. I’m meeting him in ten minutes… The trouble is, the gunman’s still out there, and I don’t know what he looks like, apart from Singer’s description. He might be in disguise. Or maybe he was disguised before…’

And Singer has a way of projecting his paranoia onto me, he thought, but he couldn’t say so because he didn’t want to alarm her. Yesterday he’d told her nothing about it – only that a story was keeping him from spending the weekend with her in London. There was a good chance the gunman was onto him by now. He could easily have found out that I’ve tracked down Singer –

The thought stopped abruptly. A click had sounded somewhere along the corridor and the lights had gone out. Were the cleaners around at this time on a Saturday evening? He couldn’t remember. His fingers fiddled with the remains of a polystyrene cup.

‘What?’ he said. ‘No, don’t worry. Look, I’d better go and meet Singer. I’m seeing him at six. I don’t want him out in the open. I think this could be very big.’ Then he added softly: ‘Goodbye, my angel. I’ll call you later…’

Roland put down the receiver, slid into his coat and clicked off the desk light. He started the lonely walk across the empty news room.

SWEN MOOR… His eyes played with the letters. At last he reached the door. He placed his hand on the brass handle and felt its coldness for a moment, then stepped into the endless corridor. The dark filled him with dread. His hand fumbled over the switch, which made such a noise that he jumped. He gazed at the shafts of light that had appeared along the thirty yards between him and the lifts. For a moment he thought of calling out, but decided against it. Gritting his teeth instead, he began his journey…

News photographs covered the walls, and he eyed them as he walked. Besides images of war and sport, there were pictures of all the important politicians of the day. One in particular caught his attention, and he stopped in front of it.

The Right Honourable Noel Challis, MP, the Home Secretary, stared back at him. Suave and clever, with that famous twinkle in his eye, he was patently ambitious. The photograph showed it all – except for the one thing that might bind Roland’s fate to Challis’s forever… Was he trying to have Singer murdered?

Beyond his portrait were two landscapes: both of Slingsby Moor, pride of the North, in daylight.

Roland felt lonely. He wished he could have said more to Sophie, but he knew it had been impossible. He wanted to drop the whole business and go away with her to Italy in four days – but, of course, he couldn’t. He wasn’t even going to spend the weekend with her, so it would be three weeks before he saw her again.

He walked on, past images of human misery: starving refugees, riots, flood victims caked in mud. The sound of his footsteps nearly made him panic. Eventually he reached the lifts and pressed a button. One of them burst into life and travelled up towards him. If there was anybody on another floor, they would be able to watch its progress on the dial above the doors. Frosted glass doors. Everything in this building was made of frosted glass. Half the time humanity was reduced to a grey blur glimpsed behind frosted glass partitions. He waited for the lift.

Lift. He gazed at the word, playing with it. tfiL…ftiL…Litf… He was always doing that. He couldn’t stop playing with the structure of words – especially when he was nervous. revNous…

***

‘Voglio chiamare la polizia…’

Sophie braced herself. ‘Voglio chiamare la polizia…’ she repeated.

‘I wish to call the police…’ translated the smug Italian voice on the rather old disk.

H’mmm, thought Sophie.

‘Dov’è il posto di polizia?’ said the voice.

‘Dov’è il posto di polizia?’ repeated Sophie.

‘Where is the police station?’ said the smug voice.

She looked at the booklet beside the CD-player. On page 21 it read: ‘Police and legal matters.’

Oh, God… she thought, remembering the conversation she had just had with Roland. Naked under her silk nightgown, she went on chopping onions. The tears made her beautiful eyes even bigger.

***

The frosted glass doors flew open with a hiss, and Roland stepped inside the lift. Then they banged shut, making him feel trapped and vulnerable. He pushed the button marked Basement and did not take his finger off it. Nothing happened. He stiffened, staring at the frosted glass. tfiL was written on each door. He scrambled the letters again. ftiL…itfL…

A grey blur moved across the glass.

tfiL, tfiL, tfiL, tfiL, he thought. And then, even more absurdly: gniFcuk lelH!

Suddenly the lift leapt into life and started to descend. He convinced himself that he could hear a hoover starting up along the corridor. The cleaner, he reassured himself. Leaning back against the wall, he listened to the pounding of his heart and tried to control his breathing.

Get your Pranayama right, he told himself. Recently he had taken up meditation, but he still had a lot to learn about the rhythms of breathing. One, two, three, four… he said as he breathed in. He held his breath for another four beats, then slowly let it out: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…

The doors hissed, and the frosted glass shot sideways, taking the words with them. He watched the letters vanish simultaneously…tf, iL…

Roland looked at the enormous, empty car park with its concrete columns. It was like a grim, subterranean forest. At the opposite end was a solitary car, as far away from him as possible. His back was pressing into the wall of the lift. He knew that if he didn’t move soon, the doors would bang shut.

He pushed himself forward. Leaving the lift was like trying to walk in space. He knew, because once, while researching a story about aerospace in America, he had experienced weightlessness.

Then he felt the concrete beneath his feet, and tried to remember his mantra – but it was gone, probably forever. The doors hissed and banged shut, leaving him utterly exposed. He started to walk, his footsteps echoing around the whole car park. They bounced off the walls and ceiling, and the columns too. The only answer was to end the misery as soon as possible, so he ran.

His hand fumbled in his jacket pocket for the car keys and gripped them firmly, nearly making his fingers bleed. Then he stopped dead. The worst thing on earth had happened. He’d seen something out of the corner of his eye. It was a human figure vanishing behind one of the columns. The gunman, he thought.

eTh namnug! He actually heard himself calling out loud: ‘A gnuman!’

He charged the last ten yards to his car. He rammed the key towards the lock, dropped the whole bunch, picked it up, dropped it again, found the right key once more – and shoved it in the keyhole. He pulled open the door, tore his coat on the lock and jumped in, slamming the door so hard that the car rocked and he banged his head on the window.

Half-dazed, he grabbed the choke and switched on the ignition. Miraculously, it started first time, so he thrust the gear-stick forward and, with a screech, the car launched itself at a concrete column, the tyres shedding rubber as Roland swerved to avoid it. He aimed his front grille at the exit ninety yards ahead, but noticed the car park was becoming darker. Then he saw the reason. The light from the street-lamps by the exit was being shut off as the huge steel door descended. Roland slammed on the brakes and left a trail of black rubber twenty feet long. His front bumper came to rest eighteen inches from the closing steel door.

Out of the shadows stepped a short man in a crumpled suit. He was strongly built, with close-cropped hair and lightly tinted glasses. He approached Roland’s car and spoke through the closed window.

‘I wonder if I could have word with you, Roland,’ he said.


*****



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