When Zoë Boehm agrees to track down the gang who knocked over Sweeney’s jewelry shop, she’s just hoping to break even in time for tax season. She certainly doesn’t expect to wind up in a coffin. But she’s about to become entangled with a strange collection of characters, starting with suicidal Tim Whitby, who’s dedicating what’s left of his life to protecting the pretty, battered Katrina Blake from her late husband’s sociopathic brothers, Arkle and Trent.
Unfortunately for Zoë, Arkle has a crossbow, Tim has nothing left to lose, and even Katrina has her secrets. And death, like taxes, can’t be avoided forever.
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If there is an answer to the question, it is this: because our bodies are designed to lie in boxes in the dark; arms neatly folded on our chests. Feet together. Eyes tight shut. This is why we die: it’s the end we were shaped for.
. . . When she unwrapped her arms, her hands touched the cold sides of the container she’d been planted in, and she understood that everything that passed for normal had slipped out of reach. She was in a world of new instructions—try not to whimper; try not to scream; especially, try not to breathe. She had never been good with instructions. But these bore down with the weight of the earth, and could not be ignored.
And everything that had ever happened carried on happening elsewhere; out of sight or reach, in a time closed off to her. She recognized this, and even as she forgot her instructions and began to scream, felt the intense regret of being out of the loop—of knowing that, whatever came next, she’d play no part in it; nor ever know how it came out.
And this, too, is why we die; because we are only part of the story. And never to know how the story ends.
Death was on his mind when he first saw the woman. It was her dress caught his eye; a white cotton dress that hung just above her knees, patterned with large blue almost-leaf shapes. Like a Matisse in motion he thought, then wondered where that had come from—Matisse? Leaving the bar, descending the steps into the hotel lounge, she paused and looked round, verifying the obvious; that all of the tables were taken. The sunlight breaking from the window behind her lent shifting life to the dress she wore.
What death wore, he didn’t know yet, but the clever money was on black.
He returned to the book he wasn’t reading. Words swam into vision, took their usual route to his brain, and evaporated immediately, leaving no discernible impression. Twice in the last twenty minutes he’d turned a page in case anybody was watching, and now did so again, noting as he did the way the same light that played with the pattern of her dress lay flat on the table before him: roomkey, wineglass, ashtray littered with corpses. If he turned, he’d find the view through the window—the car park, and the ivy trailing down the high wall separating the car park from whatever lay beyond.
Will sir be eating this evening? he’d been asked.
Sir wouldn’t be eating this evening.
. . . Last time Tim Whitby had been here, ten years to the day, he and Emma had been the only couple dining. That was how he remembered it. This evening it was full. Some of the room’s occupants were presumably residents like himself; others were here just to eat. There was a futile permanence about the word resident, but that was how the bartender had identified him while taking his order. If the information below is not correct, please amend by crossing out the names of persons no longer resident Tim had read lately, on his electoral form, and had had to look for a pen . . . Some moments passed while this crawled across the landscape of his heart. And then the light altered, because the woman had approached and was gesturing at the unused half of his table. His face must have remained blank. She resorted to speech.
“Do you mind?”
He shook his head.
She sat on the far end of the sofa, leaving a good two feet between them; placed her glass and a folded newspaper on the table and leaned back, closing her eyes.
On any list of things Tim did not want right now, company came first, second and third. For a start, it called for a rearrangement of his body. He compromised by pulling the ashtray closer; a gesture that ceded territory. He wasn’t eating this evening. He wouldn’t be taking up space much longer. He planned to have two, or possibly many more, glasses of wine, then go upstairs. Her being here did not alter his plan . . . This was a comfortable dining room, favouring armchairs and sofas. Guests weren’t pressed to hurry. But soon she could have the long table to herself. He tried to convey all this in the way he picked up his glass, but it was impossible to know if she understood.
The wine—which Emma had taught him to enjoy; he’d been a beer man—should have been a treat, but it was simply the next thing happening. He wasn’t drunk yet. Just dislocated enough to feel his fingers rubbery as they negotiated glass back on to table; he didn’t spill but sloshed a little; she didn’t notice, because her eyes remained closed. She had long dark wavy hair—almost black—and maybe this made her skin seem paler than it was, or maybe it was pale anyway. And she wore a lot of make-up. This was presumably to cover a bruise on the side of her face nearest him—not a terribly large bruise, nor old enough to have purpled and blacked, but definitely there, for all the careful layers she’d painted on top. He looked away before her eyes could open, and let his gaze sweep the room once more. As if he had enemies who might have sneaked in while his mind roamed elsewhere.
But there was nothing here that did not always happen: people eating, drinking, talking; being happy in a public place. The English were supposed to be repressed—beaten to a pulp by the weather and an ineradicable sense of loss of empire. So why was everyone so bloody cheerful? In the far corner a young couple looked about two minutes off conceiving their first child, while in the opposite, a pair who might have been their grandparents were toasting each other with smiles whose wrinkles matched like bookends. The time it took Tim’s gaze to cross from one to the other, a whole lifetime of promises had been kept and twice renewed.
And waiters came and went, of course; and plates were scratched by knives and forks. Whatever the music was changed to something precisely as tasteful. Outside, a car left, and another arrived to take its place . . . All this just scratching Tim’s surface, as if life were a TV he wasn’t watching, but couldn’t ignore. It was impossible, while alive, to divorce yourself from events: even the boring, even the stupid. When the last thing you wanted was conversation, you found yourself discussing the merits of various whiskies. When the last thing you wanted was company, a woman joined you, wearing a noticeable dress . . . Tim looked out of the window again; watched for a while early evening sunlight reflecting off the windscreen of a blue Toyota; a windscreen whose wipers had cleared a stylized M-shape on a background of reddish dust. He wondered why this detail mattered. He wondered why he bothered noticing.
Time to stop. He returned to his book; the novel he was struggling through. It was a Graham Greene, one of Emma’s. Emma had left her books behind. And though he’d made a genuine effort to concentrate, the story’s fundamental unreality hummed away beneath the narrative: it was set in 1953, for God’s sake. Didn’t the characters realize that? Didn’t they understand they were interim; that the natural state of things was twenty-first century; that by the time they’d caught up with history they’d be dragging round colostomy bags, or cuffed to Zimmer frames, or just plain dead? Thatwas the problem: these people were dead, but didn’t know it. It was the only convincing aspect of the story.
When he looked back, her bruise seemed to have grown darker, and to his horror, she saw him notice.
She said, “It was a cupboard door.”
. . . If he’d left it baldly alone, if her statement had withered and died in contextless silence, they’d both have remained frozen there forever.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry?”
“You were looking at my eye.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s okay.” Her voice was deep for a woman’s, and carried a faint accent, though Tim couldn’t register from where: never a strength of his.
He picked up his glass again. It was strange, and also expensive, how easily a glass of wine emptied—though expense was hardly a consideration. Otherwise he’d have stayed home, and drunk himself stupid on supermarket offers. Home, though, was not where he wanted to be, and as if he were broadcasting this thought out loud she picked up on it, and spoke again:
“Have you been here before?”
“. . . This hotel?”
He lived here. This was his home, where he did not want to be. Explaining that, though, would have involved open-heart surgery. “Yes.”
“It’s our first visit.”
Our was an affront; one of those red flags the coupled wave to piss off the newly single. Lately, everywhere Tim went he saw people in pairs, flaunting happy, secure futures. And now it seemed even people turning up on their own had to trumpet their significant others. Tim had shared an our once; now he had simply a his. This unalterable fact made the woman’s attempt to hide her bruise laughable.
. . . But this was good, this was fine, this was nothing. It was a sequence of moments time would carry him through the way gravity would see him through a fall: there was little preparation needed; only the ordinary social stitching which held him together anyway—which kept him saying please and thank you instead of leave me alone. He could smile pleasantly for as long as the situation demanded, which would not be terribly long, and all the while his alcoholic buzz would grow until it blotted out even the agonizingly pleasant chatter of the other diners. This woman would eventually run out of conversation and subside into silence. Tim would finish whatever drink he was on, nod politely, and go upstairs to his room. And there he would kill himself, and the whole fucking mess would be over.