Authors: Frank Westworth
About the author
Frank Westworth shares several characteristics with JJ Stoner: they both play mean blues guitar and ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Unlike Stoner, Frank hasn’t deliberately killed anyone. Instead, he edits
magazine and has written extensively for the UK motoring press. Frank lives in Cornwall with his guitars, motorcycles, partner and cat.
A LAST ACT
Book Guild Publishing
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by
The Book Guild Ltd
45 Church Road
Copyright © Frank Westworth 2014
The right of Frank Westworth to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in a retrieval system, in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.
Typesetting in Cambria by Ellipsis Digital Limited, Glasgow
Printed in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
A catalogue record for this book is available from The British Library.
ISBN 978 1 909984 42 4
ePub ISBN 978 1 910298 72 5
Mobi ISBN 978 1 910298 73 2
Many, many cooks . . .
Lots of people, friends mostly, and they mostly still are, helped with this attempt at a novel. Thanks are due and are duly offered. Charity’s book would have been impossible without painfully heavy advice, subtle threats, very loud guitars, powerful music and dread whiskeys from RJ Ellory. Meanwhile, Rowena Hoseason has read the drafts so many times and suffered so noisily for so long that she can now recite entire passages from memory. Without her; no book. It has been a blast.
ONE IS ONE
Dangerous days, these. All of them. Trying too hard can be dangerous. If in doubt . . . do not try; simply do it. If you’ve done it, and if you are still in doubt . . . do it again, but this time do it harder. Then once more . . . with feeling. With conviction. On dangerous days, it is always best to do it hardest the first time. On dangerous days, there might be no second chance, no second attempt, no never-mind-must-try-harder moment for the slow of thinking, the slow in action. On dangerous days . . . there is always the chance that holding back a little in reserve could prove fatal.
Which is only a problem if the fatality is yours, and not that of your target.
Charity knew all the signs of dangerous days. She recognised the signs of her own dangerous days best of all, and the signs she recognised the most after those were the trails, the tracks, the trash left by her sister. And her sister had definitely been here; the signs were entirely clear on that. Her sister’s days were deadly dangerous. Extreme. Always.
There was blood everywhere. That was the first sign. Blood everywhere was a trademark of Charity’s sister. And where there
was blood, there too was a body. There was usually a body. Most often, there was a body. Or more than one. Bodies were her sister’s speciality, her most valuable skill. She could transform some stranger’s life into something entirely different. Into not-life. Into death. Death. Such a tidy word. Death. Short and sweet. The word, that is; death itself, death the condition, death the state-of-not-living . . . that tended to be quite the opposite. Death tended to be infinitely long . . . and infinitely bitter.
Charity gazed at the blood. As all fans of televisual crime scene investigations know, blood lies in patterns, it tells tales. It lies . . . most often it lies and lies and lies, and the only truth it shares is that the twisted sisters of discomfort and death are nearby. And where there is death, so there is a body. The body is the thing. The body is the result of her sister’s calling, and her contract. Because Charity’s sister killed people. It was her speciality, her most valuable skill. Charity’s sister made her living from others’ dying. And she lived a comfortable and rewarding life built upon the deaths of others. And dying is never comfortable. Reward lies only in the killing.
The tale told by the lying blood was a familiar one. You did not need to be a detective, televisual or terrestrial, to work that out. It told a tale of violence, of sudden, tight-beam aggression. Aggression with a fine focus reduces the chances of failure, which is important if you’re a contracted killer, not least because career enhancement follows successful contract fulfilment. Failure to fulfil the contract could be . . . well . . . fatal. Fatal for the wrong person. That rather depended on the identity of the contractual victim, but we’ll get back to that.
In this case, the blood was lying, as blood does when spilled in a great quantity, all around the body. The body was crumpled in the furthest corner of the room. It was defended by a moat of blood. The cheap carpet was a mess. The body was a mess, as bodies tend to be, but the carpet was worse.
Charity sighed. What is it with blood and carpets?
She pulled the door gently closed behind her. And wondered why she was being so quiet, so careful. Her sister would have been entirely uncaring about the sound of a closing door. Her sister would have been more concerned with the sound of a closing life; closing doors tended not to attract attention of the lawful kind, of the vengeful kind, which possibly made silence the virtue it so often is; the taking of life should be silent. Slamming doors rarely suggest that a life has ended, even though the ending of a life reflects the closing of all doors. Forever.
Charity cleaned up. If anything was likely to irritate Charity, it could have been the suggestion that she was a cleaner, that her peculiar speciality was to follow in her sister’s bloody footsteps and to clean up after her. But in this case, that was precisely what she was doing. Cleaning up. Cleaning up the mess was as important as the business of creating, causing, that mess in the first place. It was the subject of considerable if occasional debate between the sisters. Because cleaning up properly should deflect the almost inevitable police investigation. It is almost impossible to disguise, to hide, a violent killing. It is always important that a professional killer disguises the scene of their professional activity. Obviously. The scene of the crime must not be surrounded by a trail which would track back to the killer. There are many ways of achieving this, and Charity could have written the manual, had she wished to be an author.
Today’s bloody mess was spectacular. Blood was all over the place, not just settling into the carpet; it disfigured the furniture, the walls, even, remarkably, the ceiling. Charity’s sister had been in an energetic mood, unmistakeably passionate. She had plainly carried some issues of her own with her this time. But that was probably unavoidable; everyone carries issues, personal issues, especially those whose chosen profession involves the taking of life. A grand phrase, the taking of life; a
politically sensitive phrase; killing is the only game, whatever the name for it.
Blood stained the dark screen and pooled between the keys of the laptop computer sitting on the floor facing the victim. Charity was interested in this. Had the victim been surfing the net, seeking solutions for his woes? Watching a slasher movie, maybe, for a little final entertainment? Updating his Facebook page with breaking news of his demise? She closed the screen and kicked the device away from the body. Its days were as done as his own were; neither had need of the other any more.
Crime scenes tell tales. This one told a tale which was increasingly, uncomfortably, familiar to Charity; a tale of a partner deviating, not for the first time, from the agreed plan. The plan had suggested that the victim’s final evening should have been a convivial experience. It is always easier to kill someone who is happy, cheerful and relaxed than someone who is angry, fearful and cautious. Some professional killers preferred their victims to be angry, to put up a fight. Maybe they needed to pretend some justification for the killing. Charity’s sister killed for money. No other justification needed. She was incapable of caring sufficiently to need a big excuse.
However, the scene of this crime told no tale of a relaxed victim, of someone who had pegged out after an evening of delight, of intellectual enjoyment . . . or in fact of enjoyment of any kind. The scene which Charity had expected to massage gently into a misleading maze of confusing and conflicting clues was instead a clearly defined tale of anger. Where there should have been a body in a bed, tucked up as though sleeping off an evening of entertainment and enjoyment, there was instead a crumpled, bloody corpse and a chaotic, bloody carpet. And bloody walls. And even, remarkably, that bloody ceiling. Charity’s challenge.
The killing plan had been that the victim should be found dead in bed. The cause of death should have been plain. It would have
involved paid-for sex; hard rope and silken twine. The hard rope would have restrained the limbs; the silken twine would have been providing sensual constriction at throat and groin. The latter would have been the cause of death. It’s easy to get your knots in a twist at a moment of passion. How many evening companions are experts in naughty knotting? Really? Should one utilise the delights of the bowline? The round turn and two half-hitches? How tight should one pull the silken twine before the reef knot turned into the grief knot? One can imagine the drawing room debate . . . almost.
Charity had expected to add a little misdirection to the scene. She had brought a small assortment of underwear, trusting that her sister would have taken her own with her when she left. Charity had expected to mop the body with the underwear, adding appropriate bodily fluids to feminine frillery to provide proof positive that man and woman had shared dark delights prior to a sadly fatal misadventure. The original owner of the underwear might even have been implicated, depending upon the efficiency of the clothes’ last washing prior to Charity’s launderette appropriation and whether that anonymous owner had supplied DNA to the police at some point, but she presumed that if that was the case, the owner would be able to provide an alibi. And if not; so what? A little confusion goes a long way, and police resources are not infinite. The interests of the press are both avoidable and fickle; adding evidential confusion would never hurt.
But all of that careful thinking had been rendered pointless by the actual scene of the crime. Charity leaned on a clean wall and pondered. She flicked open her cell phone and dialled her sister. There was no reply. There almost never was. She dialled her other sister. There was no reply, which was less usual. Perhaps they were off together, enjoying a great time while she did the dirty work. It seemed unlikely, but it was possible.
It would not be possible to present this mess as a night of
passion gone wrong. This was a fight scene. At least two individuals had fought, and the victim had lost that fight. Terminally. Conventional thinking implied that the corpse was that of the intended victim, whether that was the fact of the matter, or not. Reasonable doubt; only a little confusion would be needed to introduce doubt into the minds of the inevitable investigators.
Charity pondered some more, and looked carefully around her. A life had been ended. How? The killing weapon appeared to be a wine bottle, one of three she could see. Presumably the broken one. She felt a fast flurry of worry. Did all of the blood come from the victim? She dialled her sister’s cell again. There was no reply. Was her sister even now languishing bloodied somewhere, needing or receiving medical assistance?
No time to worry about that at the moment. Plenty of time to worry later. Charity needed to massage the scene and leave it. And fast. She returned to the door, moved her carrier bag to one side and laid it flat. She stripped off her clothes, all of them, revealing herself in her startling and unique nakedness to the unseeing eyes of the victim. His treat, she reflected, although exactly what he would have made of her entirely hairless, athletethin, wire-muscled body would be forever a mystery. She removed her wig, shivering as her shining bald scalp reacted to the air-conditioned chill. Her skin goosed; the stressed patches which had once been the sites of her nipples tightened. She rubbed them, distracted, and smiled at her inappropriate behaviour. Shouldn’t she show respect for the dead?
Her hands ran away down her belly. All the way down. Both hands. She held herself, expecting and experiencing the familiar wet heat. What was it about death? Ungently, with both hands, she parted her lips, leaned back against the clean wall and pressed far into herself. She snapped upright, clapped her hands and walked into the pooled blood. Charity needed to meet the victim. The briefest of encounters.
Blood on the carpet, then. A strange expression. Blood pools into the carpet; it does not lie on top of it. Charity smiled; a strange sight, white skin, rouge-red lips, white teeth. She smiled at the thought of fictional blood on fictional carpets; how the latter could somehow be cleaned of the former. She smiled at the memory of a movie she’d watched; a movie in which a cleanup team had cleaned up the bloodied scene of a bloody murder. Fiction. This blood would never leave this carpet. The room already stank of blood, of death. This carpet would only ever be useful as a carpet for an abattoir.
Her task was to confuse the inevitable investigator. Easy; she simply needed to devise a fiction and rearrange things so that the fiction sold itself. Just like a novel, like a movie. So let’s see what there is to play with.
Body; one, crumpled in a corner and covered with blood. The body was modest, mostly dressed, no crime of passion this, unless the body became a naked body, and that wasn’t possible without too much contact. Charity preferred to avoid contact except when absolutely necessary. Sometimes it proved to be necessary, but this did not feel like one of those times. One room; standard hotel, with big bed (rumbled, bloody), easy chair (overturned, bloody), upright chair (overturned, bloody) . . . and carpets, walls and fixed furniture, all in a state of disarray, most of it bloody. Three bottles, all overturned, all empty, one broken. Charity hummed to herself; a sign of contentment in others.
OK, then. Here comes the plot. Victim is joined by a friend for a drink. They fight. Not much of a friend, then, but enough of a friend to be invited to a private room for a private drink, even though the evening was ageing, the night was young, and the bars were still open. But that was too much detail; all Charity needed was two characters in a room sharing a few bottles. She kicked at the nearest bottle with her toe, read the label. No wine
snobs these, plainly. The bottle tried to roll away but gave up, sucked into the congealing carpet.
One of the not-very-good friends whacks the other with a bottle, hard enough to cause death. Hmmm . . . That was not as easy as it sounds. Charity ceased smiling, and practised a look of concern. You need to hit someone awfully hard to kill them. Neither as hard nor as often as is portrayed as being survivable in the movies, but it is difficult to hit someone hard enough to kill them unless you intend to do that final irreversible thing.
In fact, you need to hit them several times to make sure they’re dead and not just stunned. Charity’s mind drifted back to the days when she had been more actively involved in the killing side of the sisters’ business, when . . . but never mind that; time was moving on and she needed to dress the scene.
She needed to believe that her sister was uninjured. She needed to believe that all of the ocean of blood belonged to the victim. She hated to do this, to assume anything, because in every doubt lies the possibility of discovery, of failure, but her sister was unreachable, and Charity was not going to hang around all night.
She picked up the nearest bottle, hefted it for balance and stepped barefoot through the oozing, stinking blood to the body. The victim’s right hand was palm down at his side; maybe he had been pushing, attempting to raise himself. Who knows? Who cares?