Slowly, reluctantly, he opened his eyes. Something was out of place in the bedroom. What was it? The floorboards creaking? That sour odour?
Stone felt the familiar tug from his bladder. Surely he hadn’t wet himself again? Instinctively, he reached down. His hand came back dry. He squinted, made a wet noise in his mouth, rolled over amidst the sheets, saw movement in the shadow and an object glisten. He sat up, suddenly awake. He saw a face, then a hand, then a gun. No, Stone thought, surely not. Is this how I’m meant to die? ‘Please…’ he managed and sucked air when the hand came down hard over his mouth and he tasted dirt and skin.
‘Don’t say nothin’, mister,’ said the intruder, and pointed the gun.
Stone bit down, felt the cold steel emboss his brow, and a scream came from his insides. The intruder pushed the gun harder. Stone heard a click. The scream rose.
But Stone did not die.
Instead, the intruder grimaced. His hand trembled. He pulled the gun away, and let out a high groan. He slumped on the bed beside the balustrade and shook his head. The gun flopped in his lap and he let out a sigh of stagnant breath.
Stone sat rigid. His eyes darted around. Adrenaline had sharpened his sight to the twilit navy of the bedroom. The clock by the bed said 0305. How long had this man been in the bedroom, watching him? Stone took him, trying to make mental notes, imagining how he would describe him to police: he was young, late teens or early twenties; mixed race or Caribbean maybe, with a London accent; unkempt afro hair, thick lips, spotty cheeks and a shiny nose fired with dimples. His eyes were deep set, the pupils large marbles set within yellowish whites, and they rarely blinked. His lips moved, mouthing silent words through flaked, rubbery lips.
He wore a hiking jacket cut too big for his lanky frame, and too hot for this mild June weather. Stone followed his legs to the floor. His joggers were soiled, as were his trainers, caked in a dark gunk. He smelled of sweat and urine.
Obviously, the man was some kind of hobo. Looking closer, Stone saw this was hardly a man at all, more a boy in an adult’s frame. Something in his demeanour was otherworldly – he seemed to stare at Stone, but also to fixate on something else only he could see.
It was impossible to say how long they remained like this. Two minutes? Five? But it was the longest interval in Stone’s thirty-seven years. Only when his bladder wall begun to push again and he squirmed did the intruder jolt from his reverie. ‘Don’t you move, you!’
The gun hand shook. Stone winced, clutching bedclothes up to his chin. He had never been this close to a gun before. It had a snub-nose and looked old-fashioned and real enough. ‘I’m not moving.’
The man slipped his jacket off, alternating the gun between hands. The malodour intensified as he disrobed into a soiled grey t-shirt. Stone breathed down a wave of repulsion at what he saw. Both arms were covered with slice marks, some fresh and scabbing, others old and translucent, riding up and around like an intricate patchwork of scores and crosses. There seemed to be not a square inch of unmarked skin. Even his hands and fingers were scarred.
‘I’ve some money in my wallet…’ Stone said, trying to control his voice. Had the intruder heard him? ‘Hello? Please, take it, just go…’
‘Ain’t here for your money, Mister.’
Stone swallowed. What was this? Had a madman broken into his home? It was possible. He had read about such things. ‘Can you tell me what you are here for, then?’
Another sigh. Stone tried not to gag at the stench. ‘Miss told me to put that pillow over your face and shoot you, bang, bang. Two bullets. Dead Dog. But I did wrong. Miss is telling me. I can hear her telling me.’
OK, the man’s crazy. The gun kept trembling. If it was a real weapon – and Stone was assuming that it was – it would just take a moment of uncertainty, a false thought of paranoia crossing across the maniac’s mind – and that would be it. Somehow, he needed to gain control. ‘My name’s Maurice Stone. Can you tell me who you are?’ That’s it. Build rapport. If he sees you as a man rather than a thing, it will be harder to gun you down.
Silence. He was about to repeat the question, when the intruder said, ‘Kane.’
‘Kane,’ Stone said, trying to inject some empathy into his voice, however insincere. ‘Well look, Kane. You can take whatever you’d like. I don’t mind about my belongings. They’re yours. But there are motion detectors by the windows and doors. I don’t know how you got in, but you’ll have set something off, no question. It’s only a matter of time before the police come…’
‘Old bill!’ the man called Kane said, suddenly riled. He stood, flexed his gun hand and spat as he spoke. ‘Miss says you’re a liar! She says you’ll try and confuse me! You lying now, Mister?’
She? Miss? Ideas started pinging together to form a picture in Stone’s head. But he couldn’t acknowledge them, for the gun was on him again, and Kane’s teeth were flaring back to show frothy purple gums. ‘Tell me the truth! You lying now, ain’t you?’
Stone’s heart seemed to be attacking him from the inside. He turned his cheek to the headboard. Something close to his bowels told him the next thing he said would determine whether he lived or died. He took a chance. ‘OK, OK. You’re right, Kane, I was lying. There’s no alarms. I just wanted you to go, because I’m scared.’
Kane seemed to think, and doing so took an inordinate amount of time. Lines on his face appeared, their indents magnified by stabs of moonlight. Slowly, he nodded, lowered the gun, rested it in his lap, and sat back where he was. ‘S’alright to be scared. I get scared, too.’
Without the gun in his face, Stone was able to pursue an appalling line of thought. Couldn’t he imagine Rachel was involved something like this?
And yet somehow, he could.
The only way of knowing was to ask. But how? This man Kane was clearly volatile, perhaps high on something. Stone tried to remember what he learnt in Law school about dealing with unstable clients. Christ, that seemed years back. The past eleven years in commercial litigation never required pacifying men with guns.
He started at the change in Kane’s breath. Both eyelids drooped, concealing his eyes. Was he sleeping?
This could be a chance to escape. But Stone felt rigid. He was under the sheets, in his underpants, an overweight lawyer with a weak bladder, and this lunatic was between him and the door. God, he needed to piss. He found it hard to concentrate.
‘Kane? You seem to know something about me. Can you tell me about you?’
Nothing. Now was his chance. Grab the gun! He pictured them wrestling, clutching the weapon, growling and hissing until the inevitable bang.
No. Something in him couldn’t. The only way out of this was through negotiation. Somehow, Stone had to use his powers of diplomacy to stay alive. ‘Are you able to talk, Kane?’ He felt foolish when the intruder’s eyes flew open.
‘I ain’t stupid.’
‘I never suggested you were.’
‘I get muddled. That’s all.’
‘I understand. It’s easy to get confused. I do.’ That’s it, keep him talking, build rapport.
‘Miss told me, stop takin’ my meds. I hid them under my tongue just how she taught me, then spit them down the bog. She said pills was bad for me. Miss knows what’s best. But my head, it’s full up now. Like a can of fizz.’
From the pocket of his joggers, Kane produced a tin of Fanta orange. Balancing it between his knees, he pulled back the ring. Frothy liquid spilled up, spraying his t-shirt. He took a deep glug. ‘If you shake the can,’ he said, wiping his mouth, ‘the bubbles fizz. See?’
Stone nodded. ‘Kane, tell me. Have you come out of prison?’
‘And when you talk about Miss, is that Dr Rachel Stone you’re referring to, by any chance?’
A sour taste entered Stone’s mouth. Kane wiped drink off his lips and looked back down at the pistol. ‘Miss Rachel wants to marry me. I shoot you and she gets her money, then she’s taking me to Hawaii and we’re getting married. Says she’ll let me have a dog, too.’
Stone breathed in, held the air, and let it trickle out. Beneath the sheets, he started to sweat profusely. He removed his hands and placed them by the rise of his knees. ‘Rachel’s my ex-wife, Kane,’ he said, hearing the tremble to his voice. ‘No doubt, she’s told you about me? Can I explain things from my end?’
‘Nothin’ you say’s stopping this, Mister. She told me about you. When I finish this Fanta, I’m killing you dead. Bang.’
Desperation clutched Stone. He was going to die here tonight. He was going to die, in his bed, gunned down by this imbecile. It was pathetic and intolerable. Rachel had finally done it. This was a madman, a sorry fool in the grips of a delusion that bitch had concocted. The whole idea was too insane to contemplate.
Stone had to reach him, and fast. ‘Listen to me,’ he said, surprised at the astuteness in his voice. ‘I’m going to tell you something. You may not like it. But this isn’t the first time Rachel’s done something like this.’
Another deep gulp and swallow.
‘A year ago she hired someone to threaten me, Kane. A thug. He roughed me up, said there’d be worse if I didn’t agree to sell this place. But I refused. I reported it to the police. But they couldn’t prove it was Rachel. I confronted her, said I knew she’d done it. This house is half hers, you see, Kane. It’s in both our names. If I die, she gets it. She’s obsessed with it.’
‘She told me you killed her dog.’
‘I did no such thing!’
‘I like dogs.’
‘So do I.’ Stone wiped sweat from his face, then rubbed his wet hand on the bed-sheet. ‘Look, Rachel used to hit that dog. She’d kick it and throw things at it. The poor thing ran away. I promise you…’
‘Miss wouldn’t do that,’ Kane said, tipping his head back, drinking the last of the Fanta. ‘And she says you’re a liar who killed her dog and you need to die now.’
‘Oh God,’ Stone said, ‘Oh Jesus, no!’
Suddenly, Kane was standing again, his yellow eyes glimmering, the gun in both hands, the hole circling Stone’s forehead. He had never felt fear like this. He scrunched his eyes and a wet gurgling noise came. Vaguely, he was aware of a wetness growing around his crotch.
Time passed, meaninglessly.
Stone’s eyes stayed closed. He wasn’t dead. Why?
Then he heard Kane’s voice: ‘It’s OK. I wet myself sometimes, too. Marlon used to tease be ‘bout it.’
Stone looked. His entire body felt hot and moist. His bladder had emptied, leaving a warm shadow over his legs. Kane gazed. ‘It’s OK,’ he said again.
‘I’m very scared,’ Stone said, ‘I don’t want to die…’
‘You got somethin’ decent to change into?’
Stone whimpered, trying to think of a response. Nothing came. His faculties seemed to have collapsed. ‘My dressing gown?’
Both men looked over at the dressing table. Draped over the velvet chair was Stone’s silk kimono. Kane wondered over, retrieved it, and rested it on the bed.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘you get out them stinky pants and put this on. No way for a man to die covered in piss.’
‘So you’re going to kill me?’
Kane nodded, in a way that reminded Stone of a boy being asked if he wanted an ice cream. ‘Get out that bed, Mister.’
Stone’s entire body shook. He pulled back wet sheets, rolled his legs over, and stood up. Kane watched. His lips kept moving, but no sounds came. Stone lowered his underpants and kicked the soaking garment under the bed. Naked, he stood, held the balustrade with one hand, and took the gown with the other.
‘This is a buff house,’ Kane said. ‘It cost a lot?’
Stone looked down at his lower half. His legs look pasty and wan, his genitals barely visible beneath his gut. ‘Six million,’ he said, pulling on the kimono, even though his skin felt clammy. ‘It’s probably worth a lot more now.’
Kane nodded, as if such figures meant something to him. Stone tied the cord around his waist and sat back on the bed, careful to avoid the wet patches. ‘Where do you live?’
‘Different places. Foster homes when I was little. Sometimes with Marlon. Then prison. I like it inside. Prison’s where I met Miss Rachel.’
Stone nodded. ‘Can I ask? What did she tell you about me?’
‘She told me you beat her up. You killed her dog.’
’Kane, listen. I bought that pup for her birthday. He ran away. I promise. She’s got her claws into you. She did it to me too when I first met her.’
Kane shook his head. ‘You’re trying to confuse me?’
‘It’s too late.’
‘It’s never too late.’ Stone’s thoughts raced. Keep the man talking, he told himself. Where was he to go next? He took the first thing to pop into his head. ‘Who’s Marlon?’
It seemed to work. Kane looked at the carpet and lowered the barrel. ‘My brother. I used to live with Marlon and his baby-mother in Streatham. But they didn’t want me. I talk to myself, see. There’s voices in my head. Voices kept me company when I was little. But when I got older, the voices turned nasty. Saying horrible things. Fizzing.’
‘Fizzing?’ Stone said.
‘Uh-huh. Too much pressure in my head. The voices was telling me to cut myself. Let the fizz out.’
‘Did you do those cuts on your arms, Kane?’
A nod. ‘Miss Rachel says it’s normal what I done. She says it’s because the world’s been cruel to me, so I’m cruel to myself. She said she liked me just how I am. No one’s said that to me before. She’s beautiful. So clean…’
Clean. A strange thing to say perhaps, but Stone nodded, understanding the young man entirely. His mind went back eighteen years ago to fresher’s week and the first time he met her: she was Rachel Morris then, an eager med student who had ascended from a Bedford comprehensive to Oxford with a scholarship; he in turn was a shy, overweight law undergrad coming straight from Eaton, whose family influence rather than his academic prowess had won his place at the university. She approached him at the college bar, and shook his hand with her long, resplendent fingers. She drank gin rather than beer, and wore heels rather than scuffed up trainers. Stone had fallen entirely under her spell.
Fast-forward to this year, Stone pictured his ex-wife the last time he saw her. It was six months back, and a few hours after her hired thug bashed him about. She was staying with her latest flame, a Spanish Harley Street orthodontist. Stone challenged her as she unlocked her Lexus outside his apartment block. She brushed her hair back, winked, and told him to grow a pair before driving off. He had never felt so pathetic as he did in that moment: for even then, as he shook with rage and humiliation, she looked immaculate to him.
He felt Kane’s stare. The young man nodded at Stone, seeming to read his thoughts. ‘Miss Rachel’s the most beautiful woman I ever seen.’
‘When I first seen her, oh my days, I thought, she is so buff. And she’s kind.’
‘I know, Kane. Rachel is attractive. And she’s a psychiatrist. Her job is to work with people in distress, and make them feel better. But please, I need you to trust me. She’s lied to you.’
‘Dunno what to think.’
‘Why don’t you tell me how it started with her?’
Kane rubbed his nose and looked at his fingertips. ‘She come to see me in Wandsworth. Because of my voices and that. At first, there’s a screw in the room with us, but after a bit, she says its OK, she’ll see me alone. That’s when she tells me, don’t call me doctor. My name’s Rachel.’
‘When did things progress?’
‘One morning, we went to the meds room. There’s no cameras or nothin’ there. It’s a small room. I’m on the bench, she’s in front with her back me. I can smell her perfume.’
Stone nodded, remembering her citrus Chanel.
‘So I touch her. I put my hand on her bum. I couldn’t help it. She stopped what she was doing. But she never told me I was bad. She went still, put down her papers, let me carry on. Then she took my hand. She put my hand on the rest of her…’
Stone listened. It was like watching a sordid homemade porno unreeling in slow motion. Knowing Rachel as well as he did, he was certain that allowing Kane to touch her would have been next to intolerable for her. He looked at his kimono as he spoke: ‘I need you to realise something. Rachel tells people what they want to hear. It’s taken me a long time to accept this. She likes being able to manipulate. I remember one night, she was drunk, and she told me she went into psychiatry because she enjoys power…’
‘She loves me.’
‘Of course she told you that. But look what she’s made you do?’
‘Don’t blame Miss Rachel. It was my idea to shoot you.’
‘Was it? Think, Kane. Was it really you who decided to do this? Or did she suggest something, and then you ran with it?’
He shook his head.
‘You must believe me.’
‘So why’s Miss Rachel hate you?’
‘Because I won’t give her this house.’
‘That the only reason?’
‘No.’ Stone breathed out slowly. ‘She’s told me I’m a disappointing husband.’
‘I have a condition. In my bladder. It means I struggle to be like other men.’ Kane looked at him blankly. ‘Sex, Kane. I can’t do it. Rachel lied to me. She said she didn’t mind about it when we first met…’
‘But Miss Rachel’s beautiful.’
‘I know she is.’
‘So why don’t you want her?’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘I never been with another woman apart from her.’
Stone pursed his lips, and nodded. ‘Me too,’ he said.
Kane shook his head and began breathing hard. Then came a whining through his teeth. He raised both palms to the sides of his cranium, as if he had a thundering migraine, and squeezed. ‘I can’t think straight. Too much fizz…’
‘It’s OK,’ Stone said, gently putting a hand on the young man’s shoulder. But that was a mistake. Kane recoiled, and was suddenly standing, his puffy nostril suckering in and out. ‘What you doing, man. Fuck off!’
‘I’m sorry,’ Stone said, his chest pounding.
‘Don’t feel good…’
‘Alright. Easy, Kane. Listen. Why would Rachel tell you to stop taking your medicine? She’s using you. To do her dirty work. She’s a coward. You must see?’
Kane kept shaking his head, the force gaining momentum, the gun hanging precariously. ‘Shut it!’ he said, ‘More lies!’
‘No lies, Kane!’
A line of snot began to form at the tip of Kane’s shiny nose.
‘There’s still time to stop this,’ Stone said. ‘You’ve not done anything. Not yet. I won’t tell the police. I can help you. I’m a lawyer. I have colleagues you can speak to. The best in the business. You could give evidence against Rachel. And then get on with your life…’
But Kane just shook his head. ‘Too late.’
‘Marlon. He killed Dog…’ Kane was crying now, his eyes puddling up, snot glistening around both nostrils.
‘What?’ Stone tried to hide the emotion flooding him as the young man spoke. He was under no illusion that Kane was quite capable of killing, deliberately or otherwise, yet all he saw in that moment was a wounded child ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I know I’m a stranger. But you can trust me. I want to help you.’
It took Kane a long time to speak. His breathing stabilised. With his eyes closed, hands clasping his ears, he said, ‘I had a dog, Mister. Before I got locked up. Its name was Dog. Didn’t know if it was a boy or girl, so I just called it Dog. Found it eating in this alley behind Mecca Bingo. Dog was my friend.’
Another pause. ‘Dog was really thin. I used to feed it stuff. But Marlon, he had all my disability money. He spent it on his weed and trainers. So I had to steal. I didn’t mind. But I weren’t good at stealing. Started getting nicked. Marlon used to smack me about when old bill came round. Said I was a spastic. Miss Rachel says that’s a bad word…’
‘It is,’ Stone said. ‘But I don’t understand what this has to do with…’
‘Just listen. Marlon, he does crime. Just like our Dad used to. Serving up gear. Marlon told me I was bringing too much heat on his business. That I had to get rid of Dog. I said I couldn’t. So Marlon, he killed Dog. Shot him with this gun.’
Kane looked at the weapon in his hand, and rested it in his palm, as if measuring the weight. ‘Miss Rachel says it was a bad thing Marlon did. Killing Dog.’
Kane looked up, then away. His eyes were bloodshot and glazed. ‘I know it’s just a dog. But after that happened, my voices got bad. Saying it was my fault Dog got killed. And then Marlon, he told me if I helped him out with a bit of work, he’d let me get a new one. So we went out robbing. A chemist place, late at night. Breaking in. But they had security. Marlon got away. He’s faster than me. I got nicked. Sent to Wandsworth. And that’s where I met Miss Rachel…’
The young man trailed off, rested the gun in his palm and drew circles on the steelwork. ‘I told Miss Rachel everything. She was the only person who ever listened. She said, when I come out, I should get this gun and kill you. Then we can be together. We’ll make love in her clean bed and she’ll get me a new dog. So when I come outta jail yesterday, I headed straight over to find Marlon and get his gun…’ Kane began mumbling once more, his lips forming words Stone could not decipher.
‘Kane? What happened?’
He broke from the reverie. ‘Marlon ain’t home when I come round. So I broke in through the back window. I remember he kept the gun in a shoebox under the floor. I was leaving when I heard the door. Marlon and his baby mother, both coming home. I dunno what to do. I tried to get out, but Marlon must’ve heard. Both of them, they come up and find me. I started to cry. Pissed my pants, like you did. Marlon starts screaming. Both of them are screaming. And I can hear Miss Rachel in my head. I can hear her shouting at me that I’ve let her down, just like I let Dog down. I got mad. I felt crazy. I pulled out Marlon’s gun. Bang, bang. Shot them. They stopped screaming…’
A dry blockage had formed in Stone’s throat. He could smell the sour piss on both of them, mingling. He coughed, rubbed his mouth.
‘I killed them,’ Kane said. ‘Got their blood on my Nikes. I ran. Phoned Miss Rachel from a payphone. She said I had to stick to the plan. I said I was scared. She told me, be strong. She loves me. So I do what she says. She gave me the address, and I head for this big house to kill you…’
‘Oh Jesus,’ Stone said. ‘Jesus Christ.’
Silence permeated the room. Its presence was like a heartbeat, a heady reminder to Stone of the fragility of life and the senseless of its waste. ‘None of this is your fault,’ he finally said. ‘Let me help you. Please.’
For the first time, Stone saw something resembling a smile on this young man’s face. Behind the scabs and flakes and mustard eyes, there was someone who once might have been striking. Handsome even.
Quietly, Kane said, ‘I think Miss Rachel’s been lying.’
‘But no one’s ever gonna believe someone like me over her.’
‘I’ll help you.’
‘Because this is wrong!’ Stone said, hearing the desperation in his voice.
But Kane merely smiled. ‘A lot of things wrong in the world, Mister. It’s too late. I’m tired. Can’t make sense of this. You seem a nice man. I’m sorry its gotta be like this. Time to die.’
‘I’ll get you a dog, Kane!’
‘Close your eyes.’
Stone did, and heard Kane rise. He bit down his molars. This is it. Game over. He knew the gun was rising, and Kane’s finger was over its trigger.
‘No!’ Stone said, but his voice was engulfed by a roaring explosion that tore the night apart.
He kept his eyes closed for as long as he could. If he opened them, he would be forced to face what was there. The smell of cordite cloyed the air; his ears pinged like tuning forks.
When, finally, Stone looked, he let out a gasp; shocked not by the violence of the corpse, but by its apparent peace. Kane sat by the foot of the door, one leg arched, the other straightened, both hands limp in his lap. The gun lay in his crotch, a thin trail of smoke curling from the barrel. His head was flopped downward, concealing most of his face, instead showing a glistening patch about the size of a squash ball to the rear of his skull. A hole and splatters of black dotted the wallpaper behind him, and a line of black goo dripped from his chin onto his chest. His mouth, partially visible, seemed stuck in a strange, vacant grin.
Stone carried on looking. Watching the blood drip. He knew he should do something. Check for a pulse? Remove the gun, in case he suddenly awoke?
But Kane wasn’t waking up. He was dead. Stone knew it. And dreadful as it was to admit, he was glad. It was over. For both of them.
The birds were starting to sing outside. Thin blades of dusty dawn light cut through the gaps in the curtains. Stone heard the distant wail of police sirens growing close. He rested his face in his hands, and wept.