Read The Ties That Bind Online

Authors: Erin Kelly

Tags: #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction

The Ties That Bind (8 page)

 

Abruptly the tone of the messages changed.

 

Going to report you for theft. I know about all the cash you’ve taken plus Cartier ring & the laptop marked with my postcode. I own the clothes on your back.
Police will find you even if I can’t.

 

The accusation jabbed his conscience. No matter how much he tried to justify taking the money and the ring, it still felt as wrong as leaving had felt right. Even saving his allowance now felt like theft, even though Jem had given it freely and never questioned where it went. How feasible was this threat of calling the police? He closed the laptop and looked at its casing. There were no visible markings but he knew that Jem had most of his electronics marked with a UV pen.

 

Not like I even need the police. Got money, I can pay people to find you.

 

Luke shivered. This
was
true. Jem could pay an army of investigators to track him down. Luke reflected that there was nothing he could do about that, and hoped it was the booze talking. There was half an hour’s silence then, at around half past eleven:

 
Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry. Just desperate to know where you’ve gone.
Never meant to hurt you. Want to hold you.
Flat hollow without you. Miss you so much.

 

Before his guilt could worsen, the tone flipped again.

 

If I can’t have you no one can.

 

Luke winced at the cliché. After that the texts stopped coming. Luke pictured Jem passed out on his sofa. He never could stay up past midnight.

Chapter 10

Temperance Place was four minutes’ walk from the beach. On this stretch of the seafront, the lampposts were the old-fashioned, wrought-iron kind, with turquoise paintwork that matched the railings on the esplanade. The spaces between the lanterns were strung with double rows of lightbulbs that looked like mother-of-pearl in the daylight but you could tell would shine like the real thing come dusk.

Luke bought a takeaway coffee at a greasy spoon underneath a backpackers hostel between the Grand and the Metropole hotels. He drank it gazing at the old West Pier, the fire-ravaged nineteenth-century masterpiece. Even in ruin, it was still in period: it currently looked like a giant Victorian birdcage, a thousand times too large for the starlings that perched in their hundreds along its top. The masts of little sailboats clanked gently in the breeze. Up on the main drag, just behind him, some middle-aged people were doing yoga in a bandstand. The sun picked out a daytime moon, pastel in the sky. Leeds felt about that far away, and Jem and his threats like a bad dream.

Sufficiently caffeinated, Luke called at the Jubilee Library and stuffed his bag with leaflets. He meant to keep an open mind, to search for a subject on its own merits rather than return to his default setting of crime, but his magpie eyes fell on a flyer for a guided tour of the old police cells and the same thing happened in the reference section where his fingers, trailing old spines, came to rest on a book about local murders. It fell open at a chapter called ‘Razors and Racecourses’, one that told of the gang-torn town that had inspired
Brighton Rock
, and he felt inspired to re-read the novel. Now that Luke felt under threat himself, he took a strange comfort in reading about past crimes, crook-on-crook murders, the kind of violence that was far removed by time and circumstance from his own experience. If it was fictional, so much the better.

He couldn’t join the library without proof of address but he picked up a pocket-sized copy of
Brighton Rock
in a second-hand bookshop deep in the labyrinthine heart of the Lanes, the maze of old fishermen’s cottages that were now Italian restaurants, boutiques and jewellers.

Opposite the bookshop was a pub, perfectly dark and Hogarthian. Luke found a table near the window and spread his things about him. Most of the leaflets he had bagged were irrelevant crap – he put to one side the wedding photographer and the pregnancy yoga class – but kept in a ‘serious’ pile some other stuff: Artists Open Houses, evening tours of the haunted city called Ghost Walk of the Lanes, listings for the Duke of York’s Picturehouse, the Hove Museum, the Brighton Museum and its History Centre, a card from someone called Sandy Quick, advertising his or her services as a private archivist and freelance local historian, whatever that meant.

Tourists passed him by once, twice, three times, charmed expressions turning to bewilderment as they tried to navigate their way out of the Lanes. Luke already looked forward to the day when his fellow tourist’s sympathy would shrivel to a native’s contempt.

 

It was midnight and he was on the phone to his service provider. Luke, like his friends, was against globalisation in principle but welcomed the help of the polite, capable young man in the Philippines call centre. The bad news was that apparently blocking someone’s number wasn’t just a case of pushing a few buttons. Serious threats or stalking had to be reported to the police before the company could take action. So far most of Jem’s threats had been implicit, but the man in the Philippines said that the frequency of contact alone might constitute harassment. Luke would have to take it up with the police the following day.

He scrolled through Jem’s texts. He had never deleted any of them, and the history of their relationship was there, both sides of the conversation, from the charged intensity of the early days through to the recent barrage of begging and abuse.

The phone was still hot from the long chat with the Philippines when it rang again, Viggo’s number and portrait on screen. It was half past one in the morning.

‘Jem’s outside,’ he said in a stage whisper.


What
?’ Luke leaped back from the window and sat on the floor.

‘I’m sitting in my flat with the lights off while he stands outside on the balcony and screams your name. He thinks you’re
in
here.’

Relief, tempered by concern for Viggo, was followed by confusion.

‘How does he even know where you live?’ Jem had never shown any interest in the home Luke had once shared with Viggo.

‘He must have followed me home from Charmers.’

‘He was at
Charmers
?’

‘Yes, he wouldn’t leave me alone, asking where you’d got to.’

‘You didn’t tell him?

‘How could I when I don’t even know your address? And when
I
wouldn’t tell him, he got out a picture of you on his phone and he was walking around the club asking people if they’d seen you like you were a missing person. They threw him out in the end. He was putting people off their drinks.’

Luke could picture the scene. How awful, for everyone.

‘What did he look like? I mean, how did he seem?’

‘He
looked
like shit. He
seemed
barking mad. He’s obsessed. I mean, you’re not
that
good in bed.’ Luke managed to laugh. ‘Seriously though, Luke, I wonder if it’s worth you ringing him, just to calm him down. He’s threatening all sorts. I had no idea it was this bad.’ Here Viggo’s voice tripped into a vulnerable tone that Luke had only heard a handful of times in their friendship. ‘I wouldn’t ask if he wasn’t really freaking me out.’

‘No, you’re right. It’s not fair on you. OK. Leave it with me.’

He stared at his phone for a while before ringing Jem’s number. Jem answered it so quickly that he must have had his finger on the screen, but he didn’t speak, just let out a strangulated sob.

‘I’ve missed you so much,’ he said.

Luke visualised his burning books to harden his heart.

‘I’m just calling to ask you to leave Viggo alone. He doesn’t know where I am, so it’s no use harassing him.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Jem, it’s over. OK? Just leave Viggo out of this. It’s got nothing to do with him. For me, please?’

The sobbing suddenly stopped, leaving Jem’s voice crisp and menacing. ‘I’ll leave him alone if you promise me—’ At that moment a seagull landed on Luke’s windowsill and let out its unmistakable screech. ‘Is that a seagull? Where exactly are—’

Luke cut the call quickly, as though afraid the bird would speak his address.

It was another hour before he got up off the floor and then he all but crawled up the stairs to bed. Adrenaline of all the drugs took the longest to wear off, although when it did, the descent into exhaustion was as sheer as a cliff face.

Chapter 11

He had risen deliciously late. Only a few days away from Jem and the old sleep patterns had come to claim him again. Before getting out of bed, he had reached for his phone and begun his new morning ritual: deleting the dozens of missed calls and texts from unidentified mobile numbers.

The morning after Viggo’s and Jem’s late-night phone calls, Luke had persuaded the police to block Jem’s number from his phone. Jem, in retaliation, had evidently gone out and bought pay-as-you-go simcards by the armful. Each time a new number appeared, Luke saved it as DON’T ANSWER. Two or three new numbers tried to reach him every day; Luke couldn’t get them all blocked but ironically as Jem continued to pester he downgraded himself from threat to nuisance. The obvious thing was to change his phone number, but the odd freelance commission might still come through, and Luke could no longer afford to turn work down.

Now Luke sat in the front room with his feet up on the table, rocking back on a hard wooden chair, reading
Brighton Rock
, filling his ashtray and thinking about where he might go for breakfast, when the door knocker sounded loudly.

He froze. It couldn’t be Charlene as she was with her dad today. Who else knew he was here? Viggo had his address now, as did Charlene and his mum and agent, but they all knew why he was there and none of them would have given his address to Jem. All his bills were paperless and there was no post to redirect from the flat so he couldn’t have found out that way. He must have made good on one of his other threats: calling the police or hiring someone to trace him. Sweat flowered under his arms. The police wouldn’t send someone all the way from Leeds for petty theft, surely?

He forced himself to look through the spyglass. It wasn’t Jem, nor a uniformed police officer, but the top of a stranger’s head. Luke pressed his nose into the door to get a better look at his visitor. It was a little old man, shrunken further by the convex lens. He wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and a camel coat and his sparse dark grey hair was oiled and side-parted. Luke could just see that he carried in a shaking left hand a small posy of flowers. Behind him, a uniformed driver sat at the wheel of a gleaming black Bentley T1, its perfect sleek curves tipped with a silver B on the bonnet.

The door was rapped again, gunfire at chest height. When Luke opened it the old man resumed human proportions, apart from his eyes which remained telescoped behind thick lenses. In a blink Luke took in the pressed pinstripe suit under the coat, the brogues, the tie-pin, the ebony walking stick: he looked like the king of 1965.

‘Are you the son? Michael, isn’t it?’ the man said in the wheeze of the lifelong forty-a-day smoker, although his breath did not carry the corresponding stench of cigarettes. ‘No, you’re just a boy. Who
are
you if you’re not Michael?’

‘I’m Luke.’

The driver, a thick slab of a man in his fifties, leaped from the car and ran towards his passenger as though Luke was about to assault him. ‘What’s going on? Sir?’

He must have been six feet five and sixteen stone of solid muscle, and while his voice was rough Brighton, he was as well dressed as his passenger, in wool and silk. His potato face was punctuated by a dimple in his chin that looked as though it had been done with a knitting needle.

‘But where’s Kathleen?’ said the old man. Luke didn’t know what to say. In the films, the police never gave bad news to someone unless they were sitting down and it looked like a light breeze might knock this man over.

‘Er. You’d better come in.’

The visitor registered the bare walls. ‘Where are Kathleen’s things? Who the
fuck
are you?’ This time his voice was reinforced with steel, heavy with authority, and Luke found himself taking a step back as though away from a raised fist. ‘I’ll ask you again and this time I want a straight answer.
Where
is Kathleen?’

‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Duffy passed away last week.’

Now it was the visitor’s turn to stagger backwards. The little spray of flowers dropped to the floor. A single violet petal floated down after them.

‘Dead?’ he said. ‘Kathleen,
dead
?’ He parted his lips in a grimace, revealing perfect dentures that didn’t match the cross-hatched face.

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Luke again. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to come in?’

‘What happened?’ said the chauffeur, taking his boss’s elbow.

‘A stroke. I only met a relative . . . look, are you sure you don’t want to come in?’

‘My Kathleen!’ he said. ‘My gorgeous girl . . . how will I get on without her?’ He addressed the question directly to Luke, who was embarrassed by this naked grief. He stood to one side to let them pass if that was what they wanted. The stripped interior only seemed to distress the old man further. A long continuous tear zig-zagged from his right eye through the grooves of his cheek.

‘All her things have gone! It’s as though she was never . . . forty-five years wiped out, just like that.’ He ran out of breath, or words, and stroked the edge of the door with trembling fingertips, then laid a cheek against the wall. He and the widow had clearly been – what should he call them? The word
lovers
, with its connotations of longing and skin and tangled sheets, hardly seemed the right word for two people so far past their sexual peak. Sweethearts? Companions?

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