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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Weekend at Home – a short story

The private detective was sitting in his favourite chair. He had his long legs stretched out, his feet propped on an old leather hassock. He was reading Walter Mosley’s Gone Fishin’, and he didn’t intend to move until he’d finished. It was the Saturday of his weekend off. He’d begun it with a shower and a long lazy breakfast. Coffee with Mary Coughlan’s Under the Influence album. He’d unplugged his phone and his consciousness, entered what he called his stunned phase.

Outside, York was buzzing along as usual. The city had managed for a couple of thousand years before he was born, another day without him wouldn’t hurt.

The knock on the door came around one thirty and he ignored it. If it was Geordie or Celia, one of his friends, they’d walk in. But it was someone who needed to knock, and Sam didn’t need anyone like that on his day off.

Still, there it was. Sam on one side of the door and somebody else on the other side. A thin piece of wood separating them. He let the book slide onto his chest and watched the rays of light coming through the window. Sunbeams floating about in the still room. When the second knock came he put the book on the table, got to his feet and opened the door.

There was a woman in the frame. Small woman with a checked coat and a headscarf and a tuft of nondescript hair sticking out the front. Flat black shoes and tights that had started off with a ladder and finally gone into holes. Nice smile on her face, though. Not confident. Not at all a confident face, but the smile masked much of the trepidation she was feeling.

Sam had seen her before, several times. She lived in the same street, on the other side of the road, about half way down. He didn’t know her name, but he’d seen her with kids. Occasionally with her husband, a large blunt man with a round head and a beer gut.

She’d never been inside a Private Eye’s house before. She wasn’t that kind of material. Maybe had some dealings with the police from time to time, but if she had it had been connected with her husband or her kids.

Sam thought she would stand there with her smile for ever if he didn’t say something. He creased his face and said, ‘Yes? Was it me you wanted?’

‘Oh,’ she said, coming forward to Sam’s table. ‘I’ve caught you then? Good. I’m Mrs Luft. Jessica’s gone missing.’ She looked over to the window, cocked her head to one side as though she was listening for something.

‘Take a seat,’ Sam said. ‘I’ve got a few minutes. Jessica. . .?’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Luft, sitting on the edge of the chair. ‘She’s only a scrap of a kid. And her father’s useless. Always has been. No gumption. Nothing about him. Doesn’t have the brains he was born with.’ The smile had slid from her face, she leaned forward on a muscular forearm and her mouth fell open.

Sam tried again. ‘Is Jessica your daughter? How old is she?’

The woman nodded her head. ‘Eight. She was eight last month. She was outside with her hamster this morning, ’bout half nine. Then she went out of the yard. She’d got her pocket money, so I didn’t think much about it. She goes up the shops, get herself some sweets. She has a plastic purse, pink one, she keeps her money in. Fred, that’s her father, he asked where she was about eleven-o-clock. So we asked round about, her friend’s house. Half the street’s out looking for her now, but she hasn’t shown up.’

Sam glanced at his watch. Half past one. He said. ‘Are the police at the house?’

‘They was earlier.’

Sam followed Mrs Luft along the street. She was carrying too much weight. It was more of a waddle than a walk. The end of his day off, but Sam didn’t mind too much. She couldn’t count on her old man, And, look at her. Not an inch over five foot when she was wet through. Saving damsels in distress was his calling after all, even when they were past their prime damsels with varicose veins.

Fred Luft was sitting in a corner of the back room reading the Bible. He barely acknowledged Sam when Mrs Luft introduced them. He was wearing an overall with a stain on the bib and several small rips. He had huge blunt hands and his face and neck were knotted and pock-marked. He wore builders boots without laces, and the chair he was sitting in looked like the sole survivor of a three-piece suite that might’ve belonged to a dinosaur hunter.

The house smelled like a den. Sweat, urine, and a sticky sweet, almost tangible feeling to the air. There was clutter on chairs and tables, but the windows and carpets were clean, and in the kitchen the plastic surfaces and cupboard doors had been wiped, and the cooker was gleaming.

Two small children, a boy and a girl of around five or six years were sitting at a table in front of a computer game.

Mrs Luft walked through to the yard, and Sam followed. ‘She was kneeling here,’ the woman said. ‘Talking to the hamster. Then the next minute she’d gone.’ Her voice went up a whole octave on the last word and she brought her hands up to her mouth as if to stop her heart gushing out. She rushed into the house and disappeared up the stairs.

The yard was a concrete square. There was a lean-to shed on one side with the door swinging open. Inside were various builders tools and a canvas tool bag with a new saw poking out of the top. By the back door to the house was a well-made wooden cage for the hamster, and the animal itself was poking its nose through the bars at Sam. It was piebald, and obviously used to human-kind. When Sam reached out his hand it showed no fear, and had a good sniff of his fingers.

Sam thought it might be hungry and looked around for something to feed it. On top of the cage was a biscuit tin with a scoop inside and a smell of grain, but nothing else. Back inside the kitchen he found a crust of bread. He took it out to the hamster, and the animal snatched it from his fingers and rushed away with it to the back of the cage. ‘Bon appétit!’

Sam left by the yard gate, walked along a narrow back lane and up to the Hull road. There were two police cars parked there, and several shoppers standing around in shocked groups. The hardware store was closed, the blinds pulled down. The spotty youth who looked after the pet shop was gazing out of the window, over a couple of rabbits and a mongrel pup. Sam was stopped outside the sweet shop by a young policeman with a photograph of Jessica. ‘No, I haven’t seen her,’ Sam told him. ‘I’m a neighbour. Have you got anything to go on?’

The young policeman didn’t think so. He wasn’t sure. He was only a cog in a much bigger wheel.

The proprietor of the sweet shop, Robbie, was half Chinese, in his late twenties, with a young family of his own. He’d taken the shop over about two years before, at about the same time Sam moved into the area. ‘I’m helping Mrs Luft,’ Sam explained. ‘Did Jessica come in for some sweets this morning.’

‘No, Sam. I’ve been here since seven. I know her, I would remember if she’d come. She always wants liquorice sticks.’ Robbie’s speech was faintly accented, his consonants being formed slightly too far back in his mouth. But each word came out with a shadow attached, as if the missing Jessica was a personal nightmare, a symbol of the fragility and vulnerability of his own children.

‘Didn’t anyone see her?’

‘A couple of people saw her with Dave Gunn at the bus stop.’

‘Christ.’ Dave Gunn was every parents nightmare. He was a man approaching forty, he lived alone, and he was only one wave short of a shipwreck. His suit lapels were always stained with food, and when the neighbourhood children called him names he sometimes became over excited and ran after them. He had a full-time job sweeping up in the chocolate factory, and he’d lived peacefully and quietly by himself since his mother died. But three years ago he’d been accused of sexually molesting one of the neighbourhood boys. Gunn had consistently denied the offence, and at the end of the day the police had dropped the charge because of insufficient evidence. The boy’s story was ornamented and embellished at every telling. But when people throw mud, at least some of it tends to stick, and since that time the man had been viewed with suspicion. The local children were warned to stay away from him, and many in the neighbourhood treated him with outright contempt.

‘What does that mean?’ Sam asked. There was irritation in his voice. Dave Gunn was a scapegoat, and scapegoats tended to muddy the water. ‘Did she get on the bus with him?’

‘No one actually saw her go with him. But she was standing at the bus stop, talking to him. The police have picked him up.’

The police were organising the search, and Sam joined a party that was covering the area of the University and Heslington stray. The searchers were tight-lipped and anxious, quick and unco-ordinated in their movements. There was a collective anxiety about them, as if each one realised that they might discover the battered and lifeless body of a child. And at the same time each one denied the possibility because it was too much to carry, and when their eyes met they would nod and smile as if this was an ordinary day and they were meeting each other in the course of a constitutional walk.

The moors in the distance were like a purple bruise and as the afternoon wore on and turned to evening the sky darkened and came down low over the earth. There were long low rumblings of thunder and occasional flashes of dry lightning illuminated the sky.

As the margin of visibility dwindled the police called off the search for the night. They would begin again at first light, and they could use all the help they could get. Most of the searchers went to the George, some to the Deramore Arms. No one wanted to go home and admit defeat. For Sam Turner, who was an alcoholic, the pub would have been a defeat in itself.

Standing by the side of the road, he listened to the chatter of a police radio, sounded like the high pitched babble of a children’s swimming pool. There was a sergeant and three police officers waiting for a transport to take them back to their base.

‘They’ve let that guy go, Sarge.’

‘Dave Gunn?’

‘Apparently. The bus driver remembered him getting on the bus. Other passengers. By himself. He clocked in at work on time, and he was still there when he was picked up. He’s got about six hundred witnesses.’

‘He’s a fucking perv all the same.’

Sam called in at the Luft’s house on his way home. Mrs Luft was sitting in front of the television with the sound muted. Her small son was sleeping in her lap. She gathered her breath from time to time and let it go in a long exhalation. Her face was stained with salt lines and she had grown old and haggard during the course of the day. Fred Luft looked as though he hadn’t moved since the morning. He was sitting in the same chair reading the same Bible. Only now he was reading it aloud, in a slow drone, his thick, dry lips pumping the same sound and shape from each individual word.

‘Do you have anyone who can sit with you?’ Sam asked. ‘A relative, or a neighbour?’

‘My mother’s here,’ Mrs Luft said. ‘She’s having a nap upstairs.’

‘You heard they’ve released Dave Gunn?’ When Sam mentioned Gunn’s name Fred Luft stopped reading for a couple of beats, then picked it up again.

Mrs Luft nodded her head. ‘I didn’t think Jess would have gone with him.’ She looked through the television screen into a boundless spiral. ‘We’re never going to see her again.’

Sam bit his lip. ‘There’s still hope,’ he said, but his words went over her head and shattered soundlessly against the wall.

Sam waited until Mrs Luft’s mother came downstairs, then he went home to bed. Fred Luft’s voice was interminable, a drone but with an unhinged, moonstruck quality to it.

Sam was out of bed at half five the next morning. He had had his breakfast and a shave and was on the street by half six. A council workman on a bike stopped by the side of the road. ‘Can you come back with me?’ he said. ‘There’s a sack back there. I think it might be the kiddie.’

Suddenly Sam was weary. Something ancient descended on him, and he followed behind the stranger pushing his bike with an absolute certainty that he was being led to the sight of another pitiful enigma. He looked up at the sky, perhaps hoping for a glimpse of God, or something that might assure him of ultimate meaning. But the vault of the morning offered only a light blue curtain, with not a cloud to mar its surface. No hint of a magisterial countenance.

The child’s body was in a bean sack pushed up against a garden wall less than three hundred meters from her home. The top of the sack was open, and Sam didn’t have to touch it to see the blond curls framing the bruised and lifeless face of Jessica Luft, her two eyes open and staring and incapable of sight. Neither Sam Turner nor the council workman spoke a word, each of them were as if mesmerised by the bloody waste the morning had delivered. A bright flame had been extinguished and the world was a darker place because of it. For the moments they stood there together they formed a community of grief which released a silent chill into the air and sent it oozing off into every nook and cranny in the universe.

There was a footfall behind them, and Sam turned to see a woman with her hands against her face, a small child clutching at her skirts. Then there was a man, another neighbour, and some moments later a couple of old people. Within minutes half the neighbourhood seemed to be crowding around the child’s body. The long and high pitched moan of Mrs Luft’s voice came along the street like a javelin. The group of neighbours around the body parted to allow her through. Sam tried to intercept her, but she brushed him aside and took in the sight of her daughter’s body. The lines seemed to fade away from her face, but her body was taken with small spasms, slowly growing in intensity until it seemed she might shake apart.

Sam took his jacket off and wrapped it around her shoulders, then he held her close, and she turned to him and buried her face in his chest. Fred Luft approached the body with slow steps. His face looked like a lopsided plum. The Bible was still in his hand. He went down on his knees in front of the sack and placed his hands on each side of Jessica’s face. His fingers were like sausages. His stomach hung over his belt, and there was a madness in his eyes. He looked around wildly, some kind of growl coming through the folds of his throat, and you could see he’d resigned from the world. He wasn’t gonna play anymore. This small child in the bean sack was his life, and someone had stolen her away from him.

Three police cars came along the street, and the officers began clearing the people away, sending them back to their homes. Sam led Mrs Luft back to her house as the first length of yellow tape was stretched across the road. He got her settled in a chair, and left her and her mother wringing their hands together while he made a pot of tea in the kitchen. He stepped outside the back door and watched the hamster while he waited for the kettle to boil, and something connected with the animal, a concept, an idea, or maybe just a hunch, tried to form itself in his mind. While he was grasping for it Fred Luft came back to the house, his eyes like burning cinders.

‘I’m making some tea,’ Sam told him, but the big man ignored him. He walked to the lean-to shed and picked up his canvas tool bag and disappeared out of the back gate. Sam watched the lumbering bulk of him for a moment, and then the kettle boiled. Whatever it was about the hamster dissolved in his thoughts. Sam let it go. See to the living, he thought. The show must go on.

The two women wailed. Sam brought them their tea, and the older woman sipped at hers, but after a while she put it down and joined in the wailing again. Sam hung on for as long as he could stand it, but after a time he made an apology and left the house.

There’s been one other victim in this whole affair, Sam thought, as he made his way along the street to Dave Gunn’s house. Gunn was the kind of character who was always going to suffer in the neighbourhood, because of the first accusation against him. Now there had been another, and he would be more isolated than before. While it seemed to be falling to Sam Turner to act out the part of the good Samaritan he might as well make sure that Dave got his share of the action. Gunn was maybe a little simple minded, but he always had a smile for everyone, and he’d brightened up the day for Sam on more than one occasion.

The net curtains at the window of Gunn’s house could have used a little time in a washing machine. Sam tapped on the front door, and as he did so the door fell open. ‘Dave? You there?’ Sam shouted as he moved through the doorway and along the darkened hallway. There was no reply.

The door at the end of the hallway was closed, and Sam knocked on it at the same time as turning the knob. There was an awful atmosphere of stillness about the room that Sam entered. A silence which chilled the blood in his veins.

Jessica’s father, Fred Luft was there, standing like a statue at the window, his back to Sam. Sam listened to his own heart beating as he watched Luft’s back for several seconds. He couldn’t understand what Luft was doing in Dave Gunn’s house. The man didn’t appear to be breathing, but he was, and he turned towards Sam with his huge unshaven face. Sam saw then that he was holding a joiner’s hammer in his hand.

He said, ‘Jessica?’ He didn’t look at the detective, but he walked around him and half fell half stumbled along the hallway and out of the front door.

It was only then that Sam discovered Dave Gunn stretched out on the wooden floor. He was clad in a grey striped suit, double breasted, a blue denim shirt with button down collars, and green socks. A pair of grey slip-on shoes were sitting on a chair, and Gunn’s body was crucified on the floor in front of a cheap bamboo sofa. The hands and feet were pinned to the floor with six inch nails, and a cold chisel had been hammered into his left side, towards the bottom of the rib cage. His mouth had been stuffed with a cover off one of the sofa cushions, and the cushion itself was still soaking up the mass of blood which covered the floor in thick, congealing clots. There was no sign of life. There was silence and stillness and a sickening stench which might have come from the corpse, but which felt like it came from the world. Sam should have known earlier that something else was going to happen, in fact he had known, when he thought about it now. Luft’s mind had obviously been getting away from him right from the moment Jessica disappeared. But in his worst drink-induced frenzies Sam could not have imagined anything as grisly or as senseless as the reality that had pieced itself together in the demented mind of Jessica’s father.

Dave Gunn had oats and bits of fruit around his mouth, and on the table was a bowl half filled with muesli. He must have been sitting there eating it when Fred barged into his room. It was while he was looking at the food particles around the dead mouth that Sam finally realised what it was about the hamster.

He left the house and went to the officers who were securing the scene around the bean sack containing the body of the child. You need to get someone round to Dave Gunn’s house,’ he told them. ‘There’s been an accident. He’s dead.’

Sam walked off up the road, and the police officer watched him go. When Sam’s words eventually seeped through into the officer’s consciousness he shouted after him: ‘Hey, what did you say?’ But Sam was already turning the corner onto the parade of shops.

He walked past the hardware store and in through the door of the pet shop. He slammed the door shut behind him, and the rabbits and the puppy were sent scattering sawdust around their pens. The door had an old fashioned bell on a strip of curved metal and when Sam slammed it behind him the bell danced up and down until the proprietor’s sixteen year old son came out of the back with something in his mouth. Since his father had had a breakdown earlier in the year he had been in control of the shop. He was a tall youth with a rash of acne scarring his forehead, and people in the neighbourhood said he owned and operated a ferocious temper. He scowled at Sam. ‘Trying to break the door down, mate?’

Sam leaned into his face. ‘When Jessica went out of her house yesterday morning she was coming here to buy food for her hamster.’

The blood drained from the youth’s face and he attempted to bluster his way out of it. ‘So,’ he said. ‘She never made it. She was kidnapped before she got here.’

Sam made a grab for him, got him by both lapels. ‘Don’t waste it on me,’ he said. ‘If I want to see crap acting I’ll go to a Van Dam movie.’

The detective shoved the youth aside and marched through to the back of the shop. ‘Hey, where do you think you’re going,’ the lad said, but Sam was already inside the store room. He reappeared in the doorway a moment later with an empty bean sack in one hand and a pink plastic purse in the other.