The Ghost in the Machine

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic


A horror story for the digital age. Henry Watson is a man with a secret. But, when he starts receiving emails from his dead wife, it looks like his dark history may be exposed.

Submitted: November 24, 2017

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Submitted: November 24, 2017

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The Ghost in the Machine
By John Gibson
Copyright 2014 John Gibson


ISBN: 9781310820991


The Ghost in the Machine
By John Gibson

Must be my lucky day, Henry Watson thought wryly as the rain hammered against the window of the small upstairs room he called his office (or sometimes, more grandiosely, the study). Only this morning he had received a fat cheque from the insurance company and now here was an email, from no less a personage than Dr Kingsley Moghalu, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, mind you, informing him that he had inherited a sum of no less than 10.5 million US Dollars. All Henry need do was forward his bank details, along with the one-off $5000 transaction fee of course, and he'd be a multi-millionaire within 5 working days. Does anyone really fall for this sort of shit? Henry idly wondered as he poured himself another drink from the bottle of whiskey on the desk in front of him. He supposed somebody somewhere must, otherwise why would they keep sending these things out? But not me, he thought, oh no, old ma Watson didn't raise no fools. “Fuck you Moghalu!” he said raising his glass to the screen in a mock-salute as he hit the delete button, “and the horse you rode in on!”

*

Henry was, as they say in polite circles, tired and emotional, or as they say in less polite circles (the kind Henry himself tended to move in) shitfaced! He was a tall man with a slight paunch and shoulder length dark hair greying at the temples. He wore faded blue denim jeans, a check shirt and round wire-framed spectacles of the type once favoured by John Lennon. 
He had spent most of the day in his local pub, the Queens Head, celebrating his windfall from the insurance company. Most of it in the company of his good friend, ex-tyre fitter and convicted petty-thief, Bill Reed. Bill had lost his job at the Speedy-Fit Tyre and Exhaust Centre when he'd been caught with his fingers in the till. At court he'd been given a suspended sentence and a community service order. Of course when he'd finished his three-week spell cleaning graffiti from the bus shelter walls Speedy-Fit hadn't wanted him back, and neither had his wife. No matter, Bill now seemed to be trying his hand at a new career as an independent financial adviser.
“You can't trust the banks!” Bill told Henry peering blearily at him over the top of his fifth pint. He paused to push his long, lank, greasy hair back from his eyes with one nicotine stained hand. Bill is in his mid-thirties, unshaven, weighs maybe two hundred and fifty pounds and today is resplendent in a blue and purple shell-suit and grubby white Nike trainers. He takes another drink from his pint and then goes on “I mean...” he pauses to let go an almighty belch before continuing, “the most you can put in an ISA is fifteen thousand a year. I mean chickenshit! Right?”
“Chickenshit!” Henry agreed, perhaps a little too loudly. Doreen behind the bar gave him a reproachful look.
“Then you've got your Financial Services Compensation Scheme,” Bill went on. It actually took him a couple of attempts to get this sentence out and when he did it was with the air of a man who has accomplished a great feat. “That's where the government guarantees you'll get your money back if the bank goes tits-up. Thing is though you only get the first eighty-five grand back, the rest of it goes to the banks creditors. I mean eighty-five grand! That's chickenshit to a man like you. Right?”
“Chickenshit!” Henry agreed again, only more quietly this time so as not to attract the wrath of Doreen. And he supposed it was. Henry's fat cheque was for three hundred and fifty thousand pounds. No poultry excrement by anyones standards, he thought to himself with a grin.
Bill drained the remainder of his beer and put the glass carefully back down on the table giving Henry a significant look. He had a quick furtive glance around the pub as if to check whether anyone was eavesdropping on their conversation – unlikely since the place was empty apart from themselves, Doreen and a couple of kids playing pool in the back bar – and leaned forward, conspiratorially dropping his voice to a near whisper. “The NASDAQ,” he said leaning in close enough for Henry to get a real good shot of his halitosis. “Technology shares, thats where the money is. I mean shit! A man who invested $200 in Amazon back in the early nineties, well, that man would be a millionaire today, a multimillionaire in fact!” 
He leaned in even closer now, dropping his voice by another couple of decibels and narrowing his eyes. “I keep an eye on the markets you know, read the FT, that sort of thing. Its like a hobby with me,” he said. “We could go into business, Henry. You and me. You put up the money, I'll invest it.  There are a couple of internet startups I know of that are floating soon, we could...”
Christ! What a dick-head, Henry thought, he thinks he's a hedge-fund manager now! Suddenly he'd had enough. Had enough of this place with its cracked leatherette furniture,  its beer-stained tables and the all pervading smell of warm ale and piss. He wanted out. He wanted to breathe clean air. Most of all he wanted not to have to listen to anymore of Bills bullshit.
“Hold that thought Billy-boy,” he said rising from his seat on slightly unsteady legs and heading for the Gents “I need to empty the tank.”
Half-way across the saloon room Henry took a quick backwards glance over his shoulder, Bill still had his back to him. Good! he thought as he veered sharply left towards the exit. He took a good lungful of cold fresh air as he burst out into the failing light of a late November afternoon. Only half past four! he thought glancing at the cheap plastic Casio on his wrist. Already it was getting dark. The wind was getting up too. Henry turned up his collar and set off in the direction of home as the first fat raindrops began to fall from the leaden sky.

*

Home for Henry was the slightly dilapidated three bedroom house on Lomax Street that he had inherited on the death of his father in 2003. It was in fact the only house still standing on Lomax Street, the other dozen or so dwellings having been bulldozed in the late seventies to make way for a retail park that never got built; not least because Henry's father had refused to sell up. It stood on its own at the end of a short cul de sac surrounded by weed strewn vacant lots on three sides and with a wire-mesh fence marking the boundary of the Haven Road Industrial Estate on the fourth. 
About an hour after running out on Bill in the Queens Head Henry lurched unsteadily up the weed-choked garden path with a carrier bag in each hand; one contained a chicken chow mein from the Lucky Star Chinese Takeaway and the other a bottle of fine Tennessee sippin' whiskey. It was raining heavily now and he was soaked to the skin, the wind was whistling through the wire mesh fence, making dust-devils out of the waste paper and discarded fast-food packaging blowing up and down the deserted street. Storms a-comin' he thought as he slipped his door-key into the lock on the peeling front door. He went inside, changed into some dry clothes and opened the bottle of whiskey.
He'd been drinking more or less steadily since then. It was now close to midnight and the bottle was more than half empty. He'd spent most of the evening watching television: Soap opera's, comedy panel shows, the usual crap. Finally he found himself watching the eleven o'clock news, the presenter laying into some hapless politician who'd had to resign over his expenses claim.
What I need is a holiday, Henry thought. Vegas sounded about right for a man of means such as himself. In his minds-eye he saw himself lying by the pool in a Hawaiian shirt. He was wearing Ray-Bans and he had a drink in his hand and a beautiful blonde beside him. Probably a hooker, he thought, but what the hey, he could afford it. 
It was with this thought in mind that Henry ascended the stairs to his office. A quick visit the British Airways website and he was good to go. “You will receive a booking confirmation by email shortly” the website informed him. He clicked through to his email and there it was, just above Dr Kingsley Moghalu's missive: Booking confirmation, he clicked on it:

“Mr H Watson – Flight Number BA0275  LHR to LAS  Mon 28/11/14  10:55   First-class...”

First-class He thought breaking into a wide grin. Yessiree, he liked the sound of that! No more right-turn to cattle-class for him. Mr Henry Watson had arrived! He pictured himself in one of those extra-wide seats that converts into a fully-flat bed, being pampered by a pert-bottomed flight attendant in a pencil skirt and a stiff white blouse with those ridiculous cravats they made them wear.  He could think of quite a few ways she could pamper him....

*

Henry was thus in an ebullient mood as scanned through the rest of his emails. He chuckled quietly to himself, idly considering some very improbable scenarios involving  pencil-skirted air-hostesses and a fold-flat beds, as he scrolled through the offers for “Free Viagra!” and the invitations to “Enlarge your Penis Today” or “Earn $10,000 a week”. Chickenshit! Thought Henry and he burst out laughing. Unfortunately his good humour was to prove short-lived. 
Outside it was now blowing a gale, rain lashed against the outside of the house and through the grimy window Henry saw a lightening bolt briefly illuminate the desolate wasteland surrounding his home. The thunder, when it came, was like god's own kettle-drums. The angle-poise lamp on his desk, the only source of light in the cramped, untidy office, momentarily dimmed before regaining its former brightness and Henry absently wondered if he and the National Grid were about to go their separate ways. No matter he thought, taking another slug of whiskey. The laptop batteries were good for a few hours if the lights went out. He scrolled further down the page and suddenly he caught sight of a message from Facebook that brought him up short: “Facebook – Janet Watson changed her profile picture.”
Henry suddenly felt as if he'd swallowed a lead weight. His stomach lurched and for a moment he thought he was going to be sick. The room felt cold – too cold and yet he could feel a prickle of sweat break out on his forehead. What?! he thought That can't be right. “That cannot be fucking right!” he said aloud, he almost shouted it in fact. Janet Watson could not change her profile picture! Had no fucking right to change her profile picture! Because Janet Watson was dead! Had been dead for almost two years in fact. And he should know, he was the one who'd killed her.

*

Henry's marriage to Janet Watson née Parker had been like watching a slow motion train-crash more or less from the start. Henry had met  her in the Black Horse – a pub where he used to drink and where Janet had worked behind the bar. At the time Henry had been working shifts as an electrician  at a paper mill on the outskirts of Salford. Every evening at about 9 o'clock he'd call in for a few beers to fortify himself for the fifteen mile drive home. He'd lean on the counter, one work-boot propped up on the bar and tell Janet about his working day. An electricians lot was not a happy one according to Henry. But she would listen patiently as he griped about the “knob-heads” he worked for and the “knob-heads” he worked with. Henry never knew what she saw in him, after all nobody was better placed to see his developing problems with alcohol, especially when he started dropping in for a beer or two on his way into work as well as on the way home. But they did have some things in common, they enjoyed the same TV programs, followed the same football team (Manchester United) and had a similar outlook on life. Perhaps, he mused, she'd thought she could reform him. Get him off the sauce. Make him straighten up and fly right.
They'd laughed a lot in those early days in the saloon bar of the Black Horse. Janet was in her late twenties and a divorcée with one failed marriage behind her and a catastrophic one still ahead. She was slim and attractive with long blonde hair and pale green eyes. Gradually they had become friends. Janet was in the third year of a Art History degree with the Open University and she would tell Henry all about the old masters, about Rembrandt and Van Gough, as he propped up the bar. Sometimes she'd show him examples of their work from the big, glossy book she habitually carried around with her. And, to his surprise, Henry found himself interested. He particularly liked the dark, brooding paintings of Caravaggio. David with the Head of Goliath, the first time he'd seen that one he had been unable to tear his eyes away from it. It somehow had real power over him, the young boy David with a bloody sword in one hand and a severed head in the other. Goliath’s mouth lolled open wetly and his eyes were glazed and dead, in sharp contrast to those of David which looked so alive. It was a shocking picture, a terrible picture, and yet, somehow, a captivating one.
Eventually, inevitably perhaps, the evening had come when Henry had got too paralytic to stand up, let alone to drive himself home at the end of the evening. So Janet had driven Henry home in his own car. He'd been far too drunk for anything to happen that night. Janet had tumbled him into his bed, taken his shoes and socks off and gone off to sleep on the sofa. But the following afternoon, when he'd slept it off, they had made love. It had been good and thereafter Janet drove him home and stayed over most nights. He supposed this had been a good thing: he couldn't have gone on much longer without either being stopped by the police and losing his licence or having an accident and maybe killing somebody. Still, the way things had worked out he'd killed somebody anyway...

*

Another flash of lightening lit up the office and Henry let out a little cry of surprise. With a shaking hand he lifted the tumbler of whiskey to his lips and drank. The glass chattered slightly against his teeth as he clicked through to Facebook to look at the photo that “Janet” had posted. Someone's gotta be yanking my chain he thought. He fumbled in the pocket of his jeans and produced a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. Was this somebody's idea of a joke? he wondered, lighting a cigarette. If so its in pretty poor taste he thought. But who would have access to Janet's account anyway he wondered. That numb bitch Mary Holden maybe, she'd been Janet's best friend back in the day. He supposed it was possible that Janet had given her login details to Mary, but why in gods name would she do this. Could someone have hacked Janet account? Again, possible, but why? A team of international computer hackers breaking into people's Facebook accounts just to change their profile pictures? It hardly seemed likely. Then a new thought hit him, Maybe its extortion! Somebody had somehow found out what he'd done. This was their attempt to get his attention (and it had certainly worked). He suddenly felt sure that someone wanted to blackmail him. They were after a slice of his fat cheque, maybe all of it. They would threaten to go to the police...
As these fevered speculations raced through Henry's mind the storm continued to rage around the house. Another bolt of lightening lit up the sky and, just for a moment, Henry thought he saw a figure standing out there in the deserted remains of Lomax Street. Just my imagination he thought, trying calm his frazzled nerves. He looked back to the monitor and there it was: Janet's new profile picture. He looked at it aghast, he could feel his heart beating hard in his chest, the picture was of a skull, yellow and decayed its black, empty eye-sockets staring back at him from the monitor. Here and there bits of chared blackened flesh adhered to the bone, its mouth was wide open the lower jaw hanging loosely, somehow obscenely and between its cracked, chipped teeth it held a faded red and yellow matchbox. Henry stared at that box for a long time, it looked old and tatty, the corners were bent and the strip of sandpaper along the top edge looked well used. But what really caught his attention was the writing, it looked familiar. He leaned in closer to the monitor despite his revulsion. Yes, he recognised it. Scrawled across the front of the box in thick black felt-tip pen were two series of numbers. He knew what they were. They were map references. And they were in his own hand. Henry screamed.

*

Henry and Janet had married on the first day of June 2011. It had been a simple registry office wedding: just themselves, the registrar and a couple of witnesses dragged in off the street. Both of Henry's parents were dead and Janet's father had not given his blessing to the union, “A drunken wastrel” were the exact words he'd used to describe his only daughter's future husband.
For a while life had been good, for nearly six whole months, in fact, they existed in a state of wedded near-bliss. Janet had moved out of her cramped one-bedroom flat in Salford and into the house on Lomax Street with Henry. Henry pulled down pretty good wages as an electrician and Janet had been able to quit her job at the Black Horse and become a full time housewife. But Henry was still hitting the bottle pretty hard - harder and harder in fact. Some days he would have a couple of beers before setting out for work and other days he'd be too hung-over to get out of bed and Janet would have to phone in sick for him. 
Then, one afternoon about two weeks before Christmas, Bob Welch, Henry's boss at the paper mill, had called Janet at home. Janet knew Bob well. He’d been another of the regulars at the Black Horse when she’d worked there though he'd never shown the same enthusiasm for the booze as Henry had.
 Henry had turned up for work “pissed as a newt” Bob said, could she come and get him? Henry probably would have got fired there and then if Janet hadn’t interceded on his behalf. She had pleaded with Bob, tears in her eyes, to put in a word for him and, because he liked Janet, he had. Henry had been given a written final warning and Bob told him he’d been lucky to get off so lightly. 
But three weeks later, on a bitterly cold day in January, Janet found herself once more driving out to the mill to collect her inebriated husband. This time it was worse, Henry's Transit van had skidded on the works car-park totalling three other vehicles, one of them the managing directors Bentley. When they'd dragged Henry from the remains of his van they found him too drunk to walk though otherwise unharmed. This time however there was to be no lucky escape. Henry was summarily dismissed.
That, he supposed, was when the trouble had started. With both of them at home all day they had little to do but argue with each other. The smallest of problems – where were the garage keys or who'd had the scissors last – would invariably develop into a blazing row. On one occasion he had struck her, not with a fist but a hard open-handed slap to the face. He thought she would cry then but she hadn't, she'd simply looked at him, holding back the tears that were welling in her eyes. 
“If you ever do that again,” she'd said with a quavering voice “I'm gone! You'll never see me again.” She turned around and marched, stiff-backed, out of the room, and it was Henry who had cried then, cried bitter tears of self-loathing and self-pity. 
More and more they led separate lives under a single roof. Janet studying renaissance art in the kitchen, Henry studying the bottom of bottles in the living-room. He supposed, with the benefit of hindsight, that he'd had his doubts about the “extra tutorials” Janet had been attending from the start but it was that numb bitch Mary Holden who'd finally brought matters to a head. 
It was a wet Wednesday evening in early March and Henry had been drinking pretty steadily since he’d got out of bed at around midday. Coronation Street  had just started on the TV when the telephone on the windowsill rang. He went over and picked it up. “Hello.” he said, watching the raindrops run down the window pane.
“Hi Henry, its Mary,” she said and, although she kept her voice light and cheerful, he could hear a frosty undertone. She’d obviously been hoping Janet would answer. “Is Janet there?”
Now here’s an interesting development. Henry thought. Mary was studying the same course as Janet, the two of them had met at a summer school in Janet’s first year with the OU, and they had been studying the same courses ever since. They invariably went to tutorials together, Mary didn’t drive so Janet would pick her up each week in her little two-seat town car, or her “Japanese Shitbox” as Henry liked to call it . And hadn’t Janet told him this very evening that she was going to a tutorial with Mary? He rather thought she had.
“No, she’s not here at the moment Mary,” he said. “I thought-”
“Oh, OK then,” Mary cut him off. It could have been Henry’s imagination but he thought she sounded a little guarded now, a little on the defensive, a little bit like maybe she’d forgotten something. A little bit, Henry thought with increasing annoyance, like she’d forgotten that Janet had told her not to call here on a Wednesday. A little bit like she knew that Janet had told Henry, that drunken wastrel Henry,  that the two of them were out at a tutorial together. 
“I’ll call back another time,” Mary said quickly and hung up.
Henry went back to the sofa and took a good swig from his can of beer. It seemed pretty clear to him what was going on here. The bitch was cheating on him! That was the only explanation that made sense. It looked like her little project - call it project Henry - was a failure. She’d thought she could reform him, introduce him to the finer things in life, make a renaissance man of him. But it hadn’t worked, Henry wouldn’t straighten up and fly right, couldn’t straighten up and fly right. In fact Henry was in a tail spin, a nose dive, Henry had crashed and burned.
It looked like she’d pulled an F on this particular assignment, but that was ok, she could still pass the course, she just needed another subject to experiment on. Someone with a bit more intellect, a bit more backbone, a bit more moral fibre. Someone who wasn’t a drunken wastrel!
His first thought had been to have it out with Janet. As soon as she walked through the door he’d wade in with a merry “What the fucking hell is going on!” He’d shout at her, intimidate her, maybe even slap her about a bit if necessary, but one way or another he would find out where the fuck she’d been and who the fuck she’d been there with. After a while though, he began to calm down and think things through. It wouldn’t do any good to confront her he decided. It would only end in a slanging match. She’d clam up and refuse to tell him anything. Ultimately she’d stomp out, run back home to daddy, tell him what an astute judge of character he’d been. Or maybe to stay with the Holden bitch. No, what he needed to do was play dumb, pretend he knew nothing, and then do a little amateur sleuthing on the side. He’d find out what she’d been up to and when he did there would be retribution, oh yes. Henry drained the last of his beer. Nobody makes a fool of Henry Watson, he thought as he crushed the empty beer-can.

*

Outside Henry’s office the storm raged on. Henry’s face was bathed in the sickly yellow light cast from the computer monitor. The angle-poise lamp flickered again as the house was buffeted by a fresh gust of wind and Henry let out a strangled cry. He realised he’d become a lot less blasé about the prospect of the lights going out. He stared at the image on the screen, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from it: the hideous skull , the grotesque charred flesh, but what held his attention most of all was the matchbox. That matchbox, the one he’d written the map reference on; the exact longitude and latitude of the murder scene. The one that had nearly given the game away. But he’d burnt it, right after the police had been to see him that first time in early April 2012. He’d burnt it in an old biscuit tin in the kitchen. 
Bing-bong! Henry nearly leaped out of his skin before he realised that the sound merely signified the arrival of a new email. He looked at the screen through slitted eyes, a half-forgotten cigarette, with a gravity-defying curl of ash, hanging from his lips. “Janet Watson: No subject,” he read. He clicked on it automatically, without thinking and, as the message appeared on the monitor before him he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and the skin around his balls tighten. He scrolled up and down through the message, there were pages and pages of it. It all read like this:

“bUrnBaBybburNbabybaabybaYByBurnbabyyyyburrrnbbbaBybUrnburnburnburnburBabybaBurnnnnbabybaburNbaByBuuuuurnburnbuRnBabyBurnbabyburnbabybuurrrnnbaaabbbyyybURnbURnbabybabybabyBurnburnbUUrnbAYyyby...”

*

Henry had gone to bed before Janet returned from her “tutorial” and he’d pretended to be asleep when she climbed into bed beside him. In the morning though he was up unusually early. They had breakfast together and Henry asked her how her tutorial had been, taking a smug satisfaction in watching her squirm as she answered evasively.
“Oh by the way,” he said conversationally, “Mary called last night.”
“Oh, yes?” she replied, suddenly defensive.
“Yeah,” he said. “She said she wanted to talk to you. She didn’t leave a message though. She sounded kind of funny -”
“Mary couldn’t go to the tutorial last night,” Janet said quickly, too quickly really. “She...her son I mean, he’s not well! The mumps I think.”
“I wonder why she called here though?” Henry said, smiling. “She knew that you were going to the tutorial.”
“I don’t know,” Janet said, flustered now, “perhaps she thought that I wouldn’t go without her, that I’d come back home.” She rose from the breakfast table. “Perhaps I’d better call her, see what she wanted.” And with that she rushed into the living-room to use the phone. She shut the door behind her.
It hadn’t taken to much sleuthing really. Certainly no case for Sherlock Holmes, Henry thought. Later that morning Janet had announced that she was going to the supermarket to get some shopping in. She’d looked surprised when Henry had said he’d come along for the ride, but that look changed to one of scorn when he’d explained that he needed to “get a few beers in”. Together they had trolled up and down the aisles of the supermarket, Henry pushing the trolley and looking on impatiently while Janet searched for the best bargains. 
Eventually, after nearly fifteen minutes of this, Henry said he wasn’t feeling too well, he had a headache and felt a little hungover. “Gimme the keys,” he said. “I’ll meet you back at the car.”
Janet didn’t say anything, she simply fished the keys out of her jeans pocket and handed them over to him, giving him that tight-lipped little frown he’d become so used to. 
Once back at the car he pulled the sat-nav from it’s cradle on the windscreen and switched it on. He knew that janet had no sense of direction, she couldn’t even find her own arse without a road-map, he thought. Indeed, she’d even used the sat-nav today to get to the supermarket, a trip she must make at least twice a week. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for, the second item under “Recent Destinations”, just below the entry for the supermarket where he was currently parked, was: “Horrobin Lane: 53o 37’ 25.8’’N, 2o 34’ 20.0’’ W.” He knew Horrobin Lane, it crossed the Anglezarke reservoir about five or six miles to the north of his home on Lomax Street. It was an isolated kind of place, there was nothing there, and he could think of no legitimate reason why Janet would want to go there. It was, however, the perfect sort of place for an assignation, he thought. The perfect sort of place for a sordid little rendezvous!  He opened the glove compartment and fished around inside it for a pen. He found a thick, black felt-tip and , pulling the top off with his teeth, he took the box of matches from his jeans pocket and jotted down the map reference on it. Then he switched off the sat-nav and returned it to its cradle. By the time Janet got back to the car, loaded down with carrier-bags full of shopping, he was fast asleep in the passenger seat.

*

Henry couldnt seem to get his breath. His head ached and he could feel his heart hammering away in his chest. Burn baby burn, what the fuck was going on? Who was doing this? How? He had no answers. The rain was drumming on the dormer roof, it was coming down hard enough to drive in nails, and the noise seemed to resonate in his pounding head. The cigarette that had fallen forgotten from his mouth burned slowly on the desk leaving a black oily stain.
Bing-bong! Henry started again. Another email, he thought when he’d got himself back under control. Well he wasn’t going to open this one. No! What he was going to do was switch the computer off, get up out of this chair and go to bed. He’d sleep it off. Things would look better in the morning. He’d be able to think things through, gain some perspective. He’d go shopping, spend some of his new found wealth, get a few things for his holiday, maybe those expensive Ray-Bans he’d been promising himself...
His train of thought was interrupted as he caught sight of movement on the monitor in front of him. He looked on in horror as the cursor moved slowly across the screen of its own volition. It glided slowly towards the upper right of the screen, towards the X that would close the current window with its “burnbabyburn” message and bring up his list of emails. Henry closed his eyes. “No!” he moaned, “no no no.” But when he opened them again there was the message. He blinked at it in disbelief:

“Facebook: Bob Welch sent you a friend request.”

Henry resumed his litany. “No no no no no...” he sobbed as outside another flash of lightening lit up the sky.

*

When Henry and Janet returned from their shopping expedition Henry headed straight upstairs to the office. He logged onto the computer and with a few deft clicks of the mouse was soon entering the coordinates he’d scribbled on the matchbox into the Google Maps page. He used the StreetView feature, dragging the little man unceremoniously across the screen and dumping him on top of the red pin marking the map reference he’d entered, and there on the screen was Horrobin Lane. It was a narrow two-lane highway, bounded on each side by dry-stone walls with, here and there, sycamore trees, their broad branches casting long shadows across the road. There wasn’t much else to see, there was a slight incline here and the road crested a hill at a point perhaps three-hundred yards distant. Henry used the mouse to swivel around so that he was looking the other way along the road and there, maybe twenty yards away on the right-hand side, was what he thought he was looking for.
 A small side-road adjoined Horrobin Lane there making a T-junction with it. Henry manipulated the mouse, adjusting his point of view until he was able to see along this road. He couldn’t move down the side-road, obviously it was too minor a route for the Google camera car to have bothered with, but from his current point of view he thought he could see enough. 
It was a narrow single-track lane with a ditch at each side. A peeling hand-painted sign proclaimed it to be the entrance to Windy Nook Caravan Park. About a hundred yards down the lane, there was a barrier blocking the road to traffic but before that, on the right hand side was a lay-by. It looked just about big enough for two cars Henry thought, particularly if one of them was a small car, say a Japanese shitbox. Yes,  he thought. Just the place for a sordid little rendezvous. Henry used the mouse to swivel around until he was once more facing down Horrobin Lane. He squinted at the picture on the monitor, moving slowly down the road with repeated clicks on the mouse. He was looking for something else now. It didn’t take him long to find it. With a grim smile of satisfaction he switched off the computer and went downstairs to grab a beer.
“I’m going over to see Dave Bamber this afternoon,” Henry announced on the following Wednesday morning. “He says he might be able to put some work my way. Someone he knows has bought a house that needs re-wiring.” 
“Thats good,” Janet said, and for the first time in a long time she gave him a smile. Henry hadn’t really worked since he’d lost his job at the paper mill and money was tight.
At about one o’clock Henry climbed into his beat up Ford Transit; the one he’d had to shell out for himself because those tight-fisted bastards at the insurance company had refused to pay up for the one he’d totalled at the mill; and reversed slowly out onto Lomax Street. Janet was watching from the door step and he gave her a wave as he drove off. But he wasn’t going to see Dave Bamber. Instead he drove to the Swan with Two Necks, a pub he knew on the outskirts of Chorley. He spent most of the afternoon there  drinking beer and reading the paper. He left at about five o’clock and sauntered over to a nearby burger bar to get something to eat, then back to the pub for another beer. 
It was nearly seven o’clock when Henry climbed back into the van and headed for Horrobin Lane. He was looking for the gateway he’d spotted on MapSearch. The gateway was about a quarter of a mile from the caravan park entrance and on the other side of the road. In the StreetView picture it had no gate, it was simply a space in the dry-stone wall. Henry knew that Googles pictures might be several years out of date and that the gap in the wall might now boast a solid five-bar gate with a shiny new padlock and chain but, no matter, he had a sturdy set of bolt cutters in the back of the van. As it happened though luck was on his side, there was no gate and Henry drove his van straight through the gap in the wall and parked it behind a stand of trees, where it wouldn’t be seen from the road. He got out of the van. It was dark now, a cold clear night, the stars shone brightly and a bloated gibbous moon hung low in the east. It was cold too, he donned his heavy donkey-jacket, woolen hat and thick gloves. Then he grabbed the heavy duty torch from the back of the van and set off. He walked along the edge of the field until he was opposite the caravan park entrance, then he sat down on the damp grass with his back against the dry-stone wall. He lit a cigarette and settled down to wait. He consulted his wristwatch: it was twenty past seven.
Twenty minutes later he heard a car moving towards his position, only the second one he’d heard in the time he’d been here. He could tell by the engine note that it was slowing as it approached. Cautiously he got to his knees and peered over the wall. Janet’s car was turning into the narrow road leaning to the caravan park. He watched as she did a three-point turn and reversed into the lay-by. The car’s headlights died as she cut off the engine but a moment later the interior light came on and, from his vantage point, he could see her pull down the sun shade. She was checking her makeup in the vanity mirror. 
Henry resumed his former seated position behind the wall. It was maybe another five minutes before he heard a second car engine approaching. He waited, listening as it turned into the narrow lane. When he raised his head he immediately recognised the blue hot-hatch pulling into the lay-by behind Janet’s car. He recognised the person who got out of it a moment later as well. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was Bob Welch! That Fat Bastard Bob Welch! The guy who had sacked him from his job at the paper mill. This was the guy that was diddling his wife! It was all Henry could do to stop himself vaulting the wall, running over there and ripping the fat-gormless-fuck limb from limb.
 Henry was enraged, livid, he watched with clenched fists and gritted teeth as Bob locked his car and went over to Janet’s and got in. A moment later he heard Janet start up her car and he quickly ducked down behind the wall as its headlights came on. He heard them drive off in the direction of Chorley. He guessed they were headed for one of the hotels up there: Mr and Mrs Smith checking in for one night but leaving after two hours. 
Henry got up from behind the wall and started back towards the van. Classy Janet. he thought. That’s real classy. Of all the people in the world she could have chosen to cheat on him with she had to pick that bastard Welch! Christ! He hated that fucker! Had hated him the first time he saw him back at the mill. He was one of the knob-heads, one of the ones who was always telling him what to do and picking faults in his work. He was the knob-head, the one who had fired him, the one who had turned him into a washed-out wino, a drunken wastrel, the one who had taken away his job, his livelihood, his self-respect. And now he wanted to take away his wife too. Well it wasn’t going to happen. Bobby-boy Welch needs to be taught a hard lesson, he thought. They were going to pay for this, both of them! And payback’s a bitch! He thought.
He lit a cigarette as he trudged back towards the van. His hands were shaking but already a plan was beginning to form in his mind.

*

Henry was bathed in sweat now. Outside the wire-mesh fence bordering the Haven Road Industrial Estate sang a mournful song as the wind whistled through it. He watched in horror as, on the computer monitor in front of him, the cursor slid smoothly across the screen of its own accord. It was moving towards a big blue button with the words “Accept Friend Request” written on it. Henry didn’t want to see what lay on the other side of that button. 
From the corner of his eye he caught sight of a movement, the mouse! The mouse had taken on a life of its own and was moving slowly across desk in time with the movement of the cursor on the screen. He wanted to stop it, needed to stop it before the cursor reached that big blue button, but somehow he couldn’t. He found that he couldn’t bring himself to touch it, he was afraid to touch it. It’s slow purposeful movement somehow sickened him, revulsed him. It was like some kind of creature, a giant beetle, it’s shiny black carapace glinting in the reflected light of the anglepoise lamp. He reached for it with a shaking hand and grabbed it. He felt sure that it would put up a fight, that it would slip out from beneath his sweaty palm its rear up, its chitinous shell splitting wide open to reveal a hideous mouth full of needle-sharp teeth. That it would skitter across the desk towards him its lead whipping from side to side behind it like the tail of an enormous black rat. But it offered no resistance at all. It simply stopped. On the screen however, the cursor continued to glide smoothly towards the big blue button. When it got there Henry felt the button beneath his finger depress. Click! He closed his eyes. Outside the fence continued to sing it’s siren song.
When he opened his eyes again and dragged them reluctantly to the computer there was a picture on the monitor. It was another skull, perhaps a little bigger than the first one he’d seen, but otherwise the same. He supposed this was Bob’s profile picture. The same empty black sockets gazed out at him from the screen. The same molten, charred, greasy looking blobs of flesh hung, here and there, from the bone, and the lower jar lolled open at the same ghastly angle. But between it’s uneven, soot-blackened teeth was no matchbox. Instead there was a piece of paper. It was a rectangular piece of paper, perhaps two inches by five, bowed slightly outwards by the hideous grip of those dreadful teeth. This time Henry didn’t have to lean in close to identify it, he already knew what it was. Had known before he even saw it he supposed. It was a cheque, a big fat one.

*

The week following his spot of amateur sleuthing was a tough one for Henry. The strain of trying to act normally around Janet, that cheating bitch, Janet, was almost to much for him. On more than one occasion he had nearly brought up the matter of her infidelity during one or other of their regular blazing rows. He often liked to imagine the look of shocked surprise that would cross her face when he told her that he knew all about her squalid little liaisons, her sordid little rendezvous! That, he thought, would shut the bitch up! But, in the end, he’d restrained himself, he’d kept quiet, after all, he had a plan.
Henry had the plan more or less straight in his mind by the time he got back from that first excursion to Horrobin Lane. It was a good plan he thought, a fine plan, and whats more, he thought he could get away with it. But could he do it? Could he carry it through? Did he have the nerve? The bottle? This was the other question that tortured Henry during that week. Ultimately he decided that yes, he could. What swung it for him in the end was the mental image of Bob Welch, that fat bastard Bob Welch, fucking Janet, his wife Janet, in a cheap hotel room. So yes he thought, he could do it, more, he should do it, it was an obligation, an incumbency. He saw himself as David in Caravaggio’s painting, eyes bright and vital, holding, in his left hand, the severed head of Bob Welch with its wet lolling mouth and dead bulging eyes, and in his raised right hand what? A box of matches maybe.
The following Wednesday, at about six-thirty in the evening, it was time. Henry went into the kitchen and opened the cutlery draw. Inside was a plastic tray with dividers for the knives and forks and spoons and such. He lifted this out and fished around in the back of the drawer until he found what he was looking for: the spare set of keys for Janet’s car. He quickly replaced everything in the drawer then crossed to the kitchen table where Janet’s handbag lay. She habitually carried this bag with her everywhere she went. He opened it and placed the keys in the bottom, under some tissues and a compact, where he didn’t think she would see them. Then he went over to the sink and rummaged around in the box of cleaning supplies in the cupboard beneath it until he found a couple of J-cloths. He shoved these into the back pocket of his Jeans, then he went upstairs to the office. 
He always kept the lower left drawer of his desk locked. The key was Scotch-taped to the back of the desk. He quickly thrust his had into the narrow space between the desk and the wall and groped around until he found it. Inside the drawer was a steel cash-box. He quickly lifted this out and unlocked it with a key he kept on the ring with his car-keys. Inside was a gun. It was a German-made copy of a Browning nine-millimetre that his grandfather had taken from the corpse of a German soldier at Arnhem. He checked the clip, it was full. He didn’t actually know if the bullets would fire after all this time but hopefully that wouldn’t matter. He pushed the clip back into the handle with the heel of his hand. It locked into place with a satisfying click. Then he shoved the gun into the waistband of his jeans, at the back where it would be hidden by his shirt, and went off to find Janet.
“I’m just off to the shops,” Henry said as he entered the bedroom where Janet was getting ready for her “tutorial”, “I need to get a few beers in,” he added by way of an explanation. And there it was again, that tight lipped little frown. He didn’t care for that frown, didn’t care for it at all. What right have you to judge me, he thought, you dirty little slut! 
“Ok,” she said. “I’m going to my tutorial shortly though, so you’d better take your key.”
“Will do,” He replied as he went out of the door.
Of course, he wasn’t really going to the shops. He drove straight to Horrobin Lane. Parking his van in the field as he had the week before, he again walked back to the caravan park entrance. This time however he walked on the other side of the dry-stone wall, on the road side. Once he reached the side-road he climbed down into the ditch on the left-hand side and waited. It was another cold clear night, the grass was frozen and he could feel the cold seeping in through his jacket as he lay there on his back, with the gun in one hand and a can of beer in the other, watching the stars wheel through the inky black skies above.  
He didn’t have to wait long. He soon heard a car turing into the lane and manoeuvering into the lay-by opposite. From the throaty hum of his engine he guessed it was Bob’s hot-hatch. Another five minutes passed, Henry could hear the radio playing in Bob’s car. Then he heard Janet’s Japanese shitbox turning into the lane. Henry cautiously peeped over the edge of the ditch. He had been worried that they might have changed procedure tonight, that they may have gone off in Bob’s car instead of Janet’s. If that had happened he would have had to abandon it, for this evening at least, and who knew wether or not he’d be able to summon up the nerve again next time. But he needn’t have worried. As soon as Janet had parked up Bob got out of his car, locked it, and walked over to Janet’s and got in. 
As soon as Henry heard the door close he was moving. He climbed out of the ditch and quickly crept over to Janet's car. His eyes were well adapted to the dark by now but theirs weren’t. They were sitting in the car talking and they didn’t see him until he tapped gently on the side window with the muzzle of the Browning. He saw Janet’s eyes go wide and the blood drain from her face as she swivelled her head to look at him. Behind her Bob was leaning forward in his seat to see past her, his eyes bulging from his fat pasty face. Henry quickly snatched open the door.
“Henry!” Janet said, “I can exp-”
“Give me the keys you fucking bitch!” He said, his voice low and menacing.
Janet appeared frozen, unwilling or unable to comply. She simply stared at him with tears welling in her pale green eyes. She was trembling.
 Henry reached down and yanked the keys from the ignition with his left hand, all the time keeping the gun in his right hand levelled on the two of them. He slammed the door shut again and pushed the lock button on the key-fob...twice. Deadlocked! He thought, it sounded so appropriate. The car was now deadlocked, it couldn’t be unlocked, even by its two occupants, without a key. Of course, Janet had a key in her handbag which, he’d noted with grim satisfaction, was in its usual position on the centre console, but she didn’t know it. How Ironic, he thought, she was going to die with the key, literally the key, to  her salvation within easy reach but she would never know it.
He moved to the rear of the car and flipped up the fuel filler cover. From inside the car he could hear Janet moaning, telling him she was sorry, that she could explain. Her voice seemed to be coming from a long way away, from light-years away. He was moving as if in a dream now, everything was happening in slow-motion. He unscrewed the fuel filler cap with hands that didn’t seem to be his own and dropped it on the ground at his feet. Immediately his nostrils were assailed by the unmistakeable hydrocarbon aroma of petrol.
Suddenly, inside the car, Bob burst into a violent fit. He started shouting and screaming incoherently, banging his head and fists against the windows, demanding to be let out. Blood was running down his face from a large gash on his forehead where he’d smashed it into the door-pillar and Henry could see blood smeared all over the inside of the passenger window. 
He thought maybe Bob had cottoned on to what he had in mind. Janet was silent now, she was simply staring straight ahead. The cars interior light was still on and Henry could see her reflection in the windscreen, her eyes and mouth were wide open and she had both hands pressed to the sides of her pale, bloodless face. She looked, Henry thought, like one of the  paintings she’d once shown him in her big glossy book, it was by Edvard Munch. 
Henry pulled the J-cloths from his back pocket and stuffed them into the neck of the fuel filler, using them to wedge open the small spring loaded flap. Then shoved the gun back into his waistband and produced his trusty box of matches and extracted one. He took a last quick look inside the car: Janet hadn’t moved, she was still staring vacantly out of the windscreen. Bob had calmed down a bit now, he’d pushed his seat back as far as it would go and appeared to be frantically struggling to get his feet up on top of the dash-board. Henry thought he was trying to get himself into a position where he could brace himself against the seat, place his feet wide apart on the windscreen and push. Maybe he could pop the windscreen out that way. It might have worked too Henry thought, but Bob was a big man and in the tight confines of that little shitbox Henry didn’t think he was going to be able to do it.
Henry struck the match and touched it to the blue J-cloth protruding from the fuel filler. It caught immediately. Just the world’s biggest Molotov Cocktail! He thought. He ran like hell for the ditch!

*

The mouse had started moving around the desk-top on its own again. Henry watched it aghast. He was sweating profusely and his heart was thudding away like a trip-hammer in his chest. Suddenly he heard a noise outside, a bang and a clatter. He froze, not daring to breath, listening. All he could hear was the wind gusting around the eaves of the house and the rain drumming on the roof. The bins! He thought. It was probably just the wheelie-bins outside the house blowing over. He’d have to go out in the morning and pick all the rubbish up.
There was another flash of lightening beyond the window followed almost immediately by a loud crack of thunder. Its getting closer, he thought, the storm’s getting closer! What was the rule? He tried to remember. Count the seconds between the flash and the bang and divide by five to get the distance in miles, wasn’t that what they’d told him when he was in the Boy-Scouts? He rather thought it was, and that had been less than a second! The fucker was right on top of him!
Th anglepoise lamp flickered again and this time went out. He was plunged into near complete darkness. The monitor was now the only source of illumination in the room. The monitor with the hideous skull still staring out at him. The image was turning red now, animated blood seeping down from the top of the screen. But was it animated?  With a shaking had he reached out and touched the monitor, it felt warm and tacky to the touch. His fingers came away red with blood. The sight of it shocked him out of his stupor. He pushed back from the desk and stood up letting out a cry of alarm as he did so. On shaky legs, legs that didn’t seem to want to move, he crossed to the light-switch at the rear of the room and flicked it on. Nothing happened. He flicked the switch on and off repeatedly, frantically, he was crying now, his breath coming out in short harsh gasps. On the desk the mouse was still sliding around of its own accord like some living thing, the soft scraping sound it made against the wood appalled him. As he looked on the the image of the skull suddenly disappeared from the monitor to be replaced by a blank screen, crimson red with the coating of blood, and now there was a new sound. It was the rattling click of the keyboard. As he looked on in horror he saw the keys being depressed as if by invisible fingers. And with a sick feeling in his stomach, he saw a familiar message appearing on the blood-red screen:

“bUrnBaBybburNbabybaabybaYByBurnbabyyyyburrrnbbbaBybUrnburnburnburnburBabybaBurnnnnbabybaburNbaByBuuuuurnburnbuRnBabyBurnbabyburnbabybuurrrnnbaaabbbyyybURnbURnbabybabybabyBurnburnbUUrnbAYyyby...”

Faster and faster the invisible fingers typed, beating out a horrid tattoo that seemed to echo in his head, that seemed to rattle his brains.
Beyond the window another flash of lightening lit up the sky, the thunder booming almost instantaneously, and in the harsh electric-blue arc-lamp glare that momentarily lit up the desolate remains of Lomax Street, Henry saw something moving. Two somethings in fact. There was no doubt in his mind this time. There were two figures down there. Two dark-clad hooded figures. They were shuffling slowly along the rubbish strewn street, seemingly oblivious to the wind and rain. They were shuffling towards his door.
Henry screamed and screamed and screamed...

*

Henry once again lay on his back on the frosty embankment staring up at the cold, hard stars. It’s been too long! He thought. It seemed an eternity had passed since he’d set fire to the J-cloth and sprinted over to the ditch. He could hear the Smart-Car rocking from side to side on its suspension with Bob’s increasingly frantic attempts to escape, and he could hear the muffled sounds of Bob’s cursing as he thumped against the glass with his hands, but still no explosion.  Henry longed to peer over the lip of the ditch and see what was going on but he didn’t dare. In his head he heard a line from the Public Information Films he’d seen as a child. “Never return to a lit Firework.” It said.  This is one hell of a Roman Candle I’ve got here, he thought.
He lay there waiting and suddenly he realized he was singing to himself in a croaky, hoarse whisper. It was an old song: Light my Fire. 
BOOM! The sound of the explosion was enormous. It echoed back at him from the surrounding trees, the reverberations seeming to roll on and on without end. The stars were erased from the sky by a sudden orange glow and Henry flattened himself down against the embankment as a wave of hot air swept over him. It was then that the screaming began. The screams were terrible, horrible, Janet and Bob’s voices joined together in a hideous, raucous ululation that seemed to resonate through his brain. Henry supposed he would hear those screams in his dreams.
Gradually the screaming subsided leaving only the crackling sound of the flames. Henry peered cautiously over the lip of the ditch, gun in hand. The rear end of the car had been blown completely off. The rear axle lay about ten-feet behind it half in and half out of the ditch on the far side of the road, one wheel sticking up in the air and spinning lazily in a manner he found almost comical. With the rear wheels gone what was left of the cars body was canted upwards at a crazy angle. The passenger compartment was a mass of flames, he could see nothing within it. Flames were licking around the wheel arch and he ducked down as the nearside front tyre exploded with a tremendous report. A moment later the drivers side window exploded as well showering his head and back with broken glass. The flames, hungry for oxygen, leapt outwards from this new opening and he saw an arm, Janet’s arm, flop lifelessly against the blackened side of the door panel. The skin was black, burnt to a crisp and cracked in places exposing the whitish fat beneath. The fat was burning!
I’ve gotta get outa here, he thought, he scrambled up the embankment onto the road. Picking his way through the burning lumps of debris from the remains of Janet’s car he ran across Horobin Lane and vaulted the dry-stone wall on the far side. He ran back to his parked van keeping low in case of passing vehicles. But there were none. 
About two miles north of the scene of the crime Horrobin Lane becomes a causeway, running about four-hundred yards, straight as a die, across the Anglezarke reservoir. Henry didn’t even slow down as he crossed it, he simply waited until he was close to the centre then wound down the window and threw the gun as far as he could over the inky black water. He considered for a moment and then threw the keys to Janet's car after it. 
Henry then drove home, showered, changed and threw all the clothes he’d been wearing into the washing machine. He cracked open a beer and settled down to watch some TV. He was waiting for the knock at the door, waiting for the police to arrive. Half a dozen beers later as he woozily climbed the stairs to his bedroom he was still waiting. He undressed, got into bed and was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. He slept like a baby - no screams.

*

He was frozen now, unable to move. He was still standing at the rear of the office, his right forefinger was still twitching spasmodically at the light-switch but his bulging eyes were glued to the computer monitor on the desk. A series of images were scrolling down the blood red screen. Faster and faster they went by, just a blur of motion and colour, like the wheels of some ghastly one-armed bandit. But every now and then the scrolling would stop. It would stop with a little judder, leaving some new and horrible image visible on the screen: the burning car; the hideous skull with the big fat cheque; Janet, both hands pressed to the hollow cheeks of her pale face, her eyes wide, her mouth a big wet O; Caravaggio’s David, his eyes burning with a fierce light, with the lifeless pasty head of Bob Welch in one hand and a yellow box of matches in the other... it went on and on.
On the desk the mouse was thrashing around. The two halves of its chitinous shell had indeed split open now, just as Henry had prophesied, and between them he could see a ghastly, pink, wet mouth lined with rows and rows of razor sharp teeth. It seemed to be trying to break free from the lead which tethered it to the computer, to launch itself across the room at Henry, to sink those appalling teeth into his jugular. And from the speakers there now arose a sound, a sound he knew well. Quietly at first but quickly building to a terrible crescendo came the screams. The awful screams that he had expected to haunt his dreams but that never had. 
Henry shut his eyes and clapped his hands over his ears. He didn’t want to see or hear anything more. He was crying now, the tears rolling down his pale sweaty face. His breath was coming in short hitching gasps. “No more!” He sobbed, “No more, no more...” He repeated this litany over and over again. His head was swimming, he could still hear the screams, still see the images. He thought he was losing his mind. He was probably right.

*

The knock on the door had come at around five a.m. Henry had answered in dressing gown and slippers. Two police constables, one male, one female, stood in the doorway.
The female officer, WPC Harrison, opened the proceedings. “Henry Watson?” she enquired. “Henry James Watson?”
“Yes?” he responded wiping the sleep from his eyes, “What’s the problem?” and then, with a rising note of alarm in his voice (he would be proud of the way he’d played this later), “Oh my god, It’s Janet isn’t it? Where is she?”
“May we step inside for a moment sir?" she asked.
So they sat in Henry’s living room, the two police officers side by side on the threadbare sofa, him on his favourite armchair with a stack of empty beer-cans on the coffee-table between them. WPC Harrison had outlined the facts of the case as they knew them: Janet’s car had been found burnt-out close to the Anglezarke reservoir. Inside were two bodies, one believed to be that of Janet Watson, the other believed to be that of one Robert Welch. Mr Welch’s car having been found nearby. Henry surprised himself with his talent for acting, he supposed that it helped that he’d just been roused from his bed. He appeared pale, shaky and, at times, incapable of comprehending what they were telling him. He even managed to squeeze out a few genuine tears as he sat there answering their questions.
WPC Harrison was very sympathetic, occasionally squeezing his hand as she tried to console him. But when she went into the kitchen to make him a cup of tea, her colleague, PC Philips, had weighed in with some heavier questions: Where had he been last night? What had he been doing? Where did he think his wife had gone yesterday evening? Why would she be up near Anglzarke with Bob Welch? And of course the biggie, Where did Janet keep the spare keys for her car?
The old good cop, bad cop routine, thought Henry. He had told him that he’d spent yesterday evening right here, watching television and drinking beer. The pile of empty cans on the table seemed to corroborate that much at least, and he saw PC Philips give them a significant glance. He thought his wife had been at her OU tutorial with her friend Mary Holden. He had no idea, he said, why she would be up in that isolated part of the world with Bob Welch but, he added darkly, now that he thought of it a few things were starting to add up. And that finally, no, he didn’t know where the spare keys for her car were.
He’d always known that the keys would be a cause for suspicion. The fact that they’d been in her handbag, that she’d seemingly made no attempt to retrieve them, that she’d burned to death in a locked car. But at least there had been a set of keys inside the car. It would have seemed much more suspicious, he thought, Had there been none. 
It had been while he’d been answering PC Philips’ questions that Henry had had a moment, that he’d nearly come unstuck. WPC Harrison had come back in with the tea and Henry had taken a sip and then popped a cigarette in his mouth from the packet on the table. As he lit it with a match from the yellow matchbox that had also been lying on the table he noticed the numbers scrawled on the side of it. Shit! he thought, The numbers! The matchbox had been lying there all this time with the coordinates, The  exact fucking map reference of the murder scene! there in plain sight for all to see. He put the box in his dressing gown pocket with a shaking hand, suddenly he couldn’t stop shaking, he had a crazy notion to spill the beans, to tell them everything, to confess. After a few seconds he got himself back under control, and he supposed they had probably thought it was simply the grief, a delayed reaction. They didn't seem suspicious, not then.
Eventually they had left. WPC Harrison had offered to stay with him, “just to make sure you’re OK” she’d said. 
But he’d said no. He had assured them that he wasn’t a suicide risk. “I just need a little time on my own,” he told them. “I just need some time to think.”
 As soon as they were out of the house he set fire to the matchbox.
That was the first of several visits. Each time they would ask him the same questions and he would give the same answers. On one occasion they even arrived with a search warrant and spent a fruitless couple of hours ransacking the house and going through the bins. He didn’t know what they had expected to find, maybe the car-keys but what would that prove anyway? Eventually they’d given it up, got tired, lost interest, whatever. 
There had of course been a lot of media interest. Reporters outside his front door every day, news vans with satellite dishes atop parked up and down the otherwise deserted Lomax Street. But eventually the press had lost interest as well. They concluded it was a freak accident. The car’s fuel tank had for some reason exploded, incapacitating its two occupants who had subsequently burnt to death. No mention was made of the locked doors or the keys in the handbag. The Japanese manufacturers of that famous model the shitbox issued a limited recall but no mechanism by which the fuel tank could explode without warning was ever found.
It had been the insurance company who had been the most suspicious. They had spent the best part of two years prevaricating and procrastinating. Sending out investigators and underwriters and loss adjusters. But, in the end, they’d paid out on Janet’s life insurance policy. They’d sent him a cheque, a big fat one. 

*

Henry was crouched down in the corner of the office. He had his hands over his ears and his eyes were screwed tight shut. But he could still hear the storm whistling around the walls of the house and the rain pounding on the roof. Above all he could hear the terrible screaming coming from the speakers and the frenzied lashing of the mouse on the desk as it fought to free itself from the computer. 
Then, suddenly it all stopped. All of it: the wind, the rain, the screaming, the mouse. There was silence, complete silence. The eye of the storm, he thought. I’m in the eye of the storm. And somehow this was worse. He needed to open his eyes, needed to know what was going on, what was in the room with him. He didn’t want to open them, didn’t dare to open them, but he had to, it was imperative. 
Slowly he opened his eyes. Everything looked normal. Ladies and gentlemen, sanity has been restored, he thought. The room was still dark but the mouse was no longer thrashing around on the desk and, more importantly, it was just a mouse now, no mouth, no teeth. The monitor was no longer coated in blood. Outside the wind had stopped, just completely stopped, as had the rain.
Henry blew a long sigh of relief. He looked at the clock on the wall: two-thirty. Obviously he’d had some kind of psychotic episode, delirium tremens maybe, he didn’t know. What he did know was that it would be light before long. He’d have some breakfast then go out shopping; buy some things for his trip. Some Ray-Bans maybe. Then tonight, he’d stay at a hotel, somewhere swanky, somewhere with people around so that... 
He was suddenly aware of a noise, a clattering rattly noise. He looked sharply at the keyboard, the keys were moving again. The invisible hand typed more slowly now, more deliberately. He looked at the screen, it was Janet’s Facebook page with the hideous picture of the skull. He watched in horror as the words slowly formed in the Status Update box:

Janet Watson and Bob Welch are visiting old friends on Lomax Street.

Downstairs there was a knock on the door.

*

It was a while before anyone noticed he was missing. Weeks in fact. Of course Bill Reed, erstwhile tyre fitter turned financial advisor missed him when he didn’t show up at the pub the next day. He rang Henry’s mobile, rang it repeatedly in fact, but it was always switched off. He even went so far as to go around to the house on Lomax Street and hammer on the door. After all Bill reasoned, Henry was a man of means now and if he were planning something, say a nice little trip to Las Vegas for instance, surely he’d want to take his financial adviser with him. “No reply,” he later told Doreen glumly as he propped up the bar in the Queen’s Head. “I reckon the cheap bastard’s fucked off to Vegas without me.”
It was a couple of months before the postman noticed that the mail was pilling up in Henry’s letterbox. There was a procedure for this sort of thing, he informed his line-manager who filled out a form. 
And so it was that on a crisp clear day towards the end of January that PC Steve Dury pulled up in his squad-car outside the house on Lomax Street. He wasn’t in a good mood. He had been supposed to be on traffic today: driving around in one of the fast patrol cars with his sunglasses on, looking cool, maybe getting the odd hot pursuit with blues and twos. Instead his shift had been switched at the last moment and now here he was on this shit detail, checking up on some elderly fuck who was failing to cope, who was probably saving his own piss in plastic bottles. 
As he walked up the cracked and weed-strewn garden path the first thing he noticed was the hum. A low buzzing sound which got louder as he approached the front door. The source of the noise soon became apparent to him, the inside of the large window-pane to the right of the front door was crawling with flies. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands. They were buzzing against the glass, trying to escape. He could see that the inner window-sill was covered with their dead bodies to a thickness of maybe half an inch.  And then the smell hit him. Oh man! It was a putrid, rotten smell, a smell which spoke of things decaying; things he didn’t want to see.
He knocked on the door. No reply, no sign of movement. He knocked again, still nothing. Good! He thought. 
Steve thought he’d better just try the door, just once, check that it was locked. Once he’d made sure of that he could return to the comparative comfort of his squad car. He could sit in the sun breathing good, clean air and put in a call to base. get them to send out someone with a battering ram. Because Steve really didn’t want to see what was on the other side of that door and he certainly didn’t want to go in there alone. To his surprise though, and his regret, the door opened easily pushing a large pile of junk-mail before it.
He dodged to one side as the door swung open, appalled by the smell and the flies which swarmed out through the opening. He fished in the pocket of his uniform trousers and found a handkerchief which he held over his mouth and nose before returning to the doorway. In front of him he could see a dingy hallway stretching away towards the rear of the house. There was an open doorway on the right which led, he guessed, to the living room, the room with the flies on the window. To the left was a stairway leading to the upper floor, but it was the thing on the stairway that grabbed his attention.
As a child Steve had collected a magazine called Unexplained Mysteries of the World. UFO sightings, alien abductions, cattle mutilations, ghosts and poltergeists were all standard fare for Unexplained Mysteries of the World. But what came to his mind now was an edition he'd read that dealt with the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. People who apparently simply burst into flames for no apparent reason. The magazine had carried several grisly pictures of corpses reduced almost entirely to ash, often with no obvious source of ignition or accelerant nearby.
Spontaneous human combustion, thought Steve. It had to be. His stomach lurched and for a moment he thought he was going to lose his breakfast as he took in the scene. The thing on the stairway was a blackened, chared skeleton. The very bones appeared to have melted in places. It was lying at the foot of the stairs, its lower torso on the floor its upper body extending over perhaps the first three or four steps. Bizarrely, despite the intense heat that had evidently been generated by its combustion, the carpet beneath it seemed hardly singed and the head seemed not to have burned at all. Its face was in a state of putrid decay, just a screaming skull with lumps of rotten flesh attached. He watched in horror as a maggot crawled from one of the festering eye-sockets. 
 There was something clamped between the things hideous teeth. Steve wasn’t going to disturb anything, that was for the forensics boys and they were welcome to it, but he leaned in a little closer to get a better look, pressing the handkerchief tighter to his  face. It was a yellow box, a matchbox and even from this distance he could see what appeared to be writing on it. Numbers, he thought. It looked like a map reference. 

 


THE END


© Copyright 2018 John Gibson. All rights reserved.

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