DUMMY

Teardrops by Jennifer Harvey

Kirsty Nicholson

He takes a seat opposite me and for a full four minutes he says nothing. I know it’s four minutes because I count every second while I wait for him to get the measure of me.

“I’m DI Spencer,” he says. His voice is devoid of emotion, the words so carefully enunciated I get the impression he has spent years honing this apparent unshakability.

So I smile at him politely and say, “Good evening,” my tone a little too friendly which seems to disconcert him.

He tries to remain impassive, but the small tilt of his head, the slight arch of his brow, the thoughtful pursing of his lips, all give him away. He doesn’t know quite what to make of me. No doubt he was expecting someone different. Someone stronger, perhaps even a little menacing.

“Listen,” I say. “Whatever you want to know, just ask me. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

He looks at me and his eyes narrow and the corners of his mouth twitch almost imperceptibly. Not so much a smile, as borderline cynicism.

“What?” I ask him. “Do you not believe me?”

“I’m just not used to such refreshing honesty,” he says. “Most people try to deny any wrongdoing.”

I can’t stop myself from laughing a little at that. “Wrongdoing?” I say. “I think three dead men is a little more than wrongdoing, don’t you?”

“Fair enough,” he smiles. “Then let’s call it what it is: murder.”

I nod in reply, and he leans back in his chair and clasps his hands across the soft paunch of his stomach as if my silent agreement is some sort of small triumph. And I notice how soft his hands are, his nails buffed and manicured, almost feminine, as if they have never seen rough work. His pallor too, has a pale, doughy quality to it. The kind you acquire when you spend too much time indoors, sedentary and immersed in paperwork. But it would be foolish to underestimate him. His gaze is alert and unflinching, and it’s that steely glint in his eyes that helps me understand him. He is the type that needs to know why. The how, the what, the when, the where. None of that matters to him as much as the why.

And that’s good, because that’s all I really want— for people to understand why those three men had to die. For them to accept, even, that killing them was the right thing to do. The just thing to do.

“The thing that bothers me most, even now,” I tell him, “is that they never showed any remorse. Nothing. Not a single tear. It’s why I had to cry on their behalf, so to speak.”

He shifts his weight, unclasps his hands, and leans forward setting his arms on the table, his expression suddenly intense letting me see he means business.

“Care to explain that?” he asks.

The bulk of his body throws a shadow across the table, the dimming of the light, intended as a threat. If it wasn’t for the softness of his hands, I would feel intimidated.

“You ever see that photo?” I ask him. “You know, the one by Man Ray? The woman with the glass tears?”

“Can’t say I have,” he says. There’s an impatience to his voice now that I don’t much like and when he leans forward a few more inches, I feel the warmth of his breath as he speaks and catch a nauseating whiff of coffee and cigarettes. “Why? Is it significant in some way?”

“I found it inspiring,” I tell him. “The teardrops. What he did— Man Ray I mean— is he placed these crystal-clear globes on the model’s cheeks, so it looked as though they were shedding these perfect tears. I don’t know why, but that image has always stayed with me. What do you think he was trying to say?”

“I don’t know. Art appreciation isn’t really my thing. “Spencer says. “But what about you, what were you trying to say?”

I think of those boys with those crystal tears cascading down their cheeks. Their fake remorse, too pure really for the reality of who they were and what they’d done.

‘Those tears were too good for them,” I say.

“Them?” Spencer asks.

“Jake Harris. Callum Walsh. Paul Downey,” I say. “You know. Them.”

“It’s a strange thing to do, don’t you think?” he asks. “Placing crystal ‘tears’ on dead men’s faces.”

“I suppose you want to know why?” I ask.

He nods and I pause for a couple of minutes, not because I want to provoke or annoy him, but simply to find the right words. Because he’s right, in a way. It is a strange thing to do.

“I wanted to know what they would look like when they were crying,” I tell him.

Spencer looks at me as if what I have told him is the most disconcerting thing he has ever heard. And it takes him a few seconds to compose himself, before he speaks.

“I’m still not sure I understand,” he says.

“Okay,” I reply. “Then, how about we start at the beginning?”

He nods and purses his lips, his brow a mixture of anticipation and confusion as if he’s not sure whether he wants to know the truth. Then he pulls himself together, that determined glint returning to his eyes.

“Sure,” he says. “Sounds good.”

Okay then, the beginning. How about a pulsating, nightclub? The sweat-soaked air saturated with pheromones. It’s one a.m. and things are just getting started. Bodies on the dancefloor moving as one, and in the last hour, limbs have become looser, laughter louder, inhibitions freer.

Though not everyone.

The girls take turns. One group on the dancefloor while the other guards the table. It pays to be vigilant, to watch over the drinks. They all know the score. These days, one slip of powder or pill in your drink and the evening is obliterated. You wake, not knowing where you are or who the guy lying next to you is. And what has he done to you? And what did you do to him? And this is the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario? Well, better watch those drinks.

But the boys are good-looking, and their talk is smooth, and they move in close and touch bare arms and shoulders, seeking eye contact. Confident, but not too much. Works like a charm. But behind some smiles lurk monsters.

And so this is how it goes. She’s swaying on the dancefloor, eyes closed and lost in the music. He brushes her arm and when she opens her eyes, he is staring at her, smiling. Beautiful eyes, she thinks. And they dance a while, getting closer and closer, moving together. And she likes him. Let’s him squeeze against her. Takes him back to the table where her friends say hello. And he’s so good-looking they let their guard down. They laugh and they drink, and they talk, and they dance some more. No-one catching it. The pill in the bottle. The girl looser now, stumbling. “Take me home,” she begs him. “Please, take me home.”

And he does. He takes her. Such a good-looking guy. But they’re the ones you have to watch. And in the morning, she wakes and remembers nothing. In the morning, she looks round the room and does not recognize it. She sees clothes scattered on the floor, the bedsheets stained, and her phone is nowhere to be seen.

This isn’t home, she thinks. Then the pounding of her head reminds her of the music. And the nightclub. And her friends. And the table. And the drinks. The fucking drinks.

Yeah, she thinks, the good-looking ones are always the ones you need to watch. And the pit of her stomach is heavy with remorse and self-loathing, while he turns over in the bed to sleep away the day.

“Son of a bitch”, her parting words.

I’ve worked the bar and seen it happen every weekend. The Sophies, the Hannahs, the Lauras and the Rachaels. Seen them dance and laugh and then fall, one by one, into the arms of men like them. The boys back every weekend for another round. The girls though, you never see them again.

And something had to be done to protect them. Don’t you think?

I don’t want his sympathy, but I can see from the way he looks at me that he can’t quite decide if I’m victim or perpetrator.

“You could have reported it,” he says. “You could have come to us for help.”

I look him dead in the eye, my jaw clenched with anger and my fingernails digging into my palms as I try to suppress my emotions.

“Oh, and do many women do that then?” I ask him. “I mean, a night on the town, too much to drink, some drugs involved and all the judgements that go with it. How many women are going to come to you looking for help? ‘She was asking for it. She was dancing with him. She was kissing him. Her skirt was halfway up her arse.’ Come on. You know the score as well as I do.”

“I’m sorry you think that,” he says.

“Think? Oh, I know it for a fact.”

And, for some reason, it’s this that makes him lose his cool. He slams the palms of his hands on the table and the sound reverberates around the room and makes me jump.

“Okay, enough of this nonsense!” he says. And then he coughs a little as if he is only now aware of what he has just done. His own response a confirmation of everything I have just said. I wait for an apology, hoping he’ll have the grace to acknowledge his mistake, but none comes.

“You mentioned remorse,” he says, his voice quieter as if he knows he needs to watch his temper now. “But it seems to me this is more about revenge.”

“Why can’t it be both?” I ask him.

He shrugs, as if the distinction is unimportant.

“Dead men can’t express remorse, you realise that don’t you?” he says.

“They’re not much good at it when they’re living either,” I tell him.

“And killing them is the answer?”

And I think of their faces when they realised what was happening. Their heads spinning, their legs like jelly, their speech slurred. “What did you do, bitch? What did you give me?” Too late. And when they see me move closer, when they see me smile, the flash of fear in their eyes is a validation. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry’. All three of them said that at the end.

“Yeah, it was,” I tell Spencer.

“Three men are dead,” he says. “But if you think things have changed because of what you’ve done, then I have to disappoint you. You’ve changed nothing. You’ve helped no-one. Every weekend we get reports. Every weekend it’s the same. And yes, they do come to us, as it happens.”

“Why did the papers never mention it?” I ask him.

“Sorry, what?”

“The tears. I noticed that detail never appeared in the papers. What was it you were worried about? A copycat?”

“Yeah, maybe,” he says. Then he smiles, as if he has just caught me out. “Is that what you hoped would happen then? Is that what you were after? An army of vigilantes, prowling nightclubs the length and breadth of the country?”

I smile back at him. “Now, wouldn’t that be something?”

I give him a few minutes to let it sink in. And when it does, his face turns pale, and my smile unsettles him. And I think of all those crystal tears, slipped into purses across the country. Glinting and shimmering and ready.


Crime Short Story Competition - The Dark Side of Scotland

Halmeoni’s Wisdom by Brid Cummings

Kirsty Nicholson

She feels she’s being watched tonight. Nothing unusual about that. And yet, as Arty hisses at her to wade deeper into the rushing waters, she senses eyes peering at her from within the murk of the pine forest. The thought sends a cold shiver through her spine; colder than the river that pushes at her knees, trying to send her sprawling into its swift, raucous flow.

‘Get on with it, will you,’ Arty snarls, sweeping the torchlight across the rocks which line the river like blunt white teeth. ‘You want the neighbour to see us?’

She doesn’t. The new neighbour is a weasel man, with a smirk that never quite graduates to a smile. She knows his type: quick to snitch—or else wants something in return.

Arty hisses again, and she inches forward. The water is becoming deeper, more insistent, grabbing at her thighs like white man’s hands.

‘Okay, you can reach it from there.’ He gives the order as if he’s doing her a favour. But she knows better. Arty wouldn’t manage half this distance. Too chicken shit. Once, in the honeymoon months, he’d confessed he couldn’t swim. Never got taught, he’d said, his voice slurred with booze and self-pity. As if she’d been taught. As if she could swim.

She plants her left palm onto a flattened rock, trying to anchor herself there before reaching out with her right hand and grasping for the upright stake lodged between two boulders. The force of the river vibrates through the shaft, and she tightens her grip, trying to absorb the power, channelling it into her arms, her shoulders, her torso, down to her feet, knowing once she releases the stake, the river will fight her for the net, and for the precious crystalline babies inside.

A soft blush breaks above the trees as they finally finish their work and ascend the riverbank, following the muddy track that winds past the farmhouse and towards the large iron shed. Still, she feels the cool gaze from the forest, but her focus is on the buckets she carries, ensuring the water does not slosh too high as she adjusts the metal handles that bite like blades into the creases of her fingers.

‘Get a move on,’ Arty snaps, although he’s only a few metres ahead. No heavy buckets for him. Only the stakes and an empty net—and the weight of his bulky stomach, which has expanded over the past two years in contrast to his hairline.

Or perhaps he’s always looked like this. Halmeoni used to say people see only what they want to see. She also said no good would come from running overseas. A wise woman. It had been foolish not to listen.

Drawing back the shed door, the smell of rotten seaweed hits her like a punch to the guts. Arty drops the stakes and netting and ambles down the slope without another word. She watches him disappear, then lowers the buckets, and wedges the door open wide with a loose rock. After a deep lungful of outside air, she retrieves the pails, heads past the huge concrete pool inside the shed, and locates the narrow door concealed behind cluttered shelving.

Within the hidden tank room, the air is fresher, although still tainted with the briny scent of the ocean. She flicks off the silent alarm and heads to the row of fish tanks lining the wall. The water in each tank bubbles softly, as a swarm of tiny, translucent babies writhe within. She watches them, transfixed. Glass eels. Soft and supple and clear as glass. Except one. She frowns. How did that get there? If Arty had seen ….

She grabs a small net and fishes out the darker looking elver. Must be a leftover from the last batch. Still young, but if it gets hungry, she knows it will devour its younger siblings. She lowers the wriggling creature into the large bucket beside the door. Other stray eels slither in the waters, all dark skinned, and all to be dispatched when Arty decides its fried eel for tea. The thought knots her stomach. Eel babies swim all the way from the Sargasso Sea; she’d learned that. A long journey. Almost as long as the one she’d made herself, hidden in the lower deck of a cargo ship.

She turns away from the bucket. No one wants these darker eels. Only the prized glass eels, which will be sent out in crates with a bribe to the customs officers, or else hidden in suitcases packed with ice blocks and transported by mules too greedy or too fearful to say no to the smuggler gangs. Not too long ago, she’d been one of the greedy and fearful ones. Not a mule, but keen to work in the trade nevertheless and send her meagre wage straight to her mother’s bank account. Until Arty decided he didn’t need to pay her anymore. That she should just be grateful he gave her food and lodgings and didn’t report her to the authorities.

Diligently, she checks the last tank before pouring in the freshly caught baby eels. They will all be shipped out soon. Sent to holding pens in China or the Philippines where they will be allowed to darken and fatten before being sliced and diced for the expensive restaurants. Arty says a thousand pounds worth of eels here is worth ten times that over there. He doesn’t say one pound here is worth ten times that to her mother—although he knows this too.

Her throat tightens as she returns to the stench of seaweed. Reluctantly, she climbs the pool ladder to peer down at the lumps of kelp festering inside the deep concrete basin. It’s a decoy, Arty had explained. If the police ever come, we’ll tell them we’re trying to commercialise Laver bread—seaweed bread. Arty thinks he’s clever, yet he never thinks to re-fill the tank. Just sits and drinks all day while she does all the work. Suppose that makes him smarter than her.

After a short pause, she climbs onto the narrow edge of the pool and with slow tightrope steps travels along its rim. She’s not worried about getting trapped inside the container—there’s a ladder inside too—it’s the rock-solid base that will greet her skull if she falls. She stops at the inlet tap. It’s stiff, but with a grunt, she turns it clockwise, releasing a gurgling stream of water into the pool. The seaweed sucks and pops in gratitude. But she does not keep the tap open for long.

A shadow? By the door?

No, just her imagination, as usual. Paranoia her constant companion. Still, she shouldn’t leave the shed door open. Arty has warned her about that.

‘Yung!’

She scuttles down the ladder on hearing his voice. His balding head comes into view just as she kicks away the stone and shuts the door.

‘Been calling you for ages,’ he says, his brow lowered in irritation.

‘Sorting out the fish,’ she replies, hurrying down to greet him.

‘Bloody Asians on the phone again.’ He thrusts the mobile into her hand. ‘Tell them we want the money deposited before shipment this time.’

She nods, following him down the slope as a buyer speaks in broken English through the line.

She tries Korean first, then Mandarin, where the caller responds tersely that he cannot deposit the money in advance.

Arty repeats his demand again. She relays it, then repeats the buyer’s position. Soon both sides are hissing and cursing, and she tries not to flinch as she absorbs each one of the verbal blows.

Finally, the buyer cuts the call abruptly.

Arty grins, grabs the phone and slots it into his shirt pocket. He taps it knowingly. ‘They’ll call back. Guaranteed. With the raids up north, supplies are tight. Should get a higher price too.’

And then, it’s like the honeymoon period again, as they eat lunch, watch TV, and he puts the subtitles on like he used to when she was improving her English. She doesn’t tell him she can speak English better than him nowadays.

 

The alarm goes off two hours later. A small high pitch whine that tells them both the tank room door is open.

He swings round. ‘You shut it properly?’

She nods, unable to speak, fear suddenly snatching away all her English words.

Arty launches himself from the settee like a wasp-stung dog and rushes to the gun cabinet. She follows him, but only to the front door; her feet do not take her up the steep track, but around the side of the house and to a row of bushes snaking gently uphill. As she reaches the top, she crouches low, staring at the open door of the shed. She scans the area around the building too. Is it a raid? Police? Authorities? But where are the flashing blue lights? Sirens? Men with handcuffs come to send her back?

She jolts at a sudden noise from inside the shed. A surprised yell. A splash. Then a shot. And another. The sound repeats as an echo between the iron panels. She covers her ears. Watches birds rise from the forest and pepper the skies.

Silence descends. She remains static for minutes, that seem like hours, until cramp in her calf forces her to unlock her limbs.

Still quiet.

The door of the shed holds still. The air grows tight. She takes a step forward, then another, stopping after several paces like a deer sniffing the air. But she doesn’t sense predatory eyes from the forest. It seems empty. No witnesses. Only her.

She edges forward again and peers around the shed door. The light is on, but inside is bare, nothing but the cluttered shelving, the cement pool, the ladder.

And a dropped phone.

‘Arty?’

A small groan follows in reply.

Tentatively, she climbs the ladder, her fingers trembling as she grasps for each rung. But it is not Arty she sees first as she peeks over the rim. It’s weasel man, face down upon a seaweed mattress, with a dark cavity where his right ear should be.

‘Yung.’ Arty’s voice is hoarse as he calls to her. He sits waist-deep in the oily water, slumped against the wall like a discarded soft toy.

She says nothing. Only stares, watching as a serpentine ribbon wends its way from his left flank towards a greasy raft of kelp. Like an eel, she thinks, but not an eel. Not a glass eel with its tiny transparent form slipping through the water. Nor an elver, dark and sleek, twisting towards the seaweed. No, this creature is crimson, long and lithe, gliding sinuously like a red rat snake, or Eopsin as Halmeoni would name it—goddess of wealth.

‘Bring that over.’ Arty winces as he points to the other ladder propped inside the pool.

With her heart thudding, she clambers onto the rim of the pool and advances towards the metal ladder. The frame feels cool beneath her fingers, and surprisingly light as she hauls it upwards.

‘Good girl.’

But she doesn’t turn towards him. Instead, very gently, she twists and settles the ladder against the outside wall. Then she takes a few more steps, and with only a momentary pause, extends her hand towards the inlet tap.

Later, above the sound of rushing water and gargled curses, she hears the ring of Arty’s phone.

The buyer speaks to her in Mandarin. The money will be deposited in advance, he says, but the price must remain the same. No negotiation. She agrees, insisting on only one change—then reels off the bank numbers that she knows by heart. As the digits are repeated back to her, she turns, looking past the cluttered shelving and smiles softly, sensing a future for herself and her mother as clear and bright as the glass eels swimming in their tanks.