It wasn’t easy but he managed it, finding the key, opening the front door, all the while keeping one arm tightly around the girl’s waist. What was her name again? Terri? It hardly seemed to matter, as the taxi disappeared into the warm night, as she pushed him back against the wall of the hallway and thrust her tongue once more into his mouth. After all, it wasn’t her name he was interested in.
He could taste the alcohol on her, the mixture of lager and shorts that he had got her drunk on, not that she had been the most unwilling of conspirators. He knew that she would be tasting the Guinness that had been his choice, mixed with the lingering flavour of far too many cigarettes. He could smell the smoke on her tight clothing, in her short brown hair, the myriad odours of an evening spent in another identikit nightclub where the music deafened, the drink flowed freely and only the truly inept left alone.
He broke off the kiss, disentangling her searching hands from his body, and with a smile he led her into the living room. He heard her intake of breath as she saw it. It was a sound he never tired of hearing. The house looked expensive from the outside, of course, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. But it was only inside, within the whitewashed walls of the big house at the end of the private road, that his wealth became truly apparent. The whole room, the décor, the ornaments, shouted the name Martin Brook. Brook, self-made millionaire, world renowned travel writer, ‘the face that launched a thousand travelogues’ as the Times had put it.
The girl walked slowly across the room, her eyes wide. They always noticed things in the same order. First the mirror, the huge smooth expanse on the far wall that dominated the entire scene with its size and grandeur. Then the magnificent fireplace beneath. Next the eyes would turn upwards, as Terri’s did now, to take in the chandelier with its ornate wooden carvings. The electric lights were a necessarily modern evil, but at least they came on automatically on his entry into the house. The feel of the thick imported carpet, itself worth more than many houses, would not escape their notice either.
But it was the mirror that always took their attention in the end.
Terri walked slowly across the room, her steps slightly unsteady with the alcohol and the stylishly impractical shoes. He let her gaze in wonder at the mirror, her eyes moving around the edge of the frame with its undulating figures and shapes, not gilded but pure solid gold. The mantelpiece beneath was covered with ornaments, each tastefully selected and positioned, and Brook watched her eyes turn to these as he walked quietly over to stand behind her.
“Incredible,” he heard her say, almost whispered, and she smiled at him as his reflection appeared behind her.
“Do you like it?” he murmured, knowing she did. She nodded, her mouth moving as if to speak but failing to find the right words. His eyes on hers through the medium of the mirror, he stepped up close to her, hands slipping up her slim sides to rest gently on her breasts. “Do you like this, too?”
She giggled, reminding him just how much younger she was than him, and pressed her body back slightly to increase the contact between them. He dropped his head to kiss her neck, slowly moving his hands.
“What’s this one?”
He looked up over her shoulder to see her pointing at a heavy-looking carved wooden figure of an African spearman.
“Zulu,” he said simply. “Picked it up in Natal about ten years ago.”
“And this one?”
He followed the line of her arm to the far end of the mantelpiece, where a notably phallic work of ivory rose above its surroundings. “It’s meant to help sexual potency,” he replied, “a gift from the Mayoress of Mombasa. Kenya,” he added, seeing her look of slight confusion.
Another girlish giggle. “Does it work?”
In answer, he ran the fingers of his right hand down her body, his lips brushing her ear. “You’ll be able to tell me soon.”
She drew breath audibly as his hand worked on her, and he felt the time had come to direct her towards the bedroom. That, too, never failed to impress.
Then she noticed the skull. “What’s that?”
He forced his face to adopt a smile. “That, allegedly, is the skull of the official concubine of one of the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty. Presented to me by the Chinese Ministry of Tourism as reward for my services to their tourist industry.” His smile became a real one. His knowledge of history was pretty good, and it combined with a natural flair for improvised banter to mean that, at least where the skull was concerned, he never had to use the same lie twice.
Anyway, she wasn’t really listening. Terri was staring at the skull, marvelling at the way the bone shined in the dimmed light of the room, its unmarked lustre, the purity of its shape. He felt her shiver in his hands, knowing it was not his doing and slightly annoyed because of it. “I don’t like it,” she said quietly.
He fought back sudden anger, and forced levity into his force. “I didn’t think you were the squeamish type,” he told her jokingly.
He brought his hands up to her arms, and slowly turned her around to face him. “It’s just bone,” he told her gently, “just a piece of old bone.” He leaned down and kissed her firmly, and felt the moment of coldness pass. As their tongues met again her eyes closed; his remained open, resting on the skull. It always had the same effect, and not just on women.
“A drink?” he asked her finally, taking a step back from her.
“Have you got champagne?” she asked breathlessly.
“Of course. But what’s the celebration?”
“You’ll be able to tell me soon,” she replied, with a mischievous smile that brought his sense of arousal rapidly back.
Brook walked down to the far end of the room and through into the kitchen, leaving the door open behind him. The kitchen was far simpler than the front room, as befitted a room he thought of as purely functional. He rarely cooked for himself, preferring to eat out, and if he had to entertain in the lavish dining room he kept for such occasions, he would hire caterers in. He appreciated good food, but not enough to make an effort himself.
When it came to drinks, his approach was similar. He had the money to afford the best, but why bother? If he was out, he drank Guinness. At home, he never drank wine or spirits alone, and on principle alone he refused to touch canned Guinness. His policy for entertaining guests was to tailor the drinks to them. If he was putting on a dinner party for his agent or yet another nondescript television executive, he would provide expensive wine (red or white, he didn’t care for either). If he was seducing some teenage office girl, straight from a dodgy nightclub and already drunk…well, cheap champagne would suffice.
“Where’s the toilet?” he heard her call from the living room. He stuck his head around the doorframe, to see that she was once again admiring the mirror, or possibly herself in it.
“Back into the hall, up the stairs, first on your left,” he told her. She smiled at him, and with one last glance at her reflection she left the room.
It took him only moments to get glasses and a chilled bottle from the fridge. Opening it scarcely delayed him either, so many times had he played out this scene. He poured two large measures, thought about bringing the bottle and decided against it, placed it back into the fridge. He did not want to remain downstairs any longer than strictly necessary, not when the bedroom was calling. There were other reasons, too.
He walked back into the living room, placed the two glasses on a small table, and sat down upon the antique leather sofa. Upstairs he heard the sound of the bathroom door being locked. For a few moments, he waited.
It was scarcely a whisper, more like a drawn out sigh than individual words. Brook took a deep breath and lay back, resting his head on the soft leather armrest. “I wondered how long you would wait,” he said quietly.
He reached out and took one of the glasses, raised it to his mouth. He thought it tasted good, but couldn’t be sure.
Where did you find her?
“Some club or other, I forget which.”
Do you even care anymore?
Brook closed his eyes. “I’m busy,” he said shortly.
“Good. Perhaps you’ll leave me alone.”
You know I won’t.
“Yeah.” He laughed, quietly, harshly. “I know.”
She’s almost a child.
“So were you,” he murmured. Upstairs the toilet flushed, and he heard the door lock click open.
That was different.
Brook sighed, hearing the sound of footsteps on the stairs, approaching the room. “Will you keep quiet tonight? For me?”
He opened his eyes again as Terri came into the room. He let his eyes run over her body, the body that had drawn him to her in the darkness of the club. She paused in the doorway.
“How old are you?” he asked her.
She looked at him, her eyes betraying her surprise. “Nineteen,” she replied after a pause, her voice carrying a hint of something like defiance, as if daring him to disbelieve her. He nodded, and made a gesture towards her glass of champagne.
She didn’t move. “It’s cold in here,” she told him.
“I’ll put the fire on,” he said, standing. He motioned towards the sofa. “Why don’t you sit down?”
She hesitated, just for a moment, and then walked towards the sofa and sat down, her eyes once again looking around the room, at the paintings on the walls. He smiled at her. The room was colder now, he knew, but he was used to it. Turning, he walked over to the fireplace and knelt down, his head level with the mantelpiece. The fire was already stocked and ready. He needed only to light it…
Look at me.
There had been a time when he would have tried to fight the compulsion. Not any more. It was simply too strong now, the words more powerful than any muscle could ever be as they forced his chin up, so that his eyes were looking at it.
The skull didn’t look any different, of course; it never did. He looked into the empty eye sockets, with their perfect symmetry. The teeth were straight and ordered, and as always they grinned at him.
You cannot have her.
He didn’t answer, his hands fumbling for the switch that would light the fire even while his eyes were locked on something else.
You know what you have to do.
He felt the switch under his fingertips, and flicked it. Instantly the gas and flame leapt up, catching the wood, and he felt the heat against his arms and chest. His fingers searched again, opening the airflow to full and sensing rather than seeing the flames reaching higher.
The compulsion was broken.
“Shut up,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
He turned away, standing. The girl was lying on her back on the sofa, shoes gone, her slim legs drawn up so that her skirt revealed a glimpse of black underwear.
“Just talking to myself,” he told her as he walked towards her and knelt down on the sofa, looking down upon her. Her eyes were wide, looking at him with an odd expression. Her breathing seemed overly heavy.
“Nervous?” he asked her with a grin, running his hand through her hair. She didn’t answer, at least not with words. Her left hand reached up and pulled his head down towards hers, her right pulling down his body to lie on top of her, one leg reaching around to curl around his body. Her mouth fastened on his with an enthusiasm that reminded him that, though she might be young, she was certainly not new to this kind of situation. To older men, he added inwardly, with the faintest trace of guilt.
Her hands were all over him, finally reaching down to the small of his back to grab his shirt and pull it up over his shoulders and head, breaking off the kiss with an air of disappointment, but only long enough to allow the shirt to be freed and thrown to the carpet.
“What’s this?” she asked in surprise.
“My wedding ring,” he told her simply, knowing that she meant the golden circle suspended from the silver chain around his neck, the gold circle that now hung down against the lower part of her throat.
“You’re married?” She asked it as if she had always half expected it, as if she had asked this question to men before and known the answer before it was given.
“I was. It was a long time ago.” He stroked the side of her face, and she moved her head away, only the slightest of movements.
Her eyes widened. Perhaps unconsciously she gently bit her lip. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.
He shrugged. “Like I said, it was a long time ago.” He cut off any further comment with another kiss, softer this time, and ignored the soft mocking laughter from the mantelpiece. The girl wriggled underneath him, shedding the skirt and helping him to slip her out of her top.
The girl’s hands tugged at his belt, touching him, helping him to ignore the voice.
Martin, look at me.
The voice was more insistent this time. He tried to blot it out of his mind, concentrating every thought on the girl beneath him, on her soft skin, her firm body, and her hands that were slipping his trousers down over his thighs…
Look at me.
It seemed like his eyes were forced open, as surely as if they were the eyes of a puppet, strings forced through the lids. He looked at the skull now. What else could he do?
You know what to do.
He tore his gaze away, jumping away from the girl as if her touch caused him pain. Her eyes, her face, her body could not hide her shock.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice almost panicked.
“I have to go,” he stammered, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
“Now?” she asked in disbelief.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, starting to walk away. He almost fell, remembered that his trousers were half down. He pulled them roughly up, zipping them closed and leaving the belt hanging forlornly down. He caught a last glimpse of her, sitting there, looking vulnerable in her near nakedness, her mouth open.
The bathroom door closed with a reassuring solidity behind him, and he fumbled for the lock. His breath was coming in short heavy gasps now, and he leaned back against the door, feeling a surge of nausea, trying to fight it off.
He stumbled over to the sink, turning the cold tap on full. In the mirror above the taps he caught a glimpse of himself, naked from the waist up, his hair tousled by the girl’s hands, his eyes wild. Then he leaned down to the sink, his hands cupping, and began to splash the water onto his face, feeling it splash over his neck and eyes.
He felt a sudden chill creep across his body, and knew she was there.
Not Terri. The girl would still be downstairs, probably wondering what she had let herself in for, possibly muttering something about men, trying to decide whether to stay or whether to get dressed and leave. Besides, she could not have come through a locked door.
He looked up at the mirror. “When will you leave me alone?” he asked quietly.
He could see her standing behind him. Not her face; that was hidden behind her hair. But that same hair, long and almost black, the shape of her shoulders, that dress she wore. Nothing could have been made her more recognisable to him.
Why do you do this to me?
He laughed bitterly. “Why do I do this to you? Why do you do this to me? Christ, I don’t know why either of us does anything any more.”
Will you turn and look at me?
He kept his eyes on the mirror.
Am I so ugly to you now?
Behind him, she raised her head. Freed from the veil of her hair, the skull looked at him.
“Never,” he said, his tongue suddenly thick in his mouth. “You’ll always be beautiful.”
And yet you don’t even remember my face.
He took a deep breath. He could feel the tears welling in his eyes, just as they always did. “I still love you,” he whispered.
Then why do you do this to me?
“Because you’re dead!” He almost screamed the words at the mirror. “You’re dead and I’m alive. Why can’t you accept that?”
Do you want me to leave you? Forever?
Brook brushed at the tears that were streaming down his face, and turned to face her. He raised his hand, gently running his fingertips across the smooth cheekbone.
“No,” he whispered. “Please, never leave me.”
Then do what you have to do.
He looked deep into the darkness of the skull and, after the slightest of pauses, he nodded. He took a deep breath and, taking a towel, wiped his face.
When he looked up he was alone.
Terri was fully dressed when he returned to the living room a few minutes later. She looked up as he entered. “Where’s your phone?” she asked, her voice bitter. “I’m going to ring for a taxi.”
“I’ll phone for you,” he lied.
“Thanks, I can do it myself.” She looked away from him, almost contemptuously. He walked over to the mantelpiece, looking down at the skull, resting his left hand gently upon it while his eyes searched the rest of the ornaments. His right hand closed on wood.
Terri leaned down, looking clumsy and like a gawky teenager as she tried to put her shoes on while standing.
His right hand behind his back, he stepped over to her and placed his left hand on her shoulder. She turned sharply, recoiling from his touch.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
She must have misread his meaning, he decided. Her eyes softened slightly and her mouth began to form words.
His left hand closed on her right arm, and he saw the look of pain as his fingers closed with all his force, holding her in place. His right hand, gripping the Zulu carving so tightly that his palm was starting to bleed, swung around from behind him.
In his nervousness, his haste, he made a mess of the first blow. The heavy wood did not strike cleanly, glancing against her temple with enough force to daze but not kill. The edge of the wood sliced open a wound instantly, and even as the first blood emerged she spun away and stumbled from him. He was surprised enough by his error that he failed to hold her in place, and she dropped to the ground, her eyes looking up with complete bewilderment, quickly replaced by pain, and with it terror.
He knew she would scream now, and although he knew there was no one within hearing distance, he could not bear to hear her despair and panic. He dropped down on top of her, his knee hammering into her chest with enough force to instantly wind her. His free hand closed on her windpipe, using his body weight to add to the pressure. Her hands slapped feebly at his body. He barely noticed, not even when her long nails raked his naked chest.
He looked down into her eyes. She looked so young now, and the blood on her temple, running in thin rivulets down her pretty face, looked shockingly red against the unnatural paleness of her skin. Her eyes were beyond panic now, almost an acceptance of death in them, but with a quiet plea for life. The carving felt so very heavy in his hand.
With a roar he smashed the carving down upon the girl’s unprotected head. The face that had contorted with pleasure less than ten minutes before disappeared, shattered in an instant into an unrecognisable nothingness. Blood pumped explosively from the massive wound, spraying onto Brook’s chest and arms. He could taste small droplets on his lips.
He raised the carving again, and realised that the impact of the wood on the girl’s cranium had snapped it in two. The upper torso and head of the Zulu lay on the carpet two feet away. He still held the lower body and legs, now dripping blood over his wrist and forearm. With a shudder of disgust he threw the wood onto the fire, where the blood hissed and the damp wood smoked.
He lifted his weight from the corpse and collapsed backwards onto the sofa, trying to get his breath back. From the mantelpiece, the skull grinned at him.
“Does that make you happy?” he asked bitterly. “Are you satisfied?”
There was no answer. He hadn’t really expected one. She never spoke, not once the killing was over.
He stood up. The blood had spread in a widening stain across the carpet, with droplets scattered over a wider area. There was even some on the walls, pumped out with enough force to speckle his carefully chosen wallpaper. He muttered a curse as he realised how much it would cost to replace the carpet. Cleaning it was out of the question; he would always know the stain was there. The stains always lingered longest, even longer than the guilt.
Initially, he tried to drag the body by the hair, but it was not long enough and too slippery with blood. He grabbed the ankles instead, pulling the weight towards the kitchen, cursing as he saw the thick crimson trail that the shattered head was leaving as it dragged across the carpet.
It took him nearly an hour to bury the body. It used to take him much longer, but now when he went out he always kept a hole ready, next to the others, hidden from general view by the thick trees at the end of the garden. At first concealment had worried him, but no one ever came down here anyway. The first dozen or so graves had long since been covered by grass, shrubs and the smattering of striplings he had planted for that purpose. The newer ones were still just about visible, but he made sure that his guests never came that far down the garden. It was easy when you knew how to lie, and Brook was a man who knew.
When he eventually returned to the living room, caked in a mixture of blood and dirt, shivering despite the exertion and the warmth of the night, the skull did not greet him. He had expected nothing less.
“It’s done,” he said. “She’s buried with the others.”
There was no response.
“Don’t be like this, please,” he begged, dropping to his knees. The carpet felt sodden through the fabric of his trousers. “Please, don’t leave me.” Tears streamed down his face, running across his lips, bringing the taste of mud, salt, blood.
He couldn’t be sure how long he remained there, kneeling before the fire, ignoring the heat on his skin. When he stood, he felt his trousers tight against his knees where the blood had dried and hardened. He reached out a hand and lifted the skull, raising it to his lips and kissing it gently, and placed it back down again, seeing the mark of his kiss stark against the white skull.
He was almost out of the room, heading for the shower and bed, when he heard the voice, the tone softer than before, little more than a whisper as it carried to him the words he longed to hear, the words he dreaded every moment of his life.
I will never leave you.