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Into the Dark by Joe Miller

© Joe Miller

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(Short story)



INTO THE DARK (revised)


By Joe Miller



They’d been playing ‘book openings’ while they waited.

"The evening it all began, they were running late," said Henry.

"Not bad," said Kellan. "Not bad. Even though it's a bit clichéd."

"Nothing wrong with a bit of cliché occasionally,” he replied. “As long as you know you’re using one, and why. Anyway, as an opening sentence it draws the reader in. Leaves them wanting more. When 'what' began? And who are 'they'? And, why were 'they' 'running late'?’

He poured himself more coffee.

Kellan uncrossed her long legs and lit another cigarette.

“How many’s that today?” he asked.

She gave him a flat look, rose and crossed the room to stare out of the big living-room window of their north London flat into the street below. After nearly two weeks of cloudless skies, it had been raining all day. Soft, smeary stuff. Deceptively wet. It had mixed with the residual dust leaving a greasy, treacherous coating on the roads and pavements.

“God. Look at them. People. More immigrants than natives."

She flicked cigarette ash into the pot of a long-suffering Peace Lily.

“Bloody munts.”

Henry sipped his coffee. He’d often wondered at the root of Kellan’s occasionally revealed racial antipathies. She’d been born in South Africa but schooled in Britain. She had flawless, honey-coloured skin. In less politically correct times, some might have suggested she had a 'touch of the tarbrush' in her genes.

She turned to face him.

“How much longer before we hear anything? Fuck. Are we just supposed to sit here all day?”

He settled further back in his deep, winged armchair. Stretched his corduroy trousered legs out in front of him.

“I don’t know, Kell. I don’t know any more than you do."

“I mean, they contacted us for Christ’s sake.”

“Kell...”

“Yes, yes, fine. Fine.”

On a low table to one side of the room, a shabby, stuffed polecat continued to bare its yellowed teeth. Its gaze never wavered.

“Let’s blow up Buckingham Palace,” she said.

“What?”

“Let’s blow up Buckingham Palace. That’s an opening line.”

“Get such thoughts out of your lovely head. Especially when we meet Sir Raphul Andehran. He's an admirer of the monarchy, particularly since he got his gong.”

“If we’re ever going to meet Sir Raphul sodding Andehran.”

“You know his reputation, Kellan. God, you’re like a pregnant wasp.”

“You’ve a way with a simile, Henry. For an ageing copywriter.”

“Thanks,” he said. “But I’ve got my trophies.”

She turned to him.

“Am I one?”

Before he could answer, she smiled. The full-on radiant one that she seemed to be able to turn on like a light when it suited her.

He still marvelled sometimes that they were together. He’d once asked her, why me?

She’d told him to have more confidence in himself.

Sir Raphul Andehran was one of the film industry's most influential producers. Five days previously when his executive assistant, John Topping, had called to tell them that Andehran had read their latest script and wanted to meet, they’d gone out and blown a substantial sum of money on an impressive amount of Krug.

They’d sold a few film treatments to independent production companies. But this was different.

And now they waited.

They’d been asked to make themselves available on this particular day as Andehran was flying in from Singapore. They’d be contacted when he arrived and told where he wanted to meet. This was not unusual. He had a reputation for obsessive anonymity and few had ever met him.

So Henry sat drinking coffee and Kellan paced restlessly on her lean, colt-like legs, while she smoked.

He tried another ‘opening’.

“There were only two shops in the town...” he started to say, when the phone rang.

Kellan beat him to it.

He watched her inhaling smoke deeply and exhaling it furiously as she listened.

“Yes, John,” she said. “Yes. That’ll be excellent.

“Yes, of course. We’re absolutely delighted. Not a problem.

“Two hours then.

“We look forward to it very much.

"Yes. Goodbye.” And she hung up.

Her eyes were bright as backlit diamonds when she looked at Henry.

“Andehran’s at Commonwealth Gate. He’s taken a suite at The fucking Lanchester and wants us there for dinner in two hours. Seven o’clock sharp. You know how he has his people check everyone out right down to the last detail before they're allowed to meet him? We must have passed some sort of test. They say he's even had people followed. I wonder what he looks like? Anyway, Topping made a point of our being on time.”

She was grinning like a rumbustious child. A rumbustious child with a mouth like a bargee.

Henry rose from his chair.

Kellan stepped across the room and threw her arms around him, looked up into his eyes.

“We’re on our way, Henry. We’re on our fucking way."

“Let’s not count our chickens, gorgeous," he said in best fake Bogart.

“Damn. I’d forgotten the bloody tube strike,” he added. “We’ll have to take the car. We’ll never get a taxi.”

“I’ll drive,” she said.

“Kell...”

“No. I’m driving. I want to. Don’t argue.”

“OK,” he said, already feeling a little sympathy for anyone or anything that might hinder their progress.

“We’d better get a move on then. It could take us most of the two hours,” he added.

“I’m going to ask him for an assistant producer’s role,” said Kellan.

“Kell, let’s just get the ruddy script sold first, huh?”

“Don’t be so wet, Henry. This is just the start.”

<>

Heading south into the city they struck the first tailback.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” said Kellan. “Come on you bastards. Get out of the fucking way.”

But the soft, insidious rain draping the vehicles around them seemed only to reinforce the indifference of their drivers.

“Calm down, will you?” said Henry. “It’s going to be like this for most of the way in. We’ll make it. Here. Have another cigarette.”

He’d been lighting them for her almost continuously since she’d engaged the gears. It made him feel like starting again.

He reminded himself yet again why he didn’t like being a passenger when Kellan was driving.

But they made progress. Bit by crawling bit.

It wasn't enough for Kellan.

“We’re not going to make it in time. This is going to be too tight.”

“Kell, we’re fine. We’re not that far away now and we’ve still got just under an hour. Relax will you?”

“We’re not going to make it, Henry. And you know Andehran’s reputation.”

“Listen will you? Look, we’ll be fine.”

“No. I’m taking a short cut.”

And she swung the car aggressively into a side road, accelerating up through the gears as she did so. Cars parked nose to tail on either side left little room for error.

“Kell. For God’s sake. Take it easy."

He checked the buckle on his seatbelt.

“I know what I’m doing. We cannot, cannot be late. Anyway, look at the compass. As long as I’m heading in the right direction, we’ll save time.”

They’d had a compass mounted on the dashboard. It had been done more for fun than as an aide to navigation.

“Kellan, please,” he said, as she wrenched the car into yet another side road.

“Be quiet, Henry. I’m not going to be late for this.”

He shook his head. Resigned. Somewhere, vaguely, his brain registered the ‘I’ in ‘not going to be late’, rather than ‘we’. But the thought sloped off into a remote corner.

And so, as daylight retreated in defeat once more, they rallied through Finchley and Golders Green, heedless of the runners and walkers and kite flyers of Hampstead Heath as they left it in their wake. But they did, to Henry’s surprise, seem to have made some headway as they reached the edge of central London.

<>

Kellan whipped the car into a narrow lane which had appeared on their left.

Neither of them saw the diminutive shape until the car was almost on it.

Kellan was accelerating and even though she braked instinctively, the surface was too slick and they hit the figure with a sickening thud, then bumped heavily over the top of it.

“Jesus Christ!” said Henry.

She braked again and this time the car came to a halt.

The prone figure was a little, dark unshaven man, wearing a collarless shirt beneath a stained waistcoat and a grubby-looking coat that had seen much better days. His greasy, frayed trousers looked like the missing half of a suit. Some sort of small, flat hat had rolled to the gutter at one side.

His body was twisted at an unnatural angle and blood was flowing freely from a deep gouge in his head. Henry felt for a pulse. It was only just detectable. Fluttery. And the man's breathing was ragged.

“Christ, Kellan. I think he’s dying.”

She looked up from the small man, then to either side.

“No one’s seen us,” she said.

“What?”

“I said, no one’s seen us, Henry. We...”

“For Christ’s sake, Kellan. We’ve almost killed somebody!”

He reached for his mobile phone but, as he pulled it out of his jacket pocket, Kellan grabbed it from him, hugging it to herself.

“Henry. Listen. No one’s seen us. If we stay here now, then we lose the biggest chance of our lives. We can’t do anything for this man right now. Anyway, it was his own fucking fault stepping out of the shadows like that.”

“What?” He shook his head. “Jesus, will you listen to yourself? We...have...almost...killed...a...human being. With...our...car.”

“Henry...”

“He’s nearly dead, Kellan! He probably has a wife and children waiting for him somewhere. I don’t believe what you’re suggesting.”

“What is it you don’t believe? That if we stay it’s going to help him? You said it. He’s nearly dead! We can call an ambulance. Anonymously. From a phone box.”

“Kell...”

“Don’t Kell me,” she said, her eyes glittering. “Wife and family my fucking backside. Look at him for fuck’s sake. He’s probably a dish washer in some goddamned shitty little munt restaurant. I bet he hasn’t even got a fucking work permit!”

“Kell, we just cannot...”

“Look at me, Henry. Look...at...me.”

He looked.

“Listen. This man is badly injured. We did not mean to do this. But it’s happened. We cannot benefit him by staying. And we cannot benefit ourselves by staying. We can only damage ourselves. That's all we can do.”

She looked up and down the lane again.

“No one has seen us. Yet. But someone will come down this lane shortly. And they will see us. And then we are fucked. Then we are fucked, Henry. And we will never hear from Raphul Andehran again. You know that.”

She paused for a moment.

“So get in the car, Henry.”

“Kellan, please...we...”

“Get in the fucking car, Henry. Now.”

He rose slowly to his feet. Hesitated as he approached the passenger door, looked back at the man lying there like a little mangled doll, and then got into the car.

As he fastened his seat belt, he thought he saw movement behind them near the entrance to the lane.

“What is it?” said Kellan.

“Nothing. I just thought I saw something. Back there, in the shadows.”

She got out and walked back. The rain continued its gentle descent.

“There’s no one there," she said on her return. Then she shut the driver’s door quietly, started the engine and drove away.

Henry was silent.

“Listen to me, Henry,” said Kellan. “It's a great shame what happened. I wish it had not happened. I feel very sorry about it but we cannot help that man now by staying there. Anyway, we'll call an ambulance and if we discover he does have a family or whatever, then we can donate some money anonymously as well. That's the best we can do. Do you agree?”

He stared out of the window.

“Henry. Do you agree?”

“Yes,” he muttered dully. A part of his character that he had not recognised before had clutched at her argument. And he’d hated it for doing so.

A little later, Kell pulled up outside a wine shop. She returned with a half bottle of cognac.

“Drink some of this,” she said, handing it to him.

“I don’t need it."

“You do. Drink some of it now and then pull yourself together. This is probably the most important night of our lives.”

She looked out of the driver’s window.

“There’s a phone box across the road. I’ll only be a minute.”

He swallowed some of the liquor.

“I’ve called an ambulance,” she said when she returned. “Everything’s under control.”

By the time they pulled up at The Lanchester, Henry had started smoking again.

They were five minutes late.

<>

Known as 'The Cathedral' to those who loved it and 'The Mausoleum' to those who did not, the great five-star edifice loomed over them, seeming to tempt them in. It could either keep secrets or reveal them. It had done both many times in its long life, impervious to the results of its actions.

A burgundy-uniformed doorman ushered them through magnificent, bevelled glass doors.

They approached the registration desk, gave their names and asked for Sir Raphul Andehran’s suite.

“Ah yes,” said the under-manager, approaching and taking over from the receptionist. “I have a message for you. Mr Topping begs your forgiveness but if you would be so kind as to wait in the cocktail bar, he will join you shortly. Please order anything you would like on this room number.”

“Thank you,” said Kellan, turning on her killer smile. The under-manager grew in height visibly as he beamed back.

They were ushered to an intimate bar where a table had been reserved. Henry ordered another cognac, a large one. Kellan ordered a vodka martini. His came in a fat goblet of cut crystal tradition, hers in cool, contemporary glass. A small porcelain plate of curiously elegant entrees arrived with them.

They said nothing to each other while they waited. The quiet hum of the conversation of the rich floated around them. Henry found it almost comforting. He ate most of the entrees, compulsively. Tasted nothing.

He was about to order another cognac, when a squat, broad-shouldered man, in an immaculately cut navy wool suit, entered the bar. He had black, gelled hair, and a slightly pockmarked, swarthy complexion. He looked around briefly then came over, holding out his hands expressively as he approached.

“You can only be Henry and Kellan,” he said. Henry stood to shake his hand and the man took both of Kellan’s in his own before releasing them.

“I am so terribly, terribly sorry to have to tell you this," he continued without preamble. "But I’m afraid your meeting with Sir Raphul Andehran cannot go ahead at this time.”

Henry remained standing. Bemused.

“But, John,” said Kellan reaching forward to take his own hands in hers, “John, we had to drive. The tube strike. We were only five minutes late and...”

He interrupted her.

“No. No. My dear Kellan. Henry,” he continued, looking to Henry than back to Kellan. “No. It has nothing to do with that.”

He looked down then back to Kellan once more. Took a deep breath.

“No. It is something else entirely."

“Sit down, Henry,” said Kellan, quietly, out of the corner of her mouth.

Henry subsided.

Topping glanced at him, then turned to Kellan again.

“You see," he said, "Sir Raphul is not here. And we are very concerned. He spent many of his early years in London. And each time he came here, when he arrived, he liked to spend an hour or so, walking the streets of his youth, to remind him you see. To remind him of his past. He worked in the catering industry then. In fact, he was a chef in a small restaurant. They were not easy years.

“Of course,” he added, “this was long before he turned to the industry for which he is now so well-known.”

Then he turned his sad eyes on Kellan once more.

“But I’m sorry. You do not know what I am talking about. Let me explain. When Sir Raphul arrived, he would always change his attire to something less recognisable and have his driver drop him off in the streets he had once known so well. Then he would make his own way back. But tonight he has not returned. The police are making enquiries of course – Sir Raphul is very well connected - and we are in the process of calling all of the hospitals. But so far we have heard nothing. And Sir Raphul is never late for appointments.”

Topping withdrew his hands from Kellan’s and sat back in his chair.

“But this is terrible, John,” said Kellan. “Terrible. Maybe he’s been, I don’t know, mugged perhaps. London's so unsafe these days.”

“I do not know. But I have worked for Sir Raphul for many years and this has never happened before.”

He looked as if he was about to weep.

“Forgive me, please,” he said, pulling out a large, green silk handkerchief with which he dabbed his eyes before using it to wipe his forehead.

Henry nearly bit off a piece of his crystal goblet as a terrible thought occurred to him.

"Very worrying," he managed to force out.

There was a brief silence.

“It’s just too awful,” said Kellan. “But I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation.”

“We must pray so,” said Topping, pulling out his mobile phone which had started to ring.

He listened for a moment, then replied sharply in a different language before snapping it shut.

“I’m afraid I must return,” he said. “You appreciate the difficulties of the situation."

“Of course,” said Kellan. “Of course.”

Henry rose from his seat.

Topping stood too.

“I will be in touch with you both. But I’m afraid I can guarantee nothing at this point, as you can understand."

And he held his arms away from the side of his body, palms forward.

“Perfectly,” said Kellan who also now rose.

“Of course, if you would like to use the hotel’s dining room while you are here,” added Topping, “it would be at our expense, naturally.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Henry.

John Topping nodded.

“We should go,” said Kellan. And she reached forward to kiss him lightly on the cheek.

“Please let us know what happens."

“Yes, do please,” added Henry, as the three of them exited the cocktail bar.

“I will, of course,” said Topping.

Henry shook hands with him.

Then, car keys clutched firmly in his hand, he and Kellan walked through the hotel’s richly marbled lobby, and out into the dark.

Topping watched them exit the foyer, eyes narrowed.

A pity, he mused. There had been potential in the script. Then he turned his mind elsewhere. There were more important issues to address.

A small Asian woman in black training shoes, loose black trousers and a black tracksuit top with hood down, approached him.

"Did you follow them all the way from their home?" he asked her.

"Of course."

“And you obtained clear photographs of this...this incident you witnessed?”

“Yes.”

He shook his head, briefly.

Then he turned to face her.

“Make sure copies are delivered to the right authorities.”

“I'll attend to it immediately, Sir Raphul,” she said.

“Good. I will not do business with people like these. Nor will anyone else."

And he walked decisively away.


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