IN HINDSIGHT, I shouldn’t have worn the gold belt with the diamanté buckle. But Ollie had bought it for me, Christmas was three weeks away, and no night out on the razz in Brighton was complete without a bit of bling.
Ollie texted from his car: Ready? I’m outside.
I climbed onto Jamie’s bed, on the opposite side of the room to mine, pulled back the curtains, and gave Ollie a wave. He was going to die when he saw I’d bleached my hair—boring old mousy brown to supersexy platinum blond. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I checked my quiff in the mirror one last time, slipped my wallet and phone into my pocket, and bolted down the stairs for the front door.
In my excitement I forgot to check if the coast was clear. Dad and I ran into each other in the downstairs hallway, as he was leaving the loo.
The rushing sound that started in my ears might have been the toilet tank refilling, or it might have been my heart pounding. I ducked my head and tried to angle past him, saying, “See ya, Dad. Don’t wait up. I might not be back until tomorrow morning.”
He grabbed my arm. “Dressed like that. The fuck you are.” His fingers dug in, and I winced, but I didn’t try to wriggle out of his grip. I might have been a grown man, twenty-one last birthday, but I was still three inches shorter and three stone lighter than him.
“I’m going to a club. Everyone dresses like this on a Friday night.”
“No.” His face went beet red, and for some strange reason, I couldn’t help noticing how it made his eyes look bluer. Perhaps because our eye color was the one and only feature we shared.
With his other arm, he spread his palm flat on my chest and pressed my back against the wall. The strength went out of my knees. His breath stunk of beer and the minced beef he’d had for dinner.
I tried not to gag as he breathed in my face. “Poofs dress like this. Faggots, homos, nancies.”
“Terry!” Mum stood in the kitchen doorway, clutching the frame, white-knuckled. “Let him be. Come on, the film’s about to start.” Her bottom lip trembled, and for a sickening moment, it was impossible to see that once she’d been beautiful. There was a time people used to say she looked like Audrey Hepburn.
Dad turned his head slowly and said very quietly, very deliberately, “No son of mine is going out dressed like a fucking nancy.”
“I’ll take off the belt.” I scrabbled for the clasp. “You’re right, it’s a bit too much.”
“Too much? Too much! I’ll tell you what’s too much. Twenty-one years, I’ve put a roof over your poncy head, and this is what I get in return. You’re an embarrassment. Jesus fucking Christ, what if one of the blokes from the pub sees you? What the fuck am I going to say?”
“They won’t see him, Terry. His friend’s coming to pick him up. Isn’t he, Josh?”
“You shut your gob,” he said to her. A thin rope of spit quivered between his lips. “This is your fault, you stupid cow. You mollycoddled him. You turned him into a pansy.”
Mum and I didn’t move—didn’t say a word. We knew the drill. When the ranting began, the wisest course of action was to let him blow off steam. A couple of minutes, that’s all it took. Ollie wasn’t to know that, though, and I’m not sure he could have understood it even if I’d told him.
If he had, I’m sure he wouldn’t have honked his horn. Twice.
Dad pushed me to one side, hard. I hit the top corner of the radiator on my way down. Hot, nauseating pain sliced through my ribs. I cried out. Mum ran to help, wailing something too high-pitched and hysterical to understand.
Neither of us were quick enough to stop Dad yanking back the front door and shouting into the night, “Fuck off! Fuck off, you filthy arse fucker.”
I scrambled up, terrified Dad was going to run out into the drizzle, in his socks and old trackie bottoms with the hole in the crotch, and give Ollie what for.
I didn’t think. I reacted. My hand closed around a big wodge of his sleeve, enough that as I pulled at it and begged him to come inside—I’d get changed, I’d put on something else—his cardigan slipped off his shoulder.
Dad spun around, swung his arm upward, and caught me under the chin. I was lucky I didn’t bite off my tongue. The shock closed my windpipe and froze my entire body, horror-struck, like one of those people Medusa turned into stone.
Mum’s hands on my face, and her crying, brought me back blinking and gasping, as Dad pushed past us into the lounge, slamming the door behind him.
“I’m sorry, Mum.”
“Why do you do it? I know you can’t help…. But why do you…?” She ran her hand down the front of my plum velvet jacket.
“Go on,” I muttered, “go and watch your film. I’ll be all right.”
She swiped her fingers across my wet cheek. I knew she loved me, which I supposed made the disappointment in her eyes hurt all the more.
After she followed my dad into the lounge, I opened the front door. Ollie was gone.
I dragged my feet up the stairs, back to the room I shared with my brother, and collapsed onto the bed. Thank God Jamie was out, and John, and the rest of them. I didn’t need anyone else going at me too.
My phone buzzed. Ollie had texted. What’s going on? I’m round the corner.
My hands were shaking too much to text, so I rung him. I’m not sure I made much sense, blabbering about my belt, but I think he’d seen enough through the open front door to get the gist of it.
“Josh, listen to me. Listen carefully. You need to calm down.” On the other end of the line, Ollie’s breathing sounded heavy and fast. “Pack your bags. You’re not spending another night in that hellhole.”
“But where am I going to go?”
“You’re coming to live with me, silly. Now start packing.”
Two years later
I KNEW something was up the second I walked into the office.
I called out, “Morning, loves.” No one replied. No one looked at me. Except the branch director, Toby.
He got up from his chair, sauntered over, and dropped his car keys on my desk. Before I got the chance to apologize, he said, “Good morning, Josh. Nice of you to come in.”
“I’m really sorry. The traffic was horrible this morning, then there was an accident outside Tesco’s, and I had to double back and drive in through the industrial estate.”
He rolled his eyes.
I didn’t make a habit of being late, and it was only twenty minutes, but everything I did seemed to rub him up the wrong way lately. It started after my split with Ollie.
Toby and Ollie had been mates since preschool—they’d known each other the best part of thirty years—and it was Ollie who’d persuaded Toby to take me on at Finch & Parker’s Estate Agency. The last few months, I got the feeling Toby regretted it.
“I’ve got a job for you,” he said, “out in Harts Oak.”
I was about to argue, but I decided against it. Toby was in a right mood, and I didn’t want to make it worse.
He bulldozed on. “I’ve already signed the contract and drawn up the details. The paperwork’s there.” He motioned to my desk. “You fancy yourself a photographer. Take the camera and get some decent shots of the grounds as well as the properties. Don’t fuck it up. I want a half-panel display in the window.”
“You want me to go to Harts Oak and take photographs?”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I? Take my car. They’re expecting you in an hour, and I’m not having you representing Finch & Parker in that pathetic little tin you drive.”
I had two new rental properties of my own to visit. I had paperwork to do. I had a couple of renters whose references I needed to chase. If I went to Harts Oak, I’d lose half the day.
But Toby was my boss, and I really needed to keep this job. So I smiled and said, “Thanks, Toby. I’ll take good care of it.” Then to Becky and Linda, I chirped, “See you later.”
“Take your time,” Toby said, already back in his seat, sipping his triple espresso.
I waited until I was in the driver’s seat of Toby’s Beamer before I looked at the two sheets of paper I’d snatched off my desk. The address said Hartley Manor, Hampshire. It always struck me as funny, even then, how the bigger the house, the shorter the address. Take where I hung my hat these days. That was a full six lines plus the postcode. Whereas, Buckingham Palace? Say no more.
I let my head fall back and my gaze settle on his spotless suede-effect ceiling upholstery. The car still had that unmistakable new smell. It made my stomach roll.
I couldn’t shrug off the suspicion that Toby expected me to fuck up and maybe even wanted me to. Why else would he send me, the office lackey, to deal with a load of toffs?
As for, “fancy myself a photographer”? He must have got that from Ollie. Back when we were good, I’d told Ollie my dream job would be taking the portrait photos for Hello magazine. It was a private fancy I’d shared with someone I trusted. I knew Ollie had only been trying to help by telling Toby, but I wished he hadn’t.
The driver’s seat had an electronic switch on the side that I used to slide myself forward. I adjusted the mirrors and typed my destination into the touch screen navigation system on the center of the dashboard.
Hartley Manor itself wasn’t for sale. Most seven- and eight-figure properties were marketed out of the Finch & Parker head office in Guildford. In the notes Toby gave me, it said Sir Gerrard Granger was selling off a row of three tenants’ cottages on the edge of his estate. At the price they were going for, soon they’d belong to upwardly mobile, young professional couples seeking a rural haven from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life. Once upon a time, they’d have been rented to farm laborers, what my folks called proper grafters.
I came from that stock, though you wouldn’t guess it to look at me. None of the men in my family were under six feet tall. They had callused hands and broad shoulders, and arrived home every night covered in dust and sweat. I was five-nine, fine-boned, and manicured (though I drew the line at nail polish). The only time I ever got covered in dust was when I emptied the Hoover bag. I didn’t sweat. I glistened.
Finch & Parker didn’t have any rental properties down Harts Oak way, nor usually any sales. I followed the satnav into unfamiliar territory: a slip road exiting the A3 straight onto a country lane with high hedges. All I could see was the road in front and behind, edged with budding greenery, and a vast blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds.
The sun shone brightly. I turned up the radio, just a notch, slipped on my shades, and powered down the window. I told myself that going to see a “Sir” wasn’t such a tough gig. So long as I was polite and professional, what could possibly go wrong?
I cruised past a village decked out with tubs and baskets overflowing with flowers. Until recently, I’d never taken much notice of the appeal of a nice display of flowers. Especially hanging baskets. It took some effort to cultivate a good hanging basket, particularly the ones with those trailing blue flowers. They had to be watered every day in the summer, and that took care and love. Anyone who’d do that for a basket of plants was bound to keep a nice house.
The satnav screen indicated I was three miles from my destination. A mile later, a freestanding yellow warning sign blocked the road. I didn’t need to read it; I saw the mucky river gushing down the hillside, over the road, and into the next field.
My lifted spirits washed away with the floodwater, down the hill and out of sight. I’d heard on the radio that the weather had been bad down here, but I thought the worst of the rain had ended two weeks ago. I clutched at my chest as my heart sank. Whatever else I did today, I couldn’t be late for my appointment with his lordship. My life was over.
Okay, that was an exaggeration. Not all hope was lost. Southern Water had a van parked on the side of the road, and two blokes sat in the front eating sandwiches.
As I got out of the car, I wished I’d been in my own motor and not wearing a shiny suit that happened to be the exact same shade of blue as Toby’s flashy BMW. I threw my sunglasses onto the passenger seat and walked to the van, attempting a manly sort of swagger. Apparently, I have a tendency to mince when I’m in a hurry. Perfect strangers have laughed at me for the way I look, walk, and talk. I’ve been called “faggot” and “nancy” and every nasty taunt between. Once, an old lady spat on me.
Out of habit, I braced myself for some sort of reaction, even as I cleared my throat with a deep cough. The driver wound down his window and I smiled as I said, “Hi there, gents. Sorry to barge in on your break, but I was wondering if you could help me out.”
Not so much as a raised eyebrow or a snigger. The driver, who was at least old enough to be my dad, actually seemed sympathetic—despite the fact he was looking right at Toby’s motor, and at me.
“You’re going to have to double back, son. Take the A3 back up two junctions….”
I took a receipt out of my wallet and the driver lent me his pen to scribble the directions. The sun beat down on the back of my neck and the heat spread to my face. A rivulet of sweat trickled from behind my ear into my shirt collar.
“A couple of these roads don’t show up on those GPS maps,” he said, “so look out for the signs. Some of them are just blocks of stone in the verges.”
“Okay. Thanks,” I replied, mindful that the clock was still ticking, ticking. “I suppose I’d better get a move on.”
“It should only take you twenty minutes. You’ll be fine.”
Back in the car, I turned off the radio, flattened my scrap of paper, and laid it out on the passenger seat. After the A3, and a couple of twists and turns on country lanes, the road narrowed into a single track. Every so often, however, the road widened for about twenty feet on one side—passing places they were called, if I remembered my highway code correctly—to allow vehicles coming in the other direction to get past. Judging by the tire tracks gouged out of the mud to either side of me, most people around here didn’t much bother with them.
Half a mile on, the road turned sharply to the right, and to my left I saw a massive old pile in the distance with turrets and flags on the roof: Hartley Manor, set in the middle of acres of green fields.
Straggly hedgerows and trees lined the road, following the curve and climb of the hill. The manor went out of eyeshot a second later, but I was confident I was headed in the right direction. Good thing, too, because the car had lost its GPS signal.
About the same time, the road forked. I took the left, toward the manor, which I realized soon after might have been a mistake. The tarmac gave way to a potholed track. I slowed to under twenty and still the car bounced and lurched, up and down, in and out of the dips and holes.
My back and shoulders tensed through the grinding and crunching noises beneath the tires. I prayed the stones weren’t sharp—the last thing I needed was a puncture.
I wanted to stop and turn around. But I didn’t want to be late. I slowed to a crawl and pressed on, leaving the fields behind and following the track into a tunnel of tall trees.
Above me, the leaves burst from the top branches in that light, bright fluorescent green only seen in spring. Either side of me, budding bluebells carpeted the woodland floor. Another week of mild weather and they’d be in flower.
I could have taken some lovely photographs if I’d had more than five minutes to make it to my appointment. Instead, white-knuckled, I rolled on, steering around the worst of the dips….
Without warning, the track came to an abrupt end. My heart went into a gallop and a hot, icy shiver ran over my face and chest. I put the car in park and stared at the zero bars on my phone. What the hell was I going to do? More importantly, what course of action would get me into the least amount of trouble?
On either side of the track, black, peaty puddles of unknown depth riddled the sodden ground. A three-point turn was out of the question—I’d end up getting stuck in the mud. Ahead, the woods stretched on as far as I could see: too far for me to see if I was still on course for Hartley Manor. Not that I could abandon the car and hope to get there on foot. My only choice was to reverse and take the other fork in the road.
I turned halfway around in my seat, my left arm pressed to the headrest, my right hand holding the steering wheel steady. I pressed the gas cautiously. I wasn’t the best at reversing, and this wasn’t my forty-grand car.
The car bounced along in a straightish line. We were doing fine, the Beamer and me. Until the gunfire erupted.
I jumped so hard my foot slammed down on the accelerator. The car jerked back, and I lost my grip on the steering wheel. In that momentary loss of control, the car swerved wildly, off the track and into the mud.
I grabbed for the wheel and slammed on the brake—only a split second later—but the rear sensors were already beeping, faster and faster, louder and louder.
The car slid backward. I kept my foot down on the brake, all the way to the floor, but nothing could stop my momentum. The car glided through the mud, one paralyzing inch after another, toward that bloody fucking tree I could see so perfectly on the screen in the dashboard, framed by yellow lines. Then red ones.
My pulse thundered in my ears. Louder still, the rear sensor screeched, the beeps so close together they merged into one long ear-piercing sound. Even when the rear bumper hit the tree and the car finally stopped, the bleeping went on and on and on, like the sound of one of those hospital machines after someone’s died.
I wasn’t superstitious, but as I sat there trembling, it seriously felt like the car was trying to tell me something. And I knew exactly what that something was.
If whoever had that gun didn’t get to me first, Toby was going to kill me.