‘No no, here’s fine, thanks!’ said Hugo Gubbins, getting on for three days earlier.
‘The Centipede?’ said the cab driver. ‘You’re not staying here, are you?’
‘No no, but…’ Hugo Gubbins scanned the vicinity. ‘It’s just down that road, right? On Google Maps, anyway.’
‘Good luck getting Google Maps to work out here,’ said the driver, getting his suitcase out of the boot. ‘Twelve pounds forty please.’
Hugo paid the woman. ‘No problem, I have a print-out of the village. Always useful for world-building.’
‘I’m writing a novella, you know. Fifty thousand words in a month. I was thinking here could stand a crystal tower, that moves on a hundred legs when it’s threatened…’
The car drove off.
‘Hugo? Where are you? Why can’t I see you? Why can’t I hear footsteps?’
The person in the stairwell was… nondescript. Neither too short nor too tall, neither stocky nor wiry, skin tone neither pale nor dark, and that was pretty much all that you could say given the light. Not even the gender, or lack thereof, was detectable. The hair was kept under a hood, the clothes were on the dark side, and presumably shoes were being worn somewhere.
‘We told you before, did we not?’ said the person. ‘We will not stand by and be benevolent while you ruin things. Here you are, ruining them. What are we to do?’
Hugo saw the knife. Not because it glinted: there wasn’t enough light for it to glint. Rather, because it was a massive great knife. It was held in the only distinguishing feature: one of two long gloves.
He took a deep shuddering breath.
‘This is an absolutely terrible idea,’ whispered Hugo.
‘It is,’ agreed the voice in his ear, ‘and if you can think up another one then I am all for that.’
That settled the matter.
Hugo didn’t know whether to be surprised or not. On the one hand, a room filled wall-to-wall with computer units and monitors, the only light coming from the glowing screens, wasn’t one he would have expected to see anywhere in Pierstree. On the other hand, if he’d expected to see it anywhere, it would have been in one of the rooms in Julia’s house he hadn’t been allowed to enter.
Nigel Larrix lived – had lived, when he was alive – opposite the road from the Centipede. Therefore it was opposite the road too from a large duckpond, which was next to the pub. Occasionally the ducks would cross the usually empty road and mill around on Nigel’s front lawn. Occasionally this would have disastrous and feathery results.
There was no danger of that today though. Today the ducks, and coots, and moorhens were staying in the shade on the far side of the pond, putting as much space between themselves and the commotion opposite as possible.
By the time Hugo got there, around ten, the initial hubbub had died down somewhat. There were still police cars and ambulances, and a small crowd of people in shock or in tears, and ‘POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS’ everywhere; but it was muted.
‘Thought I might find you here,’ said Nigel.
‘Hello,’ said Hugo. ‘I’ve managed not to start any more punch-ups.’
It was said as a joke, but the moment the words left his lips they shrivelled. Nigel might have raised one eyebrow slightly. It was hard to tell.
‘Hello Nige!’ said the rector. ‘How’s everything?’
‘Hello Dane,’ said Nigel. ‘Been better, been worse. How’s the team sheet?’
‘Coming along nicely, thank you! Your friend makes eight!’
Nigel seemed to stare briefly into the eyes of Jesus, gazing down in glass form from above the altar. Then he nodded good-bye to Dane and left. Hugo followed him.
Hugo awoke at nine, having slept badly. Not because of any noise, although the dawn chorus had woken him at five, and occasional muffled sounds did emanate from what was presumably Julia’s bedroom. No, Hugo was used to noises at night.
That was the problem. Hugo could sleep through a traffic jam, revving their engines and honking their horns: he had, once, on a road trip, while an ex drove him and kicked him awake occasionally out of jealousy. Remove the traffic noise, though, and the eerie silence wouldn’t let his mind rest. It kept waiting for a car that barely ever came.
It generated ideas for his novella instead. As he became more and more tired, they became more and more outlandish. Now, stumbling out of bed and the house, he couldn’t remember any of them.