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.
Hugo stared at the scene, taking down every detail he could. The way the flashing lights were drowned out by the morning sun. The way small groups of people clustered together. The surreal swimming sensation in his head, like what he saw through one eye was real and what he saw through the other was a dream, only they were both showing the same things. He noted it all. He had to write deaths, after all – he’d just rewritten one last night. This was all helping.
It helped him get his head together, too. Nigel wouldn’t want him – have wanted him – to lose his head about all this.
He sought around for someone he knew, but he was a stranger in this village. Everyone was with the people they knew, clustered together. It wasn’t his place to burst into any of the huddles. How well had he known Nigel, anyway? Two days. Compare that to the ‘essentially forever’ of basically everyone else he’d met.
He could spot some people he’d met, though. There was the Rector van Tonder, his arm around a woman who was presumably his wife. There was Simm, without stool or camper van. There were Barbara and the tall man who’d served him in the Tree, presumably Reggie Byrne. There was the group of men who’d assaulted him in the Centipede.
Hugo noticed that the latter two groups were quite close together. It would be ironic if Nigel’s death had finally managed to reconcile the village.
Apart from anything else, Hugo thought, Pierstree was even further away from a full cricket team now. He laughed at the thought. He hated the thought, and he hated himself for laughing at it. He laughed louder.
People started to turn to him. He choked it into a sob – not because he felt like sobbing, but because sobbing was the correct thing to do here.
Somebody was coming over to him. He blinked. It was Simm.
‘Hey young’un,’ he said.
‘How’d you hear?’
‘Julia told me.’
‘Huh. Didn’t think she’d know or care.’
Hugo had thought that too.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘Nobody’s got anything definite,’ said Simm. ‘Word on the street is, somebody crept into Nige’s home last night. Home invasion gone wrong.’
‘You sound like you don’t believe the word on the street.’
‘I don’t.’ Simm sniffed. ‘Nige Larrix, taken out by some burglar? Bugger that. His house is the most secure in the village, and if a burglar got in at the same time as Nige…’
‘…it’s the burglar you’d feel sorry for,’ finished Hugo.
‘Yeah. Yeah, that.’
He sniffed again. Then he put a heavy hand on Hugo’s shoulder and squeezed. There were tears running down his face.
‘Sorry Hugo. He was my mate. He was everybody here’s mate. Don’t matter which pub you go to, which football team you support or any of that. Nige had your back. He always had your back. And some BASTARD killed him!’
Hugo took a step back as Simm seethed at the innocent tarmac. Another few heads turned.
‘I’m sorry,’ Hugo said.
‘Why, did you do it?’
‘Then what the fuck are you sorry for?’
Hugo looked over at Nigel’s house. He hadn’t recognised it as such when he’d walked, together with Nigel, from the Centipede to ‘the Manor’. It was a picturesque old cottage, with false-wooden exterior, lace curtains, and a CCTV camera above the door that only slightly spoiled the look. It had a cavalcade of varied flowers in the front garden, tulips and roses and honeysuckle, a burst of colour that he wouldn’t necessarily have associated with the big brooding man. His wife maybe?
A thought struck him. ‘Simm, do you know if his wife’s okay?’
Simm blinked. ‘What’s that mate?’
‘His wife. Did they get her too?’
Simm laughed, or rather, said ‘ha’. ‘Not unless they’ve gone down the cemetery too. Nige’s wife’s been dead for five years.’
He slouched off. Hugo was left alone with his confusion.
‘Here lies Heather Larrix
Devoted wife, sorely missed.’
Hugo had found Nigel’s wife.
The Pierstree cemetery was a short walk from the churchyard, the latter’s turf presumably reserved for former village dignitaries. You passed the school, walked towards the fields where the school’s sports lessons took place, went left through what was apparently called a ‘kissing gate’ (and not, as Hugo had Googled out of procrastination, ‘gate v-shaped gap’), and proceeded down a shady lane enclosed by trees. After a while, thinking you were going to end up in a random field somewhere you would never be found, the path opened out and sprouted hundreds of gravestones. The sky opened out too. Unlike the churchyard, claustrophobic with yews, this felt like a field that just happened to have a whole bunch of dead people in it.
It had been a search, but one thing helped Hugo. He’d guessed correctly that Mrs. Larrix’s flowers would have been maintained, which reduced the number of graves to inspect and increased the number of questions Hugo had.
Maintaining the flowers didn’t strike him as the action of a man in denial; and yet, Nigel hadn’t talked about a corpse. He’d talked about his wife. He’d talked about the one person apart from him who could reunite the village. How was she meant to do that from her coffin? People had different ways of dealing with grief, Hugo knew (or had read about, anyway): was this a particularly odd one?
He unbowed his head, and prepared to walk away.
‘Stay very still.’
He felt something cold press against the back his neck. Then he felt the cold thing cut him.
‘We know who you are. We know why you’re here.’
Hugo wanted to say that he didn’t think this man (from the voice) did in fact know why he, Hugo, was here. He thought that this man had him, Hugo, mixed up with somebody else. He was here to find some peace and quiet that would be conducive to writing a novella. It hadn’t worked out like that, granted…
Hugo said none of these things. He stayed very still, and prayed to a God he wasn’t sure he believed in.
‘We’re… benevolent people, but we will not stand by and be benevolent while you ruin things. So, this is your one and only warning.
‘Leave this cemetery. Do not come back here. If you come back to this cemetery, you will not leave it. You will end up in a small unmarked grave. The only benevolence extended towards you will be a swift end. Do I make myself clear?’
A part of Hugo’s brain that annoyed him intermittently was noting how ridiculous and melodramatic this speech was. He told it to shut up while the rest of him clung desperately on to life.
‘You may move your mouth once. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Er, y-yes.’ Had he pissed himself? He thought he might have pissed himself.
‘We are glad to hear it. Oh, and – if we see you at the Pan-Midlands Solstice Game, the same thing will happen. Except it’ll be slower. Again, move your mouth once to register the clarity of this.’
‘Now. You are going to turn around, slowly. You are going to walk out of the cemetery, at what pace I do not care. You will not look behind you, otherwise…’
‘…the same thing will happen?’
There was a short, terrible pause. Hugo had long suspected he wouldn’t die in bed, but he’d hoped it would be some subversive piece of literature he’d written that sealed the deal, not impulsively finishing the sentence of a bloke with a knife.
‘You understand. Turn now. Slowly.’
Hugo did, agonisingly slowly. Small shuffling steps. He barely heard the assailant’s feet moving around him. When he was facing the path, he walked towards it, quickly. Pace hadn’t been specified, so he chose ‘as fast as possible without technically being a run’. This continued until he got to the bend in said path, at which point (instructions be damned) he ran to the kissing gate, almost vaulted it, and ran all the way back to where his home for two days had been.
When he reached the house, Hugo yanked open the front door, scampered upstairs, and began throwing things into his suitcase. His bank account, which was effectively an extension of his parents’, could take the twenty-six days’ rent hit. He wouldn’t miss the cereal or the ready meals. The dusters he thought he’d leave as a gift/subtle hint for Julia.
Presumably he would have to tell Julia at some point. The best place to do this, he reckoned, was via e-mail from somewhere as far as possible from Pierstree.
‘Hugo… What are you doing?’
Julia had entered his room. Today, her hoodie said:
IN CASE OF FIRE
git -tf out
It was the second time she’d spoken to him today. They had exchanged words on the first two days, but each time Julia had seemed to resent it. Today, he’d walked in to breakfast, and she’d told him straight up what had happened. She hadn’t looked at him, granted, but she’d told him without being prompted. Now this.
She looked pale, which is to say, paler than she’d looked anyway when they’d first met. She also looked like she hadn’t slept for days, which was exactly like when they first met. She also looked surprised.
‘Something’s come up,’ he said. ‘Something… urgent. Really sorry, quite unexpected…’
She continued to gawp at him for a few seconds after he’d trailed off. Then her features crinkled.
‘Have you been threatened?’ she said.
‘Er bu wha?’ said Hugo, or words to that effect.
‘Have you been…’
‘Yes, something like that. How did you know?’
She wasn’t looking at him. She was, instead, stroking her chin. It had a few wispy hairs on it.
‘Nigel warned me this might happen,’ she said, as if to herself.
Now it was Hugo’s turn to gawp. The gawp was only present briefly, before righteous outrage chased it off his face.
‘You probably, uh, have some questions.’ Julia wore an expression awkward defiance whose owner knows it’s done something wrong, but doesn’t care to admit it.
‘Number one of which is, if you knew this was going to happen, why the hell didn’t you tell me!?’
‘I didn’t know it was going to happen…’
‘Somebody pulled a knife on me in the cemetery, threatened to kill me if I came back, and you knew it might happen, and what, you wanted to wait until I was sure!? And possibly dead?’
‘Perhaps, in retrospect, there were things that I could have…’
‘I’m leaving. I’m leaving Pierstree. I’m done, I’m out.’
She stood in the doorway, hands clasped, not quite in supplication but not quite not in supplication either.
‘Nigel was my friend,’ she said. ‘He asked me to keep some secrets for him. I don’t have many friends here. Right now, I could really do with one. One I could tell those secrets to?’
Hugo took a deep breath. In doing so, he sucked up a cloud of dust. Probably some spider limbs too. When he’d finished coughing, he folded his arms and glared.
‘Let me show you the room on the left,’ said Julia.