‘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.
‘If that policewoman hears you try to kill me,’ he began.
‘She won’t hear me,’ said the person. ‘Give me what you picked up.’
Hugo took another long breath. He felt the calendar, too bulky to go into a pocket, in his hand. One last go.
‘I stayed away from the cemetery,’ he said. ‘I did what he asked.’
‘Don’t be a fool,’ said the person, voice emotionless. ‘You were perfectly well aware of why you were asked that. You ignored it. This is the result. Give us what you picked up.’
It had been worth a shot.
‘Hugo, what the fuck is going on!?’ yelled Julia.
Hugo Gubbins had really been looking forward to coming to Pierstree. Drinking in the peace. Writing his novel. Distracted by nothing and engaging with nobody. It was a nice idea, but ultimately, Hugo Gubbins had never had the final say.
‘Brief hold-up,’ said Hugo Gubbins. ‘I’ll call you back.’
He removed the balaclava; and at the same time, removed the identity of Hugo Gubbins.
The man who had been Hugo Gubbins kicked out, and hit his assailant in the chest.
The person in the stairwell was caught slightly by surprise. It was slight, and brief, and somehow they stayed upright. They were slightly more surprised when ex-Hugo’s foot, still airborne, whipped over to their knife hand.
The hand absorbed the blow. Knife stayed in glove, and came flashing towards the rest of ex-Hugo. It was the sort of slash that should have, at the least, dug into the thigh of a student standing on one leg and brought him tumbling down.
The thigh was not there.
Then a fist, holding a desk calendar, thumped into the face of the assailant. It was followed by the rest of the assailed, slamming into the figure’s body and taking them both down the stairs. Only one of the two hit the marble hallway headfirst when they reached the bottom.
Before the figure who had been Hugo Gubbins became Hugo Gubbins again, he had to do two things. The first was removing one long glove worn by the dead/unconscious (it wasn’t terribly important which) person. The second was getting out of the house. This would be much easier if he continued not to be Hugo Gubbins.
Hugo Gubbins, for all of his narrative creativity, would have been too scared to attract the policewoman’s attention on purpose. He wouldn’t have been stealthy enough to hide himself in a dead man’s living room while the policewoman found the body – indeed, he might have found it a bit disrespectful. He certainly wouldn’t have had the necessary deftness of foot to circumvent her in the hallway without her noticing him, or the boldness to walk out of the front door of Nigel Larrix’s house in full view of the street like nothing had happened.
He did still look like Hugo Gubbins at this point, with his balaclava removed. He was, however, confident that in the aftermath of the drone warning and Julia’s ‘terrorist attack’ on the village, a man in a balaclava was likely to draw more attention that someone who might or might not be Hugo Gubbins, when seen from a distance.
Besides, Hugo Gubbins had a skittering, half-bent-over walk. This man did not. He reckoned they’d be hard to link up.
Halfway down the street back to the Manor, he reckoned that he’d probably better be Hugo Gubbins by the time he got home and had to confront Julia. He also wanted to be Hugo Gubbins if the police stopped him in connection with the ‘attack’. There would be details to fill in, of course, whoever he was talking to; but he was confident he could fill those in from the point of view of somebody who’d been nowhere near the key area. He’d done so before.
So as he walked down the street, he slowly regained the quintessential Gubbinsness. The bent-over walk, the grandiloquent vocabulary, the writer’s mind, the panic. He broke into a run.
Hugo Gubbins wasn’t stopped until he returned home. The street was deserted: across the road, Simm had locked himself and his camper van away. Hugo jammed his keys into the front door, panting hard.
The door wouldn’t open.
He yanked on the bell pull.
As anybody would, he tried his keys another few times, each time with increasing desperation. Even the non-Hugo Gubbins part of Hugo Gubbins was a bit concerned by this.
He’d broken into a house. He’d attacked, and quite possibly killed, another person. He’d escaped by… he didn’t quite know how he’d escaped. The police, currently crawling all over Pierstree, would collect evidence, probably arrest him, and almost certainly send him to prison.
Never mind the Sir Kenneth Thwaite Prize: that was his study over. Possibly his life. A criminal record for manslaughter, at the very least, that would hound him forever.
On top of all of that, he couldn’t get into his sodding house!
He crouched into a ball on the front step. He was about to start hyperventilating, when he remembered the smart balaclava. Julia would still be listening, surely. He ripped it out of his pocket, jammed it on his head, and garbled into the fabric.
‘Julia, come in Julia! I’m here, I’ve got it, but I’m locked out…’
‘You can skip all that.’
He froze. Beneath the fabric, his mouth moved silently.
‘Julia, this isn’t funny,’ he panted eventually. ‘I think I killed someone. Why did we go through with this? Whose stupid idea…’
He was shocked into standing. The voice crackled with anger, as well as interference.
‘I watched you leave that house. I watched you all the way down the road. I watched you go from somebody who couldn’t give three eighths of a shit about maybe having killed someone, to somebody bricking himself at the idea of meeting the police. I may not be too good at human nature and the power of friendship and all that crap, but I do notice somebody changing from one person into another, and you did a much more natural job of being the seasoned killer than the student. So before you say another word, not-Hugo Gubbins, I’d very much like to know why the hell I should let you back under my roof!’
Hugo Gubbins gaped into the balaclava’s sweaty depths for a moment. Then he straightened up and ran a hand through his hair.
‘Would it help if I said that my name really is Hugo?’ said Hugo.