Cover of Deadlock Deadlock

33 YEARS EARLIER

Alan wiped his nose on his sleeve and spotted a smear of blood on his cuff. Covering it quickly with his hand, he looked around to see if anyone had noticed. He didn’t think they had.

This was a mistake. Why had he come here? His church seemed like the right place to be, but what would he say? He couldn’t tell Father Willows the truth. The priest would never understand. And yet, Alan knew he’d done the right thing. Roger Davies was a bully and deserved what he’d got.

The boy next to him slipped off the end of the pew. Alan was next.

With a small amount of pride, he looked down at his knuckles and saw the redness and swelling. He had actually only thrown one punch. It hurt far more than he’d expected – although he hadn’t been so aware of that at the time. It was the first punch he’d ever thrown, and it had barely made an impact. Roger then pushed him down, jumped on top of him, and got him twice in the side before Alan’s hand had landed on that rock.

As he continually rubbed his hand back and forth across the blood on his cuff, he looked up at the confessional. He couldn’t go in there. If he told the priest, they’d take him away and send him to prison. People who’d done things like this always got sent to prison. He’d never see his mum and dad ever again. He couldn’t do that.

But if he didn’t talk to the priest, he’d never be forgiven. He’d end up in hell. That was where all the bad people went when they didn’t confess their sins. He didn’t want to go there either.

Alan got up and ran out of the church. He didn’t stop until he made it back home. It wasn’t far. He could even see the spire from his bedroom window if he angled himself just right. He climbed the stairs to his room two at a time, slammed the door behind him, and took the large blue accountancy ledger out of his desk. His father had given it to him a couple of months ago. Alan had been watching his father work one night. There were lots of numbers all neatly placed in the right boxes, and his father explained how it all needed to balance out at the end. Alan declared there and then that he wanted to be an accountant like his dad. The next evening, his father gave him a ledger of his very own – making it very clear that it was not for drawing or scribbling in. Pages should never ever be torn out of a ledger like this, but mistakes could be crossed through neatly. The important thing was to make sure it all balanced out.

Alan treasured the book but hadn’t found anything of value to write in it, until now. He ran his hand over the clean lined pages and picked up his pencil. He tried to write neatly, ignoring the vertical lines and, as emotion took over, the horizontal ones too. His fear and fury overwhelmed him until he could barely see the words through his own tears. He wrote about how he had been humiliated by the boy for months. He couldn’t include details of all the bruises he’d been given over that time, but he poured out the hate that had built inside him because of them. He got it all down. Who the child was, what he had done, what he had threatened Alan with, and what Alan had eventually done to him. He scribbled it all onto those pages, anger mixing with fear and his own righteousness, until he felt he could write no more.

He took a deep breath and sat back, the pencil resting loosely in his hand. His tears were gone now. He felt drained. He felt purged. The story had been told, but no one needed to hear it, and no one could be allowed to read it. It was out now and that was the important thing. He’d needed to get it out before it had burned him up inside. Not just the act, but also the reason.

He felt better. His father was right: it had all balanced out in the end.

He closed the book, pulled out the Swiss Army knife his mother had given him as a Christmas present the year before, and scratched the word ‘Private’ on the material cover. He repeated each line several times over, making sure it was clear.

He laid the book on his bed and knelt on the floor next to it, his hands resting on top of it, his fingers splayed across the hard cover. He closed his eyes and prayed for forgiveness. He prayed for understanding. And he prayed for absolution.

He prayed hard.

When he was done, and certain the Lord would understand, he flipped open the cover and wrote on the inside: ‘Top Secret! Property of Alan Brice. Aged 10 ½.’

He wouldn’t need the priest anymore.

PRESENT DAY: SUNDAY

1

The hairs on the back of Michael Cahill’s neck rose at the sound of the doorbell. He raked a hand through his sandy blonde hair and dismissed the uncertainty. It was Sunday night. It wouldn’t be a patient. His patients knew their boundaries.

Michael had bought the house and modified the back door to work as an entrance for his practice. Sometimes it unnerved him to know that all his patients knew where he lived, but he liked the convenience of working from home. Besides which, of the other properties he had looked at in his quest for a respectable office, no other potential landlord particularly wanted his clients using their property either. His patients were rarely violent, but people had strange ideas about the world of psychology.

As Michael pulled the door open, the first person he saw was his brother, Philip, with a swollen right cheek and a bulging left eye. Michael instinctively reached out to him but was held back by a large hand with short stubby fingers. The hand belonged to one of the two bulky men Phil was wedged between. One was slightly taller than Michael, had to be about six-two and with a footballer’s body – broad shoulders and narrow hips. The other was shorter, perhaps five-ten, but wider and with no neck. Everyone was taller than Phil at that moment who was standing – or rather slouching – about a head shorter than he normally did.

Michael glanced down at the hand on his chest and noticed that the knuckles were red and swollen. The other man’s hands looked the same. The skin wasn’t broken or bleeding so they might have worn gloves, but they’d both beaten Michael’s little brother. They’d taken turns.

Michael was angry but also suitably intimidated. He was in reasonable shape. He jogged every other day and ate healthily, but he didn’t exactly have a well-defined six-pack. And violence definitely wasn’t his thing.

“Can we come in?” the footballer asked politely.

Neither of them looked like people Michael would want to have in his home.

“We can talk out here,” Michael said, his eyes on his brother. Beyond the swelling on his face, Michael couldn’t see what injuries Phil had. There was a lot of dried blood obscuring his features.

Michael pulled the door closed behind him. The movement brought him closer to the men than he wanted to be, but whatever happened next, this was a respectable neighbourhood where people looked out for each other. He was pretty sure he didn’t want privacy for this.

Phil was partly handed over, partly pushed, and partly fell into Michael’s hands. It was then that he noticed Phil was barely conscious. Looking for any silver lining he could find, he was willing to admit that ‘barely’ was better than not at all.

“Your brother needs to discuss some issues with you, Michael.”

Already on a first name basis then. How nice. “Who are you?”

Michael was losing his grip on Phil, so he gently lowered him to the floor so that he could lean against the front door. He didn’t want to turn his back on the two men while doing it though, so the movement was awkward.

“My name is Smith, and this is Jones,” the footballer said.

It had to be a joke.

“We work for Mr Trent, and Phil here owes us some money. We’ve been quite reasonable with him about this, but he doesn’t seem to want to give us what we’re due. Now, are you sure you don’t want to invite us in and discuss this somewhere more private. Or are you comfortable with the neighbours watching?”

Let the neighbours see. Michael might end up needing witnesses. “Here’s just fine.”

The footballer – supposedly Smith – took a deep breath clearly displaying his disapproval, and then continued. “Phil assures us that you will be able to help him out with his shortfall.”

Oddly enough, Michael wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t the first time he’d needed to help his brother out. It was the first time violence had ever been involved though. The first time he knew of at least.

“How much does he owe?”

Smith nodded, apparently appreciating Michael’s desire to get to the heart of the matter.

“Thirty thousand.”

Michael’s eyes widened. It was more than he’d anticipated. What the hell had Phil been thinking?

“How much is due?” Michael’s voice sounded a little shaky. What if he couldn’t pay the money back? What would these men do? He’d closed the door behind him, but it wasn’t locked. It wouldn’t be hard for them to force him and his brother into the house, particularly when Phil was more or less falling in that direction anyway.

“All of it,” Smith said.

All of it. Naturally.

“And what are you expecting from me, exactly? Even if I had that amount of money to my name, you must know I wouldn’t have it here in the house.”

“Of course. Unlike young Phil here, we are reasonable men.” Strange that he referred to him as ‘young’. At 25, Philip was six years younger than Michael and also the youngest in their family, but Smith looked to be about the same age.

“So, what do you want?”

“How much can you pay?”

“I don’t know. I’d need to look at my account.” However much he was worth, was no business of theirs.

Smith smiled.

“I understand. When I was younger, I always knew exactly how much money I had in my account. Want to know why?”

“I guess you kept your eye on it better than me.”

“I doubt that. I always knew because it wasn’t much. Now, either you don’t know because you don’t need to watch for the time of the month when your account hits zero. Or you just don’t want me to know how much money you have. Either way, it’s clear Phil’s brought us to the right person.” He shared a smile with his partner.

Jones didn’t smile back. The man only seemed to have one expression, and it wasn’t a pleasant one.

Michael didn’t share Smith’s confidence. He had a respectable job and his own practice, but the practice was new. Impressive earnings couldn’t yet be proven. Money was tight. He’d acted as a guarantor on a loan for Phil in the past, which Phil had defaulted on, and Michael was now paying off. Coupled with his mortgage, and considering the current financial crisis, a loan application did not look promising. And he knew for a fact that he didn’t have anywhere near thirty thousand in the bank.

“That’s fine, Michael. You can take the time to check your accounts tomorrow. In the meantime though, your brother stays with us.”

“No. You don’t have to take him,” Michael said quickly, stepping in front of his brother, his arms raised as if to hold both men back. “I’ll check the accounts first thing.”

“I know you will,” Smith said. With minimal effort, he pushed Michael to the side pinning him against the wall of the house, wedging his forearm under Michael’s chin to keep him in place. Michael gripped the arm that was pushing against his windpipe, as Jones grabbed Phil in a fireman’s lift. Phil started moaning and struggling weakly in protest.

“And because I know you will, Phil won’t come to any further harm,” Smith said. “Of course, the banks open at nine o’clock, so we’ll call you tomorrow around ten. And we’ll be expecting you to have some money with you by then. Now, do you see how reasonable we’re being?”

Michael watched helplessly while Phil was carried back to the van waiting at the curb. He seemed to fully come to as the van door opened and Jones threw him in. Phil yelped in pain as he landed awkwardly, rolling into the other side of the van before coming to a stop.

“Well, no more harm than is necessary, anyway,” Smith said.

Was that meant to be a smile?

“Please, leave him here,” Michael said, struggling to get the words out with his jaw practically jammed shut. He was sweating with the effort. He could barely breathe. He couldn’t swallow at all. “He’s my little brother.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll be motivated to do the right thing in order to protect him. Get to the bank first thing, Michael. Check your statements tonight, and we’ll call you tomorrow.”

“What if…” He stopped to try and take in a breath. Smith patiently waited for him to spit the words out but didn’t reduce the pressure on Michael’s neck to aid the conversation along. “I might not have it all. I’ll check, but…”

“Then you pay off what you can, and the rest of the debt will belong to you. We’ll work out a way to let you pay it off. Of course, the interest might run high…”

Of course.

“But as long as you’re able to pay off some of it, you should be able to buy your brother back. Perhaps even in one piece.” He said it as if it was meant to be a joke.

Michael’s gut twisted painfully as darkness began to cloud his vision.

Smith released him suddenly and Michael dropped to his knees, his hand massaging his neck. He desperately wanted to say something else, something that might convince them to leave Phil behind. He looked up at Smith. The bastard looked so calm, like he did this all the time. He probably did. That thought was not reassuring.

“I need my brother to stay here,” was all he could say, but his words lacked both the force and conviction required to make the ‘demand’ stand for anything. It didn’t help that he was on his hands and knees either.

“You keep that in mind tomorrow while you’re counting your pennies, Michael. It’s a nice house you’ve got here and, from what Phil told us, the two of you have a nice family. Now, like I’ve said, we’re reasonable men, and we haven’t bothered your mum with any of this. Doesn’t mean we won’t.”

Michael’s stomach twisted some more.

“We’ll talk tomorrow.”

TUESDAY

2

It was the conversation Stuart Finlay had been dreading but could no longer avoid. He wanted to marry Gail and be with her. Perhaps it was old fashioned, but the slip of paper meant something to him – to both of them. He had assumed, however, that the proposal marked the end of his involvement in all this. Choosing flowers and deciding on the invitation design, wasn’t something he felt a need to be a part of. Didn’t women thrive on that sort of thing anyway? The way she glowed whenever she talked about it was enough to make him think so. She would show him samples and talk through ideas, and then gradually talk faster, in a more animated fashion. She loved it. He, on the other hand, wasn’t bothered where or when it would be, and didn’t care about the colour scheme or what music was playing. He just wanted her there. So he’d put off the conversation hoping she would eventually just get it done. She hadn’t. Apparently, his input was a necessary part of the decision-making process. Damn.

“When do you want to go and see the flower arrangements then?”

She was sitting on the couch, her calendar out, pen poised above it in anticipation. Fin hadn’t sat next to her. He stayed on his feet and glared suspiciously at the new calendar in her hands. Except for work, he’d never seen her use a diary of any sort before now. Now, she was scheduling things. More to the point, she was scheduling him.

“I’m not really sure.” The pen faltered. His life didn’t work that way. As a private investigator, he got jobs all the time. At the moment, things were relatively quiet, but that didn’t mean he could decisively say he’d be available at two o’clock on Friday.

“Perhaps we could go tomorrow,” she suggested.

He shrugged. She continued to look at him apparently waiting for a response more ironclad than that.

“I’ll try to make it, but you know how these things work. If I’m not there, whatever you pick will be fine.”

“But you’ll try to come.”

“I’ve said I will.”

She started scribbling in her diary and let out a sigh. They’d been going out together for almost three years now, but it had only been since they’d moved in together, these last couple of months, that he’d come to know her sighs. That one was disappointment.

“Then let’s decide on the colour scheme now. If I’m choosing the flowers alone—”

It was good that she’d accepted this possibility already.

“—Then I want to choose something that’s in line with what we’ve agreed.”

Over the past month, he’d come to learn that it was all about the colour scheme. The flowers, the tablecloths, the invitations, even her dress could depend on it.

“How about green,” he suggested. They were neither traditional nor religious. There would be no church and no white dress. And with her uncontrollable mane of ginger hair and pale skin, she looked fantastic in emerald green.

“Green? For a wedding?”

“You would look amazing.” He smiled at her.

“You can’t have green flowers, Fin. What about red and white.”

“Yeah, all right,” he said with a half-shrug. He could imagine her looking good in that too. She looked good in pretty much everything. By comparison, Fin was pretty average: average height, average looks, short brown hair, and grey eyes. He didn’t mind that. In his line of work, being relatively unnoticeable was a gift.

Besides, she had a point about the green flowers. Weren’t green flowers called something else? Oh, yeah, that’s it: leaves. This really wasn’t his sort of thing.

“You could argue your point a little more.” She looked irritated.

“Why?” He was being helpful. He was agreeing with her.

“If you’ve got an opinion, you should stick to it. I don’t want you suddenly becoming my little lapdog once we’re married.”

Whoa. “I have no intention—”

“Then stick up for what you think!” She stood to emphasise her point.

“I don’t feel strongly enough about it to turn it into an argument.”

“You don’t feel strongly enough about our wedding?”

“I don’t feel strongly enough about the colour green!”

As it turned out, he hadn’t avoided an argument at all.

The phone rang but neither of them moved to answer it. They were standing on either side of the coffee table, divided lengthways. The wedding brochures, magazines, and quotes from various companies, lay spread out on the table between them.

On the fourth ring, he moved to pick it up, but she reached it first. It was what he considered to be ‘her phone’ anyway. His work calls came in on a separate line. He’d insisted on that.

She snatched up the receiver and spoke into it, her tone perfectly calm. The transformation was both swift and impressive.

He stayed where he was unsure of whether or not the argument would continue once she got off the phone. Honestly, if he thought about it, he should have seen this coming. Despite her continued requests for his opinion, he had contributed absolutely nothing. The truth was, he’d be happy if they eloped and left all this crap behind. He just wanted to marry her. That was all that was important to him.

Thinking that way reduced his anger to the size of a pea. Hearing her tone of voice on the phone got rid of it altogether.

“I understand.” Her voice was quiet, her head bowed. “Thank you for calling, Stan.”

Stan was her nephew. Fin had met him last November on a job that had changed his life – and almost ended it.

“How are you doing?”

Her hand went to her forehead. Her voice sounded relatively steady and with her unruly hair in front of her face, Fin couldn’t see her expression. Her hand was trembling though. Something was very wrong. Should he go to her? He started to and then hesitated. Honestly, if someone had written a book on the proper decorum when faced with a woman in… in fact, just when faced with a woman, Fin would buy it. It would make millions.

“I’ll be there. Of course, I’ll be there.”

She hung up.

“My brother died,” she said quietly, her hand still resting on the phone, her back to him.

Fin went to her, but she dodged him. She moved around to the back of the couch and started straightening cushions.

“I’m sorry, love.”

She moved on from the couch to the dangerously large pile of unopened post and newspapers on what they called the ‘key table’. They put their keys on it. Inventive, he knew.

Apparently, some women baked, but with Gail it was tidying. She loathed any sort of housework, but it gave her a way of occupying herself when upset or troubled by something she didn’t want to have to face. It gave her a sense of control. Since moving in, he had come to learn that whenever he came home to a spotless lounge, trouble was brewing.

“It’s all right, we weren’t close.” She sorted through the envelopes, putting them in size order so they were less likely to topple onto the floor.

Fin knew. Everyone in the family knew. She’d never told him the reason why she and her brother, Stephen, had stopped talking so many years ago. They’d only reconciled at the end of last year when a case of Fin’s had resulted in Stan getting badly injured. It had been impossible for Gail and Stephen to avoid each other in the hospital waiting room. At least they’d had a chance to get to know each other again. They hadn’t had enough time though. And he knew Gail had asked her brother to walk her down the aisle.

“Heart attack. While he was out jogging, if you can withstand the irony of it.”

She wouldn’t look at him.

“How’s Stan dealing with it?” he asked.

“Hard to say.”

He went over to her and wrapped his arms around her before she could escape his grasp. It wasn’t an entirely selfless manoeuvre. It physically hurt him to see her upset like this, and it was the only way he could think of to try and make it any better. She stood there in his arms, tolerating the closeness, but not really accepting it. After all, he was stopping her from tidying. Her hands were shaking so badly she’d dropped some of the letters anyway.

“I’m sorry, love.”

“You know, if I was Machiavellian in any way, I would use my intensely vulnerable position to coerce you into all manner of decisions about the wedding right now.”

She looked up at him and smiled. Her eyes shone with unshed tears and her chin trembled as she tried to maintain control over her emotions.

“You can have anything you want, Gail,” he told her sincerely. He pushed one errant lock of hair from her eyes and held her tighter. “I’m not interested in the wedding. I’m only interested in being married to you.”

The smile crumpled and then disappeared altogether as a single tear fell.

“There won’t be an autopsy,” she said matter-of-factly. “The funeral’s Saturday afternoon.” Another tear fell. It seemed as though she had been struggling to keep her composure until uttering those words. Now they were out, her strength melted away. She softened in his arms, curving against his body and accepting the comfort he offered. Tears followed.

Feeling utterly useless, Fin held on to her and waited for the outpouring of grief to pass. He wasn’t sure how long it would last, and he wasn’t sure it would truly stop once the tears dried up. Grief never went as quickly as it came. It wouldn’t surprise him if this went on for days, weeks, or even months. As long as it stopped in time for him to make a single phone call before Saturday came, it would be all right.

SATURDAY

3

Katherine Morley had gone for an elegant look with her brown shoulder-length hair down, a long black dress, charcoal grey tights, and a black hat. Not that anyone could see them, but she wore a bright pink bra and panties set underneath. Somehow it seemed like the right choice for the occasion.

She slid on to the end of the pew, not so far back that she was sitting alone and was noticeable, but not too close to anyone else that they might ask who she was or why she was there. She wasn’t really sure why she was there herself. Not many people admitted it to themselves, but funerals were entirely selfish affairs. They weren’t held for the person who had died. Not really. They were dead. What did they care? A funeral was purely for the ones left behind. It was a chance to say goodbye. Kat had met Stephen and his wife, Barbara, and they’d seemed like a nice couple, but she hadn’t really known them. She wasn’t there for them.

She looked across the sea of heads and hats until she found Fin. Gail sat next to him, her head slightly bowed in his direction. Fin was watching the priest but glanced every now and then at Gail. She could imagine their interlocking fingers resting on his knee. Fin, the protector.

Stan sat in the front row. Barbara, his mother, was next to him, and the man on the other side of her had to be Matthew, Stan’s older brother. Stan’s head was bowed whereas Barbara’s was up, determinedly so. Holding that position had to be taking all her energy. She wasn’t crying but she had to be screaming inside. Kat knew what that felt like.

She couldn’t see if Stan was crying. She couldn’t see his face at all. He just sat there perfectly still. Rigidly so. It hurt to watch.

Kat was relieved once the service was over, but as desperate as she was to get out into the fresh air, she hung back until Fin and Gail approached.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said to Gail, aware of the painful inadequacy of the words.

Gail nodded her thanks. “I’m going to go check on Barbara,” she said. She looked as though saying anything more would have cracked that last bit of control she was holding onto.

Immediately, Kat felt bad. Gail needed Fin right now. She didn’t want to get in the way of that.

“How’s she coping?” Kat said, nodding her head towards Gail.

“She’s interspersing bouts of tears with inappropriate humour.” He shrugged his shoulders, his hands thrust deeply in his pockets. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen her like this before. But then, I’ve never seen her have to cope with the death of a close relative before either. For all I know, this could be normal.”

“Is there anything I can do?” It was a stupid question, but she wanted to help if she could.

Fin didn’t respond to it. “I didn’t think you were going to come,” he said, his eyes following Gail.

“Thanks for the message.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d got it.”

Kat didn’t reply. They had finally worked their way through the procession of people and emerged into the frosty sunlight. Kat squinted and took a deep breath. The cold air pinched a little as it hit her lungs, but it felt good to be back outside.

“I called a couple of times too,” Fin continued.

“I know.” She didn’t bother trying to offer him some lame excuse for why she hadn’t called him back – or hadn’t picked up when she’d seen it was him. She had her reasons but none of them were good. He’d seen her at her most vulnerable. He’d seen her at her worst. Fin was the only person who knew her history or understood her background. He even knew her real name. It made her anxious whenever she was about to speak to him, but it also meant he was the only person she could truly be herself with. It would probably take some time for her to get used to her mixed emotions where Fin was concerned.

“Have you heard from Brice?”

That was another reason for ignoring his calls. “Are you going to ask me that every time we speak?”

“I worry about it, Kat. I think we all do. I don’t want it to happen again.”

Neither did she. Last November, when she’d first met Fin, it had been in Brice’s cellar. Brice’s business side-lined in abuse and torture. For the right money, he arranged anything from harassment to murder. He’d imprisoned them and Stan in a cell, and left them at the mercy of one of his employees, Murphy. They escaped but Brice still wanted her dead, and they both knew it. If he could get hold of them, he’d kill Stan and Fin too. Understandably perhaps, the whole experience had driven a wedge between her and Stan.

“No, I haven’t heard from him.”

“Do you think we’re in the clear?”

She didn’t know. She hoped so, but she spent a lot of time looking over her shoulder.

“How’s Stan doing?” Fin asked. They skirted around the crowd hovering outside the church and started the slow walk through the cemetery gates and up the hill to where Stephen would eventually be laid to rest.

“Don’t know,” she answered honestly. “I’ve not seen him since that day in the hospital.” That day, over three months ago, when he’d told her he couldn’t trust her because he didn’t know where the lies ended and the truth began. The day he’d turned her away.

“You’ve not seen him around campus, at the Students’ Union, anywhere?”

She shook her head. The University of Kent was a large sprawling campus. She was taking an entirely different course than him and belonged to a different college. They both lived in Park Wood, the on-campus student housing estate, but in different Courts. His house was situated between hers and the rest of campus, so she often had to pass it, but she never looked up at his window. It took every ounce of willpower to stop herself from doing so. She hadn’t yet managed that walk without wondering if he happened to be looking out of his window at her though.

“You’re not getting back together then?”

“No. Nothing’s changed, Fin. I’m still just as screwed up as I was before.”

“I’m not sure that would put him off.”

“The line is: ‘No, you’re not screwed up, Kat,’” she said.

“Maybe, but you’d never believe anything as outrageous as that.”

She smiled and looked down at her feet to conceal it. She hadn’t been to many funerals but was reasonably certain she didn’t want to be caught smiling at one.

“I’m not looking to get back with him, Fin. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me either.”

“So, why did you come then?”

It was a good question. “To see you, of course.”

“You can’t think I’d believe that.”

Kat shrugged. “I wanted to know he was okay.”

As if on cue, they both looked across to where he was standing, next to his mother. Gail stood next to him. She had been talking to him, but now looked as though she had given up and was just staying there with him, in case he needed her. Kat hadn’t yet seen him talk to anyone. His eyes were red and there were shadows underneath them. He looked terrible.

“Satisfied?” Fin asked.

Kat shook her head. Stan was not okay. “He looks as though he hasn’t been sleeping.”

“So do you. Are you still having nightmares?”

Kat ignored the question. She hadn’t spoken with him about her dreams, but he knew. He’d invited her to spend the Christmas holiday with them. She didn’t want to impose, but with nowhere else to go, she’d gratefully accepted. It was possibly the nicest Christmas she’d ever had. Certainly, the best she could remember. No one got drunk or abusive. No punches were thrown. It made her want to be a part of their little family, if only for a short while. She hadn’t felt that in a really long time. And then one night she woke to find him in her room, holding her as she sobbed in his arms. Apparently, she’d been screaming. She’d had a nightmare. He’d tried, but she refused to speak with him about it.

“I thought you were going to try and get back together with him,” Fin said, as they turned their attention away from Stan, and continued ambling up the hill.

“He made his position very clear.”

“You could always tell him the truth.”

Kat shook her head. “He looked at me and saw Katherine. He’s never seen me as Sarah.” Her real name came out more quietly than the rest of the sentence. “He doesn’t look at me with pity in his eyes.”

“He would need some time to adjust, but he would look at you and finally see you. The real you.”

“He already knows the real me. Not knowing my name doesn’t stop him from understanding who I am as a person. Only…” She shook her head. She didn’t want to say too much. She wasn’t sure if she could admit only one part of it without the rest of it pouring out. Recently it felt as though her control was slipping. This wasn’t the time or the place to lose it completely.

“Talk to me, Kat.”

“Another time, perhaps,” she conceded, tears pricking the backs of her eyes.

“Kat?” He pulled her to the side, his hand on her elbow. “What’s going on?”

“It’s nothing.”

“I doubt that very seriously.”

“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” she corrected.

“I’m not sure I believe that either.”

“I’m strong, Fin. I can control this,” she said determinedly.

“You’re what? Seventeen now?”

He knew she was. He’d sent her a card even though she’d never told him when her real birthday was. Opening it had been a rather understated way of celebrating. It was kind of him, but she would have probably felt better if the day had passed by without her being forced to acknowledge it.

“Age has nothing to do with anything.”

“Sometimes it does. And you are strong, Kat, I don’t doubt that. But that doesn’t mean you have to cope with everything all on your own. Talk to me.”

She shook her head.

“You need to talk to someone.”

Not you. Not someone who’s seen what you’ve seen. “Please, let it go.”

They stood there in silence for a short while. Kat looked back at the church below them. The priest had now come out with the casket in tow. Everyone was about to start heading up the hill towards them. There were a lot of people. There would never be this many at her own funeral. All she had in the world was Fin. Gail would show up out of allegiance to him. She wasn’t sure about Stan.

“I think I should go,” she said, suddenly not wanting to be there.

“I know someone. A therapist.”

Kat swallowed. He had mentioned this to her before. She didn’t want to admit she wasn’t coping as well as she should be, but she wasn’t sure she could risk passing up the offer a second time. There might not be a third. And she did need to speak to someone. She needed to get all this under control.

“Do you want to talk to him? Will you talk to him?” he rephrased.

She nodded – the movement so slight he might not have caught it. The fact that she needed help was something she didn’t like to admit to. It was made harder by the fact that Fin seemed to have assumed some level of responsibility towards her. She felt conflicted about that. She hadn’t asked for it and didn’t really want to burden him with it. What she really wanted from him was simply friendship. They didn’t have that though. She wasn’t sure they could ever have it.

“Kat.” He waited until she looked up at him. “He’s a good bloke. He’ll help you,” he said, his tone gentle, his eyes kind.

“Do you trust him?” It was implied in his words, but she needed to hear it.

“Yes.”

“Can I trust him?”

“Yes.”

“How much could I tell him?”

“Everything. As much as you want to. He’d only be there to help you.”

She nodded, her emotions a complex mixture of resignation, excitement and fear. There were probably a few others thrown in there too which she couldn’t identify. She needed this. She hadn’t just ‘not seen’ Stan, she’d been avoiding him. She hadn’t gone to the Student pub in Park Wood in the past three months. She hadn’t really left her house unless she’d had a lecture or seminar. She knew she and Stan were over and she understood the reasons, but it didn’t make it any easier. He’d rejected her, just like her mother had rejected her. Her mother. Not a night went by when anger, regret, and complete and utter desolation over her mother didn’t invade her dreams. And that wasn’t even the beginning of her neuroses. She’d witnessed a murder, which had forced her to change her identity, but she was struggling with being both Sarah and Kat. The lines where one of them stopped and the other started were blurring, and she didn’t understand that. There was so much she didn’t understand.

“I’m going to go,” she said. She didn’t want Stan to see her. On the train ride up here, she’d convinced herself it would be all right, that enough time had passed. It hadn’t. Talking to Fin while knowing what he knew made her feel both vulnerable and exposed. And Stan looked as though he wasn’t faring any better. This would be a bad time for them to see each other again.

“Stay,” Fin urged. “At least eat something at the wake before heading back.”

“No, the journey is going to take long enough. I’m going to catch the earlier train.”

“I can drive you,” he offered.

“Thanks, but you need to be with Gail.” True enough, Gail was looking up the hill at them at that very moment. It wouldn’t take long before she would join them – with Stan.

She turned her back to them. She shouldn’t be here. Stan shouldn’t see her here. What the hell had she been thinking coming here like this?

“Stan might want to see you.”

“This isn’t the right time or place. I should have thought this through better.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

She wasn’t. She should have thought it through better. She should never have come.

“Kat?”

Stan. Shit. She turned as Gail joined Fin’s side. They had moved faster than she’d expected.

“I heard about your dad,” she said, although her being at his funeral made that pretty obvious. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

He just stood there. His eyes looked so red and sore she couldn’t read what was in them.

“That was all I wanted to say,” Kat said uselessly and began to turn away.

He grabbed her arm as she passed.

“Why are you here?” he asked quietly, pulling her slightly closer to him. He sounded genuinely bewildered. He had good reason to be.

She didn’t respond. She no longer knew.

“This is my dad’s funeral, Kat. Why are you even here?”

“Go easy, Stan,” she heard Fin gently warn him.

Stan’s grip didn’t lessen. His fingers felt like a metal clamp on her arm even through her coat. It was the first physical contact she’d had with anyone in quite some time. She didn’t want him to let go.

“Why did you even come?”

“I don’t know,” she replied honestly.

His eyes searched hers and then darted all over her face, to her hair, her mouth, her eyes, her nose, back to her mouth. His eyes lingered there.

Tenderly he kissed her on the lips, pulling her towards him gently. The kiss was short, filled with longing but without passion. And then he closed his eyes as if a trance had been broken. He released her. Her arm felt suddenly cold where his hand had been.

“Please leave,” he mumbled. “I can’t… I don’t want you here.” He shook his head and looked away.

His words stung. What had she been thinking? Why had she come? She hadn’t needed to be told, again, that she wasn’t wanted.

Kat walked away and, just like she did when she passed his house in Park Wood, she willed herself not to look back, to see if he was watching her leave.

She had no idea someone else was watching her through a pair of binoculars.

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© Jacqueline Chandler 2019
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