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The Dolphin Holiday Camp, Sea’s End
Thursday, 29 August 1974
The dagger lay on his naked thigh, its blade as cold as a rock-pool pebble. Lying back in his bunk, he raised the weapon with one hand and splayed the fingers of the other across the muscle of his upper arm, stretching the suntanned skin taut as a drum. Outside, the water of the saltmarsh slapped against the Curlew’s hull, rocking him on the incoming tide.
He tasted salt on his lips as he bit down on the leather belt in his mouth and pressed the dagger’s V-shaped point into the biceps, wincing at the gritty sound of the metal penetrating the flesh. He knew he mustn’t scream, but his stomach rolled at the thought of what must come next.
The holiday camp was a mile away but he’d seen kids wandering at dusk in the marsh, four of them, torches dancing amongst the reeds. No one must hear. No one must know.
He held his breath and bit down again on the strap, drawing the blade through the skin, revealing a hint of the meat of the inner arm, a single artery exposed, then severed. Blood flowed like poster paint, dripping from his elbow, as the pain – sudden and electric now – jolted his nervous system and made him drop the dagger and cry out, despite himself.
He gagged on the strap, wanting to weep, and spat it out. ‘Two more,’ he said. A jagged S, like a lightning bolt. Three cuts. But he knew he couldn’t see it through, not then, so he lay flat, matching his breathing to the slow cadence of the sea beyond the dunes, and for comfort placed a hand on the cold metal of the box at his side, a finger outlining the double locks.
If he could just do this, he told himself, it would be perfect. Not for the first time in the twenty-three years of his life he felt God-like, weak with control Nothing could stop him if he had the courage to finish it; so he felt for the blade again.
But the touch of the metal brought him to the edge of unconsciousness. He reached out for the warm wooden ribs of the old boat: it had been his home for thirteen days now: but he would be rid of it soon enough.
The sounds of the coming night began. The distant jukebox at the camp drifting on the wind, and the tinny loop of metallic tunes from the funfair.
In his mind he danced with her then, beneath the dubious glamour of the glitterball, his thigh gently kissing her crotch with the beat, her lips braiding his hair.
He smiled, for he’d be dead soon, and they’d be together.
Letter M Farm, near Ely
Tuesday, 27 December, Thirty-one years later
The hoar frost hung in the curved canopy of the magnolia tree, a construction of ice as perfect as coral. The weight of it made the trunk creak in the still, Arctic air. Below it the dewpond was frozen, steaming slightly in the winter sun, a single carp below the powdered surface dying for air.
Joe stood, admiring its gasping beauty, each of his own breaths a plume which drifted briefly, catching the rays of the sunset. Lighting the cigarette he had made indoors, he drew the marijuana deep into his shattered throat. He sat on his bench with a rowan at his back, heavy with blood-red berries.
‘Christmas,’ he said to no one, surveying the circular horizon of the Fen.
He expelled the smoke, and replaced it with a surge of supercooled air, willing it to purge him of the cancer that was destroying him.
The house was fifty yards to the north and the only visible building: Letter M Farm was – he had long admitted – as good a place to die as any.
Inside the foursquare Georgian building the lights he’d left on shone into the winter afternoon, and through its double-glazed windows he could see the twin reflections of the open fire within.
He stood, turning to go back, swinging his sticks round to keep him steady. A wave of nausea made him stop, closing his eyes and wishing again he wasn’t alone. With eyes closed he drew deeply on the dope, letting the sweet relief flow like a current through his veins.
When he opened his eyes his wish had come true.
A man was at the house, coming out of the front door, putting something in his pocket. In his free hand he held a black bag, like a doctor’s, and Joe wondered if he’d come from the unit. He tried to shout but his throat failed him. Then he saw that the man’s head was obscured by a hood.
The man walked back towards the road where a small white van Joe hadn’t noticed before was parked amongst the uncut Leylandii. Joe hadn’t heard the vehicle approach and a thought insinuated itself: had it been there all day, waiting?
His eyes swam with the strain of focus. When they’d cleared the man was walking back towards him, a spade in one hand, a bucket in the other, the bag gone. From the way the man swung the pail as he strode over the frozen field Joe knew it was empty.
He shivered, aware that something had been planned, planned without him. He lifted a hand to take the cigarette from his lips knowing that even now, when he knew that death was coming anyway, fear could be a pungent emotion. Feebly he took another step forward, straightening his back and raising his arm in greeting when the man was almost upon him.
But there was no response from the face hidden within the shadowed hood. Joe scanned the fields, but the landscape was empty, a lifeless network of ditches, drains and reeds smoking with the mist of nightfall.
The man’s measured stride did not diminish. The pace of advance was relentless and suddenly Joe saw his eyes: a smoky grey-blue, the whites clear despite the shadow of the hood, the line of the mouth uncertain, a tongue-tip showing.
Joe took a step back but the man had timed his attack precisely. The spade swung out in a practised arc and crashed, the face turned flat, against his knee, which buckled and splintered beneath the wasted skin. He fell, the pain in his leg oddly distant. His cheek lay on the frozen peat, tiny perfect orbs of ice rolling away from the impact of his body. A hand gripped him by the collar and jerked his head round so that a small gold crucifix on a chain spilled out from around his neck and lay on the peat.
‘Who’s this?’ said the voice, younger than he’d expected, and perfectly modulated, stress-free. Its casual authority told him what he’d begun to suspect: that he might be granted his greatest wish, to die before his illness killed him.
Into his face was thrust a photograph, in a wooden frame, taken from the drawing-room mantelpiece. Four children pictured in the sun, a rolling beach, reeds, and a distant floating buoy in the middle of a channel cut through the sands.
‘This one,’ said the voice again, a gloved finger stabbing the figure of the child on the left. The boy with black hair and the immobile face.
‘We never knew,’ said Joe, desperate to understand. ‘We called him Philip – just Philip.’
Savagely the man let his victim’s head drop to the frozen earth and placed two fingers on his jugular, feeling the strength of his pulse. His assailant stood, surveying the horizon, silently listening.
‘You’re dying,’ he said finally. ‘I can’t wait.’
He took the spade and freed the fish from its icy prison in the pond, filled the bucket with glacial water and poured it carefully over Joe’s body, starting at the waist and working up to the chest and head.
The shock made Joe’s limbs jerk wildly. The second bucket stilled them.
THE COLDEST BLOOD. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Kelly. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.