Book: Black Wings

Previous: The Dome
Next: Tempting Providence


Nicholas Royle

 

Nicholas Royle is the author of the novels Counterparts (Barrington, 1993; Penguin, 1995), Saxophone Dreams (Penguin, 1996), The Matter of the Heart (Abacus, 1997), The Director's Cut (Abacus, 2000), and Antwerp (Serpent's Tail, 2004), and the short story collection Mortality (Serpent's Tail, 2006). He has published more than 100 short stories in magazines and anthologies. His Lovecraftian tale "The Homecoming" appeared in Stephen Jones's Shadows over Innsmouth (Fedogan & Bremer, 1994).

 
 
s soon as Joe arrived in Rotterdam, he made for the river. He believed that a city without a river was like a computer without memory. A camera without film.

  The river was wide and gray. A slice of the North Sea.

  Joe was listening to "Rotterdam," a track on the Githead album, Art Pop. When he'd last been to Paris he'd played the Friendly Fires single of that name over and over. Earlier in the year, walking through the Neuköln district of Berlin, he'd selected Bowie's Heroes album and listened to one track, "Neuköln," on repeat.

  He switched it off. It wasn't working. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The chugging, wiry pop of Githead didn't fit this bleak riverscape. The breathy vocals were a distraction. Instrumentals worked better.

  He didn't have long. A couple of days. The producer, Vos, wouldn't wait any longer. The American was a busy man and Joe knew he had already more than tried Vos's patience with repeated requests to have a shot at writing the screenplay, or have some input elsewhere on the movie. For now, at least, the script had John Mains's name on it and Joe knew he could count himself lucky to be scouting locations, albeit unpaid. He hoped that by showing his willingness and maybe coming up with some places that not only corresponded to what Vos wanted but also helped to back up his own vision of how the film could look, he might still get to gain some influence.

  Joe turned back on himself and selected a cheap hotel with a river view. His room, when he got up to the fourth floor, managed to reveal very little of the Nieuwe Maas, but if you craned your neck you could just make out the distinctive outline of the Erasmus Bridge. They called it the Swan; to Joe it looked more like a wishbone, picked clean. Did swans have wishbones?

  The room itself was basic, and while you wouldn't necessarily pick up dirt with a trailing finger, there was a suggestion of ingrained grime, a patina of grease. Joe quickly unpacked his shoulder bag, placing his tattered Panther paperback of The Lurking Fear and Other Stories by the side of the bed. He checked his e-mails and sent one to Vos to let him know he had arrived in Rotterdam and was heading straight out to make a start.

  He walked toward the center. The kind of places he was looking for were not likely to be found there, but he wanted to get a feel for the city. He'd known not to expect a replica of Amsterdam, or even Antwerp. Rotterdam had been flattened in the war and had arisen anew in the twentieth century's favorite materials of glass and steel. But really the commercial center could have been plucked from the English Midlands or the depressed Francophone cities of Wallonia.

  A figure on top of an anonymous block of chrome and smoked glass caught his eye. It was either hubris or a remarkable achievement on the artist's part that Antony Gormley's cast of his own body had, by stealth, become a sort of Everyman figure. A split second's glance was all you needed to identify the facsimile as that of the London-born sculptor.

  Only absently wondering why there might be an Antony Gormley figure standing on top of an office block in Rotterdam, Joe walked on. He stopped outside a bookshop and surveyed the contents of the window as an inevitable prelude to going inside: Joe couldn't walk past bookshops. It was their unpredictability that drew him in. They might not have his book in stock, but then again they might.

  This one had the recently published Dutch edition of Joe's crime novel, Amsterdam. He stroked the cover, lost for a moment in the same reverie that always gripped him at this point. The thought that the novel was this far—this far—from reaching the screen.

  Leaving the bookshop, Joe spotted another tall figure standing erect on the flat roof of a shiny anonymous building two hundred meters down the road.

  When Vos had optioned the book, Joe had thought it was only a matter of time, but delay followed delay. Vos had a director attached, but couldn't find a writer the director would work with. Joe had asked his agent to show Vos the three unsold featurelength scripts he had written on spec, but the agent had explained that Vos and his director were looking for someone with a track record. Which was why Joe made a bid to write the adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Hound," Vos's other optioned property, but the response was the same. Hence the visit to Rotterdam to look for empty spaces and spooky graveyards.

  On the Westzeedijk, a boulevard heading east away from the city center, Joe came upon the Kunsthal: a glass-and-steel construction, the art gallery had a protruding metal deck on which were scattered more Gormley figures in different positions. Lying flat, sitting down, bent double. Inside the gallery, visible through the sheet-glass walls, were more figures striking a variety of poses. Two faced each other through the plate glass, identical in all respects except height. The one inside looked taller, presumably an illusion.

  Joe had missed the original Gormley exhibition in London, when cast-iron molds of the artist's body had popped up on rooftops across the capital. Leaving the Kunsthal in his wake, he caught sight of another figure at one corner of the roof of the Erasmus Medical Center. He realized he had started looking for them. This was Gormley's aim, he supposed, to alter the way you looked at the world. To get into your head and flick a switch. As public art, it was inescapable, insidious, invasive. Was that a good thing? Was his work really a "radical investigation of the body as a place of memory and transformation," as Joe remembered reading on the artist's own web site? Or was it all about him? All about Gormley. And if it was, did that matter? Wasn't Joe's novel all about Joe? Who's to say Lovecraft's essays were the extent of his autobiographical work?

  Joe was halfway to the top of the Euromast when his phone buzzed. The incoming text was from Vos. John Mains, the scriptwriter, was going to be in Rotterdam, arriving later that day. They should meet, compare notes, Vos advised.

  Joe scowled. He reached the top landing of the structure and exited on to the viewing deck. The panorama of the city ought to have dominated, but Joe couldn't help but be aware of the ubiquitous figure perched on the railing above his head.

  He tried to think of a way in which he could get out of meeting up with Mains. He'd lost his phone and not received Vos's text. Amateurish. Didn't have time. Even worse.

  He checked his watch. He still had a few hours.

  At the foot of the Euromast he found an empty fire station. He peered through the fogged windows. A red plastic chair sat upturned in the middle of a concrete floor. A single boot lay on its side. Joe took a couple of pictures and moved on. A kilometer or so north was Nieuwe Binnenweg. With its mix of independent music stores, designer boutiques, print centers, and sex shops, this long east-west street on the west side of the city would be useful for establishing shots. At the top end he photographed a pet grooming salon, Doggy Stijl, next door to a business calling itself, less ambiguously, the Fetish Store. There were a few empty shops, more cropping up the further out of town he walked, alongside ethnic food stores and tatty establishments selling cheap luggage and rolls of brightly colored vinyl floor coverings.

  The port of Rotterdam had expanded since Lovecraft's day to become the largest in Europe. Why the late author had chosen to set his story here did not concern Joe; indeed, he had no reason to suspect Lovecraft had ever set foot on Dutch soil. The references to Holland and Rotterdam in particular were so general he could have been describing any port city. All credit to Vos, Joe conceded, that he had chosen to film here rather than in Hull or Harwich, or the eastern seaboard of the U.S., for that matter.

  Joe's westward migration out of the city had taken him into one of the port areas. The cold hand of the North Sea poked its stubby fingers into waste ground crisscrossed by disused railway sidings. Ancient warehouses crumbled in the moist air. New buildings the size of football pitches constructed out of corrugated metal squatted amid coarse grass and hardy yellow flowering plants. Interposed between one of these nameless buildings and the end of a long narrow channel of slate-colored water was an abandoned Meccano set of rusty machinery—hawsers, articulated arms, winches, pulleys. Elsewhere in the city this would pass as contemporary art. Out here it was merely a relic of outmoded mechanization, with a possible afterlife as a prop in a twentyfirst-century horror film.

  There had been a few adaptations of Lovecraft's work, successful and otherwise, and they weren't all by Stuart Gordon. Just most of them. Joe wasn't sure where Vos's film was destined to play, arthouse or multiplex. As he lowered the camera from his eye, he caught sight of a dark shape behind the machinery. Tasting a rush of adrenaline, he moved his head for a better view, but there was nothing—or nobody—there.

  Disconcerted, he backed away. In the distance a container lorry crunched down through the gears as it negotiated a corner. A faint alarm could be heard as the driver of another vehicle reversed up to a loading bay.

  Keileweg had been the center of the dockside red light district before the clean-up of 2005 that had driven prostitution off the streets. If he hadn't done his research, Joe wouldn't have guessed. He found Keileweg devoid of almost any signs of life. The street was lined with boxy gray warehouses and abandoned import/export businesses. A dirty scarf of sulphurous smoke trailed from a chimney at an industrial site near the main road end of Keileweg. On the opposite side, a little way down, a building clad in blue corrugated metal drew Joe's eye. Christian graffiti decorated the roadside wall: "JEZUS STIERF VOOR ONS TOEN Wij NOG ZONDAREN WAREN." The building's main entrance was tucked away behind high gates. High but not unscaleable. Approaching the dirty windows, Joe shielded his eyes to check out the interior. The usual story: upturned chairs, a table separated from its legs, a computer monitor with its screen kicked in, a venetian blind pulled down from the wall, its blue slats twisted and splayed like some kind of post-ecological vegetation.

  The place had potential.

  Likewise the waste ground and disused railway sidings running alongside Vier-Havens-Straat.

  Slowly, Joe made his way back into town photographing likely sites, even throwing in the odd windmill in case Vos wanted to catch the heritage market.

  He returned to the hotel to shower and pick up his e-mails, including one from Vos telling him where and when to meet John Mains. Joe studied the map. He left the hotel and walked north until he reached Nieuwe Binnenweg, where he turned left. At the junction with 's Gravendijkwal, where the traffic rattled beneath Nieuwe Binnenweg in an underpass, he entered the Dizzy Jazzcafé and ordered a Belgian brown beer. He drank it quickly, toying with his beermat, and ordered another. Checking his watch, he emptied his glass for the second time. As he stood up, his head span and he had to hold on to the back of the chair. Belgian brown beers were notoriously strong, he remembered, a little too late.

  Two blocks down Nieuwe Binnenweg was Heemraadssingel, a wide boulevard with a canal running up the middle of it. Joe stood on a broad grassy bank facing the canal and beyond it the bar where he was due to meet Mains. He straightened his back and breathed in deeply. He needed a moment of calm.

  A soft voice in his ear: "Joe!"

  He whiled around. A figure stood on the grass behind him, legs slightly apart, arms by his side. The lights of the bars and the clubs on the near side of the street turned the figure into a silhouette; the lights from the far side of the canal were too distant to provide any illumination.

  Joe stood his ground, straining his eyes to see.

  The figure didn't move.

  And then a shape ghosted out from behind it. A man.

  "Joe," said the man in a gentle Scots accent. "Didn't mean to make you jump. Well, I guess I did, but you know. . . These are a laugh, aren't they?" He indicated the cast-iron mold as he moved away from it. "Easily recyclable, too. John Mains." He offered his hand.

  "Joe," said Joe, still disoriented.

  "I know," said Mains, smiling slyly.

  He was about Joe's height with an uncertain cast to his slightly asymmetrical features that could go either way—charmingly vulnerable or deceptively untrustworthy.

  "Busy day?" Mains asked, moving dark hair out of his eyes.

  "Yeah."

  "When did you get here?"

  "This morning."

  "How did you get here?"

  "I flew."

  "Shall we?" Mains gestured toward the far side of the canal.

  They walked toward where the road crossed over the canal, and Joe was the first to enter the bar. Rock music played loudly from speakers bracketed to the walls. They sat on stools at a high table in a little booth, and a bartender brought them beers. Joe observed Mains while the scriptwriter was watching the lads in the next booth, and he wondered what anyone would think, looking at them. Would they be able to spot the difference between them? Was Mains's precious track record visible to the naked eye?

  Mains looked back and it was Joe's turn to redirect his gaze.

  Mains said something and Joe had to ask him to repeat it.

  "I said I haven't booked into a hotel yet."

  "It's not exactly high season."

  "No." He took a sip of his beer. "Could you not have taken the train? Or the ferry?"

  "What?"

  "It's not very environmentally friendly to fly, especially such a short distance."

  "It was cheaper."

  "Not in the long run, Joe. You've got to take the long view."

  Joe looked at the other man's dark eyes, small and round and glossy like a bird's. A half-smile.

  "So what have you got for me?" Mains asked.

  Joe hesitated. He wondered if it was worth making the point that he was working for Vos. He decided that since neither of them was paying him, it didn't make much difference. He was about to answer when Mains spoke again.

  "Look, Joe, I know you pitched to write this script, but we do have to work together."

  "I know, I know," Joe shouted into a sudden break between tracks. The boys in the next booth looked over at them. Joe returned their stare, then turned to look at Mains. "I know," he continued. "Here, have a look."

  He handed Mains the camera phone on which he'd taken his pictures, and Mains flicked through them using his thumbs.

  "Great," he said, not particularly sounding like he meant it. "I suppose I was expecting something more atmospheric."

  Joe tried to keep the irritation out of his voice—"I guess the Germans weren't thinking about that when they bombed the place to fuck"—and failed.

  Another group of young men entered the bar. Joe didn't consider himself an expert on the outward signifiers of particular social groupings, particularly in foreign countries, but he wondered if Mains had brought him to a gay bar. One of the newcomers glanced at Joe, then switched his attention to Mains, his eyes lingering on the tattoos on the Scot's forearms.

  "Are you hungry?" said Mains.

  "I haven't eaten all day."

  "Let's go get something to eat."

  As they got down from their stools, Joe felt his head spinning again. He really did need something to eat, and quick.

  They ate in a Thai restaurant. Joe smiled at the waitress, but it was his dining partner she couldn't take her eyes off.

  "You'd better write a decent script, that's all I can say," Joe said to Mains, argumentatively, as the waitress poured them each another Singha beer. "It better not be shit."

  Mains laughed.

  "I'm not fucking joking. When's it set, for example? Is it contemporary?"

  'It's timeless, Joe. It's a timeless story, after all. I'm sure you agree. Grave-robbing—it's never a good idea."

  "Tell me you're not writing it as a fucking period piece."

  "Like I say, it's timeless."

  "Fuck's sake."

  As they left, Mains slipped the tip directly into the waitress's hand. Joe thought he saw her fingers momentarily close over his.

  Out on the street, Joe wanted nothing more than to drink several glasses of water and get his head down, but Mains wasn't done yet, insisting that they go to a club he'd read about near Centraal Station.

  "I'm fucked," Joe said, pulling a face.

  "Ah come on, man. It's new. I want to check it out and I can't go on my own."

  Why not? Joe wanted to yell at him. Why the fuck not?

  But instead he allowed his shoulders to slump in a gesture of acquiescence.

  "Good man!" Mains clapped him on the back. "Good man! Let's go."

  They walked together through the city streets, dodging bicycles. Joe knew he was making a mistake. He just didn't know how big.

  They reached West-Kruiskade. The nightclub—WATT—was located between a public park and an Asian fast food restaurant. Dozens of bikes were parked outside. Bouncers looked over a steady stream of clubbers as they entered. Joe and Mains joined them.

  They waited to be served at the bar.

  "The glasses are made from recycled materials," Mains said.

  "Right," said Joe.

  A bartender cracked open two brown bottles and poured the contents into two plastic glasses.

  "They have a rainwater-flush system for the loos," Mains went on.

  "Brilliant," Joe said in a deliberately flat voice.

  "The lighting is all LEDs. Renewable energy sources."

  "This is why you wanted to come here?" A disgusted grimace had settled on Joe's face.

  "The best part is over there." Mains turned and pointed toward the dance floor, accidentally brushing the shoulder of the girl next to him, who turned and stared at the two men. "It's a brand new concept," he continued, ignoring the girl, who eventually looked away. "Sustainable Dance Club. Energy from people's feet powers the lights in the dance floor."

  Joe concentrated on trying to remain upright. He drank some beer from his recycled plastic glass. Something Mains had said in the restaurant came back to him.

  "You know you said grave-robbing is never a good idea?" Joe looked at Mains, whose face was unreadable. "Surely what we're doing is a form of grave-robbing? Adapting the work of a dead man without his approval." Joe finished his beer. "I'm not saying I wouldn't have done the adaptation, offered the chance, but still, eh?"

  Mains stared back into Joe's eyes and for a moment Joe thought he had outwitted the scriptwriter.

  "I prefer to think of it," Mains said eventually, "as recycling."

  Joe held his beady gaze for a second or two, then, with an air about him of someone conceding defeat but slipping a card up his sleeve at the same time, said, "I have some ideas."

  "Uh-huh?"

  "Mike Nelson."

  "The installation artist?"

  "Works a lot with abandoned buildings, something Vos told me to keep an eye out for. Plus, he's a fan of Lovecraft. He entitled one of his works To the Memory of H. P. Lovecraft. Admittedly he's quoting a dedication from a short story by Borges, but why would he do that if he wasn't a fan?"

  "So what about him?" Mains asked.

  "Get him on board as production designer. I suggested it to Vos. Do you know what he said? 'Production design's not art, it's craft.'"

  Mains appeared to alter the direction of the conversation. "Vos optioned your novel, didn't he?"

Joe nodded.

  "You realize if the Lovecraft adaptation gets made it increases the chances of yours going into development?"

  Joe nodded again.

  "It would make a good movie," Mains added.

  "You've read it?" Joe asked before he could stop himself.

  "Vos gave me a copy."

  Joe felt more conflicted than ever. If Vos had given Mains a copy of his book it could mean he wanted him to adapt it, and whereas Joe would rather write any script himself, the ultimate goal was seeing a film version on the big screen, whoever got the writer's credit.

  Joe saw himself buying more beers, which was madness, given how seriously drunk he was by now. He turned around to pass one to Mains, but the writer was not there. The back of his jacket could be seen threading its way between the crowds toward the dance floor.

  Joe looked at the beers in his hands.

  The rest of the evening was a maelstrom of pounding music, throbbing temples, flashing lights. Grabbed hands, shouted remarks, glimpsed figures. Time became elastic, sense fragmentary, perception unreliable. Joe was aware, while staggering back to the hotel, of feeling so utterly isolated from the rest of the world that he felt alternately tiny and huge in relation to his surroundings. But mainly he was unaware of anything that made any sense; there were pockets, or moments, of clarity like stills from a forgotten film. The giant white swan of the Erasmus Bridge glowing against the night sky. A heel caught between rails as the first tram of the day screeched around a bend in the track. His hotel room—leaning back against the closed door, astonished to be there at all. Looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and not being convinced it was his, until he reminded himself this was how a man might look after drinking as much as he had. Cupping water in his hands from the tap, again and again and again. Finally, lying in bed staring at the door and hallucinating one of Antony Gormley's cast-iron figures standing inside the room with its back to the door.

  Waking was a slow process of fear and denial, the inside of his head host to a slideshow of rescued images from the night before. Tattooed flesh, strobe lights, red flashes. Someone grabbing hold of his crotch, taking a handful. A mouth full of teeth. The pulsing LEDs in the kinetic dance floor. The Erasmus Bridge. The Gormley figure in his room.

  The open window admitted the sounds of traffic on river and road, the city coming to life.

  Knowing he would soon be spending a long period of penance in the bathroom, he looked over toward the door. The figure he had thought he had seen just before falling asleep was not there, but there was something not right about that corner of the room. He closed his eyes, but then opened them again to stop his head spinning. There was something on the wall, something that oughtn't to be there. Feeling his gorge begin to rise, he clambered out of bed, naked. To get to the bathroom he had to pass the end of the bed where there was a bit of space between it and the wall opposite. The door was beyond to the left. There was something there on the floor, some kind of dummy or lifesize doll, or a picture of one painted dark rusty red by a child. There was a lot of red paint splashed on the floor and the walls and the end of the bed, but Joe had to get to the bathroom. He threw up in the toilet, his brain processing the images from the floor of the room, against his will. All he wanted to do was be sick and cleanse his system. As he vomited again, a small knot of pain formed toward the front of his skull, increasing in severity in a matter of seconds. He knew he had to go out of the bathroom and have another look at the floor between the wall and the end of the bed, but he didn't want to do so. He was frightened and he didn't understand. What he had seen was just a picture; hopefully it wasn't even there, it was a hallucination, like the figure as he'd lain in bed.

  He turned and looked out of the bathroom door. The bedspread had a busy pattern, but even among the geometric shapes, the purples and the blues, lozenges and diamonds, he could see streaks and splashes of a dirty brown.

  He crawled to the doorway, his heart thumping, and peered around the corner. He spent a few seconds looking at the thing that lay on the carpet before retreating into the bathroom and being sick again.

  He remembered Mains telling him, at the start of the evening, that he hadn't booked a hotel room. Had they come back together? Or had Mains followed him back and had he—Joe—let him in? Or had he broken in? Had the glimpsed figure been the writer, not one of Gormley's cast-iron facsimiles? Or had Mains already been there passed out on the floor while Joe was drifting into sleep in bed, and had the cast-iron man done this to him?

  It was no more bizarre an idea than that Joe had done it. Had slashed at the writer's body until it was almost unrecognizable as that of a human being, never mind as that of Mains. There could be little blood left in the vasculature, most of it having soaked into the carpet and bedspread or adhered to the wall in patterns consistent with arterial spray.

  Joe inspected his hands. They were clean. Perhaps too clean. His body was unmarked.

  Very deliberately, Joe got dressed. Stepping carefully around the body, he left the room and took the lift down to the ground floor. He glanced at the desk staff as he left the hotel, but they didn't look up.

  He walked toward the western end of Nieuwe Binnenweg until he found the mix of shops he needed and returned to the hotel with a rucksack containing a sturdy hacksaw, a serrated knife, some cleaning materials, skin-tight rubber gloves, and a large roll of resealable freezer bags. As he stood facing the mirrored wall in the lift to go back up to the fourth floor, he pictured himself as the boys in the bar would have seen him, shouting at Mains. He recalled the waitress in the restaurant, who had been at their table precisely when Joe had been giving Mains a hard time, and then there was the girl by the bar in WATT. The latter part of the time they had spent in the club was a blank. Anything could have happened and anyone could come forward as a witness.

  The lift arrived with a metallic ping and Joe got out and walked the short distance to his room. Once inside, he dumped the rucksack and stripped down to his underpants. He slipped his iPod inside the waistband and inserted the earphones into his ears. "Rotterdam" by Githead, on repeat. If it meant he would never again be able to listen to Githead, so be it. Just as he had never been able to listen to Astral Weeks since the traumatic break-up with Marie from Donegal, or to Cranes. He'd been to a Cranes gig in Clapham the night before his father had died and every time he tried to listen to any of their albums, it put him right back where he was the morning he got the phone call from his mother.

  He moved a towel and bath mat out of the way, then dragged the body into the bathroom and lifted it into the bath, not worrying too much about the smears of blood this left on the floor and the side of the bath. He stood over the bath with the hacksaw in his hand and suddenly perceived himself as Vos might film him, looking up from the corpse's-eye view. He hesitated, then reached for the towel, which he placed over the head and upper torso.

  His first job was to cut away the remaining scraps of clothes, which he dumped in the sink, and then he began working at the left wrist, just below the tattoo. The hacksaw blade skittered when it first met substantial resistance. Blood welled from the cut in the flesh and trickled down toward the hand, causing Joe's hand to slip.

  In his earphones, the girl vocalist sang, "It's a nice day," over and over.

  It took at least five minutes to get through the radius and another minute or so of sawing to work through the ulna. There was a certain grim satisfaction in having removed one of the hands, but the exertion had brought Joe out in a sweat and his head was throbbing. In his dehydrated state, he could little afford to lose further moisture.

  He knew that he had a long job ahead of him and that it would never seem any closer to being completed while he was still thinking forward to—and dreading—the hardest part. He sat down on the bathroom floor for a moment, letting his heart rate slow down. He knew what he was about to attempt. He had decided. It was necessary if he was to survive.

  It's a nice day.

  Taking a breath, Joe shuffled along the floor. He turned around and leaned over the edge, pulling the hem of the towel up to reveal the neck. He placed the serrated edge of the hacksaw blade against the soft skin just below the Adam's apple. A little bit of pressure and the teeth bit into the skin, causing a string of tiny red beads to appear. He leaned into the saw and extended his arm. Back and forth, back and forth. His hand pressing down on the chest and slithering and sliding.

  It took a few minutes. He wasn't timing himself. It felt longer. He bagged the head by touch alone, using a plastic carrier from one of the shops on Nieuwe Binnenweg. He recycled one of Mains's shoelaces to tie it shut, then placed it in the sink.

  It would be easier now. It could be anyone.

  It's a nice day.

  At several points over the next two hours, Joe thought he would have to give up. What he was doing was inhuman. If he carried on, he would lose his humanity. Even if he evaded capture, he would never be at peace. But each time he merely restated to himself his determination to survive. Yes, what he was doing was a crime, but it was the only crime he knew for certain he had committed.

  The clean-up operation took longer.

  It was some time in the afternoon when Joe presented himself at the front desk to settle his bill. The rucksack was on his back, his own bag, bulkier than on arrival, slung over one shoulder. Outside in the street he stopped and looked back. He counted the floors up and along until he spotted his open window. On an impulse, he walked back toward the hotel. There was a poorly maintained raised flower bed between the pavement and the hotel wall. Joe rested his foot on the lip of the bed as if to tie his shoelace and peered into the gaps between the shrubs. At the back, among the rubbish close to the hotel wall, was a broken brown bottle. Joe reached in and his fingers closed around the neck. He placed the bottle in his shoulder bag and walked away.

  On a patch of waste ground at the end of one of the docks behind Keileweg, unobserved, he started a small fire with bits of rubbish, locally sourced. When the fire was going well enough to burn a couple of pieces of wood salvaged from the dockside, Joe took Mains's torn and bloodstained clothing from his bag. He dropped the items into the flames, then added Mains's wallet, from which he had already extracted anything of use. The broken bottle, which could have originally been a beer bottle from WATT but equally might not have been, went over the side of the dock.

  Satisfied that the fire had done its most important work, Joe left it burning and started walking back toward the city center, the rucksack still heavy on his back.

  At a bus stop across the street from where one of Antony Gormley's ubiquitous cast-iron molds stood guard on the roof of another building, Joe caught a bus to Europort and boarded a ferry bound for Hull, using Mains's ticket. The writer would have approved, he thought. When the ticket control had turned out also to involve a simultaneous passport check, a detail he had somehow not anticipated, Joe's heart rate had shot up and a line of sweat had crept from his hair line, but the check had been cursory at best and Joe had been waved on to the boat. He sat out on the rear deck, glad to relieve his shoulders of the weight of the rucksack. With an hour to go before the ferry was due to sail, he watched the sky darken and the various colors of the port lights take on depth, intensity, richness. Huge wind turbines turning slowly in the light breeze, like fans cooling the desert-warmed air of some alien city of the future. Giant cranes squatting over docksides, mutant insects towering over tiny human figures passing from one suspended cone of orange light to the next. Tall, slender flare-stacks, votive offerings to some unknown god. The lights of the edge of the city in the distance, apartment blocks, life going on.

  Soon the ferry would slip her mooring and glide past fantastical wharves and gantries, enormous silos and floating jetties. She would navigate slowly away from this dream of the lowlands and enter the cold dark reality of the North Sea, where no one would hear the odd splash over the side in the lonely hours of the night.

 
 

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