Book: Black River (2016)

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It was best to come to the office late now, if at all—the better to avoid the unbridled fury of the editor at large. Initially of course, Downey had been delighted with the latest scoop on the Emily case, he’d even left a message on Hardy’s home answering machine attesting just that, but his mood soon soured once Ward got onto the paper, gunning for blood for the breach of trust after Hardy had promised not to mention the lead on Emily’s ex-boyfriend. It was a shaky but vital alliance that existed between the paper and the police and with the other newspapers of the city out there as competition, a blue wall of silence facing future reportage was the last thing Downey needed.

In one fell swoop Hardy had managed to piss both men off royally, while at the same time diverting the Garda investigation back to its proper course, thereby fulfilling his promise to Mary Whelan to stay on the case and do whatever he could to help. As far as legacies go it was scant, but he hadn’t had all that much time to prepare. Mary Whelan, at least, had been grateful for the effort and an innocent boy would have his name cleared if nothing else. As a final corporeal act it would have to suffice.

All the same, he suspected that Downey would now seek his termination for this latest stunt and he would get his wish, though probably not quite in the way that he imagined. In any case, Hardy sensed that he didn’t have much longer left anyway. For the meantime he just wanted to enjoy his time in the office. Even with Downey across the way most days, this small windowed room had been something of a sanctuary to him, particularly at night when the building was quiet. And while none of the other reporters could be termed friends exactly, he had enjoyed the after-work trips to the pub with them at least as much as he enjoyed drinking alone. He would miss working at the paper.

The weather had turned. It was cold outside and a thin mizzle permeated everything, the orange streetlamps buzzing faintly in its moisture. It was the same every year, the glorious sunshine and heat of early spring lulled the walkers of the city into a false sense of security before giving way to overcast skies and rain that seemed like it might remain there forever. April was indeed the cruellest month.

It was difficult to get a good radio reception when the weather was like this. A pain, because at night the national stations actually played real music instead of the corporate-approved dross they pumped out constantly during civilized hours. Through the crackle of the static, some old Neil Young song played—a classic, haunting guitar solo shrieking across the airwaves from some other distant era. Shrouded in the light of a desk lamp, Hardy sat before his open laptop and listened. The screen before him was blank, word processer opened but with an empty page, the cursor blinking periodically, its petition to work destined to go unfulfilled. He knew he wouldn’t write another story for the paper. He had nothing to write about anymore. If Downey needed one more excuse to sack him, he would be easily obliged.

Hardy sighed and stood up from the desk, even this small movement now a laborious task. Behind him the music continued to play, vocal-less and strange, fading in and out through the crackling static. He walked to the window and peered out of the blinds at Eyre Square below. Dark figures moved to and fro in the hazy damp. Taxi drivers sat hidden in shadow behind the wheel, waiting for a fare and thinking about God knows what. It was a quiet night. Dead.

If Downey gave him the sack, would anybody know when he passed? How long would it take for someone to find him? Would anybody miss him? He had told Linda about his upcoming tests almost three weeks ago and heard nothing from her since. If she thought he was dying, apparently she didn’t care either way and why should she? They had never been anything more than glorified fuck buddies to begin with, despite what either of them once might have wanted.

There were no more parents now and if there were they would surely miss him no more than he had missed them when they had each passed, though it was unlikely they would have shared his relief. They had been his nightmare growing up, he merely their burden. A faint, sardonic smile creased the corner of his cracked lips as it occurred to him that the only person who would actually note his absence was Murphy the landlord. It wouldn’t be long before Murphy came sniffing around once the numbers went back in the red. Murphy would get a nasty surprise for himself. Another impromptu legacy of Hardy’s, just satisfying enough to hold back the ache.

Hardy watched a man and woman walk hand in hand towards Shop Street. Despite the weather neither bore an umbrella over themselves or the other and their pace seemed solemn and purposeless as they walked. He thought about Linda again. It was her who had wanted something more at first, wasn’t it? That was why she’d called the whole thing off without bothering to offer any particular reason why. It hadn’t been Hardy who’d longed for more than just the hot merge of genitalia and a stiff goodbye in the morning, had it? Surely he hadn’t mourned her when she took herself away, most likely into the arms of some other interchangeable male—but if not, why not?

Why, there were many whys now. Why had he lived so long not living at all? Why had he refused to ever look inward, dousing his spirt in alcohol or distracting himself with petty rivalries and unwinnable campaigns against authority figures who probably just wanted to get by, probably didn’t even see themselves that way at all. Why had he spurned every chance at connection—true connection—with a lover, when that was all he longed for now, the only real regret he could actually allow himself. Why would he die alone, trembling beneath a damp sheet, at the last too weak to even put himself out of his misery with whiskey and pills?

Questions, questions and no answers—at least none that could satisfy the mind. Why would he die? Because everything died. Why was he alone? Because he’d spent his whole life behaving that way. That was all there was. No great design or purpose. Nobody would mourn him, nobody would remember him in any meaningful way.

It was taking too much effort to stand, so he turned back to the desk and as he did, the minutes-long solo on the radio finally gave way to a voice, high-toned and haunted. “He came dancing across the water…” Then the radio crackled out and there was only static and fuzz. The song had been cut off, like Hardy, before it had even begun. He did not attempt to retune it or even turn it off, merely sat down at the dull light of his desk lamp and placed his head in his hands, with the interminable chaos of elemental sound, faint in the background.

He had never begun, and self-delusion aside, probably never would have. Whatever it was that had held him back from the feast of life was too deep, too frightening to ever explore. He had been content enough with his own feast, the feast of booze and cigarettes and a slow but persistent suicide, when he’d thought he had years more to live it. Now he had days, days counting themselves off one by one, and he had no affairs, no life at all, to be put in order before the last. He had no wish to play chess on the beach with some hooded figure when his time finally came. For him the seven seals had always been broken.

His phone, set to silent, vibrated against the desk, causing him to jump with fright. He picked it up and held the screen to his view. A private number, again. Bringing the phone to his ear, he pressed the answer icon and spoke. His voice was low and cracked with his disease.

“Hello?”

Only silence on the other end.

“Hello?” he said again and the phone went dead.

Sighing, he placed it in his pocket and then stared back at the blank screen of his laptop, as if any answers could come from there. He’d been receiving these calls all weekend, two or three times a day—always a private number and never anyone else on the other end of the line. Perhaps it was Garda Ward or one of his acolytes. The rank and file of the Garda Síochána had always been, in his own experience dealing with them, little more than a petty and adolescent band of jocks. Maybe this was their idea of intimidation, payback for his publication of “off the record” material. He recalled his trip to the phone store a few days previously, when he’d entertained a notion of tracking for himself Emily’s final movements on the day she vanished, see if he could speak with the last few people who’d seen her alive, maybe get a story out of it. It had seemed a fitting way to spend his own final hours. He’d left his card at the shop that day and the calls had only begun after that. Could there be something there perhaps? He elected to give it more thought. At least it would keep his mind busy. He was running out of ways.

Steadying himself, he closed his laptop and then stood to place it in his briefcase. He had no intention of working and there was no point staying here any longer now. At home there was whiskey and the effortless release of a warm bed and blanket to lie under and wait for the end. Hardy turned off the lamp but not the radio and then shuffled to the door, pausing along the way to clutch his side, as if that could be enough to ward away the pain. He left his office in darkness, only the crackle of dead noise remaining behind him.

 

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