Pressure by Betsy Reavley – Review

The Book:

When the submarine departed, none of the ten people on board knew it would turn into a nightmare.

Trapped on the sunken vessel on the bottom of the ocean and unable to escape, one of them is discovered dead. The tension escalates as the survivors realise there is a murderer among them, who is preparing to strike again and again…

With mounting desperation, people begin to turn on each other. While they struggle to identify who is responsible, each must contend with their own past, the claustrophobia and the secrets they are hiding.

But who is who?  And which of them will be next to die?

Below the surface, the pressure is building and time is running out…

My Review:

This is my first Betsy Reavley novel and Pressure is one hell of an introduction to her work.

The basic premise of Pressure is a variation on the ‘trapped together, one of us is a murderer’ type. The novel succeeds in immersing the reader in a too-tight setting, conveying very realistically the confines of both the submarine and the options available to its characters. In some parts the novel feels like an old siege movie in the ilk of Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape from New York, in that the overwhelming inability to leave, to even breathe, is ever-present for the characters and the reader.

Where Reavley’s novel differs, is in Pressure, the enemy is very much within, with the multiple threats of oxygen deprivation, close quarters and a murderer pressing in on the cast from all sides at all times. For me, the novel smacked of very modern, snarky slasher movies, isolated, alone, being hunted, but displayed all the char also of an old fashioned, set-in-a-manor whodunit.

The plotting is excellent and the pacing spot-on. A deep sense of foreboding and growing peril permeates the entire novel. Where Reavley excels though, is in her characterisation and the manner in which she conveys her characters emotions, virtues, flaws, vulnerability and cruelty.

Infinitely complex and viscerally-authentic, Reavley characters are fucked-up, heroic, cowardly and complex. Reavley’s use of shifting POV and narrative styles is skilfully-utilised and gave true life to the characters.

The POV shifts continuously, rotating through more than a few persons. I’m rarely a fan of this type of POV shifting, but Reavley has succeeded in altering the POV from person to person, whilst still maintaining the relentless flow and forward momentum of the narrative. This is not an easy thing to do, but when it works, Christ it really works, and Reavley utilized this device perfectly, bringing a tangible sense of immersion, unstoppable forward-momentum and augmented tension.

The shifting POV also served to heighten the impact of the roulette wheel of who the reader has deduced is the killer.

Reavley also plays around with her narrative style; switching between first-person, past tense and present tense to differentiate the flashbacks from the main narrative.

This also worked well and kept the separate sections distinct for the reader.

The highlight of the book for me was the sections placed throughout told form the POV of The Child. Extremely dark, gruelling really, these short interludes acted as intermezzi and demonstrated the depth of the author’s understanding of human suffering and our capacity for foulness and endurance. I wanted more of The Child, but also dreaded having to return to their pitiable world. These Interludes, for me, elevate Pressure, taking a good read and converting it into a great one.

Containing elements of a Thriller, at times dabbling into Horror, Pressure is an uncomfortable read, but hugely entertaining, which is a bit fucked up and entirely magnificent.  

Pressure is available now at Amazon and from Bloodhound Books.

Advertisements

The Key To Death’s Door by Mark Tilbury – Review.

The Book:

 

If you could discover the murderous truth of a past life and seek justice in this one, would you?

Teenager Lee Hunter doesn’t have a choice when he nearly drowns after spending the night at a derelict boathouse with his best friend, Charlie Finch. After leaving his body and meeting a mysterious light that lets him to go back to the past, Lee finds himself reliving the final days of another life. A life that ended tragically.

After recovering from his near death experience, Lee begins to realise that he is part of two lives linked by the despicable actions of one man.

Struggling against impossible odds, Lee and Charlie set out to bring this man to justice.

Will Lee be able to unlock the past and bring justice to the future?

The Key to Death’s Door is a story of sacrifice, friendship, loyalty and murder.

 

My Review:

No messing about… I fucking love this novel. I read a lot of books, this one is, by quite some distance, my favourite read of 2018 to date.

Tilbury’s use of POV and narrative style is completely perfect throughout and Lee/Paul’s voice carries the reader very nicely through the changing time periods and settings. Very nicely done.

Tilbury’s believable and charming dialogue aids the effect of this this tremendously. The technical skill displayed here shows how considerably Tilbury has developed as a writer with this work.

The novel felt very current, but also prodded a lot of nostalgia that’d connect not just with 80s kids but with kids of any era because of the themes of friendship and family and fidelity used.

It read as very visceral, very real, but also played out on my mind like a Quantum Leap episode. Pure entertainment at its best.

 

With the recurring themes of friendships and newly-minted courage, and loyalty, it felt like Stand by Me, and a little element of Stranger Things, but only in the feel of the people and settings. This wonderful work is not derivative in any way of those films and shows but does evoke the warm glows of childhood, despite the darkness throughout. It felt familiar and dangerous and modern and strangely comforting. Wonderful stuff.

Tilbury has revealed a golden moment in this book. Not just in comparing the lives of present day kids to those of the past, but the social commentary on domestic violence, the apparent exterior normality of the central monster, friendships that transcend circumstances and the deep loyalty of the boys. The author has portrayed the boys in a very genuine way and not fallen into trying to use youth-isms or patronised their POV in any way. I loved these teen characters and the simple courage they discovered within themselves as the novel progressed.

Some scenes are horrific but they make the sun shine all the brighter when it comes out. Despite the darkness it’s a very hopeful novel, which is quite some trick.

I loved the little quirks that Mark has used to flesh out his characters, giving them a too-real presence for the reader. Charlie always refereeing to Lee as Gus is one of those special little character kinks that bring great characters and stories to life. I was delighted that Tilbury didn’t force any explanation of why Charlie does this. It just is, and it’s fucking perfect.

The Key to Death’s Door is an absolute beast of a novel and one that elevates its author to a new level of skill and technical accomplishment.

 

The key To Death’s Door is available now from Amazon and Bloodhound Books

Killing Mr Black – Preview (Shaping Dougie).

The following (unedited) excerpt is taken from Killing Mr Black and is copyright if Mark Wilson 2018:

Mary’s hands moved quickly and surely, feeding the material though her industrial sewing machine. Decades of experience guided them despite the ordinarily ubiquitous tremors, which all but vanished whilst she sewed. Dougie watched his wife as she worked, enjoying the peace and the certainty of purpose she clearly experienced during these moments.

From his vantage, Mary looked as though she was her whole self, her ‘real’ self as she worked. Her head tilted and bobbed and darted as she adjusted her loose grip and made quick alterations to the path of the material through the needle’s path. Dougie watched her snip part of the material free from the machine and smooth it out onto her work table that she may examine her progress. Dougie imagined her sharp eyes moving over the completed sections and her mind effortlessly calculating the next phase. Although he couldn’t see his wife’s face, experience told him that she would almost certainly be smiling broadly as she worked.

Regretful at having to break the moment, but aware that he must, Dougie stood up from the desk he’d been lean-sitting against.

“Mary-love?” He spoke gently as to not startle her in case she had forgotten he was in the room, such had been the peace of the moment.

Laying her dress-in-progress down, Mary Black turned sharply to lock eyes with her husband. Dougie’s heart wrenched at her expression. He had broken her concentration and the magical effect that sewing had on her. Smiling warmly at the woman he had loved for almost forty years, but now barely recognised, Dougie held his breath and voice, giving her time to process.

Mary’s eyes, wide with confusion, narrowed and then relaxed again as recognition dawned. “Oh,” she said smiling back at him finally. “I’d forgotten that you were here.”

Dougie bobbed a nod. “Yeah, I was trying to be quiet, let you work. Sorry if I scared you.”

Mary shook her head. “S’fine,” she said. Noting that Dougie’s jacket lay on the desk behind him, she asked, “You off out?”

“Yeah.”

“Work?”

“No, love. Just for a walk.”

Mary nodded.

Losing interest, she was already turning back to her task.

Dougie pulled his jacket on and walked over to place a hand on his wife’s shoulder. Leaning over, he planted a soft kiss on her cheek. Her hands already occupied at their task, her mind locked on the dress, Mary barely seemed to notice.

Dougie swallowed regret and headed to the door.

“I’ve left a sandwich n the fridge and there’s plenty tea in the pot,” he told the back of her head. An abrupt surge of guilt almost changed Dougie’s mind about leaving the house. He considered just staying in, perhaps watching the telly whilst she worked. His conscious prodded at him to tell Mary the truth about here he was going. His better judgment whispered that he should keep his secrets.

Making his way from Mary’s work room, out into the hall, Dougie pulled the front door open. Slipping out into the early evening, he whispered a half-hearted goodbye to Mary.

In the back-room, Mary Black’s hands busied themselves, expertly stitching, rotating and adjusting. Skills earned from thousands of hours of crafting garments allowed her to perform on auto-pilot, for the most part.

Hearing the front door close, Mary spoke over her shoulder to no-one, “Bye, Tom. Have fun.”

∞∞∞

An icy wind cut across the Meadows and Dougie pulled his hat down over his forehead as he continued his short walk from his and Mary’s apartment on Gillespie way to the building on Nightingale way where Karen lived.

Karen.

As always, the instant Karen’s name floated up to the surface of his thoughts, his heart lurched with the pain of lying to Mary about her.

Not lying, exactly, just not telling the truth.

Dougie pushed the false justification away. Not telling Mary was lying to her. He knew this and refused to hide from the wrongness of it. Dougie felt like punching himself. Instead he trudged across the meadows towards Karen’s apartment.

Despite the guilt and the pain he felt every time he sees her, Dougie’s time with Karen- never often enough despite how close their respective homes were- brought intense feelings of comfort and a rightness to his empty world.

Karen’s face floated up before his mind’s-eye.

Twenty-four years old. Still so very young.

The thought brought a sad smile to his lips. About the same age as Frankie at work, but so very different.

Dougie warmed himself with the thought of her as he sliced through the Edinburgh evening, shoulders hunched against the growing wind.

By the time he reached the tall, red double-doors of her building, Dougie’s thoughts were fixed completely on Karen and the short time they would have together before he had to return home.

Entering the building, Dougie smiled at the receptionist, who returned his greeting. As he didn’t recognise her, Dougie assumed she was knew.

“Who are you here for?” she asked pleasantly, regarding- almost assessing- him as she spoke.

“Karen,” he replied pleasantly.

“Ah, ok. I’ll buzz you up.”

Dougie Black thanked her and headed upstairs, heart pounding in anticipation.

Knocking, softly, Dougie pushed the door open a moment later to find the large living room warm and welcoming. Karen was seated in a high back chair, her back to the door. She didn’t turn to acknowledge his entrance. Dougie Black slipped inside, closing the door behind.

Approaching her from behind, he stands a foot away from the chair. “Hi, Karen,” he said softly.

Karen rose from her chair, turning to smile at her visitor. Dressed for indoors in black, she tilted her head as she smiled taking the few seconds she needed to recall his face and their history together. When she did smile, it lit up the room and Dougie’s heart both.

The Tanzanite Ring – A Valentine’s Horror Short.

The following story comes from Mark Wilson and Ryan Bracha’s Exquisite Corpse and is unedited. (Previously published as an advance peek on Mark Tilbury’s blog). Happy valentine

The Tanzanite Ring by Mark Wilson.

Paris, 2020

The high and muddy Seine slid beneath the bridge, hurriedly winding through the city; no care for its residents, its beautiful buildings nor an appreciation of a stunningly crisp winter evening. Sebastian checked the deep pocket in his overcoat for perhaps the seventh time in the last fifteen minutes.

The shape of the box within settled his nerves and caused his eager heart to skip a beat. Eleanor would be here any moment. Memories of their last visit to this spot together simmered to the surface warming Sebastian more thoroughly than the steam venting through the nearby grates.

He and Eleanor, in Paris. Walking the streets, loving the city. Right here on this very bridge they’d locked their love alongside hundreds of other metal declarations, giggling at the cheesiness of the act but brought closer somehow by it. As though a little padlock bought for two Euros from an opportunistic vendor, could deepen their love. But, somehow, it had.

Have three years really passed since last we had been in the city together?

So many other cities and countries explored together since.

Sebastian clutched at the box in his pocket once more as he scanned the padlocks and their messages to pass the time. A rough vibration from his phone shook Sebastian from his reverie. Checking the face, he confirmed the alarm he’d set.

Time to meet Eleanor by Notre Dame.

∞∞∞

I see her long before she notes my presence. Content to watch her for a few moments, I step back, cloaking myself in the deep shadows of a nearby statue. She’s right on time.

Eleanor.

Ten years we’ve had each other. A decade of travel, city to city, country to country. Each place we visit holds a significance known only to us. A special site where we’ve shared a moment together.

Where she’s given me her heart.

A few feet from the Trevi Fountain in Rome, huddled in a doorway where no prying eyes could penetrate.

Fleshmarket Close in Edinburgh. In my arms she descended the stairs with me, ducking into a secluded garden for a secret clinch.

Beneath the bridge at Camden Lock we indulged in perhaps the most intimate moment of my life.

The list goes on. Each moment a gift. Her time, her heart and her soul; given to me in a moment of purest connection etched for eternity into my memories.

Pride swells in me as I watch the familiar cadence and gait of her steps. She radiates goodness, this woman of mine. My heart beats so violently inside my chest I almost expect her to whip her head around to seek out and fix on the sound. Once again, my hand closes around the ring box in my pocket.

Inspiration flashes. I consider stepping out into the square to present her with the ring. Right here, right now. Removing the symbol of my unending love from my pocket, I rotate it a few turns, idly making a decision.

Recognising the rush of excitement for cheap impetuousness, I take a few deep breaths to compose myself.

Stick to the plan. Somewhere private, just for us.

Never one for making an exhibition of myself, I shove the box back into my pocket and step into the light to greet my love.

∞∞∞

One arm around Eleanor’s waist, the other pressed protectively…affectionately around her abdomen and curling round her hip, Sebastian led his love from the main square along the banks of the Seine. Eleanor shivered making the man who loves her pull her closer into his side. He kissed her on the cheek feeling the chill in her skin. He hoped his own body heat lessened her chill. Sebastian halted their brisk pace. Smiling at Eleanor, he removed his scarf with his left hand, keeping his right arm protectively around her waist to better share body heat. Looping his cashmere scarf around her slender neck, he asked, “Better?”

Eyes misting, she nodded her gratitude. They set off once again at a clip, crossing Pont Saint-Michel. Huddled in tight together against the nip of the wind, they walked along the Seine to Pont des Arts. Eleanor looked along the bridge to where the love-locks dangled, covering metres of the bridge’s railings.

Noting an older man at the half-way point of the bridge, she cut a sidelong look at Sebastian’s contented face, before jabbing a sharp elbow hard into her captor’s ribs. Sebastian was unhurt nor even moved by the blow. His response was to loop his left arm from around her back, up behind her head. His iron grip clenched her mouth and nose. Sebastian allowed a moment’s disappointment to show on his face. His sorrow was genuine but did little to alter his plans.

Sliding the short blade he held to her hip in deep enough to grate against the bone millimetres below- catching Eleanor’s scream in his leather-gloved hand, he moved his lips near to her ear.

“Oh Eleanor,” Sebastian whispered. “Why does it always have to end in an argument?”

Sebastian scanned along the length of the bridge, noting that the elderly man had not turned to look at the couple, and had continued along on his way, heedless of them.

Sebastian rotated the knife several millimetres, placing pressure on a nearby nerve cluster. Eleanor went limp as he withdrew the blade. With practiced swiftness he caught her before her knees bent.

“You will not ruin my plans for this evening, my dear.”

Scooping an arm under her armpit, Sebastian carried her off of the bridge as one might a drunken friend. Taking the stairs down the walkway to the river banks, Sebastian propped her against the wall, deep in the shadows.

Digging deep into his overcoat pocket, Sebastian retrieved a set of small keys and unlatched the padlock on a nearby shed. Tucked away under the bridge, the shed was used as a storehouse for seats and deckchairs, placed along the Seine banks during the summer months so that city workers mat enjoy the sunshine during their lunchbreak.

Nodding his approval at the preparations he’d made to the shed’s interior late that very afternoon, Sebastian retrieved his love, lifting her up onto this left shoulder, he entered the shed, pulling the door tightly closed behind them.

∞∞∞

“How many times do I have to say it?” She screams into my face. “I am not her!”

I shove the oily rag back into her mouth, securing it with heavy tape and storm away from her, barely stopping myself from punching the shed wall in my anger.

This won’t do at all.

Leaving the little shed, I stride the few steps to sit on the banks of the Seine, dangling my legs high over the dark waters. The frozen stone beneath is a sharp prompt to cool the heat in my veins.

Why must she always do this? Each and every time.

I breathe deliberately, allowing my stomach to expand as my diaphragm pulls and pushes, inhaling and expelling the chilled air. I feel my characteristic calm return and the stinging disappointment leave me as fog breath on the night air. Once more in control, I return to the shed, taking a kneeling position at her side.

Bound at wrists and ankles, propped against the shed wall, she glares up at me, unjust anger and fear taint her beautiful eyes.

She can see that I am calm once again and relaxes her shoulders a minute sag. She is very far from happy, but this little display of trust regained warms me. Slipping the box from my pocket, I creak open the hinged lid and slide the ring over her wedding finger. The light inside the shed, weak as it is, dances across the gemstone. Blues and purples and violets frolic and play across its surface and reflect onto her pupils.

“Will you do me this great honour?” I ask.

Her eyes are wide in shock. Tears flow freely along her cheeks and across her gag. She’s shaking with excitement.

Finally, the joyful reaction I was hoping for.

Fighting emotion, Eleanor nods her head, forcing a softness into her eyes absent until this moment.

I love you Eleanor. Thank you for coming back to me. To this place, once again to share yourself with me.”

The tears increase in pace as she accepts my love.

Gratefully I hold her to me for many long minutes until her sobbing ebbs.

She’s calming. Her body softens against mine, melting into my embrace.

It’s time.

Pushing gently away I hold Eleanor at arms-length, committing her loving expression to memory that I may revisit this moment at some point in future. Perhaps in the midst of rough times, or during one of her many absences. Eleanor notes the pure love I’m emitting for her and her eyes fill with hope.

I smile warmly, nodding an affirmation that she is correct in what she sees in my eyes.

Sending every particle of endless love through my eyes to hers, I close my gloved hands and tighten the vice they’ve become.

Eleanor’s eyes widen and then haemorrhage and then glaze over as I throttle every scrap of air from her airways. She accepts the coming death very quickly. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes she fights against it. It’s her choice, I am but a witness to her death throes. Watching the life dim and vanish from her eyes I force a final few ounces of pressure into my grip, compelling the cartilage in her windpipe to buckle and then splinter. Finally, releasing her, I cradle her gently to the plastic-covered floor and proceed to untie her bonds and remove the gag.

As Eleanor lies peacefully, I retrieve my work bag, stowed away earlier in the day at the rear of the shed.

I pour myself a cup of coffee from the little flask within and fish out the almond Croissant I bought from a charming little patisserie in Saint Germaine earlier that day.

Seated with my back up against the interior wall, legs straight out in front to act as a tray for my snack, I fill my stomach and warm my bones whilst I wait for gravity to have its way with her blood.

∞∞∞

Groggy awareness crept on him. Starting as he realised he’d fallen asleep, Sebastian checked his watch. Two hours had passed since he’d strangled Eleanor to death. Thanking no-one in particular that he hadn’t slept so very long, Sebastian rose to his feet before moving towards Eleanor’s prone body.

Crouching low, Sebastian lifted the side of Eleanor’s top, exposing her side which had become striped with a purplish hue towards her back where the blood had pooled and clotted. He pinched her fingertips, watching for any flow to blanch the area.

Certain that lividity had taken place, Sebastian removed her top completely, followed by her bra.

Smiling sadly, he placed a hand gently on Eleanor’s abdomen for a moment, feeling the coolness of her skin before retrieving his work bag once again. Producing a rolled piece of canvas, Sebastian unrolled the bundle parallel to the left of Eleanor’s body, exposing rows of very sharp blades and saws within. The final item pulled from the bag, Sebastian placed alongside Eleanor’s right side.

Seating himself in a straddle across her hips, Sebastian selected a small-bladed electric saw the size of a hand drill. Positioning its blade where her ribs and breastbone met, Sebastian activated the mechanism sawing smoothly from lower ribcage to clavicles.

Sebastian nodded at the neatness of his cut before placing the little saw onto the plastic around them. Reaching into the canvas bag, he selected a mechanism designed to open the chest cavity, placed it into the opening he’d made and began the process of rotating the wheel, watching with interest as her chest began to open, resembling a large toothy mouth.

Sebastian smiled at his practiced, smooth movement. Leaving the retractor in place, he selected a scalpel with which he cut through the pericardium sac, exposing Eleanor’s heart.

Over the next few minutes, Sebastian’s sure hands and clever fingers worked with accuracy and haste, disconnecting veins and arteries and removing connective tissue until Eleanor’s heart finally lifted free of its natural place. Checking his watch, Sebastian noted that he’d performed the removal one full minute more quickly than previously.

Pride widened his face into a smile.

Transferring the heart to the little clip-lock Tupperware box at Eleanor’s side, Sebastian, stripped himself naked, carefully folding his clothes onto a little box nearby. Working from neck to toes, and with the aid of two mirrors, he checked for and obvious scratches or tears in his skin. He’d been unaware of any opportunity for Eleanor to have taken a swipe at him, but experience had taught him to be prudent.

Discovering a very shallow scratch on his right forearm that hadn’t even broken the skin, Sebastian sighed at the additional tasks now required.  Selecting a Japanese chef’s knife, Sebastian began with the right thumb. Fearful of any trace DNA scratched from his skin being found underneath her fingernails, Sebastian removed each finger from the second joint, placing them in a thick hospital bio-waste bag which he would later incinerate. The Tanzanite ring he simply removed from the ragged end of her finger, placing it back into its case.

Sebastian folded his latex gloves from the wrist, turning them inside out and over the end of his fingers. Absent-mindedly, he dropped them into the open chest cavity then clipped the lid onto the boxy Tupperware.

Moving around the room, the killer carefully cleaned and packed away all of his tools, placed the Tupper-ware into a waiting ice-box, then set about the task of preparing Eleanor’s body for disposal.

His face took on a hint of disdain. He’d got what he came for and was done with her, but tasks remained to be done, regardless of any distaste he felt for them.

Blank-face and in auto-pilot, Sebastian placed some lead weights inside Eleanor’s chest before reversing the Retractor, closing and sewing her chest tight, and then wrapping her tightly in the plastic, secured by more tape.

Eventually, he slipped her cocooned body into the Seine, relief plain on his face.

One month later…

I chew on the last of the dried meat as intently as I chew on the decision in front of me. With my back resting against the newly-clean sandstone of the Opera national de Bordeaux, I feel the warmth trapped from the afternoon’s sunshine inside the stone, seep into my back, relieving a few knots that have developed there these last few days.

My eyes dart busily along and across Place de la Comedie, searching for her. As the notion that I may have missed her floats to the top of my thoughts, I abruptly catch her from the corner of my eye.

Dressed for the pleasant weather, Eleanor looks a vision. Her hair, brunette with a hint of auburn, as ever, is loose and swaying with the familiar rhythm of her walk. She looks relaxed, happy. My heart spills over with love for her. My hand strays to rest atop my little satchel. I can feel the shape of the box inside. Reassurance floods me as surely as courage does.

The power love holds surely is a wonder.

Bordeaux, so unfamiliar to us. We’ve never had a moment together in this city. Never explored our love or its streets here. Idly I fetch another strip of heart-jerky from my lunchbox, laid on the ground aside me. Tearing a piece off with my teeth, I watch Eleanor as she leaves the open area where people congregate on a summer’s day such as today.

It’s a fine place, to people watch, but inadequate for a marriage proposal. That will come later today in a more private part of this fine, beautiful city. Eleanor’s heart will once again be mine.

Killing Mr Black – Preview

After a long break from writing, the longest I’ve taken in four years, I began writing this a couple of days ago without much clue as to what it was about beyond the first chapter. A few days (and three hours writing time later), I’m 7,300 words into my next novel, provisionally titled ‘Killing Mr Black’, a psychological thriller. It’s good to be writing again. Hope you enjoy this short preview.

The following excerpt is from Mark Wilson’s ‘Killing Mr Black’. Copyright mark Wilson 2017. It is unedited.Chapter One

Her red pen moving, right toe tapping along to an Indie track playing through her ear-phones, Frankie’s eyes flick up to the standard school-issue clock on her classroom wall. Ten minutes ‘til break.

On any other day the realisation would be welcome, today the looming interval is less a chance for coffee and a quick moan with her peers, and more a reminder that yet another hour in yet another day with too few has slipped past her and her to do list has barely been dented.

Reminding herself that she loves her job, Frankie shakes off the threatening despair at always having more work to do, of never quite succeeding to finish one task before another materialises and stands from her desk.

Frequent micro-breaks. That’s her thing just now. That and the comfort blanket of music whilst she works.  A few seconds of walking around the room and stretching, then back to work. Just enough of a pause to break the fugue. Just enough activity to reenergise before returning to her task. The music provides motivation and positivity, both badly needed for a twenty-first century teacher drowning in admin. Music and pacing, a poor substitute for a good glass of wine.

Avoiding disturbing her noise-cancelling earphones, Frankie slips her right hand behind her neck and push leans until vertebrae slide and crack back into position with satisfyingly sharp pain. Frankie checks the clock again, assesses how much she’s accomplished during her free period and resigns herself good-naturedly to taking almost half of her work home tonight to complete it in front of her latest Netflix binge.

Netflix and chill, she mocks her own life.

Netflix and mark jotter, drink wine and eat chocolate’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Returning to her seat, Frankie runs both hands back over her head, smoothing her hair- a subconscious habit her close friends find endearing- that seems to ready her, steel her between tasks or sometimes before speaking. Inadvertently, she knocks her earphones back from her left ear. Immediately she hears raised voices; kids from the classroom next door. 

Dougie’s classroom.

Surprise flickers across her face. Dougie’s kids are generally a quiet bunch. He runs a good classroom. Strict, but not unfair. Approachable, but a firm expectation of the standards he expects in his classroom. Moving to stand closer to their shared wall, Frankie expects that she’ll hear the sounds of a busy class, enjoying some active learning that Dougie’s dreamt up. Something prickles her subconscious. Something about the tone of the voices next door.

Muffled through the wall, she hears desks being screeched across the room, not unusual in an active classroom, and a few squeals from girls. Again, nothing unusual in a fourth year class where screams, groans, grunts, shouts and hollers form a large part of the teenage response vocab. The next voice, Dougie’s voice, sends Frankie racing to her classroom door.

Mid-stride Frankie’s fear is heightened by more racket coming through the wall and spilling out into the corridor.

“Harry…No!” – Dougie’s voice sounds shrill, desperate.

Frankie hears the door to Dougie’s classroom slam hard. A blur of movement passes the slim window of her own door at the moment she reaches for the handle.

Through six inch-wide glass, Frankie watches Dougie Black manhandle a boy whose face she can’t see from his room out into the hall. Pulling at her door handle, Frankie starts to open the door outwards. Almost immediately the teenage boy’s back smashes against her door, shattering the glass and sending the door crashing into her face. Frankie finds herself propelled backwards. Landing roughly on her rear, her hands find her face. Fingers working tentatively to her nose she feels wetness and tastes blood in the back of her throat. Through tears she watches Dougie use a strong forearm across the neck to press the boy hard into her door. Dougie’s face is twisted into an expression that Frankie wouldn’t have thought it capable of. Pain, confusion, anger and fear war in his features.

“No, Harry. No,” he shouts into the kid’s face. Frankie can’t see Harry’s Jardine’s face, only the back of his head, but she knows the kid well enough to recognise his build and his wild, red hair.

The boy’s shoulders are hunched over. The muscles in his back bunch and clench visibly under his school shirt. Several cuts on his back from where he crashed into her door are now bleeding.

The kid is fighting back against Dougie, and fighting hard. His left hand fires into Dougie’s face landing a solid blow, staggering the elder man a few steps back. Harry steps away from the door, the pressure from Dougie’s arm no longer pinning him. With shocking speed and efficiency he shoves Dougie with both hands, forcing him to the ground. A flash of metal in Harry’s hand stimulates something primal in Frankie’s brain. Landing astride his chest, Harry’s elbow dances like a fiddler’s mid-jig and his right hand darts in and out from Dougie’s torso.

Rising to her feet, Frankie struggles to shove the door open as Harry’s arm and hand continue to work at speed and with force. Dougie’s feet against her door prevent Frankie from opening it more than a few centimetres. A coppery, salty smell carries on the air that rushes in through the gap.

Only when fully standing, with her face pressed part-way through the gap where the glass had been, does Frankie get a proper view of how tilted her world has somehow become.

Sat on Dougie’s chest- one leg bent and kneeling the other straight and out for purchase- Harry torpedoes blows into Dougie’s torso, the fiddler’s elbow increasing the tempo of its action. The knife flashes before Frankie’s eye and splashes red across the carpet and wall with each strike. Abruptly Harry’s hand ceases its work. Dougie lies still, his legs straight and lifeless, beneath the boy.

With shocking, vicious speed Harry changes his grip, rotating the knife in his hand. Frankie’s screams echo along the corridor. Harry pushes several inches of steel into Dougie Black’s, lower chest in a determined stabbing motion.

Almost immediately, the instant the blade enters the prone teacher’s chest, Harry’s body gives a violent spasm then sags forward. Harry leans onto the floor with his right hand. Frankie watches him jerk once more then fall to the floor, a marionette with its strings severed. Landing on his side, parallel to his bleeding teacher, Harry’s head twitches to his left. From Frankie’s perspective it looks like an involuntary act, the action of a person waking to a nightmare. Both hands pressed to the doorframe, Frankie can feel the change happen. Harry comes to his knees slackly. His muscles relax, his head movement suggests his eyes moving between his hands and the knife in the teacher’s chest. All purpose, all violence has departed him. He looks smaller, deflated and weak and lost.

Frankie steels herself and pushes at the door. Discovering that it is still blocked by the dead weight of Dougie’s feet and legs, Frankie’s fear departs leaving her with a grim determination.

“Harry Jardine,” she yells shrilly.

 The boy’s head snaps around, startling her. His eyes are wide, uncomprehending. He can see what he’s done, but the kid is having trouble processing the facts.

Years of teaching teenagers, managing their behaviour puts Frankie into auto-pilot and the horror of the day ebbs a minute amount. Enough for her to function. When she speaks again, her voice is soft and calm.

“Harry, Move Mr Black’s legs,” she says. Her voice is steady and authoritative. Her heart hammers the inside of her ribcage.

The teenager blinks dumbly several times. Classroom doors open all along the corridor. Teachers’ faces emerge from their classrooms. Several step instantly back into their room, instructing their kids to return to their seats.

A few, the department head included, walk slowly along the corridor towards Frankie’s room. Their mouths slack, their eyes darting from Harry to Dougie and then Frankie. Masks of incomprehension morphing into controlled fear and shock.

Frankie flicks eyes flick from one face to another, before returning to meet Harry’s pale face and sunken eyes.

“Move his legs a little, son. I need to get out of my room and help Mr Black.”

An almost imperceptible nod does nothing to alter the panic that’s beginning to take hold in Harry’s eyes.

Frankie subconsciously braces herself for the boy to lurch at or attack her. She swallows the fear rising in her throat and paints a neutral expression on her face. It costs her a fragment of her soul something to do this.

“A nod at Dougie’s legs. “Harry.”

The boy has started to shake, but he reaches forward with both hands to shove at Dougie’s legs.

The Weight from the door immediately moves and Frankie slips smoothly through the doorway into the corridor.

Fighting every urge to be anywhere but near Harry Jardine, Frankie approaches the kneeling boy who has resumed his panicked scanning of Dougie’s prone form. A hand on each of his shoulders, she helps him to his feet as one might a child in need of consolation. Her eyes widen and fill with tears as she takes in Dougie’s wounds. Each of them deep and oozing or spraying dark blood.

Frankie straightens her back and moves Harry a few steps to her right. Lisa Ferguson, the department head, is stood nearby, having made her way silently along the corridor. Frankie looks behind Lisa. The other teachers in the department, six of them, are stood at their classroom doors, guarding the rooms, blocking the view through the glass sections. Kay McEwan is on her phone.

Lisa’s eyes meet Frankie’s. An unspoken exchange takes place.

Lisa wordlessly places an arm around Harry, leading him to the staircase beside Dougie’s room.

Frankie falls to her knees at Dougie’s side, hard enough to scuff both knees.

Reaching out to feel his forehead, Frankie’s hands tremble almost uncontrollably. She swears, demanding better of herself and reaches for a second time to make what in hindsight will seem like a pointless gesture. Holding her hand against Dougie’s forehead and then face, like she’s taking his temperature, Frankie shudders at the coolness of his skin.

Warmth spreads around her knees as blood pools. Frankie ignores it and searches his wounds. After counting six wounds, all deep, all bleeding, Frankie preserves her sanity by ceasing her examination. She knows that her friend is bleeding out. He’ll die before anyone arrives to help. Pressure, pressure on the wounds.

First aid raining nags at her.

Out loud she swears again, how the hell can I put pressure on all these wounds at once?

Frankie scans the wounds again, this time forcing herself to examine teach of them. She counts eighteen stab wounds and nine relatively deep slashes. Most of the wound are pooling blood. Two of them are spurting blood in long streams in time with Dougie’s heart beat. Each pulse delivers less blood.

Think…bloody think.

 Jan from the office, the school’s official first aider reaches her side. Shouldering Frankie aside, she immediately begins pressing her hands onto the two deepest wounds in Dougie’s abdomen, impeding the flow of vital blood. Jan is visibly rattled, her hands slip several times before she applies the right amount of pressure to slow Dougie’s bleeding, but not enough to slide off of his blood soaked body.

“Go find something to press on these wounds with,” she hisses at Frankie.

Frankie runs back into her classroom, Jan shouts down the corridor. “Has someone called an ambulance?” Despite her calm exterior, her tone betrays the panic she is feeling.

Searching frantically around her classroom, Frankie comes up short on anything suitable to act as a bandage or even a gauze to press on. Fuck, fuck, fuck…

 Her handbag, at the edge of her peripheral vison catches her eye. Two strides take her two it, ten more carry her back into the corridor to re-join Jan.

Unwrapping two of the four sanitary towels she’s brought, Frankie hands them to Jan who smoothly lifts one of her hands from Dougie’s wound, grabs the stacked towels and pushes them down onto the wound. Almost immediately the blood loss changes from steady leak to mere dribble. Together, the women repeat the process hindering the flow at the second site.

Jan swears several times, instructing herself roughly as she works. Her eyes dart busily form one wound to the next. Slashes, gouges and less deep stab wounds cry for her attention, but her efforts are best spent at the two deepest wounds she currently tends. Jan feels bile rise in her throat at her inability to do more for Dougie.

Press fuckng harder.

More pressure, you bastard.

Both hands firmly covering the pads, she throws a look Frankie’s way.

Thanks….What now?

Frankie stops short of shrugging. A moment later it occurs to her that she should check Dougie’s breathing and heart.

Jan lets out a long breath, grateful that someone other than just herself is doing something, is responsible for Dougie. She watches as Frankie leans an ear close to Dougie’s mouth, then takes his wrist.

“He’s cold,” Frankie cries. “His heart rate is really fast…So is his breathing.”

Jan’s brain delivers part of a lesson she attended two years previously.

“His blood pressure will be low, his body is diverting blood to his core. That’s why his hands and arms are cold,” Janice blurts, sounding like an instructional video.

“Okay, okay…” Jan repeats to no-one.

Each of them soaked in their colleague’s blood, each almost as pale as Dougie himself, Frankie and Jan look at each other for several long moments. Unbidden, hot tears streak down Jan’s face. As though given permission to accept or process the horror her world has become in under three minutes, Frankie’s own dams break. Acid tears wash a path through Dougie’s blood along her cheeks.

They nod at each other once, a wordless reassurance. Jan’s hands do not move a millimetre form their task of keeping Dougie’s wounds under pressure.

“You’re doing great,” Jan says quietly.

Frankie almost laughs. Instead she merely bobs a nod.

Her eyes leave Jan’s, searching Dougie’s body she ransacks her memories for something else she could be dong to stop the man belling out. No staggering act of surgical genius presents itself, so Frankie starts talking instead.

“It’ll be fine, you’ll be fine, Dougie. Just hold on. Stay with us.

Alice in Anger (Tequila Mockingbird 2) -Preview

The following excerpt is from Alice in Anger, the follow up to Ice Cold Alice under my pseudonym, CP Wilson. The excerpt introduces Sam, who will drag Tequila from her settled life in France and be her main adversary for the book.

It is unedited:

Alice

Abigail lifted her chin. Biting carefully, she removed a strip of steak from her fork whilst she assessed him. The candlelight danced in her eyes. Soft music he’d been unaware of drifted into his awareness, coating the moment in a soft perfection.

Leaning across the table, Sam laid his hand over one of Abigail’s.

“You look great, Abbie.”

She bobbed a tight nod. I know.

She did know, they both did.

Sam grinned watching her empty the last of a dark red from her glass. Holding the glass to the side of her body, she tilted it slightly signalling the serving staff. In moments, an eager waiter refilled it, basking in her smile as she thanked him. Waiters always seemed attentive when Sam dined with Abbie. Her dark hair, skin and very green eyes, combined with her athletic frame, drew many looks of admiration. Over the decade or so he’d been married to Abbie, Sam had become accustomed to the attention his wife received, for the most part.

Leaning back Sam waited until his wife’s attention returned to him.

“It’s been so long since we’ve had time together like this, Abbie.” Sam said kindly.

Abigail’s eyebrows lifted and her lips thinned accusingly. Sam could’ve kicked himself. He could easily interpret her taut expression, it was one she’d worn often. And whose fault is that? It asked of him silently.

Sam improvised a transparent gloss-over.

“It’s nice,” he added quickly. “No kids, just us. Time to talk, to relax.” He watched Abbie decide to let it go and relaxed into his seat a fraction.

“Yes… it is,” Abigail replied tartly. Her tone signalled an end to the thread of the conversation, such as it was.

 

Their waiter returned; tidying away plates and glasses as the couple exchanged comments and traded tales of their kids’ week back and forth. The busy server, rewarded by another of Abigail’s appreciative smiles, stepped quickly in his duties. Sam shoved a prickle of mild annoyance away.

“Hard to believe that they’re getting so big, isn’t it?” Sam said. Abigail’s eyes glazed slightly. “I suppose so,” she offered distractedly.

Keen to avoid another argument, or any frostiness, Sam decided a break was needed.

Shoving his chair back, Sam jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Just going to the loo, love.” Abigail shrugged with one shoulder, then leaned over to offer her glass for refill once again. Passing the obliging waiter en-route, Sam turned aside from the man’s smirk. The waiter’s attitude was hardly a new experience for Sam. Even his friends habitually made a standing joke of asking how he’d got a wife as beautiful as Abigail, when he himself was just a pretty average specimen. I’d be happy to look after her while you’re on your next tour, Sarge. It was a soldier’s joke, and a common one, but seemed to possess more intent, a sharpened edge when said of his wife.

A notion tugged at Sam’s subconscious, causing him to look back to the table from the other side of the dining room.

Abigail’s glass was once again full. Pressing the edge to her mouth, she looked over its lip, sharing a joke with the waiter. The young man, clearly at ease in her presence, rested his rear end against their table before leaning in to exchange whispers with Abigail. Observing them huddled closely, their cheeks pressed together, Sam felt something akin to anger rise in his chest. He was not a man controlled by jealousy or by his emotions. Recalling his training, Sam composed himself. Straightening his back, he forced himself to feel a levity that didn’t come naturally, or easily.

A smile almost came to his mouth. He almost shrugged off the moment… and then he saw the waiter’s hand reach for and squeeze his wife’s thigh. Abigail returned the gesture, her hand roaming high on his thigh. Sam’s perception of the world around him reddened and vanished.

 

A series of heavy strides carried Sam to the table. With an iron grip, he grabbed at the waiter’s shoulder from behind. Pulling hard at the man, he crashed the waiter’s rear torso down onto the table shattering the glassware. Sam pinned the waiter to the table with his left hand, holding him in place effortlessly whilst his right began pummelling hammer strikes into the prone man’s nose. Blood and snot exploded from the young man’s face. Sam shifted his grip. Grabbing the waiter by the back of his neck he forced him to sit before slamming him back downwards once again with a vicious elbow strike to the bridge of his nose.

The waiter folded into a defensive embryo curl, exposing some deep wounds from the table’s glassware in the flesh of his back.

Somewhere far away, Abigail shouted at Sam and beat his upper back with her fists. Sam, barely aware of her blows, stepped forward to further punish the young waiter. Abruptly he was dragged backwards by several strong hands. Landing on his spine heavily, Sam’s awareness began to return as three waiters pinned his arms and torso to the carpeted floor.

A thread-bare tendril of conscious control was all he possessed, but it was enough with which to rein himself in, to extinguish the savage intent that had effortlessly carried him to act so brutally.

Laid there on the restaurant carpet, the room around him began to seep in once again. A young couple stood with their backs pressed to the wall, arms around, shielding each other from the madman who had spoiled their evening.

A toddler screamed. Her mother was glaring at Sam whilst trying futilely to comfort her.

I’m sorry, I’m a father myself, part of him pleaded pathetically.

The young waiter he had attacked still lay on the table top, the restaurant owner, the kid’s father, tended to him. He bled profusely from greying face and from his punctured and shredded back. From Sam’s newly adjusted perspective, the injured waiter suddenly looked very young. The waiter’s father locked eyes with Sam. Fury and outrage surged through the angry father. Several of his staff held him as he surged to his feet.

At length, blue lights flashed and danced across the windows and ceiling. Sam let go of a breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding and the final remnants of his spent rage, sagging to the floor. Turning his head to the right, he watched Abigail’s heels depart the room.

 

Ice Cold Alice, from Bloodhound Books, is available now at Amazon.

Alice in Anger will be published soon. 

The Crying Boy by Jane E James – Review

The Crying Boy is an excellent myth on which to base a novel and one that Jane James clearly has some in depth knowledge on. The opening section of the book – in first-person from the painting’s POV- really jolted me, hard. This was an excellent section, wholly immersive, tantalisingly creepy and pitch-perfect in the narrative choice. It also demonstrated a particular strong grasp and use of dialogue by James. All in, The Crying Boy has one of the strongest openings to any book I’ve read. Ever.

cry

With such an accomplished opening, I had high expectations going into the rest of the book, which for the most part were met.

Utilising a third-person, present-tense throughout, Jane’s prose is accomplished and very descriptive, skilfully immersing the reader in the musty, opaque corridors of the world James exposes them to. I was slightly disappointed by the lack of dialogue present in parts of the book, mostly because the writer demonstrated a high degree of skill in writing the spoken word in the earliest scenes of the book, making me want more… a lot more. As a result of this reduction in dialogue, the prose felt a little exposition-heavy at times for my tastes, but perhaps, where dialogue is concerned, others will find that less is more in this case.

For me personally I’d like to have seen more interactions between the characters similar to those that took place in the prologue. Similarly, I’d have liked to have seen the painting’s ‘character’ pushed to the fore. This was a skilful use of characterisation, and an adept use of alternative viewpoint. For me, the novel would have benefited from a greater presence of this ‘character’. Perhaps even as the main protagonist throughout.

Despite a few minor quibbles, most of which are wholly subjective, I really enjoyed The Crying Boy. James’ novel is a fine example of an eerie, insular, tightly-cornered beast of a story; all threatening corners and complex emotions and characters. To read, it felt like watching an early John Carpenter movie, like The Thing. Seeped in intrigue and threatening presence.  It’s a book I know that I’ll revisit several times, as it is one of those reads in which the reader finds something new to love or fear or recoil from on each visit.

A very accomplished story from a skilled author.

 

You can find Jane E James at Bloodhound Books