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An Audience with Carstairs Ch. 11

Chapter 11 - By your command

There were quite a few people there, but not many men. Women were doing the catering, collecting costumes, coordinating where people should go to get something to drink. The stage hands were actually on their break and the band, another group of men, was still playing. These guys didn't get a break, as they sometimes went ten to fifteen minutes between having to play and were served drinks on stage. They were playing songs the audience could dance to.

Robbie just darted between all these people like he was a mosquito and it was hard to follow him without knocking down everyone in my way like bowling pins. I guess that little shit had spent his time backstage getting to know the layout, because he disappeared into a service corridor.

I was on leather shoes, so I kept slipping. Behind me, Simon was raising the alarm, but there was a full band playing, 2000 people were chatting and laughing and everyone had a place to be, if not because of a schedule, then to get a drink or go to the loo. They were headed to bars and toilets, not the bowels of the Barbican. Robbie rounded a corner and got further and further away from me, as one or two people pressed themselves against a wall when he passed. He then hopped up some steps near the loading dock and that's where Kate and Melody were, looking at Kate's clipboard.

"STOP HIM!" I cried, which in retrospect was a dumb thing to say. It alerted them to him, though. In a move similar to mine, I saw Melody shield Kate as he ran towards them. Meanwhile, every muscle in my body was running out of oxygen and I was slowing down.

"FUCK OFF!" bellowed Melody. Robbie, completely out of his mind, raised the arm with the knife and plunged it into Melody's chest. I saw it go in. Her jacket was no barrier whatsoever, it was the proverbial knife through butter. She immediately went limp.

I wanted to stop, obviously, but Kate let out a fierce yell which scared him off and he ran away. My instinct was to help Melody, who was already covered in blood. Well, actually, my instinct was to scream like a banshee in impotent rage, but Kate locked eyes with me and that stopped me.

"GET HIM," said Kate, eerily calm. "He's got a knife."

My answer was no joke, no tease, not sarcastic at all. It came 'from my toes', as the Dutch say:

"By your command."

I ran off again, as my lungs did their level best to pump in as much air as they could. By now, they burned. It wasn't nearly enough oxygen for me to feel good, but it was sufficient to at least keep going. I saw a door close in the far distance and followed him through it, as yet another scared person screamed at me from behind some sort of massive, painted prop that was parked here. I'd scream too, if I'd had enough air in my lungs. Oh God, the burn. I felt like throwing up.

Robbie used a stairwell to get to a lower floor, where massive set pieces were kept that could be lifted up to the stage. It was largely empty now, as our show didn't use anything that was larger than a piano. That's why the big, black roadcases that bands and equipment companies use to transport their gear, labelled with chalk and stencilled logos, were stored there now. Some were as big as a suitcase and others as big as a fridge. This was merely a storage area at the moment, there was nobody here except him and me. He stopped and turned, then realised he'd reached a dead end. The only way out was past me. And so he gave me a lurid smile and waved his knife at me...

I have no idea what happened after that. Just none. Blank. You know that scene from The Terminator, when he's lowered in the molten aluminium and he shuts down? It's like that, except of course there's no computer code. But it is bits of your brain, bits that make you who you are, phoning in to say: 'Sorry, we can't deal with this. We're out.' One by one. Speech. Memory. Logical reasoning. Self preservation. They all check out. It just goes a bit darker, second by second. It's only scary until 'the ability to be frightened' punches out, too. I imagine that's what dying is like.

I only recall I found myself on the roof, in the cold evening air, looking at the loading dock of the Barbican. There were police vehicles there, two cars and a van. And an ambulance. Two paramedics calmly wheeled out a stretcher with a black bag, obviously with Melody inside. She hadn't made it. How could she? You don't walk away from getting stabbed like that.

I saw Kate, too. I know Kate. I love Kate. She got in with the stretcher and one of the paramedics. The doors closed and the ambulance drove off unhurriedly. It used its lights for just a second, just so it could safely turn into the street. No siren. Then, no lights at all. It drove off, trailing a bus.

I had no more business here.

Chapter 12 - Finale

Look at that. 'The Hitchhikers Guide' omnibus. Ten pounds. In a bin! What a shame. Here, 'Things my girlfriend and I have argued about'. That's a very funny book. Three quid. Tsss... Reduced to clear. What has the world come to?

I do love the smell of bookstores, even though it's probably more mildew than paper. So relaxing. I was in a Waterstones, the one near Finsbury circus. The top floor was practically empty. I looked out from the curved window on the corner. A typical London street. Useless shops. Something called Wasabi. Something called Pod. Who the hell needs shops like that, I wonder.

Someone said my name. Someone talking through a speaker.

"Ravel there, the 4th movement from his Rapsodie Espagnole. It's nearly a quarter to ten, here on Classic FM. Just a reminder for our listeners in London, the Metropolitan Police are asking the public to keep an eye out for Mr. Martin King, the well-known actor and art historian. Apparently after an incident at The Barbican, where his sold-out, one time only show 'An Audience With Carstairs' was interrupted by an incident tonight, Mr. King has left the building in what is called a 'dissociative state'. If you do see him, police advise you do not engage him, but simply let them know where he is. The number is 999, you can also call 101 if you like. Please, don't use Twitter. Now, Mr. King is not thought to be dangerous, but the Police are saying he might respond in an unpredictable way. We have no details on what has happened at the Barbican as yet but if you're listening, Mr. King... please call 999, let them know where you may be found. Right! After ten we'll be taking it down a notch here on Classic FM, when we..."

Pfff. Call the fuzz? Why? What's the point? Melody was dead. I'd seen her get stabbed. I'd seen her die. What was I going to do, resurrect her? They should leave me alone. These people should leave me THE FUCK alone. I can't turn on the Goddamned radio or the telly and I'm on it. Can't go to a museum or I'm on the web. Apparently I have a million 'friends' on Facebook and they stab the one that I actually know and love. Melody. That miserable little shit just... I saw him do it. She went down like a sack of potatoes. He just snuffed her out, like a candle.

A police car turned into a side street, Copthall Avenue. That's a pedestrian street, you arrogant fuck. You're not above the law. Oh look, there's another one. Sure, park your fucking cars there, who the hell cares? You're the cops, all high and mighty. People get murdered left, right and centre in this city but where are you guys when we need you? Oh, another one! Must be a special on donuts. Lovely view though, from this window. I'd been there a while but I was in no rush to go anywhere. Maybe I'd go to the roof later, jump off. That would be nice. A good, long snooze. Splat.

"Mr. King?" said someone behind me. There's always someone who wants something.

"Go away," I said, without looking.

"Mr. King, it's Police Sergeant Welsh. We've met, if you remember."

"Ah yes. Please go away."

"Mr. King, would you mind terribly... I mean if it's convenient... would you mind turning around? And perhaps, if I could ask, in a way that we could see your hands?"

I was loath to give up this view. Such a nice big window. Such a comforting smell, books. Hitchhikers Guide Omnibus. For a tenner. ONLY A TENNER! I turned and faced seven police offers in yellow vests. One was hiding something behind his back. Another seemed ready to pull a gun. Welsh was nearest, reaching out to me like I was set of car keys left on a narrow ledge.

"Hello Mr. King. Can I see your hands please? Just for a second?"

I showed my hands, they calmly patted me down and then we walked downstairs. It seemed the rest of the shop was still fairly busy, with police officers holding their arms wide to keep people in sections such as Geography, Art, Photography. Nobody likes Comedy, apparently. Everyone was quiet. Dead quiet. Stop staring, folks. Yes, it's Carstairs, now FUCK OFF.

Downstairs was someone I knew, behind spread out arms. Someone in a cape.

"Hi, Samantha."

She was let go by a female officer and rushed towards me. For some reason she wanted to hug me. Not a good idea. Melody hugged me once. She was dead now.

"Martin, she's fine. She's alive."

"Right."

Big sodding knife. BANG! In her chest. Body bag. Pull the other one.

"She's alive, Martin. He didn't kill her. She'll be fine."

"Right."

Tsss... I'll believe that when I see it.

"Just follow me, Mr. King," said Sergeant Welsh. "Come on lads, we're done here. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your cooperation."

We are about to reach the end of this book. The story continues in the final book of the Carstairs trilogy, 'And The Winner Is'. That book is MASSIVE, about three times the size of this one. Here is what you can expect:

Once the dust has settled after the events in 'An Audience With Carstairs', Martin is looking forward to a quiet life with the women he loves. He even has a brilliant plan to launch a new company, using his skills in cryptography and his business acumen.

Life gets in the way, though, as his girls are called away to different corners of the planet. Martin is in no mood to make a choice between them. As Hollywood beckons, and Kelly needs her friend Carstairs again, the pressure gets to be too much for him; he resorts to drugs.

Samantha and Susan step in to help, so Martin can be there for Kelly whilst trying his luck in America. There he is met by Caroline Keller, the forbidding mastermind behind Kate's agency, Keller & Fox. After a few exhilarating days together they form an unlikely friendship. But is that really possible with a woman like Caroline? She is, after all, used to getting whatever she wants.

Join Martin as he reaches new heights, makes new friends, becomes the Angel of Staten Island, gives America a new national anthem and clowns around in L.A.'s storm drains, in Ron Dudderie's erotic comedy action novel: 'And The Winner Is.'

'And The Winner Is' is the third and final part of the 'Carstairs Trilogy', the story of a man whose talents never fail to get in the way of his dreams. Featuring scenes in The Netherlands, New York, Los Angeles and the Czech Republic, it's a roller-coaster of a story and a fitting end to the year that changed Martin's life. Out now.

London is nice. Even the ugly bits are better than the ugly bits of other cities. I like driving around London. I'm usually on a bus, but a car is fine too. Too bad Samantha wouldn't shut up. It wasn't hard to tune her out, because female voices are easy to block. Yep yep yep yep yep. I liked Melody's voice. Not much of a singer, but such a sweet girl.

You know what? I was going to find that guy. That might be a nice thing to do. Find him, kill him. Slowly. Set bits of him on fire. Slice off some toes, or an ear. I'd have to have a word with Emma. She'd probably be okay with it, I mean the guy was a bit of an ass.

"Martin?"

I could dip him in a vat of acid, that would be nice. Feet first. But where to get a vat of acid?

"Martin? It's Kate."

Or a pulley system, to lower him in. I suppose you could rent those. A day or so would be enough. One of those cherry pickers you can rent, that would come in handy for this. I don't suppose you can rent those machines butchers use to slice ham, can you? Maybe you can get those second-hand. I'd have to look into that.

"Martin, please talk to me, it's Kate. Martin, please!"

I'd have to find something to catch his blood. Some sort of blanket, perhaps.

Samantha was holding a phone to my ear.

"Oh. Hi Kate."

"Oh thank God! Martin, how are you?"

That's Kate for you. Always asking the tough questions. I wasn't anything. I was done. They took Melody.

"Well, I'm not dead," was the best I could do.

"No one is dead, Martin. I'm with Melody. She's fine. Sedated, but fine."

"Are you in that black bag then?"

Stupid jokes. What sort of joke is that. I'm with Melody. Who are you, Gabriel?

"What? No! Oh my God, did you see that? Was that what... Martin, that was Robbie! They found him in the basement. Dead. He slit his own throat!"

"Oh. Shame. I had plans."

"I rode in that ambulance because they wouldn't let me get on the one that rushed Melody to A&E. But she's here with me now."

"Then let me talk to her."

If you're so clever.

"She's asleep. Sedated. She... Oh hang on..."

"Is that Martin? Martin? I love you," said Melody from afar.

I broke down. Massively and unstoppably, in Samantha's arms.

I don't know how I lost my senses and I don't know how I got them back. At some point, I was simply in control again. The police car, with Welsh in the passenger seat and a young PC at the wheel, turned into Silk Street. That's where the Barbican is.

Finish the show, Kate had said. Finish it. If they want a refund, we're fucked. Kelly's fucked.

I was greeted by my friends. Kelly, Harry, Annabelle, her ugly husband, Roger, Penny, they were all there. Ben. Rose. Susan. Simon and his cameraman. Everyone. And I wasn't up to that. I thought I had lost Melody about an hour ago. Only one thing could have been worse, in which case I'd have stepped off that roof. But deal with all this, without Kate and Melody? I couldn't.

But Carstairs could. I felt myself taking a step back in my mind. Carstairs is me. The calm, collected, sarcastic, quick thinking part of me. He took over, I sensed it.

"Where are we now?" I asked. Confusion on all those faces. Worried looks.

"The Barbican, son" said Ben.

"In the running order, my dear Sir. Might one have a copy?"

"They're just finishing with 'Celebration'," said Kelly, the only one to have actually studied that list.

"Well, let's you and me go and say hi."

I simply took her hand and walked on stage with her. The band was still playing, the girls were dancing and the singers that had been positioned off stage had been given something nice to wear and were out front, trying to keep it going. But as soon as Kelly and I appeared, the music stopped. There was no point in playing, people were hooting and hollering so loud it seemed to split my eardrums. The dancers stopped and applauded. Even the band stood up and applauded. Kelly and I made our way to the forward stage, still holding hands.

"Hello everyone. Are you enjoying yourselves?"

I later learned the audience had not been told of the incident. They knew about it in the movie theatres, because everyone had seen the attack take place. Whoever was in charge of that, presumably another Kate at Keller and Fox, had decided to pretend it was just that, a guy pushing Emma over. The fact he was found dead shortly afterwards had not been made public, nor the fact that I had wandered off.

But here, nobody knew about any of that. The band had kept on playing and if you were backstage but hadn't seen it happening, you weren't told about it. Kate is not the only competent employee of Keller and Fox. The only thing that seemed a bit strange to this audience was that I had never reappeared after the intermission, until now.

"Do you suppose Kelly and I might interrupt for a bit? I'd like another dance, before some boy steals her away forever. Edmund? Could you do that opening song again? Ladies and gentlemen, do join us if you can."

The music started up, we locked hands and danced for ages. Edmund played the song twice and stretched it out the second time. Just us, dancing. Actually, Carstairs danced. I sat on a bench somewhere in my own head, thinking of Melody and obeying Kate.

I don't know how Kelly did it, but she smiled bravely and gently corrected Carstairs when he missed a move. It was nice. It helped me to calm down. Most people in the audience had someone to dance with and so we were in the middle of a sea of couples, turning and swirling. Eventually Simon was sent in to stop us, just as Edmund finally brought the second repetition of that song to a close.

"Martin?"

"Yes, young Master Simon?"

It's Carstairs, idiot. Martin has stepped out for a bit.

"Look at the screen."

The actual Skype logo appeared, not the mockup from Graham's clip. The actual tune played, slightly distorted because Skype sucks even in 2013. Toot teet toot. Pip pip. Teet toot teet. Then that disturbing 'bloop'. I saw Melody in bed, awake and with a bandaged shoulder. Kate sat next to her. They waved.

'Do you want to drive for a bit?' asked Carstairs.

Don't mind if I do, dear boy.

"Martin, we're here. She's fine," said Kate.

"They can hear you, Martin" said Simon.

"Melody?"

"Hi Martin. I'll be fine. Really. Out tomorrow, they say."

"I love you. Both of you."

"We love you too," they said in unison. "Finish the show for us, okay?" said Kate.

"Do it for me," added Melody.

Only a few people in the audience, those so obsessed by their phones they had kept on following the news, had an idea what this was about. News sites were reporting 'an incident' backstage. There were some tweets about an assault, or maybe a fight. People were tweeting about the radio announcements that said I was wandering around London. But most people had simply enjoyed the music and the dancing. We had great songs. We had a fantastic band. We had amazing, experienced singers who were hired to do backing vocals but who were quite, quite capable of taking the lead. We had Edmund, more than capable of having a chat with the audience. They were fine with or without me. This was their job, like running a business was mine.

"Do it for me," said Melody.

"By your command."

I knew the running order, but I checked with Simon.

"We're doing 'Let's face the music', right?" I asked. He shook his head, smiling. I didn't know what to make of that, but then Edmund played a fanfare, the curtains opened and a pudgy man with hair like a haystack appeared, followed by two stagehands in black carrying that leather chair from the opening number. Simon's voice echoed through the space.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Mayor of London, Mr. Boris Johnson!"

"What's this?" I whispered to Kelly. She just smiled. Boris approached, shook hands with all of us and I was made to sit in that chair. Kelly sat on one of the armrests, with my arm around her. I knew of Boris by reputation, a nice enough fellow but not exactly someone you think of to liven up a theatre show. Boris took Simon's microphone and launched into a speech:

"Ah, ladies and gentlemen, I ah am sorry to disturb your ah wonderful show here this evening. I ah am here at bene placito in my ah capacity as mayor to address some ah very special people. Let's ah start ab initio with this wonderful young lady, Kelly ah Newman. Now Kelly, we are all here today because you wrote an impressive letter to the ah papers about your ah medical ah condition. And today it is my great pleasure to be able to announce the ah outcome of that letter as we are near the end of this very splendid night's entertainment. Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Newman, Mister King, you have raised the grand total of ah.. let me see..."
He looked up at the screen, where a number appeared: up until then, Kate and Melody had still been up there, smiling.

"One million, one hundred thousand, four hundred and ah sixty pound sterling!"

That took a moment to sink in. I had hoped for a million but this had all been very expensive. To overshoot by one hundred thousand pounds was incredible! Eventually Boris managed to get a word in, after we stopped behaving like we'd won Olympic gold.

"I ah hereby announce the inception of the Kelly Newman Foundation, which will oversee the ah distribution of this ah stupendous amount, as a ductus examplo, if you will."

That was news to me but it seemed sensible.

"Now... There is someone amongst us tonight who has come here, to our city and ad augusta per angusta I would say, he finds himself here today as our ah host. Mr. King, you have been in the media very often lately and ah with many good things. Mostly ah good things."

Laughter.

"You have helped a fellow Londoner, you ah have saved a priceless work of art and I understand that you will even be ah greeting those who come to this city on British Airways by sharing your ah affection for London. And of course, you are ah responsible for making us remember what it is to be British, by your ah alacrity, your compassion and certainly your ah generosity. London is many things, but I like to think it is also a melting pot and that ah is certainly it's ah strength. Coniunctis Viribus as they say. Mr. King, please be upstanding if you will."

I did so, obviously. I had no idea what was coming.

"As mayor of London it ah is my immense... immense pleasure to present to you the ah freedom of the City of London."

And with that, I was given a roll of parchment with a bow on it. Now I happened to know what this meant: it's essentially nothing, a piece of paper that just about anyone can get and that 1800 people qualify for per year. It's not a knighthood, it's not a prize. But it sounds nice and they didn't HAVE to do that, so I was still a bit moved and thanked Mr. Johnson under insane applause. As this happened, everyone backstage came onto the main stage and Edmund ordered his orchestra to play 'Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner.' And that was our closing act, which just made it eleven pm. It's an easy song to sing, I did most of it in a mock Cockney accent and with everybody waving and the guys who did the video screen pulling out all the stops, we had a nice finale. Simon had the last word:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this has been An Audience With Carstairs! Please stay until dawn if you like, because we will have music to dance to all night, but as far as the show is concerned this is it. Thank you and good night!"

There are two ways to end a show. When it's routine, you go to your dressing room as soon as you can to take off your costume and make-up, then you help where you are needed and bugger off home.

When it's a one off, which is mainly when amateurs put on a show, you bask in it for a while. There's lots of chatting, lots of 'you were great' and 'you were fantastic' and people take ages to get out of costume. This was clearly an occasion for the latter, except it wasn't: as soon as I left the stage, Susan and Samantha found me.

"You're with us. We're taking you to Melody."

"What about Kelly?" I said to Susan.

"Ben will take her home. Come on. We're going in Susan's car."

"I can get a cab."

"No you can't. Come on."

I just about managed to get permission to take off my microphone and transmitter. Susan went to get her car from the massive carpark underneath the building and picked Sam and me up from the loading dock. She was cold in that dress, even under her cape.

"You really don't have to do this," I repeated.

"Oh but we do," she said. It sounded ominous. Susan pulled up and we got in. I was made to sit in the back, Samantha took the wheel and Susan rode in the passenger seat, where she turned round to face me.

"Martin, do you recall what happened?"

"Not... all of it."

"What do you remember?"

"Let's see... Lunatic with a knife. Kick to his stomach. A chase. The fucker went after Kate and Melody. I thought Melody had died. Kate ordered me to..."

I stopped. I was going to say: 'Get revenge.' But that was not what she had said.

"To what?" said Susan.

"To stop him. There's a bit of a gap after that."

She sighed.

"Listen. Something happened. You need to know what, because this might be a police matter."

"Martin, if you're not focussed, tell us," said Samantha, expertly guiding us through London.

"I'm all here."

"Okay here goes," said Susan."I was in the hallway, on my way to find Kelly. There was screaming. That guy, Barrie or something, came running my way with a knife. I hid behind a... a something, I don't know what, theatre stuff. He went through a door. You were in hot pursuit. I told you where he went, but you seemed to know where he had gone, opened that door and went downstairs. I followed you. Does this ring any bells?"

"Basement," was all I knew to say."

"Yes. You chased him there until he reached a dead end. You two then had a fight. He lunged at you several times, screaming about you and Emma. You kicked him, he dropped the knife, you fought with bare hands. He was pounding you, you were grabbing him. His hair, his arm. You were stronger, but he was much more afraid and slippery. I screamed for help but nobody noticed. And then..."

She stopped. Samantha rubbed her arm in support.

"And then... he managed to get you on the ground, by running into you. And when you were down... he reached for the knife. And you... Oh God..."

She bit her lip.

"Tell him. Now. He needs to know."

"When he reached it, you grabbed his wrist and stopped him from cutting you. And you rolled him over. Then you took the knife... and... killed him. You butchered him. Completely impassively. Just... like a sheep."

"Jesus..." I whispered. That was hard to believe. Me, kill someone? I don't even kill spiders, I just trap them under a glass and throw them out into the garden.

"I... I ran up to you and urged you to stop. You just sat there, on top of him. Then you threw away the knife, or you dropped it really. And you walked away like I wasn't even there. Like you were sleepwalking. You were covered in blood. His blood."

She needed a few seconds to calm down, as she relived this horrible event.

"I called Sam. She said she'd go look for you. I... I took the knife, put it in his hands... He was losing blood, it was... I put it in his hands and tried to make it look like he'd done it himself. If you had cut him twice, that would have been it. They'd have known it was murder. Then I left. Sam texted me, she had found you."

"You were in the stairwell, headed to the roof," said Samantha. "I found you purely by accident, after I checked your dressing room. Most people use the lift."

"We took you with us. You didn't seem to know us but you responded a bit to Sam. We got you to your dressing room. Got you out of your bloody clothes. Washed you in the shower, your hands and face. There was a clean suit, we got you into that. There was a microphone stuck to you, we didn't want to say too much in case someone listened. You were like a zombie, Martin. Completely out of it."

"What about Kate?"

Susan resumed her story:

"Kate was with Melody the whole time. There was an ambulance in minutes. Once we cleaned you up, we left you there. You were so passive, we assumed you'd stay put. I took a packet of wet wipes and did all the doorknobs between your dressing room and the door to that ground floor, in case you had left bloody prints."

Sam took over, as if they'd rehearsed this. Maybe they had.

"I checked on Kelly and was keeping an eye on the police, as they searched the building. I was going to say I'd seen Robbie kill himself but they seemed to think he'd gone outside. Until they found his body, that is."

I just nodded. This was all completely new to me.

"The police were done in twenty minutes or so. The ambulance team was taking care of Melody right there, they used clamps of some kind. She got morphine, or at least something like it. Emma was useless, all she did was run around and cry. They took her away, her manager. Kate's people, the clipboard people, they kept everyone away from that hallway. Kate directed it all, via her talkback. Eventually Melody was stable enough to be taken to hospital. Kate wanted to come along but they wouldn't let her and then her people came to ask for instructions. Eventually she took the ambulance that picked up Barrie's body to get to Melody."

"Robbie. Not Barrie."

"Robbie. Right. Meanwhile, we had lost you. And..."

"I saw that. Kate. Getting in. The stretcher with the black bag. I was on the roof. I remember that bit."

"We searched everywhere. Including the roof. That roof is massive, its half a city block. You were gone. Sam told the police you were in a state of shock. Eventually they tracked you down and brought her to you. I stayed with Kelly. I don't know what happened after that, just that a police man told me he'd heard on the radio you had been found and were safe."

We drove for a few minutes, speeding up as we turned onto larger roads. Orange sodium lamps illuminated the interior of the car. These two women, whom I barely knew, were now accessories to murder. A murder I had committed. An execution.

"So what about the police?" I asked.

"That's up to you."

I sighed.

"I don't remember it. I just don't."

"Whereas I'll never forget it as long as I live. That boy never stood a chance. The way you fought was scary, Martin. You didn't scream. You didn't threaten him. You just stood there and when he made a mistake you hurt him. A lot."

"Oh. That's not like me."

"I guess it is, Martin. When someone you love has been hurt you turn into... I don't know..."

"A monster." I didn't even feel guilty.

"No." Susan calmly shook her head.

"Not a monster," said Samantha. "If we thought you were dangerous, you wouldn't be here. Maybe a soldier. Something like that. Okay, we're here. Do you want us to come along?"

"Yes please. You may need to tell Kate all this."

Visiting hours were long over, but we were given directions to Melody's room without argument. Kate had prepared the way, no doubt.

"Don't hug her," said Kate, as soon as I stepped in. "She's a bit fragile."

I walked around the bed. Melody seemed to be awake. There was a massive bandage over her left shoulder and her chest. A piece of bandaging was put across her right breast, for no other reason than to keep her decent.

"Hi sweetheart," I said. "Can I kiss you?"

"Only if you never, ever stop."

Well, I certainly gave that a try. After a few minutes, the others left the room.

By Tuesday we were over the worst of it. Melody had lied when she said she'd be home after just one night, but I couldn't really hold it against her. She ended up needing a week and two operations to get to the point where she was allowed to recover at home. At that point, two to three weeks of intense physical therapy awaited her. But she would be fine. Perhaps not 'looking good in a strapless dress' fine, but fine.

I was 'invited' to come to a police station and give a statement. Kate and a lawyer came along and we actually expected I'd end up in jail, if not permanently then certainly while they figured it all out. But I had my story ready: I claimed I had lost sight of Robbie after the stabbing and had searched for him near the dressing rooms, not the basement. There I had met up with Susan, who had insisted I lock myself in with her. And since my bloody suit had been removed from the building by Kate's henchmen and that shower had been scrubbed with bleach as soon as Kate had heard Susan's story, they really didn't have a leg to stand on. The thing is, they had figured out I was probably the one who did it, but you need more than conjecture. The reason they hadn't immediately thought of me was simply because I was in a clean suit when they found me.

And I had someone willing to swear an oath I was somewhere else entirely. Two people, because Samantha confirmed part of that story. I was actually black and blue all over after that fight, but they had no reason to ask me to take my clothes off and submit to a physical examination. The lawyer made that exceptionally clear. And anyway, most of the bruises had healed by the time I was giving my statement.

The media had a ball with all of this. But even they had no more to go on than that a knife wielding maniac had attacked Emma Lestrade, then slunked off to a basement to kill himself. They never even reported the fact she had picked him as her new boyfriend and claimed he was an intruder. Emma was a brilliant lightning rod; I obviously featured in the story and jokes were made about the fact I had temporarily turned into a zombie, but by and large they left me out of it and the video of me shielding Emma and Kelly, if somewhat clumsily, made the rounds. And even when they did talk about me, I wasn't paying attention. There were people to do that for me. I was in the hospital twice a day, whenever there were visiting hours. It turned out to be a great way to meet Melody's family one by one. They were polite, but it was clear they didn't really like white men. Couldn't do much about that. I don't seem to remember personally going to Africa to hunt down slaves and selling them on to plantation owners, but they seemed pretty sure that had been me. I guess it had slipped my mind. I had been rather busy of late.

In all seriousness, though: I kept telling myself it was probably less about my skin and more about the fact I was fifteen years older and here for their daughter, niece or sister. And poor Kate was left cleaning up the mess, but she was happy to do that.

Emma had left as soon as Robbie had attacked her. She wasn't even in the building when his body was found. Whatever had possessed her to come to England, look up an obsessed lunatic straight from the airport and decide he was her new boyfriend would likely remain a mystery forever.

Robbie turned out to be a long-time fan, which is creepy when it's about a girl who started acting in movies when she was twelve. He had a history of weird behaviour but had managed to attract Emma's interest and then fucked that up in less than 48 hours. Samantha researched him but gave that up after a few days and submitted a brief article to The Guardian that basically said: 'Sometimes a nutter slips through the net, particularly the net of a girl who hasn't had normal interactions with other humans since before she even had breasts.'

Kelly was fine. She hadn't seen the body, the attack had gone so fast she hadn't really registered it and all in all she'd had a bloody fantastic evening. So had Susan and Samantha, right up to the moment when I decided to butcher a fellow human being like a pig, rather than knock him out and turn him in, which I could have done if I'd been sane at the time. Kate arranged support in the form of a psychologist who was sworn to secrecy and helped them come to terms with it all. Susan was more than a little shook up. I think all that violence put her off men for a while. Samantha wrote several background articles for The Guardian, but pulled her first-person narrative at the last moment. There were simply too many lies in it. Lying to the police was one thing. Lying in print was quite another.

I felt a bit sorry for Annabelle. She and her husband had come over, expecting a party. Instead, they were plunged into a terrible drama and I simply couldn't make myself available to them. They understood, of course. I felt as if I had to make it up to them, though Annabelle made it quite clear over the phone she didn't see it that way.

Diana called me as soon as the story broke. If there was any residual anger in me, it disappeared during our call. She might be a crazy sexpot, but she was genuinely fond of me and her call wasn't just about maintaining a good business relationship with an understudy. From that moment on I considered her a friend again, something which I take very seriously.

Kate. Now there was a story. She was rock solid throughout it all, from the moment Melody got stabbed to the point where, on a Wednesday morning, Ms. Keller and Mr. Fox literally told her to stay the fuck away from work for at least a week and get some rest. They took her phone, which was unheard of.

That day she came home, found me there between visiting hours and collapsed. And I do mean collapsed. She made it to the hallway and that was it. I called in a doctor, who didn't take long to diagnose complete and utter exhaustion, with a dose of stress that would have killed a Navy Seal. Mom and dad came home on Thursday and I had no choice but to direct them straight from Heathrow to our house, which wasn't the sort of family reunion they had expected or hoped for. Still, they were brilliant. The entire theatre show had passed them by, so they felt as if they were in one of those puzzle adventures where they lock you in a room and you have to work out that the key is behind a painting. Except here all the puzzle pieces were all over the internet.

Samantha met them in a quiet tearoom on a Friday morning, which helped a lot because we'd gotten to the point where they didn't believe a word of anything I said or indeed anything they read online. A real human being, a journalist for The Guardian who explained it all finally helped them to take it all on board.

I had a wonderfully weird discussion with dad on Friday. He had asked to join me on a visit to Melody, the one between four and seven. He had met her that evening we spent at Rose's place and had taken a shine to her, and she to him. And though I often think of him as an absentminded old fool, he can be a very charming man when he wants to, so Melody enjoyed his visit. She called him Mr. King at first, which confused the hell out of him. He then invited her to call him 'dad', rather than Mr. van de Casteele. He seemed not to have registered I had been using a stage name, even after having read all those articles about a certain Mr. King. I do sometimes wonder what goes on in that brain of his. It's not dementia, he's always been like this.

Anyway, on the way back, in a rental car, he felt like having a chat. We don't normally chat, dad and me. The last one had probably been about my grades in middle school.

"She's nice, Melody."

"Yes she is."

"Is she staying?"

"If it is up to me, then yes."

"Right. So that thing with you and Kate..."

"What about it?"

"That hasn't stopped?"

"No, dad."

"Bloody hell. It's pathetic, you know. I didn't raise you to be Joseph Fritzl."

"That's... not entirely fair. Funny, but not fair."

"You try googling 'famous incest couples' on your phone."

"You could have gone with Antiochus and Laodice. Or Osiris and Isis."

He was silent after that. Then he came back with:

"You know all that, yet if I ask a very simple question about the line-up of Manchester City you have no bloody idea."

"I'm sorry ,dad."

"Yeah... Well, I've thought about it. Your mother says Kate started it and you never could say no. And God knows you can't find a decent woman by yourself, so I suppose we'll ride out this storm as well. You'll come to your senses, eventually."

"Possibly."

And that was that. A few minutes later he introduced a new subject.

"This boy that killed himself," he said. "Bobbie."

"Yes."

"That was you, wasn't it?"

He didn't even look at me. He just stared out the window as if he'd just asked me if I knew a good place to buy bathroom tiles.

"Yes."

My dad wasn't going to rat me out to the police.

"Good. I had a feeling that lady from The Guardian was lying to me."

"Yes. She meant well. It's not something to shout off the rooftops, is it?"
"No. Suppose not. Much like incest, by the way. I'm just saying."

"Duly noted. Getting back to Robbie: do you think mom knows?"

"Oh, definitely. Human lie detector, your mother. Apart from that: if someone comes after Kate with so much as a pair of tweezers, he's yours. That's an automatic death sentence. We knew that from the second you first held her in your arms. Same with me, obviously. Though I'm getting on a bit."

"Everyone seems to be completely fine with the fact I killed a man."

"We are. You're a man. You're supposed to be able to do that, when the need arises. Did you tell the coppers? No, I suppose you didn't."

"That's right."

He was quiet for a bit and looked around, playing with the radio.

"Are you going to buy this car then?"

"It's a rental. I've been meaning to get a car, though."

"You want to stop at a dealership, see what they have?"

"Yeah alright. I'm not sure how much I can spend."

"Fuck it, get a nice one."

That was the first time in my life I'd heard dad say 'fuck'. Honestly. He loves racist jokes, he's no saint, but the one thing he doesn't do is curse.

"Dad!"

"I like that new Seat Leon. Fred's son has one. Really nice. Estate version. Is there a Seat dealership near your house?"

"Chiswick."

"I'll call your mother, tell them we'll swing by there."

I bought a car that day. New, from the showroom floor. I had to check my bank balance and found that I could have bought three. THREE! I've bought two cars in my life, the ones after that had been leased. For my dad, buying a car is one of the great joys of life. He's not one of those guys who's only happy when the salesman is ready to give up his job, but he'll make sure he's getting a deal. We found a dark blue Leon Estate version, 1.8 litre engine, every damned bell and whistle in the brochure, leather seats, sunroof.

"We like it," said dad. "Take ten percent off the sticker price and we come back tomorrow with cash. Proper cash. And no trade-in. Deal?"

We shook on it and I signed some papers. The next day dad took the bus to Chiswick and came back with the car. I transferred the money to his account on my phone, called my insurance company and that was that. I had wheels again. Like a grown-up.

By Saturday, Kate was up and about, outwardly herself again. She liked the car and it felt like this was the first time she actually understood this was her new house from now on. But I knew what she was like at night. She needed to talk about it all, over and over again. And rather than having sex, she really wanted, in fact she needed to cuddle. Fortunately she understood she wasn't herself yet and she was smart enough to get help. Her favourite therapist lived in New York, but she made do with one in London. I didn't even know she had a favourite one...

Mom and dad went home on a Sunday. I drove them to Hastings, because Kate would visit Melody in hospital and bring her home in a cab. When we got to the coast, I had lunch with them and enjoyed the quiet ride back. Well, I did, until I started thinking about the past two weeks.

Ten days ago, I'd had my big day. My 'once in a lifetime' event. And some tedious psycho had fucked it up. Had made me a murderer. Had made me black out. Had done his best to take Melody away from me.

I was glad he was dead, even though some papers were publishing interviews with his parents, two glum people who seemed to think it was terribly unfair I had kicked their son in the nadgers just because he was wielding a knife at two girls. I should have sat him down for a chat, apparently. Made him tea. Because he was such a nice boy. And society is quick to judge confused young men just because they are obsessed with pretty movie stars and want to kill them for kissing a man on stage.

My depressed mood melted away as soon as I came home from Hastings to a house with my two girls again. It was finally possible to give Melody a proper hug. She didn't seem bothered by the scar. It was a nasty one, from her collar bone almost down to her left nipple. If her breasts had been smaller, that knife would have killed her. As it was, it had punctured her lung and splintered her first and second rib, which had been fixed in surgery. Even the blood loss had been manageable, because Kate had compressed the wound almost immediately.

"I don't care what it looks like in a bathing suit and if I want to wear a gown I'll just drape it over this shoulder and nobody will ever know," was all she had to say on the matter. And I loved her every bit as much, scar or no scar.

We found ourselves on our new sofa, drinking tea. Just us.

"I've been looking forward to this moment," I admitted.

"Me too."

"Hell yes."

"So that was it. My big day. It started nice enough, really. Shame about the ending."

"There will be others," said Kate. "For both of you. Melody's first unveiling. Your first movie."

I laughed. Movie...

"And you?"

Kate scrunched up her nose and mouth and moved her lips from left to right, which is her 'let me think about this' face. She does it on purpose, by the way.

"I don't feel like myself. But I'm pretty sure the way to get over it is to start work again. Honestly, I'm surprised this planet still revolves around the sun without my supervision."

"Me too," said Melody, failing miserably at keeping her face straight.

"Any jobs coming up?" I wanted to know.

"Yes. Two murals. More in the pipeline. I've been doing some sketches in hospital. Now I think it's time to go and buy some paint."

"Lovely. I'd love to watch you work some time."

Kate threw a coaster at me.

"Ask her to film it. You have commercials to do. HSBC. That piano thing for Cavendish."

"Oh, right. That will be in my phone then?"

"It will. As of tomorrow."

After we had tea I went upstairs and opened a flat pack in the room that was going to be my office. Even Carstairs needs a desk.

THE END

*****

The story continues in a new novel, titled And The Winner Is.

with   audience   carstairs  

May 9, 2018 in romance

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