Watching Katrina eat was an act beyond description. This somewhat galled Dennis. Being a writer, he felt that he should have the skill to paint any picture, no matter how stomach churning. She wielded her fork like a shovel. Food was piled into her mouth, forcing the only half-chewed debris to the back of her throat. Five empty plates were stacked in front of her, and – here Dennis glanced up – yes, a sixth was on its way. Not for the first time, the young author began wondering how long it would be before she started choking. He was almost looking forward to seeing her face grow purple, like that gum-chewing girl from Willy Wonka.
This lunch was supposed to be cheering Dennis up. Yet the only one getting any satisfaction was his nearly obese agent. “Don’t worry, Denny,” Katrina exclaimed, wiping her gravy-stained chin with a wedge of bread. “Not every book needs to be a best seller!”
No, Dennis thought. But one might be nice. The pair had just come back from a rather disastrous signing for Dennis’ latest release: The Siege of Haradak, the third in a series of unsuccessful fantasy books. His previous titles had hardly flown off the shelves. In fact, he was lucky if they even fell off. And yet, according to his contract, he still had three more novels to complete. In a way, that was lucky, Dennis thought. Even after this afternoon’s performance, Katrina couldn’t drop him. He froze for a moment. He didn’t think she could drop him. He’d have to double-check the contract when he got back to his flat.
“Sure,” his agent went on, hacking apart a baked potato, “we could have done with more people turning up to the signing, I’ll give you that.”
“We didn’t have anyone turn up!” Dennis angrily yelled, slamming his palm on the table top.
Katrina gave no hint that she’d noticed his little outburst. “What about that little old man?” she asked, prodding at him with her knife. “The one who smelt of caramel?”
“He thought I was some TV chef,” Dennis said sourly, rubbing his stinging hand.
The agent shrugged. “Still bought your book,” she said. Then, as an afterthought, added: “Daft old bugger.”
The so-called book signing had been one of the most embarrassing moments of Dennis’ short life. It wasn’t even part of a chain. It was just some grotty independent shop whose main customers seemed to be mice and wood worm. He had been loaned a table with one leg shorter than the others, a chipped mug of tepid tea, and a space tucked in between a shelf of atlases, and a shelf of Ted Heath biographies. There Dennis had sat for four hours. A stack of pristine hardback copies of his latest book waiting on his left, and on his right were lined four brand-new Bics that, even now, were unused. Dennis had actually been relieved when, half-an-hour before the shop had closed, the assistant politely booted the pair out. He had never kidded himself into thinking the writing business was going to be easy, but he had certainly never though it would be this hard.
Taking a sip of now-cold coffee, Dennis watched Katrina begin to pick morsels from between her teeth. “So,” she boomed, “what can we expect in book number four?”
Dennis gave a light shrug. “To be honest,” he muttered, “I haven’t given it much thought.”
Katrina gave him a sympathetic and what he could only assume was her version of a motherly smile. “Don’t let today put you off,” she purred. “Daisy Sherman – you know Daisy, right? Another of my clients, lovely girl. Well, her first book signing was a disaster, just like yours! But look at her now, eh?!”
That was true. Daisy Sherman was the hottest new thing on the literary scene. Her latest book was topping all the charts, and she had just signed an adaptation deal with Netflix. Her success should have inspired in Dennis a newfound faith in Katrina’s skills. However, what the agent always forgot to mention, was that Daisy signed onto Katrina’s agency six months after Dennis. Her successes should have first come to him; that was only fair.
Katrina glanced at her watch. “Well, I can’t hang around all day,” she declared, shovelling the last of her pie into her mouth. “Don’t worry, Denny! You’ll get there. All good things take time, that’s all.”
Dennis winced as his agent fired crumbs of pastry at him, the shrapnel clinging to his cheap suit. “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.”
Once Dennis had safely deposited Katrina into the back of a cab – an act that usually took a couple of brave men – and watched it careen off, he stood on the pavement glumly. Usually, when he wanted to sulk about his stalling career, he would go for a walk in one of the parks. However, the severity of his failures today couldn’t be patched over with a brisk stroll. No. Today his wandering legs took him to the nearest pub.
It was unfamiliar terrain for Dennis Leary. Holding his head as high as he could, he marched up to the bar, rested one elbow on the surface and declared to the barman: “I want to get as pissed as possible.”
The barman gave a brisk, appreciative nod and, within a few hours, Dennis was staggering out of the establishment drunker than he had ever been in his life. He was also pretty sure he had been relieved of his wallet at some point, but that was a problem for sober Dennis.
Of course, without the wallet, getting a cab home was out of the question. He did have his phone, however. “To the tube!” he announced, waving his hand like a rat-faced general. Where the nearest tube station was? Dennis couldn’t tell you. But he weaved up the pavement with the confidence only a man who’d just downed seven pints of Carling could have.
Halfway down the street Dennis felt himself stop. He was standing outside the bookshop where he’d held his signing. Well, could he really call it a signing? A sudden, nauseous feeling came over him. He remembered the face of the man who worked there, the way his face had been wracked with pity and acne. Had he been secretly laughing at Dennis? Yes, of course, he had. Who wouldn’t? Dennis had been sat in that dusty corner for most of the day, and all he’d done was pretend to be a famous chef and drink almost half-a-gallon of tea. The writer felt a wave of anger wash over him. It bubbled in his mind like a fresh boil. That damned book-jockey. How dare he laugh at Dennis Leary? One of these days that name was going to mean something in the world of fantasy literature!
He spent five minutes angrily hammering on the front door before realising that, as it was creeping past midnight, the shop was probably closed. He stumbled backwards, frowning angrily at the darkened sign above the door, and then his eyes slid towards the side of the building. Another dark thought had slithered into his booze befuddled brain. He had left a box of his books with the store; he had hoped that, after a few days, the Leary craze would suddenly spark into life. Now, however, as Dennis reconsidered the assistant, he was almost certain the box would have been thrown out with the rubbish. He felt his stomach fill with rage at the thought. How dare that acne-faced prick chuck away his writing? He had spent the best part of eight months working on that novel, and he was damned if he was going to let it sit in some gutter.
It took him a moment to stop the world from spinning but, once he was sure he wasn’t going to fall straight onto his face, Dennis lumbered over towards the alleyway. He instantly stepped into a world of inky shadows. Sobriety began to inch over him. With one hand on the side of the book shop, and the other groping ahead, Dennis staggered further on. He almost squawked in terror as his foot landed in a mound of split binbags, unfinished takeaways, and what he could only hope was a puddle of rainwater.
“Where is it?” he mumbled, his sense of certainty draining rapidly away. His arms flailed about in search of a box he increasingly felt wasn’t there.
Dennis suddenly felt the errant hairs on his neck begin to rise. A sheen of sweat prickled his forehead. He was not alone. Slowly, he turned. The orange glow of the street lights failed to penetrate the gloom of the alley, but it wasn’t needed. Fear sharpened Dennis’ senses, and in the inky night he could make out a darker shape. A shape that blocked his way. His eyes rolled to the other end of the alley and saw a rusty chain-link fence barring the escape. Hoping the stranger was just a figment of his hyperactive imagination, Dennis slowly straightened up. The figure shifted slightly. Was it tensing? Readying to strike? Dennis felt his throat begin to tighten. He knew he needed to scream, or run, or fight, or do something! The phantom took a step forward. All that escaped Dennis’ lips was a tortured squeak. The figure’s right arm began to arc up. Dennis felt his bladder release. The monster took another lurch closer. Something was gripped in its paw, now hovering above his head.
“I’m a writer, don’t kill me!”
They both froze. Dennis had no idea why he had shouted that. The plan had been for him to scream and hope the girlish pitch drove away his attacker. Now they both stewed in an embarrassed silence.
“You’re a what?” the stranger asked, the object in his hand drooping slightly.
“I’m . . . I’m a writer . . .” The words fell awkwardly into the empty space.
Dennis shook his head.
“Anything I might have read?”
He shrugged anxiously. “Do you like fantasy?”
“More into crime, personally.”
That made sense.
The young author made another study of the figure before him. Terror had inflated him to almost seven feet, but now it was clear he was a little over five-foot-six. He had a small, hazelnut-shaped face, and a pair of spectacles perched awkwardly on the end of a snub nose. Dennis felt a brief flare of anger. How had he been afraid of this? He really thought this man could have murdered him? Then he felt his eyes slide down to focus on what the stranger held. It was a hammer. The anger curdled and was replaced by a fresh wave of fear. It was a particularly heavy-looking hammer, and it was the sort with a claw at the back. Dennis felt his throat tighten.
“So . . .” the would-be attacker went on, “you’re not homeless?”
“What? N-no, no, I’m not,” Dennis whimpered. “In – in fact,” he went on, strength crawling back into his voice, “I have lots of people who – who will be worried if I go missing, yes. And – and, they all knew where I am, you see? Because I had a book signing here today, because I’m a writer, like I said!”
The mysterious figure continued to stare at Dennis, his eyes obscured behind his lenses. “Really? Right, well, okay,” he said, moving the hammer slightly behind his leg. “Sorry for the confusion then,” he added. The man then turned away. “Oh, and please don’t mention this to anyone, please?” He then scurried out of the alleyway.
Dennis collapsed against the wall and slid down until he landed heavily in a puddle. He wasn’t dead, he was alive. Alive! What a story this was going to make. The tale of Dennis Leary escaping a maniac killer! He could almost hear Katrina’s reaction. “That’s nice, Denny. Here, could you pass me that doughnut?”
A shiver of contempt ran up his spine. Yeah, that sounded right, he thought. If he’d been the ever-wonderful Daisy Sherman, however, then it would be different. Oh, yes.
“What? Daisy? That happened?! How horrific! But, boy, what a great book that would make! Here, could you pass me that bag of Minstrels?”
Dennis suddenly froze. All shadows of fear were suddenly vaporized by the glare of this sudden inspiration. He launched himself out of the gutter and back onto the street. His head snapped up and down the street until he spotted his potential murderer hurrying towards a bus stop. Dennis almost had to sprint in order to catch him.
“Wait! Wait!” he hollered, almost doubling over as the physical exertion and the several pints of lager took their toll on his body.
The man stared at Dennis with unobscured alarm. Now that they stood on the pavement, and with the lights of the streetlamps illuminating him, Dennis was once again astounded at how he had been terrified of this man. He was wearing a trench-coat two sizes too big for him, and his hairline was rapidly retreating from a forehead that was mortared with acne marks. But, before Dennis could reconsider his plan, he blurted out: “I want to write a book!”
“Oh – well, I guess you would,” the figure said, his milky tea-coloured eyes darting back and forth, as if seeking rescue from this madman.
“No, no,” Dennis said, shaking his head whilst fighting for breath. “I want to write a book about you!”
“M-me? Why would you want to write about me?”
Dennis scoffed loudly. “Are you kidding? People love reading about murderers!”
“But if you wrote a book about me, I’d get arrested!”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Dennis went on. The alcohol was slowly seeping back into his system and, with it, the confidence. “We’ll just change some of the details, no one will ever know. No one will ever care!”
“I – I’m not sure,” the murderer said worriedly; his eyes continued to hunt for a way out.
“You’d be crazy to turn this down!” Dennis exclaimed. “We could be rich! You could be famous!”
The man’s face suddenly lit up with a hunger Dennis recognised all too well. He gave his lips a furtive lick. “Are – are you serious?”
The young author had never been so serious before in his life. This was what he had been waiting for. The lightning bolt of inspiration that was going to make him a household name. Crime and murder were like an opium for the average folk. They lapped up anything to do with killers. To be offered the chance to see through the eyes of an active murderer? Who wouldn’t race to the bookstores for that? Who wouldn’t ask for a copy for Christmas? Who wouldn’t want to discuss it at their local book club? Dennis Leary could almost taste the Costa Book award.
He held out his hand to the killer, a grin tattooed across his face. “What do you say?”
By the time Dennis stumbled back into his flat, dawn was just peeking its head over the horizon. But sleep was still an absurd notion for the writer. His head was boiling with ideas and information. He really was going to make a fortune! First, of course, he would have to get past Katrina. Actually, first he needed to change. Allan, as the murderer’s name proved to be, had loaned him a pair of jogging bottoms to replace the trousers he had soiled. In spite of the lack of stains, or evidence of ill-doing, Dennis still didn’t feel comfortable wearing a killer’s clothing.
Once he was ensconced in a moth-nibbled dressing gown, he threw himself onto his sofa and dialled his agent’s home number. On the sixth ring of the third redial, the phone was answered by a bleary, deeply South-American voice.
“Hello?” the man asked, sleep only barely muffling the anger.
“Hi, Bruno, can I speak to Katrina, please?” Dennis asked.
“Bruno? This is Jorge. Who’s Bruno?”
“Err, no one. Sorry. Is Katrina there? It’s rather urgent.”
Dennis sat and fiddled with a hole in his robe whilst a hushed but angry conversation occurred on the other end.
“Denny!” Katrina finally exclaimed. “Always lovely to hear from you!” He could almost hear the sizzling drips of acid falling from her words.
He should have dove straight into business, but his writer’s nosiness cut in first. “What happened to Bruno?” he asked.
“Bruno? Same thing that happens to all the men who seek comfort in my arms,” Katrina grumbled. “The Home Office cancelled his visa. Now, why are you calling me at five in the morning?”
“I’ve decided on what my next book will be!” Dennis announced.
“Great,” Katrina said, her voice devoid of any excitement. “We can finally learn what happened to Scumbucket and Timothy. Can we discuss it later?”
“Actually, it’s Scugluka and Tamothea,” Dennis said sourly. She would have remembered the names of Daisy Sherman’s characters, he was sure. “But that’s not the idea. I want to write about a murderer!”
“Crime, Denny?” Katrina groaned. “Crime’s such a hard market to break into. Why not stick with fantasy? You’re almost there with fantasy! I can taste it!”
“I’m not talking crime fiction, Katrina!” Dennis argued. “I want to write about a real-life murderer!”
The author then went on to explain all the events that occurred that night; starting from when he left Katrina, and ending with how he and Allan had come to their agreement to document the killer’s exploits.
When Dennis finally finished, his agent let out a low whistle. “Denny,” she murmured, “if you’re making any of this up, you’ve got a better imagination than I thought.”
Normally, Dennis would have bristled at such a remark. But, because he was too tired, and because he detected an unfamiliar tremor in her voice that could have been excitement, he held his tongue.
“If you’re telling the truth,” Katrina went on, “then we’ve got a bestseller on our hands!”
Our? Dennis thought bitterly.
“I want all the details, Dennis. Let’s do lunch, my treat. Tomorrow – well, I guess I mean today, one o’clock, at Simeon’s.”
Simeon’s was a legend amongst Katrina’s clients. If she invited you for lunch there, you knew you’d made it. Dennis didn’t even know if it was in London until the address landed in his emails later that morning.
The restaurant’s entrance was a non-descript steel door ensconced in the bowels of a multi-storey carpark. Once the beady eyes behind the grille decided Dennis was worthy to eat at Simeon’s, if chaperoned, he was ushered in.
One look at the cavernous size of the place left him breathless. Pillars, snaked by vines of gold leaf, sprouted from the ground like mighty oaks. Plum-coloured velvet was draped over almost every surface, and waiters, dressed in matching crimson waistcoats, wafted across the floor like silent phantoms. No matter how hard his eyes searched, Dennis couldn’t see any doors leading to a kitchen. By all evidence, the waiters seemingly materialised the decadent meals out of thin air.
He was led to Katrina who, like melted butter, had poured herself into a booth. She spread her arms wide and greeted Dennis with a ravenous smile. “There he is!” she declared, slapping him on the shoulder as he squeezed in opposite her. “This book of yours is a hit, Denny! A hit!”
“Already?” Dennis said, allowing himself a small grin, in spite of the fact the book was yet to be written.
“That doesn’t mean anything in our business,” the agent scoffed as he raised this point. “The idea alone is helping this baby sell! I’ve already had interest from half-a-dozen publishers. I barely have to say anything and they’re already drawing up the contracts!” This declaration filled the young author with a strange inner glow. He’d never had people fighting over his work before. Usually, they fought to be first to turn him down. If what he said was true, he wondered, watching Katrina smear an inch-thick wedge of butter onto a roll, what real use did this woman serve?
“Tell the story again, Denny. It’s a marvel. It really is!” she announced, inhaling the bread.
As Dennis proceeded with another retelling, the familiar waves of revulsion threw his mind around like a buoy in a heavy storm. He hurried through the initial encounter and, even after omitting his difficulty controlling his bladder, Katrina still found the whole scenario hilarious. Flakes of bread and butter torpedoed through the air as her laughter boomed through the otherwise subdued restaurant.
Two waiters suddenly appeared. One bore a single plate for Dennis, whilst the other wheeled into view an entire, ready-to-collapse, trolley for Katrina. “I ordered for us,” his agent remarked. “You like salad, right?” Dennis didn’t have much choice as the plate of tastefully arranged greenery was slid in front of him. “Don’t stop,” Katrina added, tearing into a roast game hen. “What happened when he took you back to his lair?”
That word was so far from accurate that Dennis almost choked on his spinach. Allan’s domicile was less Jeffrey Dahmer and more depressed, middle-aged bachelor. In fact, under the stark light of a forty-watt bulb, the man himself looked as threatening as a cashmere sweater. In those early moments Dennis had begun to think he was nothing more than a recently-divorced accountant going through the obligatory life crisis. But then he saw the intense, fiery dazzle in Allan’s eyes. He noticed the way the man couldn’t stop his hands from clenching into fists. The way he stood intimately close whenever he spoke. And, of course, Dennis couldn’t fail to note how the murderer kept his hammer close to grabbing distance.
“First of all,” Allan had declared from his tiny kitchenette, “I don’t want my real name being used.” He had shaken his head after seeing Dennis’ look of confusion. “I want the notoriety, yes,” he admitted, “But I also don’t want to be caught.”
That, to the young author, had made some sense. “All right then,” he said, accepting the mug of tea with only the briefest fear that it may have been drugged or poisoned. “So, you’d like a pseudonym? How about –”
“Gavin Monroe,” Allan had announced with a dagger sharp surety.
“Gavin . . . Monroe?”
“I’ve always thought I’d suit being a Gavin.”
Dennis chose the safety of silence. “Okay,” he eventually said. “I guess now that’s out of the way, we should probably start at the beginning.”
Allan watched him pull a pen and notebook from the pockets of his tattered jacket. “You mean all the way at the beginning, or just when I started murdering?”
“Your childhood,” Dennis had explained. “Readers will like to see what tell-tale signs there were showing you would go on to become a cold-blooded psychopath.”
“They will? Golly.”
After a thoughtful sip from his earl grey, Allan began his life story.
He had grown up in a small, Essex village wedged between an equally obscure town, and an utterly unnoteworthy motorway. He was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother and a devoutly alcoholic father. Dennis was disappointed when this usually winning mixture failed to spawn any tales of abuse. His school life seemed equally uninteresting, passing in a haze of mediocrity.
“Was he bullied?” Katrina asked.
“Were you bullied?” Dennis had asked.
Allan had responded with a slow shake his head. “Actually, I was left fairly well alone,” he said.
“A loner then!” Katrina declared with glee. “At least that’s something.”
The rest of the killer’s life had passed with a similar lack of thrills. He had gone off to university, barely clawed his way out with a degree in Art History, and then made excellent use of it by becoming an accountant. Fast-forward eighteen years, and he’s two years from becoming a senior partner at a middling London-based accountancy firm, and also a raving multiple-murderer.
“Overall,” Allan had said, draining his mug, “it’s not been a bad life.”
Katrina stared at Dennis over the demolished remains of her lunch. “Okay,” she murmured, picking at her teeth with her fork. “So, his life story can fit into a grand total of one chapter. Fantastic.”
“Oh no!” Dennis objected, seeing the greedy gleam in her eyes beginning to dim. “I haven’t scratched the surface! Honest!”
“I should hope so, Denny!” the agent barked, throwing down her cutlery. “Because, right now, this is not a thrilling book about a serial killer; it’s a sad paragraph about a middle-aged accountant!”
“I’ve got another meeting with him tomorrow evening!” Dennis said. Panic was beginning to crawl its way up his throat. The enthusiasm Katrina had shown for the project was melting before his very eyes. “We’re going to be discussing his first kill! It’ll be more than enough for about three chapters!”
The enormous woman studied the young author as the waiters cleared away the debris from lunch. “All right then,” she announced. “But I want those chapters on my desk by Monday morning, got it?” With a great and loud effort, Katrina popped herself out of the booth. “This could be a bestseller, Dennis,” she said again, her pearl-blue eyes drilling into his own. “In the right hands.” She clapped him on the shoulder, almost dislocating it, and then waddled out of the restaurant.
Dennis sat for a few moments, allowing the barely-veiled threat to burrow into his mind. He felt his hopes beginning to drain away like dirty bathwater. He hated himself for having to admit it, but Katrina was right. Allan’s origins were brain-achingly tepid. Readers would never believe that he goes on to become a slaughterer of the innocent. A new thought began to worm into his head. But, maybe, his placid existence was in itself vaguely chilling? After all, who hadn’t found some relief by peeling the wings off a passing fly? It was something no one liked to admit because of the bad image brought about by serial killers. Yes, the young author thought, his spirits slowly rising. Allan was proof that anyone could be a murderer! You didn’t need a terrible upbringing, or a damaged psyche, or even a psycho-sexual relationship with your mother! There was something oddly inspirational about it all. This book was going to be a success; No matter what.
One of the waiters, as silent as a virus, was suddenly at his elbow. He dropped a silver dish beside Daniel’s hand and gifted him a mortician’s grin. “The cheque.”
The next evening, at five-forty-five exactly, Allan turned up at Dennis’ door. Was the young author anxious about having someone like Allan know his home address? Of course! But he felt it was important to have a relationship built on trust. He also felt he had the homefield advantage should the murderer be unable to control his instincts; plus, he was recording the whole meeting with a hidden camera on his bookcase.
As if sensing Dennis might be a little unnerved by the whole scenario, Allan had brought along a box of doughnuts.
“I realised that what I told you about my childhood might not be all that interesting,” Allan said with an embarrassed smile.
“What? No!” Dennis exclaimed; his enthusiasm only half-feigned. “It’s actually given me a really unique angle to focus on!”
The murderer’s eyes lit up. “Really? If you want, I’ve got loads more stories about home!” he excitedly babbled. “The local marmalade jar factory, for instance, is hugely interesting as –”
“No!” the author yelled. “I mean,” he went on, lowering his voice slightly, “why don’t we focus just on the murders today?”
Fortunately, Allan took Dennis’ outburst with seemingly good humour. He nodded lightly, then settled back into the author’s weather-beaten armchair. “I took my first life when I was twenty-seven years old,” Allan said; his tone was clear, crisp, and obviously well-rehearsed. Dennis had decided to use a tape recorder for this session, one that his aunt had bought him as a Christmas present several years before. He nudged it closer to the killer.
“I had just lost my job – the company had gone bankrupt, you see – and I was struggling to find another position. I ended up working part-time at a local pub just so that I could afford the bills. The stress was unbearable! Nothing I did could get rid of it. I tried yoga, long walks, knitting; I even tried writing angry letters to the local council to see if that would relieve some of my anger. If anything, that just made it worse.
“Then, one night, as I was walking home from another dreadful shift at that odious pub, something inside of me snapped. I was passing by an alleyway and, just as I saw you the other night, I saw a homeless man rooting around some rubbish. I can’t explain it, but seeing him, with his back towards me, I felt all my anger, stress, and frustration welling up inside of me and that’s when I just . . . well, I stabbed him!”
“Yes!” Dennis said, his eyes dazzling. “What with?”
“What did you stab him with?”
“Oh, erm, a corkscrew,” Allan replied. “The landlord I worked with insisted that we all had our own personal corkscrews and bar blades.”
“I see, I see,” the author said, his blood fizzing with excitement. “And what happened next? What did you do? Was there much blood?”
“Well, you would think that I’d have panicked, wouldn’t you? But, in reality, I felt strangely calm. There wasn’t as much blood either. At least, not on me.” Allan paused for a moment, taking a hefty glug from his tea. Dennis watched him with tensed expectation. Finally, he went on. “I decided I couldn’t leave him there. We were only five minutes away from my flat, and I didn’t want the police anywhere nearby. So, I went back home and got my car. I drove it back to the alley, loaded the homeless man into the boot, and then I drove around for several hours until I felt I was far enough away. I ended up dumping the body by some bins behind a local corner shop.”
“And you weren’t worried about CCTV?” Dennis asked.
Allan shook his head slowly. “At the time, it never really occurred to me,” he admitted. “In hindsight, I suppose I’m rather lucky.”
“Luckier than that hobo,” Dennis said with a snort. He wanted to ask another question – no, a hundred more questions. His mind was positively swarming with queries and curiosities that sent his passion for the project back into overdrive. But, when he opened his mouth to ask the first, the shrill buzzer from his front door tore through the room. Allan almost pounced out of his seat.
Dennis’ head whipped around. “Who could that be?” he asked.
“Are you expecting anyone?” Allan asked with a wariness that sent a chill down the writer’s back.
Without answering, Dennis left the room. He approached the front door and, slowly, eased it open. A serious-faced woman stood in the hall, inspecting her surroundings with evident disdain. Not that Dennis blamed her. Every time he mounted the stairs the peeling, urine-yellow wallpaper made him nauseous. Hearing the door, the woman rounded on him. Her pupils, small and sharp like the point on a dagger, bore into him; her hair, a dark blonde, was tied back into a business-like bun; and her clothes, though not shabby-looking, were clearly worn for comfort rather than appearances. She flashed Dennis a humourless smile.
“Good evening,” she said in a clipped tone. “Are you a Mr Dennis Leary?”
“Yes,” he replied warily. The hairs on the back of his arms had begun to stand up, and there was a tiny voice in his head urging him to run away. He licked his lips anxiously.
“My name is Detective Sergeant Eileen Friday,” the woman declared, flashing a badge in front of Dennis’ nose. “This may sound a little . . . unconventional, but earlier today a call was made to our station and claims were made that you, Mr Leary, are in contact with a man claiming to be a serial killer.” Her knife-like eyes continued to jab into Dennis. “Do you know anything about that?”
His throat felt as if it had shrunk three sizes; His bladder suddenly began to sound the red-alert siren; every inch of his body wanted to bolt, even if it had to throw itself out the window. “I – I don’t have t-to answer th-that,” Dennis stammered.
“So, you’re not writing a book entitled: My Best Friend the Murderer? Or: That’s Where the Slaying Comes From? Or: Interviews with a Killer, the Psychopath Among Us?” the detective asked.
Dennis almost choked on his tongue. Just who had this woman been talking to? He shook his head with enough force to make his brain bounce against his skull.
The police woman’s face darkened. Dennis suddenly felt he had stepped into a bear trap. “I must remind you, Mr Leary,” she said coldly, “that a very serious allegation has been made. If you do know a man who has committed several murders, and are knowingly keeping that information from the police, you are making yourself an accessory to the fact. Do you understand?”
“You have no evidence,” Dennis squawked, trying to gasp some air through his now pin-hole sized throat.
Detective Sergeant Friday pursed her lips. “Perhaps not,” she admitted. “But that doesn’t mean we’re just going to let this go.” She leaned slightly to the left, trying to peer over the author’s shoulder. He instinctively drew the door towards himself. “We’ll be seeing one another again, Mr Leary,” Friday promised. She made one more attempt to leer into the flat, then turned on her heel and climbed down the stairs.
Dennis threw the door shut, locked it, then breathed a sigh of relief. That sigh quickly became a gag of fear when he felt Allan’s damp breath on the back of his neck.
“Was that the police?”
Dennis gave a startled yelp, span around, then pressed himself against the door. The murderer was inches away from him. It was difficult to tell if the sparkle in Allan’s eye was panic or fury. “Well?” Allan asked, his lips thin and face gaunt.
“It’s – it’s nothing,” Dennis said, trying to inject some calmness into his voice.
“I told you already,” the killer said, taking a small step forward, “I don’t want to be caught.”
“I know, I know!”
“Because, Dennis, if I am caught,” Allan said, taking another step closer, “I am going to kill you. Understand?”
Dennis mutely nodded.
The pair stood there for several long, tense seconds. Then Allan broke into an awkward smile and shuffled back. “Right,” he said. “Shall we get back to it?”
“Y-yeah,” Dennis murmured. “Sure. But first,” he added, “I just need to pop to the loo.”
Dennis elbowed past the rat-faced assistant and straight into Katrina’s office. The look of annoyance on his agent’s face was quickly rubbed out by a broad grin.
“Denny!” she exclaimed, ignoring the palpable fury cascading off of the young man. “What a lovely surprise! Come in, come in. You remember Daisy, right?”
Only then did Dennis realise that Katrina had not been alone. The pair had never actually met, but he recognised her from the dust jackets of her books. Daisy Sherman. She sat in Katrina’s tatty guest chair, the one with the wobbly left leg, and tried to look humble and awkward, but she didn’t fool Dennis. He could sense the smug sense of superiority around her like it was a foul stench. “Daisy, this is Dennis, the one I was telling you about.”
The young woman looked up at him with a gleam in her eye. “Really? The one writing the book about the murderer? Katrina and I were just talking about it!” she trilled. “I wish I could write something like that; it all sounds so exciting!”
Dennis felt a shudder creep up his spine. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Katrina,” he growled, turning away from Sherman.
“Great news!” Katrina announced, cutting him off. “I’ve sold the book to a publisher.”
“I can’t wait to read it!” Daisy chimed in, her face glowing.
“I had the police round yesterday!” Dennis suddenly managed to yell out.
“Really?” Katrina asked, her face a tableau of innocence. “Nothing wrong, is there?”
“They were asking about my book!”
“Someone down at the publishers must have been talking,” the agent remarked to Daisy. She shook her head sadly. “You can’t trust anyone these days.” Dennis felt a vein begin to bulge above his eye. “But this is good, no?” Katrina asked. “The man’s been killing hobos, right? As if the police were ever going to take an interest in that! But, now, we have a bit of conflict in the book!”
“Was the murderer with you when the police turned up?” Daisy asked, shuffling forward in her seat. “What was it like? Did he feel cornered? Did it feel like a tense encounter between two rivals?”
Katrina beamed at her young, highly successful client. “See?” she said, turning to her less successful client. “Daisy gets it! This is the sort of thing people want to read about!”
“But he said if he gets arrested, he’d kill me!”
Instantly Dennis realised he had said the wrong thing. An ugly fire had struck in Katrina’s eyes. He could see her putrid mind begin to whirr with the advertising opportunities: Dennis Leary documents the life of a monstrous murderer before becoming his latest victim. He could even see the woman adding his death into the contract. “Really?” she murmured. “Well, we can’t have that, now, can we?” She leaned back. “Trust me, Dennis, you have nothing to worry about.”
Idiot, Dennis thought bitterly. I have plenty to worry about, and, right now, the biggest one is the blob sat in front of me.
“Just get the book finished in six weeks, and then everything will be fine.”
“Six weeks?!” Dennis felt his stomach do somersaults. Bile rocketed up his throat, only held back by the sensation that his tongue was trying to crawl back in the opposite direction. The strength washed out of his legs and he had to lean against the wall just to stay vertical. “You . . . you want the book done in six weeks?”
“Sure,” Katrina said, seeing no problem whatsoever. “That’s when the publisher wants to go to print.”
“But . . . but . . .”
The agent leaned forward again, this time concern blooming in her ruddy face. “Why? Do you not think you’re up to it?”
A look was shared that Dennis was certain he was supposed to miss. It only lasted half-a-second, but he saw it, oh yes, and he knew what it meant. Katrina’s lizard-like eyes had flickered over to meet with Daisy’s greedy own. That glance, smaller than a gnat’s breath, had spoken a thousand words. “If you can’t do it, Denny, then I’m sure we have someone who can. Someone much more successful; someone who’d be willing to wrangle with the police in order to get the full, exciting, crowd-pleasing story.”
“I – I can do it,” he mumbled, straightening up. “Six weeks. E-Easy.”
“Good!” Katrina boomed. “Oh, and Denny?” she said, stopping him from slinking out of the office. “It’s all well and good writing about his past murders, but readers are going to want something a little more . . . juicy. Do you get what I’m saying?”
This time Dennis could taste the sour tang of vomit on his tongue. “You – you mean . . .?”
“I know Daisy agrees with me. Right, Daisy?”
The young woman squirmed in her seat, looking painfully awkward. Not that Dennis bought it. He could see it for the act it truly was. “It would certainly bring something original and exciting to the book,” she eventually admitted.
Katrina clapped her hands together. “See, Dennis?” she said. “So, what do you say?”
His tongue, as dry as sandpaper, scraped across his chapped lips. Just what choice did he have? “All right,” he croaked. “You got it.”
The agent’s lips broke into a grotesque and wide grin. “It’s gonna be a bestseller, Denny, you just wait!”
“Oh, Dennis, I wasn’t expecting to see you today . . .”
Allan stood in the doorway wearing a dressing gown, polka-dot pyjamas, and a pair of slippers that had a hole in the right-hand toe. “Is everything all right?” the murderer asked, glancing up and down at the young author’s bedraggled appearance.
Dennis let out a hoarse laugh. “Everything’s dine and fandy,” he burped, stumbling into the flat. “Din’t you hear, Allan ma mallan? We’re gonna be a best seller!”
“Well, that’s good,” Allan said, delicately shepherding Dennis into the living room.
“Only if I can finish it in six weeks,” the author said, collapsing onto the already sagging settee.
The killer’s face grew grey with concern. “Do you think you can do it?” he asked.
“Finished the first draft today,” Dennis said with a gleeful smile. “A thrilling five pages.” He slowly dragged himself into a sitting position and looked up at Allan. “You did nothing for twenty years, and then became a homicidal maniac,” he announced. “It’ll be number one in every book shop in the country.”
“Maybe I ought to get you some coffee,” Allan murmured, already shuffling towards the kitchenette.
“There’s just one teensy little thing,” Dennis added, now addressing the sad remains of a potted hydrangea.
After crawling out of Katrina’s office the young man had sought refuge in the nearest pub, and the comforting embrace of as many pints as he could stomach, and afford. However, the sight all those people cheerful and oblivious as to what he had planned made Dennis feel feverish and light-headed. He escaped to a local corner shop, bought half-a-dozen bottles of vodka and whiskey, before returning to his flat. He spent the rest of the day downing the booze and, when he was efficiently pissed, started work on the murderer’s manuscript. Who was it that said you should write drunk and edit sober? Eddison? Was it Eddison? Was Eddison even a writer? Dennis didn’t know anymore. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore. He had spent that whole night drinking, and most of the next day. He only decided to venture out because the bottles were empty and the sobriety was threatening to visit. It had taken over twenty-four hours of drunkenness for Dennis to scrape together even the dusting of courage to say, out loud: “My agent thinks it would be good for the book if I witnessed one of your murders.”
“Well,” Allan murmured after clearing his throat. “If that’s what you want . . .?”
It was strange, but now that Dennis had said it aloud, he felt an odd sense of calm stealing over him. All the stress and anxieties that had been plaguing him the last couple of days were slowly shrinking. In their place was a little bubble, shining like a disco ball, that began to grow.
As soon as he had left that office, Katrina had started laughing at him. He knew it as surely as he knew the sky was blue, post boxes were red, and that London bus drivers were the most miserable creatures alive. She had sat in her heroically strained chair and called him a coward. She was looking forward to him failing. It would give her a reason to fire him from his own project and gift it to her favourite client. Dennis bet Daisy Sherman got to eat at Simeon’s every day. And he also bet she never once had to pay for her own overpriced chicken Ceasar.
The bubble grew even fatter, spraying erratic patterns of light all across his mind.
Oh yes, Dennis thought, I can do this. I’ll show the pair of them! As he felt that silver boil of excitement inflating behind his eyes, he realised that Allan was still talking.
“Of course, I don’t really plan my murders; mainly because I don’t know when I’ll be in the mood for a bit of killing. But if you really want . . .”
“I want to recreate your first kill!” Dennis said, launching to his feet and whacking his shins on the coffee table in the process.
“Oh, with the – erm – the wrench, right?”
For the second time, Allan caused complete sobriety to overcome Dennis. He mustn’t have heard that right. No, don’t be stupid. The room was too small and, save for the irregular ticking of the clock on the wall, it was also silent. Dennis would have heard if he had whispered it into a pillow whilst facing the corner. No, Allan had just been mistaken, that was all. He’d been murdering a long time now, surely it was reasonable he’d forget the exact specifics of his first time?
That excuse sat on his mind like a wart-riddled toad. But how could Dennis check? Was he sober enough to try and trick the man? Or was he drunk enough to try and confront him?
“Oh?” Dennis said, trying to sound his most innocent. “I thought your first kill was with a tyre iron?”
“What?” Allan asked, his eyes widening slightly. “Ah, yes, haha, how stupid of me. That’s right, it was a tyre iron.”
The blood in his veins turned to cement. His spit tasted like vinegar. The disco ball-bubble in his head burst, leaving his mind dark and hollow. “You said you killed your first victim with a corkscrew,” Dennis stated.
Panic blazed in Allan’s ratty little eyes. The young author took a step towards the door. “Allan,” he said slowly, “how many people have you killed?”
“Erm – well – you see – about that – erm –”
“How many?” Dennis asked again.
Allan’s gaze flickered down to the writer’s clenched fists and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down like a yoyo. “None,” he announced in a hollow whisper.
“None,” Dennis repeated.
“You – you were going to be my first, honest!”
“So, in other words, you are not a psychopathic serial killer?”
The depressed middle-aged accountant shook his head meekly. “Sorry.”
Was Dennis having a stroke? No. That burning smell was just all his hopes and dreams being incinerated. He could almost laugh really, if it wasn’t for the blistering, white-hot rage he was feeling. Of course, he thought. This was obviously how it was fated to turn out. Dennis Leary: the perpetual loser.
“I was going tell you! Honest!” Allan blubbered, his eyes almost bubbling with tears. “But you seemed to excited about the book that – well, I just didn’t have the heart.” He fiddled anxiously with the lapels of his dressing gown. “This – this isn’t going to affect the book? Is it?”
A mad cackle erupted out of Dennis. Immediately, his thoughts careened towards Katrina. He couldn’t expect a demeaning, attempted-motherly pat on the shoulder this time, oh no. For the first time he had brought her a project that might have made her some serious money. No one was taking that from her.
“We – we could still do it, couldn’t we?”
Dennis stared at him with bulging eyes. “How?” he asked, “Just make it up?”
“Well, you are a fantasy writer,” Allan mumbled.
Yes, he thought. A miserable failure of one. Both he and his agent knew that. No. He couldn’t even think of trying to make any of it up. A new bubble suddenly began to form in his darkened mind. It was a deep crimson colour, and began to pulse sickeningly. Dennis looked at Allan and felt his lips stretch out into a grin. “We’re not making it up,” he said.
“I’m – I’m sorry?” Allan said, realising that the author was standing between him and escape.
The blister in Dennis’ head grew and grew, whilst the idea became more and more appealing. This book was going to be his masterpiece. Nothing was going to stand in his way. Nothing.
He looked into Allan’s terror-stricken eyes and felt a flicker of joy.
“You – you can’t be serious?” the timid accountant stammered, his face suddenly the colour of bleach.
Oh, but Dennis was serious. The only question on his mind right now was who? It couldn’t be some random tramp. The readers weren’t going to connect with such a nameless character. Well, maybe a couple of bleeding-heart hippie types would, but Dennis didn’t care about them. Their sort would never buy this book.
He ran through his mental portfolio of those that had wronged him, wondering where to start. Katrina, of course, sat squarely at the top of that list. But the woman still had her uses, for now.
The detective? That would make for a thrilling encounter. But, judging by the way Allan was trembling, it might be a little too thrilling for a first time.
No. Dennis knew exactly who it would have to be. The name was so obvious he hadn’t wanted to admit it at first. But how could it not be her? He’d see how excited she was about the book after a little visit from the psychopath himself. But he would be discrete, and tasteful. He’d even use a pseudonym when writing her chapter. The blood red boil seemed to fill every bit of his head, even casting a crimson film over his eyes.
Allan was now cowering in the corner, sweat dribbling into his eyes. His gaze was glued to the chipped knife that was Dennis’ grin. “We’re gonna go on a little trip,” the author said cheerfully. He was just turning to the door when he paused and looked back. “Oh,” he added, “and don’t forget your hammer.”