An exclusive short story by Will Carver
On the eighth day of Christmas…
Here’s the eighth of our Dead Good Christmas shorts – exclusive free short stories, lovingly crafted by some of our best selling crime and thriller authors – and our December gift exclusively for Dead Good fans.
This Christmas gift is from Will Carver, who burst on to the Crime Fiction Scene in 2011 with his debut novel ‘Girl 4’ and followed it up with ‘The Two’ in 2012.
© Will Carver
It’s just a Tuesday.
Nothing important ever happened on a Tuesday.
So, when Art Paler agreed to work late this evening, he could not have predicted the scene he now finds himself a part of. He could not have envisaged his wife sitting up, dead, on the tan leather two-seater sofa, her throat a broad claret smile. He could not have imagined his son, collapsed on the kitchen tiles, futilely attempting to hold in his guts as they spill onto unswept crumbs and spattered olive oil. And he would not have thought it likely that he could confront the stranger in his house. That he could chase him outside to the street.
That he could exact such revenge.
Not on a Tuesday.
Wind back a few minutes.
To a time when everyone was still alive.
The stranger approaches the Paler residence with a black clipboard in his left hand. That is the extent of his disguise but it implies enough for onlooking neighbours to shy away from their windows, wanting to avoid a petition or sales call or attempted religious conversion.
The only thing they sidestep is the opportunity to become a witness.
Art fumbles with his phone in the car, eventually stroking the correct icon to cut the sound of local radio from the speakers, replacing it with a short dial tone, followed by beeping, ringing, waiting. Then his wife’s voice.
She says, ‘Hey, honey,’ and the stranger knocks on the door.
Art replies, ‘I’m minutes away,’ and his son has already been stabbed deep into his stomach twice.
‘You want me to open some wine?’
The stranger has one hand over the boy’s mouth as the dimpled, eight-inch chef’s blade penetrates fat and muscle and organs another six times before dragging him into the kitchen to bleed out.
He is a victim. Another statistic. And he’s only good for death.
The killer waits in the kitchen doorway for Mrs Paler to finish her phone call. It is neither calculated nor courteous. The miserable heap of silent flesh to his left is taunted by this stranger’s presence. But he can’t call out, it’s over for him. He does not have the option to warn the woman in the next room of her impending fate. He cannot tell her that he loves her one final time. There is no opportunity for life to flash before his eyes. No moment for him to consider his worth as a son. There is only time to fail and die.
Dial back a few moments.
Before an empty clipboard lay on a doormat, half- covering the word Welcome.
Art Paler presses the button on his keys to unlock his modest hatchback in the car park. The final words of his boss seem to linger in his ear as he opens the car door, jumping in to escape the layer of cold that separates the sombre sky from the spattering of a falling autumn.
A bonus well earned.
With the engine turning and the heat blasting out at maximum, Art places his mobile phone into a cradle on the dashboard that connects it to the car’s speaker system. He could call his son now, tell him that he can give him some money, help him out a bit, pay off that credit card that has had him so deflated these last few months. He could dial his wife and let her know that she should stock up on holiday brochures. But some things are best said in person, with a glass of wine in hand. It can wait, he tells himself.
At that moment, his boss exits the building with a coat-hanger grin and approaches the driver’s window. Art lowers it by half. Warm air and hard work escapes through the gap.
‘Still here, Paler?’
‘Just waiting for the windscreen to defrost, sir.’
‘Well get yourself home to that lovely wife of yours and give her the good news.’
‘That is my only plan for the evening.’
‘That and a bloody great drink, I hope.’ The older man laughs. ‘You deserve it, lad. A serious masterclass in closing a deal.’
‘Thank you.’ Art is drained and not as buoyant as his employer whose own bonus will undoubtedly be considerably more substantial.
‘And don’t even think about coming in tomorrow before noon.’
Art forces a smile, closes his window and drives off, his windscreen still partly frozen. He turns the radio to a local station.
And then his wife is on the phone asking whether she should open a bottle of wine, and Art says he’ll pop a cork on something fizzy when he gets in and his son’s heart is running out of blood to pump and the stranger waits for the woman to hang up the phone before clawing her over-styled hair from behind, pinning her head to the upright sofa cushion and swiping the sharp, bloodied blade across the front of her neck.
He does this four times. On the final cut he stops halfway and shakes the knife back and forth, gritting his teeth, almost growling. Like he hates her. Like he knows her. Like he is enjoying the kill.
Crank back a notch.
To the point where Art Paler is relieved that he has been asked to stay late by his boss. And he doesn’t have to go home again to his wife and his son without that much-needed bonus. So he doesn’t have to detour via a bar and a bottle of Bordeaux he can’t afford on the way back to his house. He doesn’t have to pretend or confront. Or disappoint.
Art lets his wife know that he will be working late again this evening. It has become a part of his daily routine. So that she knows how long he’ll be. How much time she has before he comes home. How long she has to wait to see him.
He’ll be an hour.
She’ll be waiting.
But she won’t see him again.
Tick back further.
To the hour he first met his wife. When life was simpler and the future was not a spreadsheet loaded with numbers that didn’t quite add up and new love meant that optimism could be found in the greyest of skies. And nobody had to lie.
Tock forwards to the birth of his son and the joy that only Art could feel. His wife was numb and down and sleep-deprived. And everybody said things would change. That she would get through. She would love him. He was her son.
Swing past the part where her only release was to cut through her wrists. Because not feeling anything was better than feeling the way that she had since two became three. Happiness died for Art Paler that day.
Beyond the difficult first years, when he did everything alone and he had need for nothing else. Stop at the point where he married his second wife, his current wife, and she vowed to love him for richer and poorer. When she promised to love his son like he were her own.
When everybody started to lie.
Through the years of guilt and failure that Art Paler learned was now a part of life. Skim over the years where his second wife was a real mother to his son while Art allowed himself to drift effortlessly in and out of melancholy.
Now stop at the instant where she ceased being a mother and became something else. When Art Paler learned to hate his son as much as his first wife had.
To that day when he accidentally saw that phone message with that picture and he felt duped and saddened and foolish because the thought had never occurred to him. That it could happen again. Art’s son would take his wife away. From that moment, everything became a suspicion. It all seemed so obvious. His phone call from work each day let them know how long they had. Together.
Click to now.
To the minutes following the calculated discovery of his murdered family and the stranger he had paid to kill them. There was supposed to be a struggle. For authenticity. But Art chases him down in the driveway. The stranger. The man with the clipboard that nobody knows. The drunk who catered last year’s office Christmas party and boasted some sinister information in his stupor.
Art pushes his full weight down on the handle of the knife that had killed his wife and son, plunging it into the chest of the stranger, going against the plan, ensuring he does not have to pay the other half of the money now the job is complete.
There is no trail. It is a burglary gone wrong. Interrupted. A moment of temporary insanity caused by the bloody scene Art had returned home to. He had only just called called his wife. There would be a recording. He would be free to start again. Or perhaps for the first time.
Art Paler should be frightened or in shock or repentant. He just wanted to be free. To feel relief. To make everything add up. What he actually feels is lucky.
Tomorrow is Wednesday.
And he doesn’t have to be at work until noon.