Extract: Exit by Belinda Bauer
When Felix lets himself in to Number 3 Black Lane, he’s there to perform an act of charity: to keep a dying man company as he takes his final breath…
But just fifteen minutes later Felix is on the run from the police – after making the biggest mistake of his life.
Now his world is turned upside down as he must find out if he’s really to blame, or if something much more sinister is at play. All while staying one shaky step ahead of the law.
Read on for an extract from Exit by Belinda Bauer!
The key was under the mat.
Of course it was.
Felix thought sometimes of the living he might make if he were a burglar instead of a retired accountant.
Inside, a small black-and-tan dog yapped at them, then stopped and smelled Mabel on his trouser leg.
‘Good boy,’ said Felix, and the dog wagged and trotted into the front room.
‘This feels so wrong,’ whispered Amanda, looking around nervously.
Felix nodded. Letting himself into a stranger’s house always did. Although he found the frisson of risk not unpleasant.
There were photos on the wall of the stairwell. Old black and white ones. It always made Felix sad to see photographs of people he didn’t know, and to wonder where the pictures – and the people – went after they were forgotten.
The house didn’t smell of pill bottles, but it was a bit of a mess. Not dirty, but untidy. There was a man’s sock on the floor.
The dog gave a single yip but there was no human response.
They went to the bottom of the stairs and immediately Felix could hear the laboured breathing – like a marathon runner trying to suck air through a straw.
People who were dying made all kinds of noises – grunts, farts, groans – but the fight for air was the one that always stuck with Felix. The one that invaded his dreams, and woke him, sweating and gasping.
This was as bad as he’d heard.
No answer. Only that dreadful gasping.
He looked at Amanda. She had gone pale. ‘I don’t…’ she said. ‘I don’t… think I can do this.’
‘Of course you can,’ said Felix. ‘You’ll be fine.’ He gave her a reassuring smile, gripped the banister, and led the way before she could argue. He didn’t look back, but he could feel her follow his lead.
The gloom deepened as they climbed, and as Felix’s head rose above the level of the landing, he could see why. There was only one door open off the landing – the back bedroom at the top of the stairs – and even in that room the curtains were drawn.
Before he’d mounted the last step, Felix could see the man in the bed.
He walked quietly into the room. ‘Hello, Mr Cann?’
The dying man looked bad. He was propped up on his pillows, his eyes closed, his brow furrowed and his teeth gritted with the effort of staying alive long enough to die.
There was no acknowledgement. Felix bent closer and could see that despite the struggle of breathing, Charles Cann was asleep. Whatever illness he had, it had shrouded his true age in mystery: he could have been fifty or eighty. His face was crumpled paper, his hair grey and straggly, his body painfully thin. There were dark smudges under his eyes and, even by the meagre light, Felix could see that his skin and lips had a blue mottle to them which spoke of a lack of oxygen. He looked as if he was slowly suffocating in his own bed.
Felix glanced down at the big old-fashioned dresser. It wasn’t covered with the usual detritus of pills, tissues and books. Instead there were cigarettes, with a photo on the pack of tarry black lungs. People never thought it would happen to them.
The brushed-steel cylinder of N2O had pride of place.
And held down by a small gold carriage clock was a form. The standard waiver.
I, Charles Cann…
Felix knew what the rest of it said by heart.
…being of sound mind but terminally unsound body, do hereby declare my intention to take my own life to avoid a painful and undignified death, as is my right under British Law. I further declare that, in order to relieve the burden on my loved ones, I have enlisted the services of the Exiteers, who will witness my death, but who solemnly undertake not to encourage or assist my demise in any way – or to provide the instrument of death – as to do so is unlawful. I have given attending Exiteers permission to remove all evidence of my suicide in order to spare my family the trauma of the choice I am making by signing this document. In the unlikely event of an official investigation into my death, I hereby absolve the Exiteers of any culpability.
The signature was spidery. Frail.
‘Charles?’ said Felix gently. ‘Mr Cann?’
Then he said it more loudly, and the man opened his eyes groggily and raised a weak hand.
‘Mr Cann, we’re the Exiteers. I’m John and this is Amanda.’
Amanda was at the foot of the bed now, and raised a hand in a small salute at the man, who half returned it. He frowned and opened his mouth and then closed it again, apparently too exhausted by the effort.
‘Don’t speak if it’s difficult,’ said Felix. ‘We’ve just come to sit with you.’
There was a small armchair next to the dresser, and an uncomfortable-looking stool propping open the door. Felix gestured Amanda to the chair and picked up the waiver and put it in his briefcase. There was an envelope too, with WILL written in the same watery handwriting. He didn’t open it, just put it in his case with the waiver, and snapped it shut.
‘There,’ he said. ‘Now, there’s no rush, all right? You take your time.’
He put his briefcase at the end of the bed, and perched on the stool. It was as uncomfortable as it looked, but Felix had a hunch that this wasn’t going to take long. Charles Cann looked as if he would soon be gone, with them or without them. His bluish eyelids drooped, then he coughed and opened his eyes and scanned the room as if looking for something important.
He cupped his hand over his nose and mouth and whispered, ‘Plea—’
He wanted the mask.
Felix looked at the dresser and frowned. He couldn’t see the mask. It should have been around the man’s neck or in his hand before they even got there. Geoffrey always explained that very carefully to the clients, but Felix couldn’t see the mask at all.
He looked at the N2O cylinder and followed the clear plastic tubing from the valve as it ran across the walnut top of the dresser…
Then his stomach flipped nervously.
Mr Cann had dropped the mask.
When Felix leaned to one side he could see it dangling between the bed and the dresser, twisting gently a few inches above the carpet.
Out of reach.
‘Plea—’ Mr Cann grunted. Then again – the word becoming high and thin as it squeezed from his airless throat. ‘Plea—!’
Amanda looked at Felix, but he shook his head. There was nothing they could do. Nothing legal, anyway. She flushed and bit her lip. Felix’s fingers knotted together in his lap. Uncomfortably so.
Mr Cann’s pale, veined hand flapped at his side on the bedspread, seeking the mask that should be there. His breathing was a squeal now. His head twisted and his chest started to pump up and down out of all proportion to the amount of air getting through to his lungs. It was horrible to watch and Felix wished fervently that Amanda’s first job was not so hard.
She might not come back.
It’s not always like this, he wanted to tell her. But it would have to wait. First they had to get through this. All three of them.
Mr Cann looked at Amanda, and then at Felix, as if wondering why they weren’t helping him. Felix gritted his teeth. He was here to help the man; the man needed his help; but he couldn’t help him. Not with this. This, he had to do himself.
And Mr Cann tried. Hard. He grunted. He strained. He gasped. He reached and reached and flopped back on his pillow as if exhausted. Then he made one last effort and his desperate fingers hooked the tubing…
It pulled the gas cylinder on to its side with a clunk. Then it rolled off the shiny wooden surface.
With the reflexes of the young, Amanda caught it before it hit the floor, and lifted it up, mask swinging beneath it—
‘No!’ Felix stumbled off the stool and she flinched.
But it was too late and Felix bit back his warning. Mr Cann had caught the mask as it dangled over him, and clamped it hard to his face. Now he sucked greedily at the gas as if it were saving his life, instead of ending it.
The agonized breathing stopped almost immediately. His eyes closed…
Another deep breath.
‘What?’ said Amanda again, panicking. Felix put his finger to his lips to silence her. Hearing was the last sense to fade, and he didn’t want Charles Cann dying to the sounds of a squabble.
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ he murmured calmly. ‘Everything’s just right. Everything’s wonderful.’
Mr Cann’s hand twitched twice on the mask, then loosened a little and – after a moment – lolled on to his chest, his fingers curled like those of a sleeping baby. Felix and Amanda stood either side of the bed, silently united in the anticipation of another breath.
It never came.
The dog scratching itself downstairs was suddenly the loudest noise in the house.
Slowly, Felix bent down and touched the side of Charles Cann’s neck. The skin was warm, but the artery was motionless under his fingers.
‘Is he dead?’ whispered Amanda. And when Felix nodded that he was, she burst into tears.
Felix was surprised, but said nothing. There was nothing to say. She would cry and then she would stop. And then they would catch the bus down the hill to Bideford and drink more tea or hot chocolate and talk about how life goes on, and she would feel better, even though it never sounded entirely convincing to him.
He opened his briefcase and placed the bottle and the mask next to his unmolested sandwich, then clicked it shut once more – relieved that in the end it had all happened so fast, for Mr Cann’s sake. He straightened up and cleared his throat. It’s time to go. That’s what the clearing of the throat meant. But Amanda wasn’t hearing. Or stopping. She was proper bawling, as Margaret used to say when Jamie was little. He handed her his handkerchief.
‘Was that wrong?’ she sobbed. ‘I just caught it and he grabbed it and now he’s dead and I feel terrible!’
‘We’re not here to assist physically in any way,’ said Felix patiently. ‘We’re only here to lend moral support.’
‘I know! But he couldn’t reach it! And he wanted it! Because he couldn’t breathe…’
‘Not breathing is really the goal,’ he said, hoping to lighten the mood a little, but it just set off a new round of sobbing.
Amanda reached for the dead man’s hand, but Felix stopped her arm gently.
‘Best not to, now that he’s gone,’ he said, and she nodded and then, to his surprise, turned and hugged him instead – her head buried in his chest and her embrace pressing his arms to his sides.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she wept. ‘I just… I mean… I didn’t know it was going to be so… sad.’
‘There, there,’ he said awkwardly, feeling like a Victorian father trapped by an unwanted public display of affection. He might have patted her on the back, but his arms were pinioned.
Probably for the best.
Amanda took her time finishing her cry, then blew her nose and sighed and looked up at him. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘That’s perfectly all right,’ said Felix, although he really didn’t think it was, and hoped she would never do it again. He’d speak to Geoffrey. Maybe he could work with another man in future. Or just somebody older. He looked at his watch. They really should be going.
‘I’ve never seen someone actually die before. Not even my nan.’
‘Of course. The first time is always difficult.’
His first time hadn’t been, though. An old woman who was so weak that the difference between life and death had been hard to distinguish. When his fellow Exiteer had confirmed that she was dead, Felix had felt oddly uplifted by the experience. It had been so different from watching his wife and his son die, and his first thought had been that he wanted to see it again – just to know how kind death could be. As if he might blur his old memories with new ones.
Amanda wiped her eyes and blew her nose again. Felix noticed her mascara had run and looked down at his chest. There was a dark smudge on his beige jacket.
‘What happens now?’ she said.
‘Now we leave,’ he said.
‘Yes. We’ll go and have a nice cup of tea and a chat.’
‘What about his… his family?’
‘When the family get home they will find Mr Cann has passed away and call a doctor. The nitrous oxide does not show up in post-mortem toxicology reports, so the coroner will record it as a death from natural causes. His family will not be implicated in messy legalities. The insurance company will pay up, as they absolutely should. And it will be as if we were never here.’
Amanda nodded, looking down at the man. ‘He does look better,’ she sniffed.
It was true. The mottle had left the man’s skin, and the lines of desperation on his face had relaxed, making him look closer to fifty than eighty.
‘Do we just… leave him?’
Felix nodded. He understood that almost overwhelming urge to arrange things – to close eyes, to wipe away dribble, to tuck in hands or feet – to make things look nice.
‘We don’t tidy up,’ he explained. ‘We’ve done our bit. Now somebody else will come and do theirs.’
Amanda nodded again.
‘You did very well,’ Felix said kindly, although really she hadn’t. But they could talk about that at the debrief.
‘Thank you,’ she said. And then added, ‘So did you.’
She was sweet. But she had to understand how even touching the gas cylinder could have compromised them – that it tipped witnessing and supporting death into assisting, which was strictly illegal. It was a technicality, of course, but it was important that the error should not be repeated.
Downstairs the little dog yapped and broke a sombre silence.
‘Right then,’ said Felix, in a tone that any British person would know meant, let’s go – and Amanda was British, so she left the bedroom and he opened his right arm to usher her ahead of him as they started down the stairs.
There was a sound.
They both stopped and Amanda looked up at him. ‘What was that?’
Felix’s head was still above the level of the landing. He looked around at the open door behind him. Mr Cann was as they’d left him.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ll check.’
Felix had witnessed twenty-seven deaths and the gas had never not worked. It was invariably lethal in the concentration used as long as there was minimal leakage – and Charles Cann had clamped the mask hard to his face and taken at least two deep, gasping breaths of it.
Nonetheless, he returned to the room and once again sought a pulse at the man’s throat.
He was still dead.
Amanda and Felix both flinched and turned to look at the door at the opposite end of the landing.
‘Somebody’s in there,’ whispered Amanda.
Felix put down his briefcase and crossed the landing in three strides. He stood for a long moment, then took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
In the front bedroom an old man was leaning out of a bed by the window, trying to reach a walking stick that had apparently fallen on to the wooden floor. He propped himself on an elbow, glared at Felix and grumbled:
‘You took your time!’
Took in the gaunt, grey face, the frail body, the bedside table filled with pills…
Then he stepped backwards out of the room and pulled the door smartly shut behind him.
Amanda was at his shoulder now. ‘What is it?’ she said, but Felix couldn’t speak because all the words he’d ever known seemed to be whirling around inside his skull like bingo balls.
The ones he needed finally dropped slowly from his numb lips.
‘We killed the wrong man.’
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