Oh dear, what can the matter be?
Thyroid swore. What the hell was Marie playing at? If Henry was the Scatologist, which Thyroid reluctantly had to admit was at least a possibility, then Marie was playing a dangerous game. While he was in the editor’s office, Thyroid had seen that for every day an attack took place Henry had not been in. Thyroid knew that by itself this meant nothing; it certainly did not imply that Henry was guilty. As for the incidences that took place at night, Thyroid had no other way of knowing Henry’s whereabouts than asking the man himself. He didn’t want to ask Elsa – that might needlessly worry and upset her – so there was very little choice. But he had wanted to do it in his own way, not haring after Marie in case she was putting herself at risk. It didn’t bear thinking about what else a man capable of putting laxatives into the food of complete strangers enjoying themselves might do if forced into a corner. Thyroid picked up his phone and called Gary.
‘Hey man,’ said Gary. ‘How was dinner? You must have finished pretty sharpish.’
‘Didn’t have any. Listen Gary, I’m on the road to Preston.’
‘Why, for fuck’s sake?’
‘Marie’s there. She’s convinced that Henry’s the Scatologist so she’s decided to go and confront him.’
‘Excellent,’ said Gary enthusiastically.
‘No, Gary, not excellent. For a start there’s no real proof. We have a lot of coincidences, which I admit is a great deal more than we’ve had so far, but it’s still not enough. And my gut tells me that it’s not him.’
‘Well, Henry’s a friend.’
Thyroid exhaled slowly. ‘That may be so,’ he said. ‘I just want to be sure. But Marie… she’s so set on doing something meaningful, meaningful for her, to get some satisfaction for her uncle, shit, she might blow the whole deal.’
‘You sure you’re not pissed off because she got there first?’
‘Christ Gary,’ croaked Thyroid exasperated. ‘What do you take me for? I’m worried she might get into trouble. I just thought I should let someone else know. You know, for back up.’
‘Just in case.’
‘Gary, don’t mention this to anybody, okay? Not yet.’
‘You got it. Good luck.’
Thyroid tossed the phone onto the passenger seat just as a lurid flash of bright violet split the night sky ahead for an instant and cast the road in a surgical, pink light. A low rumble in the air followed shortly after, building up to a tooth-rattling crescendo of noise, an overture for the rain which soon came searing cold on its heals and crashed against the windscreen, as if the sky had declared war on man. ‘Of course,’ muttered Thyroid. ‘Portentous weather.’ He rolled his eyes and pressed on to Preston.
It has stopped raining at last. Chester follows the Mini along Church Street until he sees it turn onto Glovers Crescent and park in front of a small bed and breakfast hotel. He parks the Audi close by but remains inside to watch Bolton being greeted by Marie Pawlak, who is waiting for him outside on the soaked pavement, hugging herself warm. She has a sheepish look on her face as Bolton bangs on to her about something. Probably doesn’t like being stood up, Chester muses, that or having to drive all the way here. Bolton seems to be calming down and he allows Marie to lead him into the hotel. Chester steps out of the car to stretch his legs and get his bearings. He supposes he will be back a long time before the happy couple are up and about.
The hotel room was simple and dated, with a double bed, a small dressing table and chair on either side, and a gigantic wardrobe that seemed to suck what little light there was in the room into its heavily varnished black grain. Next to that was the door Thyroid guessed led to the bathroom. The wallpaper was a textured, fuzzy paisley nightmare from the seventies and above the bed there hung a disturbingly hefty golden crucifix. Marie caught him staring at it.
‘They’re quite religious up here, I think,’ she explained. ‘They were when I studied here, anyway. There are churches all over the place, evangelical, Pentecostal, all kinds.’ She shrugged. ‘We can take it down of you like.’
Thyroid grimaced at the baleful Christ on the wall. Religion was one thing, but the trappings were quite another. He hated them more. They made him feel so uncomfortable. They reminded Thyroid that at times man could still be nothing more than a superstitious primitive. ‘Yeah,’ he sniffed, unhooking the offending artefact. ‘It gives me the creeps.’ Marie laughed at him as he held the crucifix at arms length, as though he were carrying a dead cat, and threw it into the wardrobe.
‘Don’t forget to put it back in the morning,’ Marie reminded him cheerfully.
‘Oh yes,’ said Thyroid, as he suddenly realised where he was. ‘The morning.’ He stared at the bed. ‘Where’s my room?’
Marie just grinned at him.
‘Ah,’ said Thyroid.
Marie took a step towards him.
‘I’m not done being angry yet,’ he told her, but he wasn’t even convincing himself.
Marie stood in front of him, so close he could feel the light pressure of her chest against his. ‘You look tired,’ she said, stroking his face. ‘Maybe you should lie down.’ She took his hand and walked him over to the bed.
Despite himself, Thyroid felt nervous. It had been a long time. There had been no-one since Anna, not even fill-in sex, the rapid, random fuck-bouts that people traditionally engaged to repair the emotional, psychological damage done to them by the opposite sex. He guessed it was probably unhealthy, and doubtlessly pathetic, but he was wary of being hurt and screwed up again. Besides, until now, he hadn’t felt that kind of passion for anyone, and what was the point of anything, especially romance, without passion? He was feeling some of that passion now, though, and he was powerless against it, powerless against the inexorable need of life to progress, of time to pass. Marie was confidently unbuttoning his shirt, labouring over each button, working them undone with her fingernails. Thyroid could feel her certainty and her desire… and gave in to them.
They undressed each other unhurriedly. In the soft orange light from the streetlamp outside the window, Marie’s body glowed as gold as did the Christ Thyroid had removed from the wall, and, so he thought, much more deserving of his unceasing worship. Her skin was darker than his, her nipples like the black almost-symmetrical blots on a Rorschach test. Breasts, thought Thyroid. They remind me of breasts. She played with him gently at first, tickling his nose with the fine hairs on her forearm, gnawing on his ears, but then she began to knead at him, pinch and bite him, pulling at his skin with her teeth until he responded in kind. They rolled around on the bed together, coming to a stop with Marie sitting over him, straddling him tight and letting Thyroid push himself gently into her. He came almost immediately, the forgotten pleasure of intimacy overwhelming him. Marie didn’t seem to mind, though. She slid off his body and lay beside him, curling her legs around his and making circles around his navel with her finger. ‘That was quick,’ she said, teasing him a little.
Thyroid coughed and cleared his throat. ‘Yes,’ he agreed.
‘Been a long wait, eh?’
‘A while,’ he answered her, grinning stupidly.
They lay in silence for a moment, each content to hear the heartbeat of the other, before Thyroid suddenly flung himself to the other end of the bed and pulled the sheets over his head as he bared down on Marie. He began chewing on her hip. ‘Hey!’ she squealed. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Thyroid moved his head over her abdomen and then kissed and nibbled his way down to her pubic hair, taking a moment to breath in the rich, dank, beautiful aroma. Marie groaned as he pushed his tongue into her flesh and sucked on her labia, probing for the opening and the sweet pulse inside. Thyroid pulled the sheets back down to watch Marie throw her head back and moan once more as a spasm of pure pleasure shuddered up from the swollen folds of her vagina, along her spine and fired itself directly into the nerve-centre of her brain. ‘What are you doing?’ she repeated, this time her voice torpid with arousal.
Thyroid took another long, deep breath of Marie’s drenched vagina, savouring that sensually atavistic cocktail blend of sweat, piss and pussy. ‘What I’m not doing,’ he told her, muffled between her legs, ‘is waiting another three years.’
Chester remembers a time when he would not sleep unless the lights were left on, keeping him safe from the shapeless noises that whispered in his ear in the dark. How funny that seems to him now, prowling the shadowy back streets of night-time Preston, circling the paths around Avenham Park, steering clear of the brightly lit main streets off St. George’s Square. He enjoys the night now, sees more clearly in the dark than he ever did in the light. Negative enlightenment, he thinks, surprising and pleasing himself with the cleverness of his words. It is, he supposes, logical to conclude that a man living a philosophy is a philosophical man. He wraps his long black coat tighter around himself and feels the butt of the shotgun press into his ribs, the strength of his argument.
Chester keeps his footfall light and silent, listening all the time, assimilating the unfamiliar. This close to the park, there is an almost constant hushhh, the sound of the wind blowing through the tress. And just below that? Chester concentrates, sure he has heard… There it is again, a faint, plaintive cry, a woman. Chester moves towards the source of the mysterious noise, making his way along a narrow passageway that comes out onto a small road touching onto a densely wooded edge of the park. The sound of a slap ricochets sharply from tree to tree. Chester crouches down and closes his eyes, letting his ears do the work, filtering out the extraneous. He hears the sound of cloth being torn and a zipper coming down, hears the rapid breath of fear. To his left, maybe ten metres. He moves slowly, careful to blend in with the nightlife of the wood, and as he approaches he hears a rhythmic grunting.
Chester can only see the man’s back. He is lying on top of a woman, his hand clasped firmly over her mouth. But Chester can still hear the scream in the woman’s eyes, staring about wildly until, suddenly, they freeze on him. The rapist is too absorbed with his own violent satisfaction to notice the change in the woman beneath him but the sharp k-chik of Chester’s shotgun quickly brings him up to speed. The rapist spins away from the woman and tries to run but Chester is already on him, the gun pointed at the back of the rapist’s head before he is halfway up. Chester brings the rapist down with a crack between the shoulder blades. He looks at the woman, trembling in the same spot. ‘Get up,’ he tells her gently. The woman remains still. ‘Come on,’ he says more firmly. ‘Get up and go. Fetch the police, tell them what’s happened. Get yourself some help.’ He gestures to the rapist, now curled up in a ball and already sobbing for forgiveness in what Chester considers a disgusting display of self-interested hypocrisy. ‘His body will still be here when you get back.’
Chester hears the woman get to her feet, senses her looking hesitantly between he and her attacker, unable to pull away. He turns to her. ‘You want to watch?’ She stands there, staring at him. She nods and Chester knows that she means it. He nods back in acknowledgement. He understands the pain of violation, of humiliation, and the need for justice, whatever it costs. He can respect this; the desire is, after all, the essence of who he is now.
‘You,’ he says, pointing at the man on the ground. The rapist lifts his head a fraction. It is all Chester requires. The head breaks open as the bullet hits home and the dead man slumps. Chester can hear the woman breathing beside him. He turns and sees her staring down at the corpse with undisguised loathing. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘go and get the police.’ She looks up at him. ‘You did not see my face,’ he tells her.’ The woman nods, once, takes a last look at the lifeless body and runs off towards the lights of the town.
Chester slides the gun back into the depths of his coat and calmly walks off in the opposite direction. Once again, he sees omens. Tonight can only be a sign that right is with him, that his is the just cause. He watches his breath dissipate in a cloud of insubstantial mist. The universe wants him to keep his hand in, wants him strong and prepared, to keep on fighting the good fight. The universe wants him to prevail, it needs him to prevail.
Thyroid and Marie were sitting at a table in the hotel’s meagre dining room, having breakfast. Or rather, Marie was having breakfast while Thyroid watched on over a cup of coffee. He watched her tuck into a fat sausage drowning in brown sauce and made a mental note to take her along to King Bacon sometime soon. Marie busied herself with making a sandwich, a mathematically precise combination of every ingredient on the plate. Watching Marie was a world apart from his usual breakfast observations. He was hypnotised by the way her lips opened around the sandwich, how they brushed forwards, flecked with crumbs, as she took the bread from her mouth. He was fascinated by the content, sated manner in which she chewed and swallowed, by the way she lifted her chin so that the food would travel unhindered down her throat. He even found eroticism in the doughy bread and sauce that collected over her teeth and beneath her gums, revealed whenever she grinned at him. Three years with no sex will do that to a man, he thought. The memory of the previous night sent ripples of pleasure through Thyroid’s body. It was a long time since he had felt so peacefully content.
Marie was just as content as she seemed, and not only because the sex had thankfully gone on for more than just a few minutes. The way Marie had it, she and Chris had now fused into one, their souls entwined, and she knew with profound certainty that she was in love. Love, she thought, chewing on a mouthful of egg-yolk, and almost laughed out loud. When had she last felt so alive, so happy and at ease? The pall of misery that had dominated her spirit so much of late had gone. Okay, Chris wasn’t her type in the physical sense – or at least he hadn’t been; last night had given Marie cause to willingly modify her criteria – but that was just details, idea over substance, wasn’t it? Their love-making had been fierce and it had been tender and it had, at all times, been an act of perfect synchronicity. Marie felt replete.
A television, precariously attached to a wall by a thick, manoeuvrable metallic elbow, was showing the morning news while Thyroid and Marie gazed at each other like love-struck teenagers, entertaining private fantasies of lives spent growing old together. When they hadn’t been making love, they had talked about their dreams. When Thyroid had told her about wanting to go somewhere hot to write books and grow tomatoes, Marie, heart beating fast, could hardly believe it and told him that, the books aside, she had similar desires for the future. They had laughed at the coincidence but, on the inside, the mental forecasting process was underway, the mapping out of the rest of their years, children, grandchildren, the continuation of themselves and of the species. There would be time enough for them both to explore the roads on those maps more closely later. For now, it was enough to know that a map was there.
‘…unusual events last night, the local constabulary are sharing information with police forces in Birmingham. Brian.’
Thyroid’s mind swam reluctantly back up to the surface of the present. Birmingham? He turned to the television, saw Marie doing the same.
‘Thank you, Jenny. Yes, as you say, the police are in contact with officers in Birmingham. It’s been no secret that the past few months have been difficult ones for the police there. Two serial attackers, one administering laxatives to people at random, the other seemingly a vigilante of some kind, have put the city on edge. So, it was with no small surprise that last night police in Preston were shown a body lying in the outer woods of Avenham Park, shot dead after he was discovered raping a local woman who is currently helping the police with their investigations. The police were ready to take the shooting as an unconnected incident, but with the report this morning that a man from Ozzletwistle was last night admitted to hospital after suffering an inexplicably sudden, debilitating attack of diarrhoea, police are looking into the possibility that we may have a pair of copycats on our hands.’
‘That can’t be a coincidence, Chris,’ said Marie in a low, urgent whisper, gripping Thyroid’s arm. ‘How can it be? Henry’s here for one night and look.’ She waved a hand at the television.
Thyroid felt some of the old weariness come creeping back. For a while he had forgotten what had actually brought him to this part of England. He shook his head. ‘I have to admit, it doesn’t look great. But, the shooting, you don’t think that’s Henry, too, do you?’
‘I don’t know,’ she answered. ‘And I don’t care. I’m just interested in the Scatologist and I think we have him.’
The old lady who ran the hotel walked over to the television and stretched up laboriously to turn it off, muttering about proper talk for the breakfast table.
‘Okay,’ said Thyroid. ‘What time’s Henry’s lecture?’
‘Right. Let’s make a plan.’
Outside, Chester watches Marie and Bolton as they step, hand in hand, from the hotel. He follows them at a respectable distance.
Preston was very much a university town. The majority of the people they could see walking about were late teens, early twenties, all of them glowing with the pleasant freedom of living away from home, relaxed and happy. It didn’t take them long to find the university itself. Since Marie knew where they were going, Thyroid let her take the lead.
When they got to the lecture hall where Henry was going to give his speech, they found that it was already nearly full. One or two students milled about outside the door. Thyroid stepped up to one of them, standing alone by a coke machine. ‘Hey,’ he said lightly.
The student eyed Thyroid up and down suspiciously. ‘Yeah?’ Thyroid assumed the tone was meant to convey that the student was already finding the whole conversation a total drag. He was probably nineteen, Thyroid guessed, with a messy bale of blonde straw on top of his head. Grey eyes regarded Thyroid with unhidden distrust from behind John Lennon-style spectacles.
‘You going to this lecture?’ Thyroid asked, pointing at a poster advertising Henry Gunther’s impending visit.
‘Uh-huh,’ said the student, shoving his hands into the pockets of his denim flares.
There was a smiling strawberry patch sewn just below the right pocket. Thyroid resisted the urge to point at it and laugh. Instead, he asked, ‘Want to earn yourself twenty quid?’ He was pleased to see the student’s interest perk up at that. Or was it because Marie had just joined them?
‘I might,’ the young man said, glancing at Marie, who smiled sweetly at him. ‘What do I have to do?’
Thyroid handed the student a piece of paper. ‘When it comes to question time at the end of the lecture, I’d like you to ask these, if it’s not too much trouble.’ He watched the student finger the paper. ‘That doesn’t sound too hard, does it?’
‘Sounds like easy money to me,’ encouraged Marie.
‘Why can’t you do it yourself?’
‘Do you want this money or not? I can go and ask someone else,’ Thyroid told him.
The student shrugged. ‘If I need money, I call my dad,’ he said with a smirk. He looked at Marie again. ‘Still, if it’s that important to you…’
‘It is,’ said Marie, putting her hand on the boy’s shoulder. Thyroid tried not to think about how the student would see himself off to sleep that night. ‘It’s kind of a Hamlet thing.’ She winked at the student.
He grinned back. ‘Got you,’ he said, clearly lying. ‘Money up front,’ he said.
‘Of course,’ Marie smiled. ‘Chris?’
Thyroid reached for his wallet and took out a twenty. He put it in the young man’s hand but didn’t let it go immediately. ‘Make sure you ask the questions,’ he said, trying to come across as dangerously sinister. ‘I don’t want to have to come and find you afterwards to get this back.’
‘Hey man, no problem, alright?’ The student tugged at the note. ‘I’ll ask the questions. I promise.’
Thyroid let go of the twenty. ‘Fine,’ he nodded. The student stood there watching them. ‘Well,’ said Thyroid, ‘off you go. Enjoy your lecture. We’ll be sitting at the back somewhere,’ he added. ‘Just in case.’
The student stole a last look at Marie, who rolled her eyes and shrugged, and then at Thyroid. ‘Right,’ he said sullenly and strolled nonchalantly into the hall.
Marie leaned in close, resting her chin against his neck. ‘I like it when you play the hard man,’ she laughed in his ear. ‘Even if it is just to scare little boys.’
Thyroid turned so that his nose touched Marie’s. ‘You’ve got to start somewhere,’ he said. They kissed briefly and then followed the student into the hall, unaware that a few minutes later they themselves were also followed in by Chester Guberson, who had dressed normally for the day so as not to attract attention.
‘In the end, what the true newsman desires is nothing simpler or nobler than the truth, the objective truth. I know, I know,’ boomed Henry, holding his hands up to fend off the imagined arguments. ‘In today’s world of investors and shareholders, objectivity is a rare commodity but that is why it becomes all the more precious. Remember, this above all else, as journalists it is your duty, your duty, to report the truth. Thank you.’
The hall erupted into applause, everyone standing up to give Henry a gracious, appreciative standing ovation. The big man was dressed only in a shirt – open at the neck, the politician-getting-down-with-the-people look – and loose trousers rather than his more customary suit. This was Elsa’s doing, making sure her husband didn’t alienate his young audience before he started. Elsa knew a lot about the psychology of clothes, he remembered, recalling the advice she had given him on numerous occasions. It was a shame Elsa could not have come. But she had plans of her own and, besides, dragging her around hotels in the North of England would more than likely have depressed her. Not that she was a snob, even if people who didn’t know her often made that mistake; she just didn’t enjoy that kind of hectic travelling anymore. They had done enough of that during their lives already.
‘Okay,’ Henry said. ‘Now, once everyone’s settled…’ The crowd in attendance began to sit back down and make themselves comfortable again. Henry waited for the last of the muted chatter to subside before continuing. ‘Good. Right, here we are then, the part all you young eagles have been looking forward to: grilling the old guard.’ There were a few dutiful, polite laughs from the student body. ‘So, who would like to ask the first question? Ahh, you there, chap with the red hair and pierced eyebrows,’ said Henry, extending a finger towards a young man, very much as Henry described him, with his hand in the air.
‘Right, ah, Henry, how do you feel about tabloids like The Sun and that. Given what you said about the truth, do you hate them?’
Always the same, thought Henry, but he said, ‘If I may paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, if I gave them any thought, I probably would.’ Those students in the know responded appreciatively to the allusion. ‘Okay then, the young woman there with the yellow glasses.’
The questions went on for a while and Henry did his best to answer as fully as he could, trying to be entertaining as well as informative. He was enjoying himself, just where he liked to be, at the centre of attention. ‘Excuse me, Mr. Gunther,’ he heard a voice say. He turned to see a boy who looked like he had just returned from break-dancing in a barn waving his arm. ‘I have a few questions,’ the boy said. Henry gestured for him to proceed.
‘Okay, first, as an editor, when sales are down or the news seems, I dunno, boring, have you ever felt tempted to just make something up?’
‘Certainly not. Apart from the logistical problems of inventing an untruth that will last more than five minutes with nothing to back it up, we must always remember that it is the truth that matters. If the truth happens to be boring at any particular moment, well, that’s just the way it goes.’
‘Okay, so what if you decided to invent something that was true?’
‘I’m not sure I quite understand what you mean,’ said Henry and was glad to see he wasn’t the only one. A number of perplexed faces were staring in his young interviewer’s direction.
‘Well,’ said the boy, unperturbed, ‘would you rob a bank so that you could fill your paper with stories about bank robbers?’
‘I’d say my previous answer covers that, too.’
‘Is sensationalism good for business?’
Because he was not looking for them, Henry could not see Thyroid and his companion as they watched on with grim curiosity.
‘I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t,’ said Henry carefully. ‘But we at The Contemporary try to shy away as much as possible from that kind of reporting if we can help it. Of course, sometimes we have little choice. We do report the sensational; what we don’t do is sensationalise the tragic, like some members of the media.’
‘Surely,’ barn-head went on, ‘sensationalism is in your best interests, from a purely business perspective.’
‘That depends on the kind of paper you’re trying to sell,’ said Henry.
‘So what about all those pointless stories about the, um, “scatologist”? Are they newsworthy?’
‘To the people in Birmingham, yes.’
‘Admit it, it’s you, isn’t it? The student was smirking. ‘You’ve been doping the population to sell papers.’ The audience were laughing at this fresh bit of nonsense. ‘Bit dodgy doing it while you’re here too, eh?’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Henry over the giggles. ‘Very funny. Now does anyone have any sensible questions?’ He scanned his audience. ‘You there, in the purple t-shirt…’
Marie and Thyroid quietly left the hall before the last questions were asked. ‘So what do you think?’ Marie asked.
‘To be honest, he didn’t seem all that bothered by the questions. But then why would he be? He looked like he found them a mild irritation rather than a hint that perhaps somebody knew something they shouldn’t.’
‘I suppose so,’ said Marie. ‘Maybe he just hides it well, maybe he’s good under stress.’
‘I’m not so sure. It’s all too obvious; it doesn’t ring true, if you know what I mean.’
Marie did know, but she was not about to admit as such. ‘Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?’ she asked.
Marie suddenly strode off in the direction of Henry, who was just emerging from the lecture hall. Thyroid hurried after her. ‘You,’ she was shouting, pointing at Henry. ‘Time to come clean, Mr. Gunther. Are you the Scatologist?’ The students closest to Henry quickly backed off as the seemingly mad woman stepped up to the editor and stuck her finger under his nose.
‘What the…,’ Henry began, and then saw Thyroid coming up behind the woman. ‘Christopher,’ he said. ‘What’s going on? Who is this woman and why is she asking me if I am the Scatologist?’
‘Hello Henry,’ said Thyroid as amiably as he could. ‘I’m sorry about this, if it was up to me I would have waited a while longer, but there are… well, certain aspects of your past and, ah, a few inconsistencies concerning your movements of late seem to suggest that…’ Thyroid scratched his head before finishing off, apologetically, ‘… that maybe you are.’
‘You can’t be serious,’ Henry blurted, his face going red. ‘What? What for? To sell papers, is that it?’ Realisation dawned on Henry’s furiously simmering face. ‘I suppose it was you who put that silly boy up to asking those ridiculous questions. Were you hoping he’d trip me up?’ He glared at Thyroid. ‘I have no reason to fall,’ he said meaningfully.
‘What gets me,’ said Marie with icy calm, ‘is that the same night you turn up here, there’s another attack. It seems more than a coincidence to me.’
‘I could say exactly the same thing to you,’ Henry told her.
‘Maybe,’ said Marie. ‘But then my dad wasn’t killed by a truck full of shit and my old flame extinguished down the loo.’
‘You mad fucking bitch,’ roared Henry and dived at Marie. ‘How dare you rake up my past.’
Thyroid jumped in to pull Henry away.
‘Take your fucking hands off me, you Judas,’ Henry shouted. ‘After all I’ve done for you, you bloody…’
The sentence remained unfinished as several police officers barged in and took control, two of them struggling to restrain the big man while the others made the onlookers back off. ‘Henry Gunther?’ one of the officers enquired.
Henry, now subdued, appeared flustered, cornered, but then, thought Thyroid, he certainly had enough reason to right now. ‘Yes,’ Henry answered. ‘Look, I’m sorry, it’s just that this young woman…’
He was cut off again by the same officer who had called out his name. ‘We’re arresting you on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, anything you say…’
The rest of the words simply faded away as Thyroid watched open-mouthed at the events unfolding around him. He felt like he had been trapped in a sensory-deprivation tank for several days. He could still see Henry struggling against the officers, see his mouth opening and closing in protest, but all he could hear was an oppressive, enveloping silence. He slumped against the wall as the police carted Henry away. He probably would have stayed there indefinitely if Marie hadn’t taken him by the arm and gently walked him back to the hotel.
Chester is not convinced. He took a good look at Henry, not just with Earthly eyes but with the special vision granted to him by his mission. The woman, Marie, accused the man of being Chester’s nemesis, his malevolent Creator, but he saw no dark divine power in Henry, no joyful malice, only panic, confusion and betrayal. The editor did not react like an evil God who was unapologetically proud of his actions. However, Chester knows that the Scatologist is powerful, can play with his mind. He would sense Chester and perhaps cloak his true feelings. While Henry is in police custody, Chester will just have to continue to watch and wait.
Thyroid was quiet as they made their way back to Birmingham, oblivious as ever to the Audi that had been shadowing him for so long. Marie looked at him with concern. ‘Come on, baby,’ she said softly. ‘Don’t blame yourself.’
‘I betrayed him.’
‘He betrayed you first, Chris. He used you. He even made you write about him. He was playing with you from the beginning.’
‘But why would he do that? To me, I mean. We always got on. I’ve been to family dinners, for Christ’s sake.’ He opened his eyes wide. ‘I don’t get it,’ he said.
Marie put a hand on his shoulder and stretched out a finger to stroke the skin beneath Thyroid’s ear. ‘I know it’s hard,’ she said, staring ahead at the long line of cars in front of them. ‘You can never really know what a person is truly thinking, isn’t that what they say? Closed books, Chris, that’s what minds are.’
Thyroid turned to the woman who in an amazingly short time – amazing to Thyroid certainly – had become his lover, his love. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said. ‘We are closed books. But that’s why we have instinct to guide us, to pick up on subtle signals we don’t consciously understand because we neither see them nor feel them. But they are there, they’re supposed to be there, part of our animal inheritance.’
‘It is part of the natural order to mask those signals, too,’ said Marie. ‘Like some predators do.’
Thyroid exhaled slowly. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but my instincts tell me that Henry is not a predator.’
Marie leant over to kiss him. ‘So loyal,’ she whispered. ‘I like that in you.’
‘I’m serious,’ Thyroid insisted. ‘I don’t think Henry…’
‘Chris,’ Marie interrupted, ‘everything points to him. And the police seemed to think so too. Why would they have taken him away otherwise?’
‘That’s a good point,’ said Thyroid. ‘Who called them by the way, if it wasn’t you?’
‘Who called them? If only you and I suspected Henry, who told them?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Marie, genuinely puzzled. ‘Maybe they already had leads of their own. They are supposed to be better at these things, aren’t they? They could already have been on his trail. Last night would have confirmed it for them just as it did for us.’
‘For you,’ he corrected her. ‘Still,’ he conceded, ‘you’re probably right.’
‘I am,’ said Marie. ‘You’ll see.’
Thyroid watched the oncoming traffic go by in the other lanes. Why was it, he wondered, that people always seemed to go faster in the opposite direction? Perhaps he was just lumbering against the flow. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t been able to get his act together, to see what was apparently staring at him in the face. Fuck it, Henry. He picked up his mobile. ‘I’m calling Gary,’ he told her. ‘See if we can meet up later, to discuss all this. And, I don’t know about you, but I feel like getting blitzed tonight.’
She squeezed his arm. ‘Sounds good to me,’ she said, smiling.
Thyroid dialled the number and waited for a second or two before Gary answered. ‘Hi Gary.’ Gary said something but Thyroid was unable to make it out, the connection was rough. ‘You in a car, too?’ Yeah… what? Where? No, it’s just I can’t… there… wait. Can you hear me now? Good. Look, how about… What? Yes, I did. I was there. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so sick in my entire life.’ Thyroid felt Marie’s hand on his leg. He winked at her. ‘Listen Gary, let’s talk about this later. We’ll meet in the pub around eight. Great. I’ll speak you later. B…’ Thyroid held the phone up to Marie and raised his eyebrows. ‘Hung up,’ he explained.
Marie let herself relax back into the chair. ‘Put some music on, Chris,’ she said, her voice drowsy.
‘Your wish is my command,’ said Thyroid, trying to sound better than he really felt.
At seven, while Thyroid and Marie are lying in each other’s arms at Thyroid’s place, Chester is sitting in a café, a newspaper in his hands, watching the Mini Cooper, parked across the way. A couple of young men stop to look at the car, nodding their heads and puckering their mouths at the aesthetic quality of the machine resting at the kerb. The paper is full of Henry’s arrest, including a brief history of the tragic shit-related deaths in his past. Chester can see how easy it would be to assume that Henry is the Scatologist but believes that the editor is just another pawn in the Devil’s game. It makes Chester marvel, and even a little afraid, that the Scatologist’s malevolent power stretches so far back into the past. But why should he be surprised, he asks himself. Time was for ordinary mortals. Again, Chester sees the magnitude of the task before him, to put to an end the reign of a creature whose claws raked away at the decades, whose playing field was infinitely larger than that afforded to Chester.
Behind the counter, a man in his mid-fifties, with an indecently behemoth white moustache and wet, rheumy eyes, gets up from his sports pages and turns on the beaten old television set propped up on one corner of the counter. As the image clears, Chester sees Henry Gunther standing at the door of his home, his wife and family huddled protectively around him. Elsa Gunther looks both relieved and angry. Their children just look angry. Chester listens as the reporter explains that Henry was held for a short time only as police and lawyers confirmed his innocence. His whereabouts for the majority of the attacks have been fully corroborated. Chester allows himself a pat on the back. His instincts have been correct. Henry is not the Scatologist. He has simply been used by the Beast as a brief red herring. Henry himself seems to be taking the whole affair very sportingly, smiling and waving at the cameras, assuring the public he holds no grudge against the police who, he says, are just doing their jobs, and very well, too. When the Scatologist slips up, and Henry asserts that he will, he has every confidence that the police will pounce. Chester smiles sadly. As if they stand a chance against an expression of elemental, ancient power. You might as well try and arrest an earthquake.
He returns to his paper.
The night was cool and pleasant, a night for lovers to walk hand in hand. The city of Birmingham was winding down from the thrills and spills of working life and the dizzying ups and downs of the day’s news, one minute free from the scourge of the Scatologist, the next once more beneath his pharmaceutically precise thumb.
‘That’s that then, isn’t it?’ Gary was finishing his second pint of stout. ‘Bye-bye, job.’
‘Thanks for the encouragement,’ said Thyroid.
‘Well let’s face it. After what you told me, I don’t think Henry will allow you back into the building, let alone his office.’
Thyroid stared into the bottom of his glass. ‘I guess not.’
Marie kept quiet. She was feeling odd. She sensed this had more to do with the way Gary kept leering at her than anything else. In spite of herself, she felt responsible for Thyroid’s now precarious professional position. After they had woken up and had something to eat, they had gone into the living room to watch the news and check on the latest developments. News of Henry’s innocence left them both gobsmacked. Eventually, it had been Marie who broke the silence with a simple, ‘Oh my God, Chris, I’m so sorry.’ For a while she had kicked herself for being so insistent, but had then reasoned that she had nothing to feel guilty about – an ironically pleasant first since she had got back – and despite Thyroid’s glum acceptance of no longer having an income, she still felt content with her actions. She had done what she thought was right and, in her own defence, it really had looked as though she was right. Most of Birmingham had agreed with her, too, for a couple of hours. But she did feel bad for Chris, although he told her not to worry, and she thought it best to say as little as possible for the time being. She had even offered to leave him alone with Gary for the night, but Chris wouldn’t hear any of it. He wanted her along. And then he told her that he loved her. So Marie was quiet, a tad uneasy, but for all of that she was happy.
‘Henry won’t be happy when he hears about you rummaging through his drawers, either,’ said Gary, as if he had been listening in on Marie’s thoughts.
Thyroid stared pointedly at his friend. ‘You look like a tonne of crap, Gary. Late night?’
Gary shifted about on the stool he had been left with after Thyroid and Marie had taken up the comfy seats. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I went to a big party a friend of mine was throwing. Didn’t finish until three and then I had to be up at nine to travel down to my aunt’s place in Stratford.’
‘Is that where you were coming back from when I called?’
Gary nodded and took the last mouthful of his stout. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Seriously, what are you going to do now?’
‘Well, I’m definitely going to talk to Henry. I’m not going to assume the worst just yet. I mean, he’s a reasonable man, I’m pretty sure he’ll understand.’
‘I hope so,’ said Marie. ‘After all, you were only doing what he asked you to do, following leads, getting the story.’
‘’s true,’ said Gary, lifting his empty glass to Marie and winking. ‘And let’s not forget that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.’
‘Yeah. Maybe I could ask Henry to let me write his story. To make up for…’ His voice trailed off.
‘For thinking he was a manic sociopath?’ Gary provided.
‘Something like that,’ Thyroid grinned.
‘Listen Chris,’ said Marie. ‘If Henry’s at all like you say he is, I’m sure any anger he feels now will blow over soon enough. Besides, you always maintained his innocence, Gary will back you up on that. You just need to talk to the man, that’s all.’
‘She’s right,’ said Gary. ‘You know Henry. It’ll all be water under the bridge in a few weeks.’
‘Anyway,’ said Marie. ‘The Scatologist is still out there and you are, if memory serves, still the resident expert around here.’
‘That’s it,’ said Gary. ‘You’re a celebrity. That’s power, that is.’
‘Now that,’ said Thyroid, perking up, ‘is true.’ He gazed around the pub. ‘I need to get away for a couple of days,’ he said, sighing heavily. ‘I need to look at different walls and hear different people.’ He glanced at Marie. ‘Well,’ he added, ‘maybe not completely different people.’
Gary reached into a pocket and tossed over a ring of keys attached to a furry orange ball. They came to a stop on an aged, adhesive beer stain. Marie and Thyroid stared at the keys and then at Gary. Thyroid pulled an ‘what?’ face. ‘They’re the keys to my aunt’s place,’ he explained, as though this should have been obvious. ‘The one I was telling you about before.’
Thyroid picked up the keys so that the orange fuzz ball dangled weakly. ‘Ah. I thought you were just trying to impress us with this.’ He swung the ball a bit.
‘No,’ said Gary. ‘I’m offering them to you.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Look, my aunt’s gone away for a while and I’m supposed to watch the place.’ Gary rolled his eyes. ‘Like I have the time,’ he muttered. ‘Anyway, why don’t you use it? You’ll be doing me a favour keeping your eye on it.’ He grinned at Marie. ‘Eyes,’ he corrected himself.
Thyroid stopped dangling the ball and peered closely at the keys. ‘You really mean that?’
‘Of course. It sounds exactly what you need. No neighbours, not next door anyway, it’s a cottage you see. Lot’s of greenery, hardly any traffic, perfect place for walks and contemplation and all of that shit.’
‘Gary, man, I don’t know what to say.’
‘How about thank you,’ Marie whispered in his ear.
Thyroid grinned like a little boy. ‘Yeah. Thanks man. I owe you one.’ He put the keys in his pocket. ‘Shall we go tomorrow?’ he asked Marie. She nodded eagerly. ‘Okay then. So Gary, directions please.’