A murder in a London bedsit. An old man dying of cancer in Glasgow. What links them is the subject of ‘Runaway’, the latest novel by best-selling novelist Peter May, whose last book won Scotland’s top prize for crime fiction. Here’s how the new one begins …
He wakes in a cold sweat from a dream pervaded by darkness and blood. And after a lifetime of being someone else in another land, he wonders who he is now. This man who, he knows, is fading all too soon. A life squandered for a love lost. A life that seems to have passed in the blink of an eye.
The three weeks since returning to these shores have somehow felt the longest of that life. He came by boat. A ferry crossing from Calais. Symbolic of that day so long ago when he had steered his own boat through a spring haar to a foreign shore. The immigration officer, on his return, had given his passport the most cursory of glances. Because, of course, no-one was looking for him any more. Not after all these years. He had been waved through without a second look. A stranger here. That’s who he is now.
It is dark and hot in this squalid little bedsit, curtains drawn against the lights of the city and the constant thrum of night traffic invading his dreams. What little light there is gradually forms shadows around the room, and for the first time he realizes that something has wakened him. Some sixth sense that warns him suddenly that there is someone else in the room.
He sits up, startled. ‘Who’s there?’
For a moment there is silence. Then a voice swings out of the dark, words like boxing gloves landing soft blows about his head. ‘Relax, old friend. It is time we talked.’ Gentle and almost reassuring.
He knows immediately who it is. ‘How did you find me?’
He hears the other smile. Then the voice again, condescending, almost chiding. ‘Simon, Simon. It was a simple matter to follow you from the café.’ A breath. ‘How on earth did you manage to stay undetected all this time?’
‘What do you want? Did I not make myself clear?’
‘Then what is there to talk about?’
The shape of a man detaches itself from the shadows and looms suddenly over him. ‘Death, of course.’
Simon hears, more than sees, the movement. The rustle of cotton on silk. And then the soft, cool texture of the cord as it loops around his neck. It tightens with unexpected speed and ferocity. There is no time to cry out. His hands grasp his attacker’s wrists, but the realization comes quickly that he is not strong enough to stop this. What strength he has ebbs quickly, and he becomes aware of a face just inches from his. The little light there is in the room gathering itself into reflections in once familiar eyes. Cruel now, and filled with hate. He feels breath on his face, like the breath of eternity. Before blackness comes to extinguish light and life for ever.
Slowly his killer releases his lifeless form to fall back on the bed, frail with age but heavier now in death. The click in the dark seems deafening and the light that falls upon the bed, like the dead man, almost shocking.
Hands in latex gloves untie a canvas roll, and open it out on still warm sheets. Light reflects on a choice of five glinting, sterile scalpels. Simon’s nightshirt is rolled back from his left forearm, and one of the scalpels is selected. All performed with the unerring certainty of a man who knows he has all the time in the world for this.
Carefully, and with a well-honed and dextrous skill, the killer starts to cut away the skin of the forearm, effectively flaying it. There is very little blood to stain the bed. For the heart has long since given up any attempt at pumping it around Simon’s rapidly cooling body.
Jack stepped down from the bus almost at the end of Battlefield Road and raised his head towards the darkening sky with a sense of foreboding. He took in the brooding silhouette of the smoke-stained Victoria Infirmary that climbed the hill above the field of battle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was once defeated by James VI, and felt as if someone had just walked over his grave.
He knew, in truth, that he no longer needed his stick. Most of his strength had returned, and the prognosis following his minor myocardial infarction was good. The diet they put him on had successfully lowered his cholesterol and the daily walking, they said, would do him more good than an hour in the gym.
Still, he had grown to depend upon it, like an old friend. He enjoyed the feel of the brass owl curled into the palm of his hand, steadying, reliable. Unchanging, unlike everything else around him.
Gone was the old Queen’s Park School, abandoned, then damaged by fire, and finally demolished. The Battlefield Rest, with its green and cream tiles and clock tower, once a news kiosk and waiting room for city trams, now an Italian restaurant. The red sandstone Langside Library was still there, a final gift from Carnegie, but the infirmary itself, filled for Jack with both formative and final memories, was due for closure, its functions to be replaced by the new Southern General.
His tonsils and adenoids had been removed here as a child. He could still remember the smell of rubber as they put the mask over his face to send him to sleep in the operating theatre, and the line of light beneath the door of his two-bed ward that night, mysterious shadows passing back and forth in the corridor beyond, like dark demons stalking his young imagination.
But as he stepped into the shabby green-painted foyer and breathed in that depressing antiseptic hospital smell, the memory that almost overwhelmed him was of the death of his mother.
Those dark winter evenings he had spent at her bedside, finding her sometimes distressed, at other times almost comatose, and once lying in her own filth. And then, finally, the night he had arrived to find her bed empty. Moved, the ward sister told him, to another building.
It had taken him some time to find her. And when he did, he felt as if he had stepped on to a stage set for some dreadful denouement. A cavernous Victorian ward, chaotic in its arrangement of beds and screens, light in pools barely permeating the darkness. She had gripped his hand, scared by the moans and occasional cries of unseen patients, and whispered, ‘They’ve brought me here to die.’ And then, ‘I don’t want to go alone.’
He had sat with her as long as they would let him. Then visiting time was done, and they told him he must leave. She hadn’t wanted him to go, and his last sight of her was glancing back to see the fear in her eyes.
The next morning a police officer came to his door. The hospital had lost his number – as they always had, no matter how many times he gave them it. His mother had died during the night. Alone, as she had feared, and it had filled Jack with a lingering sense of guilt that had never quite left him.
He had heard that Maurie was suffering from cancer, although he hadn’t actually seen him in years. And when his rabbi called to say that Maurie wanted to see him, it had come as news that his old friend had also suffered a major heart attack. Still, neither piece of news had prepared him for the shadow of a man who lay propped against the pillows of his hospital bed.
Maurie had always been inclined to plumpness, even in his teens. Then the good life that followed his elevation to the Glasgow Bar – and a solicitor’s property business that earned him a small fortune – had turned plump into corpulent.
Now only loose skin hung on his bones, a once full face cadaverous, his age-spattered skull almost bereft of hair following the chemo. He looked twenty years older than Jack’s sixty-seven. Of another generation.
Yet those dark brown eyes of his still burned with an intensity that belied appearances. There were tubes attached to his arms and face, but he seemed oblivious of them as he pulled himself into a seated position, animated suddenly by Jack’s arrival. And in his smile, Jack saw the old Maurie. Mischievous, knowing, superior. The ultimate showman, self-confident and full of himself onstage, knowing that he had a great voice, and that no matter how many of them there were in the band, all eyes were on him.
Two nurses sat on the end of the bed watching Coronation Street on his television.
‘Go, go,’ he urged them. ‘We have things to discuss in private here.’
And Jack was struck by how feeble that once powerful voice had become.
‘Shut the door,’ he said to Jack, when they had gone. Then, ‘I pay for that bloody TV, you know, and they watch it more than I do.’
Jewish was a part he enjoyed playing but never took too seriously. Or so Jack had thought. ‘My people,’ he had always talked about with a twinkle. But nearly four thousand years of history ran deep. Jack had grown up in a Conservative, south-side Protestant household, and so when he first started going to Maurie’s house it had seemed strange and exotic. Gefilte fish and matzo bread. Shul after school, synagogue on the sabbath, and the bar mitzvah, that coming of a Jewish boy’s age. Candles burning in the Menorah, two in the window on the eve of the sabbath and nine at Hanukkah. The mezuzah affixed to all the door jambs.
Maurie’s relationship with his parents had been conducted à haute voix, at first shocking to Jack, as if they were constantly at war with one another. Always shouting. Before he had come to realize that it was simply their way.
Maurie grinned at Jack. ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’
Maurie’s smile faded and he lowered his voice, grabbing Jack’s wrist with surprisingly strong fingers. ‘We’ve got to go back.’
Jack frowned. ‘Back where?’
‘London?’ Jack had no idea what he was talking about.
‘Just like we did when we were boys.’
It was several long moments before understanding finally penetrated Jack’s confusion. ‘Maurie, it’s fifty bloody years since we ran away to London.’
If anything, Maurie’s bony fingers tightened around Jack’s wrist in a grip that was almost painful. His eyes were focused and fixed Jack in their gaze, and there was an imperative in his voice. ‘Flet’s dead.’
Which only plunged Jack back into confusion. Was it an effect of the drugs that Maurie was on? ‘Who’s Flet?’
‘You know!’ Maurie insisted. ‘Of course you know. Think, for Christ’s sake. You remember. Simon Flet. The actor.’
And recollection washed over Jack, cold and depressing. Memories buried for so long that their sudden disinterment was almost startling. He took a moment to recover. ‘But Flet must have been dead for years.’
Maurie shook his head. ‘Three weeks ago.’ He reached over with difficulty to pull a folded Scottish Herald from his bedside cabinet. And he pushed it into Jack’s chest. ‘Murdered. Strangled in some seedy bedsit in the East End of London.’
Like opening the grave of some long-buried corpse, the odour of sudden, unpleasant recollection caused Jack to clench his teeth, as if fighting hard not to breathe in for fear it might contain contaminants.
Maurie’s voice fell to barely a whisper as he leaned towards Jack. ‘It wasn’t Flet who killed that young thug.’
Now Jack was startled. ‘Yes, it was.’
‘It wasn’t! It was only me that saw what happened. So it’s only me that knows.’
‘But . . . but, Maurie, if that’s true why didn’t you ever say so before?’
‘Because there was no need. It was a secret I meant to take with me to the grave.’ He jabbed a finger at the newspaper. ‘But this changes everything. I know who committed that murder in 1965. And I’m damned sure I know who killed poor Simon Flet.’ He drew a deep breath that seemed to tremble in his throat, as if there might be a butterfly trapped there. ‘Which means I’ve got to go back again, Jack. No choice.’ And for a moment he gazed beyond his old friend, lost in some sad recollection. Then he returned his regret in Jack’s direction. ‘I don’t have much time left . . . and you’re going to have to get me there.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter May was an award-winning journalist at the age of just 21. He left newspapers for television and screenwriting, creating three prime-time British drama series and accruing more than 1,000 television credits.
The first in the Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, was a Richard & Judy summer read and a Sunday Times bestseller. The Lewis Man and The Chessmen completed the trilogy, which has now sold over 2 million copies in the UK alone and several million internationally.
Peter lives in France, where he focuses on writing novels. Last year he won the Best Crime Novel Award for The Blackhouse at Bouchercon crime writing festival in the US. Last September, his standalone novel, Entry Island, won the The Deanston Crime Novel of the Year at the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in Stirling and won the ITV Crime Thriller Bookclub Award in October. He will be reading from Runaway this week in bookshops in Glasgow, Inverness, Perth, Dundee and Edinburgh. Details can be found at www.petermay.co.uk