Untitled Novel

Chapter One

by Tony Forder

Email: tforder@robertsmyth.leics.sch.uk

When the telephone rang that night I was in my study, printing out the first draft of my latest novel. The shrill tone startled me, but my hand reached automatically for the handset.

"Tony, it's Tom Burgess."

            There were only four houses up on our hill, and Tom's was the one property that could look down on mine. I rolled my chair back a couple of feet and looked out of the study's tall vertical window. I imagined him sitting in the bedroom he had converted into a large office, staring down at me as he held the phone to his ear. A gentle, soft-spoken man, though he stood six-four and had a body that seemed as if it had been hewn from solid oak, Tom Burgess was a retired steelworker who now made a comfortable living from property development. His face was long and oval, creased like leather by the sun, and though he sported a luxurious beard there was not a single hair on his scalp. He had a slightly crooked left eye, and it always seemed as though he was looking both at you and beyond you at the same time.

            "What can I do for you, Tom?" I checked my watch, puzzled by the intrusion. It was rare for him to call during the week, though we occasionally got together to shoot some pool or drink beer while ruining perfectly good meat over an inadequate barbecue. But it was now eleven-twenty, and no one called my number at this time of night.

            "Don't want to worry you," he said, in his soft southern drawl, "but did you know there was a car sitting out on your driveway?"

            There were many things he could have said to me that night, I guess, but none that could have frightened me more. All manner of scenarios and possibilities seemed to flood my mind in less time than it took me to form a response, but not a single one gave me any comfort.

            "No, I didn't, Tom." My tongue felt thick and dry. I swallowed a couple of times. "A car, you say?"

            "Yep. Engine's idling. Driver just sitting there. No passengers that I can see."

            "Okay. Thanks for letting me know. Do you have any idea how long he's been there?"

            "Sure. First saw him about twenty minutes ago. Noticed the lights sweep up the hillside. Didn't think too much about it until I realised I hadn't heard the sound of a car door. Anyhow, I figured I'd take a look, just to settle my mind. That's when I saw the car, driver just sitting there, sucking on a coffin nail."

            "All right, Tom. I appreciate the call."

            He must have sensed the anxiety in my voice. "You want me to come on down?" he asked. "Bring O Lordy with me?"

            Tom was in his mid-sixties, a good twenty years older than me, but he was as game as they come. Back in Kentucky where he grew up, it was acceptable for a man to protect his kin and his land in pretty much any way he saw fit. Tom had been taught to shoot at the tender age of six, by his brother who was just four years older. One night up at Tom's place, after we’d put away perhaps too many cold ones, Tom took me into his spare bedroom and showed me a shotgun with a barrel the size of a Buick exhaust. He told me he'd had to produce it in anger on several occasions, each time resulting in wide-eyed terror and two simple words of acceptance: 'O Lordy'.

            "No, you're okay, Tom," I said, my mind still churning out the possibilities. "I'll handle it." If this was what I thought it was, I didn't want to involve the only man with whom I had become close over the past few years. Death was too high a price to pay for friendship.

            I knew he'd spotted my uninvited guest through his telescope. Tom liked to look at the stars, for the sky up here in the northern California mountains was often clear and bright. I'd often teased him about his stargazing, but I was grateful now that it had been put to good use at last.

            I thanked him again and hung up, wondering if he might sneak down the hillside anyway. I could imagine him ordering the visitor off my driveway, O Lordy wedged against his heavy shoulder, the barrel glinting purposefully in the moonlight. I knew for certain one thing: Tom’s eye would be glued to that telescope right now.

            I uncapped a bottle of water on my desk and took a sip, my hand shaking just a little as I tilted it to my lips. I suppose I’d always known such a moment might arise, but the passing years had caused the possibility to recede in my mind. Now I had to figure out what to do. My house, nestling comfortably in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a hundred and fifty miles or so east of San Francisco, is not the kind of place you drive to and then just sit outside. If someone was out there, they were out there for a reason. I could think of only one, and it scared the hell out of me.

            I'm fairly well built, keep myself in shape, and consider myself a pro-active person. I know the old Samurai warriors used to believe that whoever made the first move in any battle would ultimately lose, but I like the notion of pre-emptive strikes, getting my retaliation in first. It's always been my way. So I took a deep breath and slipped quietly into my bedroom (remembering not to put on the light), and fetched down my .357 Colt from the top shelf of my closet. I’d practised shooting the weapon in the woods a couple of times, but had never held the gun with the intention of using it against another human being. Firing a bullet into an unyielding tree was one thing, but could I fire one or more into something that could bleed? I guess I was about to find out.

            I figured I could sneak out of the door that led to the side decking, creep around the pool behind the boulders, up to the rise where my well is located, and around the hillside to the rear of the car without the slightest chance of being observed by whoever was behind the wheel. Only the last ten yards or so were over open ground without cover. I thought about it for less than five seconds: I had to take a chance.

            The night air was warm as usual. October days were often eighty degrees in the shade, the nights dropping only by twenty or so. In my T-shirt and shorts and bare feet I followed the path my mind had created for me. I had to take the chance that I wouldn't step on a snake, or run into a wildcat, but to be honest these things were not uppermost in my thoughts.

            I made good time, and my grip in the loose soil was firm as I made my way up, around and back down the rise, emerging behind and to the right of the vehicle. From my position crouched low behind a small pile of boulders I could hear the low rumble of a well-tuned engine. I saw an arm snaking in and out of the car window, the faint glow as the driver took a drag on his cigarette, knocking the ash off after every second pull. I timed it, deciding I wanted to get to him while that arm was still out of the window.





            I sprang up from behind the boulders and ran, feet slapping on the warm cement of the drive that led to my double garage, automatic pistol extended in both hands. I reached the car just as the arm started arcing back inside. When I got to it I let go of the gun with my right hand and clamped on that arm as hard as I could, yanking it back down, thrusting the gun forward into the car as I did so. There was a yelp of pain, and the cigarette tumbled to the floor. It all happened in a blur of motion and thudding heartbeat.

            "Tell me who you are and what you want or I'll pull the trigger now and ask the question again afterwards."

            I couldn't believe I'd actually said that. It wasn't prepared, there'd been no rehearsal. It was just like a script from a movie. Perhaps a bad movie.

            There was a brief moment of silence. Then came a soft, throaty chuckle. Followed by a voice I recognised immediately, though I had not heard it in almost two decades. "You don't change, do you? A middle-aged man and still you think you're a bloody superhero."

            Stunned, I let go of the arm and took a step back. "John? Uncle John?"

            I suppose I ought to have been relieved to find a relative on my doorstep instead of the man I thought it might be. But the truth is, of all the people who might want to see me dead, my uncle had the very best of reasons.

What did I say to this man I hadn't seen for almost two decades? A man who was more best friend or brother than uncle for the first twenty-five years of my life. A man who once loved me like a son, and who received my love, respect and admiration in return. A man who, the last time we talked, swore to end my life. Where did I begin?

            "You look old, John," I told him. It seemed a good place to start.

            "I am old," he snapped back.

            We sat out on the back deck by the pool, nursing cold bottles of MGD, night creatures serenading us. While my uncle John's eyes appraised the night sky, mine remained fixed on him. Never more than average height and build, he now seemed to have shrunken in on himself, his clothes at least a size too large. Once luxurious jet-black hair was now little more than faint white wisps trailed across the scalp, with bursts of cloud around and behind the ears. His flesh was pale, the texture of warm putty, and broken capillaries spread out from his nose as if he had been stencilled with a roadmap. He wore rimless spectacles, with no tint. The fingers that traced unconscious patterns in the moisture on the glass beer bottle, shook like unladen twigs on the branch of an autumn tree. We were both right: he looked old, and he was old.

            Despite his fragile appearance, I remained wary. I'd set the gun down in the kitchen when I fetched the beers, and had left it there when I came out on to the deck. For all I knew he had one on him, loaded and ready for action. The last time he spoke to me he'd told me I was a walking dead man. Eighteen years had passed since then, but for all I knew he'd come to make good on that threat. It wouldn't be the first he'd carried through on, and I wouldn't be the first man whose final memory was that of my uncle's unforgiving grey eyes.

            "Are you hungry?" I asked him. "I can rustle up some eggs and bacon."

            "No." He shook his head. "I ate at some diner along the way. It was a long drive and I had to stop for a piss three times."

            "I heard old age could be a bastard."

            "You'll find out one day. Maybe."

            That single word carried more threat than an entire series of The Sopranos. I guessed we were out of small talk.

            "How did you find me?" I asked him.

            He turned towards me, looked at me directly for the first time. "Did you think I wouldn't recognise you in those books of yours? Your style, your humour, your way of looking at the world."

            "It never occurred to me." And it hadn't. I thought I'd left the largest part of myself back in England the day I flew out of Heathrow in the winter of 1986. I thought I'd been very careful not to use even a single characteristic of anyone I'd known in what I'd come to think of as my 'previous life'. "How long have you known?" I asked him now.

            "What? That my nephew was Mark Bradshaw, best-selling novelist?" He snorted. "I read your most recent book when it was published three months ago. I'd not read any of your previous ones, but I bought all seven the following week and read them all. I knew right away, though. In my heart. The others just confirmed it in my head."

            "Bit of a step from reading a book you think I may have written, to turning up on my driveway," I pointed out.

            "I hired someone." He took a pull from the bottle and exhaled deeply. "He tracked you down through your publisher and agent."

            "Howard?" I leaned forward anxiously. Howard Fisher was my agent, and not in the habit of giving people my address, but I knew uncle John's favoured methods of persuasion could be effective. "You better not have hurt him."

            My uncle flashed an amused grin. "Wind your neck in, Tony. Mr Fisher is fine. I met with him personally, told him who I was and that I'd lost track of you down the years. I figured the fact that I knew your real name would be proof enough that I was a genuine family member. I also figured you hadn't told him that might be bad news."

            "And he just gave it up?"

            "No." Uncle John chuckled. "He told me the best he could do was call you and ask if it was all right to provide the information. I told him not to bother, and that as my visit was a surprise, he should leave it at that."

            "Then how…"

            "I waited until he was out of the office, then gave his secretary five-hundred dollars."

            "You wily old bastard."

            "You know me: like a dog with a bone when I want to be."

            I nodded. Tenacity and ruthless determination are an uncompromising combination. "So that leaves us with the most important question: why are you here, Uncle John?"

            For the first time I saw a flicker of apprehension pass across his face. He glanced down at the wooden table, then back up to meet my gaze.

            "Your son needs you," he said, his voice softer now.

            I blinked. Had age addled his mind? "I think you're a little confused," I told him, shaking my head. "I don't have a son."

            "Yes you do," he said simply, nodding at me. Astonishingly, there were tears in his eyes. "Yes you do."


©2003 Tony Forder

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