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ExtractRead section 1 of the novel Dead Men's Fingers

A ball clattering into the next fence set his stilled nerves on edge. His mind, suddenly and acutely focused, scrapped the old lame excuse in favour of a new and more plausible one: you could get down to the river from there, he was sure of it, and if someone came out of their back gate, surprising him, challenging him with a silent, quizzical stare, he would simply ask if there was a way through to the river. Or better yet, simply walk innocently on, down the path towards the nearby glade and the slow-flowing water just beyond. He could hear the stream now - could have heard it all along but hadn't, hadn't been tuned in to it - whispering quietly beneath the broken chorus of birdsong, singing to itself its lonely, tuneful song, steeped in melancholic gaiety. From where he was he couldn't see it - a copse of poplars lay in the way. The sun blazed behind the trees, its light lush and glaucous where it filtered through the gently rustling leaves. The occasional swallow darted about overhead, against a background of blue, other birds chirruped in amongst the branches, peacocks and tortoiseshells flitted in and out of bright shafts of sun. It was a picture of summer, the brightest snapshot of peacefulness, serenity. Christian found himself half at peace, half forgetting, half enjoying his surroundings. But the melancholic gaiety of the water haunted him, marring the scene, teasing ghosts of the past from their dank lonely hollows in his mind and expelling from their graves awful long-dead memories, that gathered their own special darknesses, muddying the clear currents of his emotions and grey-tinting the nice wholesome vision of summer about him.

Smoke had begun to lift into the air, from beyond the fence where the voices were. Meat sizzled and spat. Juicy barbecue smells wafted across to him. The shouts and squeals became hungry shouts, hungry squeals, and added to the adult voice - a man's voice - was a woman's, telling the children to wait, to stop doing that, to go in and wash their hands. In the distance, out of sight beyond the terrace of houses, a car engine revved up and the car pulled away. It sounded like her Metro - in the days he had been watching her he had learnt, largely by accident, almost every trivial detail attached to her life, from her favourite washing detergent to the note of her car's engine - but to be safe he waited, scanning the house for minutes more, in case, within, someone moved. Minutes and minutes he waited, over-anxious, over-cautious, until finally the fear of discovery, balanced against the fear of her still being there, at last proved the weightier.

Quickly, confidently, he unlatched the back gate and went up the path, tried the door, hunted out the spare key from where he knew it was hidden and unlocked the door and went in.

Traces of a woman's too-powerful perfume hung in the air, mingling with a perfume of stale death - flowers wilting in a vase. They had been there - he had seen them - two days ago, just turning then, giving off a rich ripe perfume. How quickly things died in the high season of life.

There were other changes to the room besides the dying flowers, obvious differences between how it was now and had been, two days before. Set on the table, in the centre of an embroidered, kept-for-best tablecloth, was a white-iced cake, with the trite message "Welcome Home" scrawled in blue icing on top. A few bands of coloured crepe crisscrossed the ceiling, one of which had come untacked at one end and was hanging loose. Beside the cake two champagne glasses gleamed. Had the glasses not been clean, the cake not whole, the cheap and tawdry display of celebration would have seemed simply the aftermath of a party, when all the eats have been eaten and the trimmings torn accidentally down in the course of the revelry.

Inside the fridge he discovered a plateful of cheesy snacks, another of meaty things on sticks, and the champagne. Not even a Moet, just cheap plonk. And only a small bottle of it at that. All meant for a modest, muted celebration, a hollow victory, "Welcome Home" cried out by small, self-embarrassed voices.

Taking up the knife that lay on the table, he cut out a small wedge of cake and tried it. It wasn't even very nice cake.






Available for purchase now

Buy the e-book version of Dead Men's Fingers online via Amazon.co.uk (UK readers), and Amazon.com (North America).

The novel is also available as part of an omnibus edition with Sheldon's other novels, Delhi Deadlines and Virtually, via Amazon.co.uk (UK readers), and Amazon.com (North America).



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