ExtractRead section 1 of the novel Dead Men's Fingers

Noises - childish whoops and howls again from next door - rekindled his guttering anxiety. He stood stock still, listening, alert to the tiniest sound. The noises of an empty house came to him: a grandfather clock ticking in the hallway, a tap drip-dripping there in the kitchen. Wholly innocent sounds. Ones that heightened rather that quelled his fears. Sounds just loud enough to mask the soft noises a person makes in hiding, waiting, tiptoeing across the carpet to pick up an impromptu weapon then tiptoeing back to half-hide again and wait.

He began tracking through the house, peeking in one room after another to convince himself that all were empty. He retraced exactly his steps of two days ago, when she had been in, shut away in the bathroom in the shower. He lingered outside its door just as he had before - as he had for an interminable time before, intending nothing yet held there all the same, his benign intentions taunted by thoughts of evil, hearing her switch off the shower and step out and pad wetly across the floor, wanting to flee as he heard the slithering rustle of something being unhooked from the door (a towel?) yet continuing to stand there, desperate to flee as he heard that same rustling, unhooking sound again (her bathrobe?) yet still standing there, perversely delighting in how his intentions were slowly being seduced by evil.

His heart began to climb feverishly with the same, remembered fear: the threat of discovery, the danger of being forced to act and not knowing how he would act, whether surrender or something else, something worse, something brutal and punishing.

As pale images of what might have been flickered through his mind, a delightfully icy tingle worked its way through him, filling his veins with a pulse of shadowy wickedness. If she had come out then, with him still standing there, what would he have done? Given up? Let her get over the shock of seeing him, then waited while she telephoned the police? In the cold, passionless light of hindsight, that was what he liked to think: he would have given up, and gladly. He had broken in those days ago with no conscious intent besides capture. It had been a cry for help, like an attempted suicide.

It had failed. No one had heard the cry. She hadn't heard. Death couldn't now be thwarted.

He pushed open the bathroom door and scanned inside. There was no one there. That left only the back and spare bedrooms, also empty. It occurred to him then that he could have checked much more easily, simply by looking out to see if her car was on the drive or not. Going to the front bedroom, he did look out.

And it was there. The Metro, still on the drive. Which meant she must still be in the house.

But she wasn't. He stopped and listened again, went through all the rooms again, closets and hidey-holes included. She wasn't there. She must have left by taxi. He had obviously been wrong about the note of its engine.

He sauntered about awhile, from room to room, at a loss as to what to do - he didn't want to just sit and wait. In the main bedroom he nosed through a collection of cheap jewellery in an expensive, ivory-inlaid ebony box. He opened one of the dresser drawers and looked inside: underwear, of the skimpy variety, white lacy bras and panties. Not her usual sort at all. Kept for special occasions, maybe? Poking out from underneath was something black, a shiny strip of something leathery.

All at once, he began to feel more than a little sordid. He stopped nosing about.

He glanced out of the window, cautiously from behind the curtains. Beyond the line of poplars, faraway and silent in the distance, lay the sea, a thin hazy band of colour. Nearer to, down below, he could see the neighbours, still in their garden, still cooking and eating. Two doors down a more elderly couple sat in wicker chairs under a parasol, sipping iced drinks; they had their backs to all the other houses and gardens in an attitude almost of snobbishness, as if making a protest, to no one but themselves, against the crass raucous noises coming from their next-but-one neighbours. Or maybe they simply wanted to face the river, not visible from their garden for its high end wall but surely well within earshot. He could see it himself now, a glittering wisp of silver peeping through the upper branches of the poplars. Lonely River. It had some other name too, less romantic, reserved for maps and such like, but in local parlance that was what it was known as, Lonely River, the boundary of the old village before it had swelled into a small town, the small town into a middling seaport. There was even a folktale attached to the river and its name, evidence of the town's small beginnings. Everyone knew it: about a pregnant woman who had drowned there and about her husband who, disconsolate, had spent his final days on the banks of the river, expressing his grief in song, dirges and heartfelt laments, before he, too, had been found drowned in it, a suicide. And the river, so they said, had learnt his laments. As it tripped along, bubbling and babbling and trilling over the rocks in the narrow stretch by the old graveyard, so it sang to itself, in heavy, watery, dolorous notes, a haunting tune the words and name and melody of which had been lost, not passed on with the folktale. Only the waters remembered it now, singing it in snatches.

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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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