ExtractRead section 1 of the novel Dead Men's Fingers

Or so they said. If you were in a gay mood, you could laugh as easily as the laughing stream at the tale. But if your mood was edgier, more sensitive, you could detect a note of pity in the water's song and begin to credit the tale.

The boy in the neighbours' garden was looking his way, staring up at him. Christian stepped back, out of his line of sight. As he did so, he knocked over a clutch of photographs standing on the dresser - the gun in his jacket pocket bumped against one of them, toppling it, and domino fashion the others fell. Setting them upright again proved a small torture to him, like turning over tarot cards that predicted a successively bleaker future, ending with Death that for once - it didn't always in tarot - meant death, horrible and imminent.

Malcolm Briggs, of course, was in all of them, alone in the first, alone in the second, a happy dopey grin on his face, the idiotic sort of grin that people always seem to pull when a loaded camera is unexpectedly pointed at them. The grin was a mockery, the leering grin of a sore winner, the sort who lose with grace but when they win they lord it and gloat. Except it wasn't. It was just a grin, the same as on the next, and the next, a face looking out at him from a more carefree past, not mocking him in the present.

Righting one of the largest, pride-of-place photographs, Christian was surprised to see that he himself was in it. Geoff and Ian were there too, and Roger, onetime friends long since drifted apart. Each held a fishing rod in one hand, their prize catch in the other. They were all squinting fiercely against the glare of the high summer sun. They were only boys, on the threshold of manhood, oblivious to the gathering storm that would cloud the last sunny days of their youth. Briggsy - Malcolm Briggs - was there too, at the back, taller, older than the rest of them, chest puffed out in adolescent pride, wispy moustache hairs unshaved on his top lip. He stood behind Roger, his brother. Not a very old photograph, yet at the same time ancient, from a whole other world and time. It couldn't have been taken more than a few weeks before the murder. He didn't remember now who had taken it; come to that, he didn't even remember it being taken.

The last picture was a seemingly innocent one: Briggsy again, and a younger version of the by-now familiar face of Judy, his wife. They were locked in one another's embrace and blissfully smiling. To one side of them, standing smiling uncertainly, was Karen. It was blurred, bleached by the flash of a cheap camera, and all three of them were red-eyed. A plain, simple photograph, one that would have been innocent enough, a nothing picture, but for Karen. But for her, and the sad soulful look that haunted her eyes while her lips smiled, he wouldn't have glimpsed those ghostly memories recently stirred from their graves, now stalking through his mind, touching his heart as achingly as remembrances of lost love....

Karen White, young and looking sweet. Her hair was long, just as when he had known her, rather than cropped mannishly short as when he had last seen her. Her just-turned-adult face was given a childish aspect by the poor quality of the photo, the dabs of blusher and mascara erased by its whiteness, reminding him of the young Karen, Karen White as a child.

He found it amazing, at times, how an unwelcome memory could be elicited by the most innocent of means, amazing too - more amazing yet - just what it was he could remember and what not. Lodged in his brain was a wealth of trivial events, so tiny and inconsequential, yet so numerous and collectively powerful that they tended to overwhelm the vaster events and make them seem small. He could remember almost nothing of his father, not how he had looked, nor who had told him he was dead, nor when nor where he had been told. Yet he could remember, weeks before that, wetting the bed on a boy scout camping trip, waking up with his pyjamas sopping wet and all the other boys laughing at him; he had cried and they had laughed the harder, and while all of them had by now undoubtedly forgotten it, for him it was fresh and immediate, perfectly preserved, like a fern leaf or tiny crustacean in a split-open rock. His childish shame and fright had impressed the event for all time on his brain, that and a thousand others, trivial all, minute fossils embedded in the strata of his mind. As for the other events of his life, the larger events, of lasting moment... they barely existed at all. Of his father, and his death, mere fragments remained. And of his mother's death - a lingering death, drawn-out years of wasting away and finally perishing in a hospital bed - all he recollected of that were shallow impressions, faint hazy images: his mother a thin frail thing on her death bed; his aunt, and how she had bossed him when his mother had been taken into hospital; whisperings downstairs at night between his aunt and his mother, before she had finally been struck down, about what would become of the children when she was gone - an event afforded a special vividness, not because of any great emotive attachment, but for something else, utterly inconsequential, the confusion he had felt about where his mother was going and why, thinking she intended to run away and leave her children behind and good riddance.

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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