Anna Reith Glam rock star Damon Brent was riding high when he died: fame, fortune… like, the works, baby. But, despite what the papers said, his death was no accident. Thirty years on, Damon’s back, and he was murdered – or so he says."> Frith Books - Dead in Time
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Dead in Time

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Dead in Time by Anna Reith

Glam rock star Damon Brent was riding high when he died: fame, fortune… like, the works, baby. But, despite what the papers said, his death was no accident. Thirty years on, Damon’s back, and he was murdered – or so he says.

Description

Ellis Ross, daughter of Damon’s biggest fan, is busy trying to finish her dissertation. She doesn’t need to find a dead pop star in lurex pants chain-smoking on her window seat.

Of course, it’s funny what life’ll throw at you.

Damon wants Ellis to find out exactly who killed him and, as she quickly discovers, when you’re being haunted by a man wearing more eyeliner than you are, it’s hard to say no.

As the unlikely sleuth delves into years of secrets, grudges, and broken dreams, Ellis finds almost everyone from Damon’s past has something to hide… and he’s not exactly being honest with her, either. But, when they start to close in on the truth, Ellis realises she may be risking much more than just her sanity.

Additional information

Writer

Anna Reith

ISBN

978-1-907623-11-0 (ebook edition), 978-1-907623-10-3 (paperback edition)

Kindle ASIN

B004OL2XM4 (ebook edition)

Length

133,369 words (501 .pdf pages)

Cover design

Anna Reith

Available formats

.pdf, .epub (provided as a .zip file), paperback

Read a free chapter


DEAD IN TIME

© Anna Reith. All rights reserved.


Chapter One

Brighton is nice in the spring. It has its charms all year round, but is, I think, at its best when the weather is pleasantly warm, but not yet hot enough to melt the tarmac or encourage otherwise sane men to go out in public in nothing but shorts, sandals, and a sheen of sweat. I lived in a flat on the edge of Kemp Town village—ten minutes to the city centre and only five minutes’ walk to the seafront—and, while I might not have exactly been happy, I’d started getting my life back on track.

I even had a sea view, just. You had to sit on the window seat and press your nose to the glass, or get someone to hold your legs while you hung out of the tiny bathroom window, but you could see it. Nothing but a murky grey band on the horizon, of course; the suggestion of white caps to swelling waves rather than the panoramic views you got with the expensive apartments further along the seafront. My building—a Victorian townhouse, carved unceremoniously into flats by developers sometime in the Seventies—hardly matched up to those high-class Regency extravaganzas, built like limestone and stucco wedding cakes, but it was comfortable and fairly convenient for the university.

I’d begun the second year of my social history PhD—Ad nauseam: images of women in advertising 1900-1970—hoping less for the thrill of becoming Doctor Ellis Ross than the security of landing myself a junior lectureship. I’d have taken a museum post, too, or even archive work. Anything that interested me, paid a regular salary and wasn’t one of the ‘women’s jobs’ that, aside from marriage, had been the only route out of the home for generations of girls in my family. Old-fashioned, I know, and probably a stereotype I could have fought against more violently if I’d wanted, but however stuck in the mid-twentieth century I thought my family were, I still owed them a lot.

No. Nursing, teaching, and secretarial work; not bad choices, but not my choices. And that mattered.

It also explained why I came to be working so late on Thursday night. And it was late… more specifically, about half a bottle of Rioja and four cups of black coffee away from Friday morning. Perhaps I’d been overdoing it a little bit. Friends had gently reminded me that student all-nighters usually stopped after undergraduate finals, but there I sat all the same, sifting through a pile of facsimile adverts from 1932 for automated floor cleaners.

The top page featured society brides of the preceding year and told the thoroughly modern, independent new women of the sophisticated Thirties that they, too, could be liberated from the shackles of housework in order to look nice for their prospective husbands.

‘Will any of these modern girls be scrubwomen at forty?’ it asked in bold, loud print.

Hmmm. Almost as good as the 1968 slogan for grape-flavoured Tipalets: Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere.

The lies human beings are capable of telling each other—and themselves—had never failed to amaze me. How we worked our way through life as a species like that, founding our worlds on tissues of fibs and porkies, was the central point behind my thesis.

I poured myself another glass of wine. Behind me, Mr. Tibbs dozed peacefully on the sofa. A large, black tomcat of indeterminate age, he’d turned up three days after I moved in and had never left. Beneath his gentle feline snoring and the occasional soft yowl as he disembowelled some many-legged dream critter, the stereo played softly, blocking out the general static of the night.

Stretching, I yawned and wondered if it would be worth going to bed. The stereo whirred faintly, slipping another CD into place. I blinked, briefly confused, because I hadn’t expected anything else in the playlist. The confusion turned to surprise as a heavy four-four drum intro echoed out of the speakers, split by a tight, wailing guitar in the third beat. When the hell had I put that in there?

I recognised it, even before a voice—a light, agile tenor, dripping with the imperious sex appeal of black leather trousers—curled into the room, working over a hard, fat blues in E.

Got me gunnin’ for ya baby,
Got you in my eyes tonight
Down at heel, on my wheel,
Girl we gonna make it right

I smiled to myself. The title track from Brother Rush’s Rush On Love album of 1975. The disc was an expanded edition, part of a boxed set that I’d bought for Mum, a gesture of reconciliation after years of mocking her taste in music.

A true child of the revolution, she’d been a glam kid all the way, littering my own childhood memories with twangy glitter guitars, primal four-four rhythms, and kitschy vocals that didn’t need to make sense. Good honest rock ’n’ roll, she’d called it, and she had danced around the house, dusting, vacuuming, cooking, all to the strains of T. Rex, Suzi Quatro, Slade, and Alice Cooper. While other kids’ mums doted on inoffensive, cardigan-wearing crooners as an early sign of menopausal mayhem, my sister Becky and I had a parent who still treasured mementos from the Marquee Club and laughed at all the in-jokes in films like Velvet Goldmine.

But Brother Rush… oh, how she’d adored those four shaggy-haired boys from Bermondsey! When I was small and my sister had gone out to school or Guides or some such thing from which age or chronic shyness precluded me, Mum and I had danced our way together through such classics as Saturday Loving, Darby & Joan, and Sit Tight, Baby. As I grew, I found it embarrassing, then cringe-worthy—but funny in an ironic and post-modern kind of way—and, eventually, I grew old enough to enjoy being a child.

Mum didn’t dance anymore by then. But, when the boxed set came out, I’d bought it for her, even though she still owned all her vinyl. She unwrapped the package during a sit-down birthday meal in the Cricketer’s Rest near Thorley and touched the cover art like the cheek of an old friend. She drank two gin and tonics with her steak and ale pie and told my sister and me about the day Damon Brent died. Even then it made her cry… although that could have been the gin mixing with her pills.

The day it happened, she said, she’d met up early with our Auntie Jan and Auntie Gail (whose kinship was purely honorific, but who’d been in our lives since we were in knitted booties just the same). It was that long, hot, anarchic summer of ’76, when everything smacked just a little of sex and violence, though the majority of it seemed to bypass East Hertfordshire’s pretty villages and quaint market towns. Mum, Jan, and Gail had been planning on a swim at the new Grange Paddocks pool, then maybe some shopping before drifting off to their various part-time jobs in the local boutiques and, in Gail’s case, the Cecil Rhodes museum.

They caught the announcement on the news, Mum said, on a twenty-two inch screen in the window of Jerry Dickson’s TV & Radio Hire (in Medlar Lane, just off the High Street, as was), as they crossed the road on their way up to the sports centre.

She said it took less than twenty minutes to get home at a run and, though Granddad never approved of modern music in general, and men with hair below their ears in particular, parental arguments and work commitments alike got swept aside with the full force of inconsolable, desperate teenage tears. The three of them leapt aboard the train from Bishop’s Stortford within the hour, more or less, and by half past four that afternoon, they’d become part of the throng that was flowing into Gloucester station. People, mostly girls, pooled for taxis, buses or sympathetic local drivers to take them to the hamlet of Rodley and the renovated sloop captain’s house with electric gates that lay between it and a muddy, shallow strip of the Severn.

The TV reports soon showed drifts of limp flowers and pale faces, clustered in silent despair at the end of the driveway. Mum said the most striking thing was the quiet. Even when the rain came, a real downpour, the first breakthrough rainfall of that drought year, they never really noticed it, just standing, watching the cars come and go, uniformed officers redundant in the damp stillness and the blue lights of panda cars reflecting in puddles.

At least, that’s how she told it.

Brent had been idolised enough—and the transport, in those years of three-day weeks and power cuts, was bad enough—for the vigil to last days, with more people arriving well into the night. By dusk, Mum said the rock star death reportage, moving from full flow to torrent, was suggesting Brent had died in his bathroom, encouraging the assumption that a drug binge had ended finally and messily on the tiles.

Croaked by Coke?
Damon Brent Drug Death Horror!

The Sun had proclaimed by the evening edition, although they later apologised and retracted the allegation. The Times carried a discreet four-line obituary on page five, and even The Express took a day off from their anti-immigration bashing of the ‘4-star Malawi Asians’ to run a condescending opinion piece or two. Mum and Auntie Jan had all the cuttings, carefully pasted into the sad final pages of their Damon Brent scrapbook.

The initial shock of it soon got subsumed by the scandal of drug investigations and the clamour of the tabloids preaching, while simultaneously dishing out their column inches to ‘insider’ exposés from guests and former friends of the deceased. Worse—or luckily, depending I suppose on what kind of PR team you had—there had been a party at the house the night before and, even as the police carted Brent out in a body bag, nearly two dozen rock and pop luminaries of the day were being expected to give urine samples and full witness statements.

Of course, the inquest quashed much of this ghoulish fun by establishing that Brent, although well under the influence of both drink and drugs, had merely slipped, fallen, and hit his head. The whole thing was chalked up as a stupid accident, the misplacement of foot on soap and an advertisement to the young to stay clean. It crashed his image somehow, wrecking any chance of rock martyrdom. Shunned and embarrassed, Brother Rush split before Christmas, their music fell from fashion, and Damon Brent’s death, if at all remembered, simply became an unfortunate and foolish codicil to a life and a career cut short.

The CD had played on while I was thinking and now a live cut of that classic standard Sit Tight, Baby twisted out of the speakers, the sound of the band broader and harder over the top of a screaming audience. Mum had always said how incredible Brother Rush were live. Brent’s voice vibrated in the air, shining as the chords tumbled around him like sweaty roses.

She got a face like the Mona Lisa
(Sit tight, baby)
But she ain’t smilin’
And I can’t see her….

A strident guitar lick topped the four-four bass in a drawn-out crescendo, pierced by the characteristic Damon Brent battle cry: the sound of a vibrato bar pushed to the limits and a jubilant, orgiastic ‘Yeeeeeeaaaaahhhh’ closing in a breathy leer right up against the microphone. You heard it on nearly all the live sets, but it vanished in studio recordings, somewhere in amongst the mumbling and the synthesisers.

“Not bad for a man with a dodgy perm and lurex trousers,” I murmured, taking off my glasses to rub eyes bees-winged enough to be buzzing.

“Well, that’s charming,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

Huh.

I blinked, and replayed the moment over in my head.

No… I definitely had heard it.

I wished, in a way, that I’d been having weird experiences for months before. It might have proved me crazy, but—knocking pipes, catching strange reflections in the mirror, hearing things on the wind—I hadn’t had any of that. That’s what made it so odd. So believable.

So clear.

I stared at the papers in front of me. They still lay there innocently, black-and-white photo repros and colour plates, page after page of my chicken scratch notes. My wineglass and my coffee cup to the side. The computer screen flipped to its screensaver. Very retro toasters flapped through endless space.

I’d have to turn around eventually. I tried to picture the worst possible thing I could see and, considering that, what I saw wasn’t half as bad as it could have been.

He sat… no, that wasn’t the right word. Nobody could just sit like that. He sprawled, but in an extremely stylish way, on the window seat, one knee drawn up with his right arm propped carelessly across it, his foot tracing circles on the sheepskin rug and a cigarette smouldering in his left hand, threatening to deposit a pillar of ash on his bright purple loon pants.

It was pitch dark outside. I hadn’t bothered to draw the curtains; the window wasn’t really overlooked, so I rarely did and, in any case, I liked the moonlight. The dim tanné glow of streetlamps further down the road gave the blackness a warm edge, backlit him with an odd, pale aura against the dark glass… in which he had no reflection, I couldn’t help but notice.

He wriggled a bit on the window seat, turning his head as if looking out into the night, trying to see the sea. You couldn’t, not at that angle and not at this time of night. Nothing but the smudges of pavements seeming wet under the lamplight and, in very late or very quiet moments, the distant sound of the waves, somewhere in the blackness beyond. I swallowed heavily.

I’d seen Mum’s famous scrapbook more than once. Oh, the blond perm seemed a little more natural-looking and—apart from a lot of heavy, Theda Bara-style kohl—he had none of the stagy make-up he’d worn on half a dozen different album covers.

Definitely Damon Brent, though.

I reasoned, in what I gathered to be my madness, that it must be him. Quite clearly. If a flesh-and-blood look-alike had broken into the flat, I would have heard him, after all. I licked my lips and turned my chair around. In addition to the purple crushed velvet loon pants, white patent boots with spangly silver stars and a two-inch stack heel encased his feet. A tight green babycord jacket buttoned over something gold and shiny and a very long, very stripy scarf completed the picture. On one lapel of the jacket, a gold starburst brooch set with red stones—either truly tacky costume jewellery, or something genuine, Victorian, and very expensive—glittered, catching the light.

He looked at me, all poise and self-assurance and smiled, with perfunctory dimples. I looked at his cigarette, wondering how long he’d been sitting there for it to burn down like that, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t smell the smoke. I opened my suddenly very dry mouth.

“Um….”

“Mm?”

“Sorry. Do you need an ashtray for that?”

I could have been surprised at myself. But, equally, I could just have hyperventilated. Damon Brent looked at the cigarette, as if seeing it for the first time. He smiled at me again, and it seemed more genuine.

“Yeah, thanks.”

I handed him my mainly empty coffee cup, waiting to see if it smashed to the floor.

“There you go. Er,” I said, as a pale but very solid hand grasped the handle, “I’m afraid that’s the best I can do. I don’t smoke and I wasn’t expecting visitors.”

“Oh, there’s only one of me, baby.” An amused sarcasm touched his eyes as he knocked the ash off his ciggie into the cup. “Did I give you the horrors?”

The clipped consonants were pure theatre, just like the way the window framed him, but a hard, flat South London accent prowled behind the thickets of crisply trimmed vowels. I flapped my mouth for a bit, the small lucid part of me wondering what the etiquette might be here. ‘Yes, you did. You’re dead,’ seemed a bit brusque.

“Sort of,” I said eventually. “Um…?”

Mr. Tibbs still lay fast asleep on the back of the sofa. So much for feline psychism. Or maybe this delusion would stay totally self-contained.

“Sorry,” said the—what?—apparition, dropping the butt of his cigarette into the cup and setting it down on the narrow band of painted windowsill. “It’s difficult to know how to make an entrance. Didn’t think I’d ever say that, but it is.” He raised an eyebrow. “You did solid though, baby. No screaming or anything. Very calm. Nice.”

“That’s only because I’m clearly either mad or dreaming.”

The shade, or spectre, or fevered imagining, or whatever he was, of Damon Brent looked at me and smiled kindly.

“You can see me,” he said. “Hear me. Right?”

I nodded. “Er. Yes. But—”

“Then you’re only slightly more sane than everybody else, love. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

As I wondered just what he meant, his smile spread into a grin, and he wriggled forward on the window seat, pulling a pack of Camels and a silver lighter from the pocket of his jacket.

“You’ll be all right. Ah, can’t tell you, though, babe…. This is so cool! I knew you’d come through. Hey, mind if I smoke?”

I blinked. He rattled the packet at me.

“Oh. Er… sure,” I said, partially out of curiosity.

Mystic ghost ciggies? I wondered. He put the slim white tube between his lips. It didn’t look at all unusual and neither did the pack, not… really. It had no glaring black health warnings printed on it, and the artwork seemed dated, though the carton was clearly new.

“Thanks.” He looked up at me over the lighter’s flame and flashed another dimpled grin. “Helps me when I’m nervous.”

I said nothing. Him? Nervous? The cigarette’s tip flared red, and he took a long drag. I expected the bitter, acrid smell of tobacco, and the lack of it disorientated me.

“You do know me, though?” he asked suddenly, earnestly, taking the ciggie out of his mouth. “You know who I am?”

“Damon Brent,” I said, before I really meant to.

For all I knew, there could have been some sort of Rumpelstiltskin thing to the passing of the words. Naming him might have made him invincible, or real, or consigned me to the underworld for six months of the year or something. You never can tell, after all.

But there was no puff of pantomime smoke. He just nodded, looking relieved, his expression that of a man whose ego had been well-stroked.

“Good. Okay. That’s a good start.”

“Start? Start to what? How can…? Why are you—no, wait. How are you here?” A note of panic rose in my voice, and I tried to quash it. “I mean, you’re…. It’s been more than thirty years. You’re—what are you?”

“Oh, baby… that hurts.” He pouted, mischief in his eyes, and then a half-formed smoke ring slipped from his mouth like a laugh. “Nah. I’m all I ever was, Ellis. Well, near enough.”

“How—? No.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m not even surprised you know my name. But why… why are you—?”

He turned to knock cigarette ash into the coffee cup on the sill. Then, unfolding his legs, he stretched away from the window seat like a languid and very trashily dressed cat. He seemed taller than I’d thought.

“This doesn’t make any sense.” My fingers dug ineffectually at the collar of my baggy overshirt, pulling it tighter around me. Had the room grown colder? “Out of all the people I’ve known who’ve died, nobody’s ever popped back to say—”

“None of them were murdered,” said Damon Brent softly.

He moved to the fireplace, ostensibly looking at the row of framed photos I kept on the mantel. Murdered? I couldn’t tear my gaze away from his boots. They sank slightly into the pile of the carpet when he walked, and there wasn’t a thing that looked odd about it; so he must have mass, I reasoned, physical existence of a sort. Yet he left no footprints, no traces of himself. I heard no rustle of velvet, nothing that signified his presence. As if wherever he stood, just for that moment, he could be as solid and real as anyone… but for that moment only. Like trying to catch a shadow seen from the corner of the eye.

“Murdered? No,” I said, running off at the mouth, unthinking. “There was an inquest. It was an accident. My mum said—”

“I was there, sweetheart,” Brent said dryly, turning to glance at me over his babycorded shoulder. I had never before seen such old eyes. “She wasn’t. So take it from me, yeah?”

I blinked, my mind racing to catch up.

“But…. How? I mean, you….”

He took another pull on the cigarette. The fingertips of his free hand brushed along the white gloss paint of the mantel, his head tilting a little to the side. He seemed lost in thought. He exhaled and turned back to me, the cigarette smoke wreathing fantastical arabesques around him.

“Someone smashed my brains in for me, baby. I think that’s pretty conclusive, don’t you?” Brent lifted one pale, nicotine-stained hand and waved the smoke away. “Look. This is a bit of a head trip, I know…. Have you got any scotch?”

“No, but there’s, um, there’s gin, I think.”

He nodded and looked hopefully at me.

“Oh,” I said belatedly. “Right, yes. I’ll, er…. Do you—I mean, can you…?”

Something in his face made it seem like a silly question. I got to my feet—pleasantly surprised to find that my legs still worked—and edged out to the kitchen, never quite turning my back on him.

I wasn’t entirely sure what would happen if I did.

In the kitchen, I stared for a while at the white melamine cupboards, because there are few things in life more statically, irrefutably normal than melamine. Everything out here was just as I’d left it on my last coffee break, right down to the teaspoon I hadn’t bothered to wash up and the unwiped worksurfaces. I opened the cupboard, pulled out the bottle of gin I’d bought last Christmas, and fetched two cut-glass tumblers. A quick fumble through the fridge-freezer yielded ice cubes and some slightly flat tonic… and the fact that I still wasn’t panicking surprised me. The simple, deliberate actions of ice, glasses, and tonic, the metallic spin of the lid on the gin bottle, occupied my mind and hands entirely, and I found I’d started worrying about not having any lemon or lime slices.

Murdered.

Well, that made both more and less sense, but… why now? Why, above everything, me? I turned around with a glass in each hand and nearly dropped the lot as I found Damon Brent far closer to me than I could ever have reasonably expected. Like standing in front of an open freezer, a bone-gnawing chill seemed to pull me in. I gasped with the sudden shiver and promptly felt like I’d been really rude, even as I stepped backwards.

“Sorry, baby,” he said, looking crestfallen.

I could see the beginnings of lines around his eyes, the places the kohl had started to settle. Embryonic lines around his mouth, too, and tiny filaments of golden beard growth; the frizzy, untamed bits of hair, the thick dark blond sideburns, and each one of the bridge of freckles dusted across his nose and cheekbones. The mole on his neck and the pulse beating there… both so wrong and so strange, but not as strange as not being able to smell him. He should have absolutely reeked of cigarette smoke, and there should have been the scent of aftershave—lots of aftershave, if I was any judge—but I couldn’t pick up a thing.

I hurriedly cleared my throat, realising I’d been staring.

“Is that why… why you’ve…. Is it why?” I managed, keeping my voice even. “To avenge your own murder?”

I held out one of the G&Ts. He grasped the tumbler with long, callused fingers; the glass seemed to crawl against my skin for a brief, horrible moment, cold and slippery. I did my best not to shudder.

“Nah.” Brent wrinkled his nose, and the intensity of things lessened slightly. “Not exactly. No avenging, anyway. That’s very frowned upon.”

He smiled and, despite myself, I let out a short laugh.

“Drink up,” he prompted, raising his glass.

He waited, watching me drink before taking his first sip. The gin barely touched the sides, but it didn’t much help. I could still see him, for a start. I cradled the tumbler in front of my chest.

“I don’t understand,” I said, in a masterpiece of understatement. “Why me? What—”

“Shh. Come sit down, yeah? That’s a girl. You’re all right.”

He reached out as if to usher me back into the other room, but his hand stopped, half-curled, halfway to my arm. He flashed that perfunctory, dimpled smile again and, taking a big slug of his G&T, stepped back to allow me past. I—unusually for me—obeyed and went through, looking carefully at the carpets, curtains and ceiling, as if my flat had somehow conspired to betray my sanity. Nothing had changed. No melting walls, no wonkier than usual floors…. I toed off my brogues and curled into my armchair, watching Damon Brent prowl across the floor.

“You—you said somebody….” I trailed off, not quite willing, or not quite able to voice it. “How? I mean, who—”

“If I knew that, would I fuckin’ be here?”

The venom in his voice took me by surprise, and almost instantly I saw the apology on his face. Abruptly, Brent paced to the window, nervy and jangling, like a stop-motion film. Something of that lingered in his movement, and it hurt my eyes trying to follow it, though I couldn’t look away.

“Look,” he said. “It’s not…. It’s complicated, all right?”

I wanted to suggest that this drifted close to further epic understatement, but he looked at me with such seriousness that the words stuck to my tongue. He took up his place on my window seat again, one foot slung over his knee, drink cupped elegantly in his hand with his cigarette smouldering in two extended fingers. Like he owned the room, like nothing could shake him. He turned his head and looked out again towards the general direction of the sea, apparently watching the line of silver-grey light starting to rise along the road. Was he waiting for the dawn? Rush On Love played on in the background. His left hand, resting on his knee, tapped absently to the rhythm of a phasey middle eight.

“It ain’t,” he said carefully, “like if some bastard shivs you inna ribs and you get a good look at him on your way down, right? I mean, I was rat-arsed… but I didn’t do all that to myself, Ellis. You gotta believe that.”

Brent took a short, urgent pull on his cigarette, still watching me as he exhaled. I swallowed, my interest caught by his words as well as the lunacy of his presence. Murdered…? Oh, if Mum had only known…! He’d missed his perfect avenger.

“So, what?” I groped for a little clarity. “Somebody struck you?”

“Yeah.” He nodded, gaze flicking down to his drink. “I remember—I mean, I think I did take a purler—I was laying there on the floor… waitin’ for help. Dunno how long. Could’ve been minutes, hours…. No way of telling, ’cept it bloody hurt.”

I wanted to look away. When he spoke again, it came almost as a whisper.

“There is…. I mean, I didn’t even know that it was really real, y’know? But it’s the last thing. I didn’t wanna be on my own. I tried to get up, an’ I couldn’t. And there was music. My tapes. Then the door opened and… and I thought I was gonna get help, yeah?”

My heart leapt in my throat. He must have seen, then. Something, at least. Some suggestion, some clue. Perhaps he read my mind, because he shook his head.

“I didn’t see who it was. I just….”

“What?”

He glanced up at me, pausing to take a swallow of his drink.

“Like I meant nothin’, y’know? Just picked me up and—” He grabbed a handful of hair at the back of his head, jerking it roughly upwards. “—blam. That’s it. Finished the job, right?”

He lifted the cigarette to his mouth, hair dropping back around his face. His jaw moved tightly, as if he was chewing the smoke. I frowned.

“But, if that’s true… how did the autopsy not pick that up?”

Brent snorted.

“I had enough in my bloodstream to put half the runners in the National under, baby. S’what the pathologist said. And the old Bill were so busy bustin’ everyone there with so much as half an ounce of grass that no one thought…. Nah. Time they put me in the ground, I was just a clumsy drunk, wasn’t I? Good funeral, though. All those people. I’d never’ve thought….”

He rubbed his palm over the knuckles of his left hand, making the ice cubes in his drink bob. It didn’t seem like a good moment to ask who he thought might have wanted him dead. I watched the cigarette smoulder in his outstretched fingers as the vampy riffs and twangy guitar breaks of Cheeky Half echoed from the CD player, Brent’s voice cresting them both in taut, aching style:

Baby let me be your one and only
’Cos only tonight’ll do
Baby if you make me lonely
I won’t share half with you

I remembered Mum circling a roundabout four times on our way to tea with my gran while that played on the car radio and she tried to find a way to answer my simple child’s question—‘What’s it about?’—without using the word Mandrax. I shook my head.

“This is mental. I’m talking to a… what?” I faltered. “What am I talking to? I mean, I don’t understand how you….”

Those Theda Bara eyes flicked briefly over me. Damon Brent pulled himself out of whatever memory he’d been idling in and took another drag on his cigarette.

“It’s what I was tryin’ to tell you, baby,” he said. “I’m still me. When you—y’know—all that stops is what the world makes you be. What you’re left with is the part of you that says ‘I am’, yeah? The little voice behind your eyes. Your centre, right?” Brent touched splayed fingers to his peacock chest. “This is everything I am, everything I’ve ever been. And it stays the same. Ten years, thirty years… means nothin’, baby. Time and space are just ways of slicing it all up.”

I frowned at him over the rim of my glass. Hate though I did to admit it, I understood his point. All human measurements—cubits, turves, feet, acres—started off as relative to the body itself, all derived from how much a man might lift, plough, carve or carry. As what we call our civilisation got more complex, our systems for counting did too, our ways of quantifying—all right, slicing up—the world. Trying to understand it. And still, so much remained unknown. And yet… I had questions. So many questions they filled my mouth like cotton wool.

“But… death? Death isn’t important?”

He opened his mouth, like he planned to make some flippant remark, but perhaps something in my face stopped him. He swigged his G&T, and I watched that so carefully, trying to understand how it worked. Brent shook his head.

“Nah, it is. It-it’s the biggest thing, baby. But it’s not… it ain’t what you think. No more up, down, left, right, no more worryin’ about the bills and the politics and remembering to keep your heart pumping and your pancreas… pancreating,” he said vaguely, and I realised that Damon Brent, glam rock god, might not be all that bright.

“Look,” he went on. “What stays, yeah? What stays is everything else. The you that made every memory you’ve got, had every thought, wrote every line…. You believe what you like, Ellis, but believe every little thing you do’s important, baby. ’Cos it’s all you’re left with, in the end. And eternity’s a bloody long time to spend being totally aware of every last little piece of yourself. Y’see what I’m saying?”

I stared. That’s it, I’ve lost it. Clearly, totally, and completely.

He took a long drag on his cigarette and then held it out, thumb tapping on the butt, its smouldering tip pointing straight up at the ceiling. A thin column of smoke coiled from it, dissipating in a halo around his head. I bit my lip. Though my upbringing hadn’t exactly been religious to start with, having all my preconceptions rearranged by a man wearing more eyeliner than me felt unsettling, to say the least.

“Heaven or Hell, maybe,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching in a mirthless little smile. “Depending on how much you like yourself.”

Kata ton daimona eaytoy,” I said, not thinking.

It’s the inscription on Jim Morrison’s grave, in that cramped, shabby corner of Pére-Lachaise. It means ‘according to his own demon’, though for the Ancient Greeks, the word daemon had more to do with demi-gods and fallen heroes, guardian spirits and genius locii than pitchforks and leathery wings.

“Do what?”

I blinked, aware that I’d lost him.

“It’s Greek,” I said and I would have explained, but Brent grinned broadly at me.

“See?” he crowed, pointing with the hand that now held both cigarette and drink. “See? That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Fuckin’ Greek… that’s brains right there, girl. I knew you’d be the one.”

“Huh?” I looked up sharply. “What does that mean?”

“Mm.” He waved dismissively at me as he reached around to get his coffee cup ashtray from the sill. “Hang on, honey.”

He unfolded himself and crossed to the sofa, pulling the coffee table a few inches closer to it so he could have both ashtray and drink in easy reach, and pushing aside with apparent disregard the stack of conference flyers and paperwork I’d left on its surface. He sat down among the patchwork throws and inexpertly embroidered needlepoint cushions—not what I’d chosen for myself, but had inherited from Gran just before she died—and grinned sybaritically.

Mr. Tibbs chose that moment to wake up. He stretched, jumped gracelessly off the back of the sofa, and regarded Damon Brent with the malicious yellow-eyed disdain he reserved for all visitors. An amazing sense of relief washed through me. Finally, definitely, it wasn’t just me. Then the cat, the great hairy black tom that had been known to duff up badgers, rolled onto his back, four chunky legs in the air. Brent’s hand descended and, absently, he began scratching the furry black belly.

“Now, thing is…. I’ll do my best to keep this cool for you, baby,” he said, shooting a puff of smoke from the corner of his mouth. “But it’s easy to blow it, and I’ve been waiting a long time for another chance at this. I don’t wanna screw up.” He tilted his head, another photoshoot pose. “’Cos there’s Rules. Y’know?”

Mr. Tibbs began a wheezy, rusty purr. I frowned, distracted.

“Sorry. Rules?”

Brent made a gesture of hopeless laissez-faire with his cigarette hand.

“Yeah, y’know… like, bureaucracy, baby. I’ve wanted this sorted out for years, but it’s not easy. You still, like, got to bow to the Man, y’know?”

“What?”

He opened his mouth, tip of his tongue up against his teeth, then winced.

“I can’t…. Look, I told you there’d be things you’d ask that I couldn’t—”

“Oh, come on!” I swigged the last of my gin and tonic, finally finding a voice for all the disbelief. “If—if, okay?—this is really happening, you can’t just expect me to swallow it all without having questions. I mean, the planet’s crawling with people who say they know all the answers, whether they read it in a holy book or the Archangel Gabriel came down and dictated it all to them on golden notepaper with exclusive rights to the merchandising…what difference would it make to tell me?”

Outside, a car passed; the unmistakeable bass thump of a customised gas-guzzler tearing up Marine Parade. Somewhere, spotty teenagers had spent the night comparing spoilers on the prom and pissing off the local residents’ association. Life went on, I supposed.

Brent stared at me, and I couldn’t decide if it was with amusement or respect. Slowly, he took another long, considering drag on his cigarette. He held it, but I didn’t want to wait.

“Just give me something. Come on…the worst I can do is sound off like any other bloody kook. I mean, I only even know your name because of Mum,” I snapped, feeling that familiar, metallic anger scraping inside me.

Damon Brent flinched. I saw it. Oh, it was over fast, but I saw it.

He narrowed those kohl-rimmed eyes, exhaled a thin wisp of smoke and, when he spoke, his tone was low but the words were like snake strikes. He leaned forward, knocking ash into the much-abused coffee cup on the table.

“Look, what d’you wanna hear, mama? Heaven’s a gas; all the angels wear mohair suits, and God’s a great guy, even if sometimes He thinks He’s Marc Bolan?”

For some reason, in that whirl of frustration, it pleased me to see that I’d goaded him.

“I just want answers.”

“Answers ain’t gonna help you, Ellis. You need to keep your head straight. You know what I’m sayin’? Reality… reality’s a bitch, right?” He took another pull on the ciggie, taking it down to a miserable stub of a dogend. “So many different maybes, all pressed in together. Until you see the bigger picture, you can’t even begin to…. Look. Nothin’ is simple, yeah? Nothing’s ever just one thing.”

He crushed the cigarette out on the side of the cup, letting the butt fall into the gritty dregs.

“That’s why I can’t tell you, Ellis. I can’t let you blow your mind on this, not when I need you solid, baby. I need you to be straight on this. Okay?”

“Wait….” I leaned forward in my chair, realisation slowly dawning on me. “Hold on. Y-You’re saying, what? You’re here because you believe you are, or because I do?”

Brent pulled another Camel from his pack. He laughed softly.

“See? Said you’d got brains,” he said. The unlit cigarette wagged as he spoke. “Told you. Nah, it’s… it’s both. Y’see what I’m saying? But it’s hard, really hard, to find somebody that can, right? Anyone who can really see…. I mean, I tried, baby. I really did. For the longest time.”

He struck the lighter and stared gloomily at the flame.

“Inez just threw a plate at me. My own old lady and she just freaks out… then swears blind she never saw anything. Couldn’t, you know? Or wouldn’t. I dunno. But, huh, if you knew half the hoops I had to go through to get here tonight….”

He trailed off, playing idly with the lighter. An inscription caught the light on its polished surface, but I couldn’t read what it said. I rubbed a hand over my face. This was crazy. I was crazy… but he had my interest. And the bastard knew it. The sky paled, the inevitable morning making the cosy warmth of electric light seem dull and deceitful.

“I want answers too, baby,” he said, still looking down at the lighter. “And I want… I need help. Will you help me, Ellis?”

The dawn had come. Weak gold sunlight started to filter across the rooftops. Traces of a sea mist would be clinging to the road outside. From the floor below us came the muffled sounds of my neighbour, whose name I’d never known, crashing into his furniture. He did that some mornings, and most evenings he descended gently into oblivion by way of the bong but, all in all, he kept pretty much to himself and only made intermittent noise, except for that time he’d woken the whole building up at four a.m., screaming about invisible pink spiders.

I sighed. “I don’t see what good you think I can do, or why…. I mean, wouldn’t you have been better off going to someone in the police? Or a criminal historian… a lawyer, even? Why me?” I asked, aware of that slightly hysterical whine creeping back into my voice and hating it.

“It’s… connection, baby,” he said wearily, with a look that suggested I wouldn’t understand even if he tried to explain. “You’ll see.”

“Wh—”

“Shh, look… I know you can do it, right, girl? It ain’t about why, it’s about can, Ellis. And you’re talking to me. Believe me, baby, that is a serious step up. Anyway,” Brent tipped his head to the side, giving me a thoughtful stare as he lit his cigarette, “how many chances like this do you get in a lifetime?”

I glared at him, because I disliked being manipulated. Though he had a point. His proposition intrigued me, certainly in terms of evidence… or, rather, the lack of it. I could picture it now: ‘The prosecution calls the deceased to the stand. Total silence in court, please, and would the jurors all join hands around the table?’

But I had commitments. This stuff belonged to speculative journalists, cranks and, yes, crackpots, not…. My train of thought foundered, and I realised, for probably the first time in my life, I was the crackpot.

And what the hell did he mean by that ‘connection’ crap?

Brent exhaled a lazy pool of cigarette smoke, still staring steadily at me through narrowed eyes. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.

“Point taken.” I frowned. “But I don’t understand why…? What am I supposed to do? How? And I still say there are hundreds of people better than me for…. I mean, there’d be real fans out there. Anoraks. People who’d jump at the chance to—”

He snorted, leaning forward to knock more ash into the coffee cup. I decided I’d have to see if I couldn’t find that atrocious volcanic ashtray Auntie Jan had brought me back as a present from Pompeii, several years ago. I’d put it in the back of the kitchen cupboard, hadn’t I? With the good wineglasses I normally only used at Christmas. Brent regarded me with a hooded gaze familiar from numerous publicity stills.

“Yeah… right. People who’d take it as calm as you, baby? People with brains, who’d listen? People smart enough, believable enough to go where I can’t, ask the questions that need asking… see things and make them seen? No. You’re sensible, Ellis. Christ, girl… you wear brogues.”

I looked down reflexively at the shoes I’d left by my chair, feeling suddenly sensitive about my choice of footwear.

“Which is fine, of course,” Brent added quickly, having the grace to look slightly embarrassed.

I stood up, pacing across the room, hands shoved deep in the pockets of my overshirt. I needed answers. Perhaps not as badly as he wanted them, but it occurred to me that, just maybe, I could be the one in control here.

“One question,” I said, facing the door. “Before I say I’ll do it.”

Idiot! screamed a tiny part of my brain. But, I reasoned, why not agree? Either I had a chance at something I could never have imagined, something no one could possibly pass up because this—this tasted of truth, a real opportunity to walk the void—or, and the possibility did remain, I’d gone bonkers in the night and none of it would matter anyway.

I turned and found him within inches of my nose.

“Argh! Don’t do that… that’s one thing. You don’t get to do that,” I snapped, lurching backwards.

“Sorry, baby.”

He stepped away, and that strange coldness that had struck the pit of my stomach lessened just a little. I felt dizzy and steadied myself with a hand on the back of the sofa.

“What’s the question?” he asked.

From below, I heard Mr. Downstairs’ flat door slam, followed by the front door and running footsteps receding down the path, then the pavement, thinning into the distance. A car passed and, somewhere, a dog barked.

The sunlight glinted off Damon Brent’s hair and off his horrendous brooch. Gold and red. His cigarette smouldered and deposited a few flakes of ash on my carpet.

“Exactly how long have you been here? Watching, waiting…?”

“Ah.” That sarcastic little turn to his mouth, back again. “Long enough. Long enough to make you listen.”

“Oh, G—” I began, beginning to feel queasy.

“Hey! Scout’s honour.” He held up three fingers. “No bathrooms, no bedrooms, and definitely no knicker drawers.”

“Hah!” I narrowed my eyes. “Were you actually ever a Scout?”

He shrugged. “Went to Cubs every Wednesday down Thorburn Square. Well, for a couple of months… would have been about ’57, I s’pose. Gave it up after my dad bought me my first guitar.”

I watched him contemplate that memory for a moment and tried hard not to think about roomfuls of small boys in shorts singing Ging Gang Goolie. If, I thought, this was a phantasm—some figment of my fevered imagination—it had just hit a whole new level of weird. Plus, I wasn’t sure I trusted him about the knicker drawer bit. Or the bathroom, come to that.

“All right,” I said, part defeat, part admission, part acceptance… part everything, I supposed. After all, who could ever expect something like this? “I’ll do it.”

Brent grinned hugely at me.

“Cosmic!” He flicked his half-spent ciggie into the coffee cup and clapped his hands together. “So, where d’you wanna start, baby?”

I groaned. Sleep would have been a preferable place.

 


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