Husselbee cleared his throat, rapped on the glass, and told the woman in the green polo shirt he had murdered a man. She peered at him over her glasses and must have decided he was not mad or attention-seeking or any of the other idiots she was forced to deal with at a police station front counter. Perhaps it was the sober grey pinstripe suit that reassured her. 'I'll get someone down right away,' she said.
Husselbee took a seat, avoiding the chewing gum patch, wondering how it had all come to this. He'd been questioning his own mind for weeks, whether he could any longer trust what he saw. Weird stuff was happening. Internet searches to pinpoint his symptoms hadn't helped. He'd been warned off them, told to visit the doctor, but a lifelong fear of waiting rooms and probing examinations with cold fingertips had put paid to that.
He hooked his feet under the chair to stop them jigging on the worn floor tiles. It all began as far as he could recall when an urn had shifted from where he'd set it down on the cabinet. A few days later, he'd found a coffin they were polishing the previous night was standing upright the next morning, its lid replaced. A box-file had been opened in his attic office and the contents shifted so they were no longer in order. There could have been other things too that Husselbee had forgotten or failed to notice. Tired and shaky, he'd dismissed these incidents and had no intention of mentioning them to Quiney or the others.
He was forgetful, suffering blurred vision and headaches, unsteadiness on his feet. Worse than tripping was forgetting his keys, his passwords, or his wallet. A few weeks ago, he'd left his Volvo at the multi-storey in town and when he returned had no idea which level he'd parked on. He'd had to go from floor to floor, clicking his keys and listening for the bleep and indicators flashing, hoping a security guard wasn't witnessing his humiliation on CCTV. He'd worried that by the time he'd found his car the ticket would've expired. But it was there, inside the windscreen. Something had been scribbled on it. Someone had written in capitals, in black biro. I AM DEATH, etching so hard they'd ripped through the paper. It had startled him at first, but he was more relieved to find his car and go home. It didn't occur to him until he was lying in bed later that someone had got inside his car to deliver that message.
One miserably bleak January Wednesday Husselbee had made his way through a thick, rolling fog to unlock and begin the day's work. He'd made tea and was winding his way through the workshop when he got a jolt. Hot tea soaked his trousers and his favourite bone china mug smashed on the workshop floor. Mrs. Shaughnessy was wearing an onyx ring on her left hand, little finger. Husselbee recalled the conversation with her family clearly. She would be buried with this ring, it had significance for her. She had worn it on her right hand since she was nineteen. Husselbee took her hand in his. She had been ninety-two when she'd died in her sleep. Watching Countryfile, her son said. Never missed it. Her knuckles were cold, knobbly. Husselbee had to use lotion to loosen the ring and replace it on her right hand. He'd mention it to Quiney. They might be closing, but standards would not slip.
The following night he had reason to work late and he had sat in his favourite chair, a battered old recliner shaped through the years to his aches and pains and stoop. He'd got too comfortable, feeling the warmth of the electric fire on his stretched, socked feet and burrowed his head and neck deeper into the tartan blanket until sleep had taken him.
He woke with a start as if his heart had fallen to his boots, launching a plate of biscuits from his lap, shattering on the hearth. He blinked and pinched the gritty sleep from the corners of his eyes, staring at the shroud he'd laid out in readiness for Mr. Blenkinsop. It was now stretched across the chair opposite. Husselbee was at a loss as to how it had seemingly moved from another room and down the corridor. He could see that there was no one beneath it, it would be ridiculous to think otherwise. Husselbee was a practical man and not a dreamer, but something made him cautious about touching the cotton, let alone tugging at it. Husselbee had seen every trick in the book and wondered, not for the first time if one of the others was winding him up. You didn't work as an undertaker for fifty years without witnessing a few jokes. However, he'd seen Foster and Quiney head for home hours ago, long before he'd nodded off, and he was alone, locked inside.
'Daft old bugger,' he cussed, deciding he must've brought the shroud in from the next room mistaking it for a jacket or shirt in his drowsy state. He groaned as he stooped, knees cracking, to pick up the shards of pottery and broken biscuits. He turned the electric fire down to two bars and sat staring at the hissing glow, wondering.
Burial shrouds don't move. They don't rise from chairs or float across rooms. They don't make their way down corridors. Husselbee did not believe in ghosts. In all that time working with the recently deceased he'd yet to witness anything to convince him there was a life beyond death or find proof there was anything 'out there.'
He sat back in the chair, tucking the tartan blanket in around his feet. 'Seeing things. Too much coffee,' he said, deciding the shroud had to be a prank. He would get Foster and Quiney in first thing and speak to them.
It was a little past ten when he tugged the cord to turn off the reader and held the chair arm as he stretched to his feet. A beam creaked in the attic, but Husselbee was well used to the groans of a building that had passed through seven generations of his family. Husselbees had been founded when his forebears had been tempted from tilling the waterlogged clay of the neighbouring parishes into a town booming with the salt and shoemaking industries. It was all set to end as Husselbee was childless. He was desperate to sell the business, but there had been no takers. The town council had set out to close Husselbees and the old place would make way for a theme pub or a fashion retailer or some other ghastly atrocity of neon light and thumping music. Husselbee rubbed his spine and shrugged on his raincoat. He was jiggling the key in the lock where it was stiff when a drop of water found the gap between his collar and neck, causing him to shake to his boots. He stepped back and looked up at the fire escape. As he did, a flicker of movement caught his eye. It wasn't a bad town but there had been a few attempted break-ins and Husselbee had fired an employee called Tolliver who'd stolen a necklace from an elderly lady. Reputation was everything in his business and he dealt with these issues as discreetly as possible. He squinted into the darkness. Was it a rat, that scuttle of movement beyond the skip? He made a fist with a car and house keys sticking from between each finger. 'Hallo there?' he said. He didn't want to leave the doorway but knew the security light would go off in a few seconds and he'd be alone, stranded in the darkness. 'Hallo there? Is anyone there?'
He'd had visits from men in suits offering a derisory price for the site, the business; the type of men who didn't fit the suits they were wearing. Fat, tattooed necks bursting collars. Ties with knots smaller than a fifty pence piece. Shiny suits like aluminium rucked up at the hems and wearing boots better suited to a gravedigger.
He got into his Volvo, locking all the doors and sweeping the yard with his headlights as he reversed. Perhaps it had been a cat or a rat. He'd no intention of checking beyond the skip and the bins and would feel foolish calling the police. Husselbee gripped the wheel, decided however long he'd got left running Husselbees he wasn't going to be forced out.
When he got in a little before eight Quiney was waiting for him. 'Did you lock up?' he asked. Husselbee felt his guts clench. 'Why?'
'What time did you leave at?'
'Has something happened?'
Quiney dangled the keys from his finger. 'You left them in the door. Someone broke in. Well, unlocked the place and walked in.'
Husselbee patted down his jacket pockets. No keys. 'Wait,' he said. He checked the Volvo, but they weren't on the dash or in the glove compartment or doors. 'I wouldn't forget.'
'They were in the door when I got here.'
'Well, what happened?' Husselbee snapped.
'Someone's been inside but I don't think they've taken anything.'
Husselbee didn't like the way Quiney was watching him. Quiney held the door open. 'It's just a bit weird,' he said.
'This is about driving us out. You know that, don't you?'
'No, over here,' Quiney said. Husselbee knew Quiney had designs on setting up his own firm, perhaps going in with Foster. He gripped the edge of a table. 'Look. Over here, boss.'
He did not need to enter the chapel of rest to see Mr. Parmenter was not in his coffin. 'Where are you going?' Husselbee said.
Quiney frowned. 'We need to call the police.'
'No, I'll take care of this.'
'We need to report it.'
Husselbee nodded. 'I know the inspector. We go way back. Best I look after it.' When Quiney hovered, Husselbee told him he must have things to do and should get on with his work. Mr. Parmenter was later found in another coffin, an 'upgrade' as Quiney tactlessly put it. Husselbee went into his office and took his little black book from the desk drawer. He flicked through pages of doodles and scribbled numbers until he found the one he wanted and dialled.
Brian Penn got there inside an hour, did a recce of the workshop and offices, and set up the cameras. As a little stunt, and to prove the efficacy of the operation, Brian had asked Husselbee to get on with his paperwork while he went about setting up. Husselbee hadn't finished his coffee when Brian told him to come into the workshop. 'Can you see the cameras?' he said. Husselbee stood in the doorway, scanning the room.
'You can come in and have a proper look around,' Brian said.
Husselbee walked up and down, peering behind coffins and under tables and moving things but he was unable to see any cameras.
'Good. That's what I wanted.'
'They are here?'
Brian grinned. 'If you don't know where they are and you're looking for them, he's not going to, is he?'
Husselbee patted his friend on the shoulder. Brian had not asked why he wanted the cameras, beyond Husselbee's concern there had been an intruder. He'd raised an eyebrow when Husselbee had added in a low voice, 'from without or within.' The inference being that Foster or Quiney might be involved. Brian opened Husselbee's laptop and showed him where he could watch the footage. He jogged over to the far wall of the workshop and waved, so Husselbee could see him on the screen. 'Can you see this too?'
Brian shook his head. 'What goes on in here is your business. I've written down the password, so you can change it straight away.'
Quiney had been sent on a job but must've passed Brian in the yard. 'That the detective?' he said to Husselbee. 'Doesn't look much like a cop.'
'Yes, how did you get on at the Millers?'
Quiney didn't answer. He stood in the doorway to the workshop, listening, staring, making Husselbee uneasy.
One night passed, then another. Husselbee scanned through the footage but there was nothing. Almost a week had gone by and he'd begun to believe it was his faltering memory, his mind playing tricks. Or if Foster or Quiney had been involved in a prank they'd decided to back off now they'd been told there was police involvement.
Quiney had taken an early finish to get away for the weekend and Husselbee had told Foster he could go a little before five. Husselbee locked up the yard, deciding he'd go for a pint and leave his car where it was, taking a stroll to the Lamb. Snow was falling, blurring the orange glow of the streetlamps and Husselbee put out his hand to catch flakes. He tilted his head back and caught them in his eyebrows and on his tongue as he'd done as a child. It gladdened his heart to see snow, for the winters had been warmer and there were few hard frosts these days. Back inside, he cranked up the dial on the electric fire and held his hands out to warm his palms. An hour had passed when Husselbee filed his receipts, closed the ledger, and began opening and slamming drawers in a search for his hat and gloves. He stacked the remaining receipts and correspondence and set them down beneath a marble paperweight. He could taste that first pint of IPA, feel the warmth of a stool beside that roaring log fire. There would be steak pies on a Friday night to make a perfect ending to the week. Husselbee did a quick check of the workshop, waving at the camera, pulling a daft face, and giving the thumbs up, before locking up the offices. He swung the keys on his fingertip and dropped them into his pocket as he turned and froze. A set of footprints, freshly made in the snow, stretched from the store to the step where he was standing. His heart pounded. He felt sick. The yard was locked, and the footprints were not his.
Husselbee's nerves settled with his second pint. He devoured a steak pie and stretched before the fire, feeling the glow of the embers and enjoying the crackle and hiss of the logs. He couldn't get the workshop out of his mind and the thought grew inside him, unsettling him. He wished he'd taken a photo of the footprints on his phone. They'd be gone now, buried beneath more snow. He shook his head. What would it prove anyway? He wouldn't tell anyone and if he did they'd only say he made the footprints himself. You're going doolally, Husselbee he muttered.
It was Brenda, the licensee. 'Just thinking aloud, 'Husselbee said.
'Care to share them?'
'Oh, nothing much. Just wondering if weather is going to affect business.'
'You mean more folk popping their clogs?'
'No, I don't,' Husselbee said, grateful the fruit machine had drowned out their conversation.
'Well, it's settling in, that's for sure. Already drifting in the yard out back, look.'
Husselbee was wondering how he was supposed to see snow drifting in the yard when Brenda nodded at a screen above the bar. It was quartered into CCTV shots of the saloon, bar, corridor, and back yard. Snow was being swept against the bins and the back fence. Of course, Husselbee thought, you bloody fool! He took his laptop from his bag and opened it, tapping in the password. He flicked through the screens, but the workshop, offices, and corridor were silent, empty. He closed the laptop and rubbed his eyes. He'd seen footprints in the yard, and they were not his or Foster's or Quiney's. He'd locked the yard when they'd left. He opened the laptop and keyed in the password again. There was no camera in the yard, but he knew the prints had been made between him locking up and then going to the pub. He dragged the footage back, scrolling to quarter to five and seeing Foster shrug on his overcoat and shout 'cheerio.' He sipped his pint and watched from thereon, arms folded on his chest.
He'd watched an hour's footage from Foster's departure but there was no sign of anyone else inside the workshop or offices. He had been sitting doing his paperwork. 'Ah, here we go,' he said as Husselbee came into view in the corridor, tugging on his gloves and hefting his laptop bag. 'Waste of time then.' He had checked the workshop and offices before locking up. Had he been to the store in the yard and come back during that hour? Were they his own bloody footprints? His mind was a sieve these days. He checked doors were locked repeatedly. He'd go to the supermarket and panic in the cheese aisle and drive home to check he hadn't left the iron plugged in or the gas hobs going. How could he trust the footprints were not of his own making? Stupid old sod is what I am, he thought and drained his pint. The footage was still playing beside him, but Husselbee was no longer paying attention to it. If he had been watching he would have seen his own progress across the workshop floor. He would have seen a shadowy figure drop from the ceiling hatch in the corridor, then drift along, keeping tight to the walls. A figure dressed entirely in black, with a hood. When Husselbee had stuck out his tongue and given the thumbs-up, a figure could be seen, hooded and head down, as if in contemplation, in the doorway to the corridor. The figure was raising its head as Husselbee had turned and, seemingly without taking a step, was gone. For a fraction of a second, the face was a blurred mask of white, a void.
'Another one?' Brenda said.
Husselbee snapped the laptop shut, shaking his head. The snow came in flurries, obscuring the view of the supermarket and the old town windmill. 'I've got to be making tracks,' he said, deciding to fetch his car before the roads were impassable in the morning.
Husselbee dragged the yard gates open, blowing on his hands, again wondering what he'd done with his gloves. A thick covering of snow lay on his windscreen and bonnet. He shivered and swept it clear with an arm. He jumped inside and turned the ignition, reclining the seat as the warm air spread throughout the car's interior. He turned on the radio and got himself comfortable, listening to the horns and whistles and shouts from some European football match in a warmer climate. He shuffled in the seat and lifted his chin from where he'd buried it in the collar of his overcoat. That was when he saw the light on in the toilet. He blinked, trying to remember if he'd left it on if he'd had a pee before heading to the Lamb. Perhaps it was the reflection of the streetlamps or a car headlight. He edged the car forward, but the glow was still there; the bulb's glint through the pebble-patterned glass. Husselbee shivered at the thought of leaving the car, but finally, he got out. He wasn't going to let the electricity run all weekend.
'Halloa there?' he called. Husselbee was of the school of thought you should give an intruder the chance to run away. He unlocked the office door, checking all was as he had left it. He picked up an envelope knife, but it was flimsy and would quiver if he had to stab anything. He rummaged about in the drawers and couldn't find anything useful. He saw the marble paperweight where he'd left it pinning down his reports and receipts. He threw it up and caught it with a slap in his palm. It would do. 'I said halloa there,' he called again. He peered around the office door. A chink of soft yellow light poked from beneath the toilet door. Husselbee crept along the skirting where the boards were surest. He was breathless, his heart pounding when he got to the door. He gripped the paperweight, holding it high above his head as he turned the door handle. He shouted as he tugged it open, stumbling in and grabbing at the cistern so he didn't fall. A load of nothing. He ran the tap and cupped his hand, splashing cold water onto his cheeks and neck. He gripped the enamel sink, focusing on his breathing. He'd counted as far as ten or eleven when there was a crash from the workshop, something had toppled. The door from the corridor was closed, and the workshop was in darkness. Husselbee gripped the paperweight. He wasn't going in there and knew that whatever his fears about his reputation, he must call the police. He patted his jacket, cursing. His mobile was charging in the car, its battery almost drained. He inched along the corridor, back to the wall. He was almost at the door to the workshop. It had been closed he'd thought, but Husselbee saw it was now ajar. He took a deep, slow breath and slid a foot along the thin carpet, then another. As he shifted his weight to step off, a figure in black rushed from the door, hooded and head down. Husselbee brought down the paperweight in an arc, clumping the hood or the neck. It was a dull clunk, heavy. It was instinctive. He hadn't time to think, only to act. The figure dropped at his feet, head thudding into the carpet. I got the shoulder, or the neck, Husselbee told himself. He edged away, not wanting to touch.
There was a walking stick in the porch. Husselbee fetched it, never taking his eyes off the prone black figure. He got the tip of the stick beneath the hood and lifted it back. A pale face scarred with acne stared back at him. A man with cropped ginger hair and blue, vacant eyes. Blood ran from his temple into his ear. Husselbee bit his lip. He prodded the man's chest and jumped back as the man toppled onto his side. Husselbee could not bring himself to touch him for fear he might rear up and assault him. Weary and with wobbly legs, Husselbee dragged a chair from the office and sat at the far end of the corridor. Dead. He hadn't needed to take a pulse. All the same, Husselbee kept his vigil, sitting with his hands gripping his knees, forgetting the drifting snow, until midnight. Just after the carriage clock struck the hour Husselbee crouched and felt for a pulse. Nothing, but cold, clammy skin. It was a struggle, but the man was slight, bony, and wiry, and Husselbee got him onto a trolley and into the workshop. No wallet, no travel pass, no work ID. Just a stick of gum and a comb. A crumpled handkerchief as off-white as his socks. He would be missed. There would be reports, a police search. Husselbee stroked the man's temple where he had cleaned up the wound. He'd restored him, done a job better than a makeup artist. He didn't trust leaving the workshop and slept under an old tartan blanket in the office, kicking back in the chair. Husselbee knew he would sleep well and there would be no interruptions. When they were dead, they were dead.
A fortnight passed, coinciding with Quiney's leave. Foster didn't ask questions. Whoever the man was, it seemed no one had missed him. No detectives called, no posters were pasted to bus stops or hung in shop windows. Husselbee had a drink with a mate from parks and gardens and gently steered the conversation round to his workload. The man, who was nearing retirement and happy to offload his problems said he'd dug three graves that afternoon. Husselbee joked he'd be climbing into one for a long, long nap soon enough. He learned the graves were all alongside the old railway line in the shade of an ancient oak. Husselbee knew the spot and knew he could get his Volvo alongside.
A little after three in the morning Husselbee got the body into the boot of his Volvo and drove across town. He was reversing up to railings at the edge of the DIY store car park when a police car pulled up beside him, gesturing for him to wind down his window. 'Bit late to be out. What are you doing?'
'I suffer from insomnia.' The lie came easily. 'I don't like disturbing my wife.' Husselbee had never married. One of them asked his name and he knew when they paused at the exit to the car park they were running his number plate. He felt like a burst ball when they finally pulled away. Husselbee knew the only solution was to tell the truth. He stared at his bloodshot eyes in the rear-view mirror and wondered how he could ever have contemplated something so awful as a hidden burial. It went against everything he stood for.
Husselbee shaved and showered and put on his best three-piece pinstripe suit. He intended to tell the truth, every word of it, and saw no need for a lawyer. No one was at the glass counter as a door sensor chimed his arrival. There was a stack of leaflets about what to do in the event of terrorism. Husselbee rapped on the glass with his knuckles. 'Hallo is anyone about?' he said. A woman came in from the street, dragging a small shopping trolley. She sat down in the middle of the small row of seats and began rummaging through her possessions which were all knotted in supermarket carrier bags. She smelt of damp and paraffin. Husselbee knocked the glass again. This time a woman in a green polo shirt with glasses like a librarian peered from behind a grey steel cabinet. 'I'll be with you in five ticks,' she said.
'I want to report a murder.'
Despite what the papers said, Husselbee had no trouble finding a policeman. The boot was opened, the plastic sheeting pulled back. Husselbee was arrested, questioned, and put in a cell. He was offered microwaved chicken curry but accepted a coffee that tasted like cardboard. He told them it was all an accident. 'I made it worse by hiding him. I didn't know what to do. I thought it'd be the end of me.' Husselbees was taped off while he remained in custody and forensic officers sent in to begin their work. Husselbee was allowed a newspaper but he couldn't focus. He lay on the slippery, plastic mattress, trying to blot out the stainless-steel toilet bowl and the visions of all who had sat there, beside him. He closed his eyes and folded his arms on his chest. Sleep of the guilty man.
Husselbee was released two days later. The detective leading his case had been contacted by Brian, who supplied the footage. It was explained the case would go through court but Husselbee was defending his property. His weapon of choice was not a knife or a handgun but an object that came to hand in the spur of the moment. He'd been surprised, the death was a tragedy. What was odd was the detectives still had no name for the deceased. His fingerprints had been taken, his DNA too. His photo had been shared, but no one came forward. Husselbee was bailed. The story of how he had concealed the body had yet to come to light, but the detective warned Husselbee that it would come out at court or in an inquest. It would not show him in a good light.
Husselbee left custody in his rumpled shirt, knowing the business was gone and his life in the town too. He went to St Mary's church where he lit a candle for the man in the hood and knelt before Christ. 'I am sorry. I meant none of this to happen,' he said. The vicar was showing a workman a loose strip of carpet that had become a trip hazard. Husselbee felt him watching and left before he could be engaged in conversation. He bought fish and chips and, though a frost was creeping along the riverbank, sat in the park and devoured them, stabbing the white chunks with a wooden fork and breathing plumes of hot breath into the evening air. He had the keys to Husselbee's but had no wish to see bloodstain or police tape and did as he had been advised to, booking into an anonymous hotel on the ring road. He got his keys, waved away all the fuss about papers and breakfasts at reception, and hastily unlocked his room. A TV was angled at the bed. A dado rail separated green stripes from a floral meadow wallpaper pattern. He stripped off, hanging his suit in the wardrobe and throwing his rumpled, grubby white shirt on the trouser press. He stood under the shower, hot darts of water pounding his skull and cheeks until he could stand it no more. Red-faced and breathless, he towelled himself down and hooked the spare, dry towel around his waist before dropping onto the bed. He sank into the pillows and was dead to the world. He was woken by knocking, from the next room. He squinted at the green, blinking diodes of the alarm clock on the bedside table. Three fifty-nine am. He groaned and rubbed his forehead as he got out of bed and filled the tooth glass with cold water. He tilted his head to slug it back when he saw the words. Written in condensation in the bathroom mirror were the words…
I AM DEATH