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Serpent's Tail
September 2010
On Sale: September 1, 2010
448 pages
ISBN: 1846686784
EAN: 9781846686788
Paperback
$14.95
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Mystery Police Procedural

Also by Cathi Unsworth:

Weirdo, August 2014
Paperback
Bad Penny Blues, September 2010
Paperback

Excerpt of Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth

PROLOGUE

I step out of the car and onto the curb, the clack of steel tipped stilettos on pavement. The sound sends a crackle into the still air of 1.10am, like a radio has suddenly been turned on between stations; a hiss of interference and the distant sound of garbled voices speaking in foreign tongues. I look back into the window of the black Morris Ten. He is leaning across the seat, an earnest smile on a battered face, one front tooth chipped, dark hair greased back off a furrowed forehead.

Christ, heís eager, I think. And then a dark wave sweeps through me: resignation, boredom, something close to madness tapping on the corner of my skull. I know what it is, itís the feeling of being trapped. I want to get out of whatever it is Iíve got myself into but I donít know how, Iím caught up in a current thatís taking me down.

Heís saying something, but I canít make out what it is, the sound of the radio is coming in louder, a sudden burst of an orchestra tuning up.

But I hear myself talking back to him clearly, saying: "Half-past three."

This seems to please him. His grin deepens along with the lines on his forehead and he says something else, pointing at the side of the road. Itís lost in the hiss of static, a sound like a toilet being flushed. Now heís leaning back into his seat, putting his hand on the gearstick, pulling away up the Avenue, red tail lights under the trees, under the trees where nobody seesÖ

A sudden eerie note rises up around me, like a church organ maybe, but distorted, echoing around the trees and the empty road. I shiver involuntarily. It has been hot, stifling all day, and Iíve got on my new summer dress, but suddenly I feel a chill wind blowing up from nowhere. The dress that Baby bought me, I think and the thinking of that name prickles out the aches in my body. The back of my neck and my right arm feel heavy, pain beating a dull tattoo through my blood like a finger running down a plastic comb. I become aware of a cold wetness in my knickers, a fresher pain down there too, a reminder of where the man in the car has just been, where too many other people have already been before. These thoughts run into my mind unbidden and I donít want them, memories swirl that need to be blotted out, lest those fingers start drumming louder on the side of my skull, the sparks of madness start to flare.

Iím standing on the corner of this long, wide Avenue next to a tube station thatís all shut up for the night. For some reason I canít read the lettering over the door, can only make out an Art Noveau swirl of letters, but I feel like I know this place, I have been here at this time of night many times before. The station stares back at me through blank, empty windows. Squat and silent, it sits back on the pavement, detached, like whatever else is going on round here is surely none of its business.

I stroll past it, hearing the clack of my feet and the strange music, that distorted organ motif and the crackles of radiowaves, a sound like bubbles being blown under water. I turn around the corner, drawn towards it, and realise the music is coming from the building diagonally across the road from me. A high tower like a castleís keep made out of red brick, little tiny windows all the way up it but just one light on, one yellow light, right at the top. The spook symphony is coming from the window, getting louder and louder.

I suddenly think of a lighthouse, sweeping its beam across a dark and choppy sea. And the vision fills me with fear, like I have suddenly seen my death coming towards me, the light across the water, luring me to the rocksÖ

I turn away, catching my breath, clutching my handbag tighter. I realise that whatever plans I have made for this night are all going to fall through, that the boy I am expecting to meet here is not going to come. He was just using me like everyone else, I think, laughing at me, at how stupid I am, how easy.

I hurry away from the tower, back towards the tube and onto the Avenue. I want to block the music from my head but it swims around me, laps at the corners of my brain and I canít think straight. The man in the Morris Ten, was he supposed to be coming back for me or was I just spinning him a line? I donít remember but I canít wait here, I donít want to be in this part of town, with another me waiting under every tree, yet I canít go home either, bad things lurk there too, more beatings, more fuckings, more petty humiliations. All the things I wanted to be flash through my mind: a mother, a wife, a spotless kitchen in a nice house, an embroidery in a frame hanging over the fire saying Home Sweet Home, a memory of my childhood and my sister Pat. All the things I will never be and never have and everything I tried not to think about, all coming down fast to the refrain of a ghostly keyboard requiem.

Then suddenly, all the sounds disappear. Headlights are coming towards me up the Avenue, a long dark car gliding slowly along, crawling beneath the trees, as if in slow motion. This is it, I realise and somehow the knowledge sets me free of my anguished thoughts, fills me instead with the numbness of acceptance. This is the beam from the lighthouse, the lights across the water calling me home. I pat my hair, which is short and neat and recently cut, in the style of an actress I had admired. I smooth down the front of my blue and white summer dress. This is how I look on my last night on earth and I step forwards towards my fate, lean into the window as it slowly winds itself down.

There are two people in there, but their faces are lost in the shadows.

I know that the nearest one is speaking to me but all I can hear is the hiss of radio interference. The music is starting up again but it no longer disturbs me, Iím numb and I know where I am going. My thoughts and my body are no longer mine. My hair and my dress are no longer mine. I get into the back of the car and it pulls away, in a U-turn across the Avenue, picking up speed as it heads west, towards the lonely shore. A womanís voice says softly, sadly: "BobbyÖ"

And I woke up, lurching forwards into a sitting position, drenched with cold sweat. I put my hands up to my head, feeling the fringe of my long blonde hair plastered to my forehead, desperate to make sure it was my hair and not hers. For a moment, between two worlds, I couldnít make out where she ended and I began, her thoughts and her memories had been so strong that they seemed as if they were my own. But they were so terrible, so alien, so shocking. Images of brutal couplings in the back seats of cars, underneath trees, in shabby rooms with other people watching, faces of old and ugly men, faces of black men, the certainty that I had a sister called Pat and most of all, that overwhelming sense of fearÖ

Fear and pain. God, she had hurt. I put my hand up to my shoulder where the worst of it had been. It wasnít tender at all. I hadnít slept on it badly, triggering the sensation. That had all been part of the dream too. Where had she come from, this woman with the short hair and the striped dress?

I was so disorientated that it took a few seconds to realise that the music, that weird music that had soundtracked this nightmare, hadnít disappeared with it.

It was coming through the wall next door. Those ghostly keyboards and that radio tuning in and out of stations, it was actually real. The fear this phantom woman had felt coursed through my veins like quicksilver and I grabbed hold of Tobyís arm, shaking him awake, gabbling: "Whatís that noise, that horrible noise?"

He stumbled out of his own slumbers with a low groan, rolling towards me and propping himself up onto his elbow.

"That noise, Toby, what is it?" My voice was shrill with panic.

"Uhhh," he grunted, putting an arm around me, patting me gently on the leg as if to calm me down. He was never very good at waking up. "That?" he said. "Uhhh, sorry, I should have warned you about that. Itís the boys next door. They say theyíre musicians and that, my dear, is what their music sounds like. Bloody horror show."

He rolled across me and turned on the bedside light, his face suddenly illuminated by a comforting orange grow as a tired smile spread across his crumpled features. He looked so handsome with his hair all falling forwards in his eyes that I immediately calmed down. "Come here," he said, pulling me back down beside him. The night had been so hot we had kicked most of the covers off the bed, but like the woman in the dream, I suddenly felt cold.

"Itís a horror show all right," I said, nestling into the warmth of him. "It gave me such a nightmare."

"Oh Stella," he said. "Iím sorry. I really should have warned you, but I suppose I just got used to them and their odd little ways while I was still a gay bachelor myself."

His words made me giggle. We had been married for only one week, spending what would have been our honeymoon if weíd had the money ostensibly redecorating, but not really getting very much further than where we were now. It didnít matter. We still had the rest of the summer to turn the basement of 22 Arundel Gardens from Tobyís bachelor pad into the marital home of Mr and Mrs Reade.

"What time is it anyway?" he asked, looking over at the alarm clock. "Ten past one! Horror show hours and all."

It gave me a shudder, that did. Now I was awake and safe, the nightmare was beginning to fracture and dissolve, recede into the shadows. But one thing I could clearly remember was that I ó or rather she ó knew exactly what the time was.

Toby must have felt it because he cuddled me closer, found the edge of a blanket and covered me over with it.

"You cold?" he asked, and I let it go at that, not wanting to tell him what it really was in case he thought Iíd gone a bit strange, mad even. It had been a horribly vivid dream, an insight into a world I didnít want to see again. And whatever had caused it ó the music, the newness of my surroundings or just too much cheese before bedtime ó I wanted to forget about it quickly. I resolved to banish the woman in the blue and white dress from my thoughts.

It was because of our honeymoon that I managed to do so; we were so engrossed in our own little world that we didnít bother to buy the papers in the week that followed, otherwise I might have read about the body of a woman that had been found by the river in Dukeís Meadows, Chiswick, wearing a blue and white striped dress. It was a mercy, really, that I didnít. It would have shattered the idyll of the summer of 1959, the end of our first year at the Royal College of Art and the beginning of our marriage. There were so many things that we didnít know about each other then and ignorance was bliss.

Tobyís kisses were warm on my eyelids as I finally fell asleep, the sound of a new world coming through the wall.

Excerpt from Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth
All rights reserved by publisher and author

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