As I approached the short jetty from beneath, moonlight glinting through the spaces between the boards to paint me in zebra stripes, I made an effort to calm my ragged breath, and move slowly.
The boathouse had a lower deck, a short set of wooden steps leading down to a wooden platform. Firelight was flickering in the windows as I braced myself against the rocking mass of Shaw’s fishing launch. I could smell diesel and cigarette smoke. I could hear music playing on the deck above me. Bob Dylan singing The Times They Are A Changin’, interrupted by a faint crackle of static. I times my movements in the bursts of harmonica, steering myself around the wooden support poles in the half-light. Slowly, maddeningly, with my hands flexing in the torn latex gloves, I inched around the left side of the jetty, and swam for the platform leading into the boathouse. The painted walls passed over my head, Bob Dylan grew louder. I heard a sigh above me, and a shuffle of feet on boards. I could jump up now, haul myself from the depths like a creature from the swamp and rush him. But my muscles might seize up from the water, and he might get to the door and run for the house before the cramps let up. I had to do this right.
I was in the boathouse now, the radio echoing off the white-painted boards, three metres above me. The upper platform was solid dark wood. I couldn’t see him through the floor. I paused with my hand on the lower platform, taking in the covered shapes of fuel drums, a barrel of firewood and kindling. Several plastic containers, contents obscure in the firelight flickering from above. There was a pop and crackle, as if he’d just thrown something on the flames. The track changed and I held my breath in the silence.
When the music started again, I hauled myself silently out of the waves, biting my tongue as my body screamed again at the temperature change. My flesh was raised in goose pimples wide enough to tee off with. But when I moved into a low crouch against the tarpaulin cover of the fuel drums, my muscles moved with life I didn’t feel. My body never betrayed me, when it mattered.
I padded slowly across the boards to the sound of “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. I crossed the platform as the old man began to croon, and took the stairs two at a time, walking on the sides of my feet. The red-painted door to the jetty outside was directly in front of me. A bundle of nets sat in a small alcove to its left. The door was ajar, and a faint flash of lighting shone off the doorknob. The smell of tobacco was stronger now.
I turned to my right, the interior of the boathouse inching gradually into view. A low ceiling, a dark, bare bulb hanging off a chain. Four crossbeams, a dry trout hanging from one, swaying gently in the breeze. A roaring fire, blazing from the depths of a steel drum in the centre of the floor, equidistant from the walls. A coffee table sat next to it, the transistor radio sitting next to the stuffed bunny and a loaded ashtray. A half-empty bottle of Glenlivet sat with them. And Shaw, facing the flames in a flimsy white deckchair, looking across the fire to the small window in the far wall, and the night beyond. A fag hung from one ringed hand, smoking gently into the rafters. He was short enough that his head was out of sight behind the chair’s back. I could smell a faint cologne. Hugo Boss maybe. It would be easy enough from here. Lunge across the room in two large steps. Hands around his throat, cutting off his air. Hold the squirming body against me until he fell asleep like a child in his mother’s lap. Then take him below. And get the fuck out of here. I took my first step about the same time the radio lost reception, and the cabin grew as silent as a morgue.
The creak as my foot met the floor sounded like the tomb of a corrupted Pharaoh cracking open with plague and malice. My heart froze in my chest. There was a long, protracted pause. The lawyer coughed.
“I’d offer you a chair, but something tells me you won’t be stopping.” The Scots accents had been diluted a little by his time in the states, but he wasn’t slurring his words.
I remained silent, but my hands flexed again in the filthy gloves. Time appeared to have stopped.
“You don’t need to worry.” Shaw continued, and sighed. “It’s just you and me.”
I licked my lips. My throat was dry. My plan was unravelling as wildly as the faded yellow fabric of the deckchair, a metre away.
Shaw stretched out both his hands. One held the stub of the fag, the other an empty glass. A pair of melting ice cubes clinked against the glass. “Come out into the light. I deserve to see you, at least.”
My legs moved on autopilot, and I circled the chair like a lioness stalking a wildebeest. Except he’d declawed me. The little man in the chair grinned at me as if he’d read my thoughts as I stood with my back to the fire. The heat should have been delicious on my shivering skin, but I could barely feel it.
Dominic Shaw looked tired. He was clad in a thick red jumper and blue nylon trousers, feet ending in tartan slippers. His eyes were bloodshot in his pink face. A pair of steel-rimmed specs perched on his forehead. A brown stain sat in the crease of his mouth, as if he’d rushed dinner. There was a glimmer of grey chest hair at his neck.
He raised the empty glass to me as if in a toast. There was no weapon on the chair, and the man was the size of a fourteen-year-old girl. I could have reached out and broken his neck like a toothpick. But his eyes were steely and grey, and made him seem ten feet tall. Courtroom eyes. And he was smiling. “The man on the camera.” He said.
I grunted. It was the best I could do. If he knew that, why was he still here? The radio burst to life again with a shower of static. I recoiled against the steel, and gave Shaw enough to time to tut, reach out, and flick it off. The fire’s crackling was suddenly loud enough to raise hell.
“In shower wear, no less. I apologise.” He gave a short yawn. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you on the job.”
I touched trembling fingers to the dampness of the cap.
“Forensics, of course.” He gestured at the bottle with his empty glass, and looked a question at me. I nodded stiffly, my head feeling like a bowling ball on my neck.
Shaw poured himself a generous triple. He took a long swig and sighed. “No trace then?” He looked back at me. We might have been talking about plumbing.
I nodded again.
He returned my nod. “It makes sense. Looks better that way.”
“It does?” I finally ground out. My voice sounded like it had died ten years ago.
“Mmm…” Said Shaw, looking appreciatively at his whiskey. He gestured at the bottle again, then at me. I shook my head. “Pity.” He said. “A condemned man shouldn’t have to drink alone.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” I said. I wasn’t sure who I was talking to.
Shaw reclined in the chair with a groan of abused springs. “I imagine not.” He said. “But I wanted to meet it head on.”
“You knew?” I asked. Maybe the scotch would have helped. My eyes must have asked my next question.
“I think it was when that woman looked me in the eye.” Shaw mused. “The youngest on the jury.” He swilled the whiskey in his glass. “She was a care worker, worked with the elderly. Hell.” He snorted. “Maybe in ten years she would have changed my bedpan and told me my name twice a day.”
The jury…Jackson’s jury? How could he possibly have-
“She had a history with domestic abuse. Raped by her brother, beaten by the man she married to block it out. I wasn’t supposed to know these things. But I have a way of finding out.” He looked suddenly disgusted with himself. He gestured with the burnt-out fag. “Maybe the prosecution planted her. Watered her, fed her the right things. She was probably supposed to blossom during his testimony. Break down at just the right time to turn the case.” He sighed again.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. It seemed all there was to say.
“Because he was guilty!” Shaw suddenly roared, and threw the glass. It blew past my shoulder and struck the wall of the cabin, spattering me with warm liquid. It hit the water below with a series of plops. I squared my shoulders automatically, but he didn’t run.
Shaw was red in the face, teeth clamped down on his lower lip. His eyes blazed like binary stars. A muscle twitched in his temple. I wondered for a second if his heart would do my job for me. But he subsided after a moment, falling back into the chair with a groan.
“Guilty.” He managed only a cracked whisper this time.
“It was unanimous…” I pointed out, bizarrely afraid for a moment of the little man.
He favoured me with a look of singular hatred. “I was his fucking lawyer, do you not think I know what he did?”
I stayed silent.
He fell back again and spoke to his slippers. “He told me on the third day I took his case. Brazen as you fucking like. Flew me over for caviar and plantain, of all things.” He shook his head. “And told me I could retire if I got him off.”
“He did it?” I asked.
“Absolutely.” Shaw nodded. At least I knew this conversation wasn’t being recorded. “Blames the coke, of course. The steroids. Bad combination. But he chose them.”
“And the juror?” I prodded. I felt less like a killer, and more a therapist. He’d turned me like-
“I turned her.” He whispered, and a solitary tear ran his fat cheek. “I turned their plant. Got in her head, made her doubt him. Made her doubt herself. I took it as a fucking challenge. Do you know what that’s like?” He looked up at me, beseeching.
I shook my head again.
“It takes a little piece of your soul. Each and every time.” He rubbed his forehead roughly. “You look in the mirror, but you’re not there. Your family only reach out when they need a loan, and your wife can’t look at you from the other side of the pillow. You’re just doing a job, but that job takes people’s lives. And some part of you is proud of that.”
I felt something in my chest give. “My wife couldn’t look at me either.” I could almost see the words leaving my mouth, see them stretch invisible wings I thought I’d clipped, and vanish into the ether.
Shaw, incredibly, smiled and gestured at me. “And that’s what I mean. I can’t do that anymore.”
I opened my mouth, but he waved a hand at me. “You came here, hired to kill me by any number of people. You probably never heard of me outside of The Times or the bloody Mail on Sunday. I don’t know you from Adam. And I broke you like a fucking twig.”
I bristled in my wet clothes, but he was right. He’d got in my head as if it had been as soft as jelly. Which it was starting to feel like.
He cast a critical eye over me. “Caucasian, male, about six foot two, late thirties. Married once but no longer. You take no pleasure in your work, indeed, it disgusts you. Therefore, you did not volunteer for the role. You were manipulated, no doubt. They have something over you, something you can’t run away from. You no longer have your wife, but you care about something. About someone. Why else would you continue to work? Unless you’re a coward. And I don’t think you are.” He smiled again. “Stop me, when I make a mistake.”
My expression must have been almost comical, but he didn’t laugh.
“Two things.” I shook my head. I was sweating, but it was cold.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m closer to 6’1.” I said. “And I am a coward.” I felt ridiculous all of a sudden, standing there in my shower cap and gloves, being dressed down like a child. Part of me fought a desire to run home and cuddle with my mother and have her bake me my favourite cookies.
Shaw inclined his head and smiled again. “We all make mistakes.”
“My daughter.” I croaked out in the same flat tone. “I can’t stop. Because they’ll hurt her.”
Shaw looked down at his slippers again. “That isn’t sustainable.”
“Don’t you fucking tell me that!” I roared at him, the wooden floor trembling at my shout, But he didn’t flinch. I came close to reaching over and caving in his forehead, just to get him out of my mind. My heart was racing and I was covered in sweat. I couldn’t believe where I was. Baring all to a dead man who knew and welcomed it. Some kind of terminal confession.
“It isn’t my business.” He said.
“Damned fucking right.” I muttered.
“Might I give you a piece of advice?” He didn’t sound afraid of my reaction.
“Fine.” I spat. “Then I’m going to kill you.”
Shaw nodded as if I’d told him the time of day. “Get out, as soon as you can. For her.”
“That’s it?” I heard petulance and sarcasm mixing to produce an ugly child.
“But this isn’t something you can do quickly, or do alone. You’ll need help.”
“And let me guess, you’ll help me, if I spare you.” I sighed.
Shaw just shook his head. “I didn’t come out here just for a nice evening. I’ve had this coming for years. I don’t want to complicate your job.”
“Could have fooled me.” I said.
“Find the people that can help you. And accept their help. Sooner rather than later.”
“Do they have little fairy wings and golden trumpets?” I sounded childish, even to myself.
“You know who they are, I suspect. If you want to avoid meeting someone like yourself late one night, just think about it.”
He yawned and stretched, planted his feet on the decking and made as if to get up. The thunder rattled again, distant now. I heard his dogs baying again in the house. For the first time that evening, a flicker of worry crossed his face. “Will you…” He gestured back at the house.
I nodded stiffly. “Least I can do, I suppose.”
“They’ll find me soon?”
“Tomorrow, maybe.” I said. “They won’t starve.”
He nodded with some relief.
“You’ve given me a lot to think about.” I grated. My head was spinning from the heat of the flames and his words. Was it possible? Even now?
“One last good deed, maybe. Or as good as a man like me deserves.” He said.
He rose to his feet, seemed about to turn away, and then stuck out his hand. All of a sudden I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to leave him hanging, turn and walk out of the shack. Leave him to his booze and his regrets. And then what? I couldn’t even get back to London before Barney tripped the alarm, and my master cracked the whip over the smiling girl I’d left in the cottage. My eyes misted over as I took his hand and pumped it once, quickly. He felt like coiled steel.
We regarded each other for a moment, almost a foot in height between us, but I felt a child in his shadow.
“Well…shall we do this?” He finally said.
I nodded stiffly, my head feeling like a block of granite, and followed his lead as he turned for the stairs.
He walked slowly, steadily, with the careful dignity of a man to the noose. The fire was dying behind us, and our shadows were long against the wooden planking. I half-expected him even now to turn and run, try to push past me for the door and run for the house. His slippers shuffled on the wood, like whispers from the grave. The walk took ten seconds at most, but felt a lot longer.
Shaw turned to me on the lower level of the boathouse, thin shoulders against the covered oil drums. His perfect teeth glittered in the low light. I could smell his sweat on the gentle breeze. The dock rocked gently beneath our feet.
“Accident or suicide?” Shaw asked me, as casually as my preference of soft drink.
My reactions were still muddy and slow. I didn’t want to be here, and he must have known. I didn’t want to kill him. He’d done something to me, and I didn’t know whether I needed to curse or thank him.
“Either.” I finally grated. “They’re not fussed.”
“Suicide, then.” Shaw decided after a moment. “That way Nicki gets half.”
“Nicki?” I whispered. I felt my hand clutch at my wrist.
“Nicola.” Said Shaw. “My wife.”
Of course it was. How could it be anything else?
“Complicated Will.” I managed.
Shaw gave a humourless chuckle. “Naturally. I was a damned good lawyer.”
“Those full?” I nudged the barrels with my foot. There was a gentle slosh from inside. Pragmatism beat self-reflection.
“Ah…” said Shaw after a moment. “Yes, I suppose they’ll get the job done.” He didn’t sound regretful of that.
“Turn around, walk to the edge.” I told him. But I could hear her in my mind. First laughing at me as I finally told her how I paid the bills. Unbelieving, incredulous. Then the silence…that deathly silence in which I poured out a broken lifetime. And finally the screaming when the words sank in. And the slam of the door as she left. Maybe I’d sounded as I did now. Cold, efficient. Alien.
Shaw walked to the edge of the platform, gasping as the water lapped at his slippers. I fumbled in the dark, found the knots of heavy cord holding the tarp and worked them loose. I threw it over the plastic containers beside the barrels, and dug my hands into the steel drum. It was heavy, probably about a hundred kilos. It would do. I shuffled it across the wood towards the old man, who was staring at an unseen horizon. The jetty groaned with the shift in weight. He stepped back, leaning into it like a lover’s embrace.
“Hold still.” I told him, and wondered if he would. It took a brave man to face his death like this. He might even now bolt for the stairs, or the waters beneath. He couldn’t outpace me in the water, but guilt might weigh me down, hold me back. I had never felt like this on a hit before. But then, I’d never confessed to one of my target’s either. I bent down to snatch up the rope in my latex gloves, and half-expected to hear the splash.
But he stayed. I threw the loops of yellow cord over him in thick bands, and he pulled them against his chest. I could smell the fumes of the diesel in the drum and his aftershave again as I yanked the cords tight around the barrel, making him cry out as they cut into his sternum.
“You okay?” I asked, bizarrely.
“Just fine.” He laughed shakily. “May I ask you two favours?”
“Two?” I grunted in the thick silence that followed. The water lapped gently against the jetty, and I could hear the wind howling out there in the dark, along with the distant cry of disturbed gulls.
“Firstly, you need to tie the knots from the front. Not a very good suicide if I have to dislocate my arms to do it.”
I froze for a moment. Of course, he was right. And I would have seen it too. If I’d been inside my own head instead of miles away. I moved around him silently, thankful for the dying light. It meant I wouldn’t have to look in his eyes as I killed him. I yanked the cord tight again, almost nose to nose with him in the dark. His breath was on my cheeks, warm and heavy with alcohol. He groaned as I knotted the cord securely beneath his ribcage. I tested the weight of the barrel with a shove, and made sure he wasn’t going to slip out. It wasn’t much of a favour.
“And the second one?” I asked.
“The toy, upstairs. Please.” He sounded almost ashamed, child-like. I felt my cheeks burn with shame for him and myself.
“Okay.” I said.
I held the pink rabbit for a second in the half-light. It was missing one eye, fabric faded with time and washes. Its short dress was an indeterminate shade of grey. It smelled clean and faintly like lemon. Too threadbare for my daughter. I’d have thrown it out once she’d stopped paying attention to it. But it meant something to him, and it was the least I could do.
Shaw snatched at it hastily in the dark, drawing it against the knot around his chest. He was quiet for several minutes.
“For a child?” I asked, hoping, praying he would tell me no. I didn’t know if I could do it, right here and now, if there was another Ellie I was orphaning. No matter what he’d done.
I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to answer me, but he did, voice shaky with tears. “For one that never came. Perhaps that was a blessing.”
“Some of us aren’t meant to have children.” I said. He didn’t reply.
I walked the barrel the rest of the way in occasional shoves. Shaw didn’t complain as he faced over the edge into the water.
“Will my death mean something?” He asked me suddenly as I planted my foot against the cold metal and drew back. “Besides a victory for justice.”
I thought of Ellie, lying asleep by now across the lap of my neighbour, three hundred miles away. Of Nicole, if she was still alive, curling up in some filthy mattress and jonesing for the needle. How I’d failed them. How with just a twitch of my leg, I was continuing to fail them. Could the last ten minutes change the course of a lifetime?
“I don’t know.” I told him. “I honestly don’t know.”
“You know something?” Shaw sniffed and gave a short laugh. “I’d take your case. And I’d find a way to win. I think you’re very much like me. Even if you don’t know it yet.”
I couldn’t make my mouth work. I settled for my foot.
“Good luck.” said Dominic Shaw as he faced his end.
“You too.” I managed. It wasn’t much of an epitaph, but it would have to do. I nudged the teetering barrel, and the lawyer plunged into the depths without another word. A ring of dark ripples became the last sign he had ever lived. And after a moment, not even that.