Lost Souls


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by Brian Wright

I’ve never understood the need to see the body to get ‘closure’. To judge from the TV and newspapers, most people wouldn’t agree with me. Closure this and closure that, horrible American phrase. It’s almost as if unless you see the body the person can’t be dead.

Take my neighbour, Mrs Atkins, for instance. Her sixteen-year old daughter Amy went missing about nine months ago. She never came home after a night out with friends. Amy, an only child, got on well with her single, middle-aged parent. She was doing well at school and had no regular boyfriend. There was no reason to suppose she had run away. Talking on my doorstep to an investigating policeman, he hinted that only one thing could have happened to the girl.

Whenever I bumped into Mrs Atkins afterwards, on the street or in the local shops, the talk would invariably turn to Amy. The reddened eyes would grow moist again, while I would feel a portion of sympathy and a lot more embarrassment. ‘She should have taken her English ‘A’ level yesterday.’

Sometimes she referred to her daughter in the present tense, pointing out to me as we stood in front of a clothes store, ‘Amy loves those sort of skirts’.

She never once used the word ‘murdered’.

It was as if she couldn’t admit, even to herself, that the girl had gone for good, chose instead to suffer the tortures of doubt and denial. After a while, I had the strange feeling she would have welcomed the discovery of the body - the issue resolved, an end to uncertainty, full speed into grieving mode. Closure.

Even stranger was that I thought I knew who had killed Amy.

His name was Roberts and he lived a couple of streets away. Whenever I saw him around the place, he was always on his own. Someone said he still lived with his mother, though he must have been at least forty. He was a weird one alright, dressed in a long overcoat and an even longer scarf in almost any weather. Angular body and wild and woolly hair.

He was what many people would call an eccentric. To me, he looked more like someone on the road to insanity. I didn’t like the man from the first. My wife said she felt sorry for him. But then we never agreed about much.

I’d been keeping an eye on Roberts for some time, amazed that no-one else suspected him. I knew for a fact the coppers had spoken to him during their investigation. Nothing unusual about that, though, because every male over sixteen in the neighbourhood must have been paid a visit. I supposed his mother had provided an alibi. But who can trust mothers? It only confirmed my misgivings about Roberts when I saw him in our local mini-mart and one of the female assistants whispered to me, ‘Poor man. Apparently he had a breakdown a couple of years ago. My friend lives next door but one. He’s very intelligent, she says.’ He must be, I told myself, to get away with murder.

By coincidence, the incident that first drew my attention to Roberts was in the same mini-mart. I was skulking in one of the aisles, hoping that Mrs Atkins wouldn’t spot me, when Roberts came into the shop, As soon as he saw her, a look came over his face that chilled me to the bone. Normally he had the appearance of an absent-minded if extremely seedy professor, his thoughts a million miles away. Now, though, his eyes were trained on the woman, pinpoints of amused vindictiveness. He looked like someone who was savouring his victory.

What could I do, though? Go to the police and say he was staring at her? Confide in Mrs Atkins herself and thus add to her load of grief and helplessness? She might even do something stupid, like confronting Roberts. No, I couldn’t tell anyone.

I’m not sentimental, but I hate to see injustice. Bullies of any sort have always made me mad. I like to make them suffer in return. Take my old boss, for example, who used to shout at me about my work. I got back at him by sneaking into his office and bringing up a porn website on his PC just before a meeting with the other senior managers. You should have seen their faces! It was typical of my wife that she didn’t see the funny side. Then I spread rumours about the man being a pervert, even a paedophile. The whispers drove him to resign.

But what, I now wondered, would be the most suitable punishment for a murderer?

I kept away from Roberts’s house as a rule, to avoid drawing attention to myself, but every so often passed it on my way to the bus stop. The garage door was occasionally up, revealing numerous black bin bags, scattered pieces of rusty machinery, a massive old freezer cabinet along one wall. Everything was covered in a cloak of cobwebs.

My contempt for him grew with every viewing of the filthy clutter. When I told myself the inside of their house was probably the same, it was enough to add to my foreboding about Roberts. I have always put tidiness well above godliness. But it was a state of affairs that might have gone on forever, frustration eating away at me due to the lack of any evidence, if it hadn’t been for the girl.

I was behind her one morning on my way to the bus stop, the car in for a service. She was young and pretty, Indian, with long black hair. As we passed his house, I was puzzled to see her give a tiny but perceptible shudder. Turning sideways, I glimpsed the net curtain twitching in an upstairs window.

Luckily for me, the bus was late and we were the only people waiting. It felt as if fate was offering me a chance. I had to be careful, though, didn’t want her thinking I was the nutcase! Then I had a moment of inspiration. After we’d exchanged comments about the pathetic bus service, I gestured back towards the house, a hundred yards up the road, and said, ‘The guy who lives in number eleven, he’s a bit of a weirdo, don’t you think? I saw him watching us this morning from his bedroom window.’

The girl snorted. ‘Watching me, you mean! He does it every morning. Gives me the creeps sometimes. Can’t be too careful, can you?’ I could tell she was thinking about Amy.

She shut up after that, as if she wasn’t sure about me either, but I was too excited to care. It was the shot of adrenaline I’d been waiting for. And it seemed like a further omen when I casually referred to Roberts in the mini-mart that evening, hoping for some more dirt on him, and the same female assistant replied, ’Oh, poor man, my friend says his mother has been moved into a nursing home. All on his own he is, these days.’

Her words sent a shiver through me, and my crusade against him suddenly seemed a lot more urgent. Luckily I was also on my own, my wife having left me a few weeks earlier - she was another one who preferred dust and dirt to polished surfaces. She’d had the nerve to call me anal on the day she walked out. Now her absence enabled me to devote all my attention to Roberts.

Funnily enough, I wasn’t doing my good deed on behalf of Mrs Atkins. To tell the truth, the woman was beginning to get on my nerves. I sometimes felt like shouting at her, for Christ’s sake, admit that your daughter has been murdered!

I wasn’t even doing it for Amy.

No, this was all about Roberts. Although unlike my old boss in every way, he nevertheless similarly irritated me to the point of obsession. Everything about the man was provoking - his looks, his filthy garage, the way he was cocking a snook at the police and everyone else. He was a threat to society. Above all, I wanted to wipe that look of malevolent triumph from his face.

I took to hanging around his house after dark, sitting in my car for hours. The man hardly ever went out and never had any visitors. I grew used to returning home disappointed, but still woke up every morning expecting to hear the worst when I switched on the breakfast news. It was on one of my vigils that, to my astonishment, I saw Roberts leave his house. As I followed slowly in the car, I saw him enter the mini-mart. Gazing into the brightly-lit shop, I was bitterly disappointed to see him purchase milk and bread without so much as looking any female in the eye.

But I finally knew I had the right man on the way home. Driving behind in second gear, I could just make out a slim figure a few yards ahead of Roberts. To my consternation and, yes, excitement, instead of turning into his own road, he continued to trail behind the girl. She increased her pace, obviously conscious of being followed. Roberts, too, seemed to quicken his stride. I was expecting him to drop his shopping bag at any moment and break into a run.

As my fingers tightened on the steering wheel, the girl turned into a driveway and almost raced to the lighted front door. I saw her give an anxious backwards glance as she let herself in. Roberts walked on, not so fast now, and I felt certain his shoulders had slumped in dejection.

In spite of everything, I don’t think I meant to kill Roberts when I went around to his house the next morning. I hadn’t slept a wink all night, wondering what to do next. I still had nothing in the way of evidence, nothing to give the police. I just knew.

It seemed that I had no choice but to confront him, warn him off. No, to be honest, I wanted to face up to him, to show the bully who was boss. Unwilling to tackle a murderer without any protection, I took a kitchen knife with me, hidden in my coat pocket. The man’s hair was wilder than ever when he answered the door in his dressing gown. ‘What is it?’ he demanded.

I felt like a very bad actor, but there seemed no other way to get in the house. ‘I need to talk to you. It’s very important. I’d rather we talked inside.’ As he stared at me, I repeated, ‘It’s very important.’

He reluctantly let me in, probably the first person to have had that honour for a very long time. The place confirmed my every suspicion about the man. It was a tribute to neglect and bad taste - a chair with a broken spring in the living room, badly faded floral wallpaper, a mingled smell of damp clothes and fried food.

I got straight to the point. ‘I know all about you. I was watching you last night.’

‘I – I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he stuttered. He wasn’t a good liar.

‘You were following the girl, remember?’

His answer came much too fast. ‘What girl? I was going for a walk, that’s all.’

‘You’ll be caught in the end, you know. Better if you give yourself up now.’

All of a sudden he was very angry, his ugly face turning a spectacular shade of red. For a moment I thought he was going to strike me. It was simply confirmation of what I already knew. I clutched the handle of the knife in my coat pocket.

‘Get out of my house!’ he shrieked, pushing me in the chest. ‘Out!’

I had no choice but to leave, there seemed nothing more to say, the next step a punch-up. On the doorstep I turned around to him. ‘I’ll be watching you,’ I warned.

Roberts smirked. ‘You’re mad, you are. You don’t know anything.’ A look of contempt in his eyes as if to proclaim, I’ve won. That moment sealed his fate. I couldn’t let a bully beat me.

There was the satisfaction of seeing his expression change when I held the knife to his throat. No-one else was around, still early morning, as I prodded him into his garage. At first I had no idea what I was going to do, but it suddenly came to me that I wanted to kill him. I shivered, though, at the thought of plunging the knife into that gangling body. It was then, seeing some duct tape on a malodorous shelf, that I had my idea.

I got him to open the lid of the old freezer cabinet and clamber inside. While he was lying face-down, I quickly bound his hands behind his back, and then his legs. I rolled him over and put a ball of tape into his protesting mouth. I closed the freezer door with a heavy clunk and taped around its edges until I was satisfied that Roberts would never escape from his makeshift coffin. The smell in the place, earthy and somehow meaty, made me consider looking in the plastic bags for traces of Amy. I decided my eyes and stomach couldn’t take the strain. Leave it to the coppers.

As I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind, there were thumping noises from the freezer. When I pulled down the garage door, however, not a sound could be heard. I locked the door and threw away the key, before walking off down the almost deserted road.

Roberts never had any visitors. They discovered him only after several weeks, when his next-door neighbour finally realised she hadn’t seen him for a while and the police broke into the garage. It turned out that the plastic bags contained rubbish. There is still no news of Amy.

I passed by in the car on the day he was found, but they’d already carted him off to the mortuary and so I never got to see the body. It didn’t bother me in the least. I had already got my closure.

Copyright Brian Wright 2008

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