Bad Sons by Oliver Tidy
Bad Sons: a deadly new mystery
David Booker returns to Romney Marsh on the south coast of England for a holiday. He is expecting to spend time helping his aunt and uncle pack up the stock of their second-hand bookshop in preparation for a happy retirement.
He arrives in Dymchurch on a miserable April night to find his relatives missing without word or clue regarding their whereabouts.
As events unravel, the outlook of the local police pushes Booker to search for his own answers to the questions surrounding his family’s disappearance. To unravel the mystery he will have to put himself in danger.
Will Booker find the answers he needs and make it out alive?
Keep reading for chapter one:
Like everything that ever happens, it had to start somewhere. For the want of a nail and all that… But the nail had to be missing for a reason, right?
Everything has a trigger, a beginning. A train wreck has to pull out of a station. A chain must have its first link. But even that has to be forged somewhere and designed before that. Like trying to contemplate the infinity of space, or the stupidity of mankind, that kind of thinking can make your head swim. And it never seems to help.
It was going to happen regardless of me. But my involvement in the aftermath could have been limited, if not avoided completely, had I not been where I was when I was. And the only reason I was there then was because of something that happened somewhere else.
I’ll say it started when my wife fell down two steps and lost our baby. Looking at it that way gives me something concrete to blame – metaphorically and literally – something nothing to do with me. I wasn’t there.
The truth is we were struggling long before that. The baby was a reckless attempt at finding something to hold our brokenness together. Like taping up the fractured wing of a plane with duct tape before taking on an ocean, we were doomed to failure. It was also stupid because I think not so deep down we both knew we’d had enough of each other. Our bell had tolled. Its death knell had sounded loud and clear and we had ignored it.
If we hadn’t lost the baby I would have stayed in Istanbul for the holiday. If we hadn’t lost the baby we would’ve had something to cling to, an excuse to pretend we could still make us work. It seems a tough thing to think now but I can’t be sorry for what happened.
With the superstitious influence of her cultural DNA, my wife saw the loss as a sign. I saw it as an opportunity. When I’m drunk and honest, I see it as a blessing. And then I hate myself.
To our shame and with renewed and increased hostility, we fell back to our trenches, to our sniping, rowing and blaming with the new ammunition.
I booked a flight back to England for the school mid-term break. We had decided to give each other a bit of room – the kind of room you could fight a small war in.
I was teaching English in a little private school to spoilt kids of rich and ruinous parents, having fled to Turkey on a whim after a failed marriage. I was married again within a year. To a Turk. Frying pans and fires. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I’ll never regret those first sweet months.
I had an uncle in Kent – a book dealer. He became another victim of the economic recession and hiked business rates. His candle was being blowtorched away at both ends. It was sink or swim and he didn’t care to get wet so he retired, gracefully. Although the way my aunt told it the towel hit the far wall pretty hard. You’ll notice the use of the past tense. He’s dead. They both are.
He had a good stock. Signed modern first editions were his field and after half a lifetime farming it, he knew his onions. He knew enough to have made a name and a living for himself and his wife. They never had children.
So I took advantage of the loss of a life, the breakdown of a relationship, a school holiday and a retirement and offered them the help they needed. They were closing the business, boxing the stock and shipping it off to a collector in the States. They’d done well out of it, all things considered. The buyer was generous – American, new money, looking for an instant library to impress his visitors, I guessed.
My uncle and aunt needed help with the packing and recording of the stock for shipment. It was a big job for six and there’d be three of us. They also needed help from someone who knew what they were doing. That’s why me. You could say it was in my blood.
I know about books. With my family background, I should. I also shared my relatives’ passion for the written word. I don’t know everything but I know enough. I know something of authors worth collecting. I can identify a first edition. I know about the importance of condition. But most of all I know how to handle a book and that was what my relatives needed: someone who cared something for what they were doing; someone who knew what they were doing when it came to handling, packing and boxing. They needed someone they could trust, someone who was available and someone who would work for love, board and lodging. And with those requirements and rewards there weren’t many applicants, let alone qualified contenders.
I caught the midday plane out of Ataturk airport on a warm Istanbul April morning. As soon as we were airborne, I felt a weight lifted. I was getting away from the source of my unhappiness. Leaving behind another failed relationship. But it was
temporary. I would be back in a week to face the consequences of my desertion. As soon as the refreshment trolley rattled up the aisle, I started drinking.
If I hadn’t fallen asleep after the in-flight meal I might have had problems. As it was, I got off the plane with a tongue that could have come from one of my running shoes and eyes that felt like they’d played marbles in the sand.
Through immigration, baggage reclaim and customs. I got a quick black coffee and a slow train down to Ashford.
By the time I stepped out of Ashford International station the English spring evening resembled what little I’d left of my drink: dark, cold and wet. And I had a reminder of one of the reasons I was living in self-imposed exile. I pulled my fleece from my bag, shrugged it on and scanned the car park for my lift. It wasn’t there.
I’d rung three times on my way down to the coast to no reply. It bothered me a bit. I’d left a message each time. I checked my phone again: no messages, no missed calls. I rang again and waited.
I waited an hour, smoking and wondering and calling. The smoking made me queasy. The wondering turned into worry and then something to gnaw at my spirit, to discomfit me. The phone went unanswered.
I realised I was either going to smoke myself to death, risk a brush with hypothermia or have to shell out for a taxi. I was depressed but I wasn’t suicidal and I don’t like the cold when I’m not dressed for it. I took a taxi. I sat in the back. Either he took the hint or he didn’t feel like talking much either, which suited me just fine. I wasn’t in the mood for banal chit-chat.
Romney Marsh was dark enough that I could barely make out anything familiar. That was good, too. I didn’t need the distraction of what was flashing past outside. I had enough on my mind.
Sometimes, on my returns, seeing the old places I’d grown up with and lived in for too long depressed me. Mostly, it was good to be out of it, but just as sad to realise how much of my life I’d spent there, wasted there. Now and again it was fine to come home: when the sun shone down from brilliant blue vapour-trail-streaked skies on a still summer’s day, or the winter snow was deep and crisp and even, Ingoldsby’s ‘fifth continent’ could be quite glorious.
One trouble with Romney Marsh: there’s too much wind and rain and grey in- between. Another is that growing up on the Marsh promises nothing but more of the same if you don’t get off it. For some that seems fine. Good luck to them. It wasn’t for
me. I guess I just hadn’t found that thing, or one, to make it seem worth spending the whole of my life there.
Half an hour later and twenty pounds poorer I was standing in a bleak Dymchurch high street outside my relatives’ bookshop. I could smell the sea. The air was clammy with salt and damp. The wind couldn’t make up its mind which way to blow. The winter covers were still on the rides of the fairground opposite; the silhouettes of their oddly industrial shapes looming threateningly out of the night did nothing to hint at fun. There was a trickle of passing watery headlights. As the wind whipped around, I got a nose-full of the Indian takeaway and realised how hungry I was. As I stood remembering, a fine misty rain started to fall. Above me, the metal sign above the bookshop creaked as it swung from its bracket – an eerie, lonely sound, the sound an iron gibbet might have made at a medieval crossroads.
A stooped figure shuffled up the pavement towards me dragging a reluctant fat old dog with one hand and holding a hat down with the other. Neither of them looked like they wanted to be out. Above the noise of the sign and the odd swish of rubber on tarmac I heard a wave break on the shingle ten yards the other side of the fun fair – high tide.
I experienced an urge to go and stand on the sea wall, stare out at the inky, forbidding expanse of night and English Channel, drink in the sea air and let it fill and cleanse my insides, soak into my skin. The sentimental thought made me feel foolish. It made me smile.
My uncle and aunt owned the freehold of the building outright. They lived above the business. A warren of a place spread over three floors: one for the business, two for them. Being just them and both being incurable bibliophiles most of the rooms were crammed with books that either the shop didn’t have room for or they weren’t selling.
There were no lights on anywhere and my first thought was they were on their way to pick me up; we’d passed like the proverbial ships in the night. There was still nothing from them on my phone.
The external entrance to the accommodation above was around the back. I hefted my bag and headed towards the narrow track that ran between the bread shop – three doors down – and a tearoom. It was a right of way for the bakers, an alarm company, my relatives’ business, a small general store and a sprawling untidy builder’s yard that spread out behind them all. The way wasn’t lit and I managed to find two puddles in the rutted track.
The shadows and shapes at the rear of the properties were familiar to me. One I didn’t expect to see there was my uncle’s car. It was parked up on the pea shingle at the back of the shop.
I looked up at the three-storey building. Its triple-pitched roof above a dark weather boarded exterior reached up to the low cloud like a clichéd haunted house. There were no lights on this side either. As I crunched over the small stones I felt my brow furrow with concern and questions.
I touched the bonnet of the car. It was cold as a slab of refrigerated meat.
I knew from experience that banging on the sturdy back door was a waste of time. There was an airlock-sized space beyond, another stout door and then a flight of stairs before another door to their apartment. No one ever heard banging on the outer door and I wasn’t of the opinion there was anyone at home to listen.
I tried the handle. It was locked. I put down my bag and fumbled around in the darkness to my left. A key to this outer door had always been kept under a plant pot. Sometimes someone known and trusted by my relatives would have something to drop off to them without a fuss. It was there.
I let myself in and held my breath when I tried the inner door. It should’ve been locked. It wasn’t. I found the light switch and started up the stairs in the enclosed staircase, signalling my approach with shouts of hello and deliberately heavy footfall. Already the familiar smells of the shop and the flat were seeping through the walls to greet me.
At the top of the stairs, my hand on the doorknob, I hesitated. This door was never locked, but I didn’t want to go giving anyone a heart attack by bursting through it. I knocked and waited. I listened for sounds of movement, of life. Nothing. I banged harder and called out. Still nothing. Resigned to the inevitability of emptiness, I turned the knob and let myself in.
The smell of the books that cluttered the place combined with the familiar household and stale cooking smells were what I noticed third. First was the lack of light. Second was the lack of sound. At least it was warm. The heating was on.
Pointlessly, I stood there and called out a couple of times more. I was as sure as I could be there was no one home. I turned on some lights. It made me feel better. I wandered around the downstairs rooms. Everything looked like it always had. My anxieties began seeping away. I felt a little foolish. I’d been worried something had happened to them.
The answering machine was blinking – probably my messages. I let it blink. I sat down on the front of the sofa the better to think. I took out my mobile and rang my uncle’s number again. Across the room a tune started up and a screen glowed. I stopped that with my thumb. I rang my aunt’s mobile. Andy Williams crooned in another room. I got up and followed the noise. I found the phone in the kitchen on an untidy worktop. My concerns shuffled back in, heads down guiltily. I caught sight of a calendar on the opposite wall – a New Year gift from the local Chinese takeaway. A date was heavily ringed in red pen. It was the date of my visit. The date of that day.
Leaning up against the worktop, I thought some more. When that didn’t help, I went through a glass-panelled door and explored the other four rooms on the first floor. Nothing. I took the stairs to the top floor and the thought occurred to me they could be in bed, unwell and asleep. I began calling out again, friendly, loud and clear. Nothing.
There was no sign of life or death in any of the six rooms on the top floor. I came down the stairs feeling anxious. I went into the kitchen and ran the cold water, took a glass from a cupboard and drank thirstily. I went back into the lounge and sat down. I stood up and went to the big picture window that looked out over the high street, the amusement park and the sea beyond. I looked both ways up and down the road.
A hundred yards off to my right and across the road light spilled out of the nearest pub to glisten on the wet pavement. No one sat at the all-weather picnic tables and I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
The Ocean was my uncle and aunt’s local. The desperate thought occurred to me that perhaps they’d gone across the road for a drink, just forgotten me. It was the only thing I could imagine and, despite the scenario being unthinkable, it was what I hoped for.
I hadn’t taken off my jacket. I patted my pockets for wallet and phone, turned off the lights, went downstairs, locked up, returned the key to its hiding place and retraced my steps to the high street.
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