Fist… knife… dodge… jab… slash… scream…
Captain Christie started awake with a cry of alarm. “Jeez, get a grip, Mal,” he murmured to himself, running his fingers roughly through his cropped, brown hair as he pulled himself upright and hugged his knees gently to his chest. After a few moments to steady his breathing, he kicked his legs free of the clammy sheets and set his naked feet on the threadbare carpet. Easing his body upright, he was instantly assailed by a cacophony of aches and pains as he straightened his spine; stretching his arms above his head, he winced and brought his elbows sharply down to his sides once more.
In the half-light, he could see his shady reflection in the mottled mirror fixed above the cracked sink – the purple bruises were dark across his abdomen, disappearing beneath the bandages across his ribs, and the livid scar that completed its own vanishing act under the eye patch. Mallory thought he’d probably lose the sight in his left eye, even if the eye itself was saved. He didn’t mind the patch so much – it lent him a rakish air that, combined with the scar, would probably attract the kind of woman who liked her men a little dangerous.
Fist… knife… dodge… jab… slash…
It all came flooding back and Mallory felt his knees go weak. Grabbing the edge of the sink to steady himself, his gaze fell from his sullen reflection. What did he care how he looked now? What did it matter whether or not any woman found him attractive? There had only ever been one woman for him and she was untouchable – his brother’s wife.
Even if there had been no code of honour in the army, he could never have made a play for Cecily: From the very beginning, she was out of his reach, because Craig met her first and Craig was the world to him. Despite the eight-year age difference, Mal and Craig had always been close, even as boys, after all, there was only the two of them left with their strict father. Mother had left when Mal was only six months old after Jessica died – unable to cope with the loss of her Downs Syndrome daughter – the older sister that Mal had never known and Craig rarely mentioned. The three of them lived together in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in the rough end of town. Even then, it was Craig who had looked after young Mal, as Pop was drunk more often than not, and had a mean temper on him that would cause him to lash out at the boys for the slightest infraction. It had almost been a relief when Pop died of liver failure when Mal was only eleven years old, and Craig had taken on the responsibility of being legal guardian to his younger brother, despite the fact that he was yet to reach his twentieth birthday.
They may have struggled to make ends meet, but Craig never once complained about the arrangement – Mallory was basically a good kid, despite getting into the odd lad-ish scrape now and then – and when Mallory decided to join the army, no father could have been more proud than Craig Christie.
When Mallory returned two years later, he was introduced to Cecily and everything changed. She and Craig had already been together for seven months and the diamond that sparkled on the fourth finger of her left hand couldn’t compare to the shine of her eyes or the gloss of her hair – Mallory immediately knew that there could never be anyone else for him and that he could never have her – she could never know.
Fist… knife… dodge… jab…
His knuckles were still raw and he flexed his fingers gingerly before picking up his toothbrush and rinsing it under the faucet. Unscrewing the cap of the toothpaste, his fingers slipped and it tumbled to the floor. Retrieving it would be more pain than it was worth, so he watched it bounce and roll to a stop by the wall before starting to brush his teeth, taking extra care not to aggravate the swollen cut on his lip and the empty socket of gum where a tooth was freshly missing. Not trusting the murky plastic tooth-mug, he stiffly bent his head to the faucet, filling his mouth with cold water to swirl inside his cheeks before spitting it directly down the drain – at least it was no longer tinged pink with blood. Attempting to wake himself properly, he cupped running water in his palms and gently splashed his face, making sure to keep the eye patch dry, then, rather than use the grubby towel, he used the hem of his T-shirt to dry off.
He glared at the man in the mirror once more and cursed himself as a fool. What had he been thinking? Leaving the base, going AWOL, buying a train ticket to take him to his home town? All because he believed his brother needed him.
Well, he had well and truly failed Craig – and failed Cecily too.
Fist… knife… dodge…
Cecily wasn’t the type to use the phone. Unlike the stereotype, she hated nothing more than gossiping into a handset and preferred to write letters. In this day and age of e-mail and instant messaging, it had always struck Mallory as slightly old-fashioned, but he didn’t care – he had kept every one of her notes, long and rambling, keeping him up to date with everything that happened in the lives of the only two people he could call family. Somehow Cecily had understood that this was the most important thing in the world to him – every month without fail, an envelope addressed to Captain M. Christie would arrive at the base, and every month he would wait till he was alone to slit it open, slowly savouring the lingering scent of her perfume as he read her words; hearing her soft tones as though she were in the room talking to him. They were always signed the same, “All our love, Craig and Cecily,” but he knew that, given the choice, Craig would only make a cursory call every now and then whenever there was news of importance. This way Mallory felt involved in his family… and his love for Cecily grew stronger, even over the distance, with every line.
When the harsh tone of the telephone in his office had disturbed him from his reports, he had initially been annoyed and ready to rebuke the caller, but when noted the incoming number, he knew it had to be Craig and this thoughts softened.
“Mallory? It’s Craig…” His voice sounded ragged and his breathing was harsh and laboured. “I don’t know what to do… It’s Cecily… Oh-my-God, it’s Cecily…”
The phone went dead. Frantically, Mal hit the recall button, but got a busy signal – the phone was off the hook.
Something was terribly wrong and he knew he had to reach Craig, but he also knew that he would never be granted leave at the moment and certainly not at such short notice. The classified report scowled up at him – there was no way his superiors could possibly spare him now, but he had to go. After gathering his papers together and locking them into his drawer, he’d stood, grabbed his overcoat and left the office without a word.
He’d bundled himself into a taxi from the train station. The journey so far had passed in a blur of whizzing scenery and fading light – time seemed to have no meaning. The driver had tried to engage Mallory in some chirpy chatter, but quickly abandoned his banter when it became clear that his passenger was intent only on brooding till he reached his destination. When they pulled up outside the house in the cul-de-sac, Mal paid the fare, tipping generously, and stepped out of the cab. He was already at the door by the time the car pulled away.
The house seemed deserted. No lights burning, no answer to the repeated ring of the bell or rap on the door. Waiting only a few moments, Mallory made his way round the back and lifted the flowerpot by the kitchen door where the spare key was concealed. Years of training kept Mal calm as he slotted the key into the lock, turned it, pressed down the handle and stepped through the doorway into the shadowy gloom of the dining kitchen.
An overturned chair caught his eye, alerting his to the fact that all may not be well. His suspicions were confirmed seconds later by a smear of blood down the side of the counter and the pool that had collected at the base. His first reaction was to exit the way he came in and call the police, but his brother could be in trouble – there was no way he could leave without first checking that Craig – and Cecily, oh God! Cecily! – were either gone or, at least, uninjured…
Creeping into the corridor, he carefully eased open the door to the lounge, praying that it wouldn’t creak and give him away, but the room was empty; the only eyes looking at him gazed from framed photographs on the walls and mantel – countless happy scenes smiling at the camera. After a cursory check of the room, he retreated to the hallways once more.
A soft moan drew his eyes upwards towards the ceiling – there was someone upstairs. He darted back into the lounge, looking for a plausible weapon to use for protection and settled on the iron poker by the fireplace. Its weight felt reassuring in his right hand as he approached the stairs. With his back to the wall, he edged his way up the steps. A smudged scarlet handprint marred the creamy wallpaper and another streaked the banister – the sharp, copper tang of blood filled his nostrils, causing the hairs at the nape of his neck to stand on end. Suppressing a shudder, he pressed on, mentally preparing himself for the worst.
The moan subsided into a lurching sob and Mallory saw through the open door to the master bedroom, a crouched figure, slowly rocking back and forwards. With a cry of his own, Mal realised it was Craig.
Flicking the light switch, the room was suddenly awash with a golden glow, revealing the full horror. Craig was hunched over on the bed- the duvet stained crimson – clutching the limp body of Cecily to his chest, whispering to her and whimpering like a frightened child. Her blood had soaked through in patches on Craig’s shirt and another smear showed on the unhooked telephone next to the bed, it’s muffled beep-beep-beep sounding over and over as a subdued alarm. Craig had been here, all this time, holding his wife close, for more than five hours now, since calling his brother’s office.
Mal felt his knees buckle and he steadied himself against the wall, his eyes wide, mirroring the shock on Craig’s face. Even if Cecily had still been alive when Craig called, there was no chance that she could have held on this long, after losing such an amount of blood. Lurching over to his brother’s side, he dropped the poker with a clatter.
“What happened? Craig? What happened here?”
At first Craig’s reply was an almost-silent whisper, muffled as his face was buried in his wife’s neck, but it was repeated, over and over, as the volume increased, till finally Craig was shouting at the top of his voice.
“It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!”
Suddenly, Mallory found himself faced with a brother full of rage. Craig catapulted himself off the bed and threw himself at Mal, barrelling headfirst into his stomach, still screaming his mantra. Bent double by the force, Mal’s face crashed into the open door – he felt his lower lip burst and as he spat out a stream of stringy blood, he felt one of his teeth escape with it.
Mal grabbed at his brother, then, as he dodged back too late, felt a sharp brand of fire flash across his ribs. Crying out, he gripped Craig’s wrist like a vice, but the knife stayed in his clenched fist. Mal’s fingers slipped on the blood and the knife whipped round, slashing across his face, sending a searing arc of pain through him as it’s crossed his left eye. Fighting the panic, Mal shoved Craig as hard as he could, sending him reeling back across the room where his toe caught on the throw rug, sending him sprawling down with a loud crack as his head hit the bedpost.
With his left hand clamped over his eye and his right reaching round to the wound on his ribs, Mal cautiously approached the prone figure on the floor. There was no movement, not even the slightest indication of breath being drawn. A dark trickle snaked it’s way from Craig’s left nostril, coursing down his cheek in a stream towards the dent at his temple and joining the slowly spreading puddle beneath his head, his mouth slack and his eyes blank and staring at some random spot on the ceiling.
Mal’s legs failed him and he crumpled beside his brother. Questions raced through his brain at lightning speed – what on earth could have caused Craig to attack him like that? What had happened here? What did Craig mean that it was all Mal’s fault? What was Mal’s fault?
He painfully dragged himself onto the bed where Cecily still lay, her face turned towards the window as though she were gazing out at the street. Her cheek was marred by a livid red mark, her golden curls were matted to the side of her head and her pale hand was gloved by the drying rust and resting on the ruby gash on her stomach. He smoothed the flaxen tangle from her forehead before closing her eyes forever. Gently, almost reverently, he kissed her cold cheek as a tear escaped and ran down his own.
Reaching for the telephone, his hand alighted on a crumpled sheet of writing paper and he turned away from Cecily. Smoothing it out, he recognised Cecily’s flowing script and began to read…
Tears blurred his eyes as he pounded the wall with his fist, over and over and over, barely registering the pain as skin shredded over bone, painting a smudged rose on the now dented plaster of the wall. This was why Craig blamed him – the terrible truth was too much for him to bear and he finally sank to the soft carpet, burying his head in his hands, sobbing unashamedly. In one fell swoop his family – his whole world – was gone.
When his tears were spent he picked himself up– he had to think clearly now. Still supporting himself against the wall, he moved to the en-suite and switched on the light. In an almost somnambulant haze, he took the first aid kit from the bathroom cabinet and set it on the cistern while he filled the sink with warm water. Glaring at his reflection, he cleaned his wounds, the blood becoming pale swirls as it was diluted; gradually deepening as the ratio of blood-to-water changed. The gash on his ribs wasn’t deep, but it was long, and he wadded a pad of gauze against it before taping it in place. The slash on his face was no deeper, but his eyelid was slit and the eye damaged – he would have to see a doctor, but there would be time for that later – another wad was taped in place and covered with an eye patch.
His shirt was ruined – patches of russet already beginning to dry at the edges. Taking the medical kit with him, he returned to the bedroom and left it on the end of the bed while he opened the closet, pulling out an overnight bag and some clothes. Several shirts were stuffed into the canvas hold-all and he carefully drew on an old, black T-shirt – at least if his wound started seeping, the blood wouldn’t show. Mallory unbuckled his belt and stripped off his trousers, exchanging them for a faded pair of blue jeans. He was all set.
Wincing his way down the staircase, clutching the bag, he picked up Craig’s car keys from the kitchen counter before he left, locking the door behind him. In the driveway, Craig’s battered Ford waited…
… The motel wasn’t fancy – it was barely even basic – but the room had a bed, however moth-eaten the covers, and they didn’t ask for ID at the front desk. Exhausted, Mallory had descended swiftly into a fitful sleep that had left him barely rested.
There was a soft mewing and muffled scratch at the door and Mal opened it to be find a small tabby gazing up at him, its head cocked to one side as it regarded him thoughtfully before sauntering into room like it owned the place. It leapt onto the bed and then swished its tail around its haunches as it sat on the pillow. Closing the door against the dawn, he approached the cat and took up a spot next to it. Mal rubbed his fingers behind its ears, eliciting a contented purr from its throat before it daintily stepped onto his lap. Holding it close, he buried his face in the warm fur, ignoring the irritation building at the back of his nose and throat, and felt the rumbling purr reverberate through his own body, comforting him.
He reached for the antiquated turn-dial phone, still fondling the chin of the cat with his free hand, and tucked the handset into the crook of his neck while he dialled.
“Hello, could I have the police please? This is Captain Mallory Christie. I need to report a murder…”
He calmly gave the details requested then cradled the receiver. As he waited, he picked up the crumpled letter from the bedside table to read once more…
This is the most difficult letter I’ve ever had to write. I don’t know how else to say it but to come right out with the truth – you deserve that much at least. There is no easy way to tell you I’m leaving – I know there must be a million questions, but there’s only really one answer – I’m in love with someone else and it’s just not fair to either of us if I stay; that would be living a lie and I couldn’t bear to do that because, you see, I do still care about you. Please don’t think that I’m leaving you for another man, though – he doesn’t know how much I love him, but even if he did, he’s far to honourable to do anything about it. You see, for the longest time I’ve known that I married the wrong brother, but I know that I could never come between you and destroy your relationship. So I have to go – I have to go far away where I won’t hurt either of you any more.
I’m so sorry.
The waiting wasn’t the hard part – it was knowing that he’d never have the chance to tell Cecily he loved her and that she never had the chance to say she loved him too. Resigned to his fate, Captain Mallory Christie lay back against the pillow, silently stroking the silky-soft coat of the cat and waiting to hear the wail of sirens.
Kell Smurthwaite, 2006©