We are thrilled to present Part I of an original short story written by BLOODLINE author Mark Billingham titled “The Walls.” We will be running the printed version of the story in two parts, as well as an audio version, read by Brad Negbaur (see below). BLOODLINE is also available as a downloadable audiobook read by Paul Thornley.
It was probably not the nicest hotel in Huntsville, but I had a good idea that it wasn’t the worst either, so I didn’t have a lot to complain about. Truth was, I’d booked the Palms over the Internet, so I didn’t know too much about anything until I checked in. Besides which, I’d stayed in places that made this one seem like the damn Ritz, so I was happy enough with a bed I could sleep in and food that didn’t come back to haunt me.
That was when I first saw her – in the restaurant at the Huntsville Palms Hotel.
It was seven o’clock or somewhere around there and the place was pretty packed and she was sitting at a big table just across from my small one. She and everyone else at the table with her were talking in hushed voices, which made a nice change from the loudmouth pair behind me who talked about the cost of bedroom furniture for an hour or more, like they were saving the planet or some shit. I turned around to stare at one point. I was hoping they’d see that they were putting me right off my chicken-fried steak, but it didn’t do any good. I really don’t know how either of them had the time to eat anything with all that jabbering, but they clearly did because they both looked like Mack trucks with heads.
I’d seen a lot of people that size since I’d arrived in Texas.
From where I was sitting I didn’t have a great view of her, but what I could see looked pretty good, so I kept glancing over and eventually she turned to try and catch the eye of the waitress. There wasn’t really a moment between us, nothing like that. But there was maybe a half-smile or something before she got the waitress’s attention and turned away. I just kept on eating and flicking through the local paper, happy enough to make up the rest of it in my head, the way men do sometimes.
She presses something into my hand when I run into her on the way out of the men’s room. Her room number scrawled on a napkin.
She says, “Let’s not bother with names,” when we get together later on, while she’s looking me straight in the eye and taking off her shirt. “Let’s just enjoy each other”, she whispers. “Get out of our heads and go crazy for one night…”
There was plenty of strong drink on her table, bottles of beer and red wine. It looked like some sort of family party, even though nobody looked too excited to be there or smiled a whole lot. Looking back, it’s not hard to understand why, but at the time I didn’t think a great deal of it. There weren’t a whole lot of parties in what passes for my family, so it’s not like I’m any great expert or anything. They were putting it away, is all I’m saying, her as much as anyone, reaching for those bottles to fill in the silences. That time she tried to find a waitress? That was so she could order another couple of beers.
“You like what you see?” she says, when she’s finally naked, and I think it’s pretty obvious that I do, because I’m naked too by then. She finishes the beer she’s drinking and puts the empty bottle down. I say something that makes her laugh and she reaches out for me, pulls me down on to the bed then moans as she rolls on top.
I had the two older women at the table marked down as the mother and maybe an aunt and I figured that the young guy with the shaved head was her brother. He had the same eyes and the features were pretty similar. He was probably a couple of years younger than me, while she was around the same age I was. I couldn’t be sure, because I hadn’t got a good look at her close up.
The bedroom-furniture couple had squeezed out from behind their table and gone, which made hanging around easier.
I ordered pecan pie with whipped cream.
I watched the cars pulling in and out of the lot outside.
I spent a few minutes looking at the crossword then gave up.
I wasn’t drinking, myself. It’s been a good few years since I did any of that, so I sat there with coffee once I’d done eating, trying to make the newspaper last. There was plenty of news about what would be going down at The Walls the following day, but I skipped all that and lingered instead over the local stories and the crazy classifieds. I’ve always loved that stuff.
The shit that people try to sell, the lonely hearts, the adult services.
For a small town with only one major industry and a good percentage of its population behind bars, there were plenty of massage parlours and the like. Escort agencies and strip joints and saunas. I knew the women in the pictures were not the ones anyone was likely to get if they showed up, but I’m not a monk or anything and they were nice enough to look at for a while. I turned the paper over when the waitress came to the table with a refill, then sat and drank sweet black coffee for another ten minutes, while the day dimmed outside and the restaurant started to empty.
Just sipping coffee and watching the girl across the top of the mug. Staring through the steam at the chain around her ankle and the hand she laid on one of the old women’s arms. At the back of her neck, where the fine blonde hairs ran down beneath the collar of her blouse.
I’d been thinking about trying to catch a movie or something, but in the end I just drove around for a while, trying to find a station that wasn’t playing cowboy music. I took the car on to I-45, south-west into Walker County and after a while I picked up signs to Huntsville State Park. I parked in the picnic area next to a gathering of RVs and camper vans and got talking to a guy who was cooking sausages and pork chops on one of those cheap barbecue sets you can pick up at gas stations. He seemed decent and we chatted about nothing in particular for ten minutes or so, then I walked down to the lake. The moon was like a dinner plate. You could see clear across the water to where the pines were thick and black on the other side, but after a while it started to get cold and I only had a thin jacket on, so I walked back through the trees to the car and drove back to the hotel.
I swear I was thinking about nothing but television, but when I walked toward the stairs, I caught sight of her sitting at the small bar in a room just off the reception area. She had her back to me, but I knew it was her. She was on her own, dipping nachos into a bowl of salsa and talking to the woman who ran the place, and I decided there probably wouldn’t be anything much worth watching on TV anyway.
I sat a couple of seats away and ordered a Coke and when I’d got it, I asked if she wouldn’t mind sliding the nachos along. I know it sounds like a line, but the truth was, those chops and sausages had made me hungry again. She passed the bowl and moved into the chair next to mine, said she was glad someone was taking the damn nachos away, because otherwise she might have eaten every single one.
“I love these things,” I said, grabbing a handful and thinking that she hadn’t got any need to worry about a few extra pounds.
“I’d ask if you wanted to have a drink with me.” She nodded towards my glass. “But that’s not the sort of drink I had in mind.”
“I’m sorry too.”
She had that great accent, you know? All those long, flat vowels, but not syrupy and stupid like some. Musical more than anything, and definitely sounding good on her.
“Can’t you just pretend it’s got rum in it?” I asked.
“I like rum and Coke,” she said. “I might have one myself when this is finished.” She raised her beer bottle and I leaned over and touched my glass to it.
“Happy to keep you company though,” I said.
She was probably a couple of years older than me, but the light wasn’t too good in the place and I wasn’t bothered either way. Her hair was dirty-blonde, a bob growing out, and though her eyes were already starting to glaze over just a little, they were big and green enough. She wore a dark blouse and skirt and when she leaned towards the bar I could just see a thin white bra strap and the gap between flesh and material a little lower down.
“How long are you in town for?” she asked.
“I’m heading home tomorrow.”
“It keeps changing,” I said.
She smiled and emptied her bottle. “Bit warmer down here,” she said.
I said, “Right”, and laughed and took her hand when she offered it to me.
“I’m Ellen,” she said.
“So why are you in Huntsville, Chris?”
“I’m supervising some construction out at the mall,” I said.
“You like it?”
“It’s all right.”
She ordered more drinks. Another beer for her and an ‘invisible rum’ and Coke for me. When she’d served us, the owner wandered down to the end of the bar and began cleaning glasses. She was a lousy eavesdropper.
“I don’t normally drink very much,” Ellen said. She put a third of her bottle away in one, and wiped her mouth. “And I know you’re thinking that lots of people who drink like fish say that, right?”
“It’s not my business,” I said.
She laughed, dry and empty. “It’s kind of a special occasion.”
“That why you’re here with your family?”
She nodded, took another drink. “You might not think ‘special’ is the right word,” she said. “Not…appropriate or whatever. If I tell you why it is we’re here.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything.”
“You want to go outside for a cigarette?” She reached down for the handbag at her feet. “God I need a cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke,” I said. “But I’ll come with you if you like.”
She waved the idea away, then turned on her chair and stared at me. She said that she might just as well talk to a complete stranger about what was happening because she and her family weren’t talking about it a whole lot. She cleared her throat and finished her beer. Put down the bottle, then turned back to me.
“I’m here, because tomorrow at six o’clock they’re executing the man who killed my sister.”
I could not think of a single thing to say.
“Heavy, I know.” She reached across me for the nachos. “I bet you’re wishing you’d drunk your soda and walked away, right?”
“You’ve still got time.”
I shrugged. “Sounds like you could do with someone to talk to.”
She nodded, pleased, and put a hand on my leg for just a second or two. “My head’s buzzing with it, you know? My mom and her sister and my psycho brother have just gone to bed like it’s no big deal, or that’s what they’re telling themselves at any rate, but Jesus, I can’t just sit up there in that shitty room and take my make-up off and say goodnight like we’re all on some shopping trip or something.” She shook her head. “I mean, we’ve known it’s been coming for a while, but still, I can’t just pretend this is…normal, you know?”
“You’re right,” I said. “It’s not normal.”
She smiled and let out a long sigh, like she was relieved that I hadn’t freaked out or something. She could see that I had barely touched my drink but she said she was going to have another one anyway and waved the woman across from the end of the bar. She ordered another beer and a rum and Coke, and watched me while the drinks were being prepared.
After a minute or so she said, “Aren’t you going to ask me what he did?”
“What that animal did to her?”
“Look, it’s up to you—”
“He beat her so bad they needed dental records to identify her.” She leaned close, but made no effort to lower her voice. “He beat her and raped her then he cut her throat like she was no better than a pig and when he’d finished, he sat down and made himself something to eat. He sat there with a sandwich while my nineteen-year-old sister bled out in her bedroom.”
“So, you know, tomorrow doesn’t make it anywhere near even. Not for what he did, right? Not for that.”
I grunted something and glanced up at the woman who was laying the drinks down in front of us. She caught my eye and raised a painted eyebrow before walking back to the other end of the bar.
“So, what do you think?”
It was not the easiest question I’d ever been asked. “I think I can understand why you’re angry.”
“I doubt it,” she said.
“Fair point,” I said. “She wasn’t my sister.”
“No, she wasn’t.”
“It can’t be easy holding on to that though. Not for so long.” I reached for my drink, moved the ice around in the glass. “I mean these guys are on death row for years, right?”
“Anthony Solomon Johnson has been on death row for a little over four years and seven months,” she said. There was no emotion in her voice. “That’s how long we’ve been waiting for this.”
I nodded slow, like I was impressed or something. “For revenge.”
“I don’t care what you call it,” she said. “I’ve met folks who say that a killer should be put to death the same way he did his killing, but I don’t hold with that eye for an eye stuff.” She stared down, straightened her skirt. “I don’t really give a damn if it hurts, mind you. It should hurt.” She took a drink. “You agree with me, right, Chris?”
I thought about it. She asked me again.
“They don’t know if the needle hurts or not though, do they?” I pulled the nachos across the bar but the bowl was empty. “I mean it’s not like anyone’s around long enough to tell anybody.”
She shrugged. Said, “I hope I can see it in his eyes…”
The rum was going down every bit as easy as the beer and she was starting to slur her words a little. She said something after that, but I didn’t catch it and when I leaned closer all I could smell was the booze.
“We’re going to have to call it a night, folks.”
I looked up and the woman behind the bar was pulling the empties towards her. I opened my mouth to speak, but she shook her head and even now I’m not quite sure what she meant by it. I glanced at the bill and put thirty dollars on the bar and when the woman had taken the cash away, Ellen began talking again. It was not much above a whisper, but this time I caught it easily enough.
“I can’t be alone,” she said.
“You’ve got your family,” I said. “Your mother’s upstairs.”
“You know I don’t mean that.” Her eyes were wide suddenly, and wet. “You want me to beg?”
“No, I don’t want that,” I said.
Mark Billingham worked as an actor, a TV writer and a stand-up comedian before becoming one of the most critically acclaimed crime novelists in the world. He lives in North London with his wife and two children. Learn more at http://www.markbillingham.com.