© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
WFAE 90.7
P.O. Box 896890
Charlotte, NC 28289-6890
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Death Message'

He could tell they were coppers the second he clapped eyes on them, but it was something in how they stood, in that formal awkwardness and the way their features set themselves into an overtight expression of concern, that drilled a hole straight through to his guts; that sucked the breath from him as he dropped into the chair the female officer had advised him to take.

He drew spit up into his dry mouth and swallowed. Watched as the pair of them tried and failed to make themselves comfortable; as they cleared their throats and pulled their own chairs a little closer.

All three winced at the sound of it. The dreadful scrape and its echo.

They looked like they'd been dropped into the room against their will, like actors who had wandered on to a stage without knowing what play they were in, and he felt almost sorry for them as they exchanged glances, sensing the scream gathering strength low down inside him.

The officers introduced themselves. The man - the shorter of the two - went first, followed by his female colleague. Both of them took care to let him know their Christian names, like that would help.

"I'm sorry, Marcus, but we've got bad news."

He didn't even take in the names, not really. Just stared at the heads, registering details that he sensed would stay with him for a long time after he'd left the room: a dirty collar; the delicate map of veins on a drinker's nose; dark roots coming through a dye-job.

"Angie," he said. "It's Angie, isn't it?"

"I'm sorry."

"Tell me."

"There was an accident."

"Bad one . . ."

"The car didn't stop, I'm afraid."

And, as he watched their mouths forming the words, a single, banal thought rose above the noise in his head, like a distant voice just audible above the hiss of a badly tuned radio.

That's why they sent a woman. Because they're supposed to be more sensitive. Or maybe they think there's less chance I'll break down, get hysterical, whatever . . .

"Tell me about this car," he said.

The male officer nodded, like he'd come prepared for this kind of request; was happier to be dealing with the technical details. "We think it jumped the lights and the driver couldn't brake in time for the zebra crossing. Over the limit, like as not. We didn't get much of a description at the time, but we were able to get a paint sample."

"From Angie's body?"

The copper nodded slowly, took another good-sized breath. "We found it burned out the next morning a few miles away. Joy-riders . . ."

It was sticky inside the room, and he could smell the recent redecoration. He thought about sleeping, and of waking up from a nightmare in clinging sheets.

"Who's looking after Robbie?" He was staring at the male copper when he asked the question. Peter something-or-other. He watched the officer's eyes slide away from his own, and felt something tear in his chest.

"I'm sorry," the woman said. "Your son was with Miss Georgiou at the time of the accident. The vehicle struck them both."

"They were both pronounced dead at the scene." The male officer's hands had been clutched tightly together. Now he loosened the grip and began to spin his wedding ring around his finger. "It wasn't drawn out, you know?"

He stared at the copper's thumb and forefinger working, shivering as his veins began to freeze and splinter under his skin. He felt the blood turning black and powdery, whispering beneath his tattoos and his yellowing flesh, like the blood of something that had been dead for a very long time.

"OK, then," the female officer said, meaning: Thank Christ for that. Now can we get the hell out of here?

He nodded, meaning: Yes, and thanks, and please fuck off before I smash my head into your face, or the wall, or the floor.

Walking back towards the door, where the warder was waiting, it was as though each one of his senses were suddenly working flat out; heightened in a momentary rush, before everything began to shut down.

Cracks in the painted brick gaped like crevasses, and he was tempted to push his fingers inside. He felt the material of his jeans, coarse against his legs as he walked. And, from across the room, the whispers of the two police officers came to him easily - deafening above the sound of his own feet and the noise of the water streaming through the radiators.

"When's he get out?"

"A couple of weeks, I think."

"Well, at least he won't have to wear handcuffs to the funerals . . ."

From Death Message by Mark Billingham. Copyright 2009 by Mark Billingham. Published by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Billingham