‘Hot and Cold’ – short story by Lesley Atherton

Perfection. That’s what she was, and I was sure that today would work out just the way I’d planned.

I first saw her on the castle walls and our eyes met, just for a second.  I yearned to catch up and not to lose sight, but her tour party was turning the corner, and mine was five minutes behind and still being forced to listen to the John Major impersonator who masqueraded as a tour guide.  I knew the history of the King’s Tower as well as he did.  When you live in a tourist location and have a season pass, you tend to come every day, just for somewhere funky to eat your lunch. This is my place, and I knew she’d come today.

But I stayed with my group of misfits for a little longer: the elderly and the bored, the kids who wanted to be on the beach, and the mums who wondered if incorporating education into their annual vacation was necessarily a good idea.  As if to answer, a boy of about six elbowed his mother in the thigh. She turned to glare as he moaned ‘This is boring’ at the top of his little voice. Donald, the tour guide pretended not to hear, but I knew how often such things happened, especially to Donald.

It didn’t matter. She was the one, and today was the day. My shoulders hunched as the tour guide droned on about the monks who had built the castle’s brewery and had supported their order with the proceeds. I followed each word, and mouthed them along with him.

I adjusted the hoody around my face, then smoothed it down around my waist. It was of a snorkel style that wasn’t at all appropriate for a summertime holiday destination, but it suited my needs.

Pushing a black curl behind my ear I tried to disregard the heat emanating from beneath the matching fleecy black fabric of my hoodie. It was too bad that the day of her visit was also the warmest day of this Welsh summer, but I had coped with worse in my life, and for worse reason. 

Walking like a drunken crab, I followed the tour party, while poking my head round each gate and turret and wall to catch a glimpse of the girl and ensure I didn’t lose her.  I thought I’d been mistaken and she’d gone already, but no. We arrived at the second west-facing tower as the girl’s tour party was just leaving. She lingered, just a little, at the rear, and I took advantage of the crowds to change my tour group allegiance. It went without a hitch.

There were only two more stops to go on the tour. We’d just been to the north tower with views over the kelp-covered rocks of the defended coastline, and our group were passing in and out of the gatehouse dungeon, before being directed to the inevitable gift shop and tea shop. Never a café.  Always a tea shop.  I moved closer to the young lady, and we stood alongside each other at the entrance to the dungeon. I nudged her Indian-cotton-clad arm with intention.

She turned, expectant, and smiled at the face inside my hood.

‘You’re Tarim.’ More a statement than a question.

‘Marta,’ I said. ‘Shall we do it?’

She nodded with vigour. ‘I’ve built myself up to this for weeks and can’t change my mind now. It’s the right time.’

The tour party had already begun to move off, and I could see my original party leaving the north tower to walk over to join us at the dungeon. We didn’t have long but I was ready. My camera was ready. Marta was also ready.  Allowing the remainder of the earlier party to leave ahead of us, I stood with my back against the now-closed heavy wood door and sighed deeply. We’d be lucky if we got a couple of minutes. As agreed, Marta moved to the far end of the underground room – the end with the wonderful sunlit rays emerging through the skylights – and speedily arranged herself on the straw-covered stone slabs. She placed the chains next to her arms and legs.  With just a little Photoshopping, I could make it look just as it should.  I took photograph after photograph, as I walked over to Marta and gently pushed up her skirt.

‘Tasteful, Tarim,’ she said, posing as I clicked.

Suddenly, the dungeon’s door creaked open and a Scottish couple giggled about finding us alone in there.

Marta raised herself from the straw bed, brushed down her skirt, and in a calm, unflustered voice announced to the couple ‘Sex pics. For an art magazine. We pose somewhere different every day. You should try it’. She winked, and the bearded, anoraked man watched with clear admiration as she left the dungeon. ‘Lucky sod’ he said to me as I followed Marta out. For that he earned a slap on the head from his lady.

But I was not lucky. Things weren’t as Marta had said.

In 1998, precisely twenty years earlier, the body of Marta’s mother had been discovered in the dungeon, bloodied and beaten. Marta had been five then, and a little girl, but now, as a young woman, she was the spitting image of her lost parent. We’d met on a cold crime web forum and it didn’t take long before we got talking properly. Eventually I persuaded her to meet me, and she agreed to come to the castle on this special day. She’d wear her mother’s clothes, and style her hair just as her mother had. I’d dress myself in a black hoody because, on the murder day, there had been a man creeping about in one just the same.

The murder had quickly sunk to the realms of forgotten and unsolved, and not even into infamy – as not once had any of the tour guides mentioned the fate of Marta’s mother or responded to questions asked by the tour parties. A woman’s death had been forgotten and a little girl was forced to live her life without her mother. No cold case team had ever been assigned to discovering more. So it was down to us. The pair of us would make things right.

For the first time in years, I was putting my journalistic skills to good use. My article was written and scheduled for publishing the following day, and the reconstruction photos would be a perfect accompaniment to the headline: ‘Who Can Solve This Twenty Year Old Mystery?’

Marta and I walked together towards the exit, flushed with excitement at our recent activity and with anticipation of tomorrow’s headline . ‘Fancy joining me for tea and a scone?’ I asked. ‘A tribute to your mum?’ She nodded with enthusiasm. ‘I’ll pay,’ she said.

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There’s a Stink in My Sink

There’s a stink in my sink.  It wafts up to meet me each time I enter the kitchen.  I don’t even need to go near the sink to get a whiff, and this kitchen is pretty large. 

I wonder how to deal with this.  It’s a definite stink, but there’s no blockage in the house, and the drain outside seems clear too. I’ve already poured a kettle full of boiling water into both plugholes.  I’ve doused with thick bleach.  I’ve pushed a long, skinny wire brush into the depths of the water pipe, and watched as it emerged, mucky and manky.  But the smell still remains. 

I am loath to add further chemicals to the bleach I’ve already used, as it seems such an extreme measure.  But, on the other hand, this stink is extreme…  it permeates my clothing when I settle in my armchair.  The dog noticed something was different a few weeks back.  He is a big dog, as you know, and jumped up to sniff the sink.  It made him sneeze.  He’s avoided the kitchen since.

My neighbour across the hall, Nigel, seems to be a nice man and I asked him in to have a look.  He often wears overalls and I once saw him with a huge bag of tools and carrying a plunger, so I figured him for some kind of plumber.  Turns out I was right.  Turns out he has a stinky sink too.  Bathroom as well as kitchen.  Me too, I said, but the kitchen is worse.  He poured some crystals into the plug hole and advised me to leave them for an hour or so then do it again if the smell hadn’t gone.  He said it made a difference to his sink and that I shouldn’t report the smell to the council as it would no doubt dissipate soon.  He didn’t say dissipate though – he said disappear. 

But the smell stays.  In despair I call the landlord, who comes to check all six of his flats.  All six have stinky sinks and no amount of foaming crystals is going to put an end to this problem.  I reported it to the council.  Three days later the workmen arrives: a positively speedy response.  They check within the drains and discover a problem: gooey stuff. At first they thought – fat iceberg – as these had been reported in the news as causing incredible problems for sewage workers.  But these pieces weren’t fat.  They were meat.  Bit by bit, varying sizes of meat pieces appeared and the rancid flesh was placed into a bucket. 

Then the council workers check five flats.  In them, the smell reduces as the rotting meat is removed.  In them, the tenants are grateful and happy that somebody has finally done something. 

From the sixth flat, that of my neighbour Nigel, there is no response to the workmen’s knocking.  Nigel appears to be out, so the landlord (who had been present throughout the council’s work, to ensure they didn’t try to charge him for works carried out) offers them a key.  I watch with curiosity as the four-strong group open his door. 

Within seconds, ashen-faced men emerge and I hear a snippet of their conversation.  It turns out that there is a good reason why Nigel keeps himself to himself.  It turns out that there is a good reason why he never has visitors, and insists on coming into a neighbour’s flat, should he wish for a little company.  He’d been subletting his flat to the remains of fourteen corpses.  Parts of these had been cut up and pushed into the drains which had been unable to cope.  Hence the stench. 

I never see Nigel again, but I still have his plastic pot of unblocking crystals.  His flat had been wiped clean of all his fingerprints, but there are a handful of prints remaining on the crystals pot.  The police discover Nigel’s identity speedily: Mark Charnock.  He had killed before and had disposed of the bodies in this exact same way.  He’d gone to prison, and had escaped.  So Nigel, or Mark, had begun his life again as he took the lives of others. 

Mark Charnock is soon caught.  It seems he couldn’t stop with his madness.  He couldn’t stop killing, and he made the terrible error of living on a new estate where the drainage system is woefully inadequate for his particular needs.

It is seven months later when I remember: seven months later when I run to the toilet to vomit.  I remember the ‘home made chill-chicken pie’ he’d made for me.  He brought it round in a beautiful earthenware dish.  I remember at the time thinking it odd that he referred to the pie as a ‘she’.  She’s a good one, he’d said.  Full of spirit.  Bit strong, but nothing I couldn’t handle.  I’d thought nothing of it. 

But I knew, as I wiped my mouth free of vomit, that I’d been an unwitting cannibal.  And that Nigel had laughed his socks off at the thought.