The Mulrones #3: Flesh and Coin


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Audio narrator: Molly King.

*1st Edition Signed and Limited Edition Hardback, published by DarkFuse.
Back Cover Copy:
For some, dying is easy. For others, dying is their only hope.

Charlie Dawes lies in the Old Oak Hospice haunted by the looming specter of death, plagued by dark memories, stalked by a mysterious, faceless creature he knows only as the Shadowman, who won’t let him die…yet.


Cathy Redman, his only friend and a caretaker in the ward, spends her time reading to Charlie and comforting his pain. She thinks she knows him.
But when an inquisitive detective, a spiteful nurse, and a dangerous old Gypsy’s lives intertwine, Charlie’s true fate is revealed, and it has been sealed by...flesh and coin.

One Chapter Sample:

What had made me move through so many dead and pointless years was curiosity.
Now even that had flickered out.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Mother Night

Part One
Mercy for the Dead

I.
Tea and Morphine

Charlie Dawes didn’t have the foggiest when it was exactly that Death came for the big guy in the last bed on the ward, because of the morphine.
            Because of the morphine, sometimes he didn’t know his own name or his children’s names (he didn’t have any children). He couldn’t remember what year it was, or that he’d been born in ’64. He remembered ’82, at the tender age of 18, and his first gig. He remembered the first time he got laid (wrongly) with a girl called Wendy Bridges, who’d had blonde hair and a front-fastening bra. But he couldn’t remember a whole hell of a lot.
            Because of the morphine, and because he was dying.
            Even so, confused as he was, he knew Death well enough when he saw him. Tall and broad and bald and black as night. Shadow black.
            Smoke drifted from him, hazy and lazy smoke like a smoldering coal fire when the embers have died down. Cold smoke left in the early hours of a winter morning. When those tendrils seemed about to break free, Death sucked them back. Like souls, trapped, frightened hands reaching through cage bars.
            The big guy with a wicked rattling chest at the end of the ward turned to smoke himself, just for an instant. Hard to tell, on morphine, what was real and what imagination made real, but that drifting, lazy smoke seemed to stretch, languid (like a cat arching its back, shaking its tail) out toward Death’s shadow-smoke. For a moment, perhaps there were embers there, glowing in the dark, that could have been eyes.
            Death was blades and guns. Death was cancer and dementia. Death was stupid as falling from a balcony or a heart attack before a man sees forty. Death was smoke and fire and cold comfort, the wet embracing peace of drowning in warm seas or freezing, tired, in the snow. It was a pill too far, a fat, bloated liver, yellow skin and yellow fever and Ebola and AIDS and many, many men.
            Maybe Death, too, was a man named Charlie Dawes on a cold night hitting a man a little too hard. Cold night, no gloves. Wondering if he’d broken a knuckle because his bones felt brittle even through the drink. Worrying about his own knuckle and too fucking drunk to care about a boy of seventeen dying, forgotten, with a cracked skull and cerebrospinal fluid leaking from his ear onto a rough, icy road.
            Yes, Charlie knew Death well enough when he saw him.


*

The big man’s name was John Mortimer. In life, he’d been a straightforward man. Born ’41, in the middle of a war in the east end of London, he’d lived over seventy years of history by his death. Much of it was ingrained in him, on the roads within his mind. He’d read the newspaper every day of his adult life, but for two stays in the hospital, both times for bypass surgery. His mind had been clogged with news that didn’t matter to him, his arteries clogged with a thousand, maybe ten thousand, slices of smoked bacon his wife had fried for him almost every day of their marriage until she left him early and made him a widower.
            Three children survived John Mortimer. Later, they would argue about the will, portioning out Mortimer’s leavings. The morning of his death, though, two of his children stood beside his bed, looking down at a whale of a man presented the best a man could be in death.
            The nurses had washed his body, put his teeth in, combed the last of the man’s hair. Laid him on the slab of his bed with clean, fresh sheets and placed lilies on the cheap unit beside his bed to mask the lingering odor of a body in the early stages of becoming a not-body; a shell that souls inhabit for a while until it becomes hollow but for bugs and bacteria.
            The third child, now a man of forty-seven, lived in Italy’s countryside with an expensive wife. He wasn’t present. The two children who could make this early good-bye looked on their father with a curious mix of sadness and relief that relatives sometimes feel when the terminally ill pass. Neither spoke, neither sat. No one watched them, because the dead weren’t viewed on the ward but in one of the side rooms, mainly there for privacy. Little chapels blessed by minor clergy of the Church of England.
            David Mortimer, the younger of the two sons, left first.
            Mortimer’s only daughter waited until David left before she cried. She cried hard for a long time until she, too, left. Before she returned to her two-bedroom terraced house on the outskirts of Ipswich, she kissed her father once, on the forehead.
            She’d always been his favorite, and he, hers.
            John Mortimer watched over the mound of his belly as his family left.
            I’m here, baby, he thought-spoke to his daughter. You shouldn’t cry. I’m moving on. Moving up, maybe. I don’t think I’m going down. God, take me, eh?
            God?
            No one answered. Not God, not the Ferryman.
            He had no breath. He could not speak.
            He was dead but he could think-speak.
            I’m dead and I watched my children mourn. I’m dead and stuck right here. Why am I not gone? Is this how things work?
            He hadn’t had a breath in his body for several hours now. And yet he’d been pronounced dead, cleaned, had his teeth stuffed back in his mouth, though he’d not felt a thing. He’d been mourned. Shortly, true, but well enough.
            He could think. He could see. He was dead, it seemed, and in death apparently you did not go blind.
            But that’s not right, is it?
            It wasn’t.
            Neither was the man to whom Mortimer tried to speak. The shadow-black man at the foot of his bed. The faceless man, the man of smoke.
            This isn’t right, Mortimer thought-spoke. You’re Death, right? You’re supposed to take me. Like the Ferryman?
            The man made of shadow was silent for a time, as he had been all along. A nurse came in, sniffed, left again. It didn’t seem like long, but even while people busied themselves on the ward, and the sun moved, unseen, in the winter sky, the creature remained, still as John Mortimer himself.
            As though Death, too, was working to a different clock. Eventually, animation returned to his blank form, and he spoke, his voice soft, his words rounded.
            “I am not the Ferryman,” said the creature with no mouth, no eyes, no face.
            At last. I thought…I wondered… John’s words, too, came out with no mouth to make them.
            “I am not Death, John Mortimer,” said the shadow.
            Then what the bally-hell are you? said John, not afraid, not in pain, or fear, but angry now. Good and angry.
            The creature, black, entirely, against the unnatural light in the windowless room, gave the appearance of thought. Mortimer waited. It seemed he was going nowhere. It didn’t hurt.      It wasn’t pleasant, but it didn’t matter. Did it?
            What are you? he thought again. Answer me, for Christ’s sake!
            The shadow man shrugged his shoulders, just a sense of smoke drifting on dusty air.
            “I am not Death,” he said. “Not for you.” Then he was gone.
            What about me? thought Mortimer. What about me? he thought, and carried right on thinking. 

*

Cathy Redman’s feet ached, toe to heel. She wore good shoes, and still her feet hurt. She rested them whenever she got home, soaked them when she could. By the end of the shift, she’d be hobbled. Now, at the start of her shift?
            Just a minor hell.
            An old Irish lady once told her to always spend good money on her bed and her shoes, because if you weren’t in one, you were in the other. She always did. Unfortunately, though her shoes were good, her feet were old.
            She pulled off her shoes to put on her morning plasters when the door to the locker room squealed open, the bottom of the door scraping new linoleum raw. Hattie Simms closed the door after her, turning her back on Cathy to do so without so much as a smile.
            Miserable bitch, thought Cathy.
            Hattie final gave Cathy a terse smile and busied herself at her locker, doing unimportant things to avoid speaking to Cathy.
            Cathy finished putting on her plasters and left without a word.
            The floor was quiet—as quiet as a hospice gets. People in pain, but hushed, by and large. Hushed by a strange kind of British reserve, present even in the terminally ill, and by heavy doses of drugs.
            John Mortimer, of course, was gone. A man named David Moore was most likely to be next. He’d stopped taking food a week ago, and liquid two days before. On TLC only, at this point.
            He’d been a nice man, but the girls all had their favorites, and Charlie Dawes was hers. When he was lucid—surprisingly often, considering the pain he must be in—he was a nice man, a man who understood. She could talk to him. In some little way, she thought maybe he was helping her, more than she was helping him.
            So, she changed bedding and pads and bags and drugs; busied herself with the minutiae of palliative care. Of course, she spoke to people, she calmed people, spent time with people. It was a good hospice. Private, well-paid, well-equipped, fully staffed. It was a good job for someone who could leave work at the door. But even then, sometimes it got to Cathy. And, she supposed, that was a good thing, too.
            When she was finished with the immediate work (there was always more), she headed to Charlie’s bedside. He was sleeping, calm, so she just sat beside him.
            He was young to be in a hospice, young to be alone. Not once had he any visitors but her.
            Which was odd for such a pleasant man.
            Cathy sat for a while, enjoying a brief respite off her aching feet. She picked up a magazine from the man’s bedside cabinet. Some music magazine, full of pictures of people partying that she didn’t know and didn’t understand now, at 63 years of age.
            She vastly preferred home life. The quiet life. Maybe for that reason she clicked with Charlie. Neither married, both their own person. Book people, home people. No children, no pets. Maybe some would see their choice as selfish, but not Cathy. Because she’d always known she’d be a terrible wife and a worse mother. Her choice wasn’t selfish, but necessary.
For a time, she sat, still, flicking through the magazine she didn’t like.
            People moaned and sometimes shouted out, lost in delirium and agony. No one died—people didn’t die every five minutes in a hospice. Nor did it feel like a hopeless or even sad place.
            Eventually, she figured Charlie was out for the count. She pushed herself up, wincing a little at the pain in her feet, and turned to go.
            Charlie opened his eyes at the sound of her shoes—rubber soles so she didn’t slip—on the flooring.
            “Thought you were down for the day,” she said, smiling gently.
            Charlie’s eyes were watery, unfocused. Like he’d recently taken his meds.
            “Nope,” he said. “I’m good at drugs.”
            His words were slurred and sloppy, but he made sense. Unlike many on the ward.
            Cathy didn’t ask how he felt. It was a pointless, silly question in a place like this. She’d been doing her job long enough to avoid daft questions.
            “You want me to stay a while?”
            Charlie smiled. His smile was lopsided. Women would have found that young man adorable, once upon a time.
            Cathy smiled back and sat again.
            “Talk or read, Charlie?”
            “Read, if you don’t mind.”
            He couldn’t focus well enough to read. She could. So she did. Nothing fancy for Charlie—he liked thrillers. She enjoyed books on principle, though she couldn’t abide romance.
            John le CarrĂ© was the order of the day. She opened the drawer in his cabinet and took out the book, then she read. He smiled, drifted, came back. She read when he slept and when he woke, for maybe an hour.
            When she checked her watch, she saw it was nine p.m. and that she’d spent a whole four hours over her shift, sitting, reading, and being peaceful.
            “Dark,” said Charlie, stirring.
            “I should go get my beauty sleep,” said Cathy.
            Charlie winked. “You’re cute enough.”
            Cathy didn’t blush. She was 63. She did laugh though. Felt good, sometimes, laughter, in a place like this.
            She found that she wanted to kiss him on the cheek, like a mother might a son. She’d never felt that way before, and it made her strangely uncomfortable. She didn’t.
            “Saw Death last night, Cathy. Looked like a shadow.”
            Though his words were still mauled by drugs, Cathy understood him. It wasn’t the first time someone had told her something along those lines. She didn’t think it would be the last.
            “He’ll come soon enough, Charlie Dawes. You get your rest.”
            He nodded, and as she left, back to him, she thought she heard him say something else.
            “Shadowman.”
            But even so, it didn’t matter. People on morphine, people dying, people in pain…they said the strangest things.
            Cathy quietly walked on her rubber soles from the ward to the locker room. She mulled that word over in her head. Shadowman. Shrugged, took her bag and heavy winter coat and left for the night.
            Hattie, that spiteful cow, was thankfully long gone.
            Then, so was Cathy. Home, to her books, a nice cup of tea, and sweet relief from her damned aching feet.

*

The walk to the bus stop was, for Cathy, a killer. With her feet hurting and the blistering cold of winter in full bluster, she managed the walk in just under thirty minutes and by the time she got on the bus (the last bus) her feet were throbbing with agony.
           The journey back to her home took twenty minutes. Cathy had never wanted to drive, and when she did have reason to get in a car, she didn’t like it. Never had. It didn’t feel safe.
            The bus was a big lump. Trustworthy, dependable. Sometimes it was late, sometimes early. But a bus came along eventually. Always did.
            After a shorter walk the other end, into the city, she looked at the front of her house and smiled. Even though mostly dark but from the streetlights, it was still hers, still warming, the sight of it, and inviting. Her front door opened into a quiet home. Her haven from the world. Not fussy, like some older people kept their houses. Tidy, clean, and functional. A three-bedroom house, two bedrooms a little bit dusty and full of books.
            She didn’t have a television, though she had a small radio she listened to from time to time. The Archers, the news. She never felt the need for music or movies or television shows. Cathy enjoyed the silence more than the radio, though, and it was late. Very late. Without even brushing her teeth (a point of pride—yellowing, but all her own) she undressed and readied herself for her bed. She took only the essentials—a cup of tea with crushed-up morphine she stole from the hospice, and her book. A gentle tap on her bedside lamp and she turned the lights down, because when the morphine (the quick-release kind) began to work its magic, the lights would hurt her eyes.
            By eleven, she was high. Her feet were a long, long way away. Her second drink, and last of the evening, rested on the nightstand beside her single bed.
            This was her favorite time of the evening. When the words began to swim and live and breathe with her imagination, always vivid, and a little help from her pain medication. For a short time, everything was right with the world. Then, she was asleep, book on her chest, snoring gently.

*

Death was a bridge. For some, a simple thing, like an arch over a gentle stream, a fat fallen trunk over a mere trickle of water that would barely wet a pair of decent boots. Maybe some people speed right over that bridge, Tower Bridge, in London, on a racing bike or in a free taxi, never a boat in sight, no wind. No impediment to stop them from reaching the other side, wherever that may be for them.
            The promised land. Heaven, maybe. Or a cessation from the sorrow and suffering.
            For some, though, the Forth Bridge, or the Golden Gate, maybe. A great expanse to be traversed in fog or wind or snow, shod in beggar’s sandals or with feet hobbled.
            Charlie’s bridge, it seemed, was a raised drawbridge. The castle of heaven was the other side and a stagnant, oily moat boiled and bubbled between. Often, as he stood before that great, perhaps imagined, edifice, he felt heavy, as though he wore some ancient iron suit of armor. His limbs struggled to shift through weight and rusted joints. He had no charger, no army. No ballista or trebuchet at his back. He was a man laying siege to heaven with nothing but the failing strength of his withered arms.
            Often, he stood with that heavy weight on his limbs before the castle and wished nothing more than suicide in the awful muck of the moat, or to throw himself from the castle’s battlements, to run beneath burning tar and die inside his tin suit.
            But he understood that somehow, suicide was not allowed. Not for him.
            The end of it all was a button push away on an infusion pump loaded with bliss. Morphine in such an amount, taken at once, that could put a bull to sleep. But it was a small torture, too. Death, again, beyond his reach. The fog that morphine brought, the promise of oblivion, was rationed.
            Here is a blade. If you can reach it, you can cut the bonds that stop you from reaching the blade.
            Joseph Heller, Charlie thought. He thought of Vonnegut, too. So it goes, he thought.
            Of all the books he’d read, all the movies, the music. The drugs he’d smoked and swallowed and sniffed. He thought of these things through a haze and the memories he saw were obscured by cataracts. Milky, pale and blurred things, distorted until he could not even tell their shape.
            Charlie drifted, and with his weak arm pushed the button on the morphine pump that fed into his leg. He hated himself for it, but even the fog was better than the pain.
            He opened his eyes for a moment, wondering if his angel, Cathy, had come. The room was clear until the large dose of morphine hit his system, atop the rest already in his bloodstream.
            In the ward where he rested, shifted, ached, cried, there were a total of eight beds.
            Four beds on each side. He didn’t know the names of the other people. The bed at the end (the good bed by the window) had been filled already since the big man had been called from pain and taken to someplace else, someplace Charlie hoped was better than this festering hole. Charlie remembered the big guy that had been there well enough, despite the fugue he lived in, and that he’d died. Death had called and the big guy had answered. Now someone else was waiting to cross the bridge. An old man, Charlie saw, like most on the ward. Skin waxy and thin, toothless maw open as he slept and struggled for breath.
Beds didn’t stay empty for long. Dying was popular as ever in this place.
            As Charlie looked around at the people on the ward the fog rose up from the shiny floor. The haze of winter sun from the distant windows seemed to hold the fog back for a moment, and Charlie thought of Cambridge, being a student, round the Backs, smoking a little weed. Puffing thick smoke into the bright summer sun and holding a girl’s hand.
            He couldn’t remember her name. He fought against the encroaching fog, suddenly sure her name was important. But the fog rose over Cambridge in his mind and in the ward, too. It covered his fellow roommates, obscuring their features until they were little more than shapeless lumps atop slippery mattresses.
            Sure it was the morphine haze rising, and then, sure it was not, because within the fog, a man made of shadow and dark black smoke that roiled upon itself rose. He came from the earth, the floor…from somewhere deep below.
            Charlie tried to push himself up higher on the bed, to call Death over. He was ready. He’d been ready for months. Too afraid to finish it when he could, to helpless to finish it now.
But Death had no eyes for Charlie.
            The hoary bastard faced Charlie, true. He knew Charlie. Charlie could feel that hit him in the guts, face or not, fog or no.
            Yet when Charlie raised a weak hand to beckon, because he was too fucked up on morphine to manage much more than a grunt, Death turned his back. Turned away, like Charlie was beneath him, unwanted, unimportant. Instead of Death’s embrace, Charlie felt his cold indifference.
            He’s not Death…
            The fog rose. Someone cried out. Agony, bad-trip screaming. Death was upon the man opposite Charlie.
            But something was wrong. The fog wasn’t pure any longer. It was red.

*

Blood seemed to fill the eerie fog in an instant, as though the shadow had severed an artery. Charlie didn’t see where the blood came from, or what caused the wound. He saw what happened to the blood, though.
            A burst of blood on the fog, like a red mist on the unnatural air. It hung in the air. Could have been a moment or an eternity—Charlie couldn’t tell. He was good at drugs. Always had been. There was some kind of time disparity on certain drugs. Morphine was one; weed another. Time slowed, or perception sped, but either way Charlie saw the blood hang, and the shadow that was not Death took the blood. He didn’t bathe in it or drink it, but absorbed it—each miniscule drop.
            Time didn’t mean much to Charlie. Dying-time was slow. Morphine time was slow. Between the two he could have stayed there for a week in real time, living-time. He felt as though time was slow enough to dodge a bullet, had he wished. He wanted to be that blood spray, whether pain came with it or not. Pain was nothing now but a marker on the bridge.
            Death turned to face Charlie, then. This time, no mere shadow. Not a thing of smoke any longer, but heavier. Full of the dead man’s life.
            The Shadowman was not Death, but a stealer of death. Charlie understood, now, more than he wished, because within his fugue he could hear the man opposite crying out.
            “Where am I?” he said, but not like a man with advanced Alzheimer’s, or someone lost in a shopping mall. The anguish in his voice hurt Charlie’s heart.
            “Where am I?” he cried.
            Which was impossible, but true, regardless of Charlie’s wishes. And the fact that he was dead?
            The man’s torso was in two.
            Suddenly, Charlie didn’t want the shadow to look his way. Wanted the shadow to leave, fuck right off, never return.
            But the shadow walked, or swam, through the fog. More solid, though not all the way (solid enough, thought Charlie, to tear a man in two) but he seemed heavier…and menacing in a way he hadn’t been the time before, when he’d taken the fat guy.
            Shadowman came through the fog until he was at the foot of Charlie’s bed.
            “What are you?” said Charlie, still aware of the dead man’s lost voice from beyond the fog.
            “Not Death. Not for you.”
            Tears, unbidden, pooled in Charlie’s eyes. Because he was afraid—terrified, in fact. Ashamed, too. He wanted death so bad…even at the hands of this creature.
            ‘There is no kingdom for you. There is no peace for wicked men. Like him…and you,’ said the shadow.
            Charlie closed his eyes before he begged.
            When he opened them again, it was morning and the body, the blood, the police, the forensics crew, filled his vision.

*

There is beauty in a job well done.
            A cup of tea, brewed to perfection, just the way you take it. It might be with sugar, strong brown tea, weak, with a dash of milk or a dollop. It might be a joint of such remarkably fine construction that you can barely stand to set light to it. Falling down, seven-quid drunk on strong, cheap lager when you were a fighting man, barely into your thirties, a man who’d never settled on much of anything. There might be a kind of savage beauty, too, in a man that could kill with a punch, make a man’s brain fluid run from his ear.
            The man opposite was severed, ruined. Charlie, from his bed opposite, could see the man’s insides. Some parts he recognized, like ribs, and the horridly blackened and shriveled insides of his lungs. What looked like a sack, perhaps his liver, perhaps not. When the police lifted the bottom half of the man from the bed, Charlie saw far more of the man than he could ever wish.
            “There is no peace for wicked men,” the Shadowman had said. What could the old man, now halved, have done to rouse some demon, some angel, of vengeance from heaven or hell? A ghost made of mist and fog and shade?
            Charlie was aware of sobbing, coming from outside the ward. It sounded female. No wonder, he thought. Such a sight would unmake many men or women, regardless of fortitude. He only hoped his friend Cathy had not seen the man’s insides.
            No peace, thought Charlie. And it was true. The man still spoke. Charlie could hear him, hear his voice, or his thoughts, or his echo. He was not sure.
            “Where am I?” said the ghost, like he could not see.
            “What is this? What is this place? Am I dead? Someone?”
            “I can’t see. I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for what I did. God forgive me…not this…not this…”
            Charlie lay, listening, for a long time, until his own pain became too much and tired, he slept. When he woke in the dark, he heard the echo of a scream, as though from an endless hall behind a closed door. The man’s memory, his ghost, his voice, were silent thereafter.
            The police never did ask the dying what they saw. Charlie would have said: Shadowman. But they never did ask.