by Michael Noonan
A Seagull flew, screeching dementedly, overhead. Eddie Fielding - a large, well-built man in his late twenties - took a deep breath of the sea air and tasted the tang of salt on his tongue.
‘Well, I’ll be getting back to the ranch,’ he said, as he opened the door of his car. ‘See you later, Frank.’
Frank nodded. ‘Watch out for yourself now, Eddie. Your friend with the knife blade is still on the prowl.’
Fielding smiled. ‘I’m the wrong gender to be worried about him, Frank. And I’d hardly call him a friend.’
A minute later the engine was started. The two journalists waved a last farewell; the car sped away from the kerbside and headed out of town.
Melanie Hanson was a tall, athletic looking woman in her early twenties. As soon as she heard the news on the radio she rang up her friend, Jeanette. She was so excited that the arm of the phone shook in her hand.
‘They’ve caught him, Jeanette! The knife-man! They have him down at the station, now.’
‘They’ve finally got him. After all this time.’
‘Let’s hope they throw the key away.’
‘I can’t see them ever letting a maniac like that out again.’
‘I should think not.’
‘We can walk down the streets and lanes now, on our own,’ she added, with a note of wonderment, ‘without having to look over our shoulders every two minutes.’
‘We can all sleep easier, Melanie.’ Then, with greater urgency: ‘Have they said who he is?’
‘No. They haven’t said yet. I daresay we’ll find out in due course.’ She paused. ‘The important thing is, they have him.’
‘Y’know, I reckon it must be some local guy,’ her friend mused. ‘He seemed to know the area well enough.’
‘Yeah. It might be someone we passed by in the streets, without a second glance?’
‘This certainly calls for a drink.’
‘I’ll say. By the way, I’ll be coming round tonight.’
‘Well make sure you take the car all the same,’ instructed her friend, in a rather brusque tone. ‘No one’s been convicted of anything yet. It’s too early to take any chances.’
Melanie felt like making some caustic reply to that over cautious remark, but felt too heady and euphoric to slide into sarcasm. ‘I’ll see you tonight, then.’ She placed the phone arm on its rest.
In a display cabinet were various medals, cups, trophies and shields she had won during her sporting career. And on the walls were framed photographs of her, taken at a number of sporting events and tournaments.
She sauntered over to the window and looked out over a street scene that seemed less threatening and dangerous than at any time over the last two years.
She shook her head emphatically. ‘No,’ she said to herself, ‘I’ll walk it instead.’
Fielding listened to some jazz music on the radio on the twenty mile drive back to Westchurch, to ward off the gloom of a grey, overcast Autumn day. In his notebook were the short hand jottings he had taken down at the rather tiresome party conference he had been covering at the seaside resort. Wisps and fragments of the tired, mechanical rhetoric and shop-worn clichés he had heard for hours on end still played through his mind, as if to form a dull counterpoint to the jazz tracks.
He parked his car and entered the offices of the Westchurch Recorder. A finger tapped him on the shoulder. He turned round to see a fresh young member of the staff, barely out of school, staring up at him.
‘Yeah, what is it?’
‘The editor wants to see you, Eddie.’
He shut the door behind him. ‘You wanted to see me, boss?’
‘This might come as something of a shock to you, Eddie. If you haven’t heard it already?’
The Editor looked his employee in the eye. ‘They’ve got someone, literally within the last few hours, for the knife murders.’
The blood seemed to drain from Eddie’s face. He looked on, as if someone had hit him in the stomach.
‘Come off it,’ he stuttered. ‘They can’t have.’
‘Well you tell that to the police. They seem to have other ideas.’
He left the room without another word, slamming the door behind him and leaving his bemused boss to look on and shake his head.
Fielding ran across the newsroom, then through the door and bounded down the steps to terra firma.
‘What’s up with him?’ asked Sylvia Henderson, the Fashion Editor, as she turned towards a bemused colleague.
‘He must be training for the Olympics.’
She shook her head disapprovingly. ‘The impetuosity of youth.’ Sylvia took the last sip of her coffee, then dropped the plastic cup into a waste-paper basket. She picked up some notes from her desk and walked towards the Editor’s office. She knocked on the door.
She opened the door and entered.
‘Sylvia. Take a seat.’
‘I’ve just seen Eddie Fielding flying out of the newsroom as if his pants were on fire.’
‘I’ve just had a word with him. Told him the police had a suspect for the knife killings. The poor lad seemed quite put out.’
Sylvia smiled knowingly. ‘Well, I suppose that’s hardly surprising. With all the stuff he's written about that investigation. He probably wanted to arrest the killer himself.’
Fielding had indeed taken a keen, indeed an almost obsessive interest in the serial killings, since the first of five mutilated victims had been found on Redfern Avenue, two years ago. He had written innumerable articles on the subject, had interviewed police officers investigating the case, as well as retired Inspectors, to elicit their opinions. He had regularly toured the sites of the killings and had voiced his own pet theories about the motives of the murderer over local radio networks. And he was now preparing notes for a book on the subject. Some colleagues and acquaintances thought that his obsession with those gruesome murders bordered on downright morbidity.
‘I’m sorry Eddie, I’m not at liberty to say anything,’ said the Desk Sergeant.
‘You can’t keep this under wraps.’ He pointed to the door. ‘There’s a whole town out there that wants to know. You’ve got to tell us who this guy is sometime.’
The phlegmatic Sergeant was unimpressed. ‘Maybe we do. But it’ll be in our time, not yours.’
A disgruntled Fielding skulked out of the police station, mumbling darkly under his breath, and sauntered gloomily into a nearby public house, The Friendly Arms, where he sought to sedate his taut nerves with a pint of high strength lager.
Melanie Hanson fastened the chain of a medal, which she had long regarded as her lucky charm, around her neck, combed her red hair and powdered her face. The clock on the wall marked the time as six forty. And outside the sky was beginning to darken. She put on her coat and left the house.
For the first time in two years she was about to walk, unescorted, over to her friend’s house in the nearby village of Bridgeton. It was a journey she’d often made, on foot, in those distant, innocent days before the knife-man first stalked the town.
The news that someone had been apprehended by the police in connection with the killings was now common knowledge. It was the subject of endless gossip and speculation across the town. People had phoned acquaintances to break the news; others had sent text messages or emails. It was almost the sole topic of conversation, in sitting rooms, in bus queues, in cafes and public houses. People now felt secure and at ease with themselves, as if liberated from some evil curse. For the women especially it came as a heartfelt release from gnawing worry and anxiety. They now felt safe for the first time in years, in their own streets and neighbourhoods, in their own town.
Melanie left the last suburban houses behind her, crossed the road, walked a further twenty yards, and after a first hesitant step, made her way down Redfern Avenue.
Despite a brief flutter in her stomach and a cold shiver that ran down her spine she walked onwards with determined step into the shadowy quietude of the avenue.
It was easy to see why it had been used twice as a venue for murder. It was a lonely, little used road, tree lined and with a number of small lanes veering off for quick exits. And because of the two gruesome murders that had taken place there over recent years, it still bore, even in the daylight hours, a certain aura and atmosphere of menace. A sinister ambience, that even the arrest of a suspect, in connection with the murders, failed entirely to dispel. Indeed, not having walked, alone, down that avenue, for over two years, she had quite forgotten how ordinarily eerie and spooky it was, especially as the evening drew in - even without its grim association with murder. The tree branches swayed overhead. Flickering shadows were cast by the light of a street lamp; and the wind drew ghostly notes from some distant power lines. All these things played on her imagination and added to her doubts and anxieties.
‘Well, what’s it feel like to be back home?’ Mr Simmons asked his wife as he turned the Range Rover onto Redfern Avenue.
‘Cold and miserable,’ came the mordant reply.
The car sped through the cavernous gloom of the avenue.
‘Hey!’ She pointed a finger before her. ‘There’s a woman there!’ She turned to her husband. ‘What’s she doing down here on her own?’
‘Well let’s find out shall we.’
He drew the car to a halt by the kerb, adjacent to Melanie, who stopped in her tracks and looked on apprehensively as he wound down the window.
‘You’re chancing it aren’t you,’ he addressed her in a rather school-masterly manner, ‘wandering down here by yourself? Don’t you know that two young women have been murdered here in recent years?’
To his baffled astonishment Melanie smiled and shook her head, as if the whole thing was a joke.
‘He’s still on the loose y’know. The knife-man.’
‘And where have you been today?’
He glanced back at his wife, who looked as confused as he was, before turning to look at the woman again.
‘If you must know we’ve just come back from our holidays. Why?’
‘That explains it then.’ She walked closer to the open window. ‘They’ve caught him, today. The knife-man. He’s in the station, now, being questioned by the police.’
‘And how d’you know that?’
‘It’s been on the news. The whole town knows.’
‘Well thank God for that,’ exclaimed Mrs Simmons. ‘I thought they’d never get him.’
‘We were wondering why a young girl like you would wander down here on her own, if he was still on the prowl,’ said Mr Simmon.
After a brief conversation both parties wished each other good-night, then the car, with its satisfied occupants, sped away; the sound of its engine gradually fading away to silence.
Melanie trudged onwards, though with a heavier step. The brief, unexpected conversation had only further stimulated some dormant fears and apprehensions in her mind that she thought had been all but banished by the euphoric news she’d heard that afternoon. She recalled what her friend had said over the phone. ‘No one’s been convicted of anything yet. It’s too early to take any chances.’ The police weren’t always infallible. A man had been apprehended and was being questioned in connection with the murders. But was that the end of the matter?
Now she regretted leaving the car behind and embarking on the journey on foot. The earlier excitement had evaporated away like an insubstantial mist, and she felt foolish as well as fearful. The dark, tree-lined avenue seemed to become more sinister and threatening with each step she took over the clumps of dead leaves that had fallen from the tree boughs. Each sound she heard, from the rustle of leaves to the gust of the wind, only served to set her fraught nerves on edge. Yet she was too far advanced in her journey into the avenue to retrieve her steps. To go back now would be as equally forbidding as to continue. She would trudge on, into Bridgeton and the safety of her friend’s home, then take a taxi back home later that night. Yet it seemed far away; as did her own flat.
‘Killer or no killer,’ said Mrs Simmons, emphatically, ‘you wouldn’t get me walking down that god forsaken place on my own.’
‘Some people are made of sterner stuff,’ said her husband, in an offhand manner. Mrs Simmons raised her eyebrows.
Mr Simmons switched on the car radio and tuned it into a local station. ‘We should get a news update in a few minutes.’
After a record and some banal DJ patter, the news came on.
‘The man apprehended this afternoon,’ said the newsreader, ‘in connection with the knife killings which have taken place in Westchurch and its immediate vicinity over recent years, has just been released by the police. Inspector Nichols, in charge of the investigation, has said that, after intensive questioning, they are now satisfied that the man had nothing to do with the murders. And that in order to protect his identity, his name will not be disclosed to the media.’
‘Stop the car!’ demanded Mrs Simmons.
The Range Rover ground to a halt.
‘George, I think we should drive back and see if that young woman is alright.’
‘But she’ll be near the end of the avenue by now,’ he protested. ‘Besides, the odds---’
‘It could be our daughter out there. She thinks she’s safe, but that killer is still on the loose. I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to her.’
‘Okay,’ said a reluctant Mr Simmons, ‘let’s be good Samaritans.’
Melanie continued to walk along the somnolent, melancholy avenue, her feet trampling over a rustling carpet of dead leaves. Never had the avenue seemed longer, or the passage of time more sluggish and glutinous. Yet she knew that with the next bend of the road she would be nearing the end of her ordeal.
She saw some lights flash between tree shafts, then a second car approached from the distance. It slowed to a crawling pace and then, to her immense annoyance and renewed apprehension, it ground to a halt at the kerb by her side.
‘What is it now?’ she growled under her breath.
The window was wound down. A face, obscured in shadow, glowered across at her.
‘On our own are we?’
‘It looks like it doesn’t it.’ She stared hard at him, but couldn’t make out his features.
She heard a dry, merciless chuckle that unsettled her nerves and caused her to shudder. The door opened. A tall, muscular figure emerged onto the paving stones, with a sly, knowing grin breaking on his face.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Eddie Fielding. I write for the Recorder. But it’s not the only thing I do.’ He casually looked around as if to confirm that there was no one about, apart from themselves.
‘What are you doing here?’
He took a gleaming, fearful looking knife out of a deep inside pocket and pointed it at Melanie.
‘It should be quite obvious shouldn’t it?’
‘What the hell are you up to?’ she demanded.
‘What does the knife-man do? He kills people. Or rather, young women.’
‘But he’s in custody. They caught him.’
‘They might think so. But they’ve got the wrong guy. Y’see, I know who the real killer is. And he’s stood right before you.’
She shook her head in utter stupefaction. ‘No! It can’t be!’
There was an air of arrogant complacency about his whole manner and demeanour. ‘After all, I’ve got the perfect cover. A local journalist, with no criminal record; always on the prowl, looking for clues and leads in this case. The police even think I’m keener to track this guy down than they are.’ He shook his head and smiled. ‘Who’d suspect Eddie Fielding?’
She slowly backed away as he nursed the fearsome weapon lovingly in his hands.
‘Y’know it’s much more fun to make the news than to write about it. Though I’ll probably quit quite soon, and finish my book about the killer. After all I know more about him than anyone else does. You might even be the last one.’
‘Yeah. But I’ll be alive tomorrow.’ He narrowed his eyelids as he scrutinized her more keenly. ‘I’ve seen you before somewhere, haven’t I?’ he asked. She said nothing; but just stared at him, fixedly. He had indeed seen her before. And a number of years ago had interviewed her - as had other members of the fourth estate - when she had returned in triumph to the town after some high profile, international sporting event. But he had other, more pressing things on his mind that evening, and he dismissed those memories with a shake of his head. He slowly advanced towards her.
Mr Simmons car screeched to a halt by the kerb. On the ground Eddie Fielding lay spread-eagled and unconscious. A knife lay harmlessly by his side, and nearby was a broken chain and a medal.
Melanie, shaken and ashen-faced, looked down at the body. ‘It’s the knife-man,’ she said, with a tremulous voice. ‘He tried to kill me. I threw him to the ground. He hit his head against the flagstones and he’s out cold.’
‘How on earth did you manage that?’ asked Mr Simmons, as he looked down at the comatose body. ‘He looks such a big, strong bloke.’
Melanie stooped down and picked up the shiny medal.
‘What’s that?’ asked Mrs Simmons.
‘It was torn off in the struggle. It’s a medal I got from winning a judo championship; four years ago.’
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