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Authors: Jack Hayes

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Candleburn

BOOK: Candleburn
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Candleburn

 

Jack Hayes

 

 

© Jack Hayes
2013

 

Jack Hayes has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

First published 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 


For my loving wife.

Let
me tell you a story…

 

1

 

The stench of stale sweat and burned flesh wafted from the unblinking corpse in the bath tub. Nate Aspinal wrinkled his nose in disgust. It was the second time in a week that one of his men was a curled foetal ball, naked and dead in a low-rent Dubai hotel room.

“Euphoric?”
Zain asked as he kneeled beside the body.

“Maybe.”

“The eyes are super glued open – same as Dan,” Zain said, running his hands over the pallid skin.

“Maybe,”
Asp replied.

His
tone was flat. There was an underpinning of violence to its timbre. Zain looked up.

“Come
on, Asp. Who else would it be? Jim put Dan on Euphoric and Dan ends up dead. Jim goes to investigate and three days in, he’s a body in a bathtub in a prostitute’s hotel room. It’d be one hell of a coincidence.”

“Maybe,”
Nate said a third time.

Silence.

Zain
knew better than to push. The powerfully built Egyptian ran his eyes around the corpse looking for tell-tale puncture marks from a needle, or bruises that might indicate torture. Nate turned on a penlight torch and standing six-feet back from the tub also examined the dead man.

Zain
smiled. Even from that distance he knew his boss would catch something he’d missed.

“Check
his fingertips,” Asp said.

Mehr
Abdullah Zain twisted the body’s forearms, breaking the stiffening lock of rigour mortis, to expose fists curled in pain. He prised the fingers open. The tips of each were blackened and cracked like flakes of old paper grizzled on an open fire.

Zain
said nothing.

His
dark-haired eyebrows merely rose as if to say ‘I told you so’. Asp sighed loudly. He remained unconvinced.

“Okay,
that’s enough.”

“That’s
it?” Zain asked.

“We
don’t want the cops to find us,” Asp said.

“What
now?”

“That’s
easy,” Asp replied, clicking off the torch and putting it in his pocket. “We need to find the other body.”

“What
other body?” Zain exclaimed with surprise.

His
eyes darted around the room looking for the signs of a struggle that might indicate a second person had met their end in this dingy motel. Amongst the cheap wooden furniture and bobbling man-made fibre sheets of the bed, he saw nothing. Apart from their dead colleague it was almost as though the room had recently been visited by the maid service.

Asp
began heading for the exit.

“Boss?”
Zain asked, getting to his feet.

Asp
turned, a gash of light from the hall silhouetting him against the door:

“You
really think whoever tortured our friend to death let the prostitute that lured him here live?”

 

2

 

Alice Thorne pushed her chair back from the desk and rubbed her hands across her tired face.

“6.15am.
Ugh,” she muttered, looking at the bank of clocks ticking on the wall of the office.

They
showed the time in the major bureaux of the Journal around the globe. New York, London, Singapore, Hong Kong...

Dubai.

“Major
bureaux. What a joke.”

Three
plastic desks with fibreboard partitions and a water cooler; the Journal’s Gulf bureau was a low-priced bedsit compared to the glamorous world of newspapers she’d imagined when she’d applied, a mature student fresh out of Cornell, to join the company.

Still,
she couldn’t grumble about the décor. There were many other perks that came with the post.

No-one
outside the company knew how lowly the Journal’s Washington-based executives viewed their outpost in the Middle East. And their underestimation of its significance had allowed her to be lifted to ‘bureau chief’ with little experience.

Blonde,
short and forty-two years old, Alice had never believed the treacle-sweet words she’d been fed at high-school in her native Hamptons. ‘You can be anything you put your mind to’ was the most insidious lie of modern times. She’d wanted to be a professional horse rider – to win gold in the Olympics.

But
Daddy couldn’t afford a pony. They’d had to rent one.

The
embarrassment.

Alice
moved out at eighteen and married a dentist in Burlington because he’d keep her in style. Fifteen childless years later, she felt an aching desire for more. She wanted travel. She wanted excitement. She wanted to leave her mark on the world.

She
quit her job, severed all ties and reapplied for university. With a degree under her belt, she became an intern at the Journal in Washington and in three years was running their Dubai office.


I’ve got where I need through hard work and determination,” she said. “No-one is taking my achievements away from me.”

A
willingness to do anything to gain favour of bosses also hadn’t hurt.

Alice
ran her fingers across the polished stainless-steel title-board blu-tacked behind her monitor. She’d had the sign made earlier in the week. “Managing Editor, Gulf”. It had a nice ring to it. No-one needed to know that in Andrew Soltis’ eyes, the real hubs for Middle Eastern news were the Jerusalem and Cairo bureaux, regardless of what the Journal’s promotional literature for advertisers said.

Also,
no-one needed to know she hadn’t officially been given the title.

“Bureau
heads are always Managing Editors at Soltis’ New International Journal,” she reminded herself.

She
grabbed the jar of Kenco from her desk drawer and made a coffee from the hot tap of the water-cooler. She baulked as she took her first taste. She’d have preferred an American brand of instant – but in Dubai 95% of what was available was brought in from England.

Alice
looked at the empty desks as she cradled her steaming mug and took a second sip. The two reporters she now managed wouldn’t be in for at least another three hours. She tapped the metal teaspoon gently on the ceramic and focused on the workstation of her colleague – no, she corrected herself – her underling: Blake.

Blake,
Blake, Blake.

“Well,”
she muttered, “why not? He’s not here and what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

She
sashayed towards his desk. He was so arrogant; always questioning her authority. It was because she was a woman. Also, he probably fancied her. What a disgusting thought!

Alice
examined his desk closely. There were piles of unkempt paper notes scribbled hurriedly all over it. Post-Its, unopened envelopes, a half-drunk tea. She shook her head. There was no freshly made name plate on the wall, as there was on her desk.

“No
wonder,” she mumbled. “He has no pride in his job. No pride in his life.”

She
guessed that’s why he smoked.

She
began to leaf through the papers spread out like a mosaic on his desk.

“Now,
what story does he think he’s working on this week and isn't telling me about?”

 

3

 

Blake Helliker woke to the sound of the local radio station. Two Australians were wittering about the weather report for the day.

The
sun was barely over the roofs of the Mediterranean–styled maisonettes and already the thermometer would read 35 degrees. From here it would only get hotter. There was rarely any ‘weather’ in the United Arab Emirates - the sun rose, it baked the earth until it ached, the sun set again.

Frankly,
devoting an entire radio show to how swelteringly hot it was going to be seemed excessive.

The
cat jumped on the bed.

“Hello
little Boxcat!” Blake said as he scratched its head. Boxcat’s tail flicked from side to side as he purred. Breakfast time.

The
cat’s name was Jeffrey but he was more usually called Boxcat. Blake had found him last year in a tiny shoe box positioned underneath the front wheel of his car. If he hadn’t checked its contents, he’d have run straight over the poor animal.

The
sleek-furred tabby had a comically small head and gigantic ears similar to a Fennec fox. Boxcat ambled his way across to the headboard and began to play with the frills on the pillows. Blake looked at the King-size double bed he’d just left and frowned.

It
was too big for one person.

His
wife, Cathy, had gone back to Britain a month ago.

He
missed her.

She
hadn’t left him. They were still very much in love. She’d left Dubai. The expat lifestyle with the trail of dinner parties, the brunches and hotel-cooked dinners that the rest of the city thrived on wasn’t to everyone’s taste.

He
could understand why she’d gone.

She
was an opera singer he’d met at a soiree in London, before he’d been reposted to the Gulf. She needed culture. Dubai had no Metropolitan Museum, no international standard ballet, and no top-class orchestra. High grade theatre productions swung through perhaps twice a year as they stopped over during their transfer from a run in Europe or Asia, but it wasn't enough to enliven the desert.

Certainly
there were few people in regular need of the expertise of an international opera singer – even if you expanded the search to the rest of the Gulf.

Blake
walked down the stone steps to the kitchen and washed out a pet bowl. Boxcat circled his feet like a shark. He placed a filled dish on the floor next to the fridge.

The
last eighteen months had taken an incredible toll on Blake and his wife. But it wasn’t simply Dubai’s “newness” that was to blame. Blake actually liked the Emirate. Where others saw shallowness or complained about the city’s almost plastic veneer, he saw it as an exciting opportunity – like the birth of a new child – fresh with potential hope and wonder. What personality might it develop as it was allowed to grow?

The
real problem was the perpetual stress of his job. Soltis’ Journal was one of the world’s premier suppliers of financial news – up among the ranks of the New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters or CNBC. Yet they’d appointed an inexperienced bureau head.

It
had been a frustrating last year.

Every
time he left his equipment in the office, whether it was his laptop or the new flip-back cameras they were expected to film “webisodes” of Middle Eastern news on, he’d come in the next morning and find a piece of his kit broken.

The
first time, he’d assumed he’d just misremembered. Perhaps that crack on the side of the camera had happened while filming on the desert dunes and he hadn’t noticed it. The second time, he’d become more suspicious. The third time, he found himself leaving a hair across the side of his desk drawers like a spy from a 1950s B-movie.

A
day later, the hair was gone.

The
office cleaner came once a week; the only explanation was that someone was going through his belongings. After that, he never left anything of consequence at his desk. He also no-longer confided in his colleagues as to which stories he was covering because if he did, he mysteriously found them publishing similar reports a day before his was finished.

Of
course, not informing his boss of his potential news leads carried its own risks.

Last
week, he’d received a second complaint from their ultimate boss in New York that he wasn’t keeping his team leader “in the loop.”

Damned
if he did and damned if he didn’t.

He
sighed loudly.

Eighteen
months of this bullshit.

“I
need a new job,” he said as he stroked Jeffrey.

The
trouble was he liked the Journal. And reporters’ jobs that paid well were thin on the ground as the industry contracted under the weight of declining readership and the continuing onslaught of the Internet.

He
was disturbed from his thoughts by a knock at the door.

The
gardener was normally the only person to come to the house this early. Blake looked at the calendar on the wall. A red ring circled a date ten days from now; the gardener was paid monthly and it wasn’t time for that. Blake opened the door to find a package delivery man dressed in an offensively bright orange shirt, thrusting an electronic clipboard into his hands.

“Parcel
for you sir.”

“I’m
not expecting anything.”

“If
you can just sign.”

Blake
filled in the electronic form and took the toaster-sized cardboard package to the kitchen counter. It was well sealed. He checked the address. It was perfect, they’d even spelled his name correctly.

“Hmm,” he muttered. “N
o-one spells my name right.”

He
ran his fingers around the edges, the brown tape that held it closed was smooth and without ripples. No wires. He opened the lounge curtains and examined it in the streaming light. No oil stains. He turned it over. No return address.

He
took a kitchen knife and gingerly cut it open, along the folds in the card, avoiding anywhere sealed by the tape. The dissected box fell open in front of him. Curious. The parcel was 90% filled with bubble wrap. In the middle, little bigger than a large coffee cup, was a second box made of intricately inlaid woods, arranged in patterns of brilliant reds, blues and greens.

It
emitted the strong, sweet scent of incense.

Sandalwood?

Blake rotated the box, examining it from different angles. There was no obvious hinge, no locking mechanism and no key supplied.

Boxcat
hopped up onto the kitchen table and sniffed the fragrant wood. He ran his cheek across its corner, purring once more.

“Well
Jeffrey, that’s a concern,” Blake said, rubbing the velvet ears of his feline friend. “I can’t remember the last time I read a story about a reporter receiving a random parcel through the post where the plot ended well for the journalist.”

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