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Authors: Stephen Leather

Once Bitten

BOOK: Once Bitten
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Once Bitten
Stephen Leather
AmazonEncore (2011)
Rating:
★★★★☆
About the Author

Stephen Leather is one of the UK's most successful thriller writers. Before becoming a novelist he was a journalist for more than ten years on newspapers such as
The Times, the Daily Mail
and the
South China Morning Post
in Hong Kong. Before that, he was employed as a biochemist for ICI, shoveled limestone in a quarry, worked as a baker, a petrol pump attendant, a barman, and worked for the Inland Revenue. He began writing full time in 1992 and his bestsellers have been translated into more than ten languages. He has also written for television on such shows as “London's Burning,” “The Knock,” and the BBC's “Murder in Mind” series and two of his books,
The Stretch
and
The Bombmaker
, were filmed for TV. His ebooks have spent more than six months on the UK Kindle Top 100 and for several months he had four titles in the UK Kindle Top 10. You can find out more from his website, www.stephenleather.com.

Once Bitten
Once Bitten

Once Bitten

The Ending How is it that Snoopy starts all his books? It was a dark and stormy night. Yeah, that's it. It was a dark and stormy night. I guess that's as good a way as any of starting it, because that's a perfect description of the weather outside right now, the wind roaring and wheezing like some malevolent monster wanting to force its way in and tear me apart, the rain smashing and splattering against the windows, occasional flashes of lightning shooting jaggedly across the infinite blackness of the midnight sky.

There's another way that'd be just as good, just as pertinent: once upon a time. That's how they start all the fairy tales, isn't it, the phrase providing a clear and present signal that what you're about to read is a figment of someone else's imagination, that no matter how scary the story you're starting from the premise that it's not true, that it can't be real. Maybe that would put you at ease, if you knew for a fact that it never happened, that I imagined it or made it up. OK, that's how I'll start it then. Once upon a time it was a dark and stormy night.

So who am I? My name's Jamie Beaverbrook, and I'll be forty-six years old next month.

Maybe. The desk I'm sitting at is considerably older than I am and it's in better condition. It's one of those big, military looking things with brass handles and legs as thick as a ship's mast. The desk is in front of a large picture window that overlooks the ocean. The chair is what they call a captain's chair, a thick, padded leather seat with a curved back that comes up to about my kidneys.

It's on wheels so I can scoot it from side to side. When I decided to use the room as a study I put the desk facing away from the window, towards the door, so that when I was working I wouldn't be distracted by the view. It's a hell of a view, a view you could die for the real estate agent told me,

and she was right, but with both fingers of the clock pointing directly up there isn't much to see just now.

There's a computer on the desk, a Toshiba laptop with a hard disc and an orange screen. On the far left is a swan-necked brass lamp which illuminates the desktop in a pale yellow light. Every now and then there's a flash of white behind me, throwing my shadow across the desk and filling the study with a stark brightness like the flashgun of a camera and it's followed a few seconds later by the distant rumble of rolling thunder that I can feel deep down in my stomach. I used to know a way of calculating the distance of a storm, something to do with the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound. You count the number of seconds that elapse between the lightning and the thunder and then divide by something. Seven. Or six. Whatever, it's been a long time since I cared how far away a storm was, but I still count the seconds. Habit, I suppose. Or instinct.

There's a bottle of whisky on the desk, half full, or half empty, depending on your point of view.

Next to it is a crystal tumbler, and that's half empty, too. In front of the glass is a small bottle of tablets, capsules actually, red and green. The cap on the bottle is one of those child-proof ones, you have to push it and turn it at the same time. There's a seal on it too, and it hasn't been broken. Yet.

In my hands is an envelope, a large one. It's sealed. I sealed it, almost ten years ago, and across the flap is my signature. Who says doctors have unreadable writing? Yeah, I'm a doctor. A psychologist, really. A criminal psychologist. If you need proof, my diplomas and stuff are on the wall to my right, next to the bookcase. Proof, that's what's in the envelope, or at least it was ten years ago when I sealed it, signed it, and placed it in a safety deposit box in the custody of a bank on Washington Boulevard. I retrieved it this afternoon, half an hour before the bank was due to close.

Lightning flashes and almost immediately afterwards the windows shudder and there's a deafening crash that makes me jump and I spill some of the whisky as I raise the tumbler to my mouth. My hands are shaking, partly because of the storm but mainly because of what's in the envelope. It goes quiet then, an unearthly silence, as the eye of the storm passes over the house, the pressure so intense that I can feel my ears pop and I swallow hard. I put down the empty tumbler and refill it, and then slit open the envelope with a paper knife in the shape of a miniature Spanish sword. The air is thick, too thick to breath, and my skull feels as if it's going to burst like an overripe watermelon. I look at the clock on the wall and it looks as if it has stopped, as if I've been trapped forever at this single moment of time, like an insect in amber, then there's a flash as millions of volts discharges itself from the clouds and the spell is broken and the second hand ticks again.

I tip the contents of the envelope out onto the desk: a sheaf of photocopied sheets which lie there overlapping like a gin rummy hand, and a black and white photograph, six inches by four inches, of a girl. The girl. The picture is a close up of her face framed by shoulder-length black hair parted in the middle, a young heart-shaped face, no lines or creases, smiling lips, slightly arched eye-brows that give her an amused look as if you've just tried to chat her up with a line she's heard a thousand times before. The hair on the right hand side of her head is behind her ear as if she'd just pushed it there before the photograph was taken. Because the photograph is black and white and not colour you can't tell what colour her eyes are, other than that they're dark, but I can tell you that they're black. Really black. Not dark brown, not grey, but pure black, as black as her hair. As black as the night. The eyes look out of the photograph straight at me, accusingly, and when I put it to the side of the papers she still looks at me. Still accuses me.

The name on the case-notes, her name, is Terry Ferriman, but later on in the investigation we added the alias Lisa Sinopoli. And a few others. So why are the case-notes just photocopies and not the real thing? Because they took the originals away, that's why, along with the tapes I'd made of our sessions together. I'd had a hunch that they were going to do that so I'd run off copies and stuck one set in the safety deposit box rented under a false name. Today was the first and only time I'd been back to the bank because I was never sure whether or not I was being followed. I'd given a second set of copies in another sealed envelope to my lawyer, Chuck Harrison, but they disappeared within forty eight hours of my handing them over and he denied that he ever saw them.

Good old Chuck. I wonder what happened to him. They never found his body.

The hairs on the back of my neck go up and I shiver, it feels as if someone is watching me and I whirl round as lightning flashes and there's a face at the window, a haggard face fractured with worry lines and deep set eyes, the hair uncombed and the mouth open. My heart leaps and I raise my hands to protect myself but the figure in the window does the same and I realise that it's my own reflection. So that's how far gone I am, now I'm jumping at shadows. My hands are shaking again, worse than before, and the papers make rustling noise like dead leaves in the wind. I drop the papers and put my hands under the cone of light thrown by the lamp. I don't remember exactly when my hands began to wrinkle, it was a gradual process, but it's obvious that they're no longer the hands of a youngster, the greenish veins are clearly outlined under the tough suntanned skin and the lines over the knuckles are deep furrows that don't disappear when I clench my fists. There are dark brown liver spots and a scattering of moles and I'm sure they weren't there when I was younger, the sign of skin cells going genetically maverick. The signs of age. God, please God, I don't want to get old and I don't want to die. I want to stay just as I am. No, that's not right, I want to stay just as I was, when I was thirty five maybe. At my peak. Before she came into my life. Her eyes stare back at me from the photograph, and now her image appears to be smiling.

Anyway, I'm not sure how long I've got so I'd better get started. How did we decide to begin it?

Oh yeah, I remember. Once upon a time......

The Beginning .......it was a dark and stormy night. I wasn't asleep when the phone rang because the storm was rattling the windows and a gate was banging somewhere outside. I groped for the phone. The display on the bedside clock radio said 03:15 and the voice in my ear said it was Lieutenant Samuel De'Ath and what the hell was I doing trying to sleep on the night of a full moon?

“I didn't know it was a full moon tonight,” I growled at him. “It doesn't seem like twenty eight days since the last one.” I was lying. I always knew when the moon was full - it was my busiest time.

“Well it is, and the crazies are out in force, my man. The werewolves are howling, the vampires are biting and the ghouls are ghouling. And the call has gone out for Jamie Beaverbrook, Vampire Hunter.”

De'Ath laughed like a maniac. Black De'Ath I called him, partly because of the colour of his thick skin, but just as much because of his sick sense of humour. He didn't mind, he could take it every bit as well as he dished it out. I sat up in bed and shook my head to clear it. “What's happened?”

“A throat-biter, picked up in an alley off Sunset Boulevard. Blood everywhere.” De'Ath was a homicide detective so he wouldn't be on the case unless the victim had died. “It's open and shut, no doubt about it, my man. All we need is the rubber stamp from you that the perp is sailing on an even keel so that we can get on with the paperwork.”

“Can't it wait until the morning?” I asked.

“We wanna strike while the iron is hot, no time like the present, he who...”

“All right, all right, I'll be there, just don't hit me with any more cliches.”

De'Ath roared with laughter and hung up. I dressed without thinking, blue jeans and my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and then I thought better of it and put on a dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie and then picked up my briefcase from the study. Might as well look the part. I went through the kitchen door to the garage so that I wouldn't get wet. I pushed the overhead door open and for the first time saw the moon, hanging over the Hollywood hills like a lone white eye glaring defiantly down at California, daring it to do its worst. It was cold. That was one of the misconceptions I'd brought with me to the United States, that Los Angeles was always hot, that the sun always shone on the beautiful people. Not true, the Los Angeles climate was a desert one and the temperature plummeted at night. Tourists were often taken by surprise at what a cold city LA was. Literally and metaphorically.

The car started on the third attempt, which was par for the course. It was a prime example of British motoring history, a 1966 Sunbeam Alpine Mark IV, 1750cc or thereabouts, bright red with a black soft top, left hand drive because I bought it in the States. It leaked a bit when the rain was really bad and parts were difficult to get when it went wrong but it reminded me of England and I got more fun out of driving it than I ever did out of the American models. I liked the fact that it was old, too, there was something comforting about the feel of the wooden dashboard and steering wheel and the smell of the leather upholstery. There was a permanence about it, it had been around for almost thirty years and yet it was as good as new, inside and outside.

There wasn't much traffic around at that time of the night so I was at the station within half an hour and I left the car in the Captain's parking space because I was damn sure he'd be safe and warm at home in bed.

While I was driving the rain gave up its half-hearted attempt to soak the streets, though the lightning still flashed somewhere beyond the Hollywood hills.

The moon fixed me with its baleful one-eyed stare as I got out of the car. There was no point in locking it, not because it was parked by the side of a police station but because the soft top was no deterrent to a thief, a quick slash with a switchblade and they'd be inside. Better to leave it unlocked so they could open it and see that there was nothing worth taking.

De'Ath was talking to two uniformed policemen in the main reception area. As usual, it was barely-controlled bedlam, packed with sweating policemen, barking mad drunks, petulant hookers and surly teenagers, all of them shouting, swearing and arguing in any number of languages.

“Room F,” he yelled at me over the din. “Name's Terry Ferriman.”

“I suppose an arrest report is asking too much,” I shouted back.

He grinned. “At this time in the morning, what d'yer expect?”

“Coffee?”

His grin widened. “I'll have one sent in. Black, no sugar?”

“That'll be the day,” I answered. “White. Two sugars. Lawyer?”

De'Ath shook his head. “Perp hasn't requested one. There's a public defender around somewhere if we need one.” He turned his back on me and returned to his conversation.

I picked up a visitor's badge from the main desk, clipped it to my top pocket as I edged between a tall blonde in purple hotpants and halter top and the gold-bedecked black guy in a silver suit that she was screaming her lungs out at and pushed through the double doors leading to the corridor off which were the interview rooms. There was a line of identical green doors, each with a small observation window at head height, an oblong of glass reinforced with wire mesh. Each door had a number stencilled on it and F was about half way along the corridor. I knocked once and the door was opened by a uniformed woman officer, a blue-eyed brunette, and I thought then how strange it was that they were using a woman guard and then I stepped into the room and saw the girl sitting at a table. I was flustered and I looked back at the door to check that I was in the right room. The guard saw my obvious confusion and I said “Terry Ferriman?” to her and though I wasn't looking at the girl at the table it was she who said yes, she was Terry. De'Ath was being a smart arse, I realised, deliberately not telling me that the perp was a woman. Cancel that, she was hardly a woman, she was little more than a girl. I nodded at the guard and she closed the door and then stood with her back to it, her arms folded across her chest. I sat down on another plastic chair and swung the briefcase onto the table. “My name is Dr Beaverbrook,” I said to the girl. “I'm a psychologist.”

BOOK: Once Bitten
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ads

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