The Smallest of Things by Ian Whates

Sneak Peek Extract:

IT ALL STARTED WITH A TEXT. Nothing dramatic, just a simple message that popped up on his screen: Help need 2 c u urgent. The number was tagged as Claire’s.

Since he considered himself a prime candidate for the world’s worst texter, Chris felt a sense of achievement when he managed to send a simple where when in response.

Gino’s 6 pm 2day,came the reply, far more swiftly than his inept fumbling.

Six o’clock: a little over two hours away, which gave him about half an hour to get ready and out of the house—assuming no one cancelled a train on him. He almost texted back suggesting a later time, but hesitated.

He had plans for that evening, though nothing that couldn’t be rearranged. Ella, a second date—God, did people still say ‘date’ these days?—though in his heart of hearts he knew it wasn’t leading anywhere. He was just going through the motions to appease Susan, his sister, who’d set him up with her ‘friend’ in the first place. The excuse to cancel came as blessed relief.

Ok, he sent back.

After the exchange, Chris sat staring at the screen for a moment, wondering what could be so urgent; it wasn’t like Claire to press the panic button. He hadn’t seen her in months, not since she took up with her new boyfriend, Bartosz. Chris had nothing against Bartosz; he simply didn’t know the man. Just a tall, broody, Eastern European mystery—Polish, if he remembered correctly.

Claire had grown elusive since the two of them had hooked up—not for any sinister reason; she was simply too wrapped up in her new beau and what was developing between them to spare any attention for much else. Even her band, the Quiet Catastrophe, found itself relegated to the limbo of hiatus, and that was something Chris had never thought to see. They’d seemed on the brink of breaking through, as well, with their peculiar brand of retro-ambient sleaze, steadily gathering an online following, getting bookings for larger venues…He’d never known Claire to put any man ahead of her music before.

His first thought on receiving the text was that their relationship must have floundered, but that didn’t feel right. Claire had plenty of girlfriends with sympathetic ears and shoulders broad enough to cry on if need be; far more likely she would turn to one of them. She wouldn’t trouble him with anything personal like that, not while calling it ‘urgent’ at any rate. no, there had to be something more going on.

After all, Claire knew what he did for a living.

The lead up to six o’clock is never a good time to travel in London: The swell of rush hour is still in evidence, which means packed trains and bustling crowds of distracted people impatient to get home. You never can tell who or what you might bump into among so many. Chris was on his guard, but today everything felt reassuringly normal.

Gino’s was in Dean Street, just a brief shuffle across from Claire’s shop in the upper reaches of Berwick Street, which was one of the reasons they used to meet there. Chris surfaced at Leicester Square tube station because that was the most convenient place for London’s underground system to deposit him. He exited on to Charing Cross Road at a few minutes short of quarter to six, which meant he was more or less on time. Weaving his way through the crowds, he skirted Chinatown and then dodged the traffic across Shaftesbury Avenue before entering Dean Street. Then it was just a matter of crossing Old Compton Street and he was almost there. A minute later found him stepping through the coffee shop’s doorway.

Gino’s was a narrow, cramped room stretched along the inside of a plate-glass window. Chris could never decide whether they’d utilised the space cannily or had tried to squeeze in one too many tables. Despite treading this delicate line, the place always managed to feel welcoming, not least because of the coffee, which was unfailingly excellent.

It had been a couple of months since his last visit, but some things remained unchanged. A great domed gleaming-chrome espresso machine squatted on one end of the bar—the centre of the whole operation—and Luciano, the shaven-headed barista, stood at his station beside it. He nodded a greeting as Chris came in. The espresso machine resembled a robotic extra from a sci-fi movie, though the sounds it produced were more steampunk than R2-D2. This machine was Luciano’s pride and joy, and Chris always got the impression that the barista had just finished polishing it the second before he walked in.

Chris ordered a double caffè macchiato, which was produced with a minimum of banter and presented with a foamy heart-shaped flourish on the top. Only then did he spot Claire.

Nowhere at Gino’s could be described as ‘at the back’, but Claire had done her best, choosing a seat at one of the few tables that didn’t stand directly against the window, and about the only one not immediately visible from the doorway, hidden as it was by the bulk of the espresso machine.

Coffee in hand, Chris threaded his way past a couple of occupied tables to join her. Claire wore a faded black T-shirt beneath a black leather jacket adorned with silver studs, and sat huddled in the corner; a defensive position whether she realised as much or not. Most of the stylised white lettering on the T-shirt was obscured by a combination of her posture and the jacket, but he recognised it as one of her staples and knew what the slogan read: “Ultraviolet Catastrophe: Infinite Power,” a reference to her first self-produced online album.

“Chris.” The relief in her voice was unmistakable. She gripped his arm as he bent to kiss her hello. “Thank you so much for coming.” Her smile was as warm as ever, but it seemed fragile and her eyes betrayed tension even if her voice remained steady. She looked drained and dishevelled, frazzled.

His intended ‘Are you okay?’ died before the words were formed. She clearly wasn’t. “Christ, you look dreadful,” emerged instead.

“Thanks. You really know how to make a girl feel good about herself.”

It wasn’t especially true, come to that—or only in comparison to the vibrant woman he was used to. Still in her late twenties, Claire had the sort of flawless complexion and striking looks that most women would kill for, defying the vagaries of mood and any lack of sleep or makeup. She was tall and slender, with a mane of auburn hair that was tied back on this occasion, which only accentuated her high cheekbones and showed off the inevitable silver earring—a miniature Gibson Flying V guitar—which he could never recall seeing her without. Today, though, her normally vivacious self seemed dulled and oddly muted. She looked vulnerable; which was something he had never expected to say about Claire.

“You know what I mean,” he temporised.

“Yeah, I know. It’s been a long day.” Her gaze dropped to the half-drunk cappuccino sitting on the table before her, dried froth clinging to the inside of the cup.

He didn’t push but waited patiently as she gathered her thoughts. At length she looked up, dark brown eyes meeting his gaze. He noted weariness there and fear—perhaps fear that he wouldn’t believe her, though she should have known him better than that. When she did speak it was with deliberate quietness, as if to ensure that even Luciano, who stood only a few feet away, had no opportunity to overhear.

“Chris…Someone’s trying to kill me.”

If anyone else had said that he might have laughed or made a wisecrack, but not today, not from Claire. “Who, and why?” was all he said.

“Fuck knows and ditto.” She was visibly shaking, clearly struggling to hold it together.

“I suppose it would be a cliché for me to say ‘Start at the beginning’…”

“Yeah, probably.” And she grinned, which he took as a good sign.

“Too late now, though, eh? Okay…” She took a deep breath and then the story came tumbling out, the words chasing each other as if anxious to emerge into the open. “I’m having trouble getting my head around all this, so I’m sorry if it doesn’t make much sense but I’ll do my best…It must have somethingto do with Bartosz… I just can’t work out how or what…I think they killed him, Chris. I saw them, saw what they did to him, and then they came after me, hunting me…” There was a suggestion of tears as she screwed her eyes tight. “Fuck, how did this happen? God, Bartosz…”

“Hey, slow down, slow down.” He reached across to hold her hand. Her grip in response was tight, desperate.

Luciano was looking across at them now with obvious interest, if not alarm.

“Yeah, I know, tell it from the beginning…” The deep breath she then drew was more akin to a shudder. “Sorry, but as you may have gathered, it’s not easy…”

“That’s okay. Tell me in your own time, as it comes.”

And she did, with far more coherence than he would have credited given the jumbled start.

“Bartosz is a dispatch rider, you know?” Chris didn’t, but saw no point in admitting as much. “Even in this day and age, not everything can be handled online—some things, even documents, need a physical existence. ’Specially sensitive stuff, you know? no electronic footprint…” She sniffed, and wiped a finger across her nose. “Anyway, he had this delivery today south of the river, at offices in Tooley Street, not far from the Shard but towards the Tower Bridge end. We’d arranged to meet for lunch—there’s this brasserie in Hay’s Galleria, where they do the most fabulous sarnies made to order: roast turkey off the bone with mustard, and really good smoked salmon with a squeeze of lemon and a grind of pepper…” She was starting to babble, her words tumbling out unfiltered. “And it has a terrace that overlooks the water. I got there early, so rather than wait around I decided to walk across and meet Bartosz after he’d made his delivery. Don’t know why. Wanted to surprise him, I suppose.”

She took another deep breath, and when she spoke again her tone was more measured, as if she was determined to tell this properly. “There was no sign of his bike outside the office but that was hardly a surprise—the traffic warden gestapo are real bastards in that area; it doesn’t matter if you’re just stopping for a few seconds to make a delivery or what. So I went round the side of the building—there are a couple of narrow back streets with metred parking. Sure enough, there was Bartosz and his bike, but he wasn’t alone. Three men were standing with him. They’d sort of surrounded him, and the strange thing was their clothes: long brown coats, buttoned up to the top. It’s been cold the last few days but even so, these looked…I don’t know, wrong. They were all identical, like some kind of uniform—and those coats might have been fashionable in Eastern Europe maybe, in the 1940s, but today and in London…? It was as if they were extras who’d just stepped off a film set.” She shook her head. “It wasn’t just the coats either. They all had these rimmed hats on—fedoras, you know?— like Chicago gangsters in an old movie.

“I stopped as I rounded the corner. Wish I could make you understand what it was like: the oddness, the menace of these three outlandish figures. It was fucking sinister! Their posture and the way they had him penned in…For a moment I wasn’t sure whether to walk brazenly over and show support for Bartosz or sneak back round the corner and not let anyone know I was there. Before I could decide, one of the brown coats whipped out some sort of a gun and…shot him. It was so sudden, so abrupt, and the shooter didn’t hesitate, didn’t pause to threaten or even take aim— it was just one swift movement…And Bartosz vanished. I screamed, I couldn’t help it, and all three of them spun around and looked at me.

“Those eyes…They had no whites, Chris, just gleaming blackness. Three pairs of demons’ eyes…These brown coats, they aren’t human…not our sort of human, you know?”

Unfortunately he did, all too well.

Most people think of London in the singular, as just one place. They’re wrong. Consider it this way: If you were to ask twenty different individuals the first image that pops into their mind when they hear the word ‘London’, you would likely get twenty different answers: the Queen, Buck House, the changing of the guard, pomp and ceremony; Harrods, Knightsbridge, Fortnum & Mason, and all those boutique shops; the City, the stock exchange, and the financial hub; 10 Downing Street, Parliament, Whitehall, and the machinations of government; red busses, black cabs, and beefeaters at the Tower; Le Gavroche, the Ivy, celebrity restaurants, and top-end dining; Covent Garden, street theatre, and bustling markets; pie and mash, jellied eels, pearly queens, and cockney humour; theatre land, the Royal Opera House, and the ballet; Soho, sex shops, and scantily clad lap dancers; museums, cultural events, and art galleries; the London Eye, Madame Tussauds, and Regent’s Park Zoo…The list goes on. And that just accounts for those faces of the capital that everyone is aware of—the facets that catch the light and glitter. The truth is that there are many Londons, not all of them so apparent or accessible; but at certain times in certain places the boundaries between the different Londons blur and merge. When that happens, the oddest things can sometimes slip between the cracks. At those times it’s possible to step across into places that are unsettlingly familiar but at the same time profoundly different…If you know how to.

Chris knew that Claire was one of the privileged few—or perhaps some might say ‘cursed’—who were sensitive to London’s shifting faces; she had seen things in her time that most people wouldn’t believe, and she had just let him know that those hunting her didn’t belong here, that they came from somewhere ‘other’. now he understood why she had turned to him with this rather than anyone else. Claire knew full well that he had seen far more and far worse than she ever had.

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