by Neil Armstrong
‘Come to me, find me, I’m here…’ There was a slight creak from the porch step of the cabin as footsteps, one, then two, landed with a slight splash. The door trembled, as if in a strengthening breeze.
Matt Letton’s head jerked up from the desk where he had been sleeping. His right arm flailed, sending a half-full coffee cup spiralling to the floor. He bounced back into his chair and then forward again. A string of nonsense characters ran across his laptop’s screen as he slapped both hands on the keyboard to avoid a full faceplant. He slipped his sweating palms back to the edge of the desk, breathed deeply and waited for the hammer drill beat of his heart to ease off. After a couple of minutes, the fog of sleep lifted and he remembered where he was.
Matt managed half a smile and muttered to himself, ‘Asleep at the keyboard, take a selfie and share it with #writersblock, you’re living the cliche, Matty boy.’
He tried to remember what he had been dreaming about, but it was slipping away. The image of liquid flowing through cupped hands came to mind and sent a pleasant tingle through his spine. The girl, again. Pale face hidden in a tangle of long hair, her hand reaching out to touch his neck and then tracing a line down his back. He didn’t know what they put in the water up here, but it sure made for some interesting dreams.
A huge splash from outside brought Matt crashing back to reality. He charged towards the cabin door and flung it open. He leapt out onto the porch and gazed across at the inky surface of the Crystal Mere. The water was as flat as cut glass. More deep breaths; that drill was rattling his chest again.
Matt shuffled back inside. No point in trying to write anything now. He headed for his bed, dragged back the covers and was about to flop forward into the welcoming embrace of its pillows when he caught something in the corner of his eye. His phone was lying on the bed, notification light winking. He picked it up, squinted at the screen and sighed: 4 missed calls and as many texts – all from ‘Lou work’. His wife was the last person he wanted to talk to. He flicked the notifications away into the electronic long grass, tossed the phone aside and buried himself in the covers.
Matt’s wife was Louise Mcauley-Letton, an investigative journalist with a pretty wide media profile. He was the breakthrough novelist whose debut work had shot to the top of the bestseller lists. But when they had met, after Louise (who had been a little worse for wear) shunted his car in West London, he had been struggling with a half-finished manuscript. They had hit it off though and, after what a lazy hack might have dubbed a whirlwind romance, they had married 3 months later. Louise was often described as ‘driven’ and Matt could attest to that. No sooner had they returned from their honeymoon than she had been onto him to complete the book.
But he had been halfway through and in one hell of a rut. The opening of ‘Dead or dying’ was a slick rollercoaster dash through the mind of a man’s descent into madness: a desire to kill; and then a taut stalking of his victim, entranced and seduced. The woman disappears, but there is no body when the police pull him in. Matt had tried a layered narrative between interrogation, investigation and the anguish of the family. But it just didn’t work.
‘Flat dialogue, one-dimensional characters and the bastard child of every clichéd police procedural,’ as Louise had so delicately put it. Matt frequently wondered if all writers remember the stinging criticism in such fine detail.
Two days after that honest feedback, Louise had come home and dropped a memory stick into Matt’s hand.
‘This,’ she said, squeezing her hand tight around his, ‘cost me favours and hard cash. Destroy it once you’ve taken what you need…and don’t screw it up.’
Matt had grasped the lifeline with both hands. He found police records, transcripts, witness statements, interviews and reports from family liaison officers. It was all there: five different murder cases across three counties; two unsolved and one with no body. He had paused, first a little horrified at the content, and then at his own voyeurism as the grisly detail seemed to propel him from one document to the next. But, what harm would this do? Just a little context and local colour.
If Matt managed to put his scruples to one side during the day, then his subconscious tried to redress the balance at night. Even when he closed his eyes, he would see the images dancing in front of him and hear those oddly detached voices: questioning, arguing and denying. Louise had rolled her eyes and told him to get a grip. When he’d opened up to her about having had periodic night terrors since he was a boy, she’d voiced the opinion that the cutthroat world of crime writing would chew up and spit out someone who was frightened of their own source material. He’d tackled all of these issues by upping his whisky intake on most evenings. It had seemed to work in the short term.
‘Having a few problems…er, sleeping…need to relax a bit,I..I…should be…’kay soom. Sorry, soon. Love you, you, ya…..’
Louise stabbed at her phone to end the call and eased herself back into the chair. Everyone’s got one book in them, so the saying went. But she’d started to think that Matt’s well might already be dry. The latest advance was almost gone and she had her own debts: scoops and stings didn’t come cheap and one of her inside sources said the heat was on and they might need to do a flit pretty soon. They had put two and two together about Matt’s first novel and in this case the sum they were asking for to keep quiet came to a lot more than four. She’d wanted the second book in the bag before considering her options. But life insurance, rather than royalties was now seemed the way to go.
Matt woke late the next morning. The glare from the sun-dappled water was dancing across the bedroom curtains. Ok, he thought, shower, breakfast and then two to three hours solid work. Then a quick update to Louise and a well-deserved appointment with one of those bottles that was nestling quietly in his suitcase.
He loved the rapid dance of the piping hot water on his skin. Glowing and refreshed he stepped out of the bath and toweled himself down. He dried his face and then pulled the shaving mirror across in front of him. The mirror was thick with condensation but, as he smeared his hand across the glass in a squeaking arc, there seemed to be another shape in the foggy glass.
His face barely had time to crinkle into a frown before a white arm snaked out from behind the shower curtain and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him back, urgent, insistent. He was frozen with fear. But, in the mirror, he saw the gauzy outline of the figure behind the glistening curtain and another arm extending towards him.
‘I’m here. Look.’ A gurgling voice echoed around Matt’s head, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn towards it.
Outside, a pair of coots scuttled urgently into the water as a wail broke out from the cabin. As if released by his own scream, Matt found his strength and lurched forward. His head smashed into the mirror and he staggered back, like a boxer caught with the old one-two. He made a wild grab for any means of support, but only managed to bring the shower curtain down on top of him as he landed heavily on his back, his breath forced from him in an instant. But his swimming vision showed only the clean, white lines of the bathroom tiles. He closed his eyes.
The night was pitch black, the moon hidden behind layers of brooding clouds. Matt’s feet were numb, but he could feel that he was edging deeper into the water. He gasped as the icy chill rode up his thighs and over his waist. His whole body felt heavy, but something was urging him forwards. Then he stumbled and took a desperate last breath as his face crashed through the surface and the black depths rose up to meet him.
Matt felt like he had gone the full ten rounds, a steady pulsing throb of pain seemed to be firing up and down his spine. He rolled onto his front but the movement sent a fresh bolt of agony shooting through the top of his head. He gritted his teeth and moaned into his pillow. Wait, pillow? For a moment his mind was like an empty glass and then the memories poured in, the bathroom mirror, the arm, the lake! How the hell did he end up here? Then he gasped, as an ice cold spot arrowed into the middle of his back. He shivered, as the spot started to inch its way up his spine, then spread out, kneading the flesh. He moaned with surprised pleasure, his injuries temporarily forgotten, closed his eyes and rolled over. He arched his back, seeking out that cool touch.
The bedroom’s French doors flew outward and then slammed back, glass rattling, into their frame. Matt shot upright, ignoring the fresh spasms in his back and lurched towards the doors, but one foot flew from underneath him and he landed on all fours. Glancing down, he saw that the wooden floor was pooled with water. He lurched heavily to his feet, wrenched open the doors and staggered out onto the veranda.
The small patch of grass in front of him sloped away quickly to the water’s edge, where an old rowing boat was moored at a small jetty. He strained his eyes towards the surface. There! Moving directly away on the surface, what looked like a small wake. It made him think of a submarine’s periscope in some old war movie.
Whoosh! Whoosh! Two shapes flashed across Matt’s line of sight and he almost jumped out of his skin as a pair of geese landed noisily in the water in front of him. He looked back at the water, rubbed his eyes and swore. The line in the water was gone – if it had ever really been there. The birds seemed to snap him back to reality and he started to persuade himself that he had imagined the whole thing. He took in a deep breath and felt some of the tension start to ease out of him. Then he looked down and his stomach did a flip. Between his feet on the warped planks of the veranda he could clearly see a small pair of wet footprints.
‘Run this by me again.’ Louise’s voice buzzed with irritation.
‘There’s a girl, in the cabin, no – in the lake. She was in my dream, now she’s real. I sent you the picture…of her footprints,’ insisted Matt.
‘You sent me a photo of some wood that you’d dripped on. I couldn’t make it out. ’
‘I explained that. It put the wind up me and I must have trodden on them as I dashed inside for the phone.’
‘Look, Matt. This is one godawful excuse for a missed deadline. You’ve been drinking too much. Want me to play back some of the crazy messages you’ve left me? Now knuckle down to it. We’ve spent your advance and I can’t bail you out.’
The line went dead.
‘Some great idea this place turned out to be to clear the mind.’
It was several hours after the call to Lou. Matt couldn’t quite remember how the Crystal Mere cottage had surfaced in his mind as a good place for a writer’s retreat, but the name had intrigued him and, although Louise had raised an eyebrow, he’d stuck to his guns, arguing it would be better for his creativity than a soulless hotel suite.
Matt sat back in his chair, studying the now empty whisky glass. His eyes traced the light up and down the intricate patterns of the crystal, then he reached for the fresh bottle. Nice of Lou to set him up with a few of his favourites. He studied the label, then cradled the bottle and addressed the room, as if accepting an award, ‘12 year-old special release, you’re spoiling me, Mrs Letton.’ He frowned slightly at the broken seal, even though the bottle seemed new. Oh, well, this particular medicine gave him a few blanks and who could be unhappy about finding an almost full bottle?
It was a sunny day. But Matt kept going. He’d cranked out a good two hours of text, but once the warming embrace of the whisky had worn off, he’d felt the need for some fresh air. The only access to the shores of the Mere was by a small single-track road and he was near to completing a full circuit. A small cluster of buildings at one end had seen better days and none, except Matt’s, seemed to be occupied. A few ramshackle fishing jetties perched precariously out over the water.
Matt came to a stop when he found a small, faded sign.
‘The Crystal Mere. One of the deepest natural lakes in this area. It is formed from natural rainfall and the impermeable nature of the local volcanic rock. Its sheltered position gives the lake its unusually still waters. Its name refers to the appearance of polished glass that the water takes on, especially by moonlight.’
Matt shivered, despite the warmth of the day. He’d felt something, like deja vu. But, this was the first time he’d ventured out this far. There was something familiar about it and it bugged him that he couldn’t remember why. Lou might know, she was good at this stuff.
Louise was good at this stuff. She seemed to have the knack of scanning huge amounts of information at speed and recalling what she’d seen. More than one interviewee had come a cropper on live TV thanks to that. But now she was frowning at Matt’s photo of the sign and not just because he’d interrupted when she had a shitload of work to do.
Louise sat back in her chair and idly spun the wine glass in her fingers. She was momentarily entranced by the swirling crimson liquid that rode up the side of the glass in a perfectly flowing spiral. Then she stopped the movement and it all came crashing back down. She slammed her laptop lid shut on the still unread emails and headed for Matt’s study.
Louise scanned the wall-to-wall bookshelves crammed with everything from Braudel to Burroughs and the huge, cluttered desk. Matt didn’t have a tidy mind, but there had been a creative spark hidden in it somewhere. It had just needed a bit more encouragement to come out. She flopped down in the chair, opened one of the drawers and began to rake through. It looked like an explosion in a stationery store.
‘How can anyone work like this?’ Louise yelled and tried to slam it closed, but it bounced back out. She frowned and tried again. Still no good. She reached towards the back and found something dangling down that had been taped to the bottom of the drawer above. She tore it away and unwrapped it.
Louise swore under her breath as the documents scrolled across the screen. Hadn’t she explicitly told him to destroy this? She could feel her heart pounding and the blood rising to her cheeks. She slashed her fingers angrily across the touch screen as the images swam before her. Then she stopped, mouth open.
In other circumstances it might just have been one of a million discarded selfies, with half of a blurry face, but the camera’s auto-focus had caught the sign for the Crystal Mere in pin sharp relief. He’d got his quiet retreat from the evidence on a police file? A passage from ‘Dead or dying’ sprang to mind: ‘The circles on the map. Like ripples spreading out in water. How far could the prime suspect have got with the body before he was next seen?’
‘Right, Matty boy, you are even more in the shit.’
Not only had he kept the damned stuff, but he’d been accessing it again and, if this didn’t take the biscuit, he’d been pinging attachments between his email accounts. She gripped the arms of the chair, pushed herself upright and was just turning away when she stopped. Maybe this had made the decision for her. The opiates in the whisky had been the start of getting him on the edge, but the amounts had been quite small so far – even if the early signs were showing. Maybe this was the time for more direct action? After all, his crazy calls and messages could easily show evidence of a man on the edge. And on the edge of a very deep lake at that. She wrenched out the memory stick, ground it underfoot and then grabbed her car keys.
Matt liked to pick up a copy of ‘Dead or dying’. A real hard copy. E-books had their place, but there was nothing like the tangible feel of the weight of words, especially when it had his name on the cover. He allowed himself a smile, which faded when he glanced down and caught sight of the computer screen glaring up at him. His two-hour stint the day before had just created a load more plot lines, rather than focusing on the much more difficult task of tying everything back up together.
He flipped the pages idly and stared down at the book, as if holding one completed work in hand might inspire him. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. Headache coming on; felt like a real cracker too – riding up the back of his head and then slamming down into his forehead. This was going to be a bad ride.
Matt stumbled to the kitchen and groped for the sink. His vision swam and he fell to his knees, grasping for purchase on the edge of the work surface with one hand, still gripping onto the book, like a talisman, with the other. He heard a light splashing sound, but hadn’t found the tap yet. There was a cool touch over his hand, like an icy glove and he allowed himself, eyes still closed against the pounding in his head, to be guided towards the outer door where the still air of a summer’s evening was waiting.
A creaking started to bring Matt round. He kept his eyes shut. There was also a faint lapping noise. Then consciousness kicked in properly. His neck was so stiff that it felt like someone had driven nails into it and water had soaked into his back and legs. What had he been sleeping on? He rolled over and tried to stand up. The world rolled with him and his legs buckled as he seesawed from side to side in the rowing boat. When he regained his balance he saw that the boat had drifted a short way out into the lake, but was still tethered to the jetty.
‘What the….’ he staggered back and dropped down onto the bench seat, ‘…how on earth did I…’ His mind quickly rewound to the previous evening, but he could remember nothing beyond the back door.
Matt glanced up. It was early, with a first hint of dawn light. He had an image of a lantern-bearer slowly approaching over the brow of a hill. ‘Shine some light on this one buddy.’ he muttered.
But the sky didn’t hold his interest for long. This was all too much. He put his head in his hands and stared at the peeling paint of the bench seat below him. Then he noticed a book and his phone nestling on the damp boards between his feet.
The book was ‘Dead or dying’ – the pages already bloating from the moisture. He sighed and picked up his phone – a whole ream of alerts demanded his attention. He looked from phone to book and back again and with a loud ‘screw this’ tossed the blinking handset as far as he could out into the water. He opened the book and started to read.
Louise wasn’t sure what to make of all this. She had crept towards the water’s edge and watched Matt’s little display. Had he been talking to someone? She didn’t think so. But, whatever was going on, it was probably going to help her cause. She stood up and walked into his view.
‘Matty, what’s the matter, what are you doing?’ She tried to inject the right note of concern into her voice.
He turned to see her, a smile on his face, but he didn’t look crazy. If anything his face looked as calm as the surface of the water.
‘Hey, Lou. I was just going through this,’ he shook the book at her like a sermonising preacher, ‘I was thinking about the words and what they cost me.’
‘Cost you? I’m the one who put my ass on the line.’
‘No, no, not favours or money.’ His tone was that of a benevolent teacher correcting a child. ‘My ethics, my soul. I used the pain and distress of these families and it’s tearing me up. I can’t do this anymore.’ He looked away, as if dismissing her, and started to tear pages from the book one by one, letting them float down to the water
‘What a time to develop a conscience. The pain, the hurt, it was all there. We didn’t cause it – we didn’t increase their suffering. We just used it. And you were well up for that. So this is no time to recant on the scaffold.’
‘But I profited, Lou. I lived off the blood, their terror, their horror.’
‘Come back in, you’re obviously not well. I can help.’ Her voice had taken on a hard edge of impatience. Lou knelt down at the edge of the jetty, picked up the rope and slowly began to draw the boat back in. Matt seemed barely to notice as he continued to distribute his paper offerings.
The boat bumped back against the jetty. Matt turned to look at Louise, as if noticing she was really there for the first time.
‘We have to pay for what we did.’
Matt dropped the book as Louise stepped carefully into the boat.‘I’m sorry it has to end like this. But I think you’ve quite lost your mind.’
Matt looked down and saw the gleam of the first rays of the morning sun on the thin blade she held in front of her.Then it all came back to him. When he had left the cabin the previous night: the white fingers tracing up and down his arm, urging him towards the water. Her face had been turned away. But he had reached out with his other hand, brushing bedraggled strands of dark hair away from her face. Then seeing the moonlight on the unnaturally pale skin as her face turned towards him. Had he begged, pleaded, tried to explain?
Louise plunged the knife forward. Matt stumbled back and crashed heavily into the bottom of the boat. She was over him now and he saw the blade plummet down. He closed his eyes and waited for the end.
There was a surprised shriek and the boat rocked, threatening to tip over, followed by a huge splash. Matt dragged himself to the side, trying desperately to steady it. Through blurred eyes, he saw Louise’s hand, still clutching the knife, flailing above the water, then her head burst up, her mouth a perfect circle of horror. He waited for her scream – but it never came. Another figure erupted from the water behind Louise, its rotting flesh peeling from its face and dark vacant eye sockets echoing the depths of the Mere itself. A pair of white arms rose up, like coiling tendrils around Louise’s head and the deathly pale fingers sank into her mouth and eyes, pulling her below for the last time.
Matt collapsed back into the boat. He found himself clutching the remains of his book and began to let out a hysterical giggle; half in shock, half in relief. He had no desire to move. After some time he fell asleep, which was how the police team found him.
‘The whole thing created a sensation of course and those were only the parts that were made public. Mysterious water spirits didn’t feature in the court transcripts. There seemed almost no end to the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ headlines that accompanied my trial. This wasn’t just a bestselling crime writer accused of murdering his broadcaster wife, but it all took place at the site where a missing murder victim was finally located. In fact, through some strange twist of fate, the police units on the scene had been the search team acting on information from the killer, who had finally confessed, several years into a life sentence for another murder. I got off. There was no evidence I’d done anything wrong. Lou had drowned. I hadn’t touched her or the knife and the toxicology on the whisky showed that she’d been the one with foul play in mind.’
‘The offers came in of course, but I chose to disappear for a while. Dry out. Get my head straight.’
Matt powered down the tablet. He wasn’t writing this for anyone but himself. It seemed to help. And he was sleeping much better since he moved. He wandered through the cool of the air-conditioned apartment and looked out at the dark silhouettes of the desert hills. Yes, this was just what he needed.
About the Author
Neil Armstrong spent more than 20 years gathering half-baked ideas for short stories. He took up creative writing as a proper hobby after completing a course with the Writing Forge and his stories have appeared previously in Horror Zine, Bewildering Stories, Dark Fire Fiction, the Ansible and Colp:Sky’s the Limit. He lives in Kent, England with his wife, two children and Hugo – a disinterested cat.