Paul Cleave's new thriller
This is an extract from The Laughterhouse by Christchurch writer and international best-selling author Paul Cleave.
Caleb Cole isn't thinking straight - either that, or he's thinking clearer than he has in a long time.
The thing he is certain of is the part of his mind that should be making this distinction died a long time ago, died around the time the rest of him started to decay. He's been a dead man for so long he no longer knows exactly what he is.
He knows what he wants - what he wants is the only thing keeping him alive. Dead. Alive. His mind would make that distinction too if he had much of a mind left.
He's tired and covered in blood and he misses his family. It's wrong a dead man should feel so tired. He wants all of this to be over and he hasn't even begun.
He has a long night ahead of him, and he has slowed over the years, any youth in him beaten away, stripped down and stomped on, his joints twisted, bones broken, teeth knocked out, every form of punishment rained down on him.
He endured it because there was no alternative; he died and kept on enduring, the man he was back then long gone, and the new man he has become - well, sometimes he doesn't even know if he's still human.
In the beginning that thought used to haunt him. Not anymore. When he thinks about the reasons he's still alive, he doubts there is any humanity left in him. There couldn't be. The things he's done, the things he's been through, the things he's going to start doing - no, there's no humanity left.
The apartment is small and all he can afford. It smells like rubber from the tyre factory a few blocks away where he's worked for the last six weeks, saving up his money so he could buy his car, his phone, using the time to do his homework and rebuild his strength. The phone he bought a week ago. The car he has owned for two days. It was the last thing he needed to get the ball rolling.
Sometimes he'd come home at night and crouch over the toilet, shuddering as he threw up into it, the smell of rubber cooked into his skin.
The apartment is on a bendy road made narrow by cars parked along the sides of it, but the narrowness saves the apartment from collapsing - all it would take is one large truck to drive past and his home would be rattled from its foundations.
He lives on the second storey, the complex an old state house converted into apartments, each of them small, the walls so thin you can hear your neighbour taking a leak. It's still a castle compared to his last home, and listening to somebody take a leak is sure a hell of a lot better than having to watch. Compared to prison, where he's been for fifteen years, this place is like a dream.
The bed shares the same room with the kitchen and the living room. The only separate room is the bathroom, which is off to the side. He has a window, the view is of a common backyard between several apartments, all of it is littered with broken-down car parts.
He steps into the shower and washes the old man's blood away. It's the second time he's had to do this. The last shower he took was at the first old man's home; he had to clean up before driving to the second.
He couldn't exactly show up on Albert's doorstep covered in blood and holding a six-pack of beer. He even wore one of the old man's shirts afterward. From the second house he's come straight home, covered in blood again but it's too dark for anybody to notice. He soaps up, the blood is in his hair, he shampoos it out, the lather turning red.
Fifteen years ago becoming a killer felt good. Tonight he felt nothing. There was the excitement and the nerves driving there, but then - nothing. For years he's been dreaming about these moments, thinking all that blood would help bring back some of what he's lost, but it turns out he was wrong.
He stood in that first old man's house and felt dead inside, even after the blade had done its work. The second house was the same. This wasn't about revenge, it wasn't about emotion, it was about punishment.
Yet he'd done so much cutting. In those moments he had lost himself, the rage and pain of 15 years had emerged, taking control of him, and he can remember the first stab but not the others.
It wasn't until he found himself staring down at the bodies, blood dripping from his face, that he tried to recall, just how long had he been there? How many times had his arm swung up and down? The dead man in front of him told him it was a lot.
He thought then the humanity would arrive, that it would be late to the party and it would come along and cripple him. It stayed away. It didn't even knock on the door.
These people all must pay for their mistakes, just as he has paid for his. The two tonight, it took some memory-jogging on their parts to remember him. The others will remember better. The others are all younger. The police, of course, will make the connection. But he's chosen the order carefully, and by the time they make it the night will be over and it will be too late.
He steps out of the shower. The bathroom mirror is fogged over, and that's fine - he doesn't want to see himself. His reflection is too painful to look at. He dries himself down and heads into the bedroom and gets dressed. Then he plays with his cell phone. He uses it to open a news website, and so far there is no mention of the two dead men.
The phone switches off to a lock screen, and he has to slide his finger across it to bring it back to life. He'd never held a phone like this before. Years ago they were much bigger, a lot heavier, and if you didn't look at the screen from the right angle you couldn't see a damn thing. Now they're as thin as his finger and about the same weight, and you can do anything with them.
The human race seems to be only a few years away from living like Captain Kirk. It's creeping up toward quarter to ten. He grabs his keys, his jacket, his knife, and the flowers he bought earlier. He pauses in the doorway and glances at the apartment for only a few seconds. It's the last time he will ever see it. It was never a home. He won't miss it.
The City of Christchurch even at night looks the same after all these years, but it feels different. He read the news when he could - he knew the crime rate was escalating - but now he can feel it. The people in this city have changed.
There are more people with shaved heads and tattoos, and people spit as they walk and bump into other and start arguments. Many drive fast cars with loud engines.
It's been a long time, but back when he was a member of this world the cars were different but the status they stood for was the same, all men with big egos and small dicks, and he suspects it's the same now. The teenagers are the worst.
Fifteen years ago you had guys driving up and down the two main streets in town, big cars that looked one step removed from a junkyard. Now the cars are louder, the colours even louder still, boys cruising all the streets of the city with fluffy dice in their windows and neon lights along the edges of the bodywork, and he doesn't get it, he just doesn't get it. It feels like he's living in some kind of cartoon world with brighter colours where teenagers with shiny cars have gone completely mad.
The people he passes on the street act as if he doesn't exist. His car is parked half a block away. It's over a quarter of a century old and the only thing he knows about this car is that there's something under the hood that coughs and splutters every few minutes but still manages to get him around town. The guy he bought the car from had stripped the stereo out and replaced it with a piece of plywood that he'd painted black. He drives from the bad part of town to a slightly less bad part of town, networking his way through the suburbs.
It takes 20 minutes to get to her house. Driving a car was just like riding a bike - everything came back the moment he got behind the wheel. His licence expired years ago but that's only an issue if he gets pulled over. Drivers are worse these days, no doubt about it, and there must be twice as many of them on the roads. Nobody knows how to use a roundabout. Nobody seems to remember what an indicator is for.
He doesn't much like her neighbourhood. Back when he used to have a family he lived in a pretty good place, friendly neighbours, nice homes. His own house had four bedrooms and two storeys and room for a pool in the backyard if they wanted one.
The house he's looking at now looks like it probably has a pool forming on the floor of the living room. The roof has a couple of missing tiles and a tarpaulin is covering part of it. Maybe, just maybe, prison might have been better than this house.
He parks down the road beneath a streetlight that doesn't work. He puts his hand on the door but doesn't pull the handle. Instead he sits in the car and stares at the house. He's nervous. For a dead man, that's quite an accomplishment. He isn't real sure what his opening line is going to be to the woman inside.
Maybe he should bring her beer. It's still in the back of the car.
He's still debating how to deal with her when a taxi pulls up outside the house and gives two quick taps of the horn. After a moment Ariel Chancellor steps from the house, glancing at her watch as she walks quickly to the taxi, a dress so short he looks away as she climbs in. She shuts the door and talks to the taxi driver. They talk for about a minute before they pull away from the kerb, and he guesses they are negotiating the fare.
Damn it, he's missed his chance. He should have come last night, or any other night since being out of jail.
He starts the car up and begins to follow the taxi.
Author Paul Cleave has written five earlier thrillers - The Cleaner, The Killing Hour, Cemetery Lake, Blood Men and Collecting Cooper. paulcleave.com