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The ShortRead: Stuart Neville

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ShortRead of 23rd July

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The Final Silence

Author: Stuart Neville

What's the story:

When your début novel gets picked out by the New York Times as one of the year's best crime reads, you know you've done well. When the LA Times follows suit, you've done really, really well. That's what Stuart Neville achieved with 2009's The Twelve.

The Northern Irish author's latest work, The Final Silence, is already picking up a considerable buzz. It follows the plight of Rea Carlisle, recent inheritor of an estranged uncle's house. Having cleared out the dead man's remaining possessions, she sets about opening a stubbornly locked room - only to discover a leather-bound book of hair, fingernails and horrors. She turns to DI Jack Lennon to help unravel the secrets of a dead man’s terrifying journal.

Release date: Out now from Harvill Secker

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Extract

Raymond Drew wanted to die on the towpath. Even if there was no sun, no blue sky to die beneath, he wanted it to be by the river. He didn’t care if the ground was sodden with rainfall as he collapsed.

If he could manage it, he’d fall dead into the water. At least that way he could be sure. To survive and be brought to a hospital was unthinkable. They would contact his family, such as it was, and his sister Ida would go to his house.

And the things she would find there.

He should have destroyed them, but he couldn’t, he was not strong enough to take that action and endure the consequences. It would be easier simply to die. At least if he was gone, he would not have to face that terrible discovery. The real Raymond Drew, the creature that had hidden beneath this human skin for more than six decades, would be revealed.

Raymond locked the front door of his house, the three-bedroom semi on Deramore Gardens he’d lived in for thirty years. Just one of many identical structures on this street, red brick, early 1900s, the kind of houses that middle-class couples and property developers were falling over themselves to buy until the financial crisis. Raymond had shared the first two years here with a wife he’d barely known, let alone loved. Dead and buried now, and he hadn’t missed her for a moment.

He tucked the keys into his pocket. The grass of his lawn looked like stubble on a drunkard’s chin. He hadn’t cut it in years. The man next door, Hughes his name was, gave up asking Raymond to mow it and did it himself every few weeks. The spring would soon start it growing again.

Not that it mattered to Raymond any more.

He left his car on the driveway, closed the gate behind him, and walked. The Vauxhall Corsa didn’t have an MOT or tax. It hadn’t been driven in months.

A few minutes took him down the shallow incline of Sunnyside Sreet, past the corner shops and Chinese takeaways, to Annadale Embankment. He avoided eye contact with students and housewives on the way. At the bridge by the river, he waited at the pedestrian crossing for the green man to appear and tell him to go. Like a good boy. Raymond had learned to be a good boy long ago, to be quiet, respectful, obey all rules while outside his home. Not to draw attention.

Once across the dark slow-moving water to the Stranmillis side, he walked south along the river’s edge, beneath the bony branches of the still winter-bare trees. Past the newly rebuilt Lyric Theatre, on further, the blocks of apartments with their waterside views. Traffic rumbled to his right, cars, vans and lorries filtering in and out of the city, heading north or east.

That sickly swelling in his chest, pulsing, robbing him of breath. He did not slow his pace, even as the sweat dripped from his eyebrows. Cold on his back, running down his spine.

Raymond had gone to the doctor two months before. A soft-spoken and serious young woman, she had talked about medication, pills, things to ease the tired muscle in his breast.

She talked about more tests, bloods, wires tethered to his skin, a specialist at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

It was serious, the young doctor had said. It was only a matter of time before an attack came, perhaps a big one. Appointments were made, a prescription printed on patterned paper.

Raymond did not keep the appointments, nor did he have the prescription filled. He simply wanted to know.

It had been a month since the fluttering in his chest had intensified. Then the dizzy spells, the cold sweats, the feeling of his torso being crushed by some invisible hand. He awoke throughout the night, gasping, wild horses galloping inside his ribcage.

Only a matter of time.

A cool wave washed across his brow, and his legs weakened. He gripped the railing to steady himself. Waited while the blood coursed through his body.

A pub just ahead, perched on the riverbank, tables and benches and umbrellas damp and pathetic in the grey. A drink. Just one last swallow to see it done.

Raymond entered the pub. The only other patrons were a pair of businessmen comparing charts over cups of coffee. They did not notice him. But the girl behind the bar did.

He approached. The girl smiled. Blonde hair tied back, dressed in black trousers and a shirt that clung to her form. He stared for a moment. Felt his teeth with his tongue.

‘What can I get for you?’ she asked.

A foreign girl, Eastern European.

Raymond had been to Eastern Europe more than once. Even before the Soviets lost their hold. He had tasted many things there. Things few men ever taste.

He went to reply, but his throat and his tongue would not obey. Sweat tingled on his cheek. Something pulsed inside his skull.

‘Are you okay?’ the girl asked. ‘Do you need help?’

‘Whiskey,’ he said, his voice crackling in his throat.

She hesitated, a thin line between her eyebrows. ‘Bush, Jameson, Jack Daniel’s.’

‘Black Bush,’ he said. ‘A double, no water.’

She fetched him the drink, served it in a tumbler. The liquid glowed amber, swaying in the glass as it clinked on the bar top.

A shrill thought sounded in his mind, causing a moment of giddy panic. Had he brought any money? Raymond checked each pocket in turn, the fear building in him, until his fingers touched leather at his hip. He opened the wallet, sighed when he found a twenty-pound note, and handed it over.

‘Keep . . .’ His lungs betrayed him. He inhaled as much air as they would hold. ‘Keep the change.’

A smile flashed on her face, then was swept aside by concern. ‘Are you sick?’ she asked. ‘Do you need a doctor?’

Raymond shook his head, no breath to spare. He took the glass to the farthest table, pausing on the way to let another dizzy wave pass. Raising the tumbler, he smelled warm earthy peat, sweet caramel, spice. Heat in his throat, the aftertaste of aniseed.

As he sat sipping at the whiskey, a knot of pain tightened around his left arm. It travelled up through his shoulder and neck before hammering on the inside of his skull. He held the table’s edge.

Not here. Not here.

Raymond downed the rest of the whiskey in one gulp, coughed, and marvelled at the constellations that flowered across his vision.

The girl approached. ‘Sir? I can call a doctor.’

He shook his head, stood, made for the exit, carried more by his momentum than his legs.

Outside, he went to the towpath.

Here?

Too close to the pub and the houses. Half a mile downriver, past the boat club, the buildings would recede, nothing but grass and trees along the river’s edge. He had walked the towpath many times, letting the quiet air enshroud him, the calm seeping in through his pores.

Another charge of pain coursed from his arm up to his brain, stronger than before.

Walk. Jesus Christ, walk.

His legs obeyed. Time bent and cracked around him. Grey turned to green. Civilisation faded into the distance, only the rough ground and the sound of the wind through leaves.

A woman and a dog. It sniffed at him as he passed, whined, smelling the death on him. His and that of the others.

A cyclist, wrapped in Lycra, a helmet on his head, skidding to avoid a collision.

‘Fuck’s sake, watch where you’re going,’ the cyclist shouted as he pedalled away.

Raymond did not answer.

He stepped off the gravel path, towards the grass and weeds at the edge. His shoes sank in the wetness. Hard, needling cold swamping his feet. The river flowed past, fat from the rainfall.

‘God, let it be now,’ Raymond said.

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