Blood Read (Publish And Be Dead)

By Simon J. Townley

Thriller, Crime & mystery, General fiction, Literary fiction, Comedy & satire

Paperback, eBook

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343
13 mins

Chapter One: The Gatekeeper

Doors never opened easily for Tom Capgras. The gatekeepers, those at the helm of life, know a trouble maker when they see one and at every turn they blocked his way.

Yet here stood an unlocked door, an inch ajar. He tapped lightly. “Jo? It’s Tom.” No answer came, only a rasping creak – an echo of summer days at the dockside, water lapping against boats, the screech of gulls and the moan of rope on wood.

Rope. That was it.

He pushed at the handle and edged into the office where Joanne Leatherby, literary agent, waited patiently for their meeting to begin. He noticed her feet first, twisting and turning above the waste paper basket. A Series 7 Arne Jacobson chair had been kicked onto its side. The desk was clear apart from a pile of papers in the centre. Tom recognised the tattered edges of his own manuscript where his printer had mangled the pages. He had been meaning to replace it for longer than he could remember. Joanne had told him it looked unprofessional.

She was beyond caring now, her face white and bloodless, her eyes staring, mouth contorted in pain. Tom yelled for help, his voice muffled as if underwater or heard through thick glass. Cut her down. Check her breathing. His foot collided with the bin and it rolled across the room.

The rope had been secured to a solid wooden desk and thrown over an oak beam. The knot wouldn’t move. What fiend devised this? Joanne didn’t seem the type for the boy scouts. Finally, it unravelled. Her body hit the carpet with a thud and he winced at the impact, though she could feel no hurt, not any more.

As he loosened the noose from her thin, white neck, he noticed how expertly the hangman’s knot had been tied, the work of a perfectionist intent on making an immaculate death.

He fumbled in the pocket of his Belstaff jacket to find his phone. Who to call? The newsdesk? The thought flashed across his mind and he shook it away. Ambulance. But that meant police…

No one knew he was here. No one had seen him on the stairs. Only that cleaning woman with her face half hidden by a shawl. She’d held the door open but she’d not even looked at him. He could slip out, let someone else deal with the coppers. The interviews. The questions. The doubt.

He put a hand on Joanne’s forehead as if to comfort her. Why now, he asked, what could hurt so bad? She remained impassive, silent. And dead. Another suicide. Add her to the list.

He’d not known her long, or well, but she had appeared content. Strong, even. He’d sensed no demons tormenting her, and he was a man who knew much about such things.

He’d have to make the call. He owed her that, at least. Besides, he’d undone the rope, lowered the body. His DNA was here. Don’t be a fool. Nothing to hide. He dialled on his iPhone, asked for an ambulance, gave details, his own name, Joanne’s. The police controller cut in asking if there were signs of a break-in, anything suspicious. Tom’s eyes scanned the room. Where was her laptop? Her leather shoulder bag lay sprawled on the floor. There were details out of place, or things that shouldn’t be here, he felt it in his bones. One drawer of a filing cabinet stood open, files lumped on top. A pile of books had been scattered on the floor as though pulled from the bookcase at random. Detective tales by the look of them. A mug lay beside a wet patch on the carpet where the coffee must have spilled. “There’s something wrong.” He dreaded what must come. More police, more questions. No escape. “It’s not suicide. Made to look like it. But it’s wrong.”

The police control room fired questions.

“What is your relationship with the deceased?”

“Friend, client. She’s my agent. It’s new.”

“You found the body? Is there no one else there?”

“The door was open. I let myself in.”

The policeman waited for an explanation. The heartbeat of silence hung heavy on the phone.

Think. How did it happen? “The outside door at street level wasn’t shut properly. The lock was stiff. It was resting open. I tried the buzzer but there was no answer. Joanne’s expecting me, I’m here for a meeting. We’re off to see a publisher, so I assumed no one would mind. There’s another door, at the top of the stairs. As I got to it there was a woman leaving. A cleaning lady I guess.”

“Did you speak to her?”

“No.”

“Can you describe her?”

“I don’t know, east European maybe? Wearing a shawl. Lots of colours. And patterns. And a coat. Big coat for the time of year, long. Heavy. Didn’t see her face.”

“Age?”

“No idea.”

“You’re sure there’s no one else there?”

“No one on reception. I’ve been shouting but no one’s come.”

“An officer will be there soon. Please wait, Mr Capgras. We can contact you on this number?”

Had they looked up his name yet? Had it flashed warnings and previous convictions? Did they even now have his GCHQ file open on their computer screens?

He hung up, mid-question, and stared at the phone. His instincts nagged at him to file copy. He’d have done it too, but a death such as this, looking all the world like suicide, would make no more than a snippet in the ‘Books’ section, at best.

He slid the phone into a front pocket of his black jeans, knelt down and put a hand on Joanne’s cold cheek. A hope appeared, and he reached for her bag, found a make-up mirror and held it to her mouth, longing for signs of life. No mist or condensation formed. She’d not breathe again.

His eyes scanned the room. If this was murder he should look for clues but there was little here other than books: stacked against the walls; scattered across the floor; in piles under the desk. Even one in the wastepaper basket that lay on its side on the carpet. He must have kicked it over while scrambling to get her down. He stretched out and picked up the hardback, examined the cover with its photos of a revolver, a yacht and a glass of whisky: ‘Vex Not His Ghost’, an Inspector Lear mystery by Arthur Middleton.

Standard genre stuff. He avoided crime tales – he saw too much of the real thing. And coppers were rarely heroes, in his experience. He opened the book, a signed copy. “For Joanne,” read the inscription. “We two alone will sing. Many thanks. Arthur.”

He tossed it back into the waste bin and turned to Joanne, staring into her pale face. What pain had driven her to suicide? A fatal illness? A divorce? The lies of a lover? He wouldn’t believe it. She wasn’t the type. Who tied that noose, so neat, so tight? Not these fair hands, he was sure of that.

Whatever had happened here, it didn’t look good for his own dreams. Doors had never opened easily for Tom Capgras – life’s gatekeepers know a trouble-maker when they see one. But Joanne had believed in him – a book that mattered, she said, telling hard truths. It needed someone like her to fight its corner. A book that might lift his career, or save it, or redeem it. Or at least make money. Or waves. Or something. Not any more.

He knelt beside Joanne, clutching her cold fingers, thoughts running on full throttle. Why did nobody come? Finally, five stories below, the door to the street opened, shut again, to be followed by footsteps on the stairs. But not police, or ambulance – they were too light for that. One person, female, clomping in office shoes. He let go of Joanne’s hand, placed it on her chest and lurched to his feet, ready to defend the doorway.


Chapter Two: The Worst Day

There had been a period of his life (nine months reduced to five for good behaviour) when Tom Capgras was blessed with too much time on his hands. He spent most of it pondering a question posed by a cellmate: is there one day you could pinpoint, one that stands alone as the single worst day of your life?

The day the police raided the newsroom, stomping across the editorial floor as if it were a brothel with a side-line selling methamphetamine and fully loaded semi-automatics, sweeping protesting journalists out of their way, demanding access to locked rooms and desks, ripping through filing cabinets, taking the hard disk out of his computer, seizing his laptop and phone and finally leading Capgras away in handcuffs while the editor hurled abuse at them – that, at the time, was the worst day ever, without doubt.

Tom even announced it as such to anyone who would listen once Special Branch, or whatever they were calling themselves, had released him and he sat mulling it over, staring into a pint of warm beer in the Cloak and Dagger public house. “That was the worst day of my life,” he’d said, as if to make it official, sure that he was right. What, after all, could top the humiliation, the outrage, the frustration? Or the knowledge that he’d brought the power of the secret services down on his colleagues and on his newspaper?

But it did get worse. The day they found him guilty of trading in state secrets – that was worse. And the day a week later, when they sentenced him to nine months in prison, that was worse still.

The first day of the sentence was the worst yet. Though the second topped it. And the third. And on it went.

But life had picked up since then. He was out in under five months, and his editor stood by him, and though the tabloids stuck the knives in to support the establishment, the broadsheets were on his side, for the most part, in their better moments.

To many, he was a martyr or a hero. Easy for them to say: they didn’t have to do the time. But colleagues rallied round, co-workers helped him and editors offered work, though he never could go back to that newsroom, not full-time. And what use is a crime reporter with a phobia of uniforms, an intense distrust of the police? Freelance would do: get his head together, see what directions he wanted to take. His editor was secretly relieved, Capgras could tell.

But the bad, the ball-crushingly bleak life-can’t-be-lived-like-this-it’s-time-to-end-it-all-before-you-crack-in-public days were behind him. He’d been sure of that.
Certain of it.

Until today.

It wasn’t far past nine o’clock and already his newly acquired literary agent had hanged herself. His hopes of a book deal had probably died with her. His future lay featureless and bare. The blame would creep up on him too – could he have saved her if he’d been on time? He’d overslept, abandoned his plans for public transport. The Norton was faster, but he’d still been late. Was it all his fault?

And there were questions to come, coppers, bureaucracy, grieving workmates, the tears. Then the journey home, the time spent staring into the distance, not knowing which way to turn next.

Bad day for him. Worse for Joanne.

Yet here was a ray of hope, bounding up the stairs, cheerily calling out to see if anyone was in the office: Joanne’s assistant Hannah Robertson, twenty-four, not long out of university, still in her salad days and keen as they come. She believed in Tom’s book, she’d said as much at their last meeting. It was an important story that needed to be told. She understood the work – defending the vulnerable, exposing corruption. Shining a light on abuses of power. She would fight his corner.

His agent might be dead but there was still a chance his career would pull through.
Capgras blockaded the door to Joanne’s office.

“Tom? What are you doing here?”

He filled the doorframe, “You can’t go in.”

She tried to look over his shoulder. “You sound upset. What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry.” There was no easy way to say it. Better than showing it to her though. She was not used to seeing death. “Joanne’s… gone.”

“I didn’t know she was here. She’s not expected in.”

He gripped the door tight so she couldn’t push it open. “You don’t understand. She’s dead.”

Wild eyes flickered, her mouth twitching, not wanting to face it. “Don’t say that, it’s not funny.”

Stay calm, he told himself, be measured, talk slowly. Help her through this. “She hung herself. Police are on their way. She’s gone. Trust me.”

Hannah shoved at the door, her face etched with fear. “She wouldn’t. I don’t believe it. She’s alive, we can save her.”

He stood his ground and refused to let her pass. Tom didn’t know her well. He’d met her twice, maybe three times if you counted brushing past each other on the narrow stairs. But she didn’t want to see this, even if she thought she must. “I took her down, checked, did everything. She’s gone. She’s cold.”

Hannah’s mouth writhed with suppressed anger.

“Wait for the police,” he said. “Evidence, all that.” He tried to ease her away from the door.

She pushed against him as though blaming Tom. He stood firm, letting her beat his chest with her fists. Her rage blew itself out, she wilted and the tears began to stream down her face. “She wouldn’t kill herself. She couldn’t.”

His thoughts exactly but where was the proof or even a clue that this death might be suspicious? “Why was Joanne alone? No one else is here.”

“We don’t start ’til ten, most days, you know that.”

He did know that but hadn’t thought twice about a meeting scheduled for nine. Hannah turned away from him, fumbling with her hair. Heavy shoes thudded up the stairs. Police: Capgras recognised the tempo. “Hannah, think, who would want her dead and why?”

She had no time to answer. Two uniformed officers swept into the room, taking charge with body language alone. Capgras gestured them towards Joanne’s office and steered Hannah to the relative safety of the reception desk.

One of the policemen went into the office while the other peered around the door, keeping half an eye on Capgras and Hannah. They exchanged code words and cryptic numbers, but the meaning was clear. Another suicide as far as they were concerned.

Capgras sat Hannah on a chair and handed her a phone. “Call the partners,” he whispered. “Alert them, get them here.”

He approached the older of the two policemen, late twenties by the look of him, with the stern face of a man who’s seen too much of life already. And of death.

Capgras gestured towards the door that led to Joanne’s office and the scene of her hanging. “Don’t take this on face value.”

“In what way, sir?”

“Call CID, just in case.”

“We’ll do what’s required. Have a seat, sir. Someone will take a statement from you,”
It meant get lost. Capgras ignored the hint. “This doesn’t look right, doesn’t feel right. Joanne wouldn’t do this, not here, not now.”

“It always comes as a shock. Please stay out of the way.”

The man launched into another rapid-fire exchange of acronyms and code words with his colleague.

An ambulance crew arrived at the top of the stairs followed by a woman police officer who began to take names. She asked Capgras to outline what he saw when he first got there, but she was going through the motions. He’d seen it before, a thousand times. He needed to get her thinking. Focus her attention where it was needed. “Notice the noose. Joanne could never have tied that. And the books on the floor as if there had been a scuffle.”
She did her best to look patient, but it wasn’t working.

Hard to blame her. He sounded like one of the amateur sleuths that plague police investigations with unwanted theories. Capgras had dealt with dozens of them himself in his day: rebuffed by the cops, they would turn to the press as an outlet for their suspicions, hunches and oh-so-rational deductions.

Perhaps the coppers were right: mind your own business, leave murder enquiries to the professionals. He was too close, affected by the death, not thinking straight.

He gave the policewoman the facts, the time of his arrival, seeing the cleaning lady how she must let him in. She didn’t look like a killer, but she might have seen something. The WPC took a note of his phone number and said someone would be in touch.

Capgras doubted it.

As the agency staff arrived in dribs and drabs, they milled around, faces drawn and pale at the horror of death brought into their workplace. The ambulance crew emerged from Joanne’s office with her body on a stretcher, covered with a blanket. The crowd parted to let them through. A young intern rushed for the bathroom and locked herself inside sobbing audibly. A woman in her forties with horn-rimmed glasses had taken charge of the reception desk and was doing her best to hold the place together but she was close to cracking herself by the looks of her.

Finally, one of the senior partners arrived and urged everyone to keep out of the way while the emergency services put things in order.

In order, yes. But they couldn’t put things right. Joanne should not be dead. How old was she? Early fifties, plenty to live for, intelligent, successful. Beautiful, even. She’d have been a catch in her day. Capgras wondered if there were troubles at home, or in the business. Had she, like so many, suffered unspoken depression half her life? She didn’t seem the type but who did?

Hannah, her face haggard, was being comforted by the woman on reception. This was Tom’s chance. His moment had arrived. Yet he paused. Was it too soon? Should he wait, do it next week, next month? But the tide was ebbing on his career. His book would be left high and dry in the flotsam and jetsam of discarded words.

He approached the two women, leant on the desk and waited.

The receptionist gave him a look: it was meant to be steely, but her eyes glinted with tears.

“Tom found the body,” Hannah said.

“Joanne called me in, we were to go and see a publisher.”

“There was nothing scheduled.”

What did she mean by that?

“I didn’t know of a meeting,” Hannah said. “I thought Joanne was off today.”

“She wasn’t due in,” the receptionist said.

“She emailed me, asked to get in early for a chat, then we'd go to the publishers to discuss a deal. We should contact them, so they can rearrange. Or whatever. Only polite. To tell them…”

“I don’t know of any meeting.” The receptionist consulted a desk diary. “Nothing in here.”

Hannah looked up an online calendar. “No, nothing.”

“I got an email from Joanne,” Tom said. “It’s all in there.”

He tried to show them on his phone.

“Forward it to me. Which publisher?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Oh, well, difficult for us to call them then. You don’t look dressed for a meeting…”
“I was late. Didn’t think anyone would mind. Investigative reporter, after all. Got to look the part.”

“Tom, we should leave this. Another time.” Hannah’s body language shepherded him towards the door. How did she do that?

He longed to argue, to make them see sense, to find out about the meeting, to call every publisher in London if necessary, but they wanted him gone. He sensed their need to retreat into the familiar, the team, the family, and to grieve for the one they had lost. “Another time, sure.” He turned and made for the door, trudged down four flights of stairs, shoulders hunched, his hopes in tatters and his nerves frayed. With each step he saw an image of Joanne swinging from the rope.

Something was wrong about this: timetables, schedules, holidays, emails, all of them out of joint. It was a mess. But no one would want to hear his doubts. And maybe they were right. Who would want to kill Joanne? How could a literary agent develop enemies?

He stepped into the mayhem of London and paused on the pavement, wondering what to do with the rest of his day. It was too early to start drinking, even for a journalist. So he shambled towards the sanctuary of his motorbike, the one thing in his life that never changed, never lied, never died, and never backfired.


Chapter Three: Poisoned Words

Inveterate book blogger Charlotte MacInnes ran a spell check through her latest review. She proofed it by reading right to left, left to right, upside down, roundabout and backwards, determined to eliminate all possibility of typos. She hated small mistakes and castigated authors and publishers alike for letting them slip through. How dare they send her a book that wasn’t perfect? How could they be so slipshod?

She had not yet dressed for the day though her husband had set out for the office three hours before. He toiled in the offices of a real estate firm in the centre of Pittsburgh. He didn’t earn much, which was one of the great disappointments of her life, but it was enough that she didn’t have to work herself. Which left her free to read.

cover of Blood Read - a novel about a serial killer who stalks the London book-world
A literary mystery thriller
Her eleven-year-old daughter was home sick from school and Charlotte had spent most of the morning making breakfast and fussing over her child. At last she had found time to update her website. Then she could get down to the real business of the day: reading a book, a whole book, immersing herself in the experience and the fantasy. And the love.

Though she hadn’t yet chosen what to read. A large pile of hardbacks stood stacked against the wall near her desk. An even larger stack of paperbacks had been moved out to the garage. She had long ago refused to accept ebooks. Hard copy only. The books brought in a steady stream of revenue off eBay, even if they didn’t all merit a review.

Once she was certain there were no errors in her article - no missing words or misplaced letters (though she was, it must be said, less of a perfectionist when it came to having ideas of her own) she pressed ‘publish’ and turned her attention to the comments section. Time for pruning. There were always authors hitting back at her reviews. Usually she let her army of commenters deal with the dissenters, but occasionally a disgruntled writer would whinge too much or overstep the mark and she’d stamp them like a bug with her delete button.

She shuffled in her chair, leaning forward, her face close to the screen, eyes shielded by thick lenses held in place by an even thicker, bright pink plastic frame. She wore a pink dressing gown over a white and pink striped t-shirt and pink pyjama bottoms, with pink slippers to keep her toes cosy.

Mostly, Charlotte MacInnes read romance. But she also enjoyed, and often reviewed, a good mystery with a murder and a detective and a villain who was hard to spot but obvious all along. Provided there was a love interest to spice things up, ideally with restrained yet kinky sex on the side.

She heard a van pull up outside, footsteps heading for the porch. The bell rang. She glanced over her shoulder towards her daughter but Amy was wearing headphones and hadn’t stirred. Charlotte pushed back her chair and lumbered towards the door.

A courier stood on the step. He handed her a parcel. “Got to sign the customs form. It’s from the UK.”

She scribbled her name and took the parcel. Another book, it was plain from the size, the shape and the weight of the thing. Around four hundred and fifty pages. Probably not a romance.

Amy hadn’t moved or even looked up from her computer game. Charlotte put the parcel unopened on her desk and went back to her blog maintenance. Twenty minutes later, happy that her online world was in order, she took a pair of scissors to the string.

She held the book in her hand, beaming a smile. A new Arthur Middleton novel: that was funny. Hilarious. Did his publishers not know? Had they forgotten to strike her from the mailing list?

She had torn into his previous two novels with withering bile. They were terrible – badly plotted, poorly written, lame and unemotional. What’s worse, they contained typos. That was unforgivable, even among the great unwashed of the self-publishing brigade. But these were supposed to be proper books.

Her last review had upset Middleton personally, so effectively that he’d started a flame war. Big mistake. She had her allies, people who stood by a book blogger and their right to say what they wanted. Middleton had been run out of her corner of the internet with his tail between his legs.

Now, here, fat and juicy, was another mid-list muddle she could tear into with glee. This would be fun. This would be a riot.

Charlotte tucked the book under her arm and settled onto the sofa next to her daughter. She flicked through the opening pages, licking her index finger for traction, until she reached the first chapter and began to read, a smirk on her face.

The prose was lumpen and stilted. The ideas, the setup, the story, it all seemed so familiar. Just like all of Middleton’s other books. But worse. Tired and flat and lacking the charm, energy and humour of his earlier stuff. He’d lost it, completely, gone off the rails. As though the skill of it had deserted him entirely. Even the cover was blotchy and lame.

She moistened her index finger and turned another page, only vaguely aware of a bitter taste on her tongue. Still the prose stuttered and failed to ignite. She kept going, delighting in how bad it was and how scabrous her review would be. She glanced at her hand, wiped it on her dressing gown. Was that talc?

She licked her finger and turned another page.





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