They come for me as I sleep. Their pale faces stare at me, their soft voices tell me to wake, to wake. They come dressed in the clothes they were in before they died, though there is no blood on them. I know what they want, because when it comes to people who are ghosts because of you, there really is just the one thing. They cannot touch me because they have no real form. I cannot touch them either, cannot push them aside. I feel the guilt they want me to feel—I feel very little else. When I wake it is with a scream lodged so tight in my throat I start gagging until I can swallow it back down. It is five o’clock in the afternoon and I am bathed in sweat. The ghosts disappear, but their It’s all your fault message doesn’t disappear along with them.
It’s Monday. I roll over and see my clothes lying on the floor and wonder if anything good in this world ever came about on a Monday. My shorts are covered in blood. My muscles ache as I sit up. When I touch the bump on my forehead my world sways and the headache grows. The stains on my shorts are made up of red droplets in various shapes and sizes and I wonder what my answer would be if a psychiatrist asked me what I saw in those patterns. I shiver in my hot bedroom. It feels as though a thousand spiders are weaving up and down my spine. Their furry legs and tiny fangs clutch and prod and bite me.
I walk to the bathroom. The house has been closed up since yesterday. The air is tainted. I open the bathroom window, strip off the clothes a dead woman gave me, and climb into the shower. A breeze enters the room. Occasionally it pushes the cold shower curtain against my body. I embrace the water, letting it wash over me but unable to be washed clean by it. I feel nauseated, foul, and a moment later I drop to my knees, vomit burning my throat and splashing on the floor. The water falls around my head and rinses my lips, but the taste of death remains.
I turn off the shower. Climb out. There are lots of little cuts over my body but nothing that needs stitching. In the mirror the dark blue skin on my forehead looks like a golf ball has been stitched beneath it. Seeing it invites the headache deeper into my brain. It builds a residence in there, hangs up a sign, and settles in for a long stay.
I wrap the towel around my waist and trudge through the house. Water rolls off my hair and down my body. I leave wet footprints on the carpet. The stuffy air feels like a damp overcoat. It feels like I’m walking through a tomb. Perhaps that’s exactly what this is. I close my eyes and the two dead women waiting in my thoughts agree. In the kitchen I knock back two painkillers. How well the two words, pain and killer, go together. Is that what I am?
The answering machine has a light flashing. There are three messages. I press play and I listen to one of the secretaries at school asking me where I am, telling me I have a classroom full of students waiting for me to show up. Then she calls back two hours later and says a similar thing, and an hour after that the headmaster, a guy by the name of Declan Burrows, asks where the hell I am. I don’t return the calls.
I settle down in front of the TV in the lounge and use the remote. There’s a show on that involves one women caked in makeup screaming at another woman caked in similar makeup, something important enough to involve the word skank getting used four times in the ten seconds I watch the show for. I change channels. The news has already started and the deaths are the lead story. The reporters and presenters are good-looking people full of smiles and bad news. I wonder if their salaries are on a sliding scale—the bigger the tragedy the more they make. They use phrases like mega-murder because they lack the real vocabulary to sensationalize human tragedy. They’re talking about a community in shock. Not just one homicide, but two—the God-loving, taxpaying citizens of Christchurch are getting their money’s worth. Senseless crimes, they say. A brutal frenzy, they say. Just how brutal they can’t say, but they sure as hell like to guess. No motive, no clues, no leads. It’s their favorite kind of story because it’s equally as full of mystery as it is tragedy. They say ritualistic killings so often it’s easy to imagine some soap company sponsoring them to do so, because nothing cleans up a satanic massacre like their product will.
I’m given the chance to learn what I couldn’t last night as photographs from Kathy’s and Luciana’s lives flash across the screen. I didn’t know the two women for long. Just hours, really, but sometimes that’s all you need. Sometimes it’s all you get. The photographs seem to be taken a few years ago. In Kathy’s photo there’s an arm around her, probably her husband’s. Her teeth are showing, she has an uncontrolled smile, a full genuine smile that comes about when somebody is trying to make you laugh and doing a great job of it. She has the blue eyes and blond hair of a surfer, and the tanned body to go along with it. Or it could just seem that way because the photo has been taken on a beach—you can see sand and water in the background and somebody wrestling a stick out of a dog’s mouth.
Luciana’s photo is a wedding photo, one snapped of her where she’s staring into space. She looks beautiful but also a little lost. She is alone in the photo. Her dark hair is pinned up, her slender body hidden by the heavy white dress.
The reporter lists their personal achievements and ambitions as the photos are on display, the same way a salesman would list the best features of a car. Luciana was thirty-two, married, she was studying creative writing, and she taught piano. I had no idea. Last night was the realest night of my life, but thinking of that piano, thinking of the lesson she will have missed today makes it even more . . . what’s the word? Realer? Kathy’s the same age. She was a real estate agent. The two women had known each other since primary school. They grew up together. They hung out together. They died together. Family members and friends come on and share their anecdotes and pain. It’s a smorgasbord of details I’d know had I kept them alive. But I didn’t. Because I fucked up. Soon I’ll be on the TV too. They’ll thrust a microphone in my face looking for a sound bite. They’ll ask the same questions the ghosts are asking—Why?
I switch off the TV. I get dressed. I drag a backpack from the bottom of my wardrobe and dump it on my bed and start packing. It takes me five minutes. I grab the bloody shorts from the floor and throw them in the laundry on the way out of the house.
It’s nearly seven o’clock by the time I climb into my car. The evening is still light, but won’t be for much longer. It’s that time of the year where summer has disappeared, but its reach still remains. The air is warm and sticky and smells like freshly mowed lawn. A young boy with a baseball cap pulled on backward is biking along the footpath stuffing mailboxes with leaflets that might be advertisements for toasters or pleas for help to find his puppy. A few doors down an elderly woman is on her knees pulling weeds from her garden. She waves at me. I wave back. The boy puts a leaflet in my mailbox. I drive down my street and watch them both get smaller in my mirror.
A few minutes later I drive past the pasture where the early hours of Monday introduced me to this world, the Real World, where old women with green fingers are replaced by madmen with red ones, where no children play, where fresh pies don’t sit on the windowsills of happy-go-lucky life. Jesus, I don’t even know what life’s about anymore. It certainly isn’t about routine; it isn’t about paying your mortgage and buying groceries; it isn’t about singing “Happy Birthday,” licking stamps, and changing flat tires. I used to think it was. I used to think there was justice in this world, balance. You want to think it’s about living, about surviving, but no matter how hard you try it gets to be about dying.
As I look out at the long grass and trees, the soil and scrub, it seems obvious it takes only a couple of shovelfuls of dirt to form a shallow grave. There could be a dozen people out there in the ground—lost loves, lost lives, just lost. The trees at the far end look nowhere near as imposing as they did in the early hours of the morning. The killing hour is over, that’s why. In the dying sunlight, during the day, these trees are a strip of nature in the city, they’re a place that hasn’t been bulldozed and developed, but at night those trees are dark and foreboding, the kind of trees that in a fairy tale would come alive and rip children limb from limb. There are no police cars, no tape cordoning off the scene, no clatter and squawking of radios. There are only ghosts. I can’t see them, but I know they’re there.
The Real World isn’t about destiny and it certainly isn’t about luck. If it is, Luciana and Kathy ran out of theirs around the same time I ran out of mine. I push my foot down, not caring about the speed limit. Before I can escape I have one more thing I need to take care of—one more woman I need to see.
The Killing Hour
Imagine waking up covered in blood—but it’s not your blood. There’s a nasty bump on your head, and you can’t remember a thing about last night. The morning paper reports that two young women were brutally murdered. You recognize their names. Pieces of the night before come back to you through the haze. And now you’re the suspect in their grisly deaths. Welcome to Charlie’s world.
In this heart-pounding thriller, only the dead know what happened last night. On the run, Charlie suspects a man named Cyris, but no one believes that Cyris exists. Not the police and not Charlie’s ex-wife Jo, though she wants to trust that the man she once loved is innocent. Soon, Charlie has Jo bound and gagged in the trunk of his car, fleeing across the countryside while the killing hour approaches yet again.
Originally published in 2007 in Cleave’s native New Zealand, The Killing Hour represents the early, “pulse-pounding” (Publishers Weekly) work of a writer known the world over for a style that combines gruesome thrills with clever twists and a heavy dose of devilish humor. Cleave keeps us guessing until the last page of this fantastic psychological thriller.
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