I’m either feeling brave or very foolish, but I thought I’d share something different with you today. This is a short story I’ve been working on during lockdown. It’s been a while since I’ve written one, but I decided to take a break from my work in progress and it was really refreshing to be working on something different. I hope you enjoy reading it and it will be great to know what you think.
Dead Certain by Jacob Collins
I always liked to get a feel of the ballroom before I go up on stage. Even though this isn’t the first time I’ve been here, I still liked to rehearse. I’d dragged one of the seats piled up in a corner of the room and placed it in the very same spot where I’d sat last year. In two days’ time, twenty tables would fill this room, and each seat would be occupied by someone who you would know from publishing and the media world.
I sat in the seat and looked up to the front of the hall where a red curtain hung in an archway. I was placed here last time because the committee already knew I was a winner, and they wanted to make sure it was easy enough for me to reach the stage from my seat. I paced myself with the drinking as well last year. I only accepted a glass of champagne before my name was announced, and toasted to my success as I gave my acceptance speech.
I replayed last year’s announcement again in my head, gracefully got up and stood tall as I walked towards the archway, imagining the applause exploding across the room. The King of Crime I was referred to as last year. I stopped and stood where the stage will be on the night. I surveyed the empty room, filling it up with people in my mind. I’d glance towards the new writers who had also been nominated; who knew their chances of receiving the award would be small. But still, even being nominated was a great accolade. Something to print on the front covers of their books, which would no doubt boost sales.
I breathed it in; even now, it still sends a shiver of excitement running through me, the prospect of winning. Of course it would be me, it was dead certain. I closed my eyes for a brief second before I strode away from my imaginary stage and left the hall.
It was the following morning when I first clapped eyes on her. I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel with a cup of coffee, and a copy of The Guardian open on my knees. I didn’t particularly pay much attention to the news, but I thought it made me look intelligent if people spotted me reading a newspaper, particularly if it was a broadsheet, nothing trashy like The Sun.
I thought her face was familiar, but I couldn’t quite work out who she was. I could only see one side as she was talking to the receptionist. I picked up the newspaper, placed it down on my table and continued watching. The woman handed over a credit card. As her details were processed, she looked around. Her eyes scanned the room before they clapped on mine, and they widened. So, she knew who I was. I wondered if she was a fan, and my stomach flipped. With so many celebrities turning up at the hotel, the same weekend, every year, it was no doubt that people flocked to the place to get a glimpse of their idol. That’s why I liked to turn up a few days in advance, so I could get a few moments of peace to myself.
The woman finished checking in. She grabbed her suitcase and walked over towards me. Her heels echoed as they struck the marble floor.
‘It’s Ian Dale, isn’t it?’ she said, her smile widening.
I shifted in my seat and forced a smile. ‘The one and only.’
She held out her hand. ‘I’m Liz Grainger, you’ve probably never heard of me, but my debut novel came out this year.’
‘Liz Grainger,’ I said, and mulled the name over in my mind. Now I knew where I recognised her from. Her book had topped the bestseller charts in the spring. Netflix had already bought the rights before its release. ‘Oh, yes, no, of course, I’ve heard of you. I was sent a copy of your book.’
She looked down towards the floor. ‘Oh, God, now you tell me. I hope you liked it.’
‘Loved it,’ I lied. Actually, I’d thrown it among the pile of all the other proofs I’d been sent; it was still languishing around the house somewhere. ‘So, are you working on anything new?’
She nodded. ‘I’m finding book two a bit difficult at the moment. My publishers keep ringing me up every week to see where I am with it, and truth be told, I’m stuck around the twenty thousand word mark, have been for weeks.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ve all been there. It’s the same with every book; it never gets easier. It’s that daunting moment when you stare at the blank page, and you think, crap, I’ve actually got to write something as good, if not better than what’s gone before.’
‘Oh, don’t say it never gets easier. Wasn’t your most recent book your twenty-fifth?’
‘Yep, I’m knee-deep into the next one; but still, writer’s block strikes me sometimes. Aren’t you nominated for the award as well?’
‘Oh, yeah that came as a massive shock. I was never nominated for anything when I was at school; I was actually a bit of a layabout. I’m not interested in winning though, it’s just having the recognition that counts. Well, I’m going to go up to my room. If I don’t see you around, I’ll see you tomorrow night?’
‘See you then, and good luck!’
She smiled and walked in the direction of the lifts on the right hand side of the reception desk. I finished my coffee and banged it down on the saucer with such force that it made the couple sitting to the side of me look round and glare. I mouthed an apology and briskly walked away, wiping the sweat which had suddenly coated my brow.
While I was up in my room, I looked up Liz’s profile on Amazon. Her book had over a thousand glowing five-star reviews. I briefly read the blurb and downloaded the kindle edition. It was only 99p; I wouldn’t have bought it if the price was higher.
By chapter ten, I had all but given up. I’ll admit the prologue was gripping, but after that the writing just dragged, and each character sounded the same. This was what made a bestseller these days? I thought back to my early work, back when I hadn’t achieved a fraction of the success I had today; perhaps if I had written something whimsical and whiny like this, then maybe I would have had an immediate bestseller.
I closed my kindle down and all of a sudden I felt nervous about tomorrow night’s awards show. Liz seemed to have amassed an army of fans online, with over one hundred thousand followers on twitter, all urging people to vote for her book. Jealousy stabbed me like a knife. How often did someone contact me to say that they loved my work? Or reach out to me on twitter to plead with me to acknowledge that I knew they existed? Yes, that happens to some celebrities.
It wasn’t until later the following morning when I saw Liz again. By that time, more writers and some publishers were turning up. I recognised mine. He was standing outside the hotel, clasping a cigarette in his right hand and shouting at someone on the phone.
He hadn’t told me he’d arrived yet, I hadn’t expected to see him until later and I didn’t fancy talking to him. I made a quick getaway before I was seen and slipped out onto a path that led down to the beach. Seagulls were crying above me as I broke into a steady jog. When my shoes first made contact with the sand, I spotted her, and I fell back. Liz was sitting cross legged in front of the sea, I wondered if she was meditating. I guessed that she didn’t like having people crowding around her as well. I stepped forward a few paces and stopped, an idea struck me. The awards ceremony was in four hours. If she wanted time alone, away from all the fuss and attention, I could give her that.
I jogged steadily back up to the hotel; this time, there was no way of avoiding my publisher. He clapped me on the back as I tried to breeze past him.
‘That’s it then,’ he scowled, throwing his cigarette to the ground and stamping it out. ‘Nine years straight you’ve won this award and who do they give it to, a newbie.’
My blood ran cold. ‘They’ve already told you?’
‘Well, they have to,’ he grunted. ‘If you win, I have to bloody get up there and make a speech myself. You came very close to winning they assure me, but even they told me they were pleased that someone different had won it for a change. I mean, can you imagine putting nominee on your front cover?’
My heart seemed to clench with the very idea. ‘I don’t know; perhaps it might bring some extra publicity.’
He frowned. ‘You’re very cool about this.’
‘Look, there’s always next year. I’m just going to go and grab a shower; I’ll catch up with you later over a couple of beers before we go into the ballroom.’
‘I don’t see the bloody point now,’ I overheard him say as I marched back into the lobby.
I became acutely aware of people whispering my name as I headed towards the lift. Had the news already spread? Embarrassment seeped into my body, and the lift seemed to take longer to arrive.
Once I was in my room, I dove into my suitcase. Insomnia had plagued me for years, and whenever I travelled, I always took sleeping pills with me. Fortunately, I hadn’t had to use one so far. I pocketed the packet then grabbed two champagne glasses from the cabinet, and a bottle of champagne from the fridge, which I’d been planning to uncork tonight after my success.
I decided to use the back stairs on my way down. No doubt the lobby would be crammed with people arriving and a TV crew would be there as well. I could just imagine the questions they’d ask me if they’d heard the news as well. I’d been here so many times I knew the grounds of the hotel well, and I knew of a second path which took you down to the beach.
Liz looked as though she was about to leave when I returned. She was standing up and stretching in the light of the sun, allowing the sea to wash over her feet.
‘I hear congratulations are in order!’ I shouted as the wind picked up.
Her mouth fell open as she saw me holding aloft the bottle of champagne.
‘What are you talking about?’ she said.
‘Congratulations. Haven’t you heard? First year and it’s a debut novelist who’s beaten me to the top prize.’
She stared at me. ‘You’re pulling my leg.’
I held my hand on my heart. ‘My publisher confirmed it, he’s a bit hacked off about it, but it’s time for a change.’
She clapped her hands to her mouth. ‘Oh my God, you really are telling the truth.’
‘I’m surprised your publisher hasn’t told you.’
‘Well, truth is, I’ve been ignoring my calls for the last couple of hours. I find the whole thing too nerve-wracking. I suppose I should call her.’
‘Oh come on, I thought we’d have a drink to celebrate. Call her after a toast.’
She looked at me. ‘I’m not sure if I should, I don’t want to make a fool of myself when I go up on stage.’
‘Oh look, one glass wouldn’t hurt. Come on there’s a really nice spot up that path, every year I come here, and I always find it’s the best place to feel calm before the ceremony.’
She shifted on her feet. ‘Oh, go on then, like you say, I suppose one wouldn’t hurt.’
I stood out the way and allowed her to walk on ahead. I waited a few moments before walking after her, and as I did, I uncorked the champagne before pouring her a glass. I watched as the pale golden liquid fizzed at the top, and I placed my hand in my pocket for the pill I’d eased out of the packet. One would do. I plopped it in and watched it dissolve.
‘I’m sure this will be the first of many awards,’ I said, handing her the glass.
She took it but didn’t sip it immediately. In the end, I had to keep coaxing her to drink. We were sitting around the back of the hotel. It wasn’t exactly calming. A machine roared somewhere close by, but Liz didn’t seem to notice. She’d drunk half her glass by now, and already she was yawning. Another half hour and she was slouching before her eyes at last closed. I had to be certain that she wouldn’t wake up. Before I got to the task of lifting her body, I cursed myself for not checking if there was any CCTV nearby. I looked up and searched before breathing a sigh of relief when I realised there was none.
A little way to Liz’s left, there was a brick-built store room with a grey door. Well, I couldn’t have done this in her room and left her there. What if she’d woken up, she’d have come down to the awards ceremony and ruined my plan.
The door clanged open, and I began to push her body inside. She muttered something, and I froze, dropping her head on the ground by accident. Thank God it was grass and not the stone floor inside the room. When I was certain that she was still asleep, I pushed her in further, and pulled the door shut, before bolting it.
I’d come back after the ceremony and wake her up. I’d be remorseful and say that I shouldn’t have left her enjoying the last of the champagne, but that she’d assured me she was fine and wanted to phone her publisher. I’d say she must have passed out in here without realising where she was and someone closed the door without knowing she was inside.
I picked up my glass, tipped the remaining champagne from the bottle onto the grass and drifted back into the hotel through the quiet cafeteria. The waiter at the bar was too busy on his phone to even notice me come in.
The hotel was buzzing three hours later when I left the lift dressed in my tuxedo. I spotted my publisher nursing a pint of Guinness at the bar and chose not to go up to him. Everyone around me was deep in conversation. I was about to go off and find a drink when someone squeezed my shoulder, and I recognised another fellow crime writer who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years.
‘Shame on you not winning the award this year,’ he said, making a tutting noise and pushing his glasses up his nose.
‘Oh, it’s all water under the bridge. How’s thing’s, Will?’
‘Oh pretty good, pretty good. Still, nine years is a good track record. Hey, you haven’t seen Liz by any chance, have you? I must go and congratulate her.’
‘I spoke to her earlier today actually, and she’s really not well.’
‘Not well? God that would explain why her publisher’s not been able to get hold of her, she’s going nuts about it, the receptionist won’t give out Liz’s room number because of data protection. It’s not nerves, is it?’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t think so; she looked really gaunt when I spoke to her yesterday. She reckons she’s caught some bug, but she feels really embarrassed about it.’
‘Well, she can’t help being ill if she is,’ he said. ‘That’s bad form not speaking to her publisher though; they’re at their wit’s end.’
‘Well, don’t worry, I’ve got that all covered. Liz asked me if I’d collect her award on her behalf.’
Will raised an eyebrow. ‘You two seem to have got cosy all of a sudden.’
I could feel my cheeks stinging. ‘She arrived at the hotel early like me, and we got talking. Anyway, I must go and find her publisher so I can explain what’s happening, her publisher’s name’s Madeleine, isn’t it?’
I made my getaway before Will had the chance to answer.
The evening went swimmingly from that point on. Of course, Liz’s publisher was a complete mess when I approached her, but she seemed thrilled at the idea of me accepting the award for her.
‘Oh she’ll be thrilled, I know it, and she’s told me what a big fan of yours she is. But why won’t she get in contact with me? I’ve been calling her non-stop.’
‘She’s got a bad migraine,’ I’d said. ‘She switched her phone off so that it wouldn’t disturb her. She should be feeling better by tomorrow.’
She seemed to understand what I was saying, and then we were both swept into the hall and to our places.
When the presenter announced Liz’s name as the winner, to a round of applause, I tried to imagine her saying my name instead. But it didn’t quite work, and I felt embarrassed as I walked up to the stage.
I made my speech quick; all of a sudden, the room felt hot. My eyes travelled to my publisher, who was tapping away at something on his phone; he was barely taking in what I was saying.
‘Anyway,’ I said, returning my gaze back to the audience. ‘Here’s to Liz. I’m sure there’ll be many more bestsellers from her to come.’
I tried to block out the sound of the second applause, but the walk back to my seat seemed to take even longer than it did to get to the stage.
I knew I had to wait until the room thinned out before I went to fetch Liz. I wondered if the effects of the sleeping pill had worn off, but someone would have heard her if she’d been banging on that door for the last few hours.
It was one-thirty in the morning before I finally had the chance to make my getaway. Even then, there were still a few people standing around at the bar, but they were too drunk to notice anything. My publisher had decided not to stay for the night and had booked himself a cab home. Good riddance, I wondered if I could talk to my agent about cancelling my contract the next morning.
The temperature had really dropped outside. I spotted the empty champagne bottle I’d left leaning against the shed door. I didn’t know what state I was going to find Liz in. Even in my head, I was still wondering how I was going to be able to tell her what I had planned to say earlier. Would she believe me?
The door clanged as I opened it. Liz was lying in exactly the same position as I’d left her; her face was turned away from me. But as I stepped into the room to haul her out, my heart seemed to freeze.
A cold fog escaped my lips as I let out a breath. I glanced down at Liz, my heart thumping. I reached down to touch her face, and I instantly recoiled. She was frozen. No, no, no, no. I stumbled back outside and stared into the darkened room. The sudden realisation of what I’d done hit me like a knife to my chest. How had I not realised when I dragged her into the room earlier? I thought back to the last of the sun’s rays beaming down. Had it been too hot outside to realise? After all, I’d barely stepped foot inside the room. I wouldn’t have known.
Without even listening for a heartbeat, I knew that Liz was dead. Frozen. What sort of hotel keeps a freezer outside?
I slumped back, wishing I could turn back the clock, wishing I could stop myself from carrying out what I thought was the perfect plan to embarrass Liz and gain more publicity for myself.
It’s true what they say that books sell more when the author dies, same as paintings. From my prison cell thirteen months later, I watched as Liz’s publisher discussed her life and legacy. My books had done well too since my arrest, even though bookstores refused to stock them, but the giant Amazon didn’t care.
I switched off the television and picked up the book I’d borrowed from the library. A copy of Liz’s latest, the book she never got to finish, but another kind hearted writer finished it on her behalf. This one included a forward by one of the UK’s top crime authors. The same writer who had written one for me many years ago.
In different ways, both our books would now live forever.
© 2020 Jacob Collins All rights reserved