DEAD MEN DON’T SMILE

Is the title of the first short story I wrote nearly twenty years ago – and it still makes me happy.  Not so much its dark humour (well, I think it’s funny) but the fact it broke a long and frustrating publishing duck.

Over the previous five years, the three crime novels I’d been sending out had garnered a fine collection of rave rejections from countless publishers.  Some pretty close calls but no contracts.

Then in November 1998, the editor of The New Writer magazine threw me a career lifeline. She showed faith and published my first fiction. I’ll never forget how good that felt or how much I owe her.

new writer cover

Ahead lay a further three years of ‘thanks but no thanks’ rejections for my full-length fiction.  But throughout that time, I kept TNW open on my desk so that every morning when I sat down to work my story was there proving I could do it. Seeing it acted as a spur and helped me through the self-doubt and dark days that every writer – published or not – faces.

Persistence can pay off and success in the shape of an offer finally came in 2001. Working Girls my first crime novel was published later that year.  I didn’t know it then but it turned out to be the first title in one of two crime series that I now write.

Copy of working girls cc

Anyway, I didn’t start a blog to dish out advice or deliver lectures but, for me, the lesson I learned way back was, and is: never give up, and maybe don’t try and run before you can walk?

I look back on those eight years as my apprenticeship and on the publication of that first piece of fiction as the start of a new chapter for me as a writer. This is that story . . .

dead men

For a woman who didn’t believe in ghosts, her first book signing was fast becoming a spiritual revelation. George Cornwell – so solid a presence in her recent life – was putting in a late appearance due to his untimely death.

Claudia Connor – fake tan and false smile – was approaching the end of a painstakingly prepared spontaneous address when she looked up and spotted George in the middle of the back row. She stared mesmerised as he puckered full lips and blew a light kiss. Claudia lifted an eyebrow; he was more expansive in the afterlife than he’d ever been in this one.

She almost returned his smile until she remembered that dead men don’t. Dead men don’t do anything. Do they? She shivered despite the heat.

‘Ms Connor. Are you OK?’

The voice broke the spell. Claudia tossed big blonde hair and turned to the small bland man hovering at her side. She flashed a beam that could have powered a small continent and which had already paid for her orthodontist’s holiday in one.

‘I’m fine.’ Claudia ran a moist pink tongue over impossibly red lips.’ Perhaps a glass of water?’

The little man – whose badge said Manager – but whose manner said Uriah, scuttled off.

Claudia looked round attempting to dismiss the apparition as a temporary aberration. The place was packed and what Claudia lacked in literacy she more than made up in numeracy. A quick head count times the cost of her book equalled fair recompense for the start of her holiday.

Studiously avoiding the space George had appeared to fill, she treated her waiting fans to a full range of batting eyes and beatific sighs. Even her retinue of runners and fixers, PAs and POs was impressed, sensing previously unsuspected depths of dissembling. The adoring multitude was less sensitive, concentrating exclusively on Claudia’s physical dimensions.

For an aspiring actress it was a bravura performance. She thanked God for all those years on the catwalks and front covers. Despite the shock, she’d kept her cool. All the posing had endowed a superficial calm. Quite what it had contributed to her talent as a writer was considerably less clear.

But Roll Model: Kittens on the Catwalk was the reason Claudia Connor was standing in the middle of Waterstones, in the middle of London, in the middle of August when she should be lying on a beach, smoothing on sun cream and sipping on cocktails, not perspiring and seeing spirits.

The Scuttler returned, hand out-stretched.

‘Thank you so much.’ Claudia sipped slowly. She was in no hurry to put her theory about George to the test.  She glanced at the display table to her left. It was stacked high with copies of Roll Model. She sashayed over, her red satin sarong as tight as a second skin except for the thigh-high slit. She felt slightly unsteady on her long legs and was relieved she’d eschewed the four inch heels in favour of soft leather flats. She bent over to put down the glass, fully aware of the impact on The Droolers but not so prepared for the dizziness that came on as she lifted what felt like a very light head. All the more reason to take her time.

She’d decided to count to twenty before letting her gaze rove along the back row again. She  returned centre stage, averting her eyes until the last second.

Thank God. He’d gone.  Well, of course he had. He couldn’t have been there in the first place.

It must have been a trick of the light. Or the heat. Or something.

She switched on her brightest smile. ‘Perhaps, after that little interruption, we could do some Q and As?’ Claudia simpered. Then get down to the signing, Claudia thought. Then get the hell out of here, Claudia gloated. Felix was waiting in the penthouse; the helicopter was waiting on the roof; a St Lucia beach was waiting in the . . .

God, she couldn’t remember, but it was somewhere hot where she wouldn’t be bothered. She dragged her mind back to the dreary little people in front of her. Their contributions were ranging from the banal to the full of bull. Did anyone really give a shit about her favourite colour?

Claudia answered everything with a fixed smile and a winning manner. She couldn’t lose. Instead of punters, she saw pound signs. The session seemed to have run its course. There were no more hands in the air . Then she heard another question.

‘Do you think you’re a good writer, Ms Connor?’

The emphasis was on the adjective and the inference was on the negative. Claudia was unaware of either, she wouldn’t know an adjective from a conjunctive but she’d recognised the voice. She’d know it anywhere. She moved her gaze in its direction. No one else moved a muscle.

Couldn’t anyone see him? Had they heard? They must have. She’d have to answer. She did, but faltered.

‘I . . . I think I’m a f. f. f. fine writer.’

There was a pause and puzzled expressions. Shit! They hadn’t. Get a grip girl. She fought a wave of nausea. God. She was so hot. Her body was on fire. Sweat was seeping from her armpits and trickling between her thighs. Damn the air conditioning. The sooner she got on, the sooner she could get out. She managed a weak smile. ‘And I hope you do, too.’

The Scuttler took his cue and took Claudia by the elbow to a second table where a short line was already getting longer.  It was more of a challenge now to keep the smile in place and there was little she could do about the tremor in her hands. Her signature was barely decipherable.

By the time she’d written mind numbing messages in sixty or so books, she was beginning to relax again. The furtive glances she’d been taking suggested George had vanished.

Her thoughts – although she couldn’t place it – were in the Caribbean. Felix hot in one hand and a Pina Colada cool in the other.

And then the glass shattered.

Not the one that had been in her head; the one that had been on the table. She’d placed it there herself only a few minutes ago. No one was anywhere near it. Yet she’d just seen it rise and fall and heard the smash. Her books were showered with sharp fragments and drenched in cold water.

Scuttler raced across to investigate. ‘How on earth . . .?’

‘It’s nothing on earth,’ Claudia murmured, tight hands clutching her even tighter chest. She lifted her glance to find that the queue has dispersed. Only one figure remained.

‘What on earth are you doing here?’

Claudia didn’t bother to look at him. He could have been part of the furniture. George Cornwell was installed on the three-seater and had no intention of leaving until she’d handed over what he’d come for. He’d spent enough of the last year in this place to last him a lifetime. He had no desire to stay any longer than necessary.

Claudia moved to the drinks cabinet: all hard liquor and soft lighting. She poured a large vodka then strolled to the black leather Chesterfield opposite her uninvited guest. George wondered idly whether she’d bought the trousers to match.

‘Look, darling,’ she ran scarlet-tipped fingers around the rim of the cut crystal, ‘No hard feelings. It’s over now. Let’s put it behind us.’

George looked round for a purring cat until he realised that only he and Claudia were in the room.

‘Move on? Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve given you everything. You can’t pretend it never happened. You needed me.’

Claudia laughed. It was a mistake.

George – a man of many words – decided for once in his life that action might be louder. He covered the distance between them before Claudia had finished crossing her legs.

‘You owe me. You dumb bitch.’

‘Who’re you calling a bitch?’

George laughed. It was a mistake.

Claudia – a woman of limited vocabulary – always took decisive action. In this instance it took the shape of ramming a four-inch steel-tipped heel into George’s groin. The other found its way into his neck. The fact that it hit the jugular was pure chance. Claudia neither knew what it was or where it lay.

She knew one thing for certain: George would have to go. Six hours later, a man wearing women’s shoes in unorthodox parts of his anatomy was anguishing at the bottom of the Thames.

So why – fourteen hours after that was the same man standing in line, book in hand, waiting for her to sign?

The newspapers told a story but not The Story. The Mail was typical . . .

Claudia Connor has died during a book signing at a well known London store. Shocked bystanders desperately tried to revive the former model but she was dead on arrival at hospital. It’s believed she suffered a massive heart attack. Ms Connor (27) one of the best known faces in the world of fashion had recently turned her hand to writing. She’d cut short a holiday in the South of France to promote her first book. 

Roll Model, a racy look behind the scenes of the catwalk, has been speeding up the bestseller lists. Ms Connor, who’d been hoping to play herself in a Hollywood film version had angrily denied not having read the book let alone written it. Her publishers acknowledged the invaluable given by Mr George Cornwell. Mr Cornwell, a highly regarded writer who has ghosted work for a number of international celebrities, was not available for comment.  

Later editions carried a few lines on an inside page about a man’s body being discovered by an angler on the Thames. Police were appealing for help as there was nothing on the corpse to identify it. They were also asking the owner of a pair of gold leather stilettos to come forward. A brief description of the man was issued: five feet eight inches tall, slightly overweight, thinning grey hair; an expensive suit and handmade shirt.

A police spokesperson said, ‘He was obviously a professional gentleman who appears to have been fairly well-heeled.’

Even Claudia might have laughed.

cropped-hell-for-leather.jpg

4 thoughts on “DEAD MEN DON’T SMILE

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