The Dead Man
He has chapped lips and a grinning red slash at his throat. He topples over the wrought-iron railings of the pier and into the cold northern sea, where the autumn waves are hungry to swallow him up. He dies in the early morning, when the lights of Blackpool are not on. Nobody sees him fall.
The Detective saves the chocolate flake for last. The wind flicks drops of ice cream into his beard as the Ferris wheel takes him higher and higher above the pier and the waves and the town. It reminds him of shivery afternoons with his parents, how they bribed him with an ice cream to be good for just a few hours more. He licks around and around the flake until there is almost nothing left.
The Detective tries not to look down. The sand is greyish yellow and the water greyish brown. The height gives him a funny feeling in his stomach.
He has found clues; a ticket stub from Pleasure Beach, a smear of sweet-smelling ice cream. He seals up the clues in little plastic bags. However hard he tries he cannot hear any echo of the dead man’s last words on the wind.
The Detective has brought his dog with him. The dog is called Napoleon, for no particular reason. Scruffy, indecipherable, a dog that knows its own mind.
The Detective and his dog stand beneath the Ferris wheel and look over the railings at where the dead man fell. Blood stains the wooden slats of the pier. The tide is still in, but there’s been no body pulled from the sea. The Detective tries to imagine plunging into the cold depths. He tries to picture the dead man beneath the waves, looking up at the white moon of the wheel. But all the Detective can see is himself in the water.
He rubs the scar that stretches from just below his left eye to the corner of his lip; although he grows a beard to cover it up he can’t forget it’s there. His scar is from the Assassin’s knife. It itches when he is worried.
“Come on, let’s be off,” he says to Napoleon, who looks relieved. They go back home to their tall, thin house, where the Detective cooks an elaborate meal he shares with Napoleon, who has grown into something of a gourmand. That night the Detective dreams about the sea seeping into his bedroom through the carpet, about coral rattling like bones beneath his bed. In the morning there is salt on his lips.
The Assassin sits at her kitchen table and cleans her knife. When she is done she throws the knife high in the air and lets it fall. She throws it ten times, and ten times the knife lands point down in the wood of the table. She fights the urge to press the point into her finger, to see the smooth red pearl well up.
She tidies her living room and remembers to call her mother, who asks if she’s found a nice man yet. She runs a bath and reads a novel, the heat curling the pages. Afterwards, she moisturises. The Assassin has skin as smooth as silk.
That night the Assassin dreams about sand dunes, stretching away as far as she can see, the Marram grass scratching her knees, whispering something she can’t quite hear. She wakes with sand crunching between her teeth and sand mites on her pillow.
Interlude with Seagulls
Herring gulls circle, their wings white against the dirty sky, their eyes hungry, watching the town below. From up here Blackpool is always quiet, the houses neat as a toy town, the sand smooth and the sea still. Only the cries of the gulls tear through the air like a warning of danger below.
The End of the World
The Detective orders half a pint of bitter in the End of the World. The barman gives him a look. Through the pub windows the Detective can see the Ferris wheel on the pier. He scratches at his scar.
“Do you know this man?” he asks, placing a photo on the bar. It’s from the CCTV camera in the pier arcade, and shows a man in a long coat, collar pulled up, face grainy and indistinct. The Detective thinks it makes the man look dead already.
The barman looks at the photo. “Seen him about,” he says.
The Detective takes out his notebook and pen. “Got a name?”
He likes to find out their names. Especially when there is no body, when a name is all that is left.
The barman shakes his head. “We don’t ask questions here.”
The Detective writes this in his notebook and underlines it twice.
He sits at the bar all afternoon, feeding pork scratchings to Napoleon. Everyone is keen to help with his inquiries. He has six different names for the dead man before he has finished his second drink. Tommy, Charlie, Stefan. A builder, a taxi-driver, a school teacher. Luca, Antonio, Oliver. A hard man; a loner; a miser.
“He was a gambler,” says the Barmaid. She cries into the Detective’s glass and tells him the dead man was kind.
The Detective seals the tears into a little plastic bag. When he examines them later he finds that they are genuine. He takes out a tear and places it on his cheek. It is cool on his skin.
The Barmaid’s name is Anya. The men who come to the End of the World tell her their stories. She pulls them pints of dark ale and they tell her all the ways that their hearts are broken. They tell her about all the bruises and all the black eyes. There is a pain in the Barmaid’s stomach that twists and twists as she pulls down the tap handle.
Speaking softly, the dead man told her he had lost something precious, that he’d lost it at cards. He had a look in his eyes that Anya recognised. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said.
At night the Barmaid dreams about flying.
The Assassin is playing roulette in the casino. She wins and wins, turning each chip in her fingers, trying to feel its luck.
She has been pushing her luck for a long time and she wonders when she will finish winning. When the Detective walks right past her she sighs and places another bet.
The Detective is trying to find out what the dead man lost at cards. The casino is tight-lipped.
“We are not in the habit of divulging secrets,” says the Manager, a man with many secrets. The Manager knows what precious thing the dead man lost at cards, because he keeps it in a safe in his wood-panelled office. The dead man lost his luck. He went all-in against the house and lost everything. Now his luck is wrapped in velvet in the dark of the Manager’s safe. Sometimes the Manager takes it out and holds it to his ear to hear the pulse of the dead man’s luck beating in time with his own heart.
“‘I am sincerely sorry that we cannot help you further,” says the Manager. His expression is entirely sincere. When asked the dead man’s name he says it might be Karl or Patrick or Dmitry. The Manager cannot be expected to remember.
The Detective doesn’t gamble. He doesn’t believe in luck.
All along the promenade, down the Golden Mile, lights hang between street lamps and in great tableaux three storeys high. A million bulbs light the October night, outshining the autumn moon.
Tourists drive by with their car windows open. Couples walk arm in arm, shivering at the strangeness of eating ice cream at night.
The Detective looks for clues in the lights but they do not reveal the dead man’s name.
Breakfast at Sam’s Cafe
The Assassin orders kippers because she likes to see if she will choke on the bones. She thinks it strange that she has never once had a fishbone stuck in her throat.
She sits at a table by the window, where she can see the marks her elbows have made on the Formica over the years. As she finishes her coffee she runs her fingers down the handle of the knife hidden in her coat. Sometimes she thinks she can feel the shine of the blade.
She checks her watch and looks out the window. The Detective walks by, so close that she could tap on the glass and he would hear it. The Assassin reaches out a finger. She thinks that today the Detective will turn his head and look in. Today has the feel of a special day. She places her finger on the glass and waits.
The Detective does not turn. He walks by, looking out towards the sea. The Assassin leaves her finger on the glass and when she takes it away there is a fingerprint, perfectly formed.
The fingerprint is still there when she leaves.
The Pleasure Beach
Remember, the Detective found a ticket stub. He gets in free to the Pleasure Beach when he flashes his warrant card. In Blackpool the dead come to the Pleasure Beach to ride the Big Dipper and the Ghost Train, leaving ghostly screams in the air when the Rocket loops the loop. The Detective rides the Log Flume and when he raises his hands at the final plunge he feels the cold touch of ghostly hands twining with his.
When he shows the dead man’s photo at the Pleasure Beach he is told that the man is called Lars, Kevin, Simon. Recognized by everyone, the dead man is given a different name each time.
The Detective looks through hours of CCTV footage, watching the dead man move through the park, sometimes looking straight into the camera. The Detective begins to think that the dead man is watching him back.
Just as the Detective is about to give up he sees a face he knows. He leans closer to the screen and scratches at his beard, feels the raised skin of his scar beneath his fingers. Remembers.
Something twists in his stomach. Fear, he thinks. Then he thinks; relief. It has been a long time but the Detective knows where he has to go.
On the promenade, in the Fortune-Teller’s caravan, the Assassin turns over the last card on the flowery tablecloth. The Fortune-Teller sees the card and goes pale. She shuffles the cards and makes the Assassin pick another one. The cheap gold bangles on her wrists shake. The Fortune-Teller is adept at lying but today her face betrays her.
The Assassin laughs. She pays twice what is asked even though the Fortune-Teller tries to press the money back into her hand. Outside the caravan the Assassin leans on the railings and looks out to sea. She breathes in deeply. She buys fish and chips and shares her chips with the seagulls and when it begins to rain she turns up her collar and sits in a bus shelter.
The Assassin waits for the sun to go down.
Confrontation on a Rooftop
The Detective and the Assassin face each other on the rooftop of a multi-storey car park. Rain whips at their faces. The lights of the Illuminations glow beneath them, making the night sky a murky orange.
A flash of lightning picks out the Assassin’s knife.
“I’ve called for back-up,” says the Detective, raising his voice above the rain.
The Assassin laughs. “You never call for back-up,” she says. In the lightning flash, her smooth skin is white as bone. She takes a step toward the Detective. The Detective takes a step back. His scar itches. He is so tired.
“Who was he?” he says.
The Assassin says, “He was just a man who lost his luck. He was nothing special. They never are. Some people win, some people lose, and that’s how it is.”
The Detective shakes his head. “I don’t believe in luck.”
“Really?” says the Assassin.
A bolt of lightning strikes Blackpool Tower.
All the lights in Blackpool go out.
Interlude with Full Moon
There is a different darkness when the sea reflects nothing but the moon. The seagulls lift their heads from beneath their wings and look up, their eyes full of silver.
In the End of the World the drinkers lift their glasses to a man whose name they can’t remember.
In the casino, the house loses at last.
At the Pleasure Beach the ghosts watch their reflections in fun house mirrors.
The Illuminations, unilluminated, reveal bone and wire behind the lights.
The dead man lies beneath the waves looking up at the watery moon.
Watch. The Detective and the Assassin are outlined against the sky. There is blood on their clothes and a knife lying between them in a pool of moonlight. But for the ragged sound of their breathing, there is no sound. The Detective and the Assassin watch the other’s every movement.
One steps away from the knife.
The other steps toward the knife.
They do not take their eyes off each other.
A last flash of lightning, and one figure picks up the knife, sending ripples through the moon. The one who picks up the knife must be the Assassin, because the Assassin must always have a knife. In the moonlight the Assassin’s beard is tinged silver-grey and his scar is a dark raised line. He looks older than he is. He tucks the knife into his belt.
The other, knife-less, buttons her coat. The Detective always has her hands in her pockets and a thoughtful look on her face. In the moonlight her skin is smooth as pearl.
They nod to each other. Then they walk in different directions, into the Blackpool night. This is the ending, the final scene. Moonlight, and a rooftop. And beyond the rooftop, the sea. But it is also a beginning. Another story is starting.
The Detective looks for clues, for chance and lost luck. When she loses at roulette she touches the soft skin of her cheek and smiles when she feels it is wet.
The Assassin looks for a barmaid who weeps real tears. He sits at the bar with his half of bitter and his dog curled up on the floor. He listens to the Barmaid’s stories and offers to buy her a pint. He tells her a story about a man falling from a Ferris wheel, a man with many names and no name, a man who lies beneath the sea and keeps his secrets to himself.
Sarah Brooks grew up just down the road from Blackpool, then ran away to China, Japan and Italy. She wrote her PhD on Chinese ghost stories, and now lives in Leeds, where she teaches East Asian Studies. She is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and has had work published in Interzone, Strange Horizons, and Unlikely Story.
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