Michael Byrne is a writer/ photographer from Rochdale England residing in London. His past work can be found online via Psudopod Podcast and in Print via Scribble Magazine and Hellbound Books Publishing. His work can be found at staticculture.wordpress.com and @london.after.midnight
He’s christened him the ‘Wise Man’. A commuter Dr Alex Pinner sees every day on the train to London. Every day. Without fail. Same seat, same station. Rodent-like hair sprouting from pale Anglo-Saxon jowls with wire glasses masking green eyes. This could be Merlin, he thinks, disguised as best a fey creature a thousand years old could. Cord trousers and a tweed waistcoat a decade or so out of date. He wonders, Dr Alex Pinner, a consultant psychiatrist at Hollow Hill Hospital, why the Wise Man should still have to get up of a morning and travel to work when he is clearly past retirement age. Had he not saved for his future? A young tearaway perhaps now making up for lost time. Or was the reason more benevolent? Volunteering in a day centre for homeless children? Or nursing abandoned kittens to health before seeing them off, tear in eye, to their forever homes all across London? Or maybe he was a paedophile. Or a John off to see his favourite girl- wasting his pension on what little comfort he could derive from feeling close to someone, even for just half an hour. The Wise Man shifts in his seat and Alex realises he is staring at him, a thing he often does. Neither seem to mind, however, and Alex takes his time to turn his eyes away back to his laptop and his paperwork locked within. Five more stops come and go, the ratio of people injected and ejected staying unbalanced. At the sixth stop the Wise Man stands silently, slips past the gaggle of people and exits as the doors seal the remainders in. Alex can barely see him leave behind the denim clad buttocks of an overweight man, but he is comforted by the repetition of his exiting all the same. The Wise Man’s reliable pattern now part of his own routine, synchronising two strangers into a cosmic sequential tapestry. Dr Alex Pinner himself maintains a regimented routine. Daily he is up at 5am to jog around the emerald plains of Surrey, deposited as he is in a three bedroom detached with his wife, Margot- an editing executive for an advertising firm. After his jog is complete, when his chiselled muscles glisten with sweat and he feels as confident as the male models in Margot’s adverts, Alex returns home and showers. He then sits with his wife of ten years for breakfast. Her cheeks flushed from her own morning exercise. Raven hair tied back hiding its symmetrical shape and precisely even bangs, looking like a helmet worn ready for battle in the realm of advertising. Breakfast consists of fruit, protein smoothies and black coffee with filtered water from the pearl white monolith fridge that dominates the kitchen. Natural light from the multitude of windows cascading onto shimmering surfaces making the room feel like a greenhouse. Or ant farm. After breakfast; shower, dress for work, a kiss to one another then for Alex a short drive to the station before boarding a train into the city. Post work Alex goes to the gym near Hollow Hill Hospital. Continues to maintain his pristine figure. Returns home for around seven pm. Eats a light, well-presented evening meal before then focusing his attention on Margot if she is free to be focused on. They will watch a film together, discuss work and irritations of the day and enjoy a small glass of wine each that sometimes leads into two. Occasionally they even fuck. Though this is pre planned as well. Clothes are arranged, scents wafted, lubricants prepared. Pills checked. There are three bedrooms in Alex and Margot’s detached house. There is no rush to fill them. This day, a Thursday in May, had started no differently to the countless Thursdays that had come before it and that Alex had presumed would come after. He entered Hollow Hill Hospital, consulted at ward round, spoke to patients with manufactured empathy and aloof authority. Responded to calls, emails and letters and wrote up cases before heading to the gym from which he would then head home. But as Alex finishes grunting and straining in front of a wall long mirror his phone begins to vibrate, stored as it is, in his locker. Post shower, towel taut around his waist Alex notices the missed call. It is from work. He takes his time to answer, dressing first. “Dr Pinner?” Alex recognises the voice as Angie, the Matron of Bondi ward. He mumbles a response and she continues. “We’ve just had word from the police. They’re bringing Nigel Innes back in.” her voice raises as if the statement were a question. “I see…” he says waiting for more information. “It’s not good. They’re saying he’s killed someone.” Alex’s mind goes blank except for a singular flashback from four weeks ago. In the cavernous space of his memory he sees himself sat alone at a table, a spotlight on him from the heavens that Shows him signing the discharge papers of one Mr. Nigel Innes. 2 By the end of his two week stay Alex Pinner had considered Nigel a malingerer. He had arrived with no particular fanfare or spectacle. Was calm and co-operative throughout assessment, took medication as and when prescribed, did not get involved with other patients and often times would be found in his room reading. His only reason for being there, Alex found, was that quite suddenly he had left his ten year job as a librarian in a small municipal library to wander the streets of London and sleep in a cardboard box despite owning outright a house in Epping. When asked why, he had said because his neighbour was not real. Alex had asked him in what way and Nigel’s response was vague and inconsistent. Was he manufactured? No was the response. So he was human? No was the response. An alien then, demonic creature? None of the above. In the fortnight Nigel was there no answer of any substance found its way out of his mouth, and notes on his progress were scant. Then, as his section came close to expiry, it emerged that Nigel Innes was not taking his medication after all when a nurse found him in the bathroom, fingers down his throat ready to flush out his anti-psychotics. At the same time information dripped into the hospital from external agencies that Nigel had not so much left his job but had been suspended for following a woman, a regular patron in fact, around the library, as evidenced by the CCTV. It was clear Nigel Innes was unusual but Alex could see no evidence as to how this was a result of mental illness. As such he recommended discharge. Nigel was given the option of staying informally until arrangements were made to get him home but he left the same day. As quietly and unobtrusively as he arrived. A ghost hidden behind the mania of the other patients. Had he not signed his discharge sheet they may never have known he’d left. This past recollection continues to swirl around Alex as he re-enters Hollow Hill, the thoughts of enjoying his evening meal dying in the face of the reality of staying late at work. Thinking of the unassuming Nigel Innes with blood on his hands. Blood that could easily pass to him. He was right to discharge him, Alex assures himself- swiping his ID badge to access Bondi ward. There was no evidence he would harm anyone. The courts loved an oblation on which to pin the blame however, and Alex knows he would be it if he wasn’t careful. Bondi ward; ten rooms connected by a large communal area painted in bright but tired primary colours and adorned with positive but exhausted affirming quotations. The night staff greet him and Angie approaches, an older woman, tall and naturally nimble, her dark skin still fresh despite the demands of work and family. Surrounded by an invisible mist of authority. “We’ve put him in room ten.” she says, placing notes into Alex’s hand. “How is he?” Angie shrugs, “He’s…Nigel. Quiet, calm- we’ve placed him in restraints as a precaution but honestly he doesn’t seem to be agitated or aroused at all” Alex reads the notes from handover, scans through the fluff and rhetoric to find that from police custody a mental health professional concluded he was detainable. How the police had been called to a possible attempted break in followed by numerous calls of suspicious persons in the same area. How they had walked up to Nigel’s house and knocked loudly and finally, when checking the perimeter, found him sat in the garden, tired from exerting himself too hard. His arms covered in blood and gore up the elbows, a streak across his forehead where he had wiped his moistened brow. His neighbour supine on the grass next to him. Mouth open wide. Chest even wider. The report failing to mention one of the officer’s sudden urge to vomit. “Yes,” Alex says letting the image sink in “let’s keep him restrained for now.” They enter Nigel’s room together. His eyes are closed but he is not asleep and slowly he opens them, a small smile of recognition appearing on his face. He has been medicated intravenously as a precaution, Alex noting the cannula still affixed to Nigel’s right arm. “Hello again.” Nigel’s voice is without emotion of inflection. Alex ponders if this is put on. “How are you feeling, Nigel?” Alex asks as he continues to scan the notes. “Fine. A little tired.” his response. “Yes, that will be the medication I’m afraid”. Nigel shakes his head “I was tired before that. Been a busy day.” Alex recreates the crime scene mentally. Slowly he sits on a chair next to the bed. Near Nigel’s feet. Near the door which Angie guards in case the restraints fail by an act of some unholy deity. “My God, Nigel, whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” the concern is genuine. Nigel fidgets in his bed, stretches a little while he constructs an answer. “I was looking for something.” He says. Alex wonders if he’s deliberately being evasive and so asks him outright. “No.” Nigel says and then after a silence that would seem to contradict his one word answer, “It’s just that I’m not sure you’d understand without evidence.” “I take it that means you didn’t find what you were looking for?” Nigel nods. “But you knew it was inside your neighbour so you had to kill them to get it?” Nigel now shakes his head and sighs. “Yes but he wasn’t alive to begin with, was he? So how could I have killed him?” “You might not have thought so, Nigel, but he was alive. He had a name, a family…” Agitation stirs the still waters of Nigel’s presentation. “Yes, yes. All the trappings of being alive sure. A job. A house. But he wasn’t alive. Not like you and I. He was different” “Explain to me how.” “This would have been a lot easier if I’d found some proof.” Nigel appears to say to himself, like a scientist dictating notes midway through an experiment. “They’re cunning, I’ll give them that.” Alex looks to Angie who returns the stare before he refocuses on the man ahead of him in restraints. “Let’s go back to the beginning.” Alex probes deeper, “You first came here because you said your neighbour wasn’t real.” Nigel nods. “What first made you think this?” Nigel deliberates for a moment. “He was trying too hard to be normal.” Alex’s face is one of confusion. Nigel takes the hint. “His life was too perfect. He had the perfect car. The flawless house. Faultless hair even. But what did he do exactly to get these things? Where had he come from to fill this void of monotony that was missing in the world? I’d speak to him and he’d say he worked in finance. Could never explain what that meant. I’d greet him of a morning. Same time every day for ten years. It would be the same response. “Nice weather”, “Terrible weather”, “How’s it going?” and so on. Triviality for a decade. And then one day, while I waited in for a parcel, I watched him leave his house dead on eight as usual. I watched him walk to his car, the alarm switching off with a flash of headlights. And then he turns. Turns to face where I should have been standing to greet him.” Nigel goes silent for a moment. ““How’s it going? Nice Weather we’re having!”” “There was no one there?” Alex asks and Nigel nods. “very odd- as if he didn’t even realise he was talking to himself. A week later I was off with a cold. Sure enough each morning same thing. A greeting to the aether. Then I noticed his car.” “What about it?” Alex asks and Nigel tries to sit up in his bed, alert if sluggish from the drugs. “Eight in the morning he sets off to work in his blue BMW. The elusive world of finance awaiting. Nine AM looking out of the window I happen to see a car drive past; a blue BMW. Home early. But he just drives past. Ten rushes by and the same thing happens. Eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four, five. Clockwork. Then I begin to worry. Does he know I know something? That I’m watching him? So Monday I begin the routine again. Leave the same time he does, approach the end of my garden wait for a confrontation or complaint but instead?” Alex predicts the answer, “Hi How’s it going?” Nigel nods. “Exactly.” “Is it just your neighbour you saw doing this?” Angie asks as Alex scribbles some notes. And Nigel shakes his head once more. “No, I’ve seen people at work too.” “The woman you were following?” Alex again predicts accurately. “Ten am arrival, same book shelf, stand fifteen minutes, select same book, read twenty minutes. Sit down ten…repeat variations on a theme.” Nigel looks down, remorseful almost. “If only I could have found some evidence then I wouldn’t sound as crazy as I do. Instead I look like another lunatic killer.” “So you admit you’re a killer?” Alex looks for a nerve to bow like a violin string but finds none. “…A figure of speech.” Alex begins to notice his head throbbing from all the content. How, they will ask, could he have let someone so purely unwell out into the world with no treatment plan? No follow up. No regard will be given to his previous presentation. The focus will be on the here and now. Rubbing his eyes he gets up to leave but Nigel interjects. “Inquiline. From the Latin Inquilinus.” Nigel says and Alex turns to him. “Look it up, it’s happening all around us.” Alex closes the door and speaks in hushed tones to Angie, declares that the patient is clearly suffering from paranoid delusions and that despite his calm exterior there is penchant for violence as brutally demonstrated from his attack on his neighbour. Angie agrees to keep him sedated and restrained for now. It is past nine and Alex feels the walls of the ward closing in on him, he needs to get home. Before he does curiosity pulls him to a nearby PC and he searches the internet. INQUILINE: noun Zoology. An animal exploiting the living space of another, e.g. an insect that lays its eggs in a gall produced by another. From the Latin Inquilinus meaning Lodger or Tenant.
3. Alex did not usually let the ravings of his patients interfere with his commute. But then this was the first time in a short but successful career that one had gutted a fellow human. This within weeks of him writing a report to suggest he was simply trying to obfuscate from his infatuation with a woman at work. He knew that the mental health professional who visited Nigel in custody did the right thing in sectioning him again and that Nigel Innes was clearly very disturbed. Yet he couldn’t help but feel that if he were to see that colleague anytime soon he would punch the fucker right in the mouth. Alex sighs. Looks down at his phone. There are no texts from Margot. He has written one for her. An apology of sorts. An explanation of why he is home late. Of the horrors of his day. Of fear of what is to come. He has not sent it. Staring at himself through the funhouse mirror of the train window he considers if he wrote the text for himself. Hoping that somehow this state of the art device would suddenly evolve to possess AI, and would reassure him everything would be alright. It did nothing of the sort. What did he mean, Alex wonders. What cryptic world view is hidden by the word “inquiline”? Once birthed from a tunnel and with full signal, Alex looks again at the word’s meaning on his phone. “Exploiting the living space of another”. Did Nigel believe that his neighbour was another species perhaps? And if so how was it exploiting the space it inhabited? Alex scrolls past synonyms and articles relating to parasites and insects. Of Gall Wasps who, with almost unearthly design, deposit their eggs with those of other wasps. Unseen. Unnoticed. Alex conjures a wasp version of Nigel Innes; a rundown scraggy-haired wasp; the cloying smell of sweat clinging to him as he desperately tries to convince other wasps that the pupating larvae are not their own but of an invasive species. As he reaches his car Alex thinks of Nigel Innes’s victim and the randomness of such a vicious attack. Considered an outsider by an outsider. Victimised for being faultless and predictable. Careful to separate the visual and auditory hallucinations from Nigel’s expositions he finds himself empathising with the neighbour. He too is successful, he thinks firstly. He too drives a BMW. But it is when he arrives home that the real thought he was supressing climbs to the surface. He too is unexciting and regimented. Alex undresses in the dark as he realises this, careful not to wake Margot who is making quiet nasal utterances in her sleep. He lies there a moment, feeling awkward in his own skin before turning to Margot and kissing her. Gentle at first but then harder, more sensual. She stirs in frustrated half sleep. Asks him what he’s doing. He answers with a tender hand sliding under the covers. She complains of work in the morning but he whimpers, innocently, but demanding also. Slowly Margot begins to enjoy herself, taking the lead as she often does. Alex lies back and smiles. A routine is being broken. They rarely ever screw on Thursdays. But it’s not enough he thinks as she kisses his navel. The bedroom suddenly feeling stale and clinical, Alex takes her hand and guides her to the kitchen. He lifts her onto the kitchen worktop. It is a cliché, he knows, but one he has never practiced before and so he is satisfied both in the experience and the spontaneity though over excitement means the coitus is short-lived. Margot adjusts herself and pours a glass of water while Alex sits silently at the kitchen table. She asks if he’s coming to bed. “In a minute.” He responds. Only then is he asked if everything is okay but he chooses not to say anything. Margot returns to her torpor, still irritable at the lack of sleep she will now have. Alex makes to follow but the thought of breaking the routine further still haunts him and so he takes a glass and bottle of wine and heads to the living room though he knows already the glass is just for show. The TV glows putrid greens and yellows into the dark room and he tries to pay attention to the pointlessness of it all. But exhaustion and alcohol wrestle him into submission and he slips into a deep drunken slumber at two-thirty.
4 It is the black dreamless sleep of an inebriated mind. Alcohol and late hours at work combining forces to weigh Alex down for longer than he anticipates. Away from his bedroom it is not his alarm that stirs him but a sheet of natural light intruding past the blinds and onto his face. A mask of sunrays over his eyes. He wakes and stretches, taking his time like a man on holiday until he realises that it is past nine and this is a work day. And that a murderer sits in a forensic mental health ward he has duty over. Knowing his presence will already be missed he none the less grasps onto some glimmer of hope that he can still arrive in a reasonable time. His morning jog and breakfast schedule kyboshed, a slim slice of sourdough bread and glass of orange juice a poor fuel for the day ahead. Margot is nowhere to be seen, her side of the bed neatly returned to order, bowls and cutlery cleaned and returned to their stoic sentry in the cupboard. It was almost like living alone, Alex thinks as he slams the front door closed and enters his car. Almost like living with the ghostly presence of a partner no longer around. Was Margot the spirit in this scenario he wonders or was it himself, removed as he was from a pattern of behaviour they had perfected for years. Attempting to park the car is futile, his usual selection of spots by the station all taken due to his tardiness. A congestion of vehicles runs down the narrow tract of road and it is a good three-minute walk to the station from where he finally embarks on foot, running now to catch a train he had otherwise timed proficiently for. Alex sits catching his breath in a manner as to not draw attention to himself. No loud gasps or exertions. In through the nose, out through the nose. Finding a seat is easy, the morning exodus is already dying down. Strange to see a different set of faces, he thinks. Strange that this commute exists for people not in a blind panic to get to work before nine. Like existing outside of time, he muses. Stranger still then, when scanning the array of human oddities before him that Alex Pinner’s eyes fall upon the Wise Man. Sat as ever in his usual seat, staring blankly as ever in his general direction. What odds must it be? Alex asks himself internally, that we should both be late on the same day? Alex thinks on Nigel Innes, scares himself slightly when he remembers the videos he watched of the gall wasp. Metallic ovipositors pulsating as they eagerly pierce the gooey flesh of fruit. The gooey flesh of other larvae. He reaches for his phone through a force of habit but it is not in his jacket pocket and Alex realises he has left it at home, where it rings off and becomes bloated from voicemails. The victims’ family’s solicitor. The head psychiatrist of the hospital. The police. All are trying to inform him of the most recent events in relation to Nigel Innes.
The vultures are already circling Hollow Hill when Alex arrives, checking microphones and camera equipment. Taking notes and phone calls. Despite leaving his phone at home he takes this swarm of journalists as the clear omen of doom it portents to, yet secretly prays that it is not in relation to him. He slips past, a rat in a viper pit, the congregated staring at him hungrily but unsure if he is their intended prey. He shows his ID card subtly to reception and is let through the airlock, making his way to Bondi ward, where on arrival he is confronted by Angie, a few health staff, and Lorraine Symons; Chief Executive of the Hospital. He is not surprised that Angie’s demeanour is much more sympathetic then that of Lorraine Symons. Behind them all are two unknowns. Plain suits and ties, hiding any humanity they may otherwise present unclothed. “Where have you been?” Lorraine asks in a predictable farrago of concern and annoyance. Alex explains his absence, says he stayed late when he heard his patient had returned after the incident, overslept. But he is distracted by the unknowns who chatter amongst themselves by Nigel Innes’ door. “Sorry but what exactly is going on?” he asks. “We tried calling you-” Angie interjects then Lorraine bulldozes into the fray “It’s about Nigel.” “My phone…I left it at home- what about Nigel, what’s happened?” “That we are yet to figure out.” Lorraine’s voice is ice. “Alex, Nigel is dead. He was found this morning.” Angie says putting Alex out his misery. Alex reels slightly, smirks in the face of such absurdity. “Dead? But he was in restraints. He was sedated.” “They’re not sure yet how. Cardiac arrest perhaps.” Angie takes a deep breath “But they’re not ruling out accidental overdose by staff.” “Which, as you can imagine, puts us in a very serious situation.” Alex tries to focus on Loraine as she speaks but the information is difficult to process. Why did he drink so much wine last night? “Angie tells me the patient was calm and lucid. Was there a reason you felt he needed to be restrained and administered sedatives?” The trial begins, Alex thinks to himself, feeling the woodpile building below his feet. But he won’t go timidly. “Well considering he had just ripped his neighbour apart I thought it best not to let him roam around the ward.” “Staff are trained to physically restrain patients are they not, Angie?” Angie stutters, “Well yes but the risk-” “I’m only thinking about what the tribunal will say” Lorraine looks over her shoulder at the unknowns, “And the courts.” Police, Alex realises. Of course that’s who they are. Their prized possession now eternally silent. No answers will they be able to give the grieving relatives or the voyeuristic mob. They too will want to pin the blame on someone. “They would like to speak to you, naturally,” Lorraine puffs her chest out, “after which I think it’s probably best you head home while we figure out what to do.” Already Alex feels the eyes of patient and staff alike scour him for answers he does not have. The medical chart was checked and double checked. If the medication wasn’t given as prescribed, then it’s the staffs fault surely. Alex makes a note to repeat this mantra to himself until he believes it to be so. How sure was he that he checked the dosages? Was he remembering accurately that he left proper instructions to staff, or simply overlapping past memories of doing this to create a reassuring fantasy? Lorraine excuses herself to talk to the officers in an effort to introduce them to Alex who wanders over to the reinforced window, peering down at the TV vans and cameras. Angie moves aside him silently. “It was on the news this morning.” She says. “I didn’t see it.” He responds, rubbing his temple. “Lucky you managed to get through that crowd.” Alex chuckles, “I’m not famous. Not yet anyway.” “Give it a week.” Angie adds and they both smile. There is a polite cough behind them and Alex turns to see the detectives standing before him, ready for an audience. 5 Alex uses a back entrance to make his escape. There is still no suggestion that the reporters gathering outside have any idea of his identity or even if they are concerned about his part in the tragedy that has unfolded, but Lorraine Symons does not want to take any chances. And neither do the detectives. He thanks the caretaker for giving him his freedom via a fire door, fresh air hitting his exhausted face without remorse. Walking to the station he thinks on the detectives’ questions. He had been with them for an hour or more. Apprehensive at first, but calming when the line of questioning seemed less focused on if he had been negligent and more on what, if anything Nigel had said regarding motives. “Did he say why he killed him?” The first had said, adjusting his tie. The eldest of the two, he’d smelt of abrasive aftershave. Square jawed and dark haired, parted to the side. Alex had answered without hesitation. Told them of Nigel’s belief that his neighbour was unnatural in some vague sense. Taking note as he spoke of the intense stare from both, thin smiles painted on skin that needed to see more sun. Their clothing he had noted also seemed slightly too big for their frames. Not so big as to look like clowns in a circus, but enough, on close proximity, to wonder if they both went to the same inept tailor. The youngest then took over questioning. “Did you believe him when he said his neighbour wasn’t real?” “What?” Alex had shook his head, “of course not.” “Err I think what we mean is,” The eldest interjected “is that did you think Mr. Innes was being honest with you about his motives or was covering up?” the youngest then nodded. That’s exactly what he had meant. He was bald with thin eyebrows covering dots for eyes, his appearance conjuring images of terminal illness in Alex’s mind. Alex had admitted that he did believe that Nigel was genuine, that for whatever reason, Nigel believed his neighbour to be somehow not natural and had taken it upon himself to prove this in the most monstrous way imaginable. But then was quick to add Nigel did not present as such on first admission so as not to destroy his own reputation and incriminate himself. “And you believed him?” the youngest asked again. Alex was confused by the question but the eldest dismissed the need to answer with a wave of his hand. “Did you read his diary?” the eldest had spoken again while correcting his tie before looking at the youngest who flicked his fingers repetitively against the palm of his right hand. “I didn’t know he had a diary.” “It’s online.” The youngest had said with overflowing enthusiasm but again was cut off by the eldest. Their relationship, their demeanour, was it actually as unusual as Alex thought, or was he overtired from the last eighteen hours? But the more he attempted to shake the feeling the more he focused solely on their mannerisms and the more Nigel’s delusions ran wild in his imagination. Every ninety seconds the youngest would flick his fingers on his palm as before. The eldest would readjust his tie after each question and sigh and nod after every answer. Suddenly he found himself asking to see their badges and they presented them as they did when they first met without issue. “Are you okay?” the eldest had asked, and the tie was slightly repositioned as ever. “I err. I’m just tired. As you can imagine it’s been a pretty stressful morning.” “We can imagine.” the youngest had repeated. Alex had stared at him and he in turn returned the favour, smiling but distant. He looked down and saw that the note pad in front of the youngest was empty. They let him go. Said they’d probably need to speak to him again. Details were swapped. Before he left the room Alex had turned to them both. “Do you have any thoughts on Nigel’s death? I mean are you treating it as suspicious?” The detectives had looked at each other briefly before the eldest answered. “We’ll be looking into it.” “Dr. Pinner” the youngest chirped, “Please don’t look at Mr. Innes Diary. The online one. Please”
The air is, while uncaring, still helpful in clearing the fog from Alex’s mind as he reaches the train platform. Helping him focus on objective reality. He had heard anecdotes, while studying, of psychiatrists going crazy from exposure to the mad and maybe this was his moment to become an addition to the urban legend. The train arrives and Alex stands his ground while others alight from it en masse. Confirmation Bias he reassures himself as he sits down. He was looking for patterns and thus he found them. He smiles to himself, recycling his medical training that acts as a mental wall to the bellicose thoughts. Apophenia he thinks to himself; abnormal meaningfulness. The fact that he can identify what he is doing is a relieving indicator that he is not going crazy. Alex reassures himself further by noting that if he looked around the train now seeking only those wearing glasses he would be certain that the entire world was losing twenty twenty vision. And so he looks up and scans the other commuters, smiles at the number he counts wearing all manner of spectacles. Then freezes, scans back and holds, dumbfounded. There he is. A different seat on a different train but appearance identical to every day he has ever seen him. Sat the end of the carriage alone. It is the Wise Man.
6 Alex knows what he is doing is beyond reason and yet he can’t help himself. Unsure if he is trying to prove Nigel right or wrong and how he will feel from either outcome. It’s been an hour and the Wise Man still has not noticed Alex Pinner following him, Alex keeping a cautious distance, feeling the cold sweat of guilt jolt through him at every casual glance directed his way from passers-by. Feeling as if somehow they know he is stalking an old man through the streets. He reflects on the notion of getting caught, how he would explain his preoccupation with a man going about his business to the authorities. So far he had watched him from across two aisles in a chemist, the Wise Man contemplating on a purchase before, with steadfast movement, he grabs his chosen prize and takes it to the self-checkout. Alex examines the aisle to see it containing a smorgasbord of denture cleaners. The ordinariness of it almost brings him to his senses, but Alex persists. From the chemist the Wise Man walks against the current of pedestrians on the busy street and Alex struggles to maintain his view of him, twice excusing himself to people he knocks into who hardly pay any attention. Suddenly a sharp right and the Wise Man descends a pallid stairwell in a narrow alley, grey with soot and grime from the city’s air. Alex sprints a little to make up the space between them, at first thinking he has lost him, a pit of anxiety opening up in his stomach. It soon rescinds though as Alex catches sight again. The Wise Man has entered a coffee shop, his back to the large window allowing Alex a perfect view of his specimen. The chase simmers here for an hour, Alex buying a coffee and sitting in view of his prey who sits alone with a newspaper and tall clear glass of hot water with a tea bag diffusing within. Alex wonders what looking natural actually looks like, begins to worry that he is obvious somehow but when he tries to take a sip of the coffee in front of him he only panics himself. That in the split second his attention is elsewhere, the Wise Man could cast some silent conjuration and spirit himself away. He tries then instead to sip the coffee without averting his eyes and is successful but for the odd dribble which he wipes. The slowing of the chase gives Alex time to think again on the absurdity of his actions, but he can’t help feeling a little exhilarated also. Wondering how many people did a similar thing every day. Selecting random strangers to follow and observe for some form of morbid fulfilment. Pathological people no doubt. He lifts his coffee once more but as he does the Wise Man rises sharply, as if a pin has been placed on his seat. The suddenness nearly makes Alex drop his beverage. With a purpose only Alex notices the Wise Man exits, his tea half drunk, the speed of his departure so unexpected that Alex struggles to shuffle his way out of the booth he has settled in. And so the game begins again, this time going with the herd back toward the underground station, boarding a train heading west towards the suburbs and Alex’s home. The carriage is silent as they travel and Alex becomes more lackadaisical with his espionage, staring straight ahead at the Wise Man, trying to pick up on any visual twitches or repetitive movements but all he does is blow his nose with a vibrantly coloured handkerchief that matches his waistcoat in a garish sort of way. Soon the train halts at Alex’s usual spot. The point to end this is here but he is unwavering. The doors close as quickly as they opened, sealing him into his mission. Ten minutes later the Wise Man alights at a leafy station basking in sunlight. He walks deeper and deeper into the small hamlet that the station caters for. A pretty place, Alex notes, serene and clearly occupied by the wealthy judging by the detached houses and Mercedes’ on silent guard outside them. He had not considered the Wise Man being of such fiscal stature but given his dress sense perhaps he was a retired man of the arts. It was reassuring, Alex thinks, as the Wise Man turns into a small garden that leads to a quaint thatched cottage, to see this figure he has obsessed over for the past two hours return to a normal suburban environment. He could now return home himself to get some much needed rest before seeking some legal guidance on the situation at work. Alex turns to walk away, giving the Wise Man one last casual glance as he enters his house. But the Wise Man does not enter. He simply stands there, occupying the hinterland between his home and the garden. Alex tries to see if he is looking at something. His phone perhaps. But there is nothing in the Wise Man’s hand except the plastic bag from the chemist he visited. A fear grips Alex and he steps out from a small crop of trees, steeling himself to approach the Wise Man, but as he moves closer the Wise Man pivots on his heels and as if reset, begins to walk away from the cottage back through the garden and toward Alex. He freezes, the excuses he has for his borderline criminal behaviour are pathetic and so as the Wise Man reaches him his only defence is a garbled mesh of syllables. But the Wise Man takes no notice, does not even stop to process Alex’s presence. Merely continues back through the hamlet and toward station once again. Alex takes a moment before turning to follow suit. The route back is uneventful save a brief stop at a rubbish bin which the Wise Man casually drops his plastic bag and denture cleaner into. When Alex reaches the same bin he lifts its lid to inspect it. He shudders. It is filled to the brim with denture cleaner and plastic bags from the chemist. Another hour with the Wise Man and Alex begins to familiarise the pattern, the mental wall of objective reality he had created now well and truly shattered. It is all truly uncanny. The same streets, the same chemist, the same coffee shop, the same sudden surge of energy before heading back to the cottage to stand there momentarily before heading back again to repeat. There was more to the Wise Man’s movements for sure, more labyrinthine rambles through a square mile radius and sometimes the pattern of the walk varied. But it was always the same streets and always with the same stops. Day begins to make way to evening, the sun drowning slowly into the horizon of skyscrapers. Alex confident enough now to not pursue the Wise Man so closely, knowing he will catch up with him without much effort. Instead he focuses on the chemist’s staff and the coffee shop’s baristas. Asks them if they know him and if he has patronised their stores for some time. But the answers are empty to the point of being unbearable. Most do not know who he is talking about and those that do only have a vague recollection of seeing him in the past week or two. They are unstirred by Alex’s impassioned elucidation of how many times he has watched the Wise Man come and go this past evening. His irritation now mixing with his desire for an explanation Alex decides there is only one course of action. He has been waiting at the Wise Man’s cottage for an hour. He had thought his timing was near perfect but the delay in his arrival had proven otherwise. Despite the sunny day it has turned into a blustery night. A light rain causing the sharp smell of ozone to permeate the air. Alex stands in darkness, the shadow of the cottage obscuring him from the street lamps. He holds his arms tight across his chest to keep the warmth in. He knows how he looks but he no longer cares and as the Wise Man finally begins to make his way to his home and through his garden Alex emerges, his face glassy from rain water. The Wise Man stops in his tracks, looks Alex up and down and then smiles. “Do I know you?” Alex scoffs, “You’ve seen me around. I’ve certainly seen you.” The Wise Man nods, moves out of the way but Alex counters. “Can I help you?” the Wise Man is calm which scares and angers Alex equally. “What’s in the bag?” Alex asks, a shivering finger pointing at the chemist bag. “Oh just some-“ “Denture cleaner, yes I know.” Alex snaps “What was wrong with the other five you bought today?” The Wise Man tilts his head “The other five?” “By the looks of things you’ve had at least thirty bags worth.” The Wise Man pauses, looks at his bag and smiles “I’m sorry I don’t know what you’re referring to.” Alex’s finger now points at the Wise Man’s round nose “Don’t play coy, I’ve watched you all fucking day go in and out of the same shops. In and out of the same café. In and out in and out like a…a…like I don’t know what. But I want to know.” he composes himself, “So…tell me…what exactly is going on?” The Wise Man’s voice quivers “Honestly I don’t know what you’re talking about but you are beginning to scare me.” The implication of Alex being the threat stirs even more animosity. Even more determination to get the bottom of this. His finger now points to the cottage. “If I scare you then take your key and go home. Go on, open up and call the police.” The Wise Man shifts his weight but does not move. Alex smiles “Exactly. You won’t because you can’t go in there.” His confidence boiling over he pushes the Wise Man aside “I, however, can.” The Wise Man protests, grabs Alex by the shoulder. A scuffle erupts. Petty in its appearance but both parties sincere in their determination. Both seem at a stalemate until Alex lets fly a hard elbow which hits the Wise Man in the gut. He collapses to the ground. Alex moves to the front door, reaches for the handle but stops. He is distracted by the whimpering of the Wise Man. Realisation sets in that he has just assaulted an old man. Possibly one that suffers from OCD. Alex approaches the Wise Man, begins to reach out to reassure him but the whimper turns quickly into a low-pitched moan before spasms ripple through his body. Alex grabs him as convulsions turn into a full seizure, reaching for a mobile phone that he remembers with profanity is still at home. He thinks in a panic, worrying three deaths may be on his conscience now, and reaches into the Wise Man’s waistcoat to check in case he has a phone. As he does so the seizure stops and Alex worries he is too late, the coldness of the body making him think that he has already passed. But as he moves his hand away it is grabbed by the Wise Man tightly round the wrist. His eyes flick open and he stares at Alex before beginning to snigger. Alex asks if he is okay but the response is more bemusement, now evolved into a full blown belly laugh. Alex squirms in the grip of the Wise Man, eventually prying himself free with enough force that he falls backwards. The Wise Man closes the gap between them, still laughing and Alex begins to walk away. Slowly at first but with increasing speed as confusion makes way for sheer terror. Before long he is running, the laughter from the Wise Man fading in the distance. A train is at the station and Alex tumbles into the carriage as its doors close. His fear does not subside until he reaches home where he sits curled in a ball in pitch blackness, the sound of the Wise Man’s laugh echoing through his mind. Slowly he gathers enough courage to collect his misplaced phone from the sofa. It is low on battery but still usable, dozens of missed calls and text notifications cluttering the top of the screen. He types Nigel Innes’ name in hope of finding his blog or diary, but all he discovers are search results that lead to a URL that has been deleted. By whom he dreads to think. His phone blinks out of life, its battery dead and he is left to process the day. Alex pictures the Wise Man still laughing at the entrance of his cottage. At Alex’s failed attempts to expose what was happening. Deciding to forego his previous nickname for the old man Alex settles on something now more appropriate. He christens him the Trickster.
7 Three months have passed. Three months since Nigel was found dead. Since Alex Pinner had been suspended from work. Since he had confronted the Trickster. His time waiting for the tribunal and the trial of the facts spent either at home trying to piece together what resonances of Nigel’s blog remained online and returning to his commute, following others in the absence of the Trickster who now seemingly had disappeared. But his stalking of new subjects yields no results. And online the only thing found are short paragraphs of example text below links that lead to 404 page not found. Paragraphs that spoke confusingly of Hell or extra-terrestrial experiments. Flying wildly from one topic to the other though never enough of the script was shown to create a coherent context. Thus with stimuli waning Alex began to think on more pertinent matters. Sought professional legal help for the trial and tribunal, paid large sums to experts in medical law and was rewarded unceremoniously with a clear of any wrongdoing. Nigel Innes was not presenting as psychotic at the time of his first admission and there was no way of knowing he would go out and kill someone. As for Nigel Innes’ death a review of policy and procedure was called for, and a few heads rolled. Front line staff that could be easily replaced. Nigel Innes had no family so there was no risk of compensation. In short Alex had been removed from the pyre. But normalcy was still far from him. He had not been to the gym in twelve weeks, his perfect body, bulging slightly with imperfect fat and weakening muscle. If Margot had noticed or objected she had kept it to herself. Indeed they had spent little time together despite Alex’s abundance of it. The three months allowing the notion that he was in a loveless relationship to germinate. But now exonerated it is only a matter of time before he is called back to work, to earn money again to pay for organic food, for his perfect house and to repair his eroding body. Purpose begins to take shape in his mind again and he slips quickly back into his routine ready for his return to the real world. To celebrate he sits with Margot at the kitchen table for dinner, a meal he has prepared. She congratulates him on his rebounding strength of body and mind. And after a few glasses of wine reminds him that this is their usual date night so they retire to the bedroom early. Alex wakes at the usual time for his morning jog with Margot already up and dressing for her exercise regime. He bends forward to escape the bed but its softness and warmth entraps him. He’s got used to the laid back existence and the thought of returning to the laborious formula of before is tiring in itself. One last lie in, he concludes, before tomorrow, getting back on track with complete conviction. His eyes droop as he drifts off, explaining himself to Margot who does not respond. He sleeps deeper than he intends, waking an hour later. Stretching his body in an effort to push the sleep from him he notes his urgent need to urinate and so heads to the bathroom. Once relieved, Alex staggers down the stairs toward the kitchen, hearing Margot preparing breakfast. There is the faint sound of conversation and he wonders who could be calling her at such an hour. Yet when Alex turns into the kitchen he sees Margot stood looking out of the window, her mobile phone on the table a few feet away. She is distracted and takes a moment to notice his presence. “Everything alright?” Alex asks and she responds matter-of-factly. Why shouldn’t it be? “Who were you talking to?” Alex sits down while watching her, carefully pouring a glass of fresh orange juice. But Margot does not know how to respond. She was not talking to anyone. Alex processes her response and concludes: “I must have been hearing things.” And returns his attention to breakfast. Margot laughs and moves the conversation to light meaninglessness to which Alex responds in kind until she makes her way to the hallway and onward to work. Stopping only to kiss Alex goodbye. He returns the affection, then holds her close. Longer than normal until she starts to squirm. “Stay with me today?” Alex pleads. She strokes his hair while prying herself from him. Repeats that she has to go to work. Alex nods and gives up his wife, watching her leave the room. And then, as the front door clicks back into place, he is up from the table, racing to the bedroom for his car keys and shoes. It’s been about an hour now, the time it normally takes Margot to arrive at work. At least that’s what Alex had always thought. But instead of arriving at her employment he has followed her down one random road after another, snaking her way through residential streets in what feels like a hexagonal pattern on repeat. Though there are tears welling in Alex’s eyes it is not of any sense of loss or betrayal, not completely anyway. Rather a sense of validation and fear. He considered the idea that Margot was having an affair and that she was aware of him following her and so was leading him on a merry dance to spite him. Despite himself he found that the notion disappointed him. Such a pedestrian circumstance flying in the face of his discoveries. Margot turns onto a roundabout as she has done ten times already today, Alex not far behind, instinct taking over his driving, he knows that she will take third exit back toward home before starting the journey all over again. But this time is different. This time quite suddenly she takes the first exit and off onto the duel carriageway. Alex careers across two lanes to pursue, an accident barely missed. His departure hailed with a cacophony of car horns. The carriageway leads into the main artery of a motorway and Alex continues his pursuit until after about twenty minutes Margot signals to turn off into a junction. Alex easily replicates the move. From there it is a main road followed by smaller and smaller ones until finally Alex finds he and Margot are the only vehicles on a country lane, surrounded by green hedges that obscure the horizon, closing him in. He begins to fear an ambush but from who or what he cannot say. Then Margot turns with the road and out of view for a moment until Alex reaches the same corner though he does not need to pursue any further. Margot has stopped and Alex stares dumbfounded. Ahead of him a small bullring road, mud as opposed to tarmac. There Margot sits idling in her car staring out into the fields around her. But she is not alone. Alex exits his car and walks toward her, the last of several cars all doing the exact same thing. All parked in the same direction and all with one occupant staring dead ahead in the middle distance. Young, old, man, woman all manner and variety of person are presented. They take no notice of Alex as he walks amongst them, still donned in pyjamas and dressing gown, peering into their cars half crazed. Eventually his courage builds to knock on one of the passenger windows but there is no response from the man inside. A dark skinned youth with short cropped hair and well cut suit. And so Alex turns to Margot, kneeling at her window and talking softly to her. “Margot it’s me. What’s going on?” He wonders if he is heard at all and so tries to open the door but it is locked. “Margot!” he shouts now but there is still nothing. “Margot what the hell is happening here!” An engine bursts into life at the front of the herd, and the others follow suit. As the convoy rolls out Alex shouts and bangs on Margot’s window but it is useless. At the end of the road the convoy separates, the congregated presumably returning to wherever they came from. Alex stands in the middle of the turning as he watches Margot, the last in the group, return to the country road and drive out of view. 8
It is four pm and Alex Pinner has returned to the Trickster’s cottage. There is no response when he knocks at the door and peering through the window reveals nothing but a dark void. Repercussions have no weight now and so Alex takes a rock from the garden and smashes it against the window. It takes some effort, the first three times the rock simply bouncing back onto the ground. But eventually it shatters and as it does so a warm gust of air bellows from within. The fact that Alex cuts himself on the shards of glass is irrelevant to him. He is more concerned with the contents of the building or rather the lack thereof. The house is empty. A rational part of his mind fails to convince him that the Trickster may have simply moved house. If the last few months had taught him anything it was that the simplest explanation rarely held up to scrutiny anymore. The desolate nature of the cottage’s innards make it easier for Alex to focus on the warm wind emanating from within, the only thing of any notice. And so he follows it, rolling as it does out from the hallway and kitchen where, next to a gas cooker, a door whistles from the gap at its base. Alex opens it and the wind becomes a blast, a comfortable warmth as opposed to stifling, but definitely getting warmer as he descends the stairs into the cellar. Empty wine bottles collect cobwebs and dust which sway in the wind. Alex continues to follow, extricating a wooden crate from the source of the wind to reveal a tunnel seemingly dug by hand into the soft gravel. It is around a foot in diameter and descends sharply into darkness. Alex takes a moment to think about his next course of action. He could simply walk away. Have a normal life and return to work. Maintain the status quo and keep up the routine. It dawns on him then that a part of this routine would be Margot and he realises then that there is nothing normal to return to, no life to reclaim before this revelation. There is no debate in the matter any longer. Alex crawls headlong into the hole. The tunnel soon becomes larger, allowing Alex to crouch and then walk fully upright while the soil changes from the gravel near its entrance to a softer more clay like substance. The surrounding temperature is constant, becoming more humid the further Alex travels. Until at last he reaches what appears to be a central point, a vibrant white light casting a central chamber in illumination, revealing countless tunnels all surrounding a circular chasm that from its centre emanates a dull industrial hum. It is almost too much for Alex to contemplate and he wonders how many of the tunnels he can see lead to homes of people he knows. Was Margot always the way he witnessed her today or had she been replaced? Was there a tunnel under his home? Or Nigel Innes’ neighbour? Even Nigel himself? He could not be sure of anything or anyone now, except of course himself. Throughout this whole ordeal he concludes, unware of the presence behind him, his own faculties have prevailed. He is not mad Alex realises, as a blow from behind brings him to his knees. He is not mad and neither was Nigel Innes. Alex Pinner had been right to release him. He smiles before fading out of consciousness. His integrity and his sanity remaining intact to the very end. What came after that an irrelevance.