Hobbling into the alleyway on his crutches, William Godwin turned the corner, eased himself down to sit on an empty beer crate at the top of the staircase tucked in the alcove, and waited.
When he had finally felt up to journeying to his out-of-use call box to collect his order of Blackberry Joy today, there had been a folded note sitting on top of the package. It had asked him to meet in this alley and to sit at the top of the stairs. The writing didn’t match Sally Boyle’s round, bubbly script so William worried that he might be being set up. There were plenty of people who would love to silence him once and for all. The alley was small enough and close enough to the street that he didn’t feel too vulnerable to take the chance on the meeting though. If anyone asked, he would say he was just having rest. Moving around on crutches was hard on the armpits.
Eventually, he heard footsteps approach. Whoever had wanted to meet with him stopped at the corner and didn’t come around.
“You there?” whoever it was – a man – asked.
“Yes?” William answered. “Who are you?”
“If I wanted you to know who I was, I’da come ’round the corner, wouldn’ I?” the mystery man said.
“All right, fair enough,” William said. “What do you want then?”
“Nick Lightbearer is dead.”
William didn’t know what to say to that. Eventually, he settled on, “Huh”.
“I know! I know it sounds loony,” the man around the corner said. “He’s still out hostin’ Simon Says and they’re still holdin’ the convention for him, but that bastard’s dead.”
“Ooookay,” William said slowly. “How do you know he’s dead?”
“I saw him. I broke into his house and he was dead in the bathtub.”
“Broke in? Are you a burglar?” William shifted a bit, debating whether to try and get a glimpse of this guy.
“I am, and if you peek ’round that fuckin’ corner, I’ll break your arms too.” Well, nevermind then. William settled back on the beer box.
“Are you sure he wasn’t just passed out?” William rationalized. “We’ve all heard the stories about him, right?”
“No! He was dead for sure. I touched him and he was stone cold.”
“Overdosed, probably,” William supposed.
“You’d think that, right?,” the man around the corner said. “You’d think if Nick Lightbearer was dead, it’d be ’cause he OD’d. But I’d been watchin’ that lazy sack-a shit all week. Not once in five days did he take a shower. Then, on Friday, he all the sudden gets the urge to wash up and ends up takin’ a dirt nap in the tub? I don’t think so. I saw two people go into his house that day. Nobody visits all week and then all the sudden Sally Boyle and some tall, skinny fuck both stop by on Friday and he turns up dead? One of them two had to have killed him. Either convinced him to go in there or dragged him in after.”
William was still skeptical, to say the least. Not that Nick was dead – that was by no means a leap of the imagination – but that anyone had killed him. Still, he was intrigued and he had nowhere else he needed to be. It would be a while yet before he was back to soapboxing in the park.
“I’m not saying to believe this,” he qualified, “but walk me through it. Which of them killed him?”
“Coulda been either of ’em,” the man around the corner said. “I’ve been going over how it woulda had to happen, but… well, either of ’em coulda done it, if things go certain ways. But there’s problems with both of ’em too. Suppose the thin man killed him? He went in there first – through the third floor window so you know he wasn’t invited – drowned Nick in the tub, and stole his clothes-“
“Stole his clothes?” William asked.
“Yeah. He came out wearin’ Nick’s clothes. But I could tell it was him ’cause he was too tall for ’em.”
“Okay, hold on a minute. If he’s been dead since Friday, but he was hosting Simon Says… do you suppose Nick could have been dead before that guy got there? If he’s impersonating Nick, what if they sent him because Nick was dead.”
“No, Nick was fine earlier that morning. Fine-ish. Fine for him.”
“Well… and I’m only suggesting this because now impersonation is on the table, but what if the Nick you were watching all week was an impersonator too?”
He heard the man around the corner sigh. “Look, mate, no one went in or out the whole week before. And if they’re paying someone to sit bare-arsed on his furniture and throw up all over his house, this all goes a lot further than I wanna guesstimate about, okay? Besides… let’s just say that in this line of work, you’d know if a corpse had been there long. The Nick in the bathtub was the real deal and the only people who coulda put him there were the skinny man or Sally.”
William rather thought you could add all sorts of possibilities to the mix, so long as they were exploring conspiracy theories like this, but he relented. “So the skinny man left wearing Nick’s clothes?”
“Right. But if he killed Nick, wouldn’ Sally have found him and run screamin’ about it into the street?” the man around the corner wondered aloud. “He was in the loo, but she woulda looked for him if he wasn’t right there when she came in, right? You don’t visit your friend’s house and not say hi to ’em, do you? And she left with a record, so she either borrowed it from him – in which case, he’da had to have been alive to loan it to her, but then how’d he get dead after that? Or she killed him and stole it.”
“You’re not suggesting she killed him over a record?” William asked. “And how would she even? She’s maybe ninety pounds soaking wet. She’s not going to be strangling anyone or dragging their corpse into the bathtub.”
“You’d think, but Sally’s not as helpless as she looks! When she left, a pack-a Ploughboys tried to take her to task behind Nick’s house, right? And she just sprayed this perfume on ’em and they started fightin’ each other instead! Then she finished the last one off with a tranq needle to the neck. She can be right spicy when she needs to be. Or wants to. An’ a pretty thing like her? If she wanted Nick in the loo, all she’d have to do is go in there first and he’d follow right after. Then a needle to the neck and it’s curtains for him.”
“Okay, so let me make sure I’ve got this straight,” William said. “The thin man went in through a window, stole Nick’s clothes, then left. Sally went in later, through the door, and came out with a record. You went in after that, and found Nick dead in the bathtub. But Nick hosted Simon Says at St. Genesius’ Friday afternoon. So… that would have had to have been the thin man dressed as Nick, right?”
“Stands to reason,” the man around the corner agreed. “Even if he didn’t kill him, the real Nick never left the house.”
“Just going by the fact that he’s some mysterious stranger, came in through a window, and impersonated Nick,” William said, “I think he’s a better suspect than Sally Boyle is.”
“I thought that too, but Sally’s been conspicuously missing lately.”
“Has she?,” William asked. “I’ve been recuperating at home so I haven’t been out. I only just found your note today. I was supposed to pick up my Blackberry from the box last week.”
“Yeah, I know,” the man grumbled. “I’d been waiting here and checkin’ the box to see if you’d been by. I had half a mind to deliver it to your house, but I didn’t wanna make acquaintances.”
“I’m grateful for your restraint,” William agreed. The last thing he needed was his illegal drugs delivered to his doorstep. “But you say Sally’s been gone?”
“Yeah, her house was crawling with Doctors the other day. And it’s empty now. All very coincidental.”
“Look,” William said, “I agree this situation is very suspicious, but why are you telling all of this to me? You should tell the constabulary.”
“I can’t tell them. I’m a burglar; I wasn’t supposed to be there. And if they’re still planning to hold the convention, that means the constables are probably in on the cover-up. If they haven’t announced he’s “gone on holiday” yet, they’re not going to.”
“So what do you want then? To solve the mystery of who killed him? I’m not really the Sherlock Holmes sort. Or even a Watson for that matter.”
“No, I just want you to tell the people Nick is dead. That’s all. The man was a twat, but he oughta be able to die in peace without people marionettin’ his corpse about.”
It was rather noble of this burglar, who presumably had been watching over Nick so acutely for the purpose of robbing him, to be so concerned for him in his death, William thought. Still, he found himself to be an odd choice of recruit for this job.
“Why me though?”
“Isn’t that what you do? Tell the people the truth? Try to get them to see what the higher ups are lying to them about?”
William was stunned. That’s how he’d always seen himself, but no one else had ever characterized him that way. He’d always had to stand as a lone beacon of truth in a sea of denial and the town, for the most part, hated him for it. But he’d apparently reached this guy, enough that he was bringing him even more corruption to air out.
He wasn’t quite sure what that said about him, though, that the only other person in town who truly seemed to believe in him and his cause was a burglar.
“You’re a Downer too, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Ehhh, I pop a Joy to unwind, but it don’t do you any favors when you’re housebreakin’.”
“No, I’d imagine not,” William said. “Well, look, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but this isn’t really the sort of thing that I talk about. I’m more about how the rich are locking us out of The Parade and hoarding all the food.”
“It’s bread and circuses, innit? Nick is just a distraction from that. And he’s a big, important one if they’re going so far as to pretend he hasn’t fucked off this mortal coil.”
That was a good point. The Joy was the biggest detriment to people’s ability to see the truth, but Wellington Wells was rife with other idle distractions to keep the town pacified. If the powers that be were going so far as to keep Nick in the spotlight rather than have him fade from memory, then telling people he was dead might be a pretty hard blow to the facade.
“You know, you’re right. This could be a great way to finally reach them,” William said. “All right, yes. I’ll try to work it into my speeches.”
“That oughta be enough for me to feel like I done right here.”
“Heh, for once?”
“I do have a moral compass, you know,” the man around the corner said. “The guy I stole it from was a real upstandin’ gent.” William snorted at that. “Give me five minutes head start to get gone, will you?”
“I couldn’t chase after you if I wanted to,” William said. He heard the man’s footsteps pass on the other side of the wall and blend into those on the street beyond.