Carmine Musso looked at the queue of fans snaking around the outside of the village library chattering excitedly, eager to grab the most comfortable seats at the front once the librarian opened the doors. He’d really rather be doing something else. Another evening talking about his books was something he normally loved but not this time; he just wanted to sit in front of his TV with a Scotch and relax. The last few weeks had been hectic promoting his latest offering, ‘The Woman with the Special Smile,’ and the strain was beginning to tell. His bloody agent kept booking more and more events into his already rushed schedule. She knew he had to finish the next book in the series before the end of the summer and he could do without talking to another room full of women. He often wondered why he appeared to appeal increasingly to female rather than male readers, and why they all seemed middle-aged these days. How was he supposed to plot and write when his agent had him cruising up and down the motorway day and night, that’s what he wanted to know? It’s all too bloody much, he thought as he slipped in the back entrance preparing to greet the welcome committee.
Stacks of his series of novels were placed on a desk beside his seat along with posters proclaiming his ‘outstanding talent as a scene-setter,’ and ‘another wonderful master-piece from a master story-teller,’ ready for his audience to purchase, with a personalised message and autograph, at considerable discount following his talk and the inevitable, ever tedious, question and answer session when his ‘public’ wanted to get inside his head to probe his writing processes.
He got to his feet after the intense-looking head librarian introduced him and began talking about his first book, how he became a writer, and he read a few chapters of his latest offering which, he was pleased to note, seemed to go down very well with his audience. Only two men were present, he observed, as he gazed around the room at the hands raised in anticipation of being chosen to ask a question. He sipped the water kindly provided for him, his throat dry and constricted suddenly.
‘Carmine, I’ve read everything you’ve written and I love you. You’re my favourite author.’ A forty-something, plain looking woman in a tight black dress with plunging neckline got to her feet, smiling broadly at him. ‘When I read chapter six I just knew you’d written it just for me’.
A ripple of laughter filled the airless cramped library where seats were arranged in between the book shelves, all facing Carmine who was squeezed between ‘Crime and Thrillers,’ and ‘True Crime’.
‘And me.’ Several ladies shouted as Carmine smiled and nodded towards another reader who’d had her arm in the air forever.
‘Madam, your question please?’ he asked hoping the now vaguely familiar woman in black would sit down and shut up. He was sure she’d been at several other events of late come to think of it, and was becoming a bit of a pest. Is it her? He sipped more water, his throat still dry.
‘Carmine, I’ve loved everything you’ve written and I can’t wait for the new book. When will it be ready? Will DS Blake marry the reformed drug-dealer, and will you be killing off Chief Inspector Raven?’ The woman blushed to the roots of her L’Oreal strawberry blonde hair as she spoke, her arm still in the air. ‘He must be near retirement age by now or isn’t he going to age any further?’
Question after question followed as he patiently answered his fans. He knew he should be more gracious this evening but he was so tired and more stressed than usual. The note he’d received – left on his windscreen some time during the night outside the B&B where he was staying – had really shaken him. His first thought was that it was a prank, local kids messing around, but just before he’d arrived at the library this evening he’d stopped off at a local petrol station to relieve himself and when he returned to the car there was another note, left on the windscreen. Someone must be following me, he realised, as he read the typed words with shaking hands.
‘You must be dying to meet me and at last you’ll have your wish. I’ve understood the messages hidden in your books, and now the time is right. It can’t go on like this’.
His thoughts kept straying from his audience, the notes occupying his mind. The first note had been pushed through his letter-box about ten days ago, sometime during the night he assumed, when he’d managed to spend a couple of nights back in his own bed – his engagements being too close to home to warrant a B&B.
‘I’ve been watching you. Enlightenment awaits you. You must be dying to meet me and at last you’ll have your wish. We’ll meet soon. No-one will stop it’.
He’d laughed with his wife and binned it. They were used to fan mail and even the occasional unwanted, but enthusiastic, visitor at their home. She said he thrived on it – his ego being what it was. He was a handsome man after-all, that’s why she married him. There had recently been a few hang-ups on the phone too, but with telemarketing computers calling all hours of the day and night they’d both ignored it and got BT to block such calls. He’d been away on tour since then; his wife seemed to think it had worked. Carmine thought about his author friends and wondered if they suffered this type of fan-worship.
The note left on his windscreen outside the B&B worried him but he’d been late setting off for the library and didn’t get chance to dwell on it too much – until the petrol station. That shook him rigid.
‘I can’t wait. I know you can’t. I know you’re dying to meet me tonight and everything will be perfectly clear when we’re together. Look for me if you can, but I’ll find you, never fear. Everything you have ever written has been leading to this moment; our special moment. Soon; eternity’.
Someone was aware of his every move. Should he call the Police? He tried ringing his wife but she was not answering; probably having a night out with the girls and can’t hear the mobile he decided. What to do? An over-zealous fan perhaps – would the Police take it seriously? Lots of authors were stalked by fans, fans who’d fallen in love with them. Surely that’s all this is, he told himself. Keep calm and carry on.
He scanned the audience, noting the woman in black was watching him intently; a sly smile on her lips. Was it her? But then the strawberry blonde kept staring at him and actually winked when he caught her eye. Was it her? He felt panic rising in his chest. It seemed that every woman in the library was a threat to him. His temples thudded and his palms began to sweat. What did it all mean? Was he in danger? He took another drink of water – his mouth felt so dry and his throat so tight.
‘Please put your hands together and thank Carmine for his wonderful talk this evening and his patience answering all our questions.’ The head librarian shook his sticky palm and smiled, her eyes dancing with delight. ‘He has been wonderful and I for one have been dying to meet him, as I’m sure those of you who know of my love for his books can tell you’. Laughter rippled through the room. ‘Carmine will sign any books you want to purchase or those you have with you. Refreshments are being served in the Children’s Section. Thank you’.
Carmine, smiled and bowed his head automatically, trying to look appreciative. The librarian still held his hand, squeezing it gently and, he realised with horror, was rubbing her thumb along his wrist rhythmically. Oh Christ! Was it her?
Applause filled his ears and his head swam. He stumbled and her arms encircled him. ‘Oh Carmine, here, sit down, you look over-come. Let me get you some tea,’ she said, helping him back to his seat. He leaned back and shut his eyes, breathing deeply, trying to centre himself. ‘Sorry, I don’t feel that good I’m afraid,’ he mumbled.
A chattering queue of anxious fans formed in front of him, books ready to be signed and paid for. Concern in their eyes as they stared at him.
‘I’ve come all the way on the bus to get my book signed. I hope he isn’t going to get taken bad and I’ll not get his signature.’ One buxom matron muttered under her breath.
Several others whispered amongst themselves but he couldn’t hear what they said. He felt awful; embarrassed. Why did he suddenly feel so terrible? He could hardly breathe. A heart attack? Was he going to drop dead in the middle of a stupid bloody library? Suddenly, at the back of his mind, a thought began to form, but he tried to hold it back. Surely not. How could it be? He wouldn’t allow himself to go there. It was too terrible. Poison? But who? How?
He reluctantly drank the tea offered him and after a while revived enough to enter into small talk whilst he signed book after book. The librarian hovered anxiously beside him. Soon all the books were sold and signed and the last of his fans had vacated the building. His head still thudded and his eyes were heavy and not focusing too well. No-one seemed to be bothered about being with him for all eternity, so he pushed the fear and worry out of his mind as he tried to gather himself ready for the journey to his next B&B some twenty miles away. Perhaps he was having a panic attack – he’d had one when he was a teenager and it did feel similar he recalled – so he took deep breaths and tried to calm himself, wondering if he’d got a paper bag in the car – he could blow into it.
It all starts again tomorrow, he thought wearily as he finally stood up, ready to pack his things away and head for the car.
‘Here, let me help you take your things to the car.’ The head librarian appeared beside him once more, a kind smile on her face.
‘Thanks, but I can manage,’ he said, wanting to get away and into a bed as soon as possible. He thanked her and her staff, shook hands with everyone and escaped faster than was perhaps dignified. They waved him out of sight as his car disappeared into the night.
The Sat Nav. instructions directed him towards his B&B just under twenty miles away, via country lanes and open farm-land. He had to concentrate hard to stay on the road in places and he wondered about the wisdom of relying upon them. He preferred maps but his wife insisted they get GPS for the car so he could find his way to his talks, especially at night.
Soon he was in deep countryside, not a light or a house to be seen. The road was full of potholes; he had to swerve to miss a fox which sent him into a large hole with such a bump, his head hit the car roof. His temper was beginning to fray and tiredness was making his reactions sluggish. He just wanted to get to bed. After about half an hour he decided that he’d had enough. He stopped the car and pushed the seat back so he could have forty winks before going on with the journey.
He was woken by screeching and a lot of rustling in the bushes beside the car, he’d had his window opened slightly and the noise made him jump. At first he couldn’t work out where he was, confused he rubbed his eyes and looked around. It was pitch black and still, apart from the sounds of nocturnal creatures scrambling around. He looked at his phone – it was only 11pm – he’d been asleep for about fifteen minutes. Carmine put his seat upright, found some boiled sweets in the glove compartment and tried phoning his wife at home. No answer. He tried her mobile but it went to voice mail. He left her a short message and decided to send her a text in-case she was still out with her mates and had her phone turned to silent.
Carmine made another phone call but again he only reached a machine; she wasn’t in either. He was being stupid thinking she had any part of this, he decided. Why would she? They had a lot going for them after-all. He put that thought out of his mind as well.
He rang the B&B and spoke to an irritated woman, the owner, apologising for not arriving on time, assuring her he’d be there in about thirty minutes. He got a frosty reception but she agreed to wait up a little longer. Sucking on his sweet he checked the GPS again and started his engine. He had another fifteen minutes driving before he reached the main road into town apparently.
The moon appeared briefly as he took a bend in the road, a little too close to the edge of a ditch he noticed, narrowly missing an overhanging tree branch. His heart thumped as he concentrated on driving in the centre of the narrow, unmade road. Cursing the Sat Nav. and his wife’s programming, his agent for not booking a proper tour with someone to accompany him to do the driving, and he cursed the note-writer for causing him such anxiety; he still hadn’t decided whether to call the Police or not. And yet a thought niggled him – a thought from the past.
Carmine began to think about his new book and mentally went through the plot he’d come up with so far. He didn’t register the swaying light at first, thinking it was moonlight dancing on a puddle, but as he drew nearer he saw it was a torch or lamp moving back and forth across the road; he had no idea how far ahead, but suddenly he could see the outline of two figures standing in the centre of the road and he had to brake sharply to avoid hitting them.
As he began to lower the window to shout to the figures, his eyes were dazzled by a bright light; a torch he realised, being thrust against the glass. He put his arm over his eyes, ‘What the hell are you doing you bloody idiots?’
A hand reached through the window and grabbed his hair, smacking his head against the steering wheel, dazing him. The door was yanked open and someone lent over him, releasing his seatbelt and he felt himself being pulled from the car. He tried to resist, grabbing the window, trying to hang on but whoever was pulling him was strong and soon he was on the ground. The internal car light remained on and he caught a glimpse of two pairs of shoes; one male and one female, which looked vaguely familiar. So far no-one had spoken.
Confused he tried to stand but took a blow to the side of his head with what felt like a fist. ‘What the bloody hell?’ He covered his head with his arms, but another blow fell on his back, this time it felt like a heavy object and he screamed out in pain. ‘What do you want, I don’t have any money?’ No-one answered but another blow landed on his left shoulder and he fell flat on his face in the muddy road, winded, unable to move.
A foot shoved him on to his front and the torch played over his face. He shut his eyes, fearful of another blow, terrified of what was coming next. He waited; nothing happened, so he opened his eyes slowly. The torch moved from his face and played on that of his attacker, a man, he saw once his eyes adjusted. A stranger who leered at him, amused it seemed.
Another person came into his line of vision and he gasped in shock as he recognised the face leaning over him, twisted with hate and anger. Confusion filled his mind as pain began to throb throughout his body. ‘You?’ he gasped. ‘What are you doing?’
Before his wife could answer, the man leaned over Carmine and pressed cold metal against his temple. Carmine knew it was a gun and then it all became clear. His wife was the daughter of a Mafia crime boss who’d tried to stop her marrying outside the ‘Family,’ ten years ago, when Carmine had been an investigative journalist writing about her father and his business dealings for his then newspaper. They’d fallen in love and he’d dropped his investigation in return for her hand. Recently he’d met someone else, another writer, and they’d started an affair. Not only that, they’d started writing a novel together, in secret, about crime syndicates operating in the Midlands which they planned to publish under pseudonyms. Carmine thought his secrets were safe, but now he realised he’d been rumbled.
His wife’s family swore that if he ever spoke of their business, if he ever cheated on his wife, they’d kill him. Somehow they’d found out. The notes, the calls, all made to frighten him but his ego hadn’t allowed him to consider her family being the threat to him. He’d been convinced it was a woman, a fan, someone who lusted after him because of his writing. Fear crept over his prone body.
‘You don’t know me,’ the man whispered close to his ear, ‘but I know you Carmine. I know all about you and I’ve been dying to meet you.’ Then he pulled the trigger.