Dead Letters

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Bestselling author Richard Debden is missing. The only clue: a copy of his unpublished final novel delivered a year after his disappearance, with a mysterious message. Could Richard still be alive, and in need of help?
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1 – If You Want to Find Me…

Most people assumed that Richard’s disappearance was a publicity stunt, but I knew better. He would have never lowered himself to that. No, something terrible must have happened.

Besides, his publisher didn’t seize the opportunity to release another novel while the talk was all conspiracy and kidnap. Pretty soon, the critics sensed that enough time had passed that it was now appropriate to reappraise his work and, well, criticise. The window for new material passed quickly. Before long, nobody was talking about Richard Debden – and if ever they did, it was to point out that he had a history of instability. It’s disquieting how easy it is to write off a life without any real explanation.

After a few months, the police drew a line under the matter, finding no evidence of foul play. They deemed it unlikely that this was an insurance scam, since he had no life insurance. There weren’t any terrorists, human traffickers or drug cartels in the picture either. They did note that Richard had emptied his bank accounts after vanishing, but apparently that isn’t unusual when someone doesn’t want to be tracked down.

‘Sometimes people just decide they want to disappear,’ they told his parents. ‘In most of these cases, all you can do is wait. They come back in their own time.’

Statistic-hungry, I looked it up. In ninety-nine per cent of cases, the missing person is found within a year. That’s probably why, three-hundred-and-sixty-six days later, his family held a small service to commemorate his passing. They did it partly to tempt him to reveal himself. The Richard I knew could never have resisted the drama of reappearing at his own funeral.

It was nice to be invited, but I felt a nagging disappointment throughout the ceremony. Main point: he didn’t turn up. Besides that, the whole thing lacked grandeur. Was this truly the send-off my friend deserved – thirty-or-so of us gathered in the chapel of a minor Cambridge college? Was that the sum total of the impact Richard had made on the world? It should have been a cathedral, all rich velvet and black, with standing room only and a tearful throng gushing into the court outside. Those were the funerals of Richard’s stories. Tragedy and unbearable loss. Rivers of tears. That was the send-off he deserved. Not this, this… mediocrity.

This wasn’t a funeral, though, was it? That was the root of the problem. No one knew how they were supposed to behave. Were we mourning? No, they had billed this as a celebration of Richard’s life. I, for one, wasn’t ready to accept that it was over.

I sought out Richard’s parents to offer my condolences. Mr Debden had sunken eyes, and his pursed lips were hidden beneath an overgrown grey moustache. Mrs Debden flapped a black handkerchief around as she spoke. Her face was pale, and she rarely made eye contact. But, overall, they seemed to be coping well. They had been trained for this moment by Richard’s various crises.

I left soon afterwards and skipped the ‘informal’ drinks proposed by some old university friends who had opted, callously, to seize the opportunity for a reunion. I couldn’t face the conversation, the theories about what might have happened to Richard, nor the image we’d settle on of him somehow riding off into the sunset when, deep down, most people believed he was dead. He was unstable, wasn’t he? He’d threatened to end his own life before. It had only been a matter of time.

I didn’t have any desire, either, to hear the rehashed tales of his youth: the drunken exploits, the bruised mornings. Everyone would be careful to overlook the fact that all those stories were from at least eight or nine years ago when we lived together in this city, before graduation scattered us back across the country. Those past few years, I had only communicated with Richard via the odd email, the shared link, or comment on a status update; the internet’s imitation of friendship. I knew that if I stayed it would become evident that I – like everyone else – had failed him.

I had booked a room in town, so I was stuck in Cambridge for the night. I decided to kill a few hours wandering around, visiting places that reminded me of Richard. I stopped by the green where he would share his love of poetry every Saturday morning, reading aloud to people hurrying from one shopping centre to another. Next, I visited the square where we queued to graduate, and he vomited into a drain to the delight of the enthralled tourists. I walked back along the river, passing boathouses where we offered ourselves as sacrifices to our college rowing team’s honour on the toughest, coldest mornings known to man. I hadn’t been there in ten years, but Richard’s writing, inspired by the architecture, had kept those places alive for me. In a funny way, I felt like I had still known him through his novels, over those past few years. He just hadn’t known me.

It was dark when I got back to the hotel. Saturday night revellers were roaming the streets, but it was too early for sleep. I had resolved to lock myself in my room and dip into the minibar until the world became hazy. It would be my personal tribute to Richard: the alcohol and prescription medication that had at times liberated and at others confined him, the oblivion to which, one way or another, he was now consigned.

Amy caught me waiting for the lift.

‘You didn’t think you’d get away without saying hello, did you?’

Her voice was richer than I remembered, but it retained its playful lilt. I turned and saw that she looked the same as before, just mellowed, with laughter lines around her lips and slight stains beneath her eyes.

My heart leapt, but my brain clamped down every muscle. I wasn’t ready to face her. Amy was Richard’s long-serving girlfriend and medium-serving ex. If Richard really was dead, she was the closest thing he had to a widow.

Except… except, she always found a way to surprise me.

‘Hello… wow!’ I blurted out.

‘Try something new, Chris. I’ve had that reaction all day.’

Amy had changed her look. Gone was the severe bowl haircut she sported throughout university. She had grown out her hair, and it suited her. More significantly, she was visibly pregnant. Usually, I would avoid jumping to this conclusion, aware of the social faux pas possible in this age of refined sugar, but this was beyond question. Her weight gain was almost exclusively centred on her belly, to which her hands moved instinctively as I gazed at it.

‘Congratulations?’ I ventured.

Amy rolled her eyes. ‘Epic fail!’ Still, she took my hand. ‘Come on, we’ve got some catching up to do.’

She led me to a table in the corner of the hotel bar, where she had been waiting, apparently, for “hours” (I remain unable to reconcile her timeline of events, but let’s not dwell on it further here). This place was all marble and felt-lined benches. We were alone, thanks to bar prices scandalous enough to drive away all but the most desperate of alcoholics.

Amy slid herself along the bench and let out a great sigh.

‘Everything’s so much effort these days!’ She stroked her fingers over her bump.

I rubbed my stomach, which had also grown noticeably larger since the last time we saw each other. ‘Tell me about it.’

When I returned with the drinks (a double gin and tonic for me, just the tonic for her), I asked her, ‘So, how many months?’

‘Twenty-eight weeks,’ Amy said. Then, noticing that her answer had started the cogs in my brain whirring, she added, ‘That’s seven months. Baby’s due mid-October.’

‘And the father?’

‘He was born in January.’

‘Come on! Who is he?’

‘His name’s Claude,’ she said grudgingly. ‘He’s a photographer. We met a few months after Richard and I finished, and, well, things just grew from there.’


Amy laughed. ‘You haven’t changed, have you? It’s good to see you. How long has it been? A few Christmases now...’

‘Work’s been non-stop. I’ve had to pass up on so many get-togethers.’

The truth was I hadn’t seen her or Richard since they split up five years earlier. It was nothing personal; I hadn’t seen anybody else, either, not apart from family or work colleagues. My job had a lot to answer for.

‘You managed today, though.’

‘I had to.’ I took a sip, reflecting on this. ‘Richard always had a way of pulling us together.’

Amy smiled wanly. ‘Most of the time.’

The same qualities that made Richard great fun to be around made it impossible to stay. I remember one spring, the first vaguely warm day of the year, he organised a gathering for Amy’s birthday. This must have been a year or two after we graduated. He insisted on preparing the first barbecue of the year, boasting that he would be the only person in the country out in their garden with kitchen utensils in hand. I remember him enthusing over the phone about how he was going to put up a tent to shelter us from the wind. I humoured him, wary of getting too involved.

When I arrived, he was in the tent. From the back door of their flat, I listened to his sobs over the heavy rain. Amy stood there with me. Her eyes were weary. There would be no consoling him.

In the end, he and I drank ourselves into unconsciousness in the tent, pontificating to each other about life, death and the pointlessness of it all. Amy went to bed, gathering strength for the swing back the other way.

It wasn’t astonishing that they split up, but I couldn’t imagine how it had happened. Amy always had a way of coping, and Richard – even in his darkest hour – was a captivating person to be around. The colours were always that much brighter with him, and the contrast much starker. Every object had a black outline, as in a comic book. You experienced everything to its fullest extent. Everything.

‘I didn’t expect to see you here,’ I said.

‘Me neither,’ Amy replied, ‘but when it came to it…’ She paused, before changing track. ‘So, what do you make of Richard’s disappearance? Any theories?’

I took a long sip of my drink. ‘I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough theories today.’

‘You’d be surprised! We’ve talked about everything but. It was strange, like people were afraid to mention him. I don’t know if that’s because they think he’s alive or dead.’

‘And how is everyone?’

Amy took an inward breath. ‘The uni bunch? Same as ever, really. It’s funny how we fall into old habits when we’re together, like no time has passed at all. We joked around a lot. It was all fine. I left when Shelley got out her guitar and started singing a song she’d written for Richard. Something about a “Flame in the Breeze.” It sounded vaguely familiar.’

I nodded my head in sympathy.

‘Ben’s still in investment banking,’ Amy continued. ‘Somehow, he managed to get a promotion out of the banking crisis, so he’s getting even richer, shifting around non-existent money. Dave’s a florist now, though I suspect that might be an MI5 cover. He was never really that good with his hands.’

‘Thus speaks the voice of experience.’

Amy glared at me. “What happens in freshers’ week stays in freshers’ week.’

‘I never agreed to that,’ I said. ‘And you? What have you been up to?’

‘I’ve been around here, lecturing mainly, a couple of exhibitions.’

‘…and that’s how you met Claude?’

Amy nodded. ‘What about you, Mr “Work’s Been Non-Stop”? What is it exactly you do that’s so important? The last I heard it was something to do with traffic.’

‘Still is,’ I said. ‘But you don’t want to hear about that.’

‘Come on! You’ve got to tell me something about yourself. Seeing anyone?’

I shifted uncomfortably. Despite the pretext of discussing careers, Amy was more interested in my romantic life. It was the same with my parents, who did little to hide their concern that I had chosen a life of celibacy, and that the prospects of grandchildren were next to zero.

‘I’m between girlfriends right now,’ I said.

Amy laughed. ‘You’ve been using that line since we were eighteen!’

‘It’s a good line!’

‘Whatever, Chris. You know, now’s the time. Believe it or not, you’re at your physical peak. If you don’t do something now, it’ll be too late. In a few years, everyone will have paired off, and you’ll be old and lonely and waiting for people to divorce so you can pick off the scraps.’

‘Thanks,’ I muttered. ‘That’s a lovely thought.’ It was, without a doubt, time to change the subject. ‘Anyway, you haven’t told me what you think happened to Richard. When did you see him last? How was he? Any hint he might disappear off the face of the planet?’

‘For that, we need another round.’ Amy held up her empty glass. ‘Same again. Actually, make it a double!’

I gestured to the barman, who seemed a little perplexed when I ordered a double tonic water, but he went ahead and poured it anyway. Amy waited until the drinks had been brought over before she said:

‘I haven’t spoken to Richard since Pursuit into Shadow.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘I wondered if it might be that.’

Pursuit into Shadow was Richard’s most recent novel, published almost four years earlier. It was a departure from his previous work, which was consistently high fantasy featuring elves, dwarfs, orcs and trolls – rip-offs of Lord of the Rings, basically, but the crowds still lapped it up. Pursuit into Shadow was a fantasy piece, too, but it contained only a handful of characters. The monsters that usually inhabited his worlds were gone, replaced by an ever-present sense of menace. The story followed General Avadar, head of the Royal Guard, pursuing his missing ward, Princess Saria, who was abducted in the first chapter. Avadar tracked her captors, persevering long after everyone else had given up. He faced every challenge and endured every hardship, all the punishments that flesh and spirit can bear. By the end of the book, he was a mere shadow of his former self. And Saria’s spirit was corrupted a little each day by the dark force that held her and sought to make her its own, body and soul. Page by page, her innocence faded, her eyes darkened, and her body became a puppet to the desires of darkness. When the two finally came face to face, they no longer recognised each other.

Pursuit into Shadow was written the winter after Amy left Richard. He locked himself in his flat and wrote until he had expunged all the bitterness and all the despair. A break-up album in the form of a novel. Richard imagining Amy in the arms of another.

‘It terrified me,’ Amy said.

‘You read it?’

‘I didn’t have to. It was all over the media: the “true meaning of his words.” Even if I could have avoided that, I had well-meaning idiots phoning to see how I was getting on.’

‘That’s the thing about being involved with an author,’ I said. ‘Your dirty linen gets washed in public, no matter how cryptic they try to make their writing.’

Amy shook her head. ‘It wasn’t my dirty linen. It was his. He came across like some kind of maniac. Do you have any idea how frightening it is to be loved so obsessively?’

I smiled. I’ve no idea why. ‘No, I don’t.’

‘Other men I’ve been with, it’s never been like that when it’s ended. Maybe the odd phone call or drunken visit. I could cope with that. Not Richard. He never did any of that regular stuff. He just holed himself up and wrote things he would never have told me straight. It was like he couldn’t pursue me himself, so he sent one of his characters to do it.’

‘Writing was the only way he could express the things he felt. Setting it in a different world somehow liberated him. That’s why I was so worried when he told me he was stopping.’

Amy sat up. ‘He told you what?’

‘We were emailing, you see, right up until last year. Stupid stuff, mostly, but towards the end, he told me he’d had enough of writing. He said Pursuit would be his last novel; there was no way he could follow it. You were asking me about theories earlier. Well, here’s mine: the way I see it, only a limited number of things could have happened to Richard. He had no money troubles and enough prescription medication that I couldn’t see him getting involved in other drugs. There’s no way he’s been kidnapped – who would pay the ransom, and what human trafficking ring would have him? No, he’s either taken up the life of a hermit, or he’s done something stupid to himself. Writing was his coping mechanism. Ever since I got the news that he’d gone missing, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t stopped writing.’

Amy reflected on this for a few seconds. Then she smiled as though she had satisfied herself of something.

‘Can I tell you something, Chris? First, you have to promise me you’ll keep quiet about it.’

‘Of course.’

Who was I going to tell, exactly?

Amy moved in close and lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘He didn’t stop writing. I have it upstairs in my room. Dead Letters. Richard Debden’s final novel.’