From the author: A Silhouette short story, set in the 80s, long before she met Alex Caine. London gangsters and a brutal murder give Silhouette a mystery to sink her teeth into. This story was originally written for an anthology called Side Quests, where authors were to write short stories with characters from their existing series. Sadly, the anthology fell through, so I'm publishing the story here. This is the first time it's been seen anywhere.
A Star Has Died
by Alan Baxter
A Silhouette Story
(Silhouette is one of the main characters in The Alex Caine Series)
London summer nights, thought Silhouette, were always the best for hunting. The streets glistened from a light rain, streetlights reflecting orange off the bitumen. Scents of grass and petrol drifted on the warm air. But this night was growing long and the pickings were slim. Maybe the weather, regardless of July warmth, kept night people indoors or undercover. No matter, hunger hadn’t yet started heading into starvation. Silhouette could wait a few more days easily. She thought maybe it was time to start heading back towards Wandsworth and her Den. A long sleep wouldn’t do any harm at all.
A sound of breaking glass caught her attention. She had roved a long way through the dark hours and thought she was somewhere around Hendon, well north of the city, and didn’t know the area well. But a break-in was too interesting to ignore. Keeping to the shadows, she crept to a corner and peeked around. Frantic, hushed voices came to her.
“…idiot, you’ll get us nabbed.”
“Shut up, there’s not a soul about.”
“Not now, but they’ll soon come looking if you’re not more careful. And what if he hears?”
“We’re in now. Stop your bellyaching and bring that.”
Silhouette leaned a little further out and saw two men disappear into a doorway. One man carried a small plastic black and white sports bag, ADIDAS emblazoned on the side. Silhouette smiled. This looked like some nefarious activity and she was all about that. She went to the door and saw it was still ajar, dark inside. It made no sound as she pushed it open. There was a shop front to her right, JACK’S HARDWARE, and this door opened directly onto a flight of stairs, a separate entrance to a flat above the shop. The door had six small squares of glass in the top half, one of them knocked out. Glass littered the step just inside. No doubt the sound that had initially attracted her. Silhouette slipped silently up the stairs, adjusting her eyes to the dark. As she got about halfway up, she let her nature reshape her body and slipped effortlessly into her panther-like cat form, clothes morphing into thick, smoky grey fur, hands and feet becoming soft, silent paws with razor sharp claws tucked neatly away. As her face shifted, her senses sharpened instantly, vision clearing, and several smells assaulted her. Cigarettes and beer were strong from the flat above, along with instant coffee and greasy meat, pork chops cooked earlier that night. Her acute hearing picked up the two men who had entered ahead of her, making quite a racket by her reckoning, but the snoring man further back in the flat was unlikely to hear them.
Silhouette padded silently into a small lounge room. Orange and brown carpet covered the floor, a big, worn leather sofa filled one side. A lava lamp on top of a large television set provided the only light, a soft blood red, gently rippling around the walls. In front of the sofa was a coffee table and on that a big glass ashtray filled to overflowing with cigarette butts. Ash dusted the surface all around it like snow. At least a dozen crushed beer cans littered one end of the table and the floor beside it, Tennant’s Lager.
To one side of the lounge was a small kitchen, the smell of pork chops stronger now along with an undertone of overcooked vegetables. Several mugs filled the sink and a pile of greasy plates was stacked haphazardly beside it. Across the other side of the room was a door leading into a bathroom and next to that a door to a bedroom, from where the snoring came, louder now. Just outside the bedroom door, the two men stood, having a silent argument with each other. One was tall and thin, the other not as tall, but heavily built. Both had short dark hair, pale skin, and mean eyes.
Silhouette paused in the shadows at the top of the stairs, grey lips pulled back in a cat grin of amusement as she watched the two fools gesture at each other furiously. She was hungry, but she’d enjoy a show first. The one with the sports bag, the stockier of the two, was holding it open, his eyebrows high, nodding repeatedly into the bag. The other man shook his head and pointed angrily into the bag, then at the man holding it, again and again. The snoring from the bedroom continued.
Silhouette noticed a Duran Duran RIO poster on the wall above the television. She sighed internally. The latest pop music was appalling. She’d been around a long time, through many decades of varying popular culture, but after the amazing music revolutions of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the music of the 80s seemed almost an insult. Mind you, the heavy metal scene was going from strength to strength, so perhaps there was hope yet.
She turned her attention back to the two men, wondering what they were here for. The one with the bag put it down on the floor and pulled out a short crowbar, held it angrily at the other man. That one sighed and took the tool, shaking his head. The first man grinned, stepped back, and gestured theatrically into the bedroom. The man with the crowbar, his tall frame hunched over it, turned and moved slowly forward, into the darkness. No doubt to them it was pitch in there, but to Silhouette’s enhanced vision it was merely gloomy. She saw through the open doorway as the tall man went inside and approached a double bed. The bed had a single occupant, a fat man lying on his side, his snores rumbling. Silhouette thought of all the cigarette butts and beer cans and wasn’t surprised he had trouble breathing well at night.
The tall man moved carefully alongside the bed then raised the crowbar and brought it down hard on the sleeping man’s head. He jerked and grunted, a glottal moan escaping, then the tall man struck again and again. Silhouette’s nostrils filled with the sharp scent of blood, her hunger spiking, then it was quickly joined by foul odours of voided bowels. The fat man managed one more strangled cry, then there was nothing but the wet thwack of the crowbar, again and again.
“All right, Barry, Jesus Christ!” said the stocky man at the bedroom door. He looked in with his face twisted in disgust. “I think he’s fackin’ dead.”
Barry staggered a step back, gasping for breath, the crowbar held dripping above his head, ready for another blow. He looked over at his friend and laughed. “Got no fackin’ head left now, the fat bastard.”
“Good-o. Job done, then. Let’s get out of here.”
Silhouette shot silently across the room behind the two men as they stood at the bedroom door looking in. She crouched in shadows behind the sofa, watching with interest. She had been hoping to feed, but this entire situation had become a lot more interesting. Ignoring the insistent grumbling of her stomach, she watched the two men congratulate each other, then head back for the stairs.
“Mark, hold up.” Barry held the crowbar up and the other man nodded, lifting the open sports bag. Barry dropped the gore-soaked weapon inside and Mark zipped it up.
“Check yourself before we go back outside,” Mark said.
Silhouette smelled the blood on him as he passed and went into the bathroom. The light flickered a couple of times before coming on and then Barry said, “Shit! I look like I’ve got red freckles!”
“So wash it off, we’ll get rid of your clothes later. But don’t touch anything!”
“Here.” Barry emerged again and peeled off thin leather driver’s gloves and dropped them into the bag with the crowbar, then went back into the bathroom to wash, then wiped his prints from the taps with a towel. He put the towel in the sports bag as well on his return.
Silhouette waited on the stairs as the two men went out into the street, then shifted back into her human form, brushing blonde hair back from her eyes. She looked around the door and watched the men walk off down the road as though they were simply enjoying the night air. Silhouette was torn. She wanted to stay and check around the flat, maybe learn who this was and why he’d been so savagely killed, but then she would lose the trail of the murderers. If she followed the murderers, it was entirely possible she’d never get another look in the flat, if it was a police crime scene by the time she returned. Following the killers was more important. She made a mental note of the address and tailed the two men as they turned a corner.
It was easy enough to follow them as they chatted amiably, paying no attention to their surroundings. If a person was a murderer, Silhouette reflected, they probably didn’t spend much thought on the possibility of meeting other killers on their nightly outings. More fool these two on this occasion. Before long the men arrived at the Brent Reservoir. They grabbed some rocks, added them to the crowbar, gloves and towel in the Adidas bag, and Mark swung the bag like an Olympic hammer thrower, launching it far out into the water. It quickly sank.
“What about your clothes?” he asked.
Barry shrugged. “I’ll burn ’em when I get home, no problem. There’s only a bit of blood there, nothing to notice in the meantime.”
Mark nodded. “All right then, sorted. Seeya later.”
“Tomorrow lunch time?”
“Yeah, see you at the Nag’s.”
Without another word, the two men turned away from each other and headed in opposite directions. Silhouette faced another dilemma. She could only follow one of them. While Barry had done the actual killing, she couldn’t help thinking that maybe Mark was the brains of the duo. He had convinced his pal to commit the crime, after all. That spoke of seniority. Torn, she slipped between shadows and tailed the stocky man. He stopped suddenly, and turned.
“You’re gonna call the boss, right?”
Barry pursed his lips in thought. “It’s too late now. He’ll have me whipped if I wake him.”
“He’ll have you whipped if you make him wait for news too. You know how upset he is about Carlotta.”
Silhouette startled lightly at the name. Surely there was more than one Carlotta in London, but the only one she knew of was the daughter of Iron Ron Fletcher, a gangster who held everything from Holloway to Wembley in his powerful grip. Most of the city north of the river was his manor, and if these goons were working on his behalf, that made everything even more interesting. And what had that fat man done to Carlotta that required such a quick and violent end?
Barry was thinking again. He glanced at his watch. “It’s nearly 5am. It’ll be close to 6 by the time I get home, that’s not too uncivilised. I’ll call Ron then.”
Silhouette smiled. That confirmed it. What an interesting little moment of mob justice she’d just stumbled onto. She stuck to her plan and tailed Mark, but was ultimately disappointed. He went to a stop on Hendon Way, caught a bus south along Finchley Road, and eventually ended up at a nondescript block of flats on the edge of Kentish Town. He went inside and that was that.
Dawn had broken and Silhouette’s opportunity to hunt had passed, but she felt full nonetheless. In a life as long as hers, a good mystery was always worth chewing on. And she did always do her best to only feed on the most deserving. She’d certainly found some bad men here, but she wanted to unravel the mystery first.
“Oh, you didn’t hear?” said Joseph, her Clan Lord, when she had returned to the Den in Wandsworth. “Carlotta is dead.”
“Dead?” Silhouette said. “How?”
“That sounds like there’s a better, unofficial theory.”
Joseph smiled, sweeping his long, blond hair, back into a ponytail. He wore only loose cotton trousers, his marble-like ancient body hard and trim. With a thin, sharp nose and narrow, dark eyes he was both handsome and frightening. His Kin magic poured off him, unguarded and unshielded in the comfort of his Den. “You have a criminal mind, little one.”
Silhouette shrugged. “I have my hobbies.”
“I don’t know the details,” Joseph said. “But I heard she threw herself down the laundry chute in an old hotel and fell fourteen stories to her death.”
“A laundry chute? That’s quite the bizarre way to suicide.”
Joseph smiled again, lifted his hands in acceptance, but offered no further explanation. “Humans and their tiny lifespans,” he said after a moment. “What difference does it really make how they end?”
Silhouette thanked her Lord and left his presence. She recognised the Kin philosophy regarding humans, as did they all. But she herself was first generation Kin, her mother, now long dead, had been human. She wondered if that was perhaps why she always harboured a certain empathy for them, despite her need to feed. And perhaps why she often sought them out for fun as much as dinner, something her Kin brethren found appalling. But it had its pluses, beyond the carnal. She had an old flame, Michael Partridge, who worked for the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard. She called him up and invited him out to lunch. He was only too happy to comply. The long sleep she had been considering could wait.
Over fish and chips in a café on Tottenham Court Road, she batted her eyes and made small talk for a while, until she felt it was time to change the direction of the conversation.
“You know, I heard something funny yesterday.”
“Did you?” Michael asked with a half-smile.
“Yes. You know the gangster on the north side, Iron Ron?”
Michael laughed. “Of course. I wouldn’t be much of a copper if I didn’t know him.”
“I heard his daughter died.”
Michael’s mirth faded. “Yeah, that’s right. Suicide. Threw herself down a laundry chute, can you believe that?”
“Well, no,” Silhouette said. “That’s just it. I can’t believe that. She was fourteen floors up. Why not use the balcony?”
Michael shrugged. “I guess. Not my case, so I don’t really know the details.”
“So whose case was it?”
“Not sure. It happened in a hotel in Highgate, so whoever works that beat, I suppose. Why are you asking?”
Silhouette smiled. “No reason. It’s just bizarre, that’s all.”
She turned the conversation away to other things and convinced Michael to take the afternoon off. They spent it in bed.
Silhouette knew she had to move carefully. She didn’t want to bring attention to herself with anyone, but especially the police. It was always easier to snoop around on the other side of the law. There was a pub frequented by the less honest members of the north London population not far from Kentish Town, where she had trailed Mark to the previous night. It was called The Nag’s Head, and she thought it was a good bet for the Nag’s that Barry had mentioned when the two thugs parted ways. She planned to go there, but first she stopped by the flat in Hendon again.
Summer time evenings were long and it still wasn’t full dark even after nine pm when she gently pushed the door next to Jack’s Hardware. She smiled when it swung in. No police tape, no sign that anyone had been there since the night before. Whoever that man was in the bed upstairs with his brains across the pillow, no one had missed him yet.
She braced herself against the smell, made worse from the hot summer day. It wasn’t putrefaction yet, but it was far from pleasant. She hunted quickly through the flat, wearing medical gloves to ensure she left no prints. She found nearly a thousand pounds in cash which would come in handy, plus a couple of other valuables. But she left those, given they belonged to a murdered man. It might be hard to pawn them. The cash she tucked into her jacket. But what she really wanted was some idea of who the poor bastard was. Flies filled the bedroom air when she finally went in and looked quickly around while holding her breath.
Before long she had a half decent picture of the guy. His name was Gary Dunston, and he seemed to be an agent of some kind, with printed leaflets promising desperate young actors the moon and stars if they signed up with him. Given the tiny one-bedroom flat above a shop, Silhouette felt that maybe he had yet to live up to his self-professed reputation as the gold standard in entertainment representation. He had a file on Carlotta Fletcher, Iron Ron Fletcher’s daughter, in a small filing cabinet in the bedroom. It contained a number of 8x10s, a few sheets of recommendations, but very little else. It seemed that Carlotta wanted to be an actor, but had never found a role. Now she never would. And it was obvious this Gary Dunston would never reach the golden heights he felt he was owed either. What a sad mess the whole thing was.
Silhouette slipped away, wondering how long it would be before Gary was found. Probably a day or two longer before the smell alerted the neighbours. She wondered if she should anonymously report it, but decided against the risk of implicating herself in any way. With a sigh, she headed for the Nag’s Head.
It was a little after ten when she went in, quickly scanning to get a measure of the place. It was busy but not crowded, the air thick with cigarette smoke, the smell of beer, and conversation. The thwack of pool balls echoed from the far side and Depeche Mode moaned from the speakers. Silhouette moved to the bar and ordered a Coke, then smiled as she saw Mark and Barry come in and sit at a table with a few other equally brutish looking blokes. Fortuitous timing. They were holding court, chatting and laughing. The juke box was on the wall not far from them and Silhouette wandered over to it, ignoring the men completely as she perused the music choices. But she listened hard, with preternaturally enhanced hearing.
“…course it was,” Mark said. “We did it like we was asked. We just got back from telling him the whole story.”
“And Ron was happy with the result?” another man asked.
“Dunston’s taken care of, isn’t he?” Barry said.
Small-minded men can’t help bragging, Silhouette thought to herself. Her hunger gnawed at her and she wondered which of these losers would feed her tonight.
“What was the man thinking, hurting Carlotta? Let alone killing her!”
“Dunston’s always been a prick,” Mark said. “But he wasn’t making much money. Apparently the role he’d lined up for Carlotta would have made them both a lot of moolah, so he was desperate she take it. But the role involved nudity and Carlotta said no way. He lost his shit. That’s the story Ron got anyway.”
“What an idiot,” someone else said.
Mark nodded ruefully. “He’s always had anger issues, especially with women. Took the wrong turn on this one though.”
“And you made him suffer, like Ron said?”
“Oh yeah,” Mark said, gloating obvious in his voice. “We put the hurt on him for hours, made sure he knew just what he’d done wrong. He was begging us to finish him by the end.”
Lying bastards, Silhouette thought. Barry and Mark had snuck around like terrified teenagers and whacked the guy without even letting him wake up. She wondered what Iron Ron would think of that tidbit.
“Fucking cops,” another man said. “When are they ever not shit?”
“Unbelievable they let Dunston get away with it,” Mark agreed. “They had all they needed but laughed it off and said too bad. Carlotta wasn’t even in with us, she wanted to do everything straight. But the old bill used it as an excuse to have a dig at Ron, let his daughter’s killer off the hook just to spite him. Still, we’ve sorted it now.”
Silhouette was equally stunned by that. Dunston had got justice after all, of a much rougher kind. The police hadn’t done anyone any favours, really. But just as well Ron knew the score, or Dunston would still be out there, free and easy. Cops and robbers, she thought. More often than not they were all as bad as each other. Well, maybe that was unfair. But a large proportion of police were largely indistinguishable from gangsters.
Silhouette sipped from her Coke as she drifted away from the conversation. She finished her drink, left the glass on the bar, and went back out into the night.
Nearly four hours later, she stood in a quiet street looking up a tall blocks of apartments. It was an old building, expensive homes in a leafy street. She gathered her arcane energy and leaped up preternaturally high, grabbed the underside of a first floor balcony, and swiftly hopped over the stone balustrade. With practiced and magic-enhanced athleticism, she scaled the building like a monkey up a tree and was on the top penthouse balcony in moments. She tried the sliding door and smiled when she found it unlocked. Who would come in this way, after all?
She padded silently through the apartment, retaining her human form for the time being. A bedroom door stood ajar and she slipped inside, stood watching the man sleeping on the bed for a while. She was pleased to find him home alone. She sat on the edge of the bed and tapped his shoulder.
He jerked away, twisting to see her and let out a bark of shock.
“Don’t move,” Silhouette said. She pressed one hand down on his chest as he tried to sit up, pinning him with her Kin strength. “I said, don’t move.”
“Who the fuck are you?” He squirmed, grimacing, but had no hope against her power. “How did you get in here?”
“Life is full of questions, isn’t it? I have one for you. Why didn’t you prosecute Gary Dunston for the murder of Carlotta Fletcher?”
“What?” The man’s face twisted in confusion.
“Just answer me, Detective John Brady. I know a lot already, you see. I know who you are and what you did. But I want to hear your side.”
“Carlotta Fletcher was a suicide.”
“Feet first down a fucking laundry chute, John? I don’t think so.”
Brady’s eyes narrowed. “What do you care?”
“Dunston lost his temper and killed her, didn’t he?”
“So what? If you know so much why are you asking me?”
Silhouette smiled. “I’m asking why you didn’t prosecute Dunston.”
“Lack of evidence.”
“No, that’s the official word, but you had all the evidence you needed. I’ve spent the last few hours pulling favours from a few police friends and doing my research. That’s how I know about you, and I know you suppressed evidence to let Dunston walk. Why?”
Brady shook his head, clearly accepting he couldn’t get away with lies. “Because the Fletchers are scumbag criminals. They deserve violence and death.”
“But not Carlotta,” Silhouette said. “She deliberately avoided the criminal side of the family. She was trying to make a go of it on her own. You did it solely to hurt Ron.”
“So what? He deserves hurt.”
Silhouette leaned forward, exerting more force. Brady grunted as his ribcage flexed under her hand, his back forced hard into the mattress. “But you know what bothers me even more, Detective Brady? You let that man go knowing he would murder a woman simply for disagreeing with him. Despite the gangsters, what other women might he have hurt? How many before Carlotta? How many after? Whether you wanted to hurt the Fletchers or not, there’s no excuse for letting a predator like that loose on the streets.”
Brady sneered. “What do you know about predators?”
Silhouette smiled and her mouth stretched as she let her form shift into the sharp-toothed cat she favoured. Brady screamed. At last Silhouette could sate her hunger.
If you enjoyed this story, you can find Silhouette as one of the two main characters in The Alex Caine Series.
Alex Caine, a fighter by trade, is drawn into a world he never knew existed — a world he wishes he’d never found. After a fight one night, an enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby, claims to know Alex’s secret. Welby shows Alex how to unleash a breathtaking realm of magic and power, drawing him along a mind-bending course beyond his control. And control is something Alex values above all else.
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