Darkness on the Edge of Town by Chris Green
Tim Soft is walking home along Marlboro Street. He feels he has had a wearying day at the office. He wishes it were Friday, but it’s only Tuesday. A vintage Chevrolet Impala pulls up alongside him, one of the ones with the harmonica front grille and the big tail fins. Tim notices that it has recently had a door replaced. The replacement door is pink while the original colour of the car, so far as he can tell in the advancing dusk, is blue. It’s unusual to see an American car on the streets these days, he reflects, but they do look good even with mismatched doors. Tim is a big fan of Americana, American cars, American music, American films, Breaking Bad and of course, Twin Peaks.
A pale-skinned man with a lean angular face leans across the bench seat and winds down the passenger side window. He has a wavy nineteen fifties-style quiff and a long scar running down his left cheek. Bruce Springsteen’s, Darkness on the Edge of Town is blaring out, a song Tim remembers from back in the day when he was sharing a house in Slumpton with Sid Hacker and Susie Q. That all seems a long time ago now. He likes to think he has matured since then. He likes to think he is more successful now. The Chevy driver turns The Boss down and in a gravelly voice asks for directions to Twin Peaks. How strange is that? He even looks like a Twin Peaks character. He has a faraway look in his eye and may be on drugs, Tim feels, probably hard drugs. But surely he must have misheard him. It’s easy to experience a degree of dissonance after a long day in a noisy publishing house staring at an iMac Pro.
‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Where did you say?’
The driver looks him up and down menacingly. For a moment, Tim thinks he might be about to leap out of the car, grab him by the lapels and force him up against the wall.
‘Quinn Street, buddy,’ he says, finally.
Was this what he said originally, Tim wonders? It would be good to clear this up but he is not going to ask. It would not be a good idea to question the ruffian’s powers of diction. He decides to put the misunderstanding down to a mondegreen and try to forget all about Twin Peaks.
Tim is sure Quinn Street came up in conversation recently but can’t remember how or why. Was it maybe in connection with Razor Ramirez, a notorious local drug dealer, who he heard might have moved into this part of town? But then, why would the dude in the Chevy be asking him. He is wearing a smart suit, albeit without a tie. He remembers finding out that Marty Quinn was a local councillor in the nineteen eighties, since disgraced for his kerb-crawling conviction but he doesn’t imagine that the dude will be interested in local history. Nervously, Tim explains the directions as the driver revs the Chevy’s engine impatiently.
‘Past the entrance to the park, second left, left again, then …… third right,’ he says, hoping that he has got this right.
When Tim gets home, he finds Judy is flustered. She looks dishevelled. Her make-up is smudged. He’s not sure but it looks like she might have been crying. When he had phoned her from work earlier to find out if he needed to get anything on the way home, she had cut him short saying there was someone at the door. It had seemed inconsequential at the time. He had thought no more of it.
‘Are you OK?’ he asks.
Judy appears to hesitate before she replies. Tim puts the hesitation down to her being upset. Now he comes to think of it, she has been a bit up and down lately and very prickly. At times he has felt he is treading on eggshells. He is no longer sure how to react.
‘What’s wrong?’ he says, putting his arm around her. ‘Who’s upset you? ……… Was it something to do with whoever was at the door when I phoned?’
Judy pushes his arm away.
‘I had just got home from the …… hairdressers,‘she says, doing her best to avoid his gaze. ‘And someone …….. called round …… for you.’
‘Who?’ he asks. Having been married now for nine years, Tim does not get many casual visitors.
‘Big guy, black leather, slicked back hair,’ she says. ‘He had a …… a piercing stare. He said I’m looking for Tim Soft. I told him you weren’t here but he didn’t seem happy about it.’
Tim is taken aback. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t know anyone like the fellow she is describing. Not these days, anyway. One hoodlum lurking in the area was odd enough. Surely it is unreasonable for another one to appear so soon. This is a quiet suburban estate. He wonders whether Judy is making it up. But, why would she?
‘He was …… very threatening,’ Judy continues. ‘I asked him what he wanted to see you about and he said you would know.’
‘I wasn’t expecting anyone,’ Tim says. So far as he knows he does not owe money and can’t think of anyone he might have upset recently.
‘He had a strange accent,’ Judy says. ‘Foreign, yet not foreign. He looked like someone out of that David Lynch show you made me watch. The one with the man from another place and that ridiculous talking tree.’
Another reference to Twin Peaks. Working in publishing, Tim is of the belief that the fictional world should stay where it belongs, whether this be the written page, cinema or television and not spill over into real life. Especially now that he has completed the graphics and layout for the Twin Peaks illustrated publication and put it to bed.
‘The thing is, Tim, he said he was going to call back,’ Judy adds. ‘Perhaps we ought to go out.’
‘Good idea,’ Tim says. ‘What about that new bar?’
After his third bottle of Double Bastard at The Sizzling Squid, Tim still feels nervous about returning home. Normally Double Bastard relaxes him but he has a bad feeling about something. He is not sure what but something is not quite right.
‘Surely no-one is going to call round after ten,’ Judy says, looking at her watch. Her three glasses of Albanian Shiraz seem to have calmed her. Tim suspects she may also have secretly taken one or two of the happy pills that Dr Ranatunga prescribed. Perhaps Dr Ranatunga might have been a little remiss. They appear to make her behaviour unpredictable.
‘But what if our caller is lying in wait?’ he says. ‘I think I’ll just have one more beer.’
‘We can’t stay out all night,’ Judy says when Tim returns from the bar. ‘Are you coming?’
Even though it is a short distance, chivalry dictates that Tim not allow Judy to walk home alone but chivalry has never been his strong suit. Especially after nine years of marriage. Besides, he now has another beer to finish.
‘I’ll be right behind you,’ he says.
Tim does not believe he has ever seen anyone quite so tall as the forbidding figure he suddenly finds standing over him. At first, he thinks the huge fellow must be some kind of hallucination brought on by the Double Bastard but the hallucination refuses to go away. The colossus stands silently, a good seven feet tall, not seven feet from him, staring fixedly in his direction. He is formally dressed. Like a club steward. Or perhaps even the giant in Twin Peaks. More likely a club steward though in this situation. Whoever it is, the big fellow seems unhappy about something. What has he done to upset him? Maybe it is time for him to leave. He might even be able to catch up with Judy.
Tim makes his way unsteadily through the night. As he turns into Viceroy Terrace, up ahead of him, he spots the Chevy with the mismatched door. Right outside his house. His initial instinct is to make himself scarce. No sense in looking for trouble. He could perhaps drop in on his brother, Tom. He owes him a visit. There again, Tom’s partner, also called Tom seems to have taken a dislike to him. Tom and Tom probably wouldn’t appreciate him calling round drunk at ten o’clock at night. And, of course, there is Judy to consider. She might be in danger and it would be all his fault. For that matter, she might even already be bound and gagged in the back of the car. He steels himself and strides purposely up the street towards the vehicle. It has its engine running, Bruce Springsteen’s Point Blank blaring through the open window. As he gets closer, the driver gives a final rev of the engine and the car pulls away. Tim cannot see Judy inside the car but it occurs to him that the thug might have bundled her into the boot. This is the kind of thing that would happen in Twin Peaks.
He unlocks his front door. The house is in darkness. Not a good sign. He calls out Judy’s name. There is no reply. Frenziedly, he darts around the house looking for her. Surely she would be home by now even if she had taken a detour through Lark Park and along Chesterfield Avenue. Yet, she is not home. He dials her number but to his dismay, he hears her phone ringing in the next room. Why doesn’t she ever take the thing with her? What’s the point in having a mobile if you leave it at home?
He rummages around looking for clues. He does not know quite what he is looking for. He takes a look at her phone. There are several missed calls other than his. The phone does not record the caller’s number. He scrolls through the numbers she has dialled. He doesn’t recognise any of them. But then, he can hardly remember his own number. He opens up the Camera Roll folder. Flicking through, he sees that one of the photos looks like the hoodlum who was driving the Chevy. He can’t believe it. How can this be? He takes a closer look. It is a photo of him. There is no doubt about it. There’s the Chevrolet Impala in the background. And there’s another. In this one, he is with a group of people at some kind of outdoor event. He doesn’t like the look of them one bit. Here’s a selfie. Chevy Man has his arm around Judy. What is that all about? Is she having an affair? With that hoodlum? Should he have noticed some warning signs? Were there some clues he might have spotted. He comes across a random address scribbled on a scrap of paper by her laptop. Razor, 66 Quinn Street. Surely this can’t be right. How on earth would she know Razor? Then it dawns on him. She must be buying drugs. It’s the only explanation. If she is buying drugs, it would help to explain a few things. This would explain the happy pills. Her mood swings. How had it all come to this? He begins to wonder if perhaps he might have become too involved with the fictional world of Twin Peaks and taken his eye off the ball.
Whatever Tim’s feelings might be at this moment in time, Judy is to all intents and purposes, missing. Unless she was on her way to meet her supposed lover when she left the pub and he was on his way to meet her when he sped off, it would appear she is not even with him. So there must be another explanation. Tim has a dilemma. Should he sit and back and thank his lucky stars that he has caught her out in her deceit? Or, should he set about finding what has happened to her just in case it is something calamitous? Clearly, he can’t report her to the police as a missing person. Given the circumstances, they would just laugh at him. He could phone around the numbers on her mobile to see if anyone has an idea where she might be but once again, given the circumstances, he would be subjecting himself to ridicule. He could take a trip round to 66 Quinn Street. Probably a longshot and wary about the hostile reception he would be likely to get, he decides to give it a miss. All he can do, he feels, is sit tight and see what happens. Judy’s phone rings. Unrecognised number says the display and when he answers it, the caller hangs up. Weren’t mobile phones designed to simplify life?
When one parameter in your life changes, you often find that everything else changes. Perhaps it is linked in some way to chaos theory or a variation of the domino effect. When it is a negative development you might throw in the expression, slippery slope. Tim’s life seems to be on a downward run. When he goes into work the following morning, sleep-deprived and hungover, he finds himself summoned to his boss’s office. His work lately has not been up to scratch, Carson Gaye tells him and the work on the Twin Peaks publication, in particular, was shoddy, full of mistakes that should have been corrected before it went to print. His services are no longer required. He is sacked.
When Tim gets back home Judy still hasn’t returned. There are more missed calls on her phone from the same unrecognised number as the previous evening. Tim is now convinced that something untoward has happened. He is about to call the police when, to his puzzlement, they arrive mob-handed on his doorstep. They have not come about Judy’s disappearance however but to search the house for drugs. Detective Sergeant Badger shows him the warrant, issued that very morning. Acting on a tip-off, he explains. When asked the routine question, is there anything that shouldn’t be here, Tim tells him that he is wasting his time. Of course, there are no drugs in the house. D. S. Badger laughs and tells him that everyone says that but in his experience, it usually means the opposite. Tim continues to remonstrate as burly officers in fatigues begin to turn the house upside down.
‘Here it is, guv,’ the one with the buzz cut and the neck tattoos says, slitting open a sealed package the size of an airline bag that, like a magician, he appears to have pulled out from underneath the staircase.
‘Good work, Scuzzi,’ the Sergeant says. ‘That’s what we’re looking for.’
Badger tells Tim it is probably the largest cache of crystal meth he has ever come across. How can this have happened, Tim wonders? Crystal meth is something he thought only existed in Breaking Bad or spoof documentaries about fictional rock bands. The police must have somehow planted it. He suggests this is a set-up, breaking into a rant about police malpractice. His protests go unheeded. He is cuffed and taken down to the station to be charged.
While Tim is waiting for his solicitor to arrive, he feels that not even his brother Tom’s friend, Wet Blanket Ron could match the speed of his change of fortune. In just twenty four hours, he has managed to go from happily-married, devil-may-care, graphic designer living in a plush house on a well-positioned estate to paranoid, estranged, international drugs smuggler confined to a foetid cell, looking forward to a long stretch in Wormwood Scrubs or Belmarsh. Surely not even Ron could claim such a rapid fall from grace.
Is it Murphy’s Law, Tim wonders, that states that when you think things cannot get any worse, they do? Something along those lines, anyway. Is it Smith’s Law that suggests that Murphy was an optimist? While Tim is trying to remember exactly which of the amateur philosophers stated what, still believing in his heart of hearts that things can’t really get worse, he learns that Judy’s mutilated body was found earlier in the canal. Estimated time of death, Inspector Dawlish Warren from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command informs him was between midnight and 6 am this morning. The Inspector takes it a step further and tells him that he is the prime suspect. Can he account for his movements between those times?
Tim’s solicitor introduces himself. ‘Dario Chancer of Gallagher, Shed and Chancer.’
‘Thank God you are here, Mr Chancer,’ Tim says. ‘I’ve been going crazy in this bloody place.’
‘OK. Let’s get straight down to it then, Mr Soft,’ Chancer says. ‘This drugs business first, I think. What’s the story with that?’
‘I’ve no idea where the package came from,’ Tim says. ‘The police must have planted it.’
‘Some work to do there then,’ Chancer says. ‘The police don’t often admit planting evidence. At least not voluntarily. Now! I think it might be easier to try and build a case around the drugs being your wife’s. After all, I understand Judy Soft is dead. She won’t be able to argue. For a small consideration, I think we might be able to get a few witnesses to testify to Judy’s drug activities, if you catch my drift. ……… Which brings us on to the murder. First question I have to ask you is, are you guilty? Did you kill Judy?’
‘Of course not,’ Tim says.
‘So you’ll have an alibi for last night,’ Chancer says. ‘Someone who can confirm where you were between midnight and six?’
‘Not exactly, no,’ Tim says. ‘I was at home on my own, worrying myself silly.’
‘Not so good. It would certainly make our job easier if you did have an alibi,’ Chancer says. ‘Still! We can work on one.’
‘Do you have any suggestions, Mr Chancer?’
‘Well. Let me see. … H’mm. …… I wonder. Listen! You might think this is a little unconventional but I’ve used it once before and it seemed to work then. ……. Do you happen to watch Twin Peaks by any chance?’
‘As a matter of fact, I do. I’m a big fan. I …….. ‘
‘Then you will be familiar with a character called Garland Briggs.’
‘Of course. Major Briggs was abducted by aliens.’
‘That’s right. He was sucked up into a vortex.’
‘Indeed. But how does this help?’
‘You could say that at 11 last night, you were walking home when you were suddenly sucked up off the street by a vortex and not returned until, let’s say to be on the safe side, ten this morning. And you can’t account for the time spent in the other place. It’s all a bit of a blur. Perhaps you might come up with some gobbledegook about the white lodge or the black lodge and perhaps throw in a dwarf or two and a talking tree for good measure. Now! Just one thing. You haven’t told them anything so far, have you? You know. Anything that might incriminate you?’
‘No. I’ve said nothing. I was waiting for you to get here.’
‘Good! Only if you had, it would be difficult to say that the alien abduction had just slipped your mind.’
‘You don’t think that perhaps, it’s a bit …… far out for a defence, then.’
‘We could back it up with some testimonies from expert witnesses.’
‘Hardcore Ufologists. And maybe a die-hard Twin Peaks fan.’
‘But, the thing is I didn’t do it, Mr Chancer. I didn’t kill Judy. I’m innocent. Not only that I want the bastard who did kill her brought to justice.’
‘But as you’ve told me, Mr Soft. You don’t have an alibi. You haven’t had much experience of the judicial system, have you? No alibi translates as guilty in a court of law.’
In HM Prison Wakefield where Tim Soft is serving his thirty year stretch, he is allowed no visitors. Even the prison warders are vetted before they can enter his cell. He has been well and truly removed from society. But, if you were a fly on the wall in his cell, you just might hear Tim humming Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It appears to be an obsession. There are no posters of Rita Hayworth, but you would find the walls of his cell covered in posters of vintage Chevrolet cars. Another obsession. Then there is all his arcane talk about extra-dimensional connected spaces, the black lodge and the white lodge. Psychiatrists have been unable to penetrate the dark deluded world that Tim inhabits.
Some might argue that he was unfortunate to get a prison sentence at all as by many people’s reckoning, he could be considered insane. As it happened, Tim changed his story daily during the trial and kept changing his plea. He did not seem to know what time of day it was and on occasions, could not remember his name. But, as is often the case, his eventual plea of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ failed to impress. The court did not believe that he had been abducted by aliens or that he was being instructed by a talking tree. No-one was listening. It was felt that his crimes were too serious.
The court heard how Tim had weaved a web of deceit and treachery, taking in all those who had the misfortune to come into contact with him. He had pretended to be a respectable citizen while in reality, he was running a ruthless drugs empire. Countless casualties lay in the wake of his underworld activities. How he managed to get with his duplicity for so long was a mystery. By the time of his trial, even his friends and family were lining up to testify against him. His brother Tom explained how, as a boy, Tim used to torture the family pets, and not just the gerbils and hamsters. The court heard how his long-suffering wife, Judy had been the victim of his abuse for years. On that fateful night, Tim had gone on the rampage, killing two men in The Sizzling Squid in cold blood before brutally bludgeoning Judy to death and dumping her body in the canal. No matter how unbalanced he was, he was not going to get away with a soft sentence in a rehabilitation facility.
© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved