We’re delighted to present the second of three special previews of award-winning writer Rik Hoskin’s latest novel, Bystander 27, a thriller set in a world where superheroes are real …
Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot, goes on sale on 11th August, available from all good bookshops – and you can order it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) – and read on for a chance to win a copy, too!
Ginnie. That’s what they were going to call her. Virginia. Virginia Hayes. But they had already shortened it to Ginnie by month five, when Melanie had felt the first kick.
Now Ginnie was dead before even being born, a thing that never was and never would be. A person, snuffed out before they had had a chance.
Hayes waited outside the crematorium, shoulders back, chest out, in a suit with pants pressed and shoes shined the way he had been taught. He watched the middle distance, eyes unfocused, as a short line of cars arrived in the balmy air of early summer, heat that left Hayes cold. He had felt real heat in Afghanistan, and whatever they called summer in New York seemed chill by comparison, especially today.
Melanie’s parents, Jack and Jodie, the ones with the pool, arrived and said things he did not hear. So did Hayes’ supervisor from work, a ruddy-faced man called Jeff who was in his fifties with a Seventies haircut. Hayes was thinking about the people he had lost in Afghanistan, the funeral services he had attended for colleagues, for brothers in arms. And how with Melanie it was different. It was heartless, turned into ceremony by the very fact that it was not a ceremony. With the Navy it had been ordered, which made it somehow what the person had wanted and what everyone needed. Here it was sending a coffin to be burnt.
Inside, the crematorium evoked the sense of a church without ever settling on any one denomination. Melanie had been raised Catholic, but she was at best lapsed and at worstcouldn’t care. Her parents didn’t really attend church, not once she had left school and being a part of that community had not seemed as important anymore. So the service was about nothing but a person who had died, and how they maybe might live on or go somewhere, but without any commitment that could offend anyone present.
The service was short, though it felt anything but. Thirty minutes summing up a life, thirty minutes that seemed like a lifetime. Hayes stood and sat and stood again, paying respects in the ways the funeral director instructed along with the rest of the service’s attendees. He could not feel anything, it was too raw. If he tried to think about Melanie, he just heard the whine of the helicopter going down, and then he would be back in Afghanistan with that Black Hawk spouting smoke as it spiraled down to earth before exploding into a ball of flame.
Someone – Melanie’s cousin, Hayes thought – came over and said that she was in a better place now, and Hayes just nodded, looking at the coffin as it was removed from the podium, like so much freight. Her remains were not in the coffin – there had not been enough of them left with the way the helicopter had crushed her – so it was really nothing more than an expensive box. An expensive box that would be set aflame in memory of a woman he had loved, and a daughter who had never been born.
After the service, flowers were displayed in a room containing a book of condolences and a buffet. There was a framed picture of Melanie, recent but before the pregnancy. Hayes had not supplied it; he figured that her folks had.
“Jon? How are you feeling?” – that was Jodie Monroe, Melanie’s mom. She was a caring person, one of those women who seemed to have been born to be a mother and had that urge to mother everyone around her. She had been blonde when Hayes first met her, but now she wore her hair shorter and was letting the natural grey seep through in a gradual transition to retirement.
“I’m fine, ma’am,” Hayes replied automatically.
Jodie reached forward and put a hand on Hayes’ arm. She was dressed in black, a tailored jacket and skirt, court shoes and a delicate line of pearls that was unobtrusive and, hence, most probably expensive. “Jon, it’s me,” she said. “I know it must be hard. You saw… what happened.” She was close to tears but she held onto them, squeezing them back into her eyes with a long, deliberate blink.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Hayes said with a shake of his head.
“You should talk to someone,” Jodie insisted.
“No, ma’am,” Hayes corrected her assumption. “I mean I don’t want to talk about it to you. I think it would only upset you. You loved her, and so did I, and what happened was…was not right. I’m sorry.”
“You’re a good man, Jon,” Jodie told him. “You’re family. You remember that if you need us. Whenever you need us. Just because Mel’s… gone…” Her words trailed off mid-sentence, and the hot tears began to stream down her face without any effort on her part, no movement of her shoulders or chest, no wracking sobs. Even a blink could no longer hold them back, it was like watching a faulty faucet whose washer had broken.
Hayes leaned forward and held Jodie, just letting her be sad.
Finally, Jodie Monroe pushed herself away, and she seemed a little unsteady and a little older than she had before. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking away for a moment. “People bring such pretty flowers.” And then she walked away, back to her husband who was reading the condolences, squinting through one lens of his glasses.
Jonathan “Jon” Hayes had grown up in Beaumont, Texas, the son of a locksmith and an elementary school teacher. His grades had been good, but he had been drawn to the military by 9/11 and what had happened after. He did not want to fight wars, he wanted to stop them.
Hayes had joined the US Navy at age nineteen, and gone into the SEALs program before his twenty-second birthday. Becoming a SEAL was a commitment. It took more than a year of training, almost half that time in BUD/S – Basic Underwater Demolition/School – which taught a man to push his body to its physical limits while keeping his mind razor sharp. Stamina and clear-thinking under pressure – these were the things that the Navy treasured. Leadership skills were assessed, too, but the real push was on extreme survival.
By the time Hayes came out of BUD/S twenty-four weeks later, more than half his class had washed out, submitting what was known as a “Drop on Request”. Those who remained could fire a gun with astonishing accuracy, and were as comfortable in water as they were on land. They could perform stealth underwater work without leaving so much as a ripple on the surface, handle demolitions both above and below the water, and patch a buddy back together after a gunshot wound, all without breaking their stride. Their bodies became tools, hardened and honed, and they learned to prioritise the mission over the individual.
Their superiors assured them that SEALs were the toughest fighting men in the world, deadly armed or unarmed. After enduring the final three weeks of BUD/S – where he and his colleagues were dropped into a remote location and tasked with survival – Hayes believed it.
As a SEAL he had seen action in Bolivia and Columbia, chasing down drug routes and their ties to the international web of terrorism. People got hurt sometimes, shot sometimes, killed sometimes; this was the life that it was. Afghanistan had been awful and unreal, each newly discovered atrocity challenging Hayes to cling onto his faith in humanity.
When Hayes was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer, Melanie had taken to calling him “CWO”, and later just “Quo”. She would write him while he was in Afghanistan, and every letter began “Dear Quo”.
When he got back from Afghanistan that second time, Hayes had chosen to leave the service and concentrate on being a human again. He had seen a lot by then, allies tortured and hung from trees where they were left to bleed dry, women raped, some of them barely more than kids, and life after life ruined. He had come back Stateside to forget all that, to make the life with Melanie that he had fought for, where they could raise kids and grow old and not worry about all the crazy that existed beyond the confines of their cozy little house, with its clanking water heater and the mould in its basement. For all its faults, it had been their home.
Hayes remembered the day they had moved in, that he had carried Melanie over the threshold like newlyweds, even though they had been married for seven months by that point; how Melanie had laughed and called him soppy.
He stood in the hallway now, barely two years later, eyeing the frayed wallpaper that they had intended to strip, the aged wiring from which the chandelier hung. He had had two years to do all those things, to make it good for her, to make their tiny corner of the world perfect, but somehow life had kept getting in the way. And now it was too late, and the house was empty, its soul torn out when that falling news chopper had cut through Melanie’s body, Melanie’s and Ginnie’s, and now there was less life to get in the way.
Hayes closed the door behind him with a solid clunk. The world sealed outside, he pulled at his tie to loosen it as he strode to the living room with its creaky old windows that howled when the wind got up, and its wall-mounted television screen that seemed incongruous to everything else about the house.
Hayes sat on the sofa and, for the first time since Melanie had died, he let his body sag down, and he wept.
“Why were you always late?” Hayes muttered as the tears ran down his face. “Why couldn’t you have been on time, just this once?”
Hayes remained there for a long time, until the tears had dried on his face and the side lamp came on via its timer circuit, eating away at the darkness that had taken the room to its breast.
Then, Hayes rose from the sofa, climbed the stairs and went to bed, sleeping on the right hand side as though Melanie might come back to bed any minute.
Hayes dreamt of the helicopter crash in New York, the news chopper becoming a Black Hawk. Melanie was there, but before he could reach her the whole mess was dragged into the earth by the tendrils of Jade Shade.
A week passed in darkness, like a storm. Hayes could not tell you what he did in those days. He ate, sure, and he slept a lot, but the sleep was restless and unrewarding, and his mind kept replaying things he did not want to revisit.
Six days into whatever it was he was feeling, he got a call from work – a packing company where he was a supervisor – but his boss was understanding about him needing more time.
“Take as long as you need, Jon,” Jeff Puchenko said. “We got you covered.”
The phone call tripped something in Hayes’ head, and he went down into the basement for his toolbox, and got to work scraping that shitty wallpaper off the hallway wall. Manual work and the repetitive noise of the scraper soothed him, and the wall behind didn’t much care whether he did a good job or just beat up on it.
The next morning, the hallway wall looked bad, but it was a different kind of bad, and there were shreds of aged wallpaper satisfyingly strewn all over the floor. Hayes looked at the mess from the bottommost stair and nodded. He had done something about that wall at last; Melanie would have liked that.
After that, he felt ready to look in on the nursery they had painted and furnished. The door had been closed since Melanie’s death, and it had seemed to wait at the end of the upstairs hall like a beast poised to pounce. Hayes stood at the closed door, shutting his eyes and taking a breath, just like all those times he had tried a door in Afghanistan or Bolivia or any of those other anti-American hellholes he’d been posted to. In the SEALs they would have blown the door with a charge, or maybe just kicked it at the weak spot where the lock met the wood of the door. This time, Hayes just turned the doorknob and let out his breath as he opened his eyes, his body tensed for an explosion that never came.
Within, the room was the way they had left it. The child’s crib, white with bars like a tiny cage, chubby lions and giraffes and monkeys painted across its end in an animal parade. A mobile hung over the crib, rotating in the breath of wind from the opening door, spinning like the blades of a helicopter. Hayes tamped down the thought, reaching for the mobile and halting its twirling procession.
There was a chair in one corner of the room, a nursing chair with a plump cushion on it, upon which a crocheted blanket had been folded and stacked. Above and behind this, the drapes were partially drawn, pictures of those same stupid animals in their parade crisscrossing to and fro. Melanie had thought they were cute.
The bulb was bare, they still had not gotten around to choosing a lampshade, and there were tins of used paint stacked in one corner, along with a roller and a brush and a paint-streaked cloth.
Hayes took a deep breath, looking around the room, taking everything in. It was a wasted effort now, a space that never was, the way their Ginnie would never be. But maybe he should take the paint tins down to the basement, just to clean it up and do something.
The paint tins were in the basement where they could form a community with the other empties that had once awaited application on living room and bedroom and banisters. They were different colors, sure, but they’d hopefully figure a way to get along.
Hayes felt an emptiness burning inside him, a space that he had carved there for Melanie and their daughter, an excavation that he did not know how to fill again. He sat on their bed, staring at the door to the en suite, wondering what he would do now Melanie wasn’t here. Colleagues had died and he had attended their funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, but none of that felt like this. Then there had been a reason to carry on – a posting, an assignment, a mission. Now, he would go back to packing cases and filling out forms, and rotas to juggle and irate customers wondering where their stuff was or why it got broke, and that was not enough. That was not a mission.
Hayes stood and opened the wardrobe, reaching up behind the rail for the box he kept on the shelf there. He pulled it down, and sat back on the bed before opening the lid. Inside was his Glock, sleek lines and a matte black finish, the barrel not much longer than his outstretched hand. Beside the Glock was an ammo magazine. He took the magazine in his hand and loaded it, slot by slot, before ramming it home in the pistol’s grip. Then, Hayes looked at the pistol, wondering what came next.
He turned the pistol over until it faced him, and stared down the barrel. The soulless eye of the port stared back at him, waiting to unleash its deadly cargo.
“No,” Hayes murmured. That wasn’t the answer. That wasn’t what the SEALs had taught him. Giving up wasn’t in his nature.
So what then? What now?
• Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot, goes on sale on 11th August, available from all good bookshops – and you can order it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
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