Horror & Dark Fantasy

Claiming T-Mo

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Fiction

The Tiger

There is a bed, a wardrobe with a large oval mirror, a built-in cupboard to one side of the chimney breast. The boards are bare, stained black.

There is a greyish cast to everything. Croft guesses the room has not been used in quite some time.

“It’s not much, I’m afraid,” the woman says. Her name is Sandra. Symes has told him everyone including her husband calls her Sandy, but Croft has decided already that he will never do this, that it is ugly, that he likes Sandra better. “I’ve been meaning to paint it, but there hasn’t been time.”

She is too thin, he thinks, with scrawny hips and narrow little birdy hands. Her mousy hair, pulled back in a ponytail, has started to come free of its elastic band. Croft cannot help noticing how tired she looks.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “If you can let me have the paint, I’ll do it myself.”

“Oh,” she says. She seems flustered. “I suppose we could take something off the rent money. In exchange, I mean.”

“There’s no need,” Croft says. “I’d like to do it. Something to keep me out of mischief.” He smiles, hoping to give her reassurance, but she takes a step backwards, just a small one, but still a step, and Croft sees he has made a mistake already, that the word mischief isn’t funny, not from him, not now, not yet.

He will have to be more careful with what he says. He wonders if this is the way things will be for him from now on.

“Well, if you’re sure,” Sandra says. She glances at him quickly, then looks down at the floor. “It would brighten up the walls a bit, at least.”

She leaves him soon afterwards. Croft listens to her footsteps as she goes downstairs, past the entrance to the first floor flat where she and Angus McNiece and their young son live, and into the pub where she works ten hours each day behind the bar. Once he feels sure she won’t come back again, Croft lifts his luggage—a canvas holdall—from where he has placed it just inside the door and puts it down on the bed. As he tugs open the zip, an aroma arises, the scent of musty bedsheets and floor disinfectant, a smell he recognises instantly as the smell of the prison, a smell he has grown so used to that he would have said, if he’d been asked, that the prison didn’t have a smell at all.

No smell, and no texture. Being outside is like being spun inside a centrifuge. He keeps feeling it, the enthralling pressure on his ribs and abdomen, the quickfire jolts to his brain as he tries to accustom himself to the fact that he is once more his own private property. Just walking from the station to the pub—the long, straight rafter of Burnt Ash Road, the blasted concrete triangle that is Lee Green—gave him a feeling of exhilaration so strong, so bolt upright, it still buzzes in his veins like neat whisky, like vertigo.

The pub is called The Old Tiger’s Head. Croft has read it was once a coaching halt, a watering hole for soldiers on their way to the Battle of Waterloo. More recently it was a tram stop, where trams on their way down from Lewisham Junction would switch from the central conduit to overhead power. Photographs of Lee Green in the early 1900s show the place when it was still a village, a busy crossroads between Lewisham and Eltham, creased all along its corners, faded, precious.

He begins to remove his clothes and books from the canvas holdall. The clothes will go in the wardrobe. He tries the door to the built-in cupboard, but it appears to be locked. Croft wishes the woman, Sandra, had felt able to stay with him in the room for just a few minutes longer.

Why would she, though? What is he to her, other than the sixty pounds each week she will get from him in rent money?

Croft wonders what, if anything, she has heard or read or been told about his case.

The child, Rebecca Riding, lived less than two miles from the place where he is now standing. A decade has passed since she died. In an alternate world, she would now be a young woman. Instead, she went to pick flowers in Manor Park on a certain day, and that was that.

Abducted and raped, then murdered. Her name had joined the register of the lost.

Did Croft kill Rebecca Riding? The papers said he had, for a while they did anyway. He has served a ten-year prison sentence for her murder. Even now that the charges have been overturned, the time he has spent living as a guilty man is still a part of reality.

He is free, but is he truly innocent?

Croft cannot say yet. There are too many things about that day that he cannot remember.

• • • •

His first meeting with Symes consists mainly of Symes cross-examining him on the subject of how things are going.

“Did you manage to sign on okay?” As if penetrating the offices of the Lewisham DSS was a significant accomplishment, like shooting Niagara Falls in a barrel, or scaling Everest.

Perhaps for some it is. Croft thinks of the faces, the closed and hostile faces of free people who through their freedom were unpredictable and therefore threatening. In prison, you became used to people doing the same thing, day after day. Even insane actions came to make sense within that context. In the offices of the Lewisham DSS, even getting up to fetch a cup of water from the cooler might turn out to be a prelude to insurrection.

All the people he encounters make him nervous. He tells Symes everything is fine.

“It was lucky about the room,” he adds, as a sweetener. “I’m grateful to you.”

The room at The Old Tiger’s Head was Symes’s idea. He knows Angus McNiece, apparently. Croft dislikes Symes intensely without knowing why. In prison, you come to know a man’s crime by the scent he gives off, and to Croft, Richard Symes has about him the same moist and fuggy aroma as the pathetically scheming lowlifes who always sat together in the prison canteen because no one else would sit near them, suffering badly from acne and talking with their mouths full.

Symes wears a lavender-coloured, crew-necked jersey and loose brown corduroys. He looks like an art teacher.

That Symes has been assigned to him by the probation service to help him “re-orientate” seems to Croft like a joke that isn’t funny.

Symes is telling Croft about a group he runs, once a week at his home, for newly released offenders.

“It’s very informal,” Symes says. “I think you’d enjoy it.”

Offenders, Croft thinks. That’s what we are to people. We offend. The idea of being in Symes’s house is distasteful to him, but he is afraid that if he refuses, Symes will see it as a sign of maladjustment and use it against him.

Croft says yes, he would like to attend, of course. It would be good to meet people.

“Here’s my address,” Symes says. He writes it down on one of the scraps of paper that litter his desk and hands it across. “It’s in Forest Hill. Can you manage the bus?”

“I think so,” Croft says. For a moment, he imagines how good it would feel to punch Symes in the face, even though Croft isn’t used to fighting. He hasn’t hit anyone since he was fifteen and had a dust-up in the schoolyard with Roger Burke by name, Burke by nature. Croft has forgotten what it was about now, but everyone had cheered. He imagines the blood spurting from Symes’s nose the way it had from Roger Burke’s nose, the red coating the grooves of his knuckles, the outrage splayed across his face (how fucking dare you, you little turd), the pain and surprise.

Symes is finally getting ready to dismiss him.

“Tuesday at eight, then. Are you sure you don’t want me to email you directions?”

“There’s no need.” Croft isn’t online yet, anyway, but he doesn’t tell Symes that. “I’m sure I can find you.”

• • • •

“I’m just popping to Sainsbury’s,” Sandra says. “Can I fetch you anything?”

The supermarket is only across the road. Croft can see the car park from his window. Sandra knows Croft could easily go himself, if he needed to, but she asks anyway because she’s like that, kind, so different from her husband, McNiece, who hasn’t addressed a single word to Croft since he moved in.

Sandra has her boy with her, Alexander. He gazes around Croft’s room with widening eyes.

“You’re painting,” the boy says.

White, Sandra bought. A five-litre can of matt emulsion and a can of hi-shine gloss for the woodwork.

The smell of it: bright, chemical, clean, the scent of new. It reminds Croft of the smell of the fixative in his old darkroom.

“That’s right,” Croft says. “Do you like it?”

The boy stares at him, open-mouthed.

“Don’t bother Mr. Croft, Alex,” Sandra says. “He’s busy.”

“It’s no bother,” Croft says. “And it’s Dennis.” The presence of the boy in his room makes him more than ever certain that Sandra McNiece does not know what Croft was in prison for. If she knew, she would not have brought her son up here. If she knew, she would not have allowed Croft within a mile of the building.

She will know soon though, because someone will tell her, someone is bound to. Croft is surprised this hasn’t happened already. Once she knows, she will want to throw him out, though Croft has a feeling Angus McNiece won’t let her, he won’t want to lose the extra income.

“I could do with some tea bags,” he says to Sandra. “If it’s really no trouble.”

• • • •

“Were you really in prison?” the boy says. Alexander. He sits on the edge of Croft’s bed, swinging his legs back and forth as if he were sitting on a tree branch, somewhere high up, in Oxleas Woods perhaps (do kids still go there?), where it is said you can hear the ghosts of hanged highwaymen, galloping along the side of the Dover Road in the autumnal dusk.

“Yes,” Croft says. “I was. But I’m out now.”

“What were you in for?”

“Does your mother know you’re up here?” Croft replies. The idea that she might not know, that the boy is here in his room and that nobody has given their permission, makes Croft feel queasy. Or perhaps it is just the smell of the hardening gloss paint.

“Yes,” the boy says, though Croft can tell at once that he is lying, that the child has sneaked upstairs to see the prisoner, that in the boy’s mind this is the bravest and most daring feat he has ever performed. Croft wonders if Sandra realises she has given her son the same name as her own. Perhaps she does, perhaps the boy was named after her.

Alexander the Great.

Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander Pushkin.

In Russian, the shortened form of Alexander (and Alexandra) is not Alex, but Sasha. Pushkin was shot in a duel. He died two days later in some agony from a ruptured spleen. He was thirty-eight years old.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Croft says. The boy looks at him with scorn. How old is he, exactly? Six, seven, eight?

“What did you do before you were in prison?”

“I took photographs,” Croft says. “That was my job.”

“Would you take one of me?”

“I might,” Croft says. “But I don’t have a camera.”

The boy reminds him of someone, the lad who betrayed him perhaps. The boy is younger, of course, but he has the same bright knowingness, the same hopeful aura of trust as the lad who seemed to become his friend and then called him a murderer. Croft wonders what his Judas—Kip?—is doing now. Has he become a photographer himself, as he intended, or is he cooped up in some office, serving time?

• • • •

Croft never dreamed in prison. The air of the place was sterile, an imagic vacuum. The outside air is different, teeming with live bacteria, primed to blossom into monstrosities as soon as he sleeps. In his dreams of Rebecca Riding, he begins to remember the way her hair felt, under his hand, the soft jersey fabric of her vest and underpants.

“Will you take me home now?” she says. Croft always says yes, though when he wakes, sweating with horror, he can’t remember if this really happened or if it’s just in his dream. There’s cum on the bedsheet, still tacky. He steps out of bed and goes across to the window. Outside and below him, Lee Green lies hazy in the light of the streetlamps. In the hours between two and four, there is little traffic.

His legs are still shaking.

If he waits until five o’clock, a new day will begin.

Croft opens the window to let in the air, which is crisp, tinged with frost, the leading edge of autumn, easing itself inside him like a dagger. The orange, rakish light of Lee Green at night reflects itself back at him from the oval mirror on the front of the wardrobe.

Croft wishes he had a camera.

If he cannot have a camera, he wishes he could sleep.

• • • •

The bus to Forest Hill is the 122. They run every fifteen minutes, approximately. There’s a stop more or less opposite the pub, at the bottom end of Lee High Road. It’s the early part of the evening, after the main rush hour but still fairly busy. When Croft gets on, the bus is half empty, but after the stop at Lewisham Station, it’s almost full again.

Croft moves upstairs, to the top deck. He does not mind the bus being packed, as Symes seemed to think he would. The crush of people, the sheer weight of them, makes him feel less observed. None of them know who he is, or where he is going. Friends of his from before, police officers and journalists living north of the river (Queen’s Park and Kilburn, Ealing and Hammersmith, Camden Town) liked to joke about southeast London as a badlands, a no-man’s-land of scabby takeaways and boarded-up squats. Croft looks out at the criss-crossing streets, the lit-up intersections and slow-moving traffic queues. Curry houses and fish-and-chip shops and eight-till-late supermarkets, people returning from work, plonking themselves down in front of a cop show, cooking supper. All the things that, once you are removed from them, take on an aspect of the marvellous. He feels southeast London enfold him in the darkness like a tatty anorak, like an old army blanket. Khaki-coloured, smelling of spilled beer and antifreeze, benzene and tar, ripped in several places but still warm enough to save your life on a freezing night.

The sky is mauve, shading to indigo, shading to black, and as they pass through Honor Oak Park, Croft thinks of Steven Jepsom, who once lived not far from here, in a grubby basement flat on the Brownhill Road. It was Jepsom they arrested first, but a lack of real evidence meant they had to let him go again.

Whereas in Croft’s case, there were the photographs. It was the photographs, much more than Kip, that had testified against him.

Now, it seemed, Steven Jepsom had been Rebecca Riding’s killer all along.

Croft remembered Symes’s first visit to the prison, Symes telling him about Jepsom being re-arrested, almost a year before he, Croft, had been set free.

“It won’t be long now,” Symes had said. He gave Croft a look, and Croft thought it was almost as if he were trying to send him a signal of some kind, to claim the credit for Croft’s good luck.

“Is there new evidence, then?” Croft asked.

“Plenty. A new witness has come forward, apparently. It’s strange, how often that happens. There’s no time limit on the truth, Dennis.”

Croft dislikes Symes’s insistence on using his first name. Using a first name implies familiarity, or liking, and for Symes he feels neither. He has always tried not to call Symes anything.

He tries not to think of Steven Jepsom, who is now in prison instead of him.

A guilty man for an innocent one. Straight swap.

Richard Symes lives on Sydenham Park Road, a residential street leading off Dartmouth Road, where the station is, ten minutes’ walk from the bus stop at most. The house is unremarkable, a 1950s semi with an ancient Morris Minor parked in the drive. The porch lights are on. As he approaches the door, Croft thinks about turning around and heading back to the bus stop. There is no law that says he has to be here—the group is voluntary. But Symes won’t like it if he doesn’t attend. He will like it even less if he finds out that Croft turned up at his house and then went away again. He will see it as a mark against him, a sign of instability perhaps, an unwillingness to reintegrate himself into normal society. Could Symes report him for that? Perhaps.

That would mean more meetings, more reports, more conversations.

More time until he’s off Symes’s hook.

Croft decides it is better just to go through with it. It is an hour of his time, that is all, and he’s here now, anyway. It’s almost more trouble to leave than it is to stay.

He rings the bell. Someone comes to the door almost at once, a balding, fortyish man in a purple tank top and bottle-glass spectacles.

“You’re exactly on time,” he says. He steps aside to let Croft enter the hallway. Croft notices that, in spite of it being November and chilly, the man is wearing leather sandals, the kind Croft used to wear for school in the summer term and that used to be called Jesus sandals. Croft feels surprise that you can still buy them.

The Jesus man has a front tooth missing. The light of the hallway is sharp, bright orange. Croft follows the Jesus man along the corridor and through a door at the end. By contrast with the garish hallway, the room beyond is dim. The only illumination, such that it is, appears to be coming from a selection of low-wattage table lamps and alcove lights, making it difficult for Croft to find his bearings. He estimates that there are eight, perhaps ten people in the room, sitting in armchairs and on sofas. They fall silent as he enters. He looks around for Symes, but cannot see him.

“Our mentor is in the kitchen,” says the man in the sandals. “He’s making more drinks.” He has an odd way of speaking, not a lisp exactly, but something like it. Perhaps it’s his adenoids. Each time he opens his mouth, Croft finds himself focussing on the missing front tooth. Its absence makes the man look grotesquely young. Our mentor? Does he mean Symes? He guesses it’s just the man’s attempt at a joke.

A moment later, Symes himself appears. He is carrying a plastic tray, stacked with an assortment of mugs and glasses. Croft can smell blackcurrant juice, Ribena. For some reason this cloying scent, so reminiscent of children’s birthday parties, disturbs him.

“Dennis, good to see you,” Symes says. “Take this for me, would you please, Bryan?” He eases the tray into the hands of the Jesus man, who seems about to overbalance. “What are you drinking?”

“Do you have a beer?” Croft says. His eyes are on the Jesus man, who has recovered himself enough to place the laden tray on a low wooden bench. The thought of the Ribena or even coffee in this place fills him with an empty dread he cannot explain. A beer would at least be tolerable. It might even help.

“Coming right up,” Symes says. The baggy cords are gone and he is wearing jeans, teamed with a hooded sweatshirt, which has some sort of band logo on the front. His wrists protrude awkwardly from the too-short arms.

He’s dressed himself up as a kid, Croft thinks, and the idea, like the thought of the Ribena, is for some reason awful. Symes tells him to find himself a seat, but all the sofas and armchairs appear to be taken. In the end he finds an upright dining chair close to the door. The chair’s single cushion slides about uncomfortably on the hard wooden seat. Croft looks around. He sees there are more people in the room than he thought at first, fifteen or twenty of them at least, many of them now talking quietly amongst themselves. Immediately opposite him, an obese woman in a brightly coloured smock dress lolls in a chintz-covered armchair. She has shoulder-length, lank-looking hair. Her forehead is shiny with grease, or perhaps it is sweat.

Her small hands lie crossed in her lap. The hands, which are surprisingly pretty, are adorned with rings. The woman smiles at him nervously. Quite unexpectedly, Croft feels a rush of pity for her, a sensation more intense than any he has experienced since leaving the prison. He had not expected to see women here.

“Hi,” Croft says. He wonders if the woman can understand him, even. There is a blankness in her eyes, and Croft wonders if she’s on drugs, not street drugs but prescription medicine, Valium or Prozac or Ativan. There was a guy Croft knew in prison who was always on about how the prescription meds—the bennies, as he called them—were deadlier than heroin.

“They eat your fucking mind, man.” Fourboys, his name was, Douglas Fourboys, eight years for arson. Croft had liked him better than anyone, mainly because of the books he read, which he didn’t mind lending to Croft, once he had finished them. He had an enthusiasm for Russian literature, Dostoevsky especially. Douglas Fourboys was a lifelong Marxist, but at some point during the six months leading up to Croft’s release, he had found God. He claimed he’d been sent the gift of prophecy, though Croft suspected this probably had more to do with the dope Fourboys’s girlfriend occasionally managed to smuggle past the security than with any genuine aptitude for seeing the future.

“You’ve got to be careful, man,” Fourboys had said to him, just a couple of days before his release. “They’re waiting for you out there, I can see them, circling like sharks.”

Fourboys had definitely been stoned when he said that. He’d reached out and clutched Croft’s hand, then tilted to one side and fallen asleep. Croft misses Fourboys; he is the only person from inside that he does miss. He supposes he should visit him.

“We know who you are,” the woman says suddenly. “You’re going to help us speak with the master. We’ve seen your pictures.” She smiles, her thin lips slick with spittle. Her words send a chill through Croft, though there is no real meaning to them that he can fathom. The woman is obviously vulnerable, mentally challenged. Clearly she needs protection. Croft feels anger at Symes for allowing her to be here unsupervised.

Suddenly Symes is there, standing behind him. He pushes something cold into Croft’s hand, and Croft sees that it’s a bottle of Budweiser. The thought of the beer entering his mouth makes Croft start salivating. He raises the bottle to his lips. The liquid is icy, familiar, heavenly. Croft feels numbness settle over him, an almost-contentment. Whatever is happening here need not concern him. It is only an hour.

“I see you’ve met Ashley,” Symes says. He squats down next to the armchair, leaning in towards the fat woman and taking her hand. He presses his fingers into the flesh of her wrist as if to restrain her, as if she is something dangerous that needs to be managed. The woman shifts slightly in her seat, and Croft sees that her eyes, which appeared so dull, are now bright and alive. He cannot decide if it is wariness he sees in them, or cunning.

She doesn’t like Symes, though, this seems clear to him. Join the club.

“Ashley is my wife,” Symes says. He grins into the face of the woman, a smile of such transparent artifice it is as if both he and she are playing a practical joke at Croft’s expense.

Suddenly, in the overheated room, Croft feels chilled to the bone.

Is Symes serious? Snatches of words and images play themselves across his brain like a series of film stills: Symes’s grin, the woman’s slack features, the sticky word wife.

You’re wondering if they fuck, Croft thinks. Is that all it is, though? He takes another swig of the beer and the thoughts recede.

“Would you excuse me, just for a moment?” Symes says. “There’s a phone call I need to make. I’ll be right back.” He stands and walks away. The woman in the armchair looks after him for a second, then strains forward in her seat and puts her hand on Croft’s knee. Croft can smell her breath, a sickening combination of peppermints and something else that might be tuna fish.

“You know him,” the woman says, and for a moment Croft imagines she’s talking about Symes, though the words that follow make his supposition seem impossible. “Even though you don’t know it yet, you know him. He’ll steep all his children in agony. Not just the agony of knowing him, but true pain.” She tightens her grip on his knee, and Croft realises that she is strong, much stronger than she appears, or than he would have believed.

The mad are always strong, Croft thinks. He does not know how he knows this, but he knows it is true.

“Who are you talking about?” Croft says quietly. “Who is the master?”

The woman leans towards him. Her face is now so close to his that her features seem blurred, and Croft thinks for a confused moment that she is about to kiss him.

He sees himself straddling her. Her mounded flesh is pale as rice pudding.

“He is the tiger,” she says. She grins, and her grin is like Symes’s grin, only, just like the Jesus man, she has a tooth missing. The sight of the missing tooth fills him with horror.

“I need to get out of here,” he says. “I mean, I need to use the bathroom.” The room feels unbearably hot suddenly, stifling with the scent of unwashed bodies. He places his half-drunk beer on the coffee table, and as he makes his way back to the hallway, he finds himself wondering if the woman will take advantage of his absence to taste the alcohol. He imagines her thin lips, clamping themselves around the mouth of the bottle in a wet, round “o.”

He can hear Symes’s voice, talking softly off in another room somewhere, but Croft ignores it. The staircase leads upwards to a square landing, with four doors leading off it, all of them closed. Croft tries one at random, not through any logical process of deduction but because it is closest. By a stroke of luck, the room behind it turns out to be the bathroom after all. Croft steps hurriedly inside and locks the door. He sits down on the closed toilet seat, covering his face with both hands. The room feels like it’s rocking, slowly, back and forth, like a ship in a swell, though Croft knows this is only the beer, which he is unused to. He has barely touched a drop of alcohol since leaving prison. He presses his fingertips against his eyelids, savouring the darkness. After a minute or so, he opens his eyes again and stands up. He lifts the toilet seat, pisses in an arcing gush into the avocado toilet bowl. He washes his hands at the sink. His face, in the mirror above, looks pale and slightly dazed but otherwise normal. It is only when he goes out on the landing again that he sees the photographs.

There are six of them in all. They are arranged in two groups of three, mounted on the blank area of wall at the far end of the landing and directly opposite the bathroom door. He had his back to them before, Croft realises, which is why he didn’t see them when he first came upstairs. He recognises them at once. He thinks it would be impossible for an artist not to recognise his own work. One of the photos is of Murphy, or rather Murphy’s hands, secured behind his back with a twist of barbed wire. The Kennington case. Four of the other photos are also work shots, all photos he took for the Met in the course of his twenty-year career as a forensic photographer.

Lilian Beckworth, a car crash victim.

The Hallam Crescent flat, gutted by fire.

The underpass near Nunhead Station where the Cobb kid was found.

The sixth photo, not a work one, is of Rebecca Riding. The police believed it had been taken less than thirty minutes before her death.

Croft told his lawyer and the police that the photos they found at his house were not taken by him. His camera had been stolen, he said, and then later returned, placed on his front doorstep, wrapped carefully in a Tesco bag. Whoever left it there had not rung the bell. When Croft later developed the film, he found pictures he remembered taking at various sites around Lewisham and Manor Park. He also found the photos of Rebecca Riding.

“The photos are good though, aren’t they, Dennis?” the cop kept saying. “They’re no amateur job. You’re a professional. You remember taking these, surely?”

Croft said he didn’t, and kept saying it. In the end, he could hardly remember, one way or the other.

It was true that they were very fine photographs. He’d spent some time working on them in his darkroom. The excellence of the results surprised even him.

Croft turns away from the photographs and goes back downstairs. In the stuffy living room, they are all waiting, and for a moment, as he returns to his place near the doorway, Croft gets the feeling that he has been lured there on false pretences. He brushes the thought away, sits down on the uncomfortable wooden chair. The hour passes, and at the end of it, Croft cannot remember a single thing that has been said. People are standing, going out into the hallway, pulling on coats. As Croft moves to join them, he feels a hand on his arm. It is Richard Symes.

“Some of us have clubbed together to buy you this,” he says. “Your work means a great deal to us here. We’re hoping this will help you find your feet again.”

He hands Croft a package, a small but heavy something in a red-and-white bag. Croft knows without having to be told that it contains a camera. The gift is so unexpected that he cannot speak. Symes is smiling but it looks like a snarl, and finally it comes to Croft that he has been drugged, that this is what has been wrong all along, it would account for everything.

Drugs in the Bud.

Bennies in the beer.

It’s the only thing that makes sense. Fourboys was right.

Outside, he feels better. The air is cold, bright as a knife. The sensations of nausea and unreality begin to recede. Croft walks smartly away, away from the house, along Sydenham Park Road and all the way to the junction with Dartmouth Road. He stands there, watching the traffic, wondering how much of the past hour was actually real.

• • • •

The camera is a Canon, a top-of-the-range digital. It is not a hobby camera. Whoever chose it knew exactly what they were getting.

He has given up asking himself why this has been done for him. Having the camera in his hands is like coming alive again. He remembers the dream he had before he was in prison, his idea of giving up the police stuff and going freelance.

He has been taking photographs of the boy, Alexander. They are in the old Leegate shopping precinct just over the road. The boy is in a t-shirt and clean jeans, it is all perfectly harmless. When Croft returns the boy to the pub afterwards, Sandra is behind the bar. There is a complicated bruise on her upper arm, three blotches in a line, like careless fingerprints.

Croft has a bank account now, with his dole money in. He has filled in a couple of application forms for jobs. One is for a cleaning job with Lewisham Council, the other is for a shelf-stacking job at Sainsbury’s. He can afford to buy a drink at the bar.

“Why is the pub called The Old Tiger’s Head?” he asks Sandra McNiece.

“It’s from when it was a coaching inn,” says Sandra. “Tiger used to be a slang word, for footman. Because of the bright costumes they wore.”

“Is that right?” Croft says. Croft briefly imagines a life in which he asks Sandra McNiece to run away with him. They will travel to Scotland, to Ireland, wherever she wants. He will take photos and the boy will go to school. He does not dare to take the daydream any further, but it is sweet, all the same, it is overwhelming.

“That’s boring,” Alex says. “I think it’s because they once found a tiger’s head inside the wardrobe. A mad king killed him and brought him to London, all the way from India.”

Sandra laughs and ruffles his hair. “What funny ideas boys have,” she says. “What are you doing in here, anyway? You should be upstairs.”

• • • •

Croft buys a small folding table from the junk shop at the end of Lee Road that sells used furniture. He places objects on the table—an empty milk carton, two apples, a Robinson’s jam jar filled with old pennies he found at the back of the wardrobe—and photographs them, sometimes singly, sometimes in different combinations. He places the table in front of the wardrobe, so the objects are shown reflected in the oval mirror. Croft experiments with taking shots that omit the objects themselves and show only their reflections. At first glance, they look like any of the other photos Croft has taken of the objects on the table. They’re not, though; they’re pictures of nothing. Croft finds this idea compelling. He remembers how when Douglas Fourboys was stoned he became terrified of mirrors and refused to go near them. “There are demons on the other side, you know,” he said. “They’re looking for a way through.”

“A way through what?”

“Into our world. Mirrors are weak spots in the fabric of reality. Borges knew it, so did Lovecraft. You have to be careful.”

“You don’t really believe this stuff, do you?” Croft knew he shouldn’t encourage Fourboys, but he couldn’t help it; his stories were so entertaining.

“I believe some of it,” Fourboys said. “You would too, if you knew what I know. There are people who are trying to help the demons to break through. They believe in the rule of chaos, of enlightenment through pain, you know, like the stuff in Hellraiser and in that French film, Martyrs. They call themselves Satan’s Tigers.” Fourboys took a coin out of his pocket and began swivelling it back and forth between his fingers. “If you knew how many of those sickos were on the loose, it would freak you out.”

The next time the boy comes to visit him in his room, Croft shows him how to set up a shot, then lets him take some photographs of the Robinson’s jam jar. Afterwards, Croft takes some photos of Alex’s reflection. He has him sit on the edge of the bed in front of the mirror.

“Try and make yourself small,” Croft says. “Pretend you’re sitting inside a cupboard, or in a very cramped space.”

The boy lifts both his feet up on to the duvet and then hugs his knees. In the mirror shots, he looks pale, paler than he does in real life. It’s as if the mirror has drained away some of his colour.

“What’s in there?” Alex says. He’s staring at the chimney alcove, at the built-in cupboard that Croft has been unable to open.

“I don’t know,” Croft says. “It’s locked.”

“Perhaps it’s treasure,” says the boy.

“If you can find out where the key is, we can have a look.”

“I know what it’ll be.” Alex grins, and Croft sees he has a tooth missing. “It’ll be the tiger’s head.” He throws himself backwards on the bed and makes a growling noise. “I bet that’s where they’ve hidden it.”

“Isn’t it time for your tea yet?” Croft says.

“I’m scared of tigers,” the boy says. “If they come on the TV, I have to switch off.”

That night, Croft dreams of Richard Symes. There has been a break-in at Symes’s house and there are cops everywhere. They’re trying to work out if any valuables have been stolen.

Symes’s throat has been cut.

There is no sign of Ashley Symes, or anyone else.

• • • •

At his next meeting with Symes, Croft is able to tell him he’s been offered the shelf-stacking job. Symes seems pleased.

“When do you start?” he says.

“Next Monday.” He wonders if Symes will say anything to him about a burglary at his home, but he doesn’t. Instead, Symes asks him how he’s getting on with his new camera.

“It’s great to use,” Croft says. “The best I’ve had.”

“Why don’t you bring some of your work with you to show us when you come on Tuesday? I know Ashley would love that. Bring the boy with you, too, if you like.”

How does Symes know about Alex? For a moment, Croft feels panic begin to rise up inside him. Then he remembers Symes knows the McNieces, that it was Symes who found him his room. “I couldn’t,” Croft says. “He’s only eight. His mother wouldn’t allow it.”

“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. It would be an adventure for him. All boys love adventures.”

Croft says he’ll think about it. He thinks about himself and Alex, walking down the road like father and son. On his way back to London Bridge station, Croft buys Alex a present from one of the gift shops jammed in under the railway arches near Borough Market, a brightly coloured clockwork tiger with a large, looped key in its side. It is made of tin plate, MADE IN CHINA.

The journey from London Bridge to Lee takes seventeen minutes. As he mounts the stairs to his room, he meets Sandra coming down.

“I’ve just been trying to find you,” she says. “I found this. Alex said you were looking for it.”

She holds something out to him, and Croft sees it is a key. “It’s for that cupboard in the chimney alcove,” she says. “We’ve not opened it since we’ve been here, so God knows what’s in there. Just chuck out anything you don’t need.”

“That’s very good of you,” Croft says. He searches her face, for tiredness or bruises, anything he can hate McNiece with, but today he finds nothing. He thinks about asking her to come up for a coffee but is worried that his offer might be misconstrued. He closes his fingers around the key. Its hard, irregular shape forms a core of iron at the heart of his hand.

It is some time before he opens the cupboard. He tells himself this is because he has things to do, but in reality it is because he is afraid of what he might find inside. Late afternoon shadows pour out of the oval mirror and rush to hide themselves in the corners and beneath the bed. As the room begins to fill up with darkness, Croft finds he can already imagine the stuffed tiger’s head, the mummified, shrunken body of a child, the jam jar full of flies or human teeth. When he finally opens the cupboard it is empty. The inside smells faintly sour, an aroma Croft quickly recognises as very old wallpaper paste. The wallpaper inside the cupboard is a faded green colour. It is peeling away from the walls, and in one place right at the back it has fallen down completely. The wooden panel behind is cracked, and when Croft puts his fingers over the gap he can feel a faint susurrus of air, a thin breeze, trapped between the wooden back of the cupboard and the interior brickwork.

Croft puts his whole head inside the cupboard and presses his opened mouth to the draughty hole. He tastes brick dust, cool air, the smell of damp earth and old pennies.

He closes his eyes and then breathes in. The cold, metallic air tastes delicious and somehow rare, like the air inside a cave. He exhales, pushing his own air back through the gap, and it is if he and the building are breathing together, slowly in and out. It is then that he feels the thing pass into him, something old that has been waiting in the building’s foundations, in the ancient sewer tunnels beneath the street, or somewhere deeper down even than that. Its face is a hideous ruin, and as Croft takes it into himself, he is at last granted the knowledge he has been fumbling for, the truth of who he is and what he has done.

Strange lights flicker across the backs of his closed eyelids, yellow stripes, like the markings on the metal tiger he bought for the boy near Borough Market.

You are ready now, says a voice inside his head. Croft realises it is the voice of Ashley Symes.

• • • •

And in the end, it is easy. Both McNieces are downstairs, working the bar. Alex is alone in the living room of the first floor flat. The carpet is a battleground, strewn with Transformers toys and model soldiers. The tin-plate tiger is surrounded by aggressive forces. The TV is playing quietly in the background.

When Croft sticks his head around the door and asks if Alex would like to come on an assignment with him, the boy says yes at once. The boy knows the word assignment has to do with photography because Croft has told him so.

“Where are we going?” Alex says. It is getting on towards his bedtime, but the unexpectedness of what they are doing has filled him with energy.

Croft knows that unless he is very unlucky, the boy’s absence will not be noticed for at least three hours.

“To visit some people I know,” Croft says. “They keep a tiger in their back garden.”

The boy’s eyes grow large.

“You’re joking me,” he says.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

The boy laughs delightedly, and Croft takes his hand. The journey passes uneventfully. The boy seems captivated by every small thing—the pale mist rising up from the streets, the lit-up shop fronts, the endlessly streaming car headlights, yellow as cats’ eyes.

The only glances they encounter seem benign.

When they arrive at Symes’s house, Alex rushes up the driveway to the front door and rings the bell.

“And who is this young man?” Symes says, bending down.

“Dennis says you’ve got a tiger, but I don’t believe him,” says the child. He is beginning to flag now, Croft senses, just a little. He is overexcited. The slightest thing could have him in tears.

“We’ll have to have a look, then, won’t we?” Symes says. He places a hand on the boy’s head. Croft steps forward out of the shadows and towards the door.

Once he is inside, he knows, it will begin. He and Ashley Symes will kill the child. The rest will watch.

“You have done well,” Symes says to Croft, quietly. “This won’t take long.”

“Will there be cookies?” Alex says.

Croft stands still. He can feel the thing moving inside him, twisting in his guts like a cancer.

He wants to vomit. Croft gasps for breath, sucking in the blunt, smoky air, the scent of macadam, of the hushed, damp trees at the roadsides and spreading along all the railway lines of southeast London. The fleet rails humming with life, an antidote to ruin.

He smells the timeswept, irredeemable city and it is like waking up.

Above him, bright stars throw up their hands in surprise.

“Come here to me, Sasha,” Croft says. He is amazed at how steady his voice sounds. “There’s no time now. We have to go.”

“But the tiger,” the child whimpers. He looks relieved.

“There are no tigers here,” Croft says. “Mr. Symes was joking. Come on.”

The boy’s hand is once again in his and he grips it tightly.

“Will we be home soon?” says the boy.

“I hope so,” Croft replies. “We should be, if a bus comes quickly.”

He does not look back.

Nina Allan

Nina Allan is a novelist and critic. Her story cycle on the theme of parallel universes, The Silver Wind, was awarded the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire, and her second novel The Rift won the British Science Fiction Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her novelette recounting the story of an abortive mission to Mars, “The Art of Space Travel”, was a Hugo finalist in 2017. Her most recent novel The Dollmaker will be published in the US by Other Press in October 2019. She lives and works on the Isle of Bute, off the west coast of Scotland.