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Reaper’s Rose

Unpleasant? No, I wouldn’t say that. In fact, quite the opposite. You know the smell of pot? Well of course you do, you’re a policeman . . . No, I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s just that in your line of work you’re bound to have come across it, that’s all. What I’m trying to say is that this smells a bit like pot but without that horrible sweatiness; you know, it has a sort of oily, herbal smell, less acrid and a lot more floral and, well, nicer than pot. Sorry, I know I’m doing a terrible job of describing this, but I don’t know what else to say. Really, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever smelt.

Yes, pretty much all my life. Well, near as I can recall. The first time, I thought someone had walked past me wearing expensive perfume, the most wonderful perfume in the world. I remember looking around, trying to work out who was responsible, whether she was in front of me or behind. I was desperate not to let her get away without at least seeing who was wearing such a gorgeous scent. She had to be beautiful. Only a beautiful woman could wear perfume like this. But the platform was crowded and everyone was in a hurry and I couldn’t even decide which direction to look in. And then, of course, it happened.

That’s right. Moorgate, in London. The time was 8:38 am. I can say that because I remember looking up at the station clock and thinking that the train had come in three minutes late. Funny the things that stay with you, the little things; I suppose because then you don’t have to dwell on the bigger ones.

Yes, I was thirteen, we all were. We travelled in to school together every morning, the five of us, always on the same train. Tim and me were the first to get on, then Mick would join us two stops later and finally Alan and John at the next.

You know the worst part, what I’ve always been a little ashamed of? Immediately afterwards, all I could think about was whether the woman wearing the perfume had survived. Not my friends. Not the people I saw every day and hung out with, but this woman I’d never met, never even seen, only smelled—someone I’m now pretty certain didn’t even exist. I’ve often thought about that, about what a heartless prick I must have been as a kid.

No, there was no warning, none at all. Apart from the smell, of course, but I didn’t know what it was then. Everything happened so quickly. Don’t believe all this malarkey about time stretching and things happening in slow motion, about people’s lives flashing before their eyes. There was none of that, not for me. Just this violent bang, incredibly loud, startlingly loud, and then a shrieking noise that set my teeth on edge—like claws running down a blackboard or a thousand cats yowling inside a metal drum. At first, no one realised what it was; we didn’t know about the derailment, only that something was wrong. My immediate thought was a bomb, that terrorists had struck—not ISIS or Al-Qaeda, not back then, it was the IRA we were all worried about. Everyone froze for a split second, and then went from immobile shock to animated panic in the space of a heartbeat. People started running, shoving. I lost sight of the others, all except for John. I remember seeing him just before the carriage beside us leapt into the air, back end first, and came crashing down on top of us.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t get out. There were people lying on me, lots of people, and they weren’t moving. It was claustrophobic and my ears were ringing. There was screaming and somebody was crying, but it all seemed distant, muffled, like the sound of a television in the next room when the door’s shut. I pushed and kicked and yelled, trying to break free, and eventually I did, through the bodies and the wreckage and the shattered glass. Someone helped me to my feet, a woman in a cream jacket with blood down the left arm. I never did find out her name.

A battlefield, that’s the only thing I can compare it to, a scene from the blitz in an old war movie, you know, after the air raid. Bodies, lots of bodies, and people standing there, just looking stunned. Wreckage from two trains, a collapsed wall, and smoke and lots of dust—I didn’t see any fire, though I read afterwards that there had been . . .

No, it doesn’t work like that. The smell had gone. I only smell it immediately before the deaths, never afterwards.

Very lucky, yeah—not a scratch. Three of my best friends dead and Tim hospitalised for a month, and there was me with a dirty shirt and ringing in my ears.

Maybe. I mean, I always think of Moorgate as being the first time because that’s the first instance I can be certain of, but even then it seemed familiar, as if I’d smelt it somewhere before . . . I didn’t have a name for it then, not until after the second time, at Duxford.

Yes, Duxford, the Air Show. My Aunt Anne took me and my cousin, Robert. She’d made sausage rolls and boiled eggs. I’ve never eaten so many eggs. I remember it was a sunny day, really warm, and the sky was clear. We stood watching these old World War II fighters enact a mock duel, the growl of their engines drifting down to us from above, when suddenly there was that smell again, that rich, evocative smell.

This time it was different from Moorgate because I could see what was happening as it happened, not just piece things together afterwards. One of the planes sort of hiccupped and turned oddly, and a split second later you could actually hear the engine stall. Then it dipped, nose down, and started to plummet towards the ground—not directly at us but close enough. People had time to react, to think of getting away, but not enough time to actually do so. Aunty Anne grabbed my hand and started pulling us along: me on one side of her and Robert on the other, but we hadn’t gone more than a few steps when the explosion came. Amazing how big it was, too, given that this was such a small plane. Momentum, I suppose, plus the fuel.

Chunks of wreckage and earth started flying past us and then something slapped me in the back—shockwave, I suppose—blowing me off my feet. I was winded, and for a moment I just lay there, making sure I was still alive, not quite believing that I could be. Then I sat up, slowly, feeling bruised but otherwise okay. I still held Aunty Anne’s hand . . . but her arm ended somewhere around the elbow.

Of course I was shocked—bloody horrified! I shook my hand free and screamed. I lost it for a while, and was still screaming when they found me . . . Sometimes even now, when I wake up in the morning, I can still feel the pressure of her fingers on the back of my hand.

Did you know that someone’s posted footage of the crash on YouTube? Only a minute or so, the best bits . . . It shouldn’t surprise me, really. This was an air show, after all. Lots of people had cameras—no mobile phones back then. I watched it once, the clip I mean. There’s something almost artistic about the way the debris arcs in all directions from this orange bloom of fire. I didn’t feel a thing when I saw it, as if this had nothing to do with me, as if I hadn’t even been there and had just heard about it from someone else afterwards.

It was only after Duxford that I started to associate the smell with death. It had a name now, too: Reaper’s Rose. Fitting, don’t you think? Who knew that death could smell so sweet?

No, I’ve never told anyone about this before. Why would I? Who’s going to believe me? Besides, no one’s put things together before now, connected me to the disasters, the fact that I’ve survived each time and walked away unscathed.

Yes, a few other occasions. None of them were as dramatic as those two, though, at least not until last night.

I’ve tried, of course I have. Even took up yoga to see if it would help. I’d sit there and clear my mind, doing my damnedest to conjure up the smell, to remember exactly what it’s like, but I can’t. It only ever comes to me immediately before someone dies. That’s why I had such a problem describing it to you earlier. I can’t quite remember, not until I smell it again. It’s unmistakeable though, once I do.

You’re right, not simply death; it’s more than that. When my dad passed away peacefully in hospital, for example, I didn’t smell a thing. Well, that smell you always get in hospitals—disinfectant or antibiotic spray or whatever they use—but not Reaper’s Rose. Violent death, that’s when the smell comes. Imminent. Violent. Death.

Yes, exactly like last night.

No, of course I wasn’t expecting that. I never do. Wouldn’t have gone there if I had.

I don’t know . . . A gas main, terrorists? You tell me, you’re the detective. I’m just a victim here, I didn’t cause this. I was visiting my mum after her operation, that’s all. Glad she’s okay, more relieved than I can say.

Yes, I did hear about Doctor Singh. Terrible . . . awful. I was actually talking to her when it happened, you know. She seemed really nice and explained things so clearly . . . I know Mum liked her a lot. They say she’s the reason I’m still alive, that her body took the brunt of the blast, shielding me. I didn’t see much, just this bright flash of light coming from behind Doctor Singh, and then there was a deafening crack and heat washed over me . . . Apparently, I blacked out for a few minutes—the first time that’s happened. When I came to, I was lying amongst the rubble. There was a body close by, two feet in black shoes emerging from beneath the debris. Maybe that was Dr Singh. I don’t know; I didn’t want to look. Devastation and dust were all around, just like at Moorgate, just like Duxford.

What? No. What could I have said? “Doctor Singh, run for your life, I can smell roses” . . . ? It’s not as if I get loads of warning, not as if I could have cleared the hospital or anything even if someone had been prepared to listen, which they wouldn’t have.

Seconds, that’s all. Not even minutes. I get a strong whiff of Reaper’s Rose and I know that whoever is close to me at that precise moment is about to die. I may not even know what will kill them, except that it’s bound to be horrible . . . and violent. How do you convince anyone of something like that in a handful of seconds? Tell me, please, because I would genuinely like to know. What could I say to make someone believe that I’m not mad and that they really do have only seconds left to live?

Yes, it honestly does smell a bit like roses, but more powerful, with maybe a hint of lavender in there too; but it’s so, so much more than that. Imagine the most potent bits of every arousing aroma you’ve ever encountered, distilled and concentrated into one scent. A pheromone frenzy, the most sensuous smell imaginable: heady and intoxicating. It comes in through my nose and spreads out to enflame every cell of my body with anticipation, excitement . . . Bizarrely, I feel more alert, more alive for smelling it. This is the scent that every perfumier has been striving to perfect for centuries without ever getting it right, without even coming close most of the time. I’ve sometimes wondered if maybe Coco Chanel could smell Reaper’s Rose too, whether this is what inspired her and drove her on.

What? Yes, I suppose that is a better description than the one I gave you at the start of the interview, but that’s hardly surprising, is it? After all, I couldn’t smell it then.

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Ian Whates

Ian Whates lives in a quiet Cambridgeshire village with his partner, Helen, and Honey, a manic cocker spaniel. Ian is the author of six novels to date, most recently Pelquin’s Comet in April 2015. He is also the author of the City of 100 Rows trilogy (Angry Robot), and the Noise duology (Solaris). Sixty-odd of his short stories have appeared in various venues, two of which were shortlisted for BSFA Awards, and his second collection Growing Pains (PS Publishing) appeared in 2013. Ian has edited some two dozen anthologies, one of which, Solaris Rising 2, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2014. He has served a term as Overseas Director of SFWA and spent five years as chairman the BSFA. He remains a director of the latter organisation. In his spare time, Ian runs multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press, which he founded by accident in 2006.