Wednesday, August 06, 2014

An Excerpt from The Witness by E J Henry

Omnimystery News: An Excerpt courtesy of E J Henry
The Witness by E J Henry

We are delighted to welcome novelist E J Henry to Omnimystery News today.

E J's debut novel of suspense is The Witness (Roaring Silence; July 2014 ebook), a book described as "a filmic novel with sharp pacing and clear visuals, hopefully combining tension and control to provide a compelling story in the thriller/mystery genre."

We are pleased to introduce you to this book with an excerpt from it, the first three chapters. (E J will be with us again in early September, when we'll have the opportunity to discuss it in more detail.)

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The Witness by E J Henry

CHAPTER ONE
2014, Sussex, England

THE OLD MAN SAT QUIETLY IN THE high-backed green leather chair to the left of the open fire, as the embers glowed gently in the vast cast-iron grate. The chair was worn and faded with the passage of time and constant use. Much of his last five years had been spent in this chair, reflecting on the past and on whether his guest would ever receive his letter and respond to the invitation.
   His guest had at last responded and was now waiting patiently in the shadows, sitting silently on the comfortable brown sofa. The only illumination in the room came from those subdued embers. It was a warm night but cold was now the old man's constant companion as his life drew close to its end.
  The ornate mantelpiece clock chimed the half hour. His guest's fingers pushed back the cuff on his left wrist: 11.04. The hands on the wristwatch never moved. Time stood still for the expensive Patek Philippe watch and always would do so. It had belonged to his father and he would never contemplate taking it to a jeweller for repair.
  The old man stirred at the sound and leant his withered frame towards the fire. He stirred the dying coals with a slim black poker, grim determination etched into his gaunt features. The claw like hand trembled with the exertion as this simple task required a monumental effort. Satisfied with his work he grunted and fell back into the chair, exhaling slowly. His guest noticed how heavily the old man's skin had been mottled by age, the outline of every bone prominent in the faint firelight.
  The old man took a sip of heavily watered whisky and replaced the glass with an unsteady hand onto the elaborately carved small wooden side table. After minutes of silence he began. The waiting was over and his guest was now alert and expectant.
  "Life is a strange journey." He coughed quietly at the effort of speaking those few words. The old rheumy eyes stared into the middle distance, his body immobile and wasted in the ill-fitting, traditional grey suit. He did not wear the suit often nowadays, but this was an important occasion. His guest said nothing in reply. He had waited a long time for this moment. A few more minutes or even hours was of no significance. He was patient beyond his young years.
  The voice, weak and slow, cut through his guest's thoughts. "We each journey along the path of life. For some it is long and for others surprisingly short. Some journey alone, some with partners, children or friends, but at the end of the day the reality is stark. We may be joined on the journey some of the way, but ultimately we all start and finish it alone. In absolute isolation."
  His head drooped forward until the chin rested gently on his sunken chest. The once aquiline features had been cruelly ravaged by the passing years and illness. After several more minutes, his guest coughed politely and the old man came awake with a start. He cast his head around the room until he found his bearings again. On noticing his guest he smiled weakly, almost apologetically.
  "Some people walk the path by careful, steady steps. Others rush on, headstrong and confident. Many keep their heads down, seeing nothing, whilst some take a moment to stop, think, and look around." The clock on the mantelpiece chimed nine. He waited for it to finish before continuing his monologue.
  "The path can be as straight as a Roman road or as meandering as a country lane. Whatever route we take, it always comes to an end. I suspect I am now close to that end." He smiled to himself, eyes fixed on the fire, and then turned to view his guest, a flicker of animation and energy now running through the frail body. He raised a hand and pointed at him.
  "You want me to tell you about him." It was a statement rather than a question but his guest nodded, emphasising the movement so that the weak eyes could register his action. He ignored the trembling hand, which was still pointing at him. "It was a strange journey for him. He bolted down the path with arrogance, but with no real direction or purpose." The old man laughed quietly to himself, lost in his reflections. It was a faint, gentle sound, followed by a slow shaking of the head. "But one day he was checked on that path by events that changed his direction completely and his whole perception of the journey."
  For the first time in many hours his guest spoke. His voice was soft and cultured. "I would welcome all you can tell me, Father Cuthbert. As you will appreciate, his life is very much a mystery to me." The old man nodded slowly. His guest remained impassive and looked around the room whilst he waited. He noticed, not for the first time, the heavy, dark velvet curtains drawn tightly closed across the large, stone mullioned window. The room was stiflingly hot and the atmosphere oppressive. The faint smoke from the fire did little to mask the odour of damp and decay.
  The old man's hand dropped gently back into his lap, but his gaze stayed on the young face in the shadows. "As you wish. You, above all, have the right to know." For the next two hours the old man recounted his memories of George Fellows to his guest. The manner of the telling was laborious and often ponderous, but his guest remained totally transfixed throughout.
  As the clock chimed 11, the old man lay back in his chair and sighed. Even in the dim light his guest could see that he had become markedly pale in appearance. Within seconds his fatigue was replaced by agitation, his face showing a mixture of confusion and pain. His guest rose uncertainly from the sofa, as the old man clutched at his chest with his right hand. With his left hand he reached out for a small bottle of pills on the side table. His grip failed him and the bottle fell to the floor. His guest approached the chair and retrieved the fallen bottle. He laid a hand on the old man's withered shoulder.
  "What's wrong, Father Cuthbert?"
  The old man's breathing was becoming laboured and his face was etched in agony. "Please," he gasped, pointing to the pill bottle in his guest's hand. "Place one of those tablets under my tongue." His guest looked down at the label stuck to the brown bottle, clearly a prescription drug from its appearance: Glyceryl Trinitrate — to be taken when needed.
  The old man leaned forwards in the chair, both hands clasped firmly to his chest. His eyes were closed and his breathing ragged. His guest unscrewed the cap from the small bottle and tipped a tablet into his open palm. The old man opened his eyes and stared in confusion as his guest began to cry and then let the tablet fall from his hand onto the floor.
  The guest retrieved a short letter from his own pocket, read the faded ink slowly and then placed it on the fire. He resumed his seat and watched as the flames flickered into life for a brief moment. Thirty minutes later there was a soft knock at the door. The middle-aged housekeeper entered. She smiled gently at the guest and looked caringly at the old man lying back in his chair.
  "He's been still the last half hour or so. I didn't want to disturb him."
  The housekeeper was apologetic as she led the guest through the dim hallway towards the front door. "Thank you for coming. He rarely receives visitors but I'm afraid he tires very easily." The guest nodded in understanding as the housekeeper opened the front door. He stooped slightly as he went through the low doorway and out into the gentle summer night. He had much on his mind.
  He called to the housekeeper as he walked down the path. "I'll call again tomorrow if that's okay?" She smiled in reply and watched him go down the path to the gate.
  The visit of the guest was a strange occurrence. She had been looking after Father Cuthbert for five years now, ever since he had retired and moved down from Oxford to his old cottage. In all that time he had rarely had visitors and never an unannounced person such as this one. The guest had come out of nowhere but had been made very welcome by Father Cuthbert, who had never spoken to her of an intended visit. Strangely, the visitor never offered his name on arrival and she had never thought to ask him.
  The housekeeper went into the kitchen and tidied up for the morning, leaving Father Cuthbert sleeping in the front room. Thirty minutes or so later she went to wake her charge and help him up to bed. She could not wake him.
   "Doctor Harris. I am sorry to disturb you at this hour, but you are needed." The housekeeper talked to the Doctor for a short time and then sat down in the front room, waiting and listening. The house was in total silence as she regarded the old man in his chair.
  
  Five minutes later she answered a soft knock at the door and invited Doctor Harris into the hallway. She could smell the whisky on his breath as he brushed past her. "Praised be Jesus Christ," muttered the Doctor.
  "For ever. Amen," she replied automatically and led him into the front room.
  The housekeeper waited patiently by the door until the Doctor had finished his cursory checks on the immobile body. Little examination was needed. She knew the answer before it came. Doctor Harris straightened up from leaning over the figure in the chair and looked at her compassionately.
  "Yes. Dead I'm afraid. His heart had to give up eventually." He reached for the pill bottle on the table and picked it up, but did not notice the discarded tablet on the floor in the dim light. "It looks as though he has been taking these, but they only help the symptoms, you know."
  The housekeeper said nothing in reply. There was nothing to be said. The only person she cared about, or really knew, had been taken from her. The Doctor wrote out the medical certificate of cause of death: ischaemic heart disease and chronic bronchitis.
  He handed the certificate to her. "I'll call the undertakers for you, my dear." She smiled faintly in appreciation and the Doctor left without a further word.
  The housekeeper stood alone in the front room, looking down at the body in the chair that had once been her charge. She knew that it was wrong of her not to see the Doctor from the house but she could not leave Father Cuthbert. She shook her head in sadness and sat down on the sofa. She would stay with him that night. He should not be left alone, even in death. Tears welled up in her eyes and she sobbed gently until sleep came to her, many hours later, as the birds began to sing in the new dawn.

CHAPTER TWO
1993, Sussex, England

George Fellows was an angry young man but today he had excelled himself. The drive down from London to West Sussex had taken far too long and young Ben, who had been strapped into the car seat behind him, had screamed constantly in his ear. He had tried to drown out the noise with the radio but Katy had not helped, turning down the volume and then changing the station to Radio 4. George had switched the station back to Radio 1 and they had continued this duel for many miles until he had given up and turned the radio off completely. The ill-tempered atmosphere had been fuelled thereafter by Katy constantly telling him to slow down and brake when he did not need to.
  At last they arrived at their destination. Impressive brass plaques on each of the stone pillars supporting the enormous wrought iron entrance gates, declared their destination: The Immaculate Heart Nursing Home. George turned the car through the gates and deliberately accelerated up the driveway, spinning the wheels of his beloved BMW M3 and scattering the well-groomed gravel in all directions. Katy sighed, but did not take the bait.
  The nursing home came into view as they rounded a curve in the driveway. It was a mock gothic Victorian building of vast proportions, nestled amongst finely manicured lawns, mature trees and vivid flowerbeds. George swung the car to the left just before the green and gold signpost identifying the visitors' car park. Katy could not hold back any longer.
  "Slow down, George. This is a nursing home not a race track." He ignored her as he braked sharply and pulled up next to one of several parked Range Rovers, their pristine paintwork sparkling in the late morning sunshine.
  They had come to visit one of Katy's aging aunts and then go on to stay with her parents for a short break, away from London. He had been against the trip from the start and, in particular, this part of it. Aunt Eugene was a devout Catholic in a long line of Catholics in Katy's vast and important family. In George's opinion, a private Catholic nursing home was a claustrophobic environment, smothered by religion and death. It was certainly no place for young Ben, or himself, for that matter.
  George slammed his car door and left Katy to struggle to get Ben out of the rear seat. He smiled in grim satisfaction and lit a cigarette as she attempted to move around in the small space. Although he walked a few paces away from the car he could still hear Katy's scolding words as she attempted to unclip Ben from the child seat.
  "This car is totally impractical, George. I don't know why we couldn't have come down in the Volvo? At least that has four doors and a sensible boot." He knew why but did not bother to reply. Her car drove like a biscuit tin on wheels. At least the M3 had some driver appeal. It was his pride and joy and the only major thing in his life that he had bought with his own money, apart from his beautiful restored Riva up on Lake Windermere. Everything else, from the flat in London to the holidays in exotic locations, was provided for by Katy's money, or rather her family's money.
  "Come on, George. Put that thing out please." Katy had slammed the car door and was now striding towards the main entrance. She had Ben's hand in a tight grip and pulled him along as he dragged his smart new shoes in the gravel. George inhaled the smoke deeply and then dropped his cigarette onto the ground. It was a small but satisfying act of rebellion. He caught up with Katy and Ben as they reached the stone arched entrance way and held open the large oak and glass door for them to enter.
  "Boom! Boom!" shouted Ben, slapping his hands against the door as they walked in.
  "I wish he would stop doing that," muttered Katy in embarrassment. She looked around furtively, to ensure no one had witnessed such a ridiculous act.
  George laughed at his son and patted him on the head. "Oh come on, Katy. He's only a kid. He thinks he can open doors and destroy things with one blast of his superhero hands. There's nothing wrong with imagination."
  She ignored him and focused on a middle-aged nurse coming towards them through the vast, stone flagged hall. Katy's face turned from resentment to serene contentment in an instant. George tousled Ben's hair and listened politely but without any interest to the conversation between them. He was standing next to Katy, but could have been outside the building for all it mattered. George was, as usual, an inactive participant at best, or possibly just a bystander, when it came to discussions concerning her family.
  "Miss Bircham remains stable and surprisingly strong, Mrs Fellows." Katy nodded in appreciation. Miss Bircham had been in the nursing home now for over three years, always stable but slowly following that path to the inevitable end. She still remained absolutely resolute in her faith and confidence in the life to come. George was easily distracted by an old boy in a wheelchair being pushed by a nun through the hallway. He was wrapped in an old-fashioned black overcoat with a strange, dark fur collar, in spite of the hot weather. He nodded in greeting and the old man smiled in return. George fought hard to suppress a grin. His withered head was almost vulture-like, sticking out of the big collar on an impossibly thin neck.
  "Your father was down here only last weekend. What a caring gentleman; so considerate." The nurse smiled at the recent memory and Katy seemed to bask in the reflected glory for a moment. "Shall I show you up to her rooms?" Katy agreed and they followed the nurse up the sweeping stone staircase to the first-floor landing. Katy held Ben's hand tightly as he jumped from step to step. George followed them at a discreet distance.
  Once they reached the first floor they left the staircase and went through a set of swing doors into a long corridor, guarded by a young nurse sitting at an antique-style mahogany desk. She was in deep conversation with a tall, thin priest dressed in a formal black cassock. The conversation stopped as the visiting party approached. The young nurse rose to greet them and waited expectantly for an introduction.
  "This is Nurse Wentworth. She will look after you from here." The nurses smiled at each other and to Katy, who smiled at them. George held back, unable to replicate their happy expressions. "They are here to see Miss Bircham, Nurse." The older nurse then turned on her heels and bowed her head in George's direction slightly, as she retreated through the swing doors. George stepped forward to join the group and held Ben by the shoulders. He was fidgeting and ready to kick off at any moment.
  Nurse Wentworth spoke to them in hushed tones and nodded towards the priest. "Father Thomas is here to visit an elderly resident who is close to the end, I'm afraid." Father Thomas smiled weakly but said nothing. As George studied him he realised that he was even thinner than he had first thought. He had a shock of longish black hair, greying at the temples, which swept back from a high forehead. Movement drew George to his left hand, in which the priest loosely held some rosary beads. With obvious skill borne out of years of practice he slid the beads through his fingers in a constant, rhythmic motion. He was possibly ten years or so older than George, but looked at least 20 years older due to the old style, formal clerical dress and his sombre expression.
  "I'll take you down to see Miss Bircham." The nurse set off down the corridor and the small group followed obediently. George cast a quick look back at Father Thomas. His head was bowed and his lips appeared to be moving in silent prayer. The corridor was long and wide, covered in rich dark blue carpeting. Its walls were panelled and painted a light greyish blue. Each door they passed was made of highly polished mahogany and firmly closed. Nurse Wentworth saw George looking at them as they passed and answered the question before it was put.
  "We close the doors as a mark of respect when a resident is close to the end." George nodded in reply. There seemed little point in saying anything.
  They paused further down the corridor and entered a door on the left hand side, which led them into a small, light sitting room. These walls were pastel green topped by a high, corniced ceiling. Nurse Wentworth knocked politely on an internal door to the left and they entered the inner sanctum of Miss Eugene Bircham. The room was large and bathed in the golden afternoon sunlight. It shone gently through the three windows set in the outside wall, to their right. Miss Bircham was sitting up in a hospital-style bed in the middle of the room, her small head propped up on several large pillows. She seemed to be sleeping.
  "Your niece and her son are here to see you Miss Bircham." There was no mention of George. In this family he did not seem to exist as an individual. At best he was Katy's husband or the father of her child. George noticed that Ben was starting to get restless. Nurse Wentworth looked from him to George and stopped on her way out. "Father Thomas will be administering the Rites a few doors away so I would ask that you keep your son in here, under control, please."
  George smiled at her, although he was seething inside at her patronising and judgmental attitude. "Of course."
  "Hello, Auntie. How are you?" Katy was sweetness itself as she pulled Ben towards the bed to present him to Miss Bircham. She sat down in the comfortable chair to the side of the bed and held Ben out in front of her. George took a standing position a few feet away. The nurse flashed a frosty smile at George, smiled at Katy and her aunt, and then quietly left the room, closing the door firmly but gently behind her.
  Miss Bircham stirred and looked towards Katy. Her eyes focused on her niece and her face took on a pained expression. "I've not been well at all, you know, Katherine. At my age there is not much to live for." The old lady shook her bird-like head and clasped her hands over the large crucifix which hung from a heavy gold chain around her neck. Whether this was a pious act or an involuntary action, George had no idea and no real interest. She seemed pretty strong to him. He was no doctor but there seemed to be good colour to her skin and the eyes were bright, if a little calculating in appearance.
  Katy nodded. "Look, Auntie. I've brought Ben to see you." Katy gently pushed Ben to the very edge of the bed and the old lady placed a hand on top of his wayward blond hair.
  She studied Ben for a moment and then addressed Katy loudly. "He needs a hair cut, Katherine, or he'll start to look like a girl. Not good for a boy to look like a girl."
  Ben snatched his head away and thumped the bed with his little fists. "Boom, boom." He was only three years old but had the voice of someone twice his age. The room seemed to resonate with his shouts.
  "Sorry, Auntie. It's his new thing." Katy shook her head apologetically and yanked at Ben's sleeve. "He thinks he can blow things up with his hands."
  The door opened and Nurse Wentworth stuck her head through the gap. She looked directly at George. "Could I ask, again, that you control your child? We cannot have such noise at this time." Once more she smiled serenely at the other occupants and then closed the door.
  Aunt Eugene ignored her. "That's more like it for a boy, Katherine. A good, strong voice." She nodded encouragingly at Ben and then looked up at George, who had maintained his distance. She was about to say something when the door opened again, this time after a politely quiet knock. A kindly-looking middle-aged lady came into the room pushing a tea trolley. Ben took this as his chance to try out a new explosion technique. He pulled away from Katy and before George could stop him he had smashed both hands into the side of the tea trolley, sending cups and saucers flying, to the dismay of the domestic and the obvious anger of Katy.
  Nurse Wentworth was back at the open door. George could not help but smile at the ridiculous situation. He pre-empted her sour expression. "I'll take him outside to run off some energy." Katy nodded at George with a mixture of cold fury and embarrassment. Before Aunt Eugene or Nurse Wentworth could comment on the incident, George led his son out of the door, mumbling an apology on the way to the hapless lady who was picking up the fallen crockery.

CHAPTER THREE

George and his son were through the swing doors in seconds and took the stairs two at a time. He held Ben easily under his right arm. The boy was shouting in delight as they headed for the main doors. George felt like shouting too. They were both glad to be leaving the oppressive building and oblivious to the reproving looks they received from the staff on their way to the front entrance. The warm afternoon sunshine beckoned beyond the gloomy hallway.
  George stepped out into the blazing, bright light and let Ben down onto his own feet. The sun and the fresh air lifted his spirits immediately. He was unsure why nursing homes always smelt obnoxious, however much you paid them. Dismissing the random thought he took in his surroundings. The grounds in front of the building were mainly laid to lawn. It was a huge space of manicured green giving Ben plenty of room to run about and deplete some of his great reserves of energy. George watched as Ben chased a butterfly around the grass, shouting as he did so. His irritations drifted away as he went to sit down on a nearby bench where he could still observe his son.
  George produced his cigarettes and lit one. "Can I have one of those please?" George turned around in surprise, looking for the source of the voice. He instantly recognised the old man from the hallway, now hunched in his wheelchair in the shadows behind him, sheltered by a large yew hedge.
  "Of course." George passed the packet to him and watched as the old man extracted a cigarette with long, fine fingers. They were emaciated with age but still dexterous. George viewed him with interest. He was clearly very old and infirm. His skin lacked colour but his blue eyes, although sunken into his emaciated face, had a strange penetrating fervour that actually took George by surprise. George lit the cigarette for his new companion and turned to check on Ben. He was still happily running around. The butterfly had gone but his new friend seemed to be a bee.
  "I've not seen you here before. Is this your first visit?" George turned around to answer the question. The old man was happily puffing on the cigarette, watching George through those clear blue eyes.
  "Yes. First time."
  The old man shifted slightly in the wheelchair. "Don't stay too long. This place has secrets you know. Serpents!" He coughed and waited for a response to this radical statement. George said nothing and smoked his cigarette.
  After failing to elicit a response the old man continued. "Who are you here to see?" His physical appearance belied his voice, which was surprisingly strong and deep.
  "Miss Bircham. Do you know her?" George was happy to pass some time with the old chap and put off his return to Miss Bircham's rooms.
  "I do. I know of, or knew, all of them here. Been here a while you see. Almost five years now." There was silence between them as George watched Ben and the old man watched George, enjoying his cigarette with illicit pleasure. "Watch out for the crow." George turned again and looked at him in mild amusement.
  "I will." He was unsure what to make of him or the statement. He was undecided on whether the old resident was fully cogent or a little confused. Either way he was mildly amusing and had lightened the day for George.
  "He is a real serpent. He comes in his old-fashioned garb to see his specials, you know. Not the parish priest for them. Nasty, thin little crow. One of God's soldiers." The old man shook his head in disgust.
  George was intrigued. "Do you mean the thin priest in the old-fashioned cassock? I saw him a few minutes ago in the building."
  The old man nodded and spoke with some disdain. "Nobody wears that garb today except for formal services." He shook his head again.
  George thought, irreverently, how was it possible for such a thin neck to support a head making those rapid movements? Suppressing a smile, which would have been at the old man's expense, he thought it was only right to fill him in with what little knowledge he had.
  "I think he is administering the Last Rites to a resident close to death." Seeing the grimace on the old man's face, George was unsure if he should have mentioned death. It could be a sensitive subject for one closer to it than he was. He had clearly misread the situation, as the old man snorted whilst he continued to puff on his cigarette.
  "He is more an angel of death."
  George turned to see that Ben was about to wander off too far towards the entrance gates. Muttering an apology over his shoulder he ran after Ben and retrieved him yards away from the entrance gates, just as a car was about to drive in. Ben struggled against his capture and shouted loudly in protest.
  As they came back towards the bench George noticed that the old man had gone. He could just make out the hunched figure in his wheelchair being pushed by one of the nurses through some French doors on the ground floor of the main building.
  Reluctantly, George led Ben back to the main entrance and entered just behind a youngish man in a plain suit, carrying a large briefcase. He turned at the sound of Ben's protests. "You've got your hands full," he laughed, gesturing to Ben still held tightly in George's grip. He continued to struggle and shout as they crossed the hallway. George smiled apologetically in response and ignored the frowns and looks of disgust from the staff. He followed the visitor up the stairs and through the swing doors. The visitor nodded a greeting to Nurse Wentworth and then entered the third room down the hallway on the right, closing the door behind him.
  George knew that Ben needed the toilet. He turned to the nurse to enquire about the nearest one, but Nurse Wentworth misunderstood his enquiring look and spoke before he was able to ask. "That's Doctor Harris. He has come to join Father Thomas. Poor Mr Renshaw is very close to the end now. You must ensure there is no further disturbance. There must be no more noise. That door must remain closed at all times until matters are concluded. Those are the express instructions of Father Thomas."
  George nodded with a look of sympathy, although inwardly he continued to seethe over her patronising manner. He politely enquired as to the whereabouts of the toilets. A few minutes later, Ben was finished and they were back in the corridor. George noticed with relief that Nurse Wentworth had left her station.
   As he bent down to pick up a fallen sheet of paper from the desk Ben ran ahead and then, "Boom, boom", he pushed open one of the closed bedroom doors down the corridor on the right.
  George rushed after him and stepped inside the room. He was embarrassed and ready to mutter an apology when he stopped short, unable to register clearly what he was seeing. An old man of nondescript appearance lay motionless in the bed, covers drawn up to his waist. The curtains to the room were almost closed so that the light was subdued, but he could clearly discern two other people in there. One was the Doctor, standing to the left of the bed. He seemed to be in the process of removing a syringe from the patient's emaciated right arm. Ben's unannounced entrance had clearly distracted him as his head was now turned in the direction of the door and his gaze moved up from Ben up to George.
  The other occupant was the priest, Father Thomas. He was on the opposite side of the bed. There was an open black bag next to him on the thin bed cover. The thing that George found most difficult to comprehend was that he seemed to be pressing down on a purple pillow, which covered the mouth and nose of the patient. The whole scene was so surreal to George that he was speechless. Before he could properly focus on the scene before him, Ben distracted George's attention, as he started to cry. George pulled Ben towards him and hugged him to his legs. The child was clearly able to pick up the mood in the room, even if he did not understand what was happening.
  The priest transfixed George. It was not so much what he was doing, which was shocking enough, but his whole demeanour. His head was turned in George's direction but, notwithstanding George's presence, he kept the pressure on the pillow. His manner was one of calm detachment, as if smothering the patient, which he was clearly doing, was a perfectly normal thing to do. His eyes, however, betrayed a much deeper and stronger emotion. They showed pure, unadulterated hatred.
  George continued to focus on the eyes, as the reality of the situation became clearer to him. He had to act but what should he do? Shout for assistance or try to physically restrain the priest? It was then that George sensed but did not really register the Doctor moving away from the bed towards him.
  "What are you doing?" George directed the question to the priest and was surprised at the tremor in his voice. The priest ignored him and continued to apply pressure to the pillow. Ben continued to sob quietly into George's right thigh.
  Torn between comforting Ben and moving to stop the priest, George was undecided and stationary as the Doctor came close and jabbed the syringe needle into George's left bicep. The sharp prick surprised him. He turned to confront the Doctor and then looked down in horror as he felt and then saw the syringe pump an unknown liquid into his arm.
  The Doctor held on to his arm and spoke to the priest, without taking his eyes away from George. "Hold the child, Father. Hold the child." George began to panic and held tightly onto Ben, who started to wail loudly.
  Strangely, as the Doctor pushed the door closed with his foot George did not think to struggle. He could feel a warmish, all over body tingling sensation and a strange sense of relaxation. George registered the priest approaching them and the Doctor leaning away to place the syringe into his medical bag, but he was a spectator to these events. The tingling coursed through George in waves and he did not even object as the priest took Ben away from him and held him tight to his black cassock.
  Ben's crying was noticeable but did not concern George. It seemed to be coming from a distance, the voice muffled and somehow remote. He looked across at the Doctor but did not see him. Standing next to him was an angel of dramatic beauty and grace. George was completely overawed by the vision but instantly horrified as it transformed into a vicious serpent, green spittle oozing from its large yellow fangs.
  George screamed out loud but heard no noise as the serpent reared up in front of him. It must have been at least seven feet tall. He tried to move but found that he could not. His legs would not obey his mind. He felt himself collapsing onto the floor but went right through it and into another world below. It was a strange place of red, barren rock and black sky. As he hit the hard ground he tasted acrid dust in his mouth. George tried to roll over but could not move. It was then that his angel came to his rescue and held him close. It was a warm, comforting embrace.
  Through closed eyes he could hear distant voices. "Let me take the child, Father." George could decipher that it was a female voice but had no idea where it was coming from or who the child was. He was now back at his parents' home. The house was the same as ever, bright red brick with a small green garden gate. He made to open the gate but stepped back. The gate was searing hot to the touch. As he looked on, with detached curiosity, the house began to melt and fall in on itself. Out of the molten bricks and blazing furniture there arose a vivid blue tree, metallic in appearance, with bright silver buds, which opened before his eyes into large orange leaves.
  "Let me help you, Doctor. What's happened?" This voice was male but coming from a great distance. It sounded as if it was carried through a tunnel by the echoing quality of the words.
  George's attention was brought back to the tree. There was a single eye on each orange leaf. George counted hundreds of eyes. They were all focused on him, unblinking and identical. He then felt his weight being lifted and turned to see that his angel was carrying him. He felt safe again. Strong but gentle hands took him away from the tree and into a bright white corridor.
  "He seems to have fainted nurse. Have you a room we can take him to?" He thought this was the voice of a doctor. Why he believed that and who the doctor was, George could not comprehend. It perplexed him but he did not worry about it in the slightest.
  The soft hands were changing now. George looked down in grim fascination as each finger grew scales, dripping with red slime. Long sharp talons protruded from the end of each digit. He could feel warm breath on his face that turned hotter and hotter. The skin on his cheeks and nose began to melt under the heat from the breath. George felt real danger and feared for his life. He tried to scream for help but could not catch his breath. The heat was enveloping him.
  Then he was falling, down and down into a deep, black void. He looked to his left as he fell and could make out the figure of a strange man, long black hair and a black cassock. Why was a priest with him? He tried to grab him but failed, as the priest spun out of control and then evaporated.
  "Lay him down gently, please." It was the voice of the doctor again. But who was this doctor and where was he now? George looked up and saw a man holding out his hand towards him. He grabbed for the hand but it slipped through his fingers and he fell further and further, gaining speed as he went.
  George closed his eyes. He was dying. Time and sense evaporated and then became nothing. He was at one with the darkness. A part of it with no free thought, no will and no independent sensation.

— ♦ —

E J Henry is a pseudonym. There are reasons behind using one, but nothing mysterious, he assures us!

For more information about the author, please visit his website at EJHenry.co.uk.

— ♦ —

The Witness by E J Henry

The Witness
E J Henry
A Novel of Suspense

Life can be strange … just one unexpected event … can change everything …

By sheer chance George Fellows witnesses the bizarre murder of a former priest and then … in the short space of seven days, this normal man loses everything: his family, his career and ultimately his life.

21 years later the final confessions of a dying priest shed light on the circumstances surrounding his death. Who will take revenge and why?

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