Mark Bilsborough - Winner

Competition: WN003/First line poetry competition

Mark Bilsborough, from South Green in Kent, is a member of the Maidstone-based group The Write Idea and mainly writes science fiction

Mark Bilsborough

The Perfect House

I got there just after the police. Henderson didn’t look pleased to see me.
‘What are you doing here, Bone. We’ve only just got the call on this one.’ He curled his lip for a studied, distasteful effect. The classic New Jersey cop pose. I knew he was faking. ‘Suspiciously quick to get to the scene, some people might think.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Henderson. I was passing, saw your car. Thought there might be something interesting so I stopped. That’s what reporters are supposed to do.’
‘Still masquerading as a reporter?’ Henderson chuckled. ‘Well you’re here now so you might as well come in. As far as the blue line at least. Just don’t get in the way.’
Actually I had been passing. I often used this quiet, suburban street as a short cut on my way downtown. I’d always admired the big house on the corner. It was tall and imposing, a clapboard design from the days when that style was new, standing in mature, well-kept gardens. There was always someone working the grounds, too, which told me there was money there, and every now and then I’d catch a glimpse of a good looking car in the driveway. Bentley Continental, I think, or some other rich European sedan. I noticed the man of the house get out of the back of the car once when I was passing. The same guy I could now see sitting on his own on a stoop at the side of the house, looking miserable.
I held out my hand.
‘Emmett Bone. Gazette. Sorry about your loss.’ I was winging it. I had no idea what had happened and Henderson wasn’t about to tell me. The look on the guy’s face told me all I needed to know though.
‘Gazette. I’m with the Gazette.’
He put his head in his hands. ‘I’ve got nothing to say to the press.’
I’d heard that before, many times. Usually when someone had something to hide. I looked around. The cops were leaving him alone, so they didn’t think he was guilty of anything. Me? I wasn’t so sure.
‘You’ve got to talk to someone, right?’ I tried. ‘I mean, with something this bad.’ I could see Henderson looking over at me, frowning. He started to approach. I changed tack. ‘I can help.’
‘It’s too late for that.’ He said, after a pause. But then he made some sort of decision and surprised me. ‘You want a drink? Whiskey in the drawing room.’ It wasn’t noon yet but hey, I’m a reporter. He clearly needed a drink and didn’t want to do it alone. I took advantage of the opportunity.
Henderson stopped and called over. ‘Hey. Bone. Crime scene! Remember the blue line!’ The guy waved him away impatiently and beckoned me inside. I winked at Henderson as I slipped from view.
The guy poured a couple of very large measures and gestured to some leather armchairs. We were in some sort of wood lined room with books everywhere. He didn’t look much like a reader and I guessed most of them had never been opened.
‘Wanna talk about it?’ I asked. I should have asked him his name, or something straightforward. But I was never a conventional reporter, and this didn’t look like a conventional story.
He took a long sip. ‘I found her. Face down in the swimming pool. But I guess you know that.’
I nodded, because that’s what he expected me to do. I waited and let him carry on. He drained his glass first, though, and reached for the decanter.
‘She was so very beautiful.’
I coughed. ‘Any idea how it happened?’
He shook his head. ‘The police say it looks like murder. Apparently there is bruising.’ A pause, then. ‘I loved her, you know. But you can’t write that.’
I waited for him to say some more, but he’d gone quiet. ‘Mind if I take a look around?’ I asked. He waved his hand, distractedly. I left him reaching for yet another glass.
The house was perfect. More bedrooms than I could count, all immaculate, all filled with the kind of expensive stuff which looks as though it’s been handed down for generations. I poked into a couple of the rooms and whistled quietly. This was the kind of house people dreamed about. I made my way downstairs and looked for the action.
Sure enough, the cops were all over the swimming pool and there she was, lying face up next to the diving board. She’d been pretty, that was for sure, and she wasn’t long dead so if anything she just looked kind of startled. I wondered if there were any kids.
Mostly the cops were too intent on their work to notice me so I surreptitiously took a couple of pics of my own and slid out before Henderson could throw me out, stopping only to pick an envelope off the pile by the door.
It was addressed to Cyrus Russell. I wondered why I hadn’t recognised him. Russell was up and coming, the man of the moment. He had it all. Good looks, business fortune, beautiful wife. Word was that he was pretty much assured of the Republican nomination, and this was a Republican town. That explained why Henderson had let him back into the crime scene and let me, as his guest, go with him.
But it didn’t explain why the police were leaving him alone. If this was murder one, then surely he was the prime suspect. I needed facts so I called Henderson. He wasn’t any more friendly on the phone. But he didn’t hang up.
‘I can’t tell you much, Bone. Wait for the press conference. The only reason I’m talking to you at all is that this story is too big to keep quiet.’
‘One question. Is Russell a suspect?’
Henderson laughed. ‘Press conference, Bone. Two o’clock’
The whole town was there. I nodded to some of the guys I knew and tried not to get too distracted by the attractive redhead on the front row. Deep down I knew she was probably as mean and ruthless as her fingernails were red and long. She was a reporter, after all.
Then Henderson walked in, all bustling efficiency. He was flanked by a couple of his officers, I noticed Russell wasn’t there. I put two and two together and pictured him in a holding cell somewhere.
Henderson looked straight at me as he delivered his pre-prepared script. Most of it I knew already and I had the pictures to prove it. He was vague about just about everything, of course. But then he got to the bit about the murderer:
‘We have someone in custody at the moment, and are confident this murder investigation will be wrapped up quickly.’
The redhead got there first with the question I’d asked before.
‘Is Mr Russell a suspect?’
Henderson shook his head. ‘Not at this time.’ And with that he gathered his papers and left, ignoring the questions that every reporter, including me, was shouting after him.
I figured my best chance now was to hang around the police station. I didn’t have to wait for long.
Russell turned when he saw me. Before I could say anything he stopped me.
‘I haven’t got anything to say to you. I’m just here visiting my wife, ok?’
His wife? But the cops had just fished his wife out of the swimming pool, hadn’t they? I sighed. I was going to have to do this the slow way.
She was out on bail the very next day. By that afternoon she was in the gym. Not her usual one of course, but the one the same fitness studio owned out of town. I bet she figured no one else would think of that.
I approached her in the coffee line after her workout. At first I thought she was going to run, but she looked exhausted, as if she didn’t care any more. I took a chance and bought her a cappuccino. She took it and gestured for me to sit.
‘You going to ask me if I did it?’ she asked before I’d even got to the introductions.
‘The police seem to think so.’
‘The police are idiots.’
‘Who was she?’
‘Nobody. She was nobody.’ Her face was hard and she wouldn’t look me in the eye. Then, abruptly, she picked up her bag and left.
I only saw her once more. It was a couple of days later, and I’d gone back up to the house in the hope of getting some more detail for the story. I figured they’d be more talkative by now and I could ask all the questions I’d wanted to in the first place. But this wasn’t the right time either.
She was loading her bags into the trunk of an SUV. She’d obviously been crying.
They found her in a hotel room the next morning, hanging from a light fitting.

*  *  *

‘Did she do it?’ I asked Henderson, after the dust had settled. We were in a bar and we weren’t cop and reporter for a while, just old friends catching up.
Henderson shrugged. ‘She had everything, the perfect house, the big car, the successful husband.’
I took a long swig of my beer. ‘But she didn’t really have him, right?’
‘Right. The woman in the pool was his mistress – write that and I’ll make sure you don’t write anything else, by the way – and we think she couldn’t stand the thought of someone else with her man. Jealousy’s a terrible thing.’
‘And the suicide?’
‘He threw her out. He knew she’d done it, despite her denials. And when she couldn’t have him...’
He left the rest of the sentence unsaid. We drained our glasses, waved goodbye and went back to being cop and reporter.
I reflected on that house. The perfect house. And I reflected on that golden couple in their perfect marriage. Maybe not so perfect after all.

Judges Comments

There is a piece of advice that recurs in many writing how-to books: A short story is not the same as a short novel. What this means is that the shape, structure and story arc in a novel are very different from those of a short story. However, there are parallels between the two, and the short story can often provide inspiration and ideas for a full-length work of fiction.
It is interesting to look at how this works in The Perfect House, the short story by Mark Bilsborough that won first prize in our competition with jealousy as its theme.
This story uses the four characters that are usually the backbone of the full-length whodunit: the investigator, the policeman, the suspect and the murder victim.
In this case the investigator is Emmett Bone. He is a hard-nosed, persistent, investigative journalist, and he is also the viewpoint character. The cop is Henderson; he doesn’t play an active role in the development of the plot and we don’t get to know him.
The suspect at the start is Cyrus Russell. He is our suspect because we are seeing the story from Bone’s viewpoint, and he believes that Russell is number one suspect. Bone also assumes the victim is Russell’s wife. As an investigative journalist, Bone has to catch up with the facts of the case and so events are revealed only gradually to him – and to us.
But Mark then introduces a twist: the murder victim is not the wife but the mistress. And so, not only does the victim change, but so does the suspect, who emerges to be Russell’s wife.
There are enough of the required characters, and sufficient plot twists and changes, here to form the basis of a full-length murder story. Of course, in a full-length version we would have more and deeper characterisation. We would probably see what is happening in the characters’ private lives away from the crime investigation and would learn how their private life motivated their public actions. It is not just that the novelist has more words to play with than the short story writer, it is because the depth of characterisation and the subtle complexities of the plot become so much more important.
However, there is no doubt that The Perfect House is very cleverly constructed. Its character roles are exactly right, and the narrative arc holds together coherently even though it embraces a number of plot twists. As Mark explains it: the mystery woman in the pool is a great jumping off point for all sorts of plot possibilities.


Runner-up and shortlisted

Runner-up in the Jealousy short story competition was Karin Bachmann, from Pieterlen, Switzerland. Entries shortlisted to final judging stage were from: Bronwen Balmouth, Harrogate; Valerie Bowes, Caterham, Surrey; Pamela Fleisch, Chingford, London; DM Harrhy, Brithdir, New Tredegar, Gwent; Alyson Hilbourne, Bangkok; Claire Simons, Portslade, Brighton; Laura Wilkinson, Portslade, Brighton; Jenny Woodhouse, Bath; Helen Yendall, Coleshill, Warwickshire.


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